At 16 I was doing a lot of reading, going to gigs, buying records, listening to the John Peel show. If it was still on I’d still be listening to John Peel now. Some of the things I heard on his show changed my life and still form the roots of everything I listen to now. Old reggae, the Nightingales, The Fall – they inspired me to write because their lyrics were so good. People forget what an amazing lifeline Peel was for people. He also gave me, perhaps rather self-destructively, that ‘no sell out’ mentality which has made my life more difficult than it needs to be. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I really enjoyed school. I was in this mountain-walking club and every other weekend we’d go to Wales and go climbing. We’d get in a minibus with our geography teacher and go to Snowdonia and go up and down mountains. I loved it. The original members of hardcore death metal pioneers Napalm Death were in the group too. None of them made it to the first album though.
I looked cadaverously thin when I was 16. I had just started going to hospital with something called ulcerative colitis, which meant I kept losing loads of weight. Which was actually really good. I wish I could get it again now. I had Morrissey hair, which I’ve now got rid of as a political protest. That’s one of the things I’d tell my 16-year-old self; don’t trust Morrissey. Other than that, I wear exactly the same as I did then and I probably had much the same sense of humour. In fact I’m much more now like I was in my mid-teens. In my twenties I was more of an arrogant and conceited man as I’d been given a taste of fame and success when I wasn’t really equipped to deal with it. I wasn’t very happy with myself.
Have I betrayed the 16-year-old me? Probably not actually. The teenage me might have found it mildly abhorrent that only this morning I listened to a Soft Machine record, a jazz-fusion record. But other than that, I’ve been able to live a charmed life and avoid most of the responsibilities and compromises that other people have. I’ve been so lucky I can’t believe it. Being asked to curate a whole weekend festival of arts and music [All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2016]. And being able to make four TV series of stand-up comedy, and make a living out of it, and to be called the world’s greatest living stand-up in The Times – he just wouldn’t believe it.
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For years now I’ve managed to keep ploughing my own furrow without distraction. Part of that is fear of failure, of trying other things and being found out. Other things haven’t worked out. I came in to help with the story of Jerry Springer: the Opera in 2001, and that was basically banned, so after five years we all lost money on it. In 2005 I thought, I have to get away from big management and major promoters. There has to be a way of making stand-up pay off.
I worked out I needed about 5,000 people in the British Isles to like me. If they all gave me £10 a year then, after costs and paying tax, that would be enough to live on. That was all I aimed for. I thought, what was all this other stuff that had been going on for 15 years about breaking big markets and getting my face out? I didn’t have to do it. And actually, what I would say to my 16-year-old self is, don’t go through those 15 years. Get to where I eventually got to sooner.
In my stand-up, I play a kind of game with the audience; the audience who are not worthy of the great artist. Strangely, I think this goes back to when I was about 16 listening to John Peel and to artists who had real self-respect. When I first saw The Fall, Mark E Smith had his back to us all night, he didn’t introduce himself or say anything, and it was really great because the stuff was brilliant.
I do respect the audience and I make sure I give them good value for their relatively cheap ticket. But I don’t kowtow to them. Maybe that’s down to the adolescent part of me that I can’t get rid of, formed by that snooty ‘don’t go on Top of the Pops’ attitude of the post-punk bands I loved. A lot of critics don’t understand that, but I think my audience get it. It’s like I’m attacking a friend.
I do wish that I was fitter. Not out of any vanity – I don’t wish I could wear a tiny white T-shirt at the Albert Hall. Actually this increasing decrepitude has worked well for me as a stand-up. Looking older suits my act better. In the Nineties, looking young didn’t suit how jaded my character was. The more rundown I look the funnier it is.
Also, I was never a physical comedian but now that I’m visibly knackered I enjoy dancing and jumping around onstage – audiences can see me run out of breath and it’s funny. But I would like to be fitter because there are things I just can’t do with the kids, and I’d like to stay alive long enough to see what happens to these really funny weird little kids [he has two with comedian Bridget Christie].
If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be with my mum. She adopted me, she chose to take me on and she was a single mum. I wish I’d be able to thank her properly for that. One of the things I would say to my 16-year-old self is, try to find some time with your mum when you’re in your adulthood. My mum died eight years ago now, and there was never really a point after I left home when we really spent time together. I never really got to explain to her how I was doing and how I was living and I think she really worried about me. I’d have loved to have gone away maybe on holiday with her and just explained I was doing OK and stopped her worrying.
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If I could go back to any time in my life I’d go back to The Elephant Fair in Cornwall in the summer of 1984, when I was 16, awake and full of the joys of possibility. To see The Fall for the first time again, with the two drum line-up, lit by flaming torches. And of course there was the added thrill of being 16 and having got to Cornwall on my own, just me and my sleeping bag, setting down in the field. I couldn’t believe that anything could be that good. It was like a dream.
I had some spiked mushroom tea. All the girls were topless and dancing around. I went to the cinema tent and watched The Thing, just me and a Rasta bloke who said “Ohhh Jesus Christ almighty” every time The Thing took over other people’s bodies. I saw lots of comedians like John Hegley and Malcolm Hardy. And I realised wow, there’s a big exciting world out there.
Stewart Lee’s book March of the Lemmings: Brexit in Print and Performance 2016-2019 is out now (Faber & Faber, £14.99)
This interview originally appeared in the Big Issue magazine. Pick up a copy from your local vendor or buy it online from the Big Issue Shop.
Image: Idil Sukan