Sleevenotes by Stewart Lee


I am a stand-up comedian. I am eighteen years younger than John Dowie. I never saw him perform stand-up. As a teenager, I bought a copy of his book, Hard To Swallow, a collection of his "abandoned comedy routines" illustrated by the underground cartoonist Hunt Emerson; I had seen him on TV occasionally, doing slots in shows as a guest of people he was clearly better than; I had a strange half memory of him doing punky sneery stuff on one of those late night Seventies rock shows, So It Goes or Revolver. I knew he was a significant figure. But I never saw him perform stand-up.

I could have seen John Dowie do stand-up, of a sort, at my fourth Edinburgh Fringe, in 1990, when he performed a one man show called Why I Stopped Being a Stand-Up Comedian, but I didn't go. I don't know why. The title was strange. It made me think of Captain Oates, leaving Captain Scott's arctic tent to die with the words "I'm just going outside. I may be some time", and perhaps hoping someone would stop him. But no-one stopped John Dowie. He had performed Alternative Comedy before it even had a name, was tired of it by the time the tropes he'd established became commonplace, and then he just sort of slipped away.

Ten years later, I was drinking late one night in the courtyard of the Pleasance Theatre in the year 1999, my thirteenth Edinburgh Fringe, when the comedian Simon Munnery arrived, looking pleased with himself, like a gun dog bringing back a pheasant, or a family cat that comes in and drops a dead rat on the carpet. He had found John Dowie, the pheasant/dead rat of Alternative Comedy, and he was nearby, right now, drinking, and ready to receive our tributes.

We got to know Dowie that summer. It was interesting to talk to him about how it all began, and what it was all for. The great sage would have been all of 49 then, five years older than I am now, but he dealt graciously with us. He came to see my show and offered no advice other than that I should wear proper shiny shoes in future, and not trainers. In the last few years I have come to see that he was right, but it seemed strange advice to receive from the punk era stand-up who has also once opened for Black Sabbath.

Having kids seemed to have shifted Dowie's priorities. He was writing children's shows now, and poems, and plays, and seemed to want to say things that were unambiguously positive. He was sucked into the unpaid charity benefit circuit that all our gang seemed to be on all the time, but would never be drawn to perform his old stuff, offering instead neat, philosophical haikus that made everything else on the bill look rather bitter and bleak. I saw him do a one-off performance, in a Fitzrovian cellar, of his theatre piece about Joseph, made famous by Tom Conti, Jesus My Boy. It was brilliant, funny, moving, and told you more about the real John Dowie than any amount of drinking sessions. In the guise of the cuckolded carpenter, he really opened up.

We had Dowie round for New Year's Eve once. He seemed angry about something and, I think, absented himself before he turned nasty. I went to his flat a few times, and he greeted me with a wave from a fifth story window. It made me think of the Philip Dick story, The Man in the High Castle. Each time I went there Dowie had less stuff. In the end he had reduced his possessions to five basic food groups; records by Bob Dylan and Moondog; books by William Blake and the aforementioned Dick; and some Batman comics. It was as if he was preparing to depart. And pretty soon he did. No-one in our gang knew where he'd gone, but we knew he could now carry everything he ever wanted in a backpack, and he'd bought a bike.

Years passed. In 2011 I tracked Dowie down to ask him to appear in At Last! The 1981 Show, a celebration of Alternative Comedy's first wave that I was curating for the Royal Festival Hall. Needless to say, he would have nothing of it, and would not give anything away, either, about his then current whereabouts.

I am glad this CD document exists. The punk era music tracks are perfect period pieces, sort of Dada Cabaret/pub rock fusion, Tristan Tzara fronting Doctor Feelgood; Mime Sketch reminds me of similarly atmospheric field recordings by Ted Chippington and Lenny Bruce; it seems even funnier to a comedy-literate listener because you feel the material is way too good for the response it's getting, and it's great to hear such nakedly honest archive. And knowing Dowie, a little, hearing the hilarious but awkwardly confrontational I'm Here To Entertain You, or No More Fucking's visceral fear of the physical world, with hindsight, it seems obvious why Dowie was eventually to choose a brighter path. No more would Dowie spit out the bleak rhyming couplet that began, "If I had any sense I'd nail my penis to the floor." Instead he wrote Dogman, for children, the story of an alien Dog who ends up running a lighthouse that appears, the more I read it to my own children, to be a kind of autobiography.

There's a political dimension to this collection too. Dowie came from a time very different to our own; where there was a degree of social mobility that is now greatly reduced; where places like Birmingham's Arts Lab funded and developed art they felt was worthwhile in of itself, rather than as a route to the loot; where punk and the hippy era's DIY ethics propelled singular talents like Dowie's forward; and where a viable Fringe circuit encouraged risk taking. If someone were thinking of doing something in comedy as radical as Dowie did in the '70s, would they be able to, and if they did, would we even know about it?

Stewart Lee © John Dowie 2013