In 2002 I was invited to submit a 5000 word piece for a book of writing by comedians called Sit Down Comedy. I sent them the following poem, inspired by my time as Sadowitz’s support act, and as a teenage punter in the 80’s observing that dying days of the 1st wave of post-punk stand-up in Britain.
The publishers said they liked it but felt they couldn’t publish a poem as it would put potential buyers off. I knocked out all the commas, didn’t change a word, and resubmitted it as prose, and they ran it.
Here is I’ll Only Go If You Throw Glass in its original form.
As of writing this, July 2004, it has been performed live twice, once at Lewisham Library and once at Apples And Snakes Spoken Word Night, Battersea Arts Centre.
They say you play Bangor University Student Union twice in your career.
I’ll be there in an hour, for the second time.
I had run out of money. There was nothing on the horizon,
At least nothing for me, nothing I could call mine.
Respective heads Of TV comedy dept’s had played musical chairs again.
The ones that liked me missed their seats, and sighed,
And waited for sackings or suicides.
I grew pallid in Stoke Newington and bled into the toilet bowl.
After six months lost in the NHS system,
I cashed my last cheque for a consultation with a show-biz physician.
He prodded my liver and banned me from drinking.
So here was I, sober and dry, returning to the stand-up circuit to die,
Scrabbling for loose change, and at my age.
But I had a trade, see, something to fall back on,
Like a plumber or an electrician,
And I was going again, just a little ashamed,
To Bangor University Student Union.
Bangor was the worst stand-up gig on the National Comedy Network.
It took pride in its hostility, and so, like the entire city of Glasgow,
Was regarded with suspicion.
"If you don’t do the required time", explained the Entertainments Officer,
Complicit in the scheme,
"Your fee will be reduced according to how short your set has been."
Yes, last time I was in Bangor teenage drunks threw plastic glasses.
Experiences like this had crushed my faith in the masses.
"I’ll only go if you throw glass," I said, wittily, from the stage,
And security guards dodged the shards to enter the melee.
It was a good line, and it was funny,
But it wasn’t one of mine, and he still docked my money.
"I’ll only go if you throw glass",
Was an old standard from an old stand-up,
And Malcolm Tracey was coming.
Now he sits in the car un-speaking, reading pornography and smoking,
With Scott Walker quietly exploding on his personal stereo.
He will not shut the window. And it is starting to snow.
I don’t think you can begin to understand what Malcy’s presence means to me,
At this strange stage in what I call my so-called career.
I’ll try and explain.
Five hours earlier, at the top of a council block in Finchley
I rang the bell and waited to be met by Malcolm’s mother.
The door swung in and there she stood, pinch faced, small and shrewish,
An apron tied around her waist and a rolling pin in hand,
As if assembled to express some absurd ideal of everything I’d feared.
"Who are you and what do you want?", she hissed through lipstick lips.
"I’m Tim and I have come," I said, "To pick up Malcy, your only
I am going to Bangor to perform. And he’s coming too as my support."
"You don’t look old enough," she said, and took my hand and stroked
And studying my sick-thin face, she laughed and led me in.
From the kitchen she called out, "It’s a young man called Tim."
Malcy grunted from a box room, a fifty year old teenage boy.
I looked over my shoulder and glimpsed him through a door,
Going about his business, crouched upon the floor.
A black suit shape beside the bed, scratching at his balding head,
He stuffed debris into a bag and searched for cigarettes.
Malcy’s mother sat me down and chattered as she worked.
Something about tranquillisers and did I want some grub?
Not that Service Station muck, but something she would rustle up.
We came to an agreement and she made me a packed lunch.
She boxed it up in Tupperware and sat it next to Malcy’s fare,
Identical in all respects, a cake, an apple and some crisps.
I drank my tea and looked around. It had come to this.
Going back to the Bangor for two hundred and fifty quid.
Thirty five and finished, and not allowed to drink.
But I would be accompanied by my one consolation.
Malcolm Tracey, formerly known as Mal Co-ordinated.
Malcy was the missing link
Between the perfume and the stink.
