I got to know John Allen first as the singer of a raucous, Pogues-ish band based in these parts called Big Bad Bollocks. English-born, but a long-time American resident (Western Mass.), Allen wanted to put his spin on punk-folk. It was only this year that I realized Allen was a writer, too, when his memoir “Marmite Cowboy” arrived in the post and it was a damned good and darkly humorous book about growing up, under a certain amount of duress, and escaping to America, where there was, well, more duress. And joy. There is, as I mention in the interview with John, a certain Frank McCourt-ness to it all.
Allen has put together a show at T.T. the Bear’s Saturday Nov. 15, where you’ll get words and music.
JSInk: This gig at T.T.’s, tell me how it will unfold or what you expect? Reading from you? Music from Big Bad Bollocks?
It’ll start with Amy Allison solo acoustic, doing her gothic “alt country” songs at 5:30. She began with NYC’s The Maudlins and later in Parlor James with Ryan Hedgecock of Lone Justice. She’s recorded with Elvis Costello and Dave Alvin and Emmy Lou Harris is about to release one of her songs. She’s the daughter of Jazz legend Mose Allison. I became friends with Amy back in the early 80’s when she was living in Sheffield, England and we both tended bar in an American theme bar. She’ll play an hour or 45 minutes. I’ll take the next hour reading, ad-libbing and doing a couple of solo songs on squeezebox which relate to the reading. Then Big Bag Bollowks will finish up the final hour. JSink interviewed Allen by email.
I got to know you first, obviously, through Big Bad Bollocks. What can you tell me about the band, its formation, progression, status now?
Big Bad Bollocks started as a guitar/vocal duo in 1989, quickly becoming a three piece when Bob Richards joined on drum at our first ever paying gig. There was an old snare off the corner of the stage and Bob was in the audience drinking. When I asked, “Is there a drummer in the house?” BBB history was made that night. The line up has been, for a very, very, long time now, myself, Bob, Pino (on 12 string electric) and Ernie on bass. At this point we are like quintuplets. We’ve put up with each other’s idiosyncrasies, peculiarities and habits for so long that we suffer hangovers when another member of the band has been drinking. Over the years many supplemental members have come and gone. Including: fiddle, cittern, accordion, mandolin and keys. We’ve recorded with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and The Dropkick Murphys, toured the UK and appeared with The Young At Heart Chorus. We don’t play out much these days, but we’re always ready to imagine we might start doing so again – anytime soon!
And, as you say in the book, you formed the group having “no obvious talent, so rather than learn to play an instrument I resorted to singing.” And the inspiration was … Tom Jones imitators in pubs in England that you saw when you were younger!
When I was a kid in Northern England, Tom Jones was a demigod, even though he was Welsh! The women swooned over him, and in my working class village they swooned over the Tom wannabes who performed at the local Workingmen’s Club. I thought they were brilliant myself, and wished to be just like them when I grew up. Eventually I amalgamated my desire to be a Tom wannabe with equal parts, Lydon, McGowan, Strummer, Jagger and Benny Hill – in no particular order.
And the story of throwing the huge pairs of knickers at gigs? And then finally at the Tom Jones gig?!
I used to sing Delilah in the bands early days. I would get a member of the audience to throw a giant pair of women’s knickers (passion dampers) soaked in Guinness at me. It would lead to all manner of disgusting actions and diatribes on stage. Forming a kind of live caricature of a Tom Jones performance, as if directed by Fellini with the cast of the Benny Hill Show. You need to read the book!
What sound and audience were you looking for?
Anyone who could put up with us! Actually, a big part of the drive behind the early development of the band was me trying to recreate “Lad’s Night at the pub” in Northern England, circa 1973 -78. My first inspiration to actually start a band began to develop after I booked The Pogues on their first US tour in 1986. I’m not Irish, but I always had an affinity with my Hibernian brethren. Of course The Pogues weren’t from Ireland either. I loved their “lads night out” approach to performing. At the time BBB got started, Northampton seemed to me a terribly precious place in many ways, including its music scene. I just wanted to offer an alternative.
What prompted you to want to do write “Marmite Cowboy”?
Marmite Cowboy was a direct outgrowth of my songwriting with Big Bad Bollocks. All my songs have been compressed narratives, in utero tales bobbing around inside their melodies, verses and choruses. Waiting, as it were, for the opportunity to burst out and run across the multiple pages of a book.
You’re a musician – duh – but you’re not a “rock star” and there sure are a glut of rock star memoirs – sex, drugs, music, rise and fall, famous names dropped. What are your thoughts on finding a reading audience, given, if you will, the famous-name competition?
I don’t know what or who I’m in competition with. All I know is, the first competition was with myself to get it written. I’m a world-class procrastinator, classically ADHD, easily distractible, and lazy until a fire is stoked beneath my arse. Now the book is written I’m interested to see who likes it and who doesn’t. So far, I’m happy to report, I’ve only had positive feedback. People are finding it funny (which is good). People also comment on my tenacity and determination to make America my home, with many not understanding that determination. This is not a book recapping my life as a musician. It is a book explaining how I came to be in America, some of the things I had to do to achieve that goal, and things that have happened to me since arriving here. It is also an account of life in a1960’s Northern English, working class village, and a young lad’s daydream of moving to a bigger place where he expected it to be less concerned with class. A place I’d seen on the telly as a kid, and had decided early on that I was going there and that no one was going to stop me!
