Intense Look out here comes that bloke with the worn out eyes. He's always coming 'round here with his talk about death and sex and laughing too loud and thinking too much and drinking too much it's too much for a small town without a cinema and only one horse. Much too intense. Richard Nicholson
Richard Nicholson (aka the singer-songwriter Billy Penn’s Brother) burst into my life towards the end of the 80’s when he invited the band I was in to play at Harry, a tiny festival of faith, arts and politics in Harrogate (get it?), North Yorkshire. Way ahead of its time, and therefore tiny and fleeting, Harry attracted a loving mixture of what Theodore Roethke called the ‘innocent, hapless, [and] forsaken’: misfits, visionaries, burnt-out charismatics, and house church and acid house refugees. Such was the size of the crowd, you felt by the time you went home that you had encountered everyone present: road crew, singers, and punters alike. It was heady and intoxicating and beautiful. In the sense that I met people there who seemed to think, question, doubt, pray and haphazardly pretend they were artists while doing other things (and that this was fine, normal, even), I do think it changed my life.
Around the same time, Richard became a mainstay of a writers’ and artists’ group I used to host in my kitchen. Without the resources of the internet we now take for granted, it was a word of mouth affair, friends of friends of dubious friends pitching up with their entry fee of Bulgarian red, to read, pontificate or argue about their latest masterwork. Naturally Richard came and held forth with the best of them, making lugubrious wisecracks in his deep Geordie voice while sipping Oolong tea through his pipe smoke. One week he would bring a painting, the next a new song, another a manifesto in reply to Marshall McLuhan.
Then, one week, he brought a little sequence of poems which stunned me with their brevity, mordant humour and precision. I think there were no more than half a dozen of them, but each seemed to carry the freight of a lifetime’s reading, study, reflection and rage. I told him at the time I thought they were as good as Ivor Cutler, one of our shared heroes. I still think this today. I saw him perform the poems once, in the basement of Holy Joe’s, the Harry crew’s London base, below Brixton’s Acre Lane. He declaimed them without introduction sitting upright in bed wearing striped pyjamas and a Scrooge nightcap. The effect was charming and unsettling in equal measure.
For a long while I lost touch with Richard. He carried on as a troubadour, going on to make one of the great ‘lost’ albums, Ruckus In Real Time (Sticky Music, 1992). But he had begun smoking again, had a breakdown, and decided to move to Spain to recover. He now lives with his wife in quiet seclusion on the Isle of Wight, teaching guitar and writing the odd blog post. Every time I read ‘Intense’ I see and remember new things in it: the unpredictability of those times, when making and commenting on each other’s art was as important as breathing or eating; the delicacy of its line breaks; the faultless timing of the poem’s wit. More than twenty-five years later, I still hold out hope to see the entire sequence in print for the first time.
With thanks to Richard Nicholson and Luke Bretherton