Between cheap Channel 5 stand-up filler,
Between a million sneering panel shows,
Between the alleged death of The Spirit Of The Fringe,
Between the stage of the Hackney Empire
And the screen of the Empire Leicester Square,
Between squatted 1970’s gigs in Stepney
And the comedy colonisation of the provinces,
Between the transfiguration of the mainstream,
Between a new generation of prancing nonces,
Between all that and more,
Back to the first time anybody chalked upon a board
The noble phrase,
That presaged change,
And turned the ripple to a wave,
The secret signal to the brave,
No-one knew how Malcy had begun,
Where he had sprung from and how he had grown.
Nor where he had gone to for most of the 90’s,
When he appeared to disown his progeny,
And tied his talent in a sack and drowned it in the sea.
The history, such as it was, was contradictory.
Lisa Appignanesi’s book on Cabaret
Included a photo of him in the final chapter.
He was wild haired in a leotard and snarling like a panther,
At a venue called the Earth Exchange that the comedy circuit left to rot
Long before my first try-out spot.
A pamphlet I bought at Leicester Art Gallery
Tied Malcy in to 70’s Arts Lab anarchy.
Victoria Wood once mentioned him
When asked who had inspired her to begin.
A journalist called John Connor
Wrote a book on the fringe in Edinburgh.
But he had an ideological axe to grind,
And Malcy’s work got left behind.
Someone told me it was Malcy who first coined the term "Alternative Cabaret".
Working in South Devon in 1972, he used it to advertise a Punch and Judy Show.
From inside a stripy tent he increased the violence content,
And threw in an act of anal sex between wooden puppets.
In the beer garden of a plush hotel Malcy found he’d caused offence,
And was compelled to grab his effigies and flee from the South West.
Then there were the years of petty crime and drugs,
The years spent dancing naked in Soho in gay clubs,
And rumours of unsavoury acts and criminal convictions,
And of time spent in prison for unspecified actions.
On release Malcy played folk clubs and festivals
Until the Alternative Comedy scene coalesced.
He never had an act as such, it seemed, but still stormed the gigs
With only a harmonica, a pack of cards,
A dirty pair of y-fronts, and a bag of different wigs.
Somehow he could usually hold a crowd.
You could almost hear them thinking aloud,
"Can this be it? It’s fucking shit."
They sat bewildered and entranced, waiting for Mal, as if by chance,
To achieve something recognisable, something tangible and definable.
But he never did.
A harmonica solo, a poem, a song and then a joke.
A magic trick, a puppet show, and then a puff of smoke.
A purple wig, an inflatable pig,
A visceral torrent of abuse, a shambling dance in a tight red suit.
And then the climax, the coup de grace.
Malcy turned round and dropped his pants.
I first saw him in ’84, at a club in Birmingham supporting The Fall.
The disgruntled fans showed their disdain for Malcy’s refusal to entertain.
Leaning drunk upon the mike stand with a beer bottle in each hand,
He told the same joke again and again,
Until they tried to shift him with polystyrene
Cups and empty cans.
Acknowledging defeat he said, "I’ll only go if you throw glass,"
The immortal line, that would one day be mine.
But a shoe connected with his head, and he died upon his arse.
The performance was recorded and released as a seven inch single.
I knew every shout and jeer and each embarrassed giggle.
But I did not know what I had seen. Had Malcy failed, or did he succeed?
All I knew was that somewhere, beyond the suburbs where I went to school,
It seemed there were heroic deeds, irrational acts and holy fools.
I next saw Malcy in Edinburgh in 1987,
Falling drunk down the Fringe club stairs at a quarter past eleven,
Raising his glass and cursing heaven, dressed as Vladimir Lenin.
And two years later at the Glastonbury Festival,
Punching an inflatable woman in the face at the other end of the cabaret tent.
My girlfriend called it a disgrace. She had a point I must confess.
Three months later, I moved to London. My fledgling career had begun.
I won five hundred pounds in a new acts competition,
Got signed up to an agency with a handshake and no conditions.
They took me to the top floor of a tiny West End office
And pointed out across the land, beyond the upstairs rooms of pubs,
At the uncharted territories of student union premises
That they promised would collapse and fall into our waiting laps.
And soon I was out on the road, only twenty one years old,
And support act to none other than Mal Co-ordinated.
Or, as he was currently billed, Malcolm Tracey, formerly Mal Co-ordinated.
Times had changed, for the better in that respect at least.
