Ah, Duckie Duckie Duckie! A great Duckie night is surely unparalleled 'pon this Earth - and Saturday's was a true classic. Not that it's ever had a slump as such, not with the Readers Wifes playing, but the club really seems to be hitting its stride at the moment, maybe because it's building up to an excellent programme of events in the coming months. I've no idea how, thirteen years on, it retains the same freshness and verve but, hallalujah, it does.
Autumn weather really makes me vacillate over the eternal problem of What To Wear. On work days, the morning chill is excuse enough to succumb to my weakness for big, flappy overcoats or belted leather macs (the fashion nuclei of my brain were horribly warped by early exposure to '80s pop videos). As the day heats up, I then feel self-consciously sweaty. Duckie presents the opposite problem: wanting to avoid the cloakroom if at all possible, one is tempted to underdress for the cold then shiver if there's a queue to get in. Me and TSB seem to be getting better at timing our arrival to avoid that, though; knowing Johnny Woo, Timberlina and Justin Bond were all on the bill, we got there early so as to avoid the anticipated hordes of painted acolytes.
And rammed to the rafters it was, from early on. Good-humoured, though, in contrast to previous sardine-tin evenings. Funny how the crowd can take on a very definite mood, distinct from one week to the next.
Six out of six, with Wifes, Cloths, Amy and Simon all present and correct. Amy seemed slightly subdued, possibly just in contrast to last week's exuberant DJing as an honorary Readers Wife. Standing by the activity island with Gareth, we were approached by a harness-clad fellow, seemingly lost on his way to the Hoist. He asked if we were up for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of experiencing the Royal Vauxhall Tavern's darkroom. We were, naturally, so he gave us each a sticker to wear, a glowing lightbulb. Curiouser and curiouser. It was all part of a piece of live installation/immersive/participatory art by Harriet Poole - more on this later...
Up The Junction was playing onscreen when we arrived, and the Readers Wifes echoed its panda-eyed beehivery with I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten. I love Dusty and this is one of my favourites - lovely to hear it at Duckie. Just in front of the stage, a large, fortysomething chap was clearly In The Zone, eyes closed, and doing what looked like robot dancing (with just a hint of choreiform arm movement). It's not easy to clear a cordon sanitaire on Duckie's dancefloor but this guy had managed it, fellow dancers nervously moving back from his near religiose ectasy. Must remember that trick.
Amy "Two Belts" Lamé introduced what turned out to be a stellar evening.
First up, a big-haired, bespectacled Johnny Woo (looking a little like a mildly genderblended Sebastien Tellier).
Despite having moved in vaguely similar club/cabaret circles, I'd not seen Mr Woo perform. Me and TSB have a friend who's a big devotee of his Gay Bingo but we've always been loath to schlep along to Shoreditch to drink on Sunday evenings before a typically busy Monday, so have never been. I really enjoyed his Women Of Mass Destruction and pill-popping tongue-twister, and he justifiably reaped huge applause.
Timberlina next, who I knew from Vauxhallville (last one this Thursday - *sob*) and who didn't disappoint with a tender ditty about Sarah Palin, ending in a flourish with the line, "because she's a cunt". Somehow, the good old c-word is both big and clever in Duckie, and Timberlina's ode to La Palin brought the house down.
(Amy joked that Duckie rarely has drag queens perform - and when it does, they're contractually obliged to have full moustache and beard "so tonight we've ticked all the boxes!")
What new can be said about the ridiculously talented (and inhumanly photogenic) marvel that is Justin Bond? He looked and sounded wonderful, in what looked like a vintage or at least '20s-inspired outfit, singing a belter of a set, again nakedly political (one of the things I love about Justin's performances - as Kiki and as himself - is that he doesn't shy from excoriating where excoriation is due). He was accompanied by a keyboard player I've not seen before, Our Lady J, beautiful and a great match for Justin's vocals. She threw herself into the performance with gusto, her enthusiasm and flying blonde mane making her seem almost muppetlike at times. In a glamorous way. She and Justin were the ideal closer for a near-as-dammit-perfect Duckie cabaret line-up.
(Our Lady J lost her earring but found it again. Phew!)
