The Meaning of Life According to Bez
A few weeks back we met the Happy Mondays man in a Manchester hotel and life'll never be the same again
Illustrations by Luke Thornhill
It's a Saturday afternoon in Bolton. A young mother is screaming in agony, her hospital bed a ceaselessly uncomforting assemblage of cold metal and damp cotton. After hours of struggle, a head emerges. It is a child, a baby boy no less. She takes her husband's hand in her own and squeezes it with the kind of fervour that'd have a weaker man crumbling. Not this man though, for he is a policeman, a community man, and he is about to become the father of another little boy. That boy, the policeman's son, was Mark Berry. Bez, to his mates.
Bez—and we have to assume that he's now just simply "Bez" to everybody, that even his parents write "Dear Bez" in his birthday cards, that vicars, mechanics and accountants call him Bez, that when he finally sashays into the grave his final resting place will be marked with the word BEZ etched into pristine Italian marble—flew the parental nest at the age of 16, swapping his hometown for the bright lights of Wigan.
Perhaps it was there in Wigan, the spiritual home of Northern Soul, and the literal home of Sky News presenter Kay Burley, that Bez became the stage-bothering shaman we know and love today. Perhaps it was there, under the shadow of the civic center, or by the calm waters of the River Douglas, that Bez first picked up his prized maracas, shaking his way into the annals of music history.
I had decided to make a pilgrimage to Manchester to meet the man they, we, call Bez, because surely, I reasoned, there had to be a man behind the myth.
Bez, it could be argued, is the physical embodiment of the late twentieth century's rapacious desire to enact Andy Warhol's inescapable 15 minutes of fame maxim. Bez, even more than Maureen from Driving School or Howard from the Halifax adverts, or the schoolboy who requested and received a Sven-Göran Eriksson haircut, is proof that fame and talent aren't mutually exclusive. For nearly thirty years now, the mad-eyed mystic has been a public figure, but ask your dad or your dentist exactly what it is that Bez actually does and it's unlikely they'll be able to give you an answer. And that's fine, because what Bez does best, in fact, is simply being Bez. Bez takes care of Bezness.
He has become a totemic figure of sorts. A nodding Churchill for the rave generation. He's a perma-grinning reminder of golden days of yore, back when a single gary lasted three months and cost half a shilling, the Pope went to Fantasia, and the door pickers were in sole charge of parliamentary selection. Bez is a living, breathing, E-sodden Happy Monday, a pickled Black Grape who keeps bees, brews beer, and founded his own anti-fracking political party.
"I've been in denial for years," Bez grins, mere moments into our conversation. "I've denied who I've been and who I am, and now I'm learning to accept it. I don't feel like I'm anything special. I'm just some fucking knobhead, like all the rest of the fucking knobheads out there. I'm nobody."
As far as opening gambits go, the one above is pretty hard to beat. I had been in Bez's presence for all of thirty seconds and suddenly I was playing the role of pissed psychoanalyst. We're both of clutching glasses of water—Bez for thirst-slaking, me for dear life—in the bar of Manchester's palatial Hotel Gotham. White-suited waiters are serving ornate cocktails, and Rowetta, bez's old Happy Mondays bandmate, is sat in the corner, laughing away at foghorn-volume. Middle-aged blokes decked out in feather cuts and paisley shirts pester Bez for selfies, which he readily and happily provides.
There's something appealing about people who display a near total lack of guardedness. There's something slightly uncomfortable about it too. Here I was, sat less-than-sober in an unfamiliar city with a stranger I've been aware of for as long as I've been aware of music, and he's telling me that his whole life has been a blag. That everything he's done, everything he's had, has been nothing more than chance and circumstance. "Pure fluke and accident." He can't sing, he can't really dance, and he can't even play the maracas properly.
"In the beginning we were a shit band," he says, recalling the early days of the Mondays, before they were enveloped in the Madchester storm, before they were the biggest thing in baggy. "We were fucking incredibly terrible. But we had a presence about us, we had a football hooligan following, and we were the boys." There is a slight pause, a moment of hesitation, and I'm struck with the idea that we're about to hit a conversational hinterland. This was a needless worry because Bez, it seems, is incapable of existing in silence. He flashes me a smile. "Even when we were shit we believed we were the best cunts since sliced bread."
Meeting Bez in the flesh, you can't help but be struck by the physicality of the man. He is thin, leaning towards gaunt, and decidedly grey on top, with the cheekbones and jawline apposite of a life spent sucking down pingers with reckless abandon. Now 53, his eyes still simmer with the vacant intensity you remember from all those years ago, if a little less brightly than when Bez, Shaun, Rowetta and the rest were at their biggest.
When Bez looks at you he isn't really looking at you at all. He's not looking behind you either, nor is he looking through you. He seems to be looking towards another world, another galaxy, another plane entirely. What he's seeing out there in the distance is unknowable. Perhaps not even Bez himself knows where this gaze is projecting. He is one of life's starers, a man who radiates a manic openness—an openness you feel has perhaps led him down several wrong paths, taken him on routes that should have been abandoned at the first hurdle, and seen him enter situations and spheres he'd have been better off avoiding.
