Photography: Tamsin Drury

“Michael Bolton started out in hard rock, before moving into soulful tearjerkers,” explains TOP JOE. “He’s an interesting man. I got close to him once: he was in town for a gig. I saw him popping into Quick Chef on Hardman Street, so I followed. I’m not allowed in Quick Chef any more. Well, no – I don’t allow myself in. Not since they stopped playing Gabrielle. I used to enjoy studying the staff, how they were coping under the pressure of listening to Gabrielle 24 hours a day for all of their working life.”

We’re at one of those moments in life at which Footloose ends and Bat Out Of Hell starts. Top Joe works his tape deck; he knows exactly where each cassette is up to. The Tina Turner one is cued to Simply The Best. The Carpenters compilation is ready on Superstar. It’ll be Karma Chameleon up next on the Culture Club C90. And Michael Bolton is poised before How Can We Be Lovers When We Can’t Be Friends?

“Was it part of their training – a few years of Gabrielle, then they had some kind of Stockholm Syndrome? Coincidentally, Michael Bolton was supported by Gabrielle on that tour. Maybe that was part of the plan – maybe Michael Bolton runs Quick Chef, and said, ‘I’ll be paying a visit. No more Gabrielle.’ I don’t believe in conspiracies but I do believe in cover-ups.”

"Laughter is an involuntary release, similar to crying. But I also think silence is a great thing. At my conferences, if people want to be silent, I’m happy with that” Top Joe

Toto’s Africa kicks in. “We’re ruled by the visual image. Aldous Huxley predicted we’d be addicted to pleasure. He also said we’d be ruled by a leader who, even if they were cruel, so long as they were entertaining, we won’t mind. The leader has direct Twitter access to people via their personal screens. Studies have shown we don’t have the power to decode the visual image. One of the reasons I set up Music Appreciation Social Séance was to get away from the visual image. Just listen, open up our ears and accept a little silence. The more connections we have in the digital age, the less we’re really connecting. If there can be some laughter, so be it, if there can be some healing, so be it, if there can be serious discussion, so be it. It’s a night where we see where our feelings lead.”

Attending the last such MASS, we saw all of the above. A softly spoken fellow in a high-vis jacket shuffled to the front and led a thoroughly experiential evening, more therapy than show, with our host as mediator – a Kilroy-like presence, with a Buddhist twist. Songs are portals to connect. He’ll be at it again in September, when there’ll be more for the universe to know and Top Joe and his audience to find out. But first…

“I’m conferencing in Edinburgh through August – part of my campaign to get a word into the Oxford English Dictionary. I had a fitful dream; in it a word came to me. I thought, ‘This word has potential, no one’s said this word.’ I’m going to launch it in Edinburgh.”

We’ll let you discover it for yourself, but it’s a portmanteau, inspired by “chillax”. “I was late to the party on that,” says Joe. “I feel I’m often missing the nucleus of parties. But I want to set this word free, because if you love someone, set them free – Gordon Sting. In Edinburgh there’ll be PowerPoint, exercises, a lecture on the history of language. Quotations; I like quotations. ‘If you don’t get what you want, it’s an opportunity’ – Dalai Lama. ‘I’m an artist’ – Ross Kemp.”

TOP JOE Image 2

This much we know: we’re now sitting in a graveyard, where a searing belief in the suspended unreality and invented glory of pop music is again the thread from which a weightier reality is being woven. By a man, Top Joe, crowned Liverpool Echo Stand-Up of the Year for 2016 – rightly recognising Top Joe while also, arguably, taking him simultaneously too seriously and not seriously enough. Because this isn’t stand-up as you know it. It’s the matters about which he is deadly serious that amuse, and the laughable that is taken seriously. With cracks to let the laughter in.

“Mysterious” the Echo called him. And by Edinburgh he means the festival and by conferencing he means stand-up. But there’s a fourth wall to keep in place here while he plays hide and seek.

There’s Dave Lazenby, an undefined presence who tried to hijack our attempts to arrange an interview by trying to extort money. “You need to define your enemy in life,” says Top Joe. “You could say I wouldn’t be where I am without him. I wouldn’t have the drive. I was out recently, getting smashed on tap water. He gave me some vouchers. We were having an argument about time: I was saying time is linear and there’s no such thing as the past and future. All we ever have as human beings is the present moment. But it turns out that vouchers do expire.”

There’s Joe’s concept album, Exploding Cigar We Willingly Smoke. There’s the witching hour: “What I love is it heightens your senses. And you’re a bit closer to your dream juice.” And more about conferencing. “I was inspired by discordianism – anyone who wants to become part of it is the leader.” At this point the Dalai Lama faceplants into Ray Mears. Or rather a framed pic of the former blown into a flyer of the latter, alongside us in this graveyard. “That happens – maybe a premonition.

“A conference audience is willing to go with you on a journey. We have parameters: ritual, meditation. I set up an exercise before each song. People are willing to go quite deep. Although I fear we’re being trolled at MASS, because there has been quite a lot of Mousse T.

“I started MASS to use music as a conduit to find some meaning in this life. I am a great fan of the pop song: three minutes, an idea, then it’s gone. Everything in life is transient; we’re just passing through. Alan Watts, the philosopher, said life is a dance; it’s not a journey in a straight line. The more you try to go in a straight line, the more you go against the grain, and do yourself great harm. Life is a dance, it’s on a wave. We just have to join in.”

Experience revealing itself to us? “Yes, through music, discussion… And laughter is an involuntary release, similar to crying. But I also think silence is a great thing. At my conferences, if people want to be silent, I’m happy with that.”

"I feel I’m often missing the nucleus of parties" Top Joe

They’ll lead him to [tap] water, then, and watch him drink. Do people ‘get’ it, though? “Sometimes at my conferences, for instance in Saddleworth, to a room full of people eating pies, there is a profound silence, and I’m happy to let them take that away. It’s a gift. I have been banned from there. I compare it to politics: there’s a conference of fear, and you can move the audience into a mindset of fear and then attack. I reject that.

“I’m a great fan of clowns. Clowns make us forget ourselves and realise we are fools ourselves. Someone once observed the fool thinks himself a wise man, but the wise man knows he is a fool. King Lear – he realised far too late, went full cycle on the wheel of fortune and his downfall was epic. Keith Chegwin – he realised far too late. It’s bliss for a while; the ego is safe for a long time, and then things fall to pieces.”

Time, Love And Tenderness, in other words. Which plays to us now. What about the roast spuds he distributes? “It’s simple, humble, an underrated food source and, if you cook it the right way, it’s delicious. I’ve had a conversation with Nabzys about the seasoning they use. Nabzys, on Hardman Street. I’m not averse to capitalism – Paul Newman released a range of pasta sauces. Do I have plans for something called Top Joe International? Maybe.”

Food is a staple of MASS, adding to the ritualistic element. “At the end of his life the Buddha was only eating the Lotus fruit. It’s quite expensive, so I offer easypeelers – umbrella term – and Lotus Biscoff biscuits, both vegan.” Attendees must then swap. “It connects you as soon as they walk in. It’s also a lesson in attachment. Let me tell you, everyone gets attached to the Biscoff; it’s a real lesson in letting go. Plus, easypeelers are high in vitamin C and we don’t want to get scurvy. Pirates are welcome. It’s inclusive.”


The next MASS takes place in the Everyman Bistro on Wednesday 8th November. Bido Lito! members get free admission. Find out details here.

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