“You can write about whatever you want but it can’t be about music”. A simple enough writing brief, but one that becomes far tougher when the writer in question is the editor of a music website. This was the invitation extended by VICE to John Doran – editor and co-founder of the Quietus – in 2011 when they asked the Liverpool-born writer to contribute a weekly column to their site. Sixty-six chapters of MENK (Merseyside slang for intellectually feeble) followed between 2011 and spring 2014, covering a particularly explosive period in Doran’s life that took in drink, drugs, a nervous breakdown and various musings on subjects as far apart as ghosts and regional bus timetables. Doran has spent the time since then re-shaping the columns into a narrative, with the resulting volume – Jolly Lad – effectively serving as an autobiography.
“When VICE came to me and said ‘you can do a column’, professionally that’s probably the most flattering thing that’s ever happened to me,” JOHN DORAN explains on the phone from his London home. “I hadn’t written about anything other than music for donkeys’ years until I started doing MENK.” Covering fatherhood, class structure, combating alcoholism, drug use, his subsequent diagnosis and dealing with bi-polar disorder, and the nature of addiction – while swerving away from any kind of ‘My Drink and Drug Hell’ confessional – the subjects were tackled with, at times, searing candour.
Drawing from a rich repository of anecdotes, when he finally opened up Doran had a deep well of material for the columns. Inspired by Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book series American Splendor, Charles Bukowski’s poetry and documentary filmmaker Carol Morley, the columns took an unflinching look at Doran’s past. Given how personal some of the pieces were, I wonder if he always planned to be so honest. “No, and that’s been a cause of some really deep regret for me,” Doran admits. “Especially over the last twelve months. It’s been a hallmark of my adult life to act first and think about the consequences later. I don’t mean that in any kind of nasty way – I’ve never started a fight in my life.”
“I spotted an amazing quote the other day by the German playwright Frank Wedekind,” Doran continues. “‘Any fool can have bad luck; the art consists in knowing how to exploit it.’ At first I almost justified my ability to go out every night and get absolutely leathered; I was a bit like a pub raconteur. Then something happened that was weird, it was a bit distressing, actually. I started dreading the deadlines coming around. I got the feeling it was more popular when I would reveal something about my nature as an addict, especially something on depression. It wasn’t a voyeuristic thing,” he stresses, keen to quash the idea that people were revelling in his suffering, or that he was demeaning a serious illness for cheap laughs. “I was getting a lot of emails from people saying they were the same.”
“It’s weird, [the column] is one of the few things I’ve written that I’ve not had much negative feedback about. With music it’s the other way round: I still get death threats about a piece I wrote slagging off the fans of Bill Hicks. I’m not complaining about it. If you attack a sacred cow, you should expect the criticism that comes your way. People get very passionate about culture, I get it, I don’t mind.”
Once there were over fifty pieces online at VICE, the next step was to collect them together in print form. “First I wanted to do an anthology. The reason I wanted to do a book was because I had this period where I’d been caning it every day and I realised I couldn’t do it anymore,” he confesses. “I couldn’t be like a trendy Dad in a Primal Scream T-shirt who goes to [London nightclub] Fabric once a year. It was no decision to make; my son comes before everything. The way that I coped when I gave up drinking was I threw all of my effort into the Quietus, that’s what helped me kick it. I need something like that with drugs and I thought ‘what better thing than to write a book?’ Now, that was the theory but it turned out to be a fucking nightmare, to be honest. I wouldn’t wish writing a book on my worst enemy. It was bad enough writing the columns. At first I was in this kind of pub storytelling mode where you laugh. The story might involve getting beaten up, or it might involve a night in the cells, but you tell it in a way that’s funny. Then I started seeing the bleaker undercurrent in it.”
In marked contrast to the immediacy of writing a column, the long process of shaping the pieces into a narrative proved to be near-harrowing. “I had no idea how arduous the editing process would be,” Doran explains. “You write a story about how you got beaten up by squaddies in Hull and have to have part of your face rebuilt. Once you’ve re-written it fifty times in a row there isn’t any humour left in it; it’s not cathartic. Catharsis is like vomiting up bad stuff – you’re really rapidly getting something out of yourself. With a book you’re dredging through the coals time after time and with each time the bleaker and more horrible it gets. My girlfriend, Maria, always used to hate the way I’d laugh in the face of these things that would happen to me and turn them all into jokes. I was like ‘No, that’s the healthy thing to do’. It was only with writing this book that I realised that I was wrong and she was right. By making a joke out of it was I was refusing to face up to how grim some of these things were.”
Music is still never far away from Doran’s thoughts, and his upcoming national tour to promote the book is comprised of a series of gig-like events where he’ll be reading extracts from the book set to music. The Liverpool leg of the tour takes place at The Kazimier on 18th May, with Doran joined by Norwegian Grammy-winning noise metal punks ÅRABROT, and featuring a live set from Liverpool’s mental jazzcore drumming trio BARBEROS. The events re-create the CD that accompanies early editions of the book, where Doran’s readings are backed by music created by artists as diverse as Nicky Wire, Teeth Of The Sea and Grumbling Fur. One of the acts on the disc, Mancunian krautrock troupe Gnod, provided the initial inspiration behind the collection. “I was at Supersonic Festival in Birmingham and I was fucked,” Doran explains. “They were amazing, playing this song called Genocider, and behind them on the stage I could see this black hole whirling away and they all looked like characters out of Mad Max 2.”
Doran continues: “I met Paddy from the band and said ‘I loved that, can I join your band and do some poetry about black holes?’ Normally, that’s such a stupid thing to say, cos you’re high or whatever, but instead of laughing at me like most bands would he said, ‘Yeah man, just do it’. I was laughing some time later with Paddy and the band and I thought ‘Is it such a stupid idea after all?’”
“It isn’t really like being in a band; it’s a reading and you’ve got music going at the same time,” Doran says of the upcoming dates. “Having me on stage doing readings from my books while experimental musicians [are] performing musique concrète, ambient or noise music – that’s more like an atmosphere, that’s more my cup of tea.”
The concept of poetry or fiction backed by psychedelic music has a storied past. Sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock supplied lyrics to, and appeared onstage with, seminal space rockers Hawkwind, including on the classic 1972 live LP Space Ritual, half of which was recorded in Liverpool. “After the meeting I had with Gnod, that was the common ground we both had,” Doran enthuses. “More bands should be like Hawkwind and take more chances.”
While the chances of a sequel to Jolly Lad at the present time are less than slim (“Only an idiot would say never, but I can’t think of anything I wanna do less at the moment”), the timing of the book tour is serendipitous. With the most closely-fought General Election campaign in decades as a backdrop to his travels, one possible project Doran suggests is a series of pieces on politics from across England. Is a UK-bound version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 in the offing maybe? It would take more than a jolly lad to say no to that.
Words: Richard Lewis
Illustration: Krent Able / krentable.com
Jolly Lad is available to order now from strangeattractor.co.uk.