Having written a poem every day for six months during the depths of the Covid Pandemic (published in 2021 as Plague Songs) Martin Rowson slows down a bit to weave together his customary fusion of fury & poignancy. Sitting in the back of a minicab driving round London at 2am in the rain, and listening to the commercial radio’s endless easy-listening playlist, the award-winning cartoonist, graphic novelist and poet Martin Rowson reflects on the commodification of music, art, death, memory, funerals, love, bucket lists and dreams in the twenty-first century.
Cover image: Martin Rowson
Author portrait: Fred Rowson
The minicab declutches at the lights, Descants a Doppler shush and jolts to rest; The heating in this car is turned too high; The air-freshener cloys, chemically sweet, Sways in gagging half-arcs from the mirror, The oblong void against the windscreen’s fringe Where raindrops stream sideways in coral reefs, Are pinpricked into gold refracted globes Or speckle white to pixilate shut shops Then smear off with a thud from wipers wired With clenched intensity like mods on speed. A thwack, a screech, some spray, a brutal sweep, A Sisyphean mind-fuck written small, Obliteration as eternal grind. Then the lights, a greasy splodge, are changing As music throbs out of the radio, Music that is older than the driver, Basses lisping, lung-hawkingly deep, The trebles harmonising with the ashtray, A self-contained cacophony on wheels, Capital Gold – Smooth, Magic – playing louder The Easy Listening soundtracking our lives That stays holding your hand long after midnight And leaves my thoughts to segue in the dark. The isle has always been too full of noises, A sickle in an oak grove, rhythmic screams, A lyre plucked, lies retold as plainsong, Songs of murder yelled down drunken halls, Chants in chantries, chancing deathly changes, Full aisles muffling psalms of anxious pleas, Feudal furrows shielding famished fieldsongs, Coughs from dust blown in from stolen meadows, The bawl of pistons orchestrating Hell. The gold’s percussion counterpoints the sighs, Haphazard honks of brass grasp at salvation, Young men in tweeds & cycle clips on raids To hedgerowed hamlets sack old women’s airs, Anthems, chorales, arias, lovesick ballads; Echoing dance bands swirl gauche pas de deux, Songs round the piano in an air raid, Concert party Pierrots down the pier, Crooners crooning rationed maple syrup, Songs of yearning grief & cheap pomade, Genocidal oompah on the bandstand, Rounds at rallies, rounding on the foe, Sanitised to sing round guttering campfires, Rousing roundelays to flay the flagging Until the time the aisles grew wild with rockers, Fairground flick knives flashing to the beat That beats in time with klaxons on the dodgems, Drowns out the silent screams of brylcremed kids High on dads’ dismay, young lust and danger While being broken on the Ferris wheels; The beat of forest drums, beats forgotten, The beat of fear and night being repelled Reawakened to reboot the Post War, Equip the New Age with its potlatch props, Grave goods for the pyramids of Boomers, Its scooters, T-Birds, boys’ haircuts, their shoes, For culture wars waged by the rising side With the heartbeat beat of being human Expropriated from the mouths of slaves. The Balls Pond Road’s hedgehogging in the rain: Once Twice Three Times A Lady. 4am From Tower Hamlet’s hissing thoroughfares The City rises like a sneered affront, Its hubristic fruit-machine high towers, Their algorithmic auguries aglow, Paying jackpot bonuses each second, Chorused by designer bells and whistles. The traders homeward long since roared their way, Leaving the floors to cleaners and machines. Buff humming tanks glide polishing between The desks and termini, gilding the guilt, Varnishing to sterilise the damage Done the day before, resumed today, The ceaseless round of pillage and returns, Prophecy, propitiation, plunder, Until time, in Swiss watches of the night To pause, draw breath, get slaves to hose the decks, The unperceived, the ancillary serfs Now guiding all those laundering machines Across the trading floors, like ploughmen trudged Behind their straining teams, across unyielding Rock-sewn land, all owned by someone else Who always, always, always looked away. Behind shutters hard due north of Shoreditch, Too late even for inconvenience stores (The rain’s so hard the drunks have all gone home) Hardened diasporas from everywhere Beyond the Anglophonic Solipsism Reach the time of night dreams dissipate, Displaced by deep defragging sleep. Some scraps Of previous dreams of former homes still jangle Above rooms crammed with stock, the cheaper scree And broken up moraine left by