The grand designs I'd had for our allotted time together dissipated, as grand designs always do. I had wanted to be part-analyst, part-agony aunt, but was, in the end more of a gossip columnist, hoovering up the scurrilous and the scandalous. I soon realised that this wasn't the time to talk about fracking or the future of Manchester city centre from an urbanist perspective. I was trapped in the man's memories, and all with an idiot grin plastered on my idiot face.
"We set off with corned beef sandwiches and the cheapest lager available," Bez continues to recollect. "That was enough for us." He carries on staring, drifting into the muscle soak bubble bath of a fondly remembered and oft-repeated reverie. "The first time I joined the Mondays on stage it was because we were off our heads on acid, and we were supporting New Order at the Hacienda." Asked by Ryder to join the nascent group on stage, Bez found himself panicking. On acid. "I whacked a maraca so hard I had a hole in my hand the size of a fifty pence piece. That was the first time on stage in my life and I came home and laughed my head off."
"The next day," he adds, voice dripping with the relish that comes with dropping a punchline you've worked with for years and that never bombs, always lands, "someone said to Shaun that it was really nice he'd let a kid with special needs come on stage with them."
That kind of self-deprecation, erring at times towards flagellation, remains a conversational constant. He repeatedly tells me he's "talentless" and that all he does is "jump about on stage and make a cunt of myself." He claims to not to have picked up any new moves since he debuted the "Woodstock acid dance," routine 32 years ago. He is, he insists, the ultimate blagger, a man who has made his way through a charmed life because of his relative lack of talent, not in spite of it. These seemingly concrete-set doubts impinge on even triumphant stories—he recalls playing to nearly 200,000 people at a gig in Rio de Janeiro, just to tell me that he had "cunts throwing cans of Coke," at him.
Meeting him reveals the truth of the divide between the real bloke and the role he's played in public life for the last three decades, or rather that there doesn't seem to be one. Mark Berry, whoever that was, vanished the second that Bez, freaky-eyed and full of acid, reluctantly found himself given to the world. He is alternately a fool and a thinker, a man deeply experienced with the ramifications of drugs and fame and notoriety, and someone who seems to float above it all.
He is also the only person to have ever confidently outlined the meaning of life to me. As we sat there in the hotel bar, the night firmly drawn in, the hubbub of acolytes all around, Bez hopped from talking about his relationship with Shaun Ryder—"I'm a good friend, a loyal friend"—to detailing something deeper and stranger than I'd ever expected to hear that evening. I'd come for pingers and piss-ups, and I left with the following:
"The meaning of life, which I've recently discovered, is to expand one's existence. We live in a state of awareness, science has proved it. The meaning of life is to expand awareness through experience, and that's it. As you go through life you're expanding your life through experience, expanding awareness. That's what life is for. Every breath you take. Why do you live? Apart from that. Apart from expanding awareness and the way you expand awareness is through experience, so every experience you have, whether it's good or bad, is you extending your awareness of life, and that is the meaning of life. You are born to extend your awareness. Why else would you live, if it wasn't to expand your awareness. That's the meaning of life. That's why you live: to expand your awareness through life experience. And that's the meaning of life. That's why we all live. We've expanded our awareness through our experience and that is the meaning of life. You don't live life to be braindead and numb. You're expanding your awareness through experience. That's what I think the meaning of life is. We live life to expand our awareness in every way we can. All experience expands knowledge of life. That's what life's all about. Good or bad, it doesn't matter. That's the meaning of life. That's why we live our life through experience. The way we do that is through awareness of our own consciousness. That's the meaning of life."
With that, I took one final gulp of the very strong cocktail I'd been handed, thanked Mark Berry for his time, made my excuses and went back to my room to consider what I'd just heard. Was this really the meaning of life, and if so, why was such a secret possessed by Bez of all people? I ate a salmon and cream cheese sandwich before passing out, fully clothed, headfirst into a confused half-sleep.
Waiting for a taxi the next morning, the sun beating down on Manchester's sandstone streets, I found myself alone with Bez once more. He'd just been for a trolley dash round Pretty Green and was clad in a new leather jacket, and laden with bulging black shopping bags. It took him a second, or thirty, to remember that we'd spent the evening before talking. After gently reminding him who I was, he asked me what I was doing with the rest of my day. I was back off to London, I told him. He nodded, before telling me he was off to the doctors to get a longstanding hearing problem sorted. "I can't hear a fucking thing sometimes," he explains. "I have to pop a finger in my ear. Then I can hear. I sort of have to shove my finger in my ear. It helps me with my hearing."
I offer my commiserations and wish him the best. He's stood in front of a mud-splattered four-wheel drive that's seen better, cleaner days. He gestures towards it, squinting in the sun. "Reminds me of my car, that does," he remarks. "I live down a dirt track. You get it washed and it's covered in shit again in five minutes, just like that one."
My phone buzzes, informing me that my taxi is round the corner. Bez and I shake hands, bid each other farewell, and I walk around the corner and to find my car. Just before I get in, I look up. Bez is gliding past, sat in the passenger seat of the car he had just been telling me looked like his. He stares straight back at me—back and beyond.