Girl from the North Country – Written and directed by Conor McPherson. Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.
Artists who diversify have sometimes been viewed with suspicion. An actor makes music? Bruce Willis crooning Under the Boardwalk springs to mind (don’t bother). A rock star makes a movie? Mick Jagger played a mercenary in Freejack (really, don’t bother). David Bowie’s last work, Lazarus, was a sprawling, experimental piece of theatre which used his songs in a dynamic, thrilling way. But would the play have worked without the music? I don’t think so, and I saw it workshopped in New York and then tightened up in London. In fact, after seeing Girl from the North Country, I wished that Conor McPherson was the Irish playwright that Bowie had engaged, rather than Enda Walsh, the one he did. Because while Lazarus could not stand easily on its feet as a play, Girl from the North Country certainly can. There were a couple of ill-judged parts, more of which later, but on the whole this was a dazzling night at the theatre.
It’s 1934 in Duluth, our man’s birthplace. The Great Depression has taken hold and casts a chill over proceedings like the local cold. The parallels between Dust Bowl America and our own recession, turned into cutting, cruel austerity, are marked. The narrator (Ron Cook), a doctor, introduces us to the scene, and provides grounding throughout. We are in a guesthouse, leaking money and about to be put into foreclosure, run by Nick (Ciarán Hinds), a gruff man with a complex life: a wife with dementia (Shirley Henderson); an adopted African American daughter (Sheila Atim) who is seemingly pregnant at 19 by someone long gone and also being pursued by a predatory, creepy old man (Jim Norton); and a layabout son (Sam Reid) with his head in a whisky bottle most of the time. He has a mistress (Kirsty Malpass, stepping in from the ensemble, superbly), who asks for little, and can’t stick around much longer in this desperate economic climate. We meet a variety of dishonest lodgers, tempers fraying, trying to eke out a living in impossible times.
The dialogue races by, each strand woven together masterfully. I was gripped by the intensity of the storytelling. And then, there’s the music. I thought, how on earth could this work? Will dropping a bunch of Dylan songs into an autonomous play distract? Will Americana arrangements suit? Will the choices make sense given that they can’t further the story? After all, he didn’t write these for the play. And then the first song, Sign on the Window, drifts in and wow, just wow, it all coalesces better than I could have dreamed. A hipster-looking (1930s beards/attire is twenty-first century hipster chic) house band (double bass, piano, fiddle) accompanies the actors, who take turns on percussive instruments. Twenty songs are used to soundtrack lives of anger and passion, sadness and regret, worry and loss. I was sometimes taken out of the moment, if briefly, to reflect: this song is part of me, part of the fabric of who I am. But then a second later I was locked back in to 1934 Minnesota. It’s a tightrope walk and McPherson, previously known for his supernatural works, has aced it. There are no easy choices here: you try and pick 20 Dylan songs out of them all to accompany a plot organically and soundtrack this highly strung chaos.
The performances are remarkable, particularly Henderson as Elizabeth, Nick’s wife. She gives an untethered lightness to the role that is sure to win her buckets of awards; I predict the Olivier for Best Actress. Physically slight, and 51 but looking two decades younger, she is a mismatch for a big man of 64 like Hinds. They don’t convince as a couple in that sense but there is genuine chemistry between them as he tries to cope with her disinhibited behaviour towards the guests. There are no weak links in the company, with Sheila Atim in particular owning the stage during both dramatic and musical moments as a woman who everyone wants to control. Her version of Tight Connection To My Heart took my breath away; nearly unrecognisable, it is all the better for it. As the stories interlink, and there is much to weave in, we come to a couple of troublesome moments.
A young African American man arrives (played flawlessly by ensemble player Karl Queensborough) and reveals himself to be a boxer just out of prison, so he says. This is a pretty clumsy way to shoehorn Hurricane in later on; it didn’t fit, at all. In fact, after a tight first half, it came off the rails, briefly, shortly into the second. It almost felt like McPherson had lost his own threads and, while he tried to find them, shovelled in a couple of songs that didn’t fit. He pulled it all back together but then took the only major misstep in the play, a storyline of parents and their adult disabled son.
Portraying disability is not easy, and unless it’s central (like in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) it’ll come across as throwaway or played for effect. The actors in this plotline were fine enough, with the mother in particular (Bronagh Gallagher) compelling. But a confusing blackmail scenario with a menacing Bible salesman (Michael Shaeffer) led to exposure of their ‘secret’: the son had sexually assaulted a woman and the family had to flee. Their section ends with the father, at the end of his tether, letting his son drown. Then, appearing as a ghost in white clothing, the son (Jack Shalloo) returns to render a gospel-tinged rendition of Duquesne Whistle. None of it worked and such a portrayal of disability was inappropriate and veered to the offensive given that the ghost was miraculously cured of his learning difficulties. This inherent condescension was compounded by a regressive decision to cast this character as dangerous in the first place. I tried my best to forget it, because it should not sully the rest of the play.
I’d decided not to spoil any musical surprises by finding out the ‘setlist’. My dad bought a programme and scanned carefully to see which were to be featured. I turned away, much as I had done for Lazarus: I wanted to gasp with surprise when Jokerman appeared (it was the first Bob song I loved; Infidels came out on my seventh birthday). Or grin and feel an inner thrill at the storming, foot-tapping, tambourine-bashing version of Slow Train, making it sound better than it ever has. I’m not going to drone on about voices, and how these singers give new life to the material. But they do. I don’t need to tell you anything about Bob’s voice, its tenderness in these later years mixing with a road-worn timbre (she said politely). Watching excellent actors embody these songs sets light to them, shooting jolts of electricity through their hearts. And quite frankly, it is no bad thing to have an audience become agog at these lyrics because they can actually hear the deathless words perfectly. It all reinforced my great love for this material; you won’t believe how delightful it is to hear Like a Rolling Stone with a snippet of Make You Feel My Love in the middle. A pleasure to hear tracks from each decade too; it would have been easy to make it all 1960s stuff, given its relative proximity to the 1930s – acoustic renditions would have fitted seamlessly. Instead, there are just three songs from that decade, a welcome, gutsy, non-obvious choice.
McPherson has set himself a challenge and pulled it off. He manages to evoke Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town as well as the work of Eugene O’Neill. He also makes you want to drag Street-Legal and Infidels out of storage. The songs run between 1963-2012, and each one is judiciously chosen. What Simon Hale, the orchestrator/arranger, has done with them will melt you in your seat; simple but ravishing, these often moving interpretations of music you know inside out will make you hear them anew.
Girl from the North Country, described by McPherson as a ‘conversation between the songs and the story’, is full of life. It is about trying to find hope through suffering and making the best of it. Dylan’s ‘team’ approached McPherson to write and direct this play, no doubt having heard tell of his acclaimed works The Weir (which ran at the home of new theatre, the Royal Court) and Shining City. And of course we know that hands-off Bob is never quite hands-off; even though he played no part in the writing or arrangements of the dialogue or songs, he did send Jeff Rosen to attend rehearsals. The last time the canon was offered it was a flop, a Broadway show in 2006 that closed after three weeks. But this time, gold has been struck. I hope Bob gets to see it and I feel sure he’ll be very proud of this inspired play bearing his name.
Girl from the North Country ran at the Old Vic from July-October 2017.