the glaciers Of Global marketplaces grinding through And bulldozing new landscapes while pursuing The paths of least resistance into which Fresh topographies of mass consumption And glib geologies are to be crushed; Dream places lives ago the Europeans Claimed were undiscovered, Brigadoons Which unperceived by white eyes stayed dark ghosts Before we teased them out and made more ghosts, Places where the trucks and kiosks rattle With amplified tracks Westerners laid down When small boys, as they watched the white men leave, Felt the winds of change ruffle their blazers And now, as old men, wear tops emblazoned With Queen’s tour dates in 1989 And children squat in shanty towns, in lycra, Embossed with branded white boy bands’ sour pouts, Uncontacted tribes have traded sweatshirts For arrow-heads or manioc or skins And consequently end up advertising Guns ‘n’ Roses or, maybe, The Fugees; The bounty of the sweatshops, holey relics, Indulgences both pirated and pure, The ineffectual intellectual loot Of corporations hawking bored elation, Snapping on the wristband chains of freedom, In new colonialisms of pure tat As I board the midnight train to Georgia, Born to Run to Galvaston or Nutbush, Clarksville, LA, Memphis, Nashville, Tulsa, Songlines mythologising urban blight And though from here it’s five minutes to Dalston, The radio plays on twenty-four seven, Day after day, tied onto the tracks Only interrupted by the ads, The shilling, spiel, the barking for the heists, Hard selling commodified rebellion, Seeking selfish boy singer/songwriters, New Dylans to revive the slumping shares By bringing down Bastilles with t-shirt slogans: 8 billion individuals born to swarm. Near the Tower, and indicating left, Steady cicada throbs over the songs, The car is still too hot, just like the World And the music never ending, like the heist. See! Quarries of light entertainers piled In sacrifice appeasing Rock’s cruel gods: In plane or car crash, shot, inhaling vomit, Or suicide; Nepenthe’s pick ‘n’ mix, Booze, fast living, bad behaviour, drowning But always young enough, round 27, To count as golden children come to dust, Templating standard Romantic hard-ons, Blue-jeaned Chattertons, slicked-back haired Keatses, Shit-faced Shelleys or O’d-ing Christs, Delicious easy deathfuls of dumb kids Too high on fame, money and growing up, Buddy, Ritchie, Jimi, Tupac, Amy, Jim, Kurt, Sid, Nick, Tim, Janis, Gram, Brian, Even Elvis dying on the toilet Undergo tinselled apotheoses To mount Olympus, squalor washed away, And sacrament the lie: The Good Die Young. No gods since the Aztecs’ seem this hungry, Frantically devouring young flesh, Howling for a Paschendale of pop stars, Doomed youth designed to go over the top. Age shall not weary them, nor years contend With celluloid or vinyl’s ersatz aspic That capture them in blobs now beyond Time: The Beatles stay The Beatles as they ran Through black and white industrial decline That’s now cemented in the past; they’re present. Like Ziggy Stardust, Bowie notwithstanding, Should reek of power cuts and Three Day Weeks And yet achieved escape velocity From History’s bonds, the Seventies’ grey pall, Transfigured into immortality And Lenined like Snow White in glassed enchantment Forever then and eternally now. Transubstantiating thus, cheap music Lignifies to tree rings, carbon dating Exactly memories of time and place, Evoking more than any hoarded totems – Snaps and souvenirs, your dead mum’s shit – All those forgotten times we trail like skin scale, In clouds that haunt like thickening ectoplasm, Pinpointing memories like ethered moths, Jerking your leash, a reflex that’ll Proust you, Getting Svengali’d by The Glitter Band, Just jellyfish in Time’s capricious currents. The only option’s worship or despair Or queuing on your knees towards the tills Of superstores, with racks of tabernacles And sepulchres stuffed, stacked up to the skies Filled with CDs, albums, LPs, downloads Of packaged troubadours of caught, lean love, Votive candles flickering rank on rank, The tallow dripping meatily to sizzle On cold mosaic floors of Halls of Fame, Lit to the Trinity, the three-chord riff. It’s late. It’s always late, and getting later, 40 years since Marvin Gaye was shot, But still his voice, like Hamlet’s father’s, reaches To me, like a seance in this fug. The streets are empty as we cross the river, London’s Styx, reflecting Southwark’s towers Mirrored, pointing downwards into Hades, Filled with the dead who sleep, bat-like, inverted. The living boogie on. They keep on truckin’. Stayin’ Alive. Keith Richards’ bingo wings Flap at another gala for The Needy Watched by Presidents and Queens and Kings