Caught by the River

Caught By The Reaper – John Sicolo

20th March 2010

One of the most loved characters in Welsh rock’n’roll history died at the weekend. Two locals pay tribute to the man behind the legendary gig venue TJ’s.

Robin Turner

You become prone to exaggeration when writing eulogies, gushing raw emotion that smacks of nothing so much as raised glasses and teary, beery eyes. In the case of John Sicolo aka John Sieco, anything spurious and overblown I come out with is true. The club he ran, TJ’s, was a pokey gig venue just east of the centre of Newport. However subtly, it has been an influence on me all my life. As a child, I grew up in its shadow. John, who died this week, took over the space in 1971 – the year I was born. It sits on Clarence Place a few doors down from the green domed art college where my Dad taught animation the whole time I lived in that resolutely grubby town.

When I’d have sick days off school, I’d end up sat in the college with my Dad. His lunchtime routine saw him and his colleagues head off to the Riverside Tavern, opposite the venue, at lunchtime. Told to be quiet and sit in the corner, I’d stare at the crudely painted façade and wonder what on earth went on behind those doors. I never saw it open until my teenage years when I started going there for gigs. This was strictly an after dark venue. The last thing of any note I did before leaving for college in London was to promote a gig by Flowered Up, a band who had yet to release their first single. A band whose record label I’d end up working with for the best part of fifteen years. TJ’s made that last bit possible. Yeah, it’s a special place for me.

John Peel always used to refer to the venue on his radio shows as “the legendary TJ’s”, as if it was somehow more important than anywhere else on Britain’s grimy toilet circuit, a different class to places like King Tut’s or the Princess Charlotte or the Roadmenders. One visit was enough to burn the place onto your retinas forever. No one who spent a night there was going to forget it in a hurry. Coal black inside and barely the right side of health and safety regs, the place pointlessly – brilliantly – had a giant plastic tree in the middle of the bar area. It was far enough out of the town centre to start giving you the creeps if you walked there alone. It was also run by something close to an actual giant, a man who kept a gig venue like the best landlords keep pubs. A warm welcome at the door, a beer in your hand quickly and music just the right side of punishment levels. One night spent in the company of John and his wife Trilby was enough to ensure you’d be back. John, an ex-merchant navy chef, would prepare food for bands who could crash upstairs in the flat above the venue. This place was the Hilton and a Ramsey restaurant rolled into one for most jobbing bands used to a bag of under-cooked chips and top to toe in the back of a transit van. Bands would play there again and again. Americans would direct tours there as word spread from group to group – this was long before the internet, mind – about this crazed divey venue where the owners welcomed you into their home with mountains of home cooked pasta. For a long time in the ’80s they were the only circuit venue of any note, with any real spirit, in all of Wales.

When I wanted to promote Flowered Up in Newport, there wasn’t anywhere in contention. It was the only joint in town – literally. Ticket sales were steady until the band graced the cover of the NME, at which point it went crazy. Collectively, we conspired to ram in another 200 on top. I figured I’d not be around long enough to face any serious consequences, John and Trilby must have figured ‘why the fuck not?’

The gig took place in the middle of summer, on one of those rare Welsh days where with a cock-eyed squint you could almost mistake the place for the Med. Almost. Scenes inside were positively Dantean. People climbed over one other to get to the bar, to the dancefloor, to the bog, to get to the exit. When the band went on, John cheerily did security from the middle of the dancefloor. This basically meant anyone getting over-excited got a firm punch to the guts to calm them down. A great big bear of man, John’s fists were weaponized hunks of meat. That method seemed to work just fine. No one ever returned for seconds and no one ever got het up about it. It was part of the excitement. When I next walked into the venue a few weeks later, John proudly and gratefully showed me the new fridges and air conditioning system (well, a fan on the bar) that the profits from the gig had paid for. That place was his life and it was a life he was grateful for.

TJ’s had the perfect set up. If you respected John, John respected you. A friend of mine, a nameless workmate from Heavenly, ended up in there in the mid ’90s with his Welsh girlfriend one night. They were in possession of a gram of speed – this was, after all, Newport. Said friend got caught in the toilets dabbing away by the owner. John’s reaction was, as ever, to punch him in the stomach. He added, “Don’t be a stupid bastard.” He then left him to it. Knowing that weight behind that fist, I was pretty sure my friend wouldn’t have got himself caught again.

For me John’s death on Sunday – some years after his beloved wife – is another link in the chain to the past breaking. He had been pivotal in the keeping Newport on the gig circuit during the ’80s and ’90s and now, with times changing, tastes changing, his venue faced ever tougher financial situations year after year. Although the redevelopment of the long closed art college site were symbolically the green shoots of recovery for Newport, more than likely it would also herald the start of a process of cleaning up and scrubbing down. It’s rare that places like TJ’s survive those kinds of upheavals.

John’s death should be felt by anyone who ever went to gigs in Newport, whether in his venue or not, simply because he helped foster the kind of climate where a town eleven miles or so away from the capital city of Wales could pull in the best gigs in the vicinity, whether that was US hardcore bands pulling crowds of devoted nutters or a band like Flowered Up bundling into town and playing to over 300 people who had never heard a note of their music. John’s rampaging enthusiasm and ‘joy-de-vivre’ made me believe that if you wanted to do something, just get off your arse and fucking do it. He never treated me – a school kid with zero prior experience, not a promoter by any stretch of the imagination – any differently to anyone else rolling through town to put on gigs.

For what he did for the esteem of that town, John Sieco deserves a statue in John Frost Square. He really does.