Make no mistake, Donny McCaslin, this genial giant sax player from California, has had a distinguished career in jazz. He’s spent nearly three decades carving out a groove in modern jazz playing, starting with filling the huge shoes of Michael Brecker in the legendary fusion group Steps Ahead. With three Grammy nominations to his name, he’s become the trusted right-hand man of bandleader Maria Schneider, herself a multiple Grammy winner. The dreaded term ‘crossover’ has come to be applied in jazz to artists who break out of the somewhat closed jazz world (closed to mainstream rock/pop fans, in that sense) and make a break across the aisle. In the 70s it was Herbie Hancock who did it, and even before then Miles Davis – the greatest jazz artist of all time – had broken the mould, with Kind Of Blue becoming the best-selling, and most famous, jazz album of all time.
Historically, plenty of pop musicians (looking at you, Sting) have sought out jazz players on their records to give them a bit of cool. And as a lifelong jazz fan, Bowie was no different, taking on saxophonist David Sanborn and trumpeter Lester Bowie to play on his records, among others. Even Mike Garson, of course, is a jazz player. As we all know, Bowie was one of the great casting directors of our time. But beyond bit parts – musicians popping up – he had never given over an entire record to jazz musicians, until Blackstar. Everyone knows the story now. He wanted to continue his collaboration with Schneider after their magnificent foray with Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) in 2014. But she had already committed to her Grammy-winning Thompson Fields project. So she pressed a copy of McCaslin’s Casting For Gravity into his hand (having sent him this link to a live version of the track Stadium Jazz first) and suggested they visit Greenwich Village’s Bar 55 to see his quartet (with Mark Guiliana, Tim Lefebvre and Jason Lindner). McCaslin says he spotted Bowie sitting at a table with Schneider, tried to keep calm, as you would, and just concentrate on playing. Shortly after, he got an invite to perform on what would turn out to be Bowie’s last album. Since then, one imagines, his feet haven’t touched the ground as, suddenly, this brilliant, powerful quartet have become among the most famous jazz musicians in the world.
During a short European tour, McCaslin’s group (minus Lefebvre, whose regular gig – with the arena-filling Tedeschi Trucks Band – called; replaced by Jonathan Maron) called at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix, packing out the overheated main room and shaking the walls. They’d dropped into London to play some stuff from his new Beyond Now album, a follow-up to 2015’s excellent Fast Future. You could tell the crowd had some Bowie fans at their first jazz gig present; they looked a bit shell-shocked. As I heard someone say, listening to jazz on record is hardly like seeing it live. It’s so much more visceral, muscular, and frankly, louder than you can imagine, especially with a fusion quartet like the one McCaslin leads. The bass thundered. Lindner’s synthesiser textures lent a cosmic vibe reminiscent of the early 70s electric playing of Keith Jarrett when he was with Miles. Guiliana’s complex, intricate drumming evoked the greats; one can feel comfortable comparing him to all-time greats like Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, alongside recent masters like Brian Blade and Kendrick Lamar’s drummer Ron Bruner Jr. That’s how good he is. Get his 2015 album Family First; you won’t regret it.
McCaslin leads this band through twisting and turning renditions of songs new and old. You might have expected Warszawa to be on the setlist; the band closed with it. Less expected but incredibly welcome were two more Bowie songs. First, one that caused the room to experience a sharp intake of breath – Lazarus. It sent a chill, until of course the sax came in where the voice should have been and then it took off, with the closing section containing some absolutely remarkable playing from McCaslin, who was on fire all evening. Then, a lovely surprise, the very familiar drum part of Look Back In Anger kicked in and off we went. The room was electrified. If you’d never seen a jazz gig before, or even if you’d seen 100, this was a top class night.
This rage in me
I've got a handful of songs to sing
To sting your soul
To fuck you over
This furious reign
David Bowie – Killing A Little Time
A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration
Icon (noun) – definition from the Oxford English Dictionary
I don’t write much, I don’t write enough. I don’t write unless I need to say something. There was no intention to write about Lazarus, Bowie’s final work, but here we go. Is it his final work? I suppose it’s his joint last work, alongside ★. These works of art dovetailed each other, the play being begun in 2014, the album made in 2015, the play finished off at the same time. Then came the album’s title track in November, following by the play’s premiere in December, and finally, the album in January 2016. They are a Venn diagram of the last two years of his life; the play bristling with anger, the album filled with sadness, creating together the masterpiece of the perfect exit. A lyric, for a song written in 1992, recorded in 2003, springs into my mind:
You promised me the ending would be clear
You'd let me know when the time was now
Don't let me know when you're opening the door
Stab me in the dark, let me disappear
I’m writing this first part the day before I see Lazarus in London, because tomorrow the meaning will change. And unlike ★, which I spent three days listening to (January 8-10) without knowing the meaning was about to be ripped open dramatically, I do know this time that his final work is about to come to me anew.
This is not a review of Lazarus, because others will do that better. Suffice to say, it’s a wonderful, odd and thrilling fever dream of an evening at the theatre. It’s confused and confusing, it’s only really got two great characters (Newton and Girl), and most of the London cast is changed from New York. The theatre is absolutely huge: five times larger, going from the NYTW’s 198 seats to 1002 (unless I’m counting wrong! I thought it was 960…) in King’s Cross. The songs carry it forward, as if he wrote them over a span of 45 years to tell this story. It’s sieved through this character, who he identified with when at his worst during the making of The Man Who Fell To Earth, and who he let follow him throughout his life and chose to ally with just before he left the earth. He sent Lazarus to London in his place. He sent his costumes and lyrics and drawings to London in his place. He sent his art collection to Sotheby’s in London in his place. The 2013 V&A exhibition was a method of ‘touring’, since he had little interest in doing any actual touring, with nothing to gain from appearing on stage. As ever, he created the parameters (choose from my archive, from the artefacts I let you see) and had the V&A curate a retrospective that he visited, quietly, privately, with his family. As ever, again, like the consummate casting director he was, he created the parameters to let Lazarus and ★ keep him alive in perpetuity. ★ occupies a rather physical, tangible place; it’s mostly listened to alone, at home, or during travel, or walking down the street. It’s not a communal experience; it’s not acted out without him and the musicians on it (outside of cover versions, to which I say, too soon!). Lazarus, the play, is a live version of his final thoughts. The actors give you his message, in person. I didn’t know any of this when I was in NYC in December 2015. What was it like then? What can I remember now that will tomorrow be joined by new memories in the hard drive of my brain?
I was nervous, that it wouldn’t be any good. It was ambitious, daring, a mad thing for him to do: a musical, which he’d dreamed of and planned for over 40 years, coming out at the same time as a new album. The one thing he had never done, and now, running out of time, it was the last thing he wanted to do. Gifts upon gifts for me, for us. Seeing it in NYC was a remarkable experience, done twice on consecutive nights. I hardly understood a thing on the first night; it was impossible to take in, the density and complexity of it all. Overwhelming in every way. The second night I got a handle on it, and though I try to shy away from being too literal, those I spoke to immediately after, with heads spinning, already thought it was all about death long before we realised it was about his death. Of course, it’s open to interpretation from all angles and there is no definitive reading (multiple readings, the absence of an authoritative voice and all that). Is the ‘Girl’ character Newton’s surrogate daughter? Yes, the casting call says so (though interestingly she was supposed to be over 18 until they saw then-nearly-14-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso and she dazzled, so the part went younger). If Bowie is Newton, again (as he was in 1976), is Girl a cipher for his own daughter (Caruso is 11 months younger)? I think so. I don’t know so, and I never will. Ambiguity and performance: the two constants throughout a 50-year career. He was never himself, there was always smoke and mirrors. He never explained, and you wouldn’t want him to anyway (not that he didn’t muse on the idea of revealing more over the years before losing interest and moving onto the next new thing).