But! Superb as it was, it wasn't the cabaret that made this Classic Duckie for me. Back to the lightbulb badges. Before even Amy took to the stage, myself, TSB and Gareth were approached by an attractive young woman who asked me if I wanted to go to the darkroom now. Earlier, I'd been admiring her dress and general look (dark silver with black polka-dots, glasses, a bit '40s) and was a tad taken aback (when's the last time I was propositioned in a pub, by a woman?) but decided to go with it. I remembered Punchdrunk's amazing Masque Of The Red Death, earlier in the year, and how rewarding the one-to-one interactions could be, if you were lucky enough to be chosen by one of the actors. With this in mind, I allowed Polka-Dot Lady to take a photograph of the two of us together (me looking beardily sinister, as ever) then take me by the hand and lead me through the crowd (nervously clutching my can of Stella) to a door I'd never noticed before, in the corner of the bar next to the cloakroom.
Still hesitant, I was ushered up a flight of narrow stairs, an abrupt transition from the crowded, noisy Tavern to a much quieter hallway half-lit by fairy lights, black doorways hinting at darkened spaces beyond (occupied?); I was suddenly acutely aware of the thud-thud of music from below (Adam Ant's Prince Charming) like a reassuring heartbeat (Duckie as the beating heart of the Vauxhall Tavern - an image I like). Another set of stairs wound upwards and my companion sat down, smoothing her dress and motioning me to sit next to her. Gingerly, with flashbacks to ill-remembered (and usually ill-advised) moments at teenage parties, I did so. Other than knowing I was A Part Of Art, I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. That in itself was oddly exhilarating.
We had a short conversation, initially about what I had in my pockets (sadly, having changed into my not-skinny but just-tight-enough-for-comfort jeans for Duckie, I'd neglected to bring the Lucky Conker which sometimes accompanies me at this time of year, so we had to imagine it) and associated memories/emotions. Polka-Dot Lady showed me a train ticket which had particular significance for her and I gave an example of my own of the written word taking on personal meaning: a letter which, through a quirk of time zones, arrived weeks after the sender was suddenly, unexpectedly dead. Without going into too much detail (because, for various reasons, it doesn't feel right to blog about this in detail), it was an unusually intimate conversation to be having with a stranger who'd basically pulled me out of the crowd. It didn't feel intrusive, though, that's the truly odd thing; it felt quite comfortable, even cathartic. I felt a sudden swell of emotion when relating my own anecdote, not enough to make me teary but enough to surprise me.
At one point, another woman appeared briefly with what looked like a fellow participant from the pub downstairs. They disappeared into one of the doorways and I wondered how much was scripted, whether his experience of the interaction would be the same as mine.
After talking for maybe ten minutes, Polka-Dot Lady got up and I followed her into a bathroom lit by a red bulb. I was instructed to place my rail ticket (which had been tangential to our earlier conversation) on a piece of photographic paper between us. A light clicked on for a few seconds then off, exposing the film. She took it to the sink and instructed me to pour developing fluid on it. This was the promised darkroom, ho ho!
Then to a darkened kitchen/scullery (the rooms all seemed a bit dilapidated and I asked whether anyone lived here; she told me someone lived on the top floor) where strings ran at above head height, with drying photographs pegged to them. I did what I was told and pegged our photo in place. I was then led downstairs, given a card with a URL (my lightbulb sticker was affixed) and I stumbled blearily back into the body of the pub, just in time to hear Amy allude to the darkroom I'd just visited. I felt quite smug. TSB, fearful of the prospect of being spirited away to the dread spectre of Audience Participation, had removed his sticker.
It was quite a short interaction but peculiarly intense (the intensity sharpened, as I say, by sudden physical hand-in-hand contact, having very little idea what was happening and not knowing what my part in it might be). The combination of familiar-yet-unfamiliar (unlit or fairylit halls, bathrooms and kitchens used for unexpected purposes), the slightly fluctuant sense of time (immediate, here-and-now but also moving from moment to moment with a sort of dreamlike disjunction) and the not-unpleasant novelty of confiding in a stranger lent the whole experience the character of a dream, or a hypnogogic state. It stayed with me for much of the rest of the evening.
That's the added ingredient to Duckie, the extra something that takes it from being The Best Club Night Ever to a whole different plane altogether. "Best audience this year!" said the lovely Chelsea Kelsey, as the night reluctantly drew to a close (after a mass singalong to Take That Look Off Your Face). For me, it was probably the best Duckie this year, with music, cabaret and individual interactive art melding into one exciting, affecting whole.
Oh! And our lovely friend (and occasional dykon) Mel turned up for the final hour, having been elsewhere for the evening but decided, on the way home, that it was worth queuing in the cold for the last golden hour of Readers Wiferie. Clearly she too felt the inexorable pull of Classic Duckie.