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Saturday 27 March 2021

Disability & Metal Part 2 (Paul Hutchings Interviewing Lee Burgess, Steve Jenkins & Jon Davie)

This second part deals more with the physical disability as Paul Hutchings managed to grab an interview metal fan Lee Burgess his friend/carer Steve Jenkins (Democratus) along with musician Jon Davie. 

Paul Hutchings in conversation with Lee Burgess & Steve Jenkins

Picture this scene if you will. One of your favourite bands comes to town. The excitement surges as you scroll through the internet to purchase a ticket. And then you stop. Bitter disappointment sweeps through you as you see the venue. It’s got stairs, many stairs, no level access, and the toilets are on a different level to the performance area. Crushed, you chalk it down to the familiar frustration that is faced by many metal fans who face barriers not only in their daily routines, workplaces, and transport but also when venturing out to see live music.

Lee has spina bifida. He is reliant on a wheelchair and has other health conditions associated with his illness. He’s been gigging for years and speaks fondly of the days when he was still able to walk, however wobbly, to venues like TJs and Neon in Newport; he laughs as he recalls taking his life in his hands as he crossed through the pit at a Black Dahlia Murder gig to get to the toilets. Steve has been gigging with Lee since 2012. Steve is well known frontman and has been around the metal scene in South Wales and the South West for many years. The pair are a regular sight at gigs, with Steve acting as Lee’s carer.

The Equality Act 2010 introduced protection from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. It developed the concept of reasonable adjustments but whilst it has undoubtedly made vast strides in the public sector, the changes that need to be applied to many music venues are caveated; only if reasonable to do so, practical to do so and if the size, practicality, and the cost of making the changes allow. So, sadly, it seems the chances of some of these venues being upgraded to allow those with mobility issues to get to see more music seems at present a distant dream.

Getting access to many venues is a challenge for anyone with mobility problems. The Thekla, The Gryphon, The Exchange, The Moon, Clwb Ifor Bach, The Globe, all venues where metal bands on the circuit play with regularity. Lee can’t do gigs in any of these venues, the majority of which are situated within older buildings with limited access for able bodied punters and few if any options for improvements for access. But it’s not just the older, tightly squeezed venues that are letting their disabled customers down. SWX in Bristol has seen the likes of Thy Art is Murder, In Flames, Lacuna Coil, The Pineapple Thief and Sons of Apollo grace their stage in recent years. It has no lift and a plethora of raised areas which require the ability to climb a step. It’s another no-go zone.

So, what makes a good venue? Lee can name it in two words. The Fleece. “The Fleece is my favourite venue by far. It’s on one level, it’s got street parking and the staff are absolutely lovely. They’ve also got a flawless carer’s ticket system. If I want to go to a gig by myself, there's a lovely Travelodge just down the road which I just book myself into”. As well as The Fleece, Cardiff’s rock bar Fuel also gets the thumbs up for its good accessibility and friendliness of staff and punters.

What about the attitude of those who run the venues? The approach of those in charge can make or break an evening out watching live music. We’ve all had run ins with overzealous security. The offer to help you get upstairs is one thing, but if you are then on your own after that then it becomes even more of a challenge. Getting to the loo in a crowded gig is challenging enough for the able bodied. Fighting through an intoxicated crowd risks losing the much-desired viewing space, sustaining injury, or just feeling that you are an inconvenience. 

Lee recalls a nightmare at a Cardiff venue with stair access. “We got hold of the promoter because we knew there were stairs to deal with. We knew what we were in for. The promoter had promised us that if we could get upstairs, we could have a space on the balcony, which he had done, but he hadn't told the manager”. When Lee and his carer Steve arrived, they faced a barrage of abuse, no help and intimidation with an initial refusal to admit followed by the comment “we won’t help you”. Steve adds “the attitude just floored me; that was the first time I have properly seen hostility like that towards you like customers. It's ridiculous”.

Steve is a big lad and not afraid to speak his mind, but this is the kind of barrier that is commonplace. Lee estimates he misses as many as 30-40 gigs a year because he can’t access the venues. This is unacceptable.

You might expect the more established corporates to be a little more clued up. The O2 Academy in Bristol has a limited viewing section for disabled fans. It’s always full in there. “They shrunk their disabled space by quite a margin and so now they can hardly fit any wheelchairs” Lee explained about a promotion which was running which reduced the number of people who could access the disabled section. “The manager, who I know quite well, because I've been there loads of times said you can't go, I can't fit you in. There's absolutely no way because we've got this promotion going on where people can win tickets. I said, well, I'll tell you what you should do. Take 2 tickets off the promotion. I said we've paid for those tickets”.