I don’t want the meaning of Lazarus to change, but it will, when I see it again. I didn’t want the meaning of ★ to change, but against my will it did. A friend told me that he couldn’t get the notion of Lazarus being entirely/only about Bowie’s death out of his head during the play when he saw it at a London preview. Understandable, and that’s what spurred me to write this, as I have the New York version playing in my head and, honestly, how many people will be able to write about seeing it in both cities? One or two hundred? It’s special to me, now, more than ever, the ‘before and after’ contexts. Now Lazarus comes to London, like a morbid travelling version of his ashes. What’s new? So far, what I know is that the brief appearance of a famous actor on the screen has been excised. Good creative decision, as I found it distracting. A too-famous face takes you out of the moment. There’s one more new big creative decision, to put Bowie’s face on screen at the end, which was absent in NYC even after January 10. I’ll see it tomorrow and decide how I feel about it, but my gut feeling (which I suspect I’ll be largely alone in) is that it’s a fucking dreadful, mawkish decision that grates in the worst kind of sentimental, emotionally manipulative way. And for sure, if you knew him at all, you’d know he’d hate that. He refused to have Heroes in the show until Henry Hey re-arranged it so it couldn’t be sung along to (the Lazarus version sounds like the bleakest John Lewis Christmas advert ever). He was not a sentimental man. The subtlety of the references to him inside the play – a few scattered vinyl albums in a corner, a brief snippet of Sound and Vision – were clever, jarring in a good way, and deliciously cheeky. But a photo of him so we can applaud at the end? He’s dead, I get it, I know it, I don’t need to hear a big cheer in a theatre. That brings me to another reason I wanted to write this, to talk about changing fandom and iconography.
It’s been a weird year, in innumerable ways. Setting aside real world life and death and politics and the depressing right-wing rise of what was previously unspoken in polite company, the transformation of Bowie from a live, real human person into this deified dead guy, standing alongside Elvis and John and Amy, has been pretty hard to take. It won’t last, I predict; most people will lose interest in a year or two. His marketable quality won’t match that of Michael Jackson or (what a year) Prince (whose ashes are being displayed in a miniature urn in the shape of Paisley Park, inside the newly opened museum of the actual Paisley Park. Not even kidding). Nor will his rock legend infamy be as long lasting as the murder of Lennon or the bloated junkie self-destruction of Presley. But to make financial hay while the sun shines, the legacy bombardment has started and it’s only the tip of the iceberg of trying to open our wallets. His own estate has many decisions to make about what comes out and when, and at what pace, as they drip-feed us promises of new mixes and alternative takes and so forth. Without Coco in charge, I have little faith that his ruthless, always forward-looking spirit will be honoured. Or more accurately, that business decisions will be made that stop at this red light first: ‘would he have been ok with this coming out? Would he have been ok with me saying/writing this?’ In the pursuit of money, and in the cloudy heads of grieving family, I’m quite sure that plenty of stuff is going to happen that I don’t like. And that’s just from the people who actually knew him.
The next category – those who worked with him either briefly or on and off – have their own books to write. The final category – those who met him briefly and are gleeful about making a few bob out of it – is the one that I must try and go to my happy place when I hear about. I don’t think I’ve ever written this word in any writing before, but there are some people who are just behaving like plain old cunts (among others, I’m talking to you, Lesley-Ann Jones, you hack; I’m flattered you blocked me on Twitter out of your own guilt and glad to hear that your shitty book has tanked). Rather than being ashamed of themselves, their greed and narcissism, like a normal human would be, they delight in the attention their falsehoods bring them. But that’s it, isn’t it? He’s no longer someone who belongs to me, to you, he’s everyone’s, for a while at least. He’s a face on a t-shirt in Camden Market.
We’re all still trying to process what life is like without him. The transformation of our fandom, which is out of our control. Mostly, I just feel… grateful. Lucky. That I exist now, a miraculous pinprick on this spinning rock, and that I existed at the same time as him on a planet 4.5 billion years old. That he made music that I’ve sewn into myself, grafted onto my heart. That he told me about non-music things (like art and philosophy and literature) like an inspiring teacher. That he gave me non-music gifts, like people who I’d never have met if not for him, who I lived half a world away from and had a one in 7.4 billion chance of meeting. It was all one way, from him to me. I’ve nothing much to offer, there’s nothing much to take…
Let’s wrap up part one: the ‘before’. I can close my eyes and think of how I felt walking into the New York Theatre Workshop on December 9/10, 2015. Excitement, trepidation. Ready to fall in love with him for the thousandth time in 30 years. So high it made my brain whirl. Dear friends around me, joined together from all over the world to celebrate the second part (after The Next Day) of this most unexpected return, after nearly a decade of near-silence. Hugging and crying, drinks and hangovers, singing and laughing into the early hours, and the next day and the next. That was how New York felt, and will never feel again.
Tomorrow that context changes, which is fitting in itself as who else was he but someone constantly on the move? Never look back, walk tall, act fine. Much more than ★, Lazarus is the exile’s legacy. It’s an audacious wink from beyond the grave about resurrection. It’s about a man who left England when he was young but spent the rest of his life collecting art that reminded him of home. Spent his last overseas trip taking his child around old London addresses. Spent one of his last songs talking with sadness of never being able to visit England’s evergreens again. The sailor who spent his life travelling has executed his master plan, which will leave me forever in awe, and is finally home.
Before I start, on this fine morning, where I awake to the frankly unbelievable news of my team having beaten the biggest and best in world football, I would like to say that I loved Lazarus in NYC. Sure, it didn’t make a huge amount of sense, I thought Walsh’s book was a bit of a mess and I was just happy to have the songs carry it home. I didn’t really like Cristin Milioti as Elly and the Greek chorus of girls had a fairly undefined, shaky role. The supporting characters felt a bit underwritten too. It had the air of an idea being worked out; after all, the clue is in the title. The New York Theatre Workshop. My dear friend Jake, the most knowledgeable theatre nerd I have ever known, told me that it was going to be much bigger and better in London, and that the intention was always to bring it home and watch it soar. We agreed that the NYC production was, essentially, a dry run for the real thing. I still treasure every second of the NYTW production, for what it gave me at a particular time, and that holiday will be something to remember forever.
