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Fish Vest: the first set for Women In Voice

It started in 1995 with the mental image of a three-piece suit, the essence of a country gentleman. I already had a neat 60s lounge suit in a fine wool check, very fine in weight and incredibly fine in the size of the woven check. I was infatuated by the muted green shades. But it needed a vest. So Miffi Maxmillion stitched me something sublime for my first Women in Voice appearance. It had appliques of fish facing inwards head to head across the button fastenings. It was obscure, totemic and somehow just the cryptic detail I needed. I teamed it all with a vintage white shirt and tan shoes that certainly came from a dead man. I wanted to be neat as a pin in my bespoke vest and I wanted that first Women in Voice set to speak about and to, and to lampoon and to love, the physical energy and mental confusion of masculinity in song.

Don’t ask why – we never really know why one song or one singer gets inside so deeply. That was the year I was completely fixated on men singing: in particular country music stylists like Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis. I’d always been (and still am) in love with Ray Charles, his insouciance, his freedom. But in Jerry Lee’s voice I could hear the same rich musical struggle of the sacred and profane, ringing out across the hostile unmapped landscape of American masculinity. Fraught, taut, and busting out all over, the 1957 clip of Jerry Lee on the Steve Allen show screams out that here’s a man who doesn’t know himself at all. It is proto punk, it is anarchy and dangerous. Mysteriously, that was what I wanted for my set.

But there are rules to catching the audience in the palm of your hand. Best to give them room, so they can feel like they are chasing you. So I opened with Tom Waites’ ‘Goin’ Out West’: drummer 4-brains Ken Edie smashing away with his mallets and the screaming electric guitar of the Clark-star, and me in my duds backlight and glowering, grunting at the bottom of my range. I was hoping to inspire…confusion. Then, for my exposition on masculine bewilderment I crooned the poignant and perfectly formed ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’. (Jerry Lee recorded this before Tom Jones, FYI.) And for the deepest pleasure of the set, to explore Jerry Lee’s pure unreflective desires, I chose two songs utterly free of artistic merit. I spent the next ten minutes making up to the ladies in the front row with a couple of misogynistic masterpieces from a 1980 album ‘Killer Country’. First, extolling the benefits of too much sex with pretty women as a remedy to global conflict with ‘Too Weak to Fight’ then down on my knees screaming ‘Let Me On’ to my locomotive girlfriend. We had comedy solos from John Rodgers on piano every night and we were all swinging. On the closing night the gentleman of the band returned the favour by cross dressing – leading to a tidal wave of applause for John’s ultimate solo bent double standing on the piano stool in his mini dress only his opaque tights saving us the spectacle of the entire wedding tackle.

When it came time to warm down, I turned back to Ray Charles’ wisdom and detachment to ground the whole: how does a man deal with the big feelings, big drives, so unmanaged in the chaos of a man’s world, up to and including the experience of trauma and torture? Ray calls up the possibility of insight and dignity. With ‘My God and I’ the reflections of a Korean War veteran nailed that for me, as my man searching for the truth, with God’s help was finally able to come to terms with his limitations in the midnight hour. Whatever gets you through the night…

I don’t know how it feels to be a man. I never will. If I’d been born that way myself I worry I would have been as feckless as those who never stop to think about their privilege and power and what that does to others. I’ve been quite loud enough in any case, up on my back legs and yelling more or less in tune. So this shadow play of gender was marvellously liberating. It was layered and satirical yet grounded in who I am. There would be many more Women in Voice sets, great music, great ballads and funny hijinks, but this was real play – playing on every level. And it established my method. It would always start with a disguise and a song.

The inspiration:

  • ‘Goin’ Out West’

  • ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’

  • ‘Too weak to Fight’

  • ‘Let Me On’

  • ‘My God and I’

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