It’s 1968 – the Cardiff streets are full of grit and darkness. Old men wear flat caps and shabby raincoats. The lights in the shops are there yet they don’t shine quite like they do now. But there’s hope. The kids are alright. I’ve sold six copies of my world-beating avant garde poetry mag second aeon outside the venue. I’m in Charles Street, half way down on the left, where the young are streaming into the Estonian Club. Just about the only place we’ve got that’s bookable for gigs. It has a basement cleared of internal walls and a small stage. Upstairs, guarded by ancient men with accordions and suits, is a tiny bar.
Penguin have just published volume ten of their ground-breaker Modern Poets series – The Mersey Poets. Verse that they don’t teach in school, poetry you can read for actual pleasure that’s about the world you come from, the one you live in. Roger McGough, Brian Patten and the amazingly plump jean-wearing painter, Adrian Henri. On stage tonight is Adrian’s band, The Liverpool Scene, poetry with guitars, electric stuff, poetry about love and lust and art and life.
They come on, all six of them, looking like beatniks. Andy Roberts on dazzling amplified acoustic guitar and vocals, Mike Hart a drop-out Liverpudlian Dylan, Mike Evans on sax and a poet too. In front the bohemian bulk of Adrian, not a singer, not a player of instruments, but a poet. He does it, mike in hand, “You keep our love hidden, like the nightdress you keep under your pillow, and never wear when I’m there”, intoned over Robert’s modal picking. Takes us all somewhere. Poetry you want to make soar in your head like it was a song. The album they’ve just recorded was produced by John Peel, The Amazing Adventures Of. My copy gets played to flatness, so often the grooves barely work.
Could be that Henri, in this persona, the public poet, the entertainer (as opposed to the painter, the surrealist, the lover, the political activist, the avant gardist, the literary creator), was the lode from which many future stage-stuck performance poets took their direction. Even without hearing him or even knowing of how the Liverpool poets moved verse right up the popularity stakes Adrian Henri’s influence today, unsung as it may be, is deep and long.
He died back in 2000 but not before painting the amazing Entry of Christ into Liverpool 1964 (after James Ensor), writing a poem of the same name, and getting the freedom of the city in 1999.
The band vanished from the racks and seemed, too, from the entire reissue market. In an age when everything is available again the Liverpool Scene for decades remained lost. But you can hear them again now, if you are interested in the roots of how poets on stage got up the courage to be so in your face, so moving, so entertaining, so rhythmic, so unfazed by their shuffling audiences and so full of spirit. An expanded version of the original album containing reruns from their later recordings has been reissued as a double CD. The Amazing Adventures of the Liverpool Scene is out on the Esoteric label and available through Amazon (where else). Get it for Adrian’s Love Story, his Batman Poem, Made in the USA or from Mike Hart’s transcendental Gliders, Parks.
Adrian had a Welsh grandmother there was funding found in the seventies to have him read in Cardiff, on his own, as funny and as challenging as ever he managed fronting his band. If you wonder who I’m talking about it’s time you checked him to see how entertaining and relevant he was. If you were there you’ll already know.