So, you can understand that I had felt a bit anxious about seeing it again, kind of fearful that it would have the same effect on me as ★. That it would have its second meaning – it’s all about his death – revealed to me as the album did. That I would find it hard to get through without crying. That it would be, frankly, a depressing experience in the world of ‘after’. Absolutely none of those things happened. I’m as surprised as I could possibly be. To say the producers and creatives have pulled this show together is to commit a great understatement. It has taken all the elements that Bowie and Walsh and Van Hove put into the NYTW production and tightened them beyond what I thought was possible. There are entirely new sections of dialogue. There are performances that soar in a way they never did before (primarily Amy Lennox as Elly, with singing and acting of top quality – Always Crashing, I never thought it could be like that, with some light in it). Everything is bigger. The stage set is several feet larger all around, and this suddenly allows everyone the space they need to tell this story properly. The dialogue is polished and sharper, the central performances given the breathing space to be even better than in NYC from Hall and Caruso. It’s not at all about death. It’s about love, it’s about defeating forces that try to stop love from working, it’s about mental illness (a very old subject for Bowie to get back into), it’s about letting go. All the bits that didn’t quite work in NYC have been coalesced here. It is a truly, properly fantastic play. A theatre experience that absolutely works as a piece of art, not just a collection of great songs on a piece of string with some ropey dialogue holding it all together. There are still some rather Broadway moments (mein herr!), like Changes and Life On Mars, but that’s fine, you must allow a touch of glamour!
The final scene, of course, is still a bit of a wrench. The dialogue about reading to his ‘daughter’ on the hill, the farewell, it’s hard not to see the real life behind that. I felt a bit choked up, a heartstring tugged, but you know… Heroes will do that. He gave it greater meaning in the 2000s himself, following 9/11, and on tour, and it’s intensely powerful here. Even the photo of Bowie at the end on the screen was fairly unobtrusive and not made a big deal out of (though it isn’t needed and I still think they’d do well to drop it).
I do not subscribe to the idea that The Next Day’s songs were destined for this; rather that he fitted them around bits of the story. So on the album Valentine’s Day is about a school shooting, but here it’s the big theme for the murderous, psychotic Valentine – played with so very much more menace and darkness, eliciting genuine dread, by Michael Esper than in NYC. The Next Day is a backward-looking album, his only one. It’s taking stock, it’s angry, it’s partially a statement on the 20th century’s wars and religion and their effect on culture (I’d Rather Be High, Grass Grow, The Next Day). It’s wistful for England (Dirty Boys), wistful for Germany (Where Are We Now?) and coruscating on those who deserve it (You Feel So Lonely…). It even finishes with a nod to where he’s going next, as he often did, with Heat. It’s about love and mortality and the future. It’s about a man with a young child and a heart condition coming to terms with his own fragility. It’s actually not ★ but The Next Day that makes more sense now, because of Lazarus. ★ is nothing to do with this play, beyond the song Lazarus, which he only put on there, quite clearly, to promote his final masterwork. The remaining three new songs come alive here in a more convincing way than his versions on the cast album (though, as ever, nobody delivers a song better; No Plan destroys me). Killing A Little Time is absolutely thrilling here, though the ★ band version is a level up again. The sung counterpoints of When I Met You give the song a real electricity jolt. And the new band, led briefly by Henry Hey before he goes back to NYC next week, are also more convincing and well drilled.
All the creative decisions that were made for this London run worked. Jake bumped into the director, Ivo van Hove, on the way in (ok, in the loo) and told him we saw it in NYC. He replied, “I can’t believe how big it’s gotten!” You’re not kidding. Everything simply makes more sense now, like the characters’ motivations and how they’re played. It’s about 20 minutes shorter, cuts have been made that work, speeches have been created that illuminate and songs land that hadn’t quite nailed it before (like Where Are We Now?). The visual projections dazzle and have new supercuts flashing past that will let me spot new things each time I see it (caught a fast flash of Boys Keep Swinging after the final wig comes off). I do think it made a bit of a difference to be seated right in the centre of the front row, with Valentine hovering over my head, getting to see the intricacies of the facial expressions and interplay. Having said that, I can’t wait to see it again (hopefully soon) in another seat. Then in another. Even from the back row, which must feel like a mile away.
I thought it would make me sad, make me think about him not being here. But, unlike the album, I can now see that it wasn’t designed that way. They’ve made his lifelong dream of writing a brilliant musical come true. It does him proud, and I am so proud of him for making it possible.
I’ve not felt like writing this year at all, but I know from previous experience that when that feeling is ready to pass I will just get this… compulsion to put fingers to keys as there’s something I need to get out. I’m still processing the last six months, which have contained the most significant personal events since my mother’s passing nearly four years ago. I know what loss feels like. In the last few weeks I’ve talked to several friends who’ve asked for my version of events so, perhaps in some desire to not forget anything, I’m going to try and write down what’s happened.
As it’ll be long I’m making a decision to do something I’ve never done before, not a diary exactly, but to split the events into different months. A friend told me that the lead-up (the play, the album, the holiday) to Bowie’s passing is the most remarkable part of my version of the story, and I know what she means. She asked me if there was a word to describe how that feels – to be on the top of the world, with no idea something awful is coming – and I don’t think there is, but it’s certainly… cruel. Perhaps all this would have been easier if he’d shuffled off this mortal coil in 2007 or 2009 or 2011, when he was just doing his thing, at home, with seemingly no interest in making music at all. I now realise how lucky we were not to lose him in 2004. Gail Ann Dorsey relating what happened when he had the heart attack, which nobody present had spoken about before, chilled me to the bone. But he didn’t die in 2004, or during 2012, when he was making his return record, The Next Day. He came back and gave us three more years of music, which only seems to have made coping with losing him worse.
One day perhaps a book will be written about the making of Blackstar. But, briefly, what we know so far is that during his cancer treatment he went into the now-closed Magic Shop studio two blocks downtown from his Manhattan apartment and recorded in the first week of each month of January, February and March 2015, as much as chemo would allow (I know all about the effects of chemo, sadly, and one week’s work in a month sounds about right). His initial idea was to continue the collaboration he started with Maria Schneider the year before on Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) (single edit), but by then she had committed to her brilliant Grammy-winning record The Thompson Fields. As she couldn’t help out, and he didn’t have time to waste, she recommended one of her principal musicians, saxophonist Donny McCaslin. She pressed a CD of his excellent album Casting For Gravity into Bowie’s hand and advised him to visit the jazz club Bar 55, which he did without fanfare, to see Donny’s quartet play. He invited the band (on drums the remarkable Mark Guiliana, Ben Monder on guitar – they both appeared on Sue – Jason Lindner on keyboards and Tim Lefebvre – whose day job is with the Tedeschi Trucks Band – on bass) to play on Blackstar, sent them highly evolved demos and they made the album. That’s the short version of what happened. Tim Lefebvre has done some excellent interviews about the process, like this one, which are well worth seeking out. Bowie and Visconti produced the record and it was completed over the next few months. At the same time, incredibly, Bowie was also working, with playwright Enda Walsh and director Ivo Van Hove, on a sequel of sorts to his first starring role, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He would record/produce Blackstar during the day then head to Enda’s flat to co-write this new play, Lazarus, at night. It was a race against time in every sense. That’s the background. Here’s where I come in.
Lazarus was due to premiere in New York in December. I can’t remember whose idea it was to go, but it was based on getting tickets to the opening night, which our wonderful community of Bowie freaks had decided on as the night we all should go. When they went on sale Leah and I were at the mercy of friends who’d joined the New York Theatre Workshop and we crossed our fingers for a pair. Charlie Brookes was our saviour and tickets were procured (on the night, BowieNetters dominated the theatre, with probably 60+ of the 198 seats taken up by friends), at which point the search began for accommodation and flights. Division of labour is the best way to plan a holiday, so Leah did the flights while I trawled Airbnb for suitable apartments. The first couple of days were fun, looking into people’s houses and lives, but the novelty wore off quickly. After a long week of searching I found a pretty perfect, sparse, one might say minimalist, 3rd floor walk-up apartment on East 14th Street and Avenue B. It was near NYU, where Leah would work during the day (it’s how she got a week off work mid-term, by being a visiting scholar). Everything was booked.