Malcy didn’t drive. So I chauffeured him hundreds of miles
Between bizarrely scheduled dates. Aberdeen to Derby in a day.
Malcy was paid a thousand pounds a show, of which he gave me sixty.
Somedays he was convivial, other days withdrawn.
Somedays he was charming, other days a bore.
Once in Leeds, or Bradford, he made me give him thirty pounds.
I had run into an ex-girlfriend and slept at her house.
Malcy had booked me a hotel room and felt I should pay.
I couldn’t tell if he was joking. But he kept my money anyway.
Each night, I did my fifteen minutes then watched him work,
Knocking back the drinks rider, smoking in the dark.
Nearly two decades since he first wrote "Alternative Cabaret",
Malcy’s act, such as it was, had reached its apogee.
After ten minutes’ faff with harmonicas and cards and wigs and coats,
Malcy held up a massive picture of four small brown stoats.
Then he began an hour’s speculation on their interconnected relationships,
occasionally gesturing at individual stoats with a pointed wooden stick.
Sometimes it worked, and the students were spellbound.
But Malcy seemed to be seeing how he could confound
Expectations, amusing himself at the punters’ expense,
as if holding them in contempt.
And in the closing ten minutes,
When the space had thinned and the crowd was sparse,
Malcy could always win them back
By dropping his trousers and showing his arse.
But even this traditional display, with which he had all but made his name,
Seemed to be dispatched in a perfunctory way.
In short, Malcy’s heart wasn’t in it.
As we travelled the country, it became clear to me
Malcy wasn’t that concerned about his comedy career.
It was of secondary importance to a social network he maintained,
Which indulged his other interests up and down the land.
In Aberdeen a small fat man met Malcy after the show,
And they retired to practice card tricks in a hotel room,
Sharing junk food from the garage and a can of Irn Bru,
Lamenting Malcy’s conflict with the Magic Circle crew.
In Nottingham he was ensnared by the executive committee
Of The Robert Silverberg Appreciation Society,
For whose newsletter Malcy had appraised
The over-rated science fiction writer.
In Sheffield, Malcy was the sometime beau
Of a seventeen stone widow,
Who had needs that only he could satisfy, apparently.
In Bristol, fluff-faced comic book fans
Offered him a copy of Superman
From the early 70’s
Which they knew Malcy, a famous collector, would not be able to resist.
It included the first appearance of The Super Moby Dick of Space,
A sentient, speaking whale in a short red cape
Who patrolled the cosmos defending The American Way.
I assumed Malcy’s interest was an ironic pose,
But he was hurt by the suggestion and didn’t speak till we reached Preston.
Malcy loved the Super Moby Dick of Space.
He felt that its creator was touched by divine intervention,
Chosen to communicate something beyond his comprehension.
The route of our already strangely scheduled tour was further complicated
By the side-trips Malcy insisted on making,
And the peculiar rituals he was determined to observe.
After an average to bad show at Lancaster University,
Malcy made me drive him twelve miles to the coast
Where he stood on the sea-front and took off his coat
And urinated in the face of a statue of Eric Morecambe,
who hailed from the area, or at least had done.
He explained that he tried to do this at least once a year,
and considered Ernie Wise a genius unsung.
Malcy had sworn he would never play Glasgow,
But on the way to Stirling he insisted we drive through
The city center while he, sporting a ginger wig and clutching a haggis,
Leaned out of the car window shouting, "Remember Culloden! That was tragic!",
At small children and old women.
Each day, Malcy would buy the dullest post-card of the town we were in,
Inscribe it with the same description of an imaginary Italian
Holiday and post it to an address in Ealing
That he had chosen at random from the telephone directory.
On an Irish leg, driving between Belfast, Dublin and Cork,
Malcy insisted on eating only at tiny tea-rooms,
Where he would order a baked potato, with no butter, filling or salad,
And then seek out the chef to compliment him on the meal.
Whenever we were in Devon he always tried to have sex with men,
But even in Exeter’s only gay night club,
The local queens could tell the difference
Between real lust and some situationist conceit.
Whenever we played a town with two ‘b’s’ in its name,
Malcy would order me two full English breakfasts in bed
And have them both delivered to my room at 5.45 a.m.
The cost of the two meals would then be deducted from my fee.
But I grew to love these idiosyncrasies,
Just as I grew to love Malcy,
Over and above his act,
In spite of himself.
