John Allen’s a talkative guy. Which is handy, because John Allen is also a compelling teller of baroque, funny and absurd tales. They’re often more than that if you listen closely, and if you’re not used to the rhythms of Northern English speech, listening closely is a good plan.
Allen has become a Valley icon thanks to a couple of decades of fronting the Big Bad Bollocks, purveyors of whiskey-flavored pub rock debauchery. Now that the Bollocks are a bit creakier of limb and have gone into what he dubs “semi-retirement,” Allen’s focusing on the written word, something with which he’s long had a warm relationship.
In an era when Americans swoon at the lavishness of Edwardian England via PBS and follow the goings-on of British royals with fervor equal to that of the nuttiest Union Jack-draped pursuers of Queen Elizabeth, Allen has long been besotted in the opposite direction. The Brits may have colonized most of the world in their corseted glory days, but Allen grew up as the dreamy cliches of America embarked on their televised conquest of the planet. Allen recently drove cross-country with his 15-year-old son, and “when I was 15,” he says, “I would have given my left testicle to drive across America.”
It’s no wonder: when he’s asked what he sees as the quintessential American experience, he says, “For me, it’s that ‘great American life force’—the open highway! As a little kid in England, even though my initial influence may have been the cowboy mythology, it soon morphed into the spell of the American highway.”
He cites American TV shows, Kerouac’s On The Road and Edward Ruscha’s photo book 26 City Gasoline Stations as possible sources of that inspiration. “As a teenager,” he adds, “I did a lot of hitchhiking around the U.K. and in Europe and I always used to think how cool it would be to do it in the U.S.A. It always seemed like a very American thing to do! Motion, freedom of space, mobility.”
Allen still heads to his old stomping grounds, about which he cites the opposite number, the quintessential British experience: “Hiking on the moors in soggy weather and coming across a great old country pub with Tetley’s or some other wonderful brew such as Marston’s Pedigree Ale or Barnsley Bitter on tap!
“Pubs in general are quintessentially English/British. Though I do believe it is the English pub that reigns supreme over its neighboring variations, whether [it’s] a fine urban establishment such as Ye Olde Cracke, or The Philharmonic in Liverpool, or The Three Stags Heads—located, I might add, in Derbyshire close to a place I always thought of as England’s answer to Arizona’s Monument Valley, albeit a lot wetter, greener, smaller and handier for a pint of best bitter!”
Allen headed to our shores as soon as he could manage it—at age 19—and thus began his embrace of matters red, white and blue. Allen says he’s at the point where his time in America threatens to exceed his time in England, but when he adds that in some ways that must make him an American, too, an odd thing happens. Hearing an embrace of American-ness delivered in the distinctive tones of Derbyshire produces a bend in the gray matter. Yet he’s entirely right, of course.
That tweaking of the synapses enters the frame because Allen exists in such an interesting space. The indelible signifiers of his English upbringing combine with his years of living in the States to make him a transatlantic, two-fisted cultural force. Or, as Allen puts it, a Marmite Cowboy. How Allen arrived at that unusual mash-up is the subject of his new e-book bearing that title.
It’s been a rough few weeks for Allen. Icon or no, he’s walking with a decided lack of spring in his step. That’s the result of a recent emergency back surgery to fix a problem that threatened to permanently impair his mobility. Allen thinks the back injury resulted from lifting a guitar amp at a rehearsal in advance of the Bollocks’ opening spot for the Dropkick Murphys at Mountain Park, a gig the band had to cancel due to the injury. He’s on the mend now, and says he expects a long slog to get back to full control of one of his calves. But even that doesn’t dim his ready wit and, a few minutes into talking, the acceleration of the spicier choices in the lexicon.
Allen seems primed to launch, at most any point, into a fast-paced delivery of images and wordplay. Though he’s got the bona fides to sail under the Stars and Stripes, it’s his very British embrace of a much deeper well of slang, variety of accents, and pub-centered exploits that makes his storytelling—on the page or in person—so spellbinding.
It’s little surprise that a longstanding tale of Allen’s, the story of enormous knickers acquired by Allen from a Pakistani street vendor and emblazoned “Danger: Potholes,” brought Allen publication in the Massachusetts Review and the interest of an agent. (Some years ago, Allen told the Advocate the knickers, which had long featured prominently in Big Bad Bollocks shows, ended up in “panty Valhalla”e_SEmDi.e., the ownership of Tom Jones.) That tale arrives at the end of Marmite Cowboy, which Allen decided to offer as an e-book in hopes of selling enough to aid his case with a traditional publisher.
His tales wind across the American and English landscapes through a mad pile of drugged and drunk adventure, never less than evocative and bubbling over with tongue-twisting fusillades. The book is a memoir, one that travels well beyond those displays of wit. It is, at times, reflective and poignant.
After his recounting of younger days, Northampton, his home now for a couple of decades, becomes the central setting. Allen became the booker for Pearl Street Nightclub in the ’80s, and he says that there he “got to meet my heroes. It was peculiar to me, in part because I was out of my depth.”