Nothing momentous, comparatively, happened this month. I worked on an inflight magazine. I went to see the Rocky Horror Show a few times. We went to see Morrissey, which was, as ever, fantastic. My 16th time seeing him – that’s one more than Bowie. Though if we’re going to be technical and nerdy about it, which I always am, I’ve seen Moz 17 times because there was that gig at the Roundhouse where he sang three songs and walked off (lost voice), but I also saw Bowie in person twice more for TV shows, so really that’s 17 as well. I digress.
Bowie announces to my excitement that his new album Blackstar will be released on his 69th birthday on January 8th 2016. The Blackstar single and video were to be released on November 19th and it felt like all was good with the world. A New York trip to look forward to and a new album were more than I could ever have hoped for. I think now of how we all waited nearly a decade between Reality and The Next Day and it seems like another lifetime.
The week before the song premiered, my friend Mark and I drove to Cambridge University on the 11th to see Leah do a talk about Bowie and what was coming. At that time we had only a 30-second clip of Blackstar from the opening titles of the Sky series The Last Panthers (directed by Johan Renck, who also did both Blackstar videos). It was a fun evening, filled with excitement about the new record and a seriously brilliant presentation on his music (yeah, not on his hair or his clothes; on his creative practice and life as a composer, plus awesome data analysis).
On the 17th dad, Leah, her partner Ben and I went to see the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, near Sloane Square. We sat front row and it was just fantastic, what a great night. McCaslin, who dad says reminds him of the late, great Michael Brecker, was the lead soloist, blasting away five feet in front of me, and I had not a clue in the world he was on Blackstar. I heard the song for the first time two days later.
I feel so grateful now that I have a relationship with Blackstar, the song, which predates the events of January. The video (shot in September) is a masterpiece and I obsessed over it for days, then weeks. The song I think is absolutely one of the best he has ever done, and it’s starting to rival Teenage Wildlife for my Bowie Desert Island Disc. I did think he looked old in the video but then, he was pushing 70 and the flattering camera filters and copious make-up used for the videos from The Next Day were clearly no longer being employed. It was clear to me that he had finally released all vanity and was just being seen; he looked so engaged, enthused and vibrant in the video, and it gave us all so much pleasure. Some fans had said they hated jazz then had no choice but to grudgingly accept it when Sue came out because it was such a brilliant record. The same people were now faced with yet more non-pop music that challenged them, which as a jazz nerd I took a perverse pleasure in. Bowie does jazz? Then hires five jazz musicians to play on his last record? It’s like all my Chanukahs came at once.
For the first time since Bowie last toured, a big contingent of British (and some European) BowieNetters made their way to New York, to be united with our American BowieNet family. Leah and I arrived on Saturday the 5th, in the evening, and decided to do a bit of grocery shopping and spend our first night in the apartment. My recollection is that we watched The Wiz Live! on TV and fell about laughing at how terrible it was. We met up with the legendary Dick Mac on Sunday and went to the famed White Horse Tavern, once the haunt of Dylan Thomas, Kerouac and other luminaries, and then for dinner. It was at that point that I met Paul, Leah’s friend from Brisbane who’d come over for the show. What a fantastic guy, I adored him from the first minute. We headed over to Otto’s Shrunken Head, a dive bar three doors away from the apartment (we’re no fools!), to meet up with Bowie friends. My remembrance of the evening is somewhat coloured by pints of cocktails followed by a 4am stagger into bed.
The Monday contained perhaps the worst hangover I have ever had. Mountains of sushi did nothing to calm it, so as Leah went to work I hooked up with my wonderful friend Jake, my daytime companion, and off we went on a pilgrimage I’d always wanted to make, one that my mum talked about often, which was to see the grave of Miles Davis, up at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I felt so ill, I can’t even tell you. But we made it, with Jake’s excellent navigation, and I paid my respects, which mum would have been proud of, before we headed to Harlem to visit Langston Hughes’s house then eat at Sylvia’s, the legendary soul food place. I put my head on the table and struggled through a bit of food (mac and cheese, and little else; not much available for the vegetarian). We went to the legendary Apollo, where I bought dad some gifts (and impressed the guy behind the counter by identifying Miles in a photo collage in two seconds) and then walked down to Central Park, laughing hysterically all the way. We were a bit worried about Lazarus not being any good and had a few parodies ready at its expense (mein herr!). Jake was flagging and bailed out of evening activities, which were dinner at Sigiri, a Sri Lankan restaurant (too spicy, I was still ill), followed by some live band karaoke at Arlene’s Grocery.
This was the day of the play’s press night – Monday the 7th – and many of our friends had gone to the theatre to wait outside to see if Bowie would turn up. It never occurred to me to do the same, it’s not my kind of thing. I saw him live plenty of times, I didn’t need to watch him walk into a theatre for five seconds, but I’d be lying now if I said I wasn’t at least slightly regretful that I didn’t get to see him in person one last time. At dinner, Leah showed me the pictures that had been posted on our Facebook group; indeed, he had turned up of course, looking happy and handsome, taking his bow on stage at the end with Ivo and the cast. Friends came to join us at dinner, straight from the theatre, looking high and glazed, having laid eyes on him for the first time since 2004 (a few others had seen his final live appearance in 2006).
That night at Arlene’s Grocery (Leah performed Superfreak and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life) was one of the most fun nights I can remember. Everyone was so incredibly happy. To be in New York, ready to see his play, most having seen him in the flesh earlier in the evening, it was a beautiful, special night. People got up and sang and the organisers were amazed that so many of us in the bar had flown over just for the play. I think we watched Tootsie when we got home (might have been the night after).
The next day, Tuesday, after a bit of gift buying, Jake and I spent the afternoon in the Mad Hatter, a Man City pub, believe it or not, watching City play. We won in the last few minutes, which felt fitting for such a trip. Then we all went to a friend’s party at her apartment, which was so much fun, one of those proper New York evenings where you feel like you’re in a movie. I wasn’t sleeping well of course, in a strange bed, using earplugs to block out the famed NYC hum, but I didn’t care. Subsisting on four hours a night on holiday is par for the course, even if it does later in the week lead to sleep-deprived, jetlag-induced hysteria. I don’t think have ever laughed as much as I did on this holiday.