Malcy used to live in Peckham then, before he moved back to his Mum’s.
At the end of our two month trip I finally dropped him in his street.
He did not invite me in for tea, say goodbye or thank me.
Three months later in Edinburgh, Malcy performed his ‘farewell’ show,
In a room above a shop.
The signs had been there I suppose, but I still seemed hard to believe.
What would Malcy do instead? He was dis-institutionalised.
After midnight Malcy stuck his face through a curtain
And addressed us for a quarter of an hour in the persona of a head
which had no body and was floating in the air.
Then he laid his props upon the floor the harmonica, the wigs, the pack of cards
and invited us to speculate upon the perfect order
That these elements might integrate for the ultimate comic effect.
Malcy lit an oil lamp, and sealed his mouth with masking tape.
He arranged his props in every possible way,
Like some Mondrian ballet,
Until at last, at half past one,
With wigs scattered all around the room,
He admitted it could not be done,
And that the totems of his trade were powerless
To someone who no longer cared.
Even against his will Malcy was still funny,
But the friends that I took with me said it was a waste of money.
Sold out for three weeks, then that was it, Malcy pack up and disappeared.
The Guardian said the show was shit. The Observer disagreed.
Five years later I saw Malcy on Oxford street,
Hunched up, head down, staring at his feet.
I waved at him, but I don’t think he noticed me.
When the money well ran dry and I went back to my old promoters,
They laughed as if vindicated somehow and said they could find me something.
Two weeks headlining on what remained of the student circuit that I’d help create.
Of course I’d need a support.
Had I heard Malcolm Tracey was back on the boards?
No. He lives with his mum now in her council flat,
No-one knows where he’s been but he’s blown all his cash.
It’ll be just like the old days.
But if he really sucks promise you call
And we’ll send someone up to replace him.
Malcy came in the kitchen where I sat with his Mum.
He looked older but content in an indefinable way,
As if the black cloud that always used to surround him had risen away.
"Malcy," I said, "it’s Tim. Remember me?"
"Ah Tim, yes. Did I see you on the TV?
Good luck to you son, they’d never have me. I dare say I could have made it
if I’d given it a try but sometimes these opportunities,
Well they just pass one by.
Now. Bangor. In Wales.
I assume that you’ll drive.
Goodbye Mother, I am sure that we will meet again.
But if I should die, think only this of me.
The stash of porn under the bed goes to kids with cerebral palsy.
Everyone needs a wank mother, don’t you agree.."
"Goodbye Malcy," she said, and passed him his packed lunch.
Malcy kissed his mother on the cheek and handed me his props.
"Sight gags dear boy. You can’t have too many.
You’re still travelling light I assume?
You think that wig, not matter how funny,
Is too cheap for the likes of you."
Malcy woke soon after Oswestry.
So far I’d restrained my self from asking him
Where he’d been the past ten years. It seemed somehow impolite.
Instead I said how much I had enjoyed his farewell show, in Edinburgh so long
When he had spent an hour trying to align his funny props for maximum effect.
"Yes. Well I got there in the end you know, while I’ve been away.
I was five years gone before I realised anyone might have missed me."
"What do you mean Malcy," I asked him.
"The problem was I’d taped up my mouth. You remember, you were there,
So I couldn’t play the harmonica
Or recite even the simplest joke or sing a silly song.
It was all very well moving wigs about but even to a foreign ear there’s something
The rhythm of a perfect gag that can incite the involuntary act
Of laughter, and I believe, there are absurd images that transcend
Any cultural conditioning
And whack us on our funny bones at a primeval level."
My head was spinning. I’d never heard Malcy wax theoretical
On comedy before.
He’d always seen it as a chore.
What did he mean?
"A certain shape, a certain sound, a certain colour and a certain move,
Combined at a special moment and timed
To perfection, will send a pulse of laughter out,
So powerful the earth will crack, the lightning flash, the sky turn black,
And everything will alter."
I felt a little bit afraid hearing Malcolm Tracey talk this way,
But kept my eyes upon the road and looked for signs to Bangor.
"Everything I need to implement this comic day of judgement
Is in that bag on your back seat or here inside my skull.
And when I work my wonders
Everything I’ve fought against will wither, die and fall.
Can we stop for a piss soon?"