The Motorpoint in Cardiff attracts arena sized bands. Some of metal’s biggest names have played there including Iron Maiden, Slipknot and Slayer. “The Motorpoint is good. There is good access, and they have brilliant staff who are lovely, and they've actually got a girl in a wheelchair that sits and helps all the disabled people out and she knows all her access points. But they have this thing where you can't book a disabled ticket. You gotta be put in this, almost like a tombola and if you if you don't ring in time it you miss out and they won't sell you a ticket”. Lee has resorted to buying a general admission ticket and then relying on the arena staff to sort him out with suitable viewing access when he arrives but it’s not good enough.

At Hammerfest a few years ago, the site cut the water off during the day. “It was a nightmare beyond anything. They cut the water supply. Part of my medical needs is water for catheters and things. I went half a day holding in, because I know I can get kidney infection is really easy. We were ringing up and saying, look, this is stupid, and the most annoying and totally wrong thing was there on the bar next to the disabled toilet that had no water in it, were bottles of water ready to be sold and this complete jobs worth of a security guard is refusing to give me a bottle of water”.

The Tramshed in Riverside in Cardiff opened in 2015 in refurbished grade II listed premises. It’s an example of how to do things properly. The venue staff are amazing, the accessibility spot on and the venue’s policy ticks all the boxes https://tramshedcardiff.com/venue-information/

I know from personal experience how good the venue is, having been there with my wife when she was recovering from abdominal surgery and accompanying the Ed when he had back issues. Lee is full of praise for the venue. “The Tramshed is an absolute dream. They've got a brilliant system where you just ring this disabled hotline and they never say that they've never said there's no space. They've said right because the balcony is a great big space and people stand on it, we need to make space for you so the standing punters can bloody well go downstairs! And that makes me so that makes me so happy because it basically means, you know we can go to the gigs. I went with my wife (who also uses a chair) to see The Flaming Lips and the place was sold out and they made space and they gave us vouchers because we were, so crammed in they gave us vouchers for like free drinks and stuff. They really look out for you.”

If you can get into the venue, bolt on the time old challenge of the music venue toilet. It’s fair to say that many of the smaller venues around the country struggle to maintain cleanliness in that small but oh so important room. So, imagine trying to get into a venue’s ‘disabled’ toilet, only to find you can’t get your chair in there, let alone perform the basic functions needed to maintain your hygiene. “I have to find ones (venues) with suitable toilets and when I say suitable, I mean that. I think the venues that say they've got disabled toilets and they basically just converted a broom cupboard, but you can't get a wheelchair it”. And of course, the disabled toilet is often used by those not disabled. It may not be possible for the disabled fan to wait for four people ahead of them in the queue. Always give priority to those that the toilet is designed for.

These issues are frustrating enough, but if you’ve ever camped at a festival, you’ll have the utmost appreciation of how challenging it must be if you are disabled. Steve’s band played Bloodstock in 2018 so Lee, who has been to BOA before, was not going to miss his best mate playing there. Whilst BOA is felt to be more on point with their approach then many festivals, there is still a lot of work to be done. Steve: “They definitely make the effort to be as accommodating as they can but there were always things that can be improved on. There have been issues with the management side of things; they tend to move the on-site staff away from the disabled camp and over to the VIP section so if there are issues for the disabled members in the camp, we've not always been able to get hold of people. If there's been issues with say, a shower or toilets or something like that.”

The viewing platform at Bloodstock is located to the left of the central sound desk. If you’ve ever paid attention to it, you’ll have noticed it’s often very full. “We've asked for a couple of years in a row now to for them to extend the riser so that carers can be allowed to stay with their friend. On the busiest point, you've not even been able to get all the disabled up to watch, let alone their carers”. And surely that’s part of the experience, being there with your mates? “Exactly, but also say Lee needs a toilet break. Or you know, even if he needs to go back to camp for anything, I can't immediately get there because I'm not allowed to be on the stage at the time where I'm needed. It's a frustration, but it isn't something that damaged all weekend. It's an inconvenience more than anything”.

The site layout at BOA is reasonably level, but a little more thought is needed. In 2018 grooves had been marked out across the site to help with drainage. As soon as it rained, it caused problems. Steve: “it was an absolute pain in the arse to move Lee because the small wheels on his chair would consistently get stuck in these grooves, which just made it twice as bad to move moving around”. Lee adds “for some reason they had thought it would be clever to dig grooves into the field to help with the drainage and it was hell for wheelchairs. Absolutely hellish”.