Wednesday was Lazarus day and my friend Kate was flying in just for the show. I had not seen her in several years and we’d arranged to spend the day together. After another play of Blackstar on You Tube, Leah went to work and I went to Katz’s Deli on East Houston for breakfast as I waited for Kate’s plane to land from Ohio. She’s a hairdresser and we had organised to meet at the Aveda salon on Prince Street. In between Katz’s (a 10-minute walk downtown from our apartment) and Aveda is a building on Lafayette Street we now no longer need to pretend we don’t know about. There is a collection of penthouses and Bowie’s family live in two of them. I’ve walked past it and looked up many times over the years, even though I didn’t know which penthouse was his and nor did I care. It was kind of lovely to just know he was up there, tootling around in his man cave, making demos in his studio, reading and emailing incessantly, doing school stuff with his daughter, just doing New York things. A friend of mine, Lori, who works downtown, said that she would always wave up to him if she happened to walk past the building because she knew “he was up early too”. She didn’t wave because he could see her, nor did she walk past because she ever wanted to bump into him on the street (can you imagine! I’d have run a mile if I’d ever seen him slinking around, with his flat cap on). She did it just because he was there, and it was good to know he was just living life in his city, like we all live our lives in our cities and towns. I walked right across the front of the building to get to the salon and I looked up and smiled, wondering if he was happy with Lazarus and how the press had received it. Kate’s plane was delayed so I took a walk around the neighbourhood and popped into the Taschen store on Greene Street, which happened to have Mick Rock’s huge Bowie book on display. When Kate arrived we leapt into each other’s arms like we’d been apart a hundred years. After a quick drool over the Bowie book back at Taschen we got a ludicrously slow taxi uptown to meet a friend of hers for lunch, then came back down to meet up for a long coffee date with a big cheese at Aveda. He was English and seriously good company, the kind of guy who remembers very little of the 90s in London. It was time for Lazarus.
Early the next morning we decided we had to see it again on our last night in the city, so I resolved to go down to the theatre while Leah was at work and get more tickets, which I did. It made a more complete picture, as much as it could, the second time. Our last night in New York was spent in the apartment with a couple of beers just watching TV, out of sheer exhaustion. On the final day we went, with Paul, to Katz’s for brunch, then did a lovely walk around the Highline, before heading off to the airport, where we had a few glasses of celebratory Prosecco at Sammy Hagar’s Beach Bar and Grill (really) before a night flight home, landing on the morning of the 12th. It was a landmark trip.
We got back to real life and work, and the Lazarus single was released on the 17th (with the video to come 3 weeks later). Hearing Bowie sing it was kind of strange, given that we’d seen Michael C. Hall do it live on stage (and on Colbert’s Late Show on the 18th). It felt like Bowie’s ‘version’ of the song from the play almost! New year came and went. At some point I’d committed to going to a playback of Blackstar at the Dolby offices in Soho, with a group of BowieNetters of course, so I had a ton of stuff to look forward to in the first week of…
On Thursday the 7th the Lazarus video (shot in December) premiered. I thought the hospital bed stuff was kind of dark and a bit physically unflattering but that the sections with the stripy outfit (the master of the call-back strikes again, for the last time) were amazing and he looked fantastic. Leah and I talked about how great he looked, those cheekbones! I can’t stress enough how nobody thought he was unwell. All press coverage of his appearance at the Lazarus premiere focused on how great he looked. Yes, he looked thin, but he often did; no alarm bell was raised.
The playback that night was fun, if a little too loud, and I saw some of the same people I’d been with in New York. On Friday, his birthday, I listened to Blackstar on repeat all day. It was a lot to take in, but Dollar Days was already even then able to make me weep. I listened to it several times over the weekend. Some of the tracks I already knew – the title track was already well embedded with seven weeks of plays under its belt; Lazarus had been making me crazy in a good way for three weeks (that sax solo breakdown, my god!); the new heavy version of Sue I loved as much as the majestic jazz version from 2014; Tis A Pity She Was A Whore I knew the demo of, as Sue’s B-side; the other three songs were new to me and I devoured every note. What a weekend that was. A new Bowie album to obsess over! I was so happy. A happy idiot, like Wile E. Coyote standing at the bottom of the ravine, with not a care in the world, and not a clue that there was a huge boulder plummeting toward my head.
The beginning of Monday morning – January 11th – was a bit of a blur. I thought I heard my phone make the noise of a text alert and I roused myself from my pillow. I picked it up and saw that it was around 7.40am, and I had not one, but three, texts. I unlocked the phone and saw that I had three messages from three people who know me but not each other. I stared at the unopened messages and saw that all three had the word ‘sorry’ in the first few words. My brain works fast in the morning and, this is where you think I might be pretending that this is true, or even lying about it, but I am not: I knew he was gone. I knew in a split second that I was receiving these messages because my icon was gone. When they found out their first thought was of me. And in their shock and upset they were compelled to reach out to say something. There is no person other than David Bowie that would produce such an effect in every person I know. I didn’t even open their texts until later in the day. My head started to spin and I could feel my face going red, with panic setting in. I bounced out of bed and, shaking, opened the lid of my computer and went straight to BBC News, as that’s where you go when you want to know if something is true. His face filled the front page; I think the photo they used at first was from the Brits, 1996. I can’t really describe how I felt; I don’t think the words exist. I ran downstairs to my flatmate, in the kitchen, and burst into tears. He didn’t know how to react. I ran back upstairs and just sort of paced around for a minute, with no idea what to do. I feel sick and dizzy and flushed just thinking about it.
My phone started buzzing with more texts, emails started coming in, Facebook messages. I knew I had to call dad even though it was early, around 8.20am by now. I was in a terrible state. He later told me that when I called and said, through sobs, ‘he’s gone, he’s gone’ he thought I meant Dylan at first. He tried to handle me but it was impossible; he was pretty distraught himself and I had a flashed thought that I was glad my mum and my friend Rex were not here to see this. I called Leah and she just seemed to be in shock – Ben woke her only a few minutes before I called and told her and she said, ‘don’t be daft, he can’t be’ – and we had the phone call I’d been dreading for as long as I can remember.
Even then, at such an early stage, we marvelled at how he had pulled off the perfect rock and roll exit, a more flawless piece of death art you would never see. The man had class, right to the end. He had set it all up – from the play to the album – and executed his plan to perfection. We even laughed, and it felt good to laugh, to do that rare thing where you cry and laugh at the same time. I had been invited onto the BBC’s One Show that evening to represent my team in the FA Cup draw and I said, ‘how can I go? How can I be normal and smile on TV and pretend I’m ok?’ She said I should go. I took a pause, and said, ‘I have to do it don’t I? The show must go on!’ And we both laughed again. She had to go to work but we’d talk later, throughout the day. I remember when Lou Reed died (on my birthday), a couple of years before, we had this ashen-faced conversation on the Tube about what we’d do when Bowie goes. It gave me a shudder, like someone walking across a grave, just talking about it. Whichever one of us hears first, about Bowie, should call the other one, was the agreement. I sat on the floor and felt hot tears rolling down my face, unable to catch my breath, rasping and coughing, reaching for tissues.
I called my aunt and cousin and they were shocked and sympathetic. They didn’t call me because they didn’t know if I knew and they didn’t want to be the ones to tell me. They waited for me to call, and both were relieved when I did. After talking to them, I picked myself up off the floor, sat in my chair and tried to take in the outpouring of grief and chaos that was happening on social media. Nobody in my timeline, which is largely journalists and musicians, was talking about anything else. Streams of tweets were being posted every second, he was everywhere, his face, his videos, his performances. It was absolutely fucking crazy and unreal, what I was witnessing, this collective outpouring of pain. I sat in silence. I switched the TV on and muted it. I couldn’t bear to hear his voice. I read some posts in our BowieNet group but I couldn’t bear to write a word. I exchanged brief messages with a few close friends. Some of the Americans weren’t even up yet; it was the middle of the night still for them. The job of telling my friend Dick Mac, in New York, fell to me because he had posted in disbelief and wanted someone to confirm. I had to crush his heart and tell him that the man he had loved for over 40 years was gone. Every Bowie friend was having the exact same experience as me; all of their friends contacted them and offered condolences like they had lost a parent, because they were the first person they thought of when they heard. How could this be? It was all about ‘just’. We were just in New York, a month ago. We just saw him, just went to his play, we just partied and celebrated the album. It can’t be, all this. It can’t be happening. He was just there a minute ago, smiling at the premiere. I just saw the video for Lazarus. I just heard the album. 33 days after his final public appearance he was dead. This was one of the worst days of my life.