We checked into the Regency Hotel, opposite the station.
Outside the rain was chucking down and waves were crashing on the shore.
I thought about the prophecy that Malcy had just made,
And wondered what exactly he’d been doing while away.
If he really had the power that he seemed to think he did,
Then having him as my opening act might not be ideal.
If Malcy had stumbled upon some comic formulae
That unleashed the energies he had described
Then if I had to follow him I would surely die,
And with it being Bangor I needed to do the time
Agreed, or with the petrol and the rooms I’d be in negative equity.
I went into the hotel bar to get a drink and steady my nerves,
And then I remembered I wasn’t well enough.
But as I sat there smoking I realised there were two options.
Either Malcolm was a superbeing, or he’d just flipped and lost it.
Tragically it seemed to me the second was most likely.
I resolved to get through the gig tonight, then have a think in the cold hard
Of day as to whether my childhood hero really was going to pay his way.
If he looked like a liability I could just put him on the train,
Phone the promoters and have them find me someone new,
Who I could hook up with before the next show.
I knocked and Malcy¹s door.
"Showtime," I said. "Come in," he lay upon the bed,
Naked except for socks and an orange wig over his cock.
"Get dressed Malcolm," I said, "Bangor Uni will dock our fee
If we’re not there by six thirty for an ineffectual sound-check.
This is no time for messing around."
"On the contrary dear boy," said Malcy, "there¹s never been
a better time for it."
What can I say?
Malcy did ok.
His fifteen minutes came and went largely without incident.
At first he faltered, as well he might,
After ten years out of the light.
But he cut such an eccentric figure with his tight red suit
And revolving roster of wigs that the student pricks were initially too confused
To go in for the kill, and before they knew it
He had their good will. Twelve minutes in
Malcy put down his puppet rubber chicken
And reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a piece of paper.
I wondered if it contained some spell, some charm, or incantation,
With which he would make good his boast of earlier that day,
To bring the mountains crashing down and make the doubters pay.
But instead it was a poem he said he’d written that week,
About his relationship with his estranged daughter.
In all the time I’d spent with him, Malcy had never mentioned her.
He read it sincerely in slow measured tones.
It was funny, but not cute, and clearly heartfelt.
The audience fell silent, with occassional laughs,
But they came in the right places, and Malcy rode the pauses.
At the end they applauded but I noticed from my corner
That a girl by the toilets was crying.
Then as if to acknowledge the hiatus he’d caused,
Malcy bent over and pulled down his pants,
Showed his arse to the students and bowed.
I need not have worried.
Malcy still had it, and more.
After his set my own seemed a bore, if not to the crowd then to me.
Once more I was learning from Malcolm Tracey.
But hey, what the hell, we both did our time.
The cunt from the union paid us both fine and nobody had to go hungry.
As we walked back to the Regency Hotel Malcy stopped for a piss by the chip shop.
"Though I say it myself," he said, to himself, "that went rather
It might have been my best gig ever.
Yes. I was on fire, so I think I’ll retire. Things really can’t get any better."
Outside the Hotel Malcy stood on the steps and looked at the sea and the sky.
"A drink before bed," Malcy smiled. I said, "I’m sorry I need to
get some kip in.
I didn’t tell you before but tomorrow I¹m afraid we are both due in Glasgow."
To my surprise, Malcy took it in his stride.
"Good. Then we’d best be off early.
If you don’t mind there’s a stop I should like to make somewhere West of Greenock."
It had been a long time since I’d had to drive Malcy to his assignations.
But I felt kind of proud to have him around
And agreed, just this once, that I¹d take him.
At Wemys Bay Malcy pointed the way across the sea by ferry.
"We’ll go to Bute, to a beach I know, and there we will put on a show
To live in the halls of memory."
Tired and confused I acquiesced and drove the car on to the boat.
Malcy hurried to the bar, already on his second jar,
By the time I’d bought the tickets.
I didn’t think to question him, I’d seen it all before.
He’d have a plan, to see a certain man or dally with a whore.
But when we drove on to the land he took control and directed me
A little way, to Skelpsie Bay, some way South West of Rothesay.
I parked the car above the beach, in the distance I saw Arran,
And in the rain I helped Malcy get all the props we could carry
And take them to the shore.