The rain is as inevitable at a UK festival as someone throwing up in a portaloo. I’ve seen people in wheelchairs in absolute agony at festivals like Download when the rain turns the arenas into swamps. Bloodstock hasn’t been too bad but again, there are reasonably simple solutions which would make things a lot easier. Lee commented, “My wife and I went to Glastonbury in 1999, and they had wooden planks along every single pathway. They also had golf style buggies to get people around”. It doesn’t have to be a massive investment but when you reflect, there are many members of the metal community who have mobility issues and who aren’t classed as disabled. This type of adjustment would help all festival goers, but especially those who already face the biggest challenges over the weekend. “I'm not a good camper because my legs get really cold, and I’ve got my toiletry issues on top. I've got to keep good care of my hygiene. The last time I went to bloodstock I came home with the with raging infections and and my wife was like, please don't go again. And I said, I've got to go again, 'cause it's amazing, you know”.

One of the most reassuring things during our conversation was that metal fans don’t often cause a challenge. Steve remembers an issue with a drunk fan at a gig at the Newport Centre. “there were issues with some drunk guy at a previous gig, who was falling over Lee and his wife, treading on their feet and it got so bad that Lee lost his temper. We went to see Killswitch Engage and Lee pointed out the same the same people that gave him crap before. So, it got me on edge as I spent the evening thinking whether or not I was going to have to get them out of the way or not”. Most carers are likely to be huge metal fans as well, so whilst keeping an eye out for their friend is their priority, it should be reasonable for them to also enjoy the gig.

Lee can see the funny side. “I get disappointed if I don't get sat on at least twice every gig! I remember seeing Raised by Owls at Eradication a few years ago and I'd never seen them, so I didn't know what was going on. I went down the front and I got stuck in the middle of a circle pit. I mean a proper full-on pit and I fell out of my wheelchair. One of the local lads just pushed me over and I mean he was mortified, poor thing!”

He also has some positives to report. Having spoken to Howard Jones (ex-KSE, Light the Torch) at a meet and greet, when it came to the gig, Light the Torch raged through their first few songs. “They got to the third song and he (Howard) put his hand up in the air, stopped the entire song, all the pits. He looked at me and went, “yeah, didn’t think you were getting away with it, did you?” And he comes off the stage, parted the entire crowd and gave me the biggest bear hug I've ever had. And he said, “dude, you are important, and you are important as anybody else and he said thanks for coming”.

Finally, let’s look at some facts. According to Scope, (https://www.scope.org.uk/media/disability-facts-figures ), there are 14.1 million people in the UK who are disabled, with 19% of working age adults are disabled. More than 4.1 million disabled people are in work. Disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.1 in 3 disabled people feel there’s a lot of disability prejudice. but only 1 in 5 non-disabled people agree. That's a big difference between the public’s perceptions of disability and disabled people’s experiences. It also means the chances of a metal head being disabled in some shape or form are likely to be high. I’ve focused on the mobility aspect of disability, but it is a complex multi-layered topic. Disability comes with a vast variety of conditions and diagnoses.

So, what would be on the Wishlist? Well, we shouldn’t have a Wishlist for starters. This is about ensuring equality, not treating everyone the same. For promoters, thinking about where that tour will be playing is important. Not every band can play the Tramshed or the Motorpoint, but even small bands can ask the question. For venues, and god knows times are hard enough now, small changes can help. Can you install a lift? If you can physically accommodate it, do you need funding? Have you applied for grants, or looked at fundraising? Can you ensure your toilets are in decent condition and that the disabled toilet is available for the disabled fan who may not be able to wait for four people in front to use the facilities? The festivals can think more about walkways, covered areas to keep fans drier and wider viewing points. As a minimum.

Steve is stoic about his support for Lee. “When he wants to get out to gigs and stuff like that, I will find a way to do what I can to get him where he needs to be. Might not be the easiest way. Might not be the nicest way, but by hook or crook I'll get him where I need to because that's what he wants and at the end of the day, it's the one thing that I can do”.

Lee: “You know now when I'm in a wheelchair I can go to gigs, but it does not make things a bit more complicated, it makes things very much more complicated because there's so much you have to think about. But, if they were to make those changes their fan base, the amount of disabled metalheads would skyrocket.”