That era also saw Allen’s first appearances on stage. It’s surprising they didn’t come sooner—few performers seem to be so perfectly comfortable in the lights. He seems in his element gesturing, acting and adopting voices and accents at a rapid clip. Solo or with band and often wielding his squeezebox, he delivers a stream of stories, songs and poems that marry rhyme and meter with images of Liverpudlian troublemakers and lipsticked mavens.
“As much as I’ve learned about writing,” Allen says, “I’ve learned from writing Big Bad Bollocks songs.” Marmite Cowboy even offers, he explains, some “extended narrative of Bollocks songs.”
In addition to more writing—Allen kept a journal on his cross-country voyage, and hopes to work it into more tales—Allen plans to help the Bollocks “roll out of semi-retirement” to record and continue their several shows a year, often opening for the Dropkick Murphys. Recording is also in the works.
Allen says, “We’re still getting it while we can get it.”
Allen has found a place in the cultural fabric of New England, not only as a singer and performer but as a Springfield art and drama teacher (and even, at one point, as a strange spokesperson for Bay State Rug). Is it because New England is really a new England?
“The simple answer is—No! Having said that, after first avoiding New England during my early travels in America (I didn’t see the point of visiting a new one), when I finally got a first taste of it—and I’m really talking about Northampton for the most part—I was instantly enamored. It seemed like a perfect blending of what I liked about the U.S. and something I didn’t want to lose about England. Its politics and social flavors/culture didn’t feel too terribly alien.
“I am a big fan of New England—I love it! Especially Massachusetts. But, no, it’s not really like old England. Apart from, that is, the names of its towns and cities. Some areas of Boston and its residents (their attitude) do feel quite English, or at least British. The Valley felt immediately very comfortable culturally, and its easy access to water and woods clinched the deal.”
After two-plus decades of living in America, Allen says his experiences do sometimes square with his expectations, brewed long ago when American culture invaded even the small villages of Britain.
“Occasionally I will have an experience which fits perfectly with my old, preconceived notions,” he says. “It could be an interaction with someone who seems to embody, for me, something uniquely American, either negative or positive. Last summer my son Roscoe and I took five weeks to drive to California and back. That trip rekindled memories of how I’d always expected America to be. I’d say, on the whole, America has not disappointed those expectations. I never envisioned a paradise. But I did hope for a place to escape into. I wanted to escape the old English class system and I wanted to explore a big country. But I guess I also wanted a degree of familiarity. I guess I did want a new England!”•
Big Bad Bollocks: facebook.com/BigBadBollocks
Marmite Cowboy: smashwords.com/books/view/306634
John Allen reads from Marmite Cowboy Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. at The Harp, 163 Sunderland Road, Amherst, (413) 548-6900.
Two excerpts from
I don’t mean to be coy about my association with alcohol, one of my passionate avocations. Like marriage, it has inspired me to joy and despair, to desire and regret, to honor, to duty, to serve and be served. Too much drink has hastened many a lad’s end, has dulled and addled many a mind, and to argue otherwise is the mark of an Alcoholocaust Denier. When you come down to it, life’s like a bowl of mutton—there’s plenty to chew on, it smells kind of gamey, and it goes better with Guinness. Should you stumble upon a Tidza lad in his cups, you can tell the drinker from his drink by the commitment he brings to his pint. We Lads work at our drinking—and we do not judge.
In that sense, drinking is a lot like masturbation. (Teetotalers and sexual abstainers may wish to skip what follows.) Masturbating successfully, upon long hours of practice in an attic bedroom on a winter evening amidst the mine-workings and sheep-dotted hillsides of Derbyshire, might terrify anyone as it terrified me. To suddenly shoot my load, and then to immediately promise God it would never happen again, “Just let me dick be all right, God, and I promise I’ll—blah, blah, blah,” because for all I knew at this stage of my apprenticeship, some type of internal damage had been done. (As I recall it I felt like my insides were coming out.) “Oh God, please let me be alright and I promise I’ll never ever do it again.”
But of course one does… relentlessly. Which is why sneaking into dismal pubs to guzzle crappy bitter resembles wanking. A wanker aspires to a higher level—a next stage, a partner. So, too, we neophyte drinkers anticipate a sleeve glass, instead of the dimpled piss-pot from which adults insist we drink, unwilling to trust us with an easily broken sleeve. Wanking and Keg Bitter… It had to get better, there had to be more. If we stuck to it… our drinking… our wanking.
I had not been born with an innate wish to escape the village of my birth, nor had I ever been in the least bit interested in moving to New England. I’d never even thought of New England as a place to visit. I mean, by the sound of it, it was more or less like England, right?—who needs a new one, right? My fascination with America had been born of cowboy movies and Robert Crumb cartoons—wide-open spaces, deserts, freewheelin’ California girls. Yet I found myself charmed by this hidden valley surrounded by hilly woodlands, its secret swimming holes, waterfalls and lakes.