Who sway in time to much loved banging classics About oppression, drugs, sex, blues and rape, Pastiched by two Dartford boys who spotted The Delta in the Thames for them to steal Sixty years ago, though if you fold back From then the way we turn to then from now, Those boys would be obsessed with Marie Lloyd. Mick yowls, his hair inhabiting continua Divorced in time from what contains his face. Paul McCartney’s mouth, a feline anus, Mewls words mewled a million times before, A gerontology of rock and rollers, Old boys on endless tours singing old songs In forced communion with men they hate, Bands of Brothers decayed to Cains and Abels From decades knocking round and getting old, Trapped and bored stiff in late adolescence, Cursed, in shabby reworkings of Dante, To tour forever Hell’s provincial rings To milk the last drying fungible drop Of once being Rod Argent or in Mud In atavistic senicults in Tring Or Bailey’s, Watford for the OAPS Who hunch with spiders web tattoos across Their mottled, wrinkled, lesioned once young faces, Pates too bald or thinning for mohicans, Anarchy in the UK droning limply In another singsong in the care homes While the fallen arches of their idols Mark their mortality, deteriorating Into cranks and codgers like their dads, Mark E Smith recast with 20 woodbines, Ian Brown van morrisoning crap, Morrissey jekyll and hyding Farage, Yet leavening the disappointment seeping From daring to grow old before they die Redeemed beyond the peonage of bores Because their teenage avatars once channelled The energy of not giving a shit, Making their mates dance and then feel happy Back in the time when they were first in love While Brain Wilson glances at his watch Halfway through God Only Knows, the closest Any of them got to biting chunks of Heaven directly from the foetid air. The Christian skygod, since displaced, allotted To man a span to live exceeded now By the Hegemony of Teenage Kicks which Globalised and monetised the yearning Of nervous boys and girls who want to fuck. Back catalogues in warehouses of memories, Hawking nostalgia, evaporated youth, Universalising toddlers’ dress codes As Freedom’s uniforms, infantilizing Humanity to sell another song. For merchants merchandise. It’s what they do. Ghettos of sub-cultures warp to brands; Elitist and completist, young fans’ need For meaning through belonging twisted round To opportunities to sell them back Their dreams in furtive bags of their own shit Spiked with lines of unquenchable sadness At recollecting old scuffed leatherette, Stacked speakers stickier with sweat than beer, Slimier smoothnesses of mosh pit limbs, Blissed rictuses and cleaned out fridgidaires, Composty pagan prog rock comeback tours, More detestable summer festivals, Chemical toilets, Glastostomy bags, Along with the spaced out, intense conviction That any of this means a fucking thing. Life’s available through ticket agents: Just psychotropic noises calculated Like bland deceptive fascisms of sport, To trigger massive endochrinal rushes In every shop and restaurant and club, Grand anthems that sell garbage no one needs, Aspirational chord changes on games shows, In madnesses of crowds in massive stadia Attenuating into tyrants’ fanfares, To make you cheer or weep or shop or kill. We’re in Jamaica Road now, named by slavers To honour wealth they stole from shackled toil, Whose ‘property’, to break the chains within them, Sang songs they’d smuggled on the ships from home, Songs their captors eventually then captured To steal the one last thing they hadn’t grabbed, Then, passed off and repackaged by hucksters, Trickling down, enveloping the planet In cauls of sentimental pomp, for sale, Filling all the gaps between the atoms, The Disco beats that broke the Berlin Wall To bring an End to History, then Hope To move beyond the Neverending Now, Needily new, requiring fresh worlds Each week for charts and markets to expand, Like roaring air from bomb blasts, specks of dreams Drowned in the flying debris of the cloud Expanding and expanding beyond bounds Of pointillistic possibilities, To blast your ears and take your breath away, Capitalism’s love songs play forever, Basically just there to fill dead air. It’s easy. Easy like Sunday morning. I lean forward to the driver, and we speak.
‘Not bad for a bloke who colours in for a living.’
‘hammers home the reality of the pickle into which we have been summarily purloined by a cabal of crooks, liars and thieves.’
‘He writes as well as he draws... a riot of literature and laughs.’
‘disgusting, deranged... sick and offensive’
‘a masterpiece of wit, compression and controlled rage.’
‘zeitgeisty, engaging and hilariously sharp’