Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Vortex in a Thimble: Perspectives on My Birth From a Haunted Wok


I first met Mad Headed Octogram at Farnborough Farmers Festival in sweet ’97. He was on his way out of the Poetry Tent as I went in and he gave me a wink as I took the stage.
Be gentle with ‘em.” He intoned, indicating the audience. “I’ve just dealt them a truth sandwich and the sauce was pretty spicy.” When I looked out upon the crowd I saw tears, heard hysterical wails. Couples were consoling one another while others simply vomited on the grass.
This guy had just laid down some serious verse.
I turned back, but the Octogram was already retreating: he’d thumbed a ride with a passing tractor and was speeding off into the dusk. And you know what? The son-of-a-gun was popping me the middle one as he rolled away.
Our paths crossed a few more times that summer. He was prevalent on the Cider Circuit, on the festival scene, in the Turkish Men’s Clubs. If a dance troupe or drama workshop was passing through my strip of town you could bet your arse he was at the middle of it all, casting dispersions, turning the world on its head with his intricate word-strudels, his gestures and sighs. As autumn drew in I’d see him on the streets of Coventry, busking outside Oxfam Books or straddling Lady Godiva’s horse and reading Karl Marx in a dandyish manner. I was doing some two-bit journalism course at the time and used it as a pretext to get close to this alarming young man who had already become known around town as ‘the Fascinator’.
Mind if I ask you a few questions?” I asked, biro and notepad in hand. I froze, realizing only then that the Octogram had a towel tucked into the back of his top, like a cloak.
 “Hai-yah!” he screamed, leaping and spinning toward me with a high kick. He sliced the air with his hand until it was within millimetres of my face, and he cackled, ruffling my hair as though I were nil but a barrow-boy.
You can relax now, you fuck.” He told me. “If I wanted you dead, you’d be maggot food already. Stay sharp!”
He threw a fist my way, again stopping just before my face.
Douch! Dust in the wind! You get me, Spider-dick?
Sort of.” I told him.
And so began my tenure in the Mad Headed Octogram Soul Collective. It was a time of wild, euphoric highs and crushing lows; a delirious dally with the higher truth and a terrifying journey into the dark recesses of a beautiful soul; a time of intolerable cruelty, petulance, daily psychological abuse, domination and habitual public humiliation. It was also a time of great art. Yes, I was putty in the master’s hand and I was happy to be, for a while.
The good ship Octogram spent much of the nineties on the periphery of London’s music and arts scenes: Too extreme in our avant garde tendencies, too uncompromising in our artistic vision to be embraced by mainstream society, yet too real, too honest and too damn catchy to be dismissed. His one-man stage show El Octogrammus – Notes From a Bohemian Body Bag caused a sensation in Dalston Kingsland Shopping Centre, and its follow up, Scrawlings of a Dunderhead Stooge, performed in Burger King Charring Cross, prompted raised eyebrows all the way up to Westminster. Meanwhile a slew of EPs, singles and albums on various indie labels (most notably the now-defunct Blumis King) and a run of consistently beguiling live performances ensured that the Mad Headed One was achieving cult-like status. Earnest fanatics, the Octogramarians, became a common sight on the streets of London, in the clubs and supermarkets. Society was changing.

Mainstream success, though, was never on the Octogram’s agenda, and when his version of ‘Insane in the Membrane’ became an MTV favourite (it had featured in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Camp Octogram entered one of its periodic phases of reinvention. We disappeared from sight, convalescing in the studio to hammer out another vision of majesty and madness, of prophecy and profit margins; a colour-by-numbers holocaust pie chart for the masses to gorge upon. They were heady times. Mad Headed Octogram has always had a revolving door policy, few people able to exist in his light and petulance for more than a month at a time, but now the Righteous Educator was firing saplings every which way: All change. No excuses. No compromises. This was Octogeddon.
What really happened during those months of torment? Readers, I cannot say. I know only that the album we were working on at that time was our finest. All the Octogram’s major themes came into focus. The man was spitting out melodies like olive pits. We all felt it in the studio. This was the one. This was the record that would bring his vision to the masses. That slab of vinyl damn near killed us. I remember only shards of that time, so altered was my perception of reality; so deeply had the Octogram’s demands crushed my ability to reason. But it was completed. That LP? Wild Eyes of the Octogram. The critics adored it, but amid the chaos of regime change, the bitter tears and lawsuits, the record sank without a trace. The album that was set to propel us to stardom, the Octogram’s Opus Magnifica was, it transpired, the swansong for the classic line-up. Baron Greenback and myself, Octogram veterans both, were given our marching orders by fax the morning after the launch party.
I busked around on the scene for a while, without direction or identity before scoring a gig with anti-noise band The Pheromoans. This was a pretty sweet job; the newly formed Pheromoans were already ruffling feathers in the Gatwick slumming community. They were the talk of the festivals that year, whispers flying from tent to tent about these new sonic assault troubadours. Sure enough, like planets orbiting the same star, Mad Headed Octogram was drafted in on percussion within the month. I kept my distance, rarely daring to inquire about his creative pursuits and I am proud to say that to this day we are able to tolerate one another’s company for short periods. The Mad Headed One continues to dazzle with his poetry readings, rock concerts and situationist happenings. Last year’s Sass Appeal EP, and the tape-only release The Unmistakable Fire are among his finest work. The rejection of his Olympics single Mavis (an impersonation of the beloved Coronation Street character reciting her famous catchphrase ‘I don’t really know!’ to the tune of Chariots of Fire) remains a travesty and a blight upon the cursed international games franchise. Does it bother him? Does it bollocks! He’s still out there, Mad Headed Octogram. Always converting, always spreading his message: Be real! Be true! Be me! Be gone! Tonight performing in a boho fleapit with an Apache flautist and a wailing flower child: Tomorrow, perhaps in an old people’s home with a string quartet of dissonant yummy mummies. The next week he’ll be rocking up a storm in the Mean Fiddler with a bunch of teenage stoners.
Me? I’m just grateful to have hung onto his coattails as long as I did. Go check him out.
Mad Headed Octogram appears intermittently at guerilla art happenings around the south east of England, and plays regularly with The Pheromoans. His extensive discography is largely out of print, though releases are sometimes made available by his friends at Savoury Days Records.

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