Friday, 31 December 2010

Howards Marks @ The Hop

Like an old fashioned political rally in the upstairs of a backstreet pub, the atmosphere tonight is electric, tense... and very sweaty. The upstairs of The Hop, Wakefield is a nicely proportioned room for seeing small scale bands, but how about a character such as Marks? The anticipation (and perspiration) increases as more and more people are squashed into the room. I’d wondered beforehand if this would be a seated affair, the audience politely enjoying tales of drug smuggling / taking / history whilst chuckling and occasionally applauding. Nah. We were squashed in like cattle, awaiting the hero, the great leader, the saviour.

Which resulted in a lovely opening moment when Mr Howard Marks entered the room, not from the side of the stage, but through the same door we had all come through. Flanked by two bouncers he worked his way to the stage through the almost immovable object of the battery farm swamp of punters, some folk reaching out hoping to touch the great man. Admittedly, this whole spectacle was due to the architecture of The Hop rather than a pre-planned self aggrandising gesture, but it was pretty cool.

He settled in on stage, a couple of pints and a projector for company. The swarm of the audience added a real edge, the expectancy of what he would say, what he would do – an element of danger. Prior to his arrival, a video had run on the projector of an American news report from the 80’s of Marks’ arrest for drug smuggling, eliciting cheers and boos form the audience. It was slightly strange to now see that character before us, a gentle grey haired man, slightly startled under the spotlights.

So it was appropriate he began his talk with examining the bizarreness of how his career path led him to this point. Out of the Welsh homeland to Oxford University studying Natural Science and Physics to being the worlds biggest dope smuggler, then Ex-Con to best selling author. And finally, as he realised at his first book signing, effectively a stand up comedian.

He certainly has a way with words, a wonderful turn of phrase and a sly, knowing look that betrays the supremely intelligent man behind the bedraggled mop of grey hair and the slight stoned demeanour (actually, completely stoned “I’m so stoned I cant see” he proclaims – not his most enlightened remark!) And he is a great story teller too. The first part of his ‘lecture’ concerns his 7 year incarceration. He referred to it as being like a Sine Wave, with dips and crests. On the high points he imagined, on his release, organising the biggest shipment of the best weed Europe had ever seen. At low points he would consider going straight. But the low points didn’t last too long…

It was during these sections the audience hung on his every word, almost as if he’d JUST been released. This was the press conference where he returns to the outside world, unrepentant, with crowds of supporters cheering the fact he simply exists. Such is the warmth this man has that these feelings are still strong all these years later. I keep thinking ‘Hitler’ as I type – obviously the most inappropriate comparison - but there is something of the magnetism of the dictator about Howard Marks – the benevolent autocrat. I’m sure plenty here would vote for him (well, wave his placards, you don’t generally vote for a dictator, but they did for Hitler, so I’ll let it stand) In fact, with the Pope’s visit to England prevalent in the news, he was compared to that all powerful head of state – “You should be our pope” someone said. With only a half second of pause he replied “But the Pope’s the only one who doesn’t have to confess”. Brilliant.

Interestingly, he then moved the discussion onto the history of Tobacco. Utilising the projector he traced the story of the discovery of tobacco by the European nations. Basically, we got it wrong. There are two types of Tobacco; Nikotina Rustica and Nikotina Tobaco. The Shamens in South America got high off the Rustica. It helped improve their ‘powers’ and those guys never got cancer… or even coughed; Shamen’s that were so old ‘they don’t even know there age’ But we took the Nikotina, about 20 times less potent. And of course, nowadays the companies pump so much shit into cigarettes, it’s barely even the same substance. We got the addictive qualities without the ‘getting high’ part. Bugger!

For me, this diversion into history and politics says a lot about Marks. And it says a lot for his audience that many started talking between themselves during these sections. I think for many, the fact that Marks openly advocates smoking spliff defines him; the parts about him going to Oxford or writing a book are secondary. But for me, those are the things that elevate him above being ‘some guy that gets stoned on stage’. He’s a smart, clever, guy who, in an incredibly bizarre way, has done something with his life. Whilst by his own admission a lot of things have just fallen into his lap (“you get out of prison after 7 years with no money, nothing to your name. And some publisher offers you £50,000 to write a book… what else are you gonna do?”), it’s his attitude and intelligence that have made him who he is. I don’t see that in the people who spent most the night shouting out ‘Spliff!’ or ‘Where’s the weed?’ whilst he’s attempting to educate them with a bit of cultural history.

In fact it became a little oppressive in there. There was a large contingent of fat, angry, middle aged ‘rockers’, getting progressively agitated within the compactness of the venue. They should try being a 5ft 2 girl with a sweaty back in their face (that’s my girlfriend, not me). This strata of his followers really got to me over the course of the night. It reminded me of ‘The Holy Bible’ by the Manic Street Preachers. It’s one of my favourite ever albums and I feel I share some kind of insight with other fans of that record. But there are other certain types of people who ‘love’ that album who, in my opinion, completely miss the point – like Richey Edwards was some kind of Pete Doherty esqe fuck up who was a miserable anorexic alcoholic who happened to write lyrics in a band. No! He was a brilliant lyricist who pushed himself to the brink for his art. He didn’t sit around in a sulk and wait for something to happen. Yet the perception of the audience can actually affect how the work itself is perceived. Equally, Howard Marks wasn’t just some guy in Wales getting stoned. He achieved things. He dreamt. Drugs are a central theme in his life, tying everything together, but I don’t think that defines him. A proportion of the audience are only interested in him as some kind of counter culture figure, a voice for their anger at the governments smoking ban and Nanny state politics, just as the BNP may well be a voice for their anger at all these different coloured people walking round the streets. A ‘no one can tell us what to do, fuck everyone’ approach. The house of commons style jeering from the people around me really did resemble that kind of aggression and I found it pretty unsettling.

But as soon as he moved to more ‘right on’ topics, some of it incredibly ‘spliffy’ (like “it actually says in the Bible that God smokes a reefer” Really?) he had them back on side. It’s straw grabbing, but the audience lap it up. Preaching to the converted see. Which makes it all sound a little negative at the end, which it totally wasn’t. I tried desperately not to let the audience dictate the show for me, but since I was literally rubbing shoulders with some pretty unpleasant people, it was difficult. But Marks’ ability as a story teller is beyond doubt and in different circumstances would be a national treasure. But if that were the case would I be seeing him in such an… intimate venue?

Although I wasn’t swayed by all his arguments, I was very inspired by his passion and attitude and in different circumstances would have happily listened to him all night. The man is a legend, but I’m sure you already knew that.

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