He handed me a pint glass that he’d brought with him from Bangor,
And told me to keep it safe as he would need it later.
Across the sand he dragged his bags and set them up upon some rocks,
That stretched some way into the sea, a small performance promontory.
And as I watched him from the beach he got down on his knees and reached
Into his pocket and pulled out his old harmonica.
The wind carried the notes away, but I assume he started to play
And as he did so little heads began to break above the waves
Malcy was surrounded on three sides by dolphins bobbing on the tide
Clicking, waiting, watching him, wondering when he’d begin.
"I’ll test my theory," he cried, "on these far superior minds."
And in between the wind and spray I think I heard Malcy say
The first line of his tried and tested set.
The story of a gherkin boy who lived inside a burger,
The suicide note of mouse or something or other,
A funny kind of lullaby sung to a sleepless child,
I knew the pay-off, but before he spat it out Malcy called,
"Throw the glass, throw it at me now."
"What?", I answered him, appalled,
As Malcy stuck an orange wig upon his sodden hair,
And blew a last harmonica blast that cut the soggy air.
"I’ll only go if you throw glass", he shouted.
I threw it towards the waiting rocks. It shattered with a crash.
The sea grew calm and duck pond still and then there was a splash.
The dolphins dived beneath the waves.
Skulls cracked smiles in ancient graves.
A shadow fell across my face.
The Super Moby Dick of Space!
But no a cloud had crossed the sun.
I looked back. Malcy? He was gone.
And lying there upon the rocks,
His harmonica, alone, unloved.
I hung around the beach till dusk looking for Malcolm Tracey.
If he had come back across the beach footprints would have betrayed him.
If he’d swum underwater out to sea he’d have to have swum a mile from me
Without breaking the surface.
I had to confront my fear. Malcolm Tracey had disappeared.
I drove back to the ferry and phoned the promoters
To tell them my support act had spontaneously combusted.
But back in London they pre-empted me. There had been a complaint.
Malcy’s poem had made a student cry. This wasn’t what comedy was for.
Admittedly in any other form of art, tugging the strings of someone’s heart
Would be considered worthy. But not in stand-up comedy.
Malcy was sacked and there would be a new support waiting for me
When I arrived in Glasgow.
There’s nowhere to hide in the Universtity of Strathclyde.
The venue’s on the top floor of a tower.
You’re crushed into a backstage room that doubles as an office
And it was there that I met Malcolm Tracey’s young replacement.
A local lad, slotted in, new to the game, hungry, keen.
He was playing Jongleurs gigs up and down the country
And storming every one.
He wasn’t interested in doing the Glastonbury,
How was that gonna help his career?,
But would do a couple of Edinburghs to snag
A Perrier nomination and blag a TV deal.
I felt old and irrelevant, like someone cutting peat
While dreaming of electric fires and cursing their wet feet.
I offered him a cigarette, but he didn’t smoke.
I said the rider was no use to me, and he packed it away
In his sports bag.
A pretty young girl flounced in and said it was time.
My support act stood and left the room and I went out into the hall
And watched him walk onto the stage.
The crowd applauded his entrance but his opening line,
Something about how he resembled an Australian soap star,
Hardly caught fire.
It shrivelled in the spotlight and then curled up and died.
He tried a condemnation of the students’ refusal to laugh,
And then flipped onto his belly, begging for their love.
But the tricks of the trade were just tricks of the trade.
The Emperor stood naked. The crowd were betrayed.
The boy floundered, dry mouthed, then looked around,
And bent his head, and bit his lip and bedded in for a battle.
Something was different. Something had changed.
I felt Malcy’s harmonica in my pocket and put it to my mouth.
It might have been seawater, or it might have been spittle,
But as I ran my tongue along the openings I could feel that it was wet.
I pursed my lips and filled my cheeks and blew the liquid out.
For Tony Allen, The Amazing Mr Smith, Andrew Bailey, Steve Bowditch, Arnold Brown, Ted Chippington, John Cooper Clarke, John Dowie, Greg Fleet, Steve Frost, Boothby Graffoe, The Greatest Show On Legs, Malcolm Hardee, The Iceman, Kevin MacAleer, Oscar McLennan, Simon Munnery, Paul Ramone, Gerry Sadowitz, Andy Smart, Arthur Smith, Martin Soan.