Paul Hutchings interview with musician Jon Davie

When I considered disability in music my initial focus was on the fans. The access to venues, the challenges that they face at the events and the prejudice that confronts them when they are at the gig. And then a friend told me about his mate, Jon Davie, a musician with disabilities. Jon was an absolute legend and completed an email interview. When you read about the extent of his disabilities, you’ll understand why this was a challenge to do. I can’t thank Jon enough for his time and efforts to break through the pain barrier for this piece.

MoM: Firstly, can you tell me a bit about your disability.

Jon: Firstly, I have a high-level spinal injury, meaning I have limited use of my body below the shoulders. No hand function but have a strap attached to my hand with a stylus for using my iPad.

MoM: I believe that you were a musician before you had your accident. Can you explain what you did, where you played and what you enjoyed most about it?

Jon: I was the guitarist and singer in my band Guttergodz as well as doing solo acoustic shows varying from 30 minutes to 4 hours incorporating a wide range of covers alongside my own band/solo material. Though most of the time I played in my hometown of Aberdeen, I’d played as far up as Inverness and as far down as London with various places in between. I mostly enjoyed the fact that I could be onstage, doing the one thing that I loved and entertain people with it. I treated every gig the same, whether there were 4 people, or 400 people made no difference. I would put the same heart and energy into every show as I was lucky enough to be given a platform in which to do what I loved, so every performance deserved 100%. It was never for the recognition but hearing people tell you how much they enjoyed what you were doing made it all that much better.

MoM: As a gigging musician, prior to your accident how aware were you of the challenges that people with disabilities faced when watching live music?

Jon: Prior to my accident I had a couple of disabled friends, one of whom sadly passed away at the start of 2021, so I was already aware of some difficulties regarding disabilities and live music. Whether it being access to the venue itself or particular seating arrangements etc. Most venues would try to accommodate as best they could but it’s just a sad fact that disabled gig goers never get the best view in the house, to my experience. Larger venues are more catered to disabled fans as they need to be, but smaller pub/club venues could sometimes have their issues.

MoM: And what about disabled musicians? Did you encounter anyone who had disabilities who was playing live on a regular basis?

Jon: As for disabled musicians, I can’t say I’d come across any to my memory, no. I did have a penchant for alcohol so that memory may be a bit battered though 😂

MoM: Since your accident, have you played live at all?

Jon: No, I have not played live since my accident. My disability means the chances of me playing guitar again are essentially nil unless I were to try a sort of lap slide kind of style which I don’t really have an interest in. I have however started singing again, recording some covers with friends over the internet. They’ll send me tracks they’ve recorded, and I’ll do the vocals on GarageBand and send them back to mix and edit. That has been a big boost for me as even though I can’t sing like I used to, given that my injury has affected my diaphragm muscles, I can still be involved in making music. I’m having to relearn how to sing via breathing techniques that work for me now but it’s a challenge I’m willing to fight for. So hopefully in the future I can perform live vocally.

MoM: will you ever be able to play live and I suppose, as important, do you want to?

Jon: In terms of getting back to live music, I suppose that remains to be seen regarding distancing, wearing of masks and vaccines etc so I’m not sure how any of that will play out unfortunately.

MoM: Who provides your support?

Jon: In terms of support, I’m not sure what you mean so I’ll answer both ways I see the question. My family are and always have been the main support group. They have helped me from the beginning of my musical endeavours, and It gives them immense pride seeing what I’ve done pre accident but even more so post-accident. Also, my friend Kevin Green has been recording the tracks for me to put vocals to during lockdown so he has been a major player in helping me back to it. If you mean support in day-to-day life, e.g. going to gigs etc, my mum and dad and a small group of friends would take me to gigs and help me in, get drinks or anything else I need help with.

MoM: Do you have friends in the music business who are able to support you?

Jon: I have a number of friends involved in a range of different aspects of the music business who have or would help to support me with different things, however, it once again comes down to what the music scene is going to look like in the future given Covid-19’s effect on the world.

MoM: And what would three things do you think it would be realistic for venues to address to enable people with disabilities to access their premises safely

Jon: In terms of accessibility, it’s entirely venue dependent. For instance, older buildings can’t feasibly install lifts or such like. I would say having ramps available for wheelchair users if there are reasonable steps to climb otherwise possible entrance through back or side doors if possible. Layout of furniture etc within the venue to allow wheelchair access. I can’t actually think of a third as I think I’ve been lucky that the small number of venues I’ve visited haven’t had many issues.

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