The million-dollar couplet machine

Murray Lachlan Young, Wildean stand-up poet, is going global.
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The Independent Culture
At sports days in villages, cities and towns

World records are breaking they just can't slow down

In the father's race one chap whilst rushing at speed

Had recorded a time just below 8.03

And that was the four hundred metres

He last holidayed in Costa Rica

from `Simply Everyone's Taking Cocaine'

You couldn't move for goatee beards and ponytails. The air was thick with the stench of very expensive eau de cologne. The colour of choice for the regulation-issue polo-necks was black. Even the graffiti in the loos was in cool rhyming couplets. We were deep in trend-setter country, at CGGBs, the ultra-hip venue on New York's Lower East Side that launched the careers of Blondie, The Ramones and Television. Record industry movers and shakers and rock journalists were wheeling round the stage like vultures who'd missed lunch.

They were there to see the American showcase gig of Murray Lachlan Young, the performance poet who has been the subject of what a spokesperson calls "aggressive interest from many record companies". This week, the interest resulted in a headline-grabbing, telephone-number two-album deal with EMI. It is estimated that his earnings from that, an off-Broadway show, supporting the Pet Shop Boys, slots on MTV, an Edinburgh run, publishing and potential sponsorship will exceed a million pounds. He's just 28.

Other poets, who are traditionally supposed to survive on a diet of black bread and art, have been muttering enviously about the figures and moaning about Young's success being a triumph of marketing over content. Forget about poetry being the new rock 'n' roll; at this rate, it'll be the new Lottery.

On stage, however, Young bore little resemblance to a business fat cat. A lean, mean beanpole, he has flowing curly dark hair that he brushes out of his eyes and a splendid line in black velvet frock-coats, white silken scarves, brocaded waistcoats and buckled shoes. It all chimes with the languidly camp image of an artist who must have a picture of Lord Byron stuck to his mirror.

A charismatic performer capable of commanding silence with a simple raised palm, at CBGBs he boomed out in his sonorous voice, a cross between Steven Berkoff and Joel Grey. Backed by a glamorous cellist in a sequinned ball- gown, he spell-bound the Men in Black with poems that could have been written especially for them. The titles of his sharp, sassy satires say it all: "One Nation Under a Goatee", "The Closet Heterosexual," and "Simply Everyone's Taking Cocaine". A line from "The Life and Death of Art" - "She told him whatever he wanted to hear. She was in PR, for fuck's sake, it was her job" - even drew a round of applause.

Unwinding before the show in the bar at the Soho Grand, Young was surrounded by impossibly groovy types who could have been lifted straight from his verse. Young rejected the notion that he's all hype and no trousers. "EMI are going for a no-hype route," he asserted. "I remember sending back one press release from them which read something like `new poetry for a new generation'. I said, `I'm not a soft drink.' I don't want to be turned into something I'm not. I must keep honest. I don't want to do Have I Got News For You. If you do too much TV, you make a deal. You become a TV personality rather than an artist."

So why, I asked, was he bothering with this interview? "I'm trying to get an audience for poetry," he replied. Open and appealingly enthusiastic, Young is all too well aware that despite all the ballyhoo, poetry has long been in need of an image makeover. "So many people say, `I hate poetry, it's crap.' That's been their experience. They had some old git teaching them a month of the War Poets when they were 15. Fifteen-year-old boys want to be Rambo, but they don't want to hear about dying and mourning."

Young can get quite worked up on this subject. He's no millionaire divorced from reality; he still sees himself as a People's Poet. "Too often people who write poetry seem like they're divulging some terrible secret or slipping you something when you're depressed," he declared. "Poetry is something of the people; it belongs to the people. Turning poetry into esoteric elitism frightens people. They feel there's no way in. If you can show people interesting poems performed in a dynamic way, then they might move on to Blake."

He has not always been well-received. "The tag of `performance poet' is a big turn-off," Young sighed. "At my first ever Edinburgh show, there were four people there and I knew three of them. People will willingly go to the Happy Banana Show - three Australian comedians throwing themselves about. But when there's a poster saying `The Poetry of Murray Lachlan Young' - well, even I wouldn't go and see that!"

Influenced by the unholy trinity of Oscar Wilde, Heinrich Hoffmann and Frankie Howerd, Young is the first performance poet to make it big since his heroes John Cooper Clarke and Attila the Stockbroker in the late 1970s. "Those people who came out of punk are quite a comfort to those of us trying to do poetry now. They were gobbed on from start to finish, but they put up with it and are still going."

Satire is Young's stock-in-trade, and hanging out in London's Soho, he never feels he'll run out of targets. "Satire's on the up," he reckoned. "As the bullshit increases, so does satire. We may be part of the caring, sharing Nineties, but there are still an awful lot of people getting wasted. Satire is a great way of mutually letting off steam. No one is innocent." But with all this hype and hullaballoo, isn't Young worried about turning into the very thing he is satirising? "It is a huge danger. My biggest fear is that you can lose your soul ... If I ever lose my outsider status, I'm up shit creek." He'll just have to keep checking his chin for the first signs of a goatee.

Murray Lachlan Young's album, "Vice & Verse", is released on EMI next month