I hope anyone interested in England and the USA’s shared and different cultural mores, their pop culture will enjoy it. The adventurous wanderings of a young, English daydreamer traversing America with a head full of wild and varied expectations makes Marmite Cowboy an interesting read on both sides of the Atlantic. And I’m told it provides quite a few laughs and sit up straight moments
Was there a feeling of catharsis writing it or was it painful to relive some of the bad stuff?
What bad stuff? Kidding. I experienced both during the writing process. I dug really deep for some of the stuff in there and perhaps even deeper for some material I decided not to include. I will be including it later, in a follow up volume. Most of the stuff I left out was after deliberating with my editor Brian Turner. He convinced me, in one particular instance, that the section I had recounted was too heavy, too distracting, that it would derail the story. He suggested I save it for another book. As a writer, you know the wonderful sensation when all you are doing is the writing. Everything else falls away. It’s just you and the language swimming around in the hot core of creativity. I realize that sounds a bit overwrought, but that’s how it gets, y’know, between the catharsis and the bumps.
You’ve got a great, dare I say, Frank McCourt-like, touch for mixing black comedy, narrative and out and out bad times, yet making the journey compelling and enjoyable?
Thank you, I take that as a great compliment. I am a big admirer of Mr. McCourt’s writing. I’m also glad to hear that I manage to blend the, afore mentioned disparate elements. That is important to me because that’s how I see the world – as a black comedy, with patches of freedom and occasional sprinkles of pure magic, fun and games.
What did you learn about yourself from writing this?
Quite a bit! Talk about holding a mirror up. Without wishing to sound too dramatic, I learned who I am. I guess it was like therapy? I’ve never been to a therapist, but I’ve seen them on TV, if you know what I mean? I get the general idea. I learned some stuff that I’m happy to move back into deep storage, and other things that I’m still processing and living with in the daylight. We’ll just have to see how we do for the time being. I’m definitely grateful for the experience. I’m also very grateful for the help I received from my editor Brian Turner, he was, at times, like a guide leading me out of the deep jungle.
Were there parts you held back, not wanting to offend certain people or cast you or themselves in too bad a light?
What feedback have you gotten from friends and family members?
Really positive actually, I was pretty nervous when the time finally came for it to go to print. Last minute jitters, second-guessing, cold feet, paranoia – call it what you want, I had to summon up some big balls to go ahead and pull the lever. My kids, all of my family, I was suddenly freshly aware of their connection to whatever I was saying through this book. Note the dedication to my parents, who are 87 and 86 years old… For Brenda and Fred. None of this is their fault.
My older brother was an important litmus test for me. His reaction – as the main person I had shared those stark and testing years of the transformation from childhood to adolescence – was very important to me. He’s a tough operator, smart and brutally honest. I remember calling him in London to get his evaluation of my story, my heart in my throat as I waited for him to parse his words. He took a moment, explaining he wanted to be clear and succinct in his appraisal: “I think John., that is magnificent!” The most important review I’ve received.
Moving to America was important to you? What made you want to come here – and stay here?
That’s the $64.000 question! I don’t beat this drum too hard, but it was partly my Mum’s romantic notions of a “Silver Screen America”. American movies had provided her an escape from a tough, deprived childhood. She Grew up a single child of a single parent and was dragged around the north of England by her mother looking for work in the factories and mills. Between my Mum’s idealized notions of the America she had escaped into during Saturday Matinee shows of American movies, and my own infatuation with Cowboys and Indians. Which had led, quite naturally, to an infatuation with Little Richard, Eddy Cochran, The Monkees and Andy Warhol, it was only to be expected that I would one day end up here – right? I stayed here because, as Thomas Wolfe attested, “You can’t go home again”. Actually I can, and I do, and I love the place! I just don’t know if I could live there again. I’ve become a peculiar sort of American at this stage in my life and the book explains all of that.
You worked as a booking agent and production manager in a Western Mass. club. What was it, what did you take away from that experience?
It was just over 5 years. Besides the fact that I was able to get up close with The Pogues when I booked them on their first two US tours. There were many other moments in the booking business, working closely with a wide variety of performers from James Brown to The Ramones, which inspired me to try my own hand at performing. All of that will be covered in my next book, together with the story of Big Bad Bollocks. Marmite Cowboy dips into the beginning of my time as a booking agent and there is a section about Big Bad Bollocks and the real Tom Jones. But as I said, Marmite Cowboy is about the adventures inherent in leaving home with little more than a daydream as a guide, trying to track down an America I had imagined.
I love your glossary of English terms – reminds me of those at the end of the Keith Moon book by Dougal Butler, the one that painted Moon’s story, mostly, as a series of spirited hijinks. Similar stories were retold by a later biographer, who saw the mania, destruction and self-abuse in a different light. I must say, Brits have a far better vocabulary of slang and slurs than us septic tanks.
Well, as I like to tell my students at the High School where I work – we did invent the language! That’s not to say you Seppy’s don’t have an interesting range of your own linguistic modifications. At the school where I work most of the students are Hispanic and I find it fascinating to listen to their street lingo, Spanglish and verbal tags. And on that note I’ll sign off before I get too ratchet, or come off as too much of a Thot!
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