The Jazz Butcher: What’s the Matter Boy?
In 1986, in my second year at sixth-form college, it was decided to put on a touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Arrangements were made to go to Köln, München, and, more adventurously still, Czechoslovakia. Costumes were hired from the RSC. I played Lysander and had an old silvery costume from Love’s Labours Lost once worn by Derek Jacobi. Bottom, when transformed, had a magnificent ass’s head. The fairies were definitely not ‘gauzy’, but emanations from the unconscious, clad in skin-tight veiny costumes.
In Czechoslovakia we stayed in Karlovy Vary and Prague, though for our actual performances we were bussed out miles into the countryside, on one occasion to play in a Dom Kultury in what seemed to be a small village, and on the other to play at a holiday camp by a lake. Our audiences there were not Czech, but East German holiday-makers. Some of the cast were at the end of their lower sixth year, but the majority of us had finished A-levels, and were in the mood for a party. The entire contingent acquainted themselves thoroughly with Germany’s and Czechoslovakia’s finest lagers. I’d known many of the cast since starting secondary school, though others I’d met only at sixth form; but we were all fairly comfortable and trusting with each other, so it was ideal.
‘What’s the Matter Boy’, from the Jazz Butcher’s Sex and Travel album, doesn’t exactly allude to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but its central character is a familiar figure:
The shape of this is perfect. It could go into the chorus after the first verse, but defers it for a while so that the clues are all presented and we’re fully primed for the big revelation. And then more cunningly still, it shifts its sympathies slightly: the donkey-man may be a figure of ridicule, but he’s also a figure of pathos; people don’t like to be around him because ‘you make them feel uneasy when you say something profound.’
It doesn’t actually remind me of any very specific event, but of the whole tour and of the summer that followed. Girls dropped drinks into their laps; boys fell off their chairs. Catchphrases were invented and were mutated, in-jokes became deeply in-bred and cryptically funny only the initiates. The carefree mood of the music in ‘What’s the Matter Boy’ sums up that whole summer. The song itself maybe goes a little deeper: there’s fun being had, but there are also superficial judgements being made, whereby the ignorant protect themselves from the profound stuff they don’t want to deal with. But it wears its criticisms lightly.