Wales Arts Review is pleased to present a new series of literary vignettes, next up is ‘Calling for the Good Old Days’ by Rhys Owain Williams. These vignettes will be glimpses into the thinking of the writer and their experiences; from the day-to-day to the extraordinary. They might have the intimacy of a diary entry, or have the scope of something much larger.
Last night I saw Pete Doherty play in Swansea. It was probably the worst gig I’ve ever been to. The whole thing felt like a fever dream, as if he and his backing band were playing under water. With the set list leaning too heavily towards the new and obscure, a generous portion of the sell-out crowd spent the gig chatting amongst themselves, only becoming attentive and animated when some old favourites were dusted off for the encore.
Six years ago I saw Pete (or Peter, as he’s now billed) play at a smaller Swansea venue, one outside the city centre that really had no business booking an artist of his stature. Whereas last night was probably the worst gig I’ve ever been to, that 2013 offering was undoubtedly the best. He arrived on stage three hours late, by which time the crowd that remained had become suitably soused. “TomTom took us to Swanage” he announced, before launching into solo versions of Libertines classics ‘Time for Heroes’, ‘The Good Old Days’ and ‘Music When the Lights Go Out’: songs that provided the soundtrack to my late adolescence. The set was met with chaotic joy.
In the teenage years before I started reading poetry, I probably would have called Pete Doherty a poet – in that way that Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan are called poets, the way that angered Gregory Corso. Calling a lyricist a ‘poet’ is a way that people attempt to legitimise their craft – as if writing songs is a lesser art. Of course, you can have bad lyricists, but you can also have bad poets. And great songwriters should be described as just that – if Sammy Cahn had written poems I very much doubt Frank Sinatra would have sung them.
Sandwiched between these two Swansea dates with a solo Pete was a Libertines reunion gig in Cardiff. The band was a reanimated corpse, playing to a half-empty Motorpoint Arena on a wet Tuesday night. I went with the group of friends who I’d grown up on landfill indie with– Up the Bracket one of the albums we’d played on repeat during that last summer between sixth form and university. Perhaps the night would’ve been better if we‘d recaptured some of that teenage enthusiasm for shit lager, but we all had work the next morning. At least the gig provided part-inspiration for a poem I ended up including in my debut collection last year: “This is what time travel must feel like. / Light between the cracks / in our dusted-down leathers, / the crowd a wave of weakening crowns.”
On my bedroom wall at university, a collage of men I admired (and perhaps wanted to be) grew out from a photo of Pete from a Roberto Cavalli campaign. During my time at uni he was joined by the likes of Albert Camus, Wallace Stevens, Serge Gainsbourg. When you’re an English literature student you’re allowed to be pretentious (though somewhat out of place in this hip montage was Ryan Giggs making his last appearance in a Wales shirt).
I find it easiest to write about things that evoke nostalgia: that wistful, sentimental yearning for a return to the past. It’s something that I know at least one of my trusted first-draft readers feels is a defect in my writing. There’s a nostalgia present in my first collection that shouldn’t be in the next. But the second collection will have to wait – at the moment my next project is non-fiction: a mixture of essay and memoir (at least if I can convince a publisher – and myself – that I can write a memoir worth reading). I don’t think it’s possible to write personal history without indulging in nostalgia, but we’ll see. At least if it’s unavoidable then I may finally write it out of my system.
Rhys Owain Williams is a writer from Swansea. His first poetry collection, That Lone Ship, was published by Parthian in 2018.