I decided that I was going to go to the BBC that night. I had to do something instead of just sitting in my room. My eyes were hurting. I felt like I was losing it, in a dream state of some kind, so I had to try and do something normal. The BBC News channel had been running the same package for about three hours, while they put together a real tribute. They changed it at about 11am. By then the talking heads were on, and none of them were doing justice to what I felt. I wasn’t interested in listening to pundits who met him a couple of times. The next thing I remember was deciding that I could no longer sit in silence and that I had to face listening to his voice at some point, so at about 3pm I put the sound on; I howled, it was like pulling off a bandage, getting a jolt of searing, shocking pain. I Skyped Dick Mac in New York and we cried together. I talked to Kate in Ohio and did the same. I wrote something on Facebook because I had to get down how I felt, much like this. Then I pulled myself together and went into town – I walked to Heddon Street and talked to some strangers, then looked at the flowers, got down on one knee and wept. Some guy with a camera interviewed me but I don’t remember what I said. I got the bus to the BBC building near Oxford Circus, meeting my friend Andrew, who works there, to hand over a Blackstar badge I’d promised him and we just tried to talk to each other like we weren’t living through a nightmare, making each other laugh with weak jokes while he gave me a little tour. Being at the building was pretty surreal, with its huge screens everywhere, all playing a loop of their tributes. His face covered every wall. I pretended to be a human person and did the One Show, wearing a Bowie shirt under my football one. I tried to talk a little to my fellow football fans and they did the ‘yes, ooh, it’s terrible, I can’t believe it, wasn’t Heroes a great song’ sort of blurb and I nodded and thought, ‘you have no idea how I feel today but that’s ok. I envy you.’ When the filming started I positioned myself where I knew the camera would have me on TV the entire way through the broadcast and cup draw. When the green light went on and the hosts started their monologues I put my hand on my heart and thumbed the Blackstar badge on my jacket lapel for the camera. I didn’t know if anyone could see me and I didn’t care. But I knew what I was doing. When I got home there was a message waiting about Leah, Jake and I meeting in Brixton to go to the mural and lay some flowers the day after and I said I’d be there. I passed out from sheer exhaustion at about midnight. One day had felt like a month.
I took short breaks from crying on the Tuesday and got back to work. I’d done some pieces of work on Monday and continued to do so; the distraction was valuable. People kept asking me if I was ok and I kept replying ‘it feels exactly like I thought it would’. So many said that they were shocked at the outpouring of grief. I wasn’t. It all played out exactly how I knew it would – nothing surprised me about how people were reacting. I knew when he went it would be a big fucking deal, and it was. I’d feared the day my whole life. At least it can’t happen twice. My heart can only break like this once.
My emails from Monday were filled with dazed, shaken people trying to process it all and give and receive comfort somehow. Lori told me she was still in total shock, but feeling ok until another text/voicemail came in from friends and family offering condolences again. She asked me how I was doing. I replied:
“I’m just… numb. My face hurts from crying. We are all experiencing the same weird thing: that all of our friends, near and far, close and acquaintance, are contacting us today to ask if we’re ok. We’re not.
London is in mourning. I went to Heddon St and read the tributes, the flowers on the spot where Ziggy was photographed. I think Jake and Leah and I will go to the mural in Brixton tomorrow. TV is wall to wall. His beautiful face everywhere. I can hardly take it…”
On Tuesday we went to Brixton in the evening and joined a huge crowd paying their respects. People crying and singing, putting down photos and flowers and signs and holding each other. It felt good to do the same, though I do remember saying ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this’, as I looked at the flowers and photos. The next day I went into work at a client’s office and took breaks to have a little cry as I was working alone in a conference room. I did some writing the day after, a letter to Uncut about him, which was their lead letter in the next issue (it was good, heartfelt; I knew they’d print it). Friends had already started getting Blackstar tattoos by this point and I decided I was going to do the same. As soon as I saw the album cover in November I knew it was a brilliant tattoo idea and I resolved to get it done one day; I just didn’t realise I’d be compelled to do it so soon. It helped to obsess about it over the next weeks. After a few days I tried to listen to Blackstar, because I knew he had designed it for us, to help us mourn him. That was its purpose, it was like a puzzle with a missing piece before then and now it made sense. That Saturday we had a wake of sorts at a bar in Kings Cross. Songs were played and rivers of tears were shed. A few weeks later I got the tattoo, the five partial (well, four partial, one complete) star pieces, with a little Aladdin Sane flourish – blue and red halves, separated by a lightning bolt – in the second star. Frankly, it’s the least I can do for this man who changed my whole life. Who gave me so many people and so much music. This man who I will need and love forever; this man who is part of my DNA.
The tributes have kept coming and, in all honesty, very few of them have provided any comfort (though perhaps their purpose is to give that to the writer, not the reader). I didn’t want to hear what anyone said unless they actually knew David Jones, not Bowie, which is why Gary Oldman was great at the Brits. There was also a brilliant roundtable interview with Gail and Mark Plati. I’m still processing it all. You have no idea how much you can miss a person until you have no choice. I don’t love his music more than before, I loved it to the maximum while he was here. I’m grateful for the sheer volume of stuff left behind but it’s never going to feel like enough, and I don’t care about the vault right now. Knowing there are treasure troves of unreleased stuff is not going to make this better. I go through periods of listening to Blackstar for a couple of days and then not for a couple of weeks; I have to be in the right mood because it still has the capacity to make me cry (especially those last two songs, they’re too much), and maybe it always will. It’s strange to hear people talk about him in the past tense, and to think that younger fans will never know him as someone who was alive; to them he’ll be like Elvis or Kurt or Jimi – a dead rock star. They’ll never see what I saw, or live through him being present and releasing music. He’ll not accompany them on their life’s journey, like he did with me for over 30 years. My constant companion, who was always there by my side.
I learned that grief is a state of being when I lost my mum. I was truly knocked sideways by how much I missed her, how much I continue to miss her. I have endless capacity to pine for her, to wish I could tell her about a cool thing that happened to me or email her a link that made me laugh, or talk to her on the phone about these new Dylan-does-Sinatra-standards albums, which she would have loved so much. You don’t ever get over losing a parent, or in this case a cultural parent, if you like, which you could say Bowie was. You just figure out how to fold the loss into your life. In his case, I didn’t know him so it feels different; I didn’t give him anything, or ever talk to him, I just took what he gave me, the messages that he sent. I’m still getting used to him not being here, as we come up to our annual BowieNet party in July. He sent us little notes three years in a row, which was lovely, and which he absolutely didn’t have to do. I think it kind of tickled him that we’d get together and get drunk and party and listen to his songs (and raise money for charity) at an annual knees-up. Those messages made it feel like he wasn’t an ocean away. Now he feels an endless distance away. The transition period is bumpy but it won’t always be like this. Soon he’ll be a memory; his story has ended. The only thing keeping him alive is us. I watch videos now, gigs on DVD and bootlegs, and he looks so… alive. It’s strange to see that guy performing and get that hollow feeling, that knowledge of him not being on the earth anymore. No longer sitting in New York watching the same stupid You Tube clips we do and laughing, getting to hear new music every day, getting excited about what’s coming next. Just… life.
We should all aim to leave an imprint. So when we’re gone we won’t be forgotten. For most of us that’s just to our friends and family, they’re the only ones who’ll remember us. By talking about us when we’re gone they won’t forget us. It’s a somewhat bigger achievement to be loved and remembered by millions, way beyond your own close circle, but he was a unique, special man. He’ll be loved and remembered for as long as people play music.
Why do I love music? Is it in my nature, derived genetically from my parents, and going back before that, to my paternal grandfather, who was in a singing group in his teens? Or is it nurture: was I made this way by constant exposure to music from the day I was born? Why do I love Bowie and not Céline Dion? I’ve made judgements about music all my life, and I wonder if I’m getting more argumentative as I get older. My views have become more concrete in terms of my own moral (political, social, feminist, equality-based) certainties, but I do think my likes and dislikes have evolved towards greater open-mindedness, and I certainly know myself in a way I didn’t in my 20s. I suppose we’re all the same. We have passions that we want to share with others and we want others to feel the same love we do, whether about our politics or the art that matters. What I hope to work towards, when it comes to differences of taste, is the ability to restrain myself from feeling negatively about someone who loves/hates something that I hate/love. It’s something I am trying, struggling, to do, to improve myself: to stop being so knee-jerk about oppositional views, which in the current internet age feels nearly impossible some days.
Our parents make us in their image, and we mirror their tastes because they are our first and primary influencers. But at some point, you break away from getting all your opinions from them. Yes, there’s a primal pull for me in judging someone’s music taste, as my mother did. She would question everyone about what they liked and, if their answers didn’t meet her high standards, she would, sometimes in a charming way, sometimes not, rebut them and scoff at what they loved. Once she questioned someone about their favourite band, and when the answer came back as Take That she bit her tongue and asked who this person’s favourite member was? The reply, under pressure and beneath mum’s stern, demanding eye, was that she couldn’t remember their names. This was the final straw; mum was incredulous at such a lack of attention to detail. It wasn’t about liking Take That anymore. It was about the fact that, if you’re going to have a favourite band – even if it’s a shitty one that I hate, she thought – the very least you can do is know their names.
My reactions to the music other people love have often resembled my mother’s: super, ultra, crazily judgemental. Dad is similar, but less wild-eyed about it. Though I did speak to him about this review and he confessed he is still baffled and annoyed by his best friend’s extreme dislike of two artists – Beatles, Hendrix – who most rock fans, which he is, adore without question. I’d like to evolve somehow past all that judgement. Who am I to be passing comment on what I perceive to be a lowbrow taste, a devotion to music I deem of poor quality (writing, performance, production) or sentimental in the worst way? What I should be doing is trying to strip myself of being so argumentative and just be grateful that other people have… loves and hates and passions just like mine (thank you Moz, you have a lyric, if not a novel, for every occasion). I value music and admit I feel sorry for those who think it’s alright, own a few albums, quite like it but could live without it. I barely understand how there are people on earth for whom music is not only unimportant but absent in their lives. I know: how pretentious and condescending is that? If everyone likes what I like as much as I like it, then everyone is the same. And that sounds pretty dull. This all leads me to a book I was recently bought: Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste. I actually think this beautiful, insightful, intelligent, even moving book could make me a better person. Perhaps I am this way because I’m a frustrated music critic at heart, because I don’t create. I’m cool with that – it’s a living (pretty much). But my intense need to correct doesn’t just extend to books or magazines or menus, it goes to people as well. I can’t resist telling people what I think of what they think. I’m not immune from being the subject – tying into Wilson’s concepts of the social hierarchies of how we relate to others – as only the other day I was getting into it on Facebook. The subject? U2. Having posted that I was excited about seeing them live, friends immediately rushed to tell me how much of a gigantic twat Bono is (no mention of their music from the Bono-haters). Others told me they loved U2, who put on a great show, etc. (no mention of Bono from the music-lovers). I couldn’t help notice that the haters were those with otherwise ‘cool’ music taste (indie/alternative types), and the ones who loved U2 also loved the Stones or Bon Jovi or other mainstream rock music. I admit that U2 are somewhat of an anomaly in my own music collection. If you were to glance at my iTunes Library you would find tons of classic pop/rock, certainly. But you’re more likely to close your eyes and stick a pin in Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman or Wayne Shorter or Sufjan or Terry Riley or Joanna Newsom or Laura Nyro or Björk, and so on. What this means is that, certainly as I’ve gotten older, my ears seem to like, and my brain seems to seek out, music that’s sonically diverse and/or unusual. In my teens I was all about three chords and the truth. It was all big rock by white, straight guys: from the Beatles to Guns ‘N Roses to Aerosmith to Led Zep to the Doors (all of whom I still like). In my 20s I expanded that palette a little to the Flaming Lips and Radiohead et al. In my 30s all hell broke loose in my music collection, with old off-kilter discoveries coming by the day (Tom Waits, Kate Bush, Eno, innumerable jazz albums), genre gaps being filled by the truckload (country, Americana, folk, psychedelia, prog, free jazz, krautrock, classical, electronic, ambient, everything!) and suddenly, unexpectedly, a passion for hip-hop (Kendrick, Kanye and getting in with the godfathers like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, then Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, in short catching up with forty years of rap culture). There are not enough hours in the day to listen to everything I want to listen to.
The Wilson book, which he talks about here in an excellent Pitchfork interview, has been recently reissued and extended with accompanying essays from the book’s admirers, including Krist Novoselic, Nick Hornby, Ann Powers, Owen Pallett and James Franco (my copy is the original). It has become perhaps the most acclaimed title in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 imprint, which puts out small-form books, each about one album. I was gripped from page one. It’s about judgement, taste, sentimentality (which he defines as the opposite of cool), love, hate, cultural and social capital, music history, prejudice and more. For a case study, Wilson chose an artist he hated: Céline Dion. His concluding point, in general, is that writing the book made him become more open to opposites, which goes against the way the internet is designed to dominate cultural life. The online experience is based around ‘we know you like this, here’s more just like that’, whether it’s Amazon recommendations or Last.fm libraries or iTunes Genius. These systems are set up to sell you more of the same, which is the opposite of what I want now. I already have hundreds of classic albums. What I want, as I get older, is stuff I’ve never considered before.
Wilson could just have easily chosen U2 over the Québécoise chanteuse. Except his objections would have been based on music versus not-music. What that means is, despite 220 million albums sold, people despise Dion’s music and, despite 170 million albums sold, people despise Bono. They object to her music and his personality. Nobody cares much what kind of person Dion is: they just hate her cheesy, saccharine, shrill and ubiquitous songs, despite only hearing My Heart Will Go On. Nobody cares much what U2 sound like (in fact, most pop/rock fans would admit their music is actually, technically good, with its gargantuan hooks): they just hate Bono’s political pontificating and lecturing. So it came to this: in a confluence of events so deliciously perfect as to defy parody, I was sitