Phil Hayes is a catalyst. The Picket, the venue on Hardman Street he ran for over two decades, was the flame to which any new musical moths flickered up towards in the eighties and nineties on Merseyside. You name them – The La’s, Cast, The Coral – their story is intertwined with that of Hayes and his musical motivations. Then the noughties arrived and The Picket had to move on. Professional problems became personal issues and Hayes hit rock bottom. He’s on the comeback trail now, though. By Alan O’Hare.

“I’ve discovered through years of suffering that we must forgive ourselves first and then others will follow.” Phil Hayes, one of Liverpool’s most successful musical motivators, is talking about redemption. “I’ve shown that my sorrow is heartfelt and now I’m back home with my wife and daughter, which means more than anything. I’m so happy to be able to say that… ”

Phil ran The Picket. Those reading this will know all about its history and the vital role the place and its particular potency played in pulling this city through dark times. But Phil’s own story gained an unwanted second act when an incident in 2012 threatened to overshadow his life’s work and, more importantly, his whole life. “I genuinely believed that I would kill myself or someone would kill me,” he says of the months and years that followed. “I was very sick.”

He’s better now, though, and embarking on a third act that will hopefully offer him happiness and fulfillment. “It took a lot of hard work on my part, but the reward was that I got my life back,” he says of his ongoing recovery. “My favourite song by a Scouser is John Lennon’s ‘In My Life’ – “in my life I love you more” – the people I love nearly lost me, but now I’m home with them in the city I love I know that everything will be fine.”

I have spoken to some wonderful people for these features – but not many have been as catalytic for change in Liverpool as Phil Hayes has. Who hasn’t needed a second chance in life? Phil’s shot at redemption is being built on his previous contributions to the city’s fortunes. It is with that in mind, that we look back on his #LiverpoolLessOrdinary…

You “lost control” at the Liverpool Music Awards in 2012. Can you talk about the circumstances that led up to that evening?
It used to freak me out that so many people in Liverpool knew about this incident, but I don’t feel like that now… the truth of the matter is this: I was working my socks off at The New Picket and, although we had some notable and sold-out gigs (Deaf School, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg), I was not able to put on successful shows each week or receive a regular income from local band shows.

Because of its location in an embryonic Baltic Quarter?
Exactly. It got to the stage where I was not getting paid and that created tensions for my family… so I was stupidly drinking too much. I was advised and warned by friends and family to stop drinking, but I bitterly regret that I ignored that advice. So, in November 2012, I was invited to attend the Liverpool Music Awards, but was in such a bad frame of mind that I declined the invitation – it was becoming really tough to keep The New Picket going and pay the bills at home. I was depressed and thought there was no reason for me to attend and that I was unworthy (unknown to me I was up for a special award for my outstanding contribution to Liverpool’s music scene for thirty years of sterling work). A friend contacted me and insisted that I go… in hindsight, I should have just stayed at home.

What happened next?
I drank far too much, smoked skunk (which I’d never done before) and barely remember receiving the award… I was ‘out of it’ I’m ashamed to say. It all led to a psychotic episode during which I said deeply offensive things to another guest, Luciana Berger, MP for Wavertree. I apologised the next day – and have done again and again, both in writing and personally – and Ms Berger has accepted my apology and “… drawn a line under the matter”.

Has that been an end to it?
There must come an end to my apologies and I’ve done all I can to say sorry – it’s time to move on. I’m not racist nor am I anti-Semitic… I was drunk and stoned and completely out of control. The incident took its toll and lead to mental health problems as I had two major breakdowns and two spells in clinics.  The incident with Ms Berger nearly cost me my life, but I’m well now and counselling others who are suffering from mental health problems.

Let’s go back to the start. Where did you grow up?
The area of Liverpool I grew up in in the sixties was semi-rural and we lived on a housing estate, adjacent to Lord Derby’s estate. My parents had been relocated from Scotland Road to Croxteth – an experience a lot of Scousers went through moving away from the slums of inner city Liverpool. We had a council flat in Crocky’ and there was seven of us in it!

Cramped, then?!
Quite cramped, yeah! However I spent most of my childhood playing footy and enjoying exploring the woods… often I wouldn’t return to the flat until about 11pm!

Was music in your life at this point?
The Beatles and the Merseybeat explosion was happening and I remember my older sisters, who worked for English Electric on the East Lancs Road, were literally buzzing off the excitement and went out to clubs such as The Cavern, Mardi Gras and The Beachcomber – my sister Pat’s claim to fame is that she knew John Lennon, had his autograph and that he stood on her foot once! Pat and my other sister Anne brought Tamla Motown and Beatles albums into our tiny flat, so between the ages of three and ten, I was hearing all this great music and it became etched into my sub-consciousness. That’s when my love of music took hold.

What happened between then and The Picket being born in the early eighties?
At the age of seventeen, I heard about this thing called punk rock and I loved it. The Clash, especially, appealed to me because they said something about my life and it was year zero from then on. I became aware of Probe Records and Eric’s, both close to where The Cavern was, and my mates and I all exchanged our progressive rock albums for new punk albums at Probe!

So far, so familiar…
I saw Joe Strummer fronting The Clash at Eric’s on my eighteenth birthday and they were supported by The Spitfire Boys, a local band consisting of faces of people I knew – this was of great encouragement and inspiration to me, made real the punk ethic of ‘Do It Yourself’ and many of the audience on that night went on to form their own band or do something creative: Pete Wylie, Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope, Ian Broudie, Bill Drummond of KLF, members of Deaf School… what a roll call! It was one of the most significant nights in the history of popular music in Liverpool.

A catalyst?
Absolutely. Seeing The Clash inspired me to become part of the resistance, get up off my arse and stop sitting on the couch being a passive consumer.

What happened next?
Margaret Thatcher and the Tory scoundrels who came to power in 1979 hated our sense of community and collectivist spirit – her view that there was “no such thing as society” wasn’t and isn’t true. We are a community and we should always help our fellow brothers and sisters – so, we fought back whilst getting ‘battered’ by Thatcher’s regime, and all the unemployment and heroin. Liverpool’s population was hemorrhaging and people were leaving in their droves to find work ‘down south’ or abroad… there was a real brain drain of skills and people. The Mighty Wah! inspired me and many others with ‘Come Back’, a great tune with a message of hope.

Music the healer again, hey Phil?
I was definitely inspired and “willing to try”. First, I formed a band (The High Five) and played gigs for Merseyside Anti-Apartheid, Rock Against Racism… we did our bit and fought the good fight. But then I got involved in the Merseyside Unemployed Centre (MUC) and that changed everything. I did all I could for Scousers in bands, and the wider community, to support those who needed help regardless of employment status, race, colour, creed, gender or sexuality. Then, in 1983, I set up a recording studio for unemployed musicians which became known as ‘Pinball Wizard Studio’ in honour of Pete Townshend – the main benefactor and inspiration behind the facility.

Tell me about Townshend…
I was 24 and had been asked by the management committee at MUC to look at ways of attracting young unemployed people into the building on Hardman Street. I decided to write to Townshend to ask him for help and to my amazement and joy he responded and invited me down to his recording studio to discuss my plans! I was chuffed, met him and told him my plans (which at that stage were to set up rehearsal space for bands). Pete said why not go further and set up a recording studio – and then offered equipment, finance, the services of an acoustic architect and he also opened his contact book. A true measure of the man.

Are you still in touch with him?
All I’ve done in my working life has happened with help from his practical support and compassion over the years… when I was at my most suicidal Peter kept in touch and helped me recover. I call him my patron saint! When I was unwell, he gave me £3000 – through his charity Double ‘O’ – to get me back to work and his patronage has helped immensely.

How did The Picket come about as a live venue?
Thanks to inspiration from the likes of Eric’s, Probe, The Clash and the Merseyside trade union movement, really. Soon after the studio opened, I set up ‘Upstairs at the Picket’, which became the best known facility in Liverpool for up and coming bands – The La’s, for instance, performed loads of sell out shows there.

Talk to me about the legend of the place…
The La’s recorded their first demo at our recording studio and we put on great early gigs by the likes of Rain, The Tambourines, The Real People, Shack, Pele, Ian McNabb, Edgar Summertyme, Levi Tafari, Cast, Space, Smaller and The Coral. I’m really proud to say that all those bands performed at The Picket – we had such a consistent run of success, received funding from Europe, local government and the Arts Council of England; alongside the patronage of some of the UK’s most well known music industry figures: John Peel, Pete Townshend, Joe Strummer, Neil Finn and Elvis Costello.

European money, hey?
Yes – when Liverpool bid for European Capital of Culture in 2008, back in 2003, I was a part of the bid process and met the chair of the judges, Sir Jeremy Isaacs… I presented him with two compilation albums of Liverpool bands and he was suitability impressed. I think it made an impact on him.

It must have! Wasn’t it around this time that things changed for The Picket?
Our staff had created a professional live music venue, a community-access recording studio, the ‘Liverpool Now’ Festival, ‘Dry Bar’ gigs for people under-18 and an open door advice service for bands and musicians. Local people felt The Picket belonged to them and we were always successful in attracting public subsidy from Liverpool City Council, Arts Council of England, European Regional Development Fund etc. – but then the MUC, that we were a part of, started floundering…

… and the building went. What were the circumstances surrounding it all?
Mass unemployment was reducing and the politics of the day meant dealing with the Liberal Democrats in power at Liverpool City Council – they were no friends of the MUC and had reduced local government support during their tenure. The managers of our building took the decision to sell-up and downsize, which meant The Picket and the studio would close and my staff and I would be unemployed. It was crazy for me to have to face the closure of a venue that was riding high and had enjoyed such a consistent run of success.

I remember ‘Save The Picket’ very well…
We had a long campaign to save the venue and studio, but the end of the road came on December 31st 2004 and it was very distressing. Thanks to support from organisations like the North West Development Agency, though, I quickly managed to secure new premises in a building over in what is now known as the Baltic Quarter.

Who else helped?
Jayne Casey and Eric Gooden approached me about the space and I was made up. The likes of Warren Bradley, Louise Ellman, Peter Kilfoyle and Maria Eagle all helped, too.

That area wasn’t alive back then though, was it?
I was excited at the prospect of reopening The Picket in a perfect area for cultural organisations and that we were to be the first – I stuck the flag in the ground and people are reaping the benefits of the area that I helped establish. However, back then, we faced a tough challenge in filling the venue every week. I was able to persuade the likes of Billy Bragg, Akala, Kate Tempest, Damien Dempsey and Ian Prowse’s Amsterdam to come and play for us and I got my old friends Deaf Scool to open the place. We also hosted gigs for Africa Oyé, Anthony Walker Foundation and Liverpool Community College, bringing rap, hip-hop and grime to The New Picket. I also remember hosting events for Love Music, Hate Racism, Sound City, Save Woolton Cinema, Writing On The Wall, Liverpool Irish Festival and Liverpool Working Class Music Festival…

… but the game was changing?
The location was a problem, too, and people were reluctant to visit us regularly. I was chasing my tail and not getting paid due to lack of income. This is when I started to struggle personally and found myself drinking too much.

There were good times at The New Picket, though? 
Absolutely. Hosting the Hillsborough Justice Band, featuring Mick Jones from The Clash, was very special.

Talk to me about Hillsborough and the justice campaign – you were proactive from the start…
I remember being angry and disturbed… but I didn’t agonise, I organised. A lot of people accepted the lies in ‘The S%n’ and other rags and I found that disgusting. My cousin, Colin Wafer, died at Hillsborough and I remember attending his funeral with my sister, Anne; he was only nineteen. I decided to do something and thought ‘what did I do best?’. Organise gigs was the answer, so, I got in touch with lots of other promoters and artists and within a few months of the tragedy we promoted eleven concerts to raise money for the Hillsborough Family Support Group and raised £15,000. Later, on the twentieth anniversary of Hillsborough, my friend Kevin McManus and I were asked by the then-Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Steve Rotheram, to put together an appropriate musical tribute to commemorate the 96 and we sold thirty thousand copies of a charity single to help bring about justice for the families and survivors.

Surviving. There’s a word we’ve all had hold a presence in our lives, hey?
My loyal family and friends helped save my life – along with the staff of the NHS. I went into Windsor House Mental Health Clinic in November 2015 feeling very ill and suicidal… I was sectioned and denied any rights, including no phone, email or unsupervised contact with the outside world. I was prevented from leaving the hospital without a trusted chaperone and I thank those dear friends who took the time to care for me. I was a zombie and taking anti-psychotic drugs five times a day.

It’s a brave thing to talk about…
I’m not ashamed of talking about my illness – someone may read this who is unwell and I’m speaking to them to say “there is hope, you can recover”. I nearly died, but feel fantastic today. Now that I’ve recovered, I find myself meeting lots of people who ask about breakdowns… I can see in a lot of people that I talk to that they, or someone close to them, has been affected in some way – people are suffering in silence. That’s why I think it’s something that should be discussed sensitively with young children at school, because the illness is cross-generational and can affect anyone. I’m living proof of that.

Can you pinpoint a moment things started to turn around for you?
Something significant happened, yes, which filled my heart with hope and reminded me of the power of music to heal.

A kind woman named Georgina Aasgard, a cellist at RLPO, came to the clinic for a musical therapy session. God bless her, she gave her time to us for free and I made sure I listened attentively. I asked Georgina to play ‘Adagio For Strings’, by Samuel Barber, and the music filled my heart with such joy and helped me get back the power I’d given it away by punishing myself so much. As she played this powerful music, I recited the words to T.S. Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ and it had a cathartic effect upon my soul… I knew how to get well.

What were those words?
“April is the cruellest month, the winter kept us warm in forgetful snow, I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” These words spoke to me when I was unwell and offered me hope.

What’s next, Phil?
I’m co-ordinating the release of ‘The Good Samaritans’ album in 2018 – to send out a message of hope and to help erase the stigma associated with mental health. I also volunteer at the New Belve Youth and Community Sports Centre in Toxteth and spend a lot of time creating collages at SAFE Regeneration in Bootle – these great organisations have helped me recover and I’m eternally grateful to them.

Tell us about the collages, they’ve clearly played a big part in your recovery…
We help heal ourselves through creative work and I’ve sold hundreds of limited edition prints and large scale collages, alongside several private commissions, since my recovery. When I was in hospital, ‘I can, I will, I shall survive and thrive’ became my mantra… now I’m finally free to move on and do some good in the world.

The Art Of Happiness – celebrating Liverpool’s music scene and the recuperative power of ART
Exhibition from December 1st – 22nd 2017
Naked Lunch, Smithdown Road, Liverpool
Find out more

Pic by John Johnson