Humans are a sentimental lot, easily acquiring attachments to places and things which the objects of our sentiments cannot return: short of a greater belief in animism than I can usually muster. Such feelings can become twisted to generate dark emotions and worse actions, though mostly just lead to a slight resistance to change and life marinated in a vague brine of nostalgia.
I am as prone to these sentiments as any, though do try to remember that if carried too far would mean our distant ancestors never having left the savannah or cave: a bit of change is probably more healthy than the stagnant alternatives. Much that is considered beautiful or beloved was once an eye-sore (or worse). Places that don’t change can feel rather eerie: I remember wandering around the largely unchanged streets of Oxford a few years back being haunted by the ghost of my much younger self walking those same streets.
Some places smuggle themselves deep into our hearts surprisingly swiftly. I think these delvers, swift and deep, are able to do so thanks to associations that accrete in nacreous layers around the raw grit of the place to create a treasured pearl. In my experience, these associations are always linked to the realm of the living and are, perhaps, strongest when they involve other people: though nature more broadly creates powerful ties.
As the proceeding directions which set my stage suggest, I am going to talk about a particular place – now forever lost in one of the trickier to navigate dimensions – which only existed for a brief span of a human life but became very important to me. Those for whom prolonged exposure to this blog has provided some unwanted insight into the way my brain “works”, may have guessed from the title that this post is about The Talking Heads of fond memory.
For those who do not know it, the Talking Heads – hereinafter “The Heads” – was an independent music venue in Southampton. The Heads has existed for several years, but while I visited its Portswood home on a few occasions it was only once it moved to the Polygon that it unexpectedly became such an integral part of my life. Initially, it was not any particular virtue of the venue that took me to its doors but rather its proximity to my home. Being only half-a-mile away, I had to expend very little effort to go there and see what was on. It also gained from staging a number of gigs that were free entry (often with the opportunity to donate to support the musicians) or pretty low cost. It also had two rooms, generally with contrasting gigs, and hosted it least one event (often two) every night of the week. This heady cocktail of convenience meant it was always an easy option if I fancied doing something of an evening on which I had nothing planned: there would usually be something on that would at least tickle my fancy enough to take a look. It also meant that if another event finished early, it would usually be worth checking The Heads on the walking home to catch a second gig there.
Once I started visiting more regularly, my mysterious (to me) memorability meant that I came to know the people that worked at The Heads and many of its regulars. This added an additional incentive to go out, as I would probably bump into a friend – or at least a proto-friend – which would make the short walk all the more worthwhile. It was the The Heads which started my continuing project to try and go to at least one cultural event in Southampton every night – the place made it easy: if ever there was a gap in my diary, I could generally rely on The Heads to fill it for me. Going out became almost addictive – things happen when you go out that never do when you sit at home in front of the idiot box or laptop (however much “content” is thrown at us) – and has led to a situation where I have far more friends now that at any previous point in my life and have stronger connections to Southampton than to any other place I have ever lived. In more ways than one, The Heads was a key progenitor of this process and acted as a place to meet people. Since it’s gone, I less reliably bump into friends on a regular basis: I need to establish a new “club house”, albeit for a club that no-one knew they were joining – maybe “common room” is a better metaphor.
As well as the friends I first met at The Heads, or the friendships that deepened there, the place is also full of memories for events I saw. It provided most of my education in modern jazz and experimental music and hugely broadened my musical taste in many other areas: it just made the “how bad can it be?” attitude to going out so viable. It played host to so many of my best nights out over the last couple of years. So many neurons are devoted to time spent there.
As well as the associations, the physical venue had a lot in its favour. It was the only music venue in Southampton with two spaces for gigs – and each room had a very different vibe. The main space was perhaps a more traditional venue but was much wider than it was deep which I find works well: it helps to bring the audience closer to the music and each other and improves sight-lines. It had a decent dance floor – for those so inclined – and always had somewhere to sit down – which is lovely for my ageing and often tired lower limbs. So many venues have little or no room to sit down which is great for the young with a desire to mosh, perhaps, and does create a specific feel but I think puts some potential audience off: it can have an impact on my own decision-making if I’m feeling particularly enervated or foot-sore. It also leaves one with little incentive to arrive early or stick around after a gig – which must have an impact on drink sales and so venue economics.
The Maple Leaf Lounge was a thing of unique and eccentric beauty. The owner has a serious penchant for an auction and an antique or several and so the front bar was adorned with an eclectic mix of antiques, pictures and some truly strange objects and graced with a mix of elderly, often wobbly (but interesting ) furniture. The range on offer and their positioning would also slowly mutate over time. No hipster theme bar would ever have chosen the medley of “stuff” that decorated that lounge: in a world often rendered increasingly bland with reproductions of the currently (or recently) hip everywhere – even in banks – it had a real personality and sense of place. Despite its oddly positioned pillars and slight dilapidation, for so much music – especially acoustic and jazz – I think it will always be the standard against which I measure any music venue.
It always had friendly staff – many of which I now count as friends – who cared about the venue, the quality of its sound and its survival but, alas, it was not to be. It was the only dedicated music venue to have a range of decent and well-kept cask ales (for most of its life – we don’t mention the Palmers, while recognising that it probably helped fund the venue) – which is a sine qua non for the middle-aged beer snob and a terrible loss given that the venues that survive it tend to focus on children’s drinks (lager, cocktails and the like).
Despite its many virtues, and just a few very modest vices which need not detain us here, The Heads closed its doors for the last time at the end of September. A victim of costs – particularly business rates and rents – which the volume of people willing to go out to enjoy live music did not cover (and I definitely tried as my liver can – no doubt – attest). Sadly, other venues in the city still struggle to square that particular circle and I am forced to wonder how setting business rates at a level which eliminates business can possible be economically rational behaviour. I have deliberately not walked passed the building since it closed but my suspicion is that it will be replaced by student flats, as this seems to be the fate of all vacant buildings these days. I’m always slightly worried when I leave the flat for more than a couple of hours, in case I return to find it replaced with shoddily built accommodation with super-fast wifi to tempt the young to part with some of their student loan.
Other places have had to fill the hole in my life, and the expanded programme at NST City has certainly helped to ensure I have very few evenings stuck at home with my own thoughts for company, but hole there is and will remain for some time yet. Remember to love and support your local music venues, if not they will continue to disappear – whereas your couch TV and streaming service are going nowhere. Without local venues there will be nowhere for fresh talent to get a start and we’ll all have to travel to a small number of big cities to see live music – and that’s both expensive and inconvenient. Listen local!
Before the closing Haiku, I though I’d share images from four of my favourite gigs from the final month, including the final day.
Silence fills music’s sphere
Recent grief renders heads dumb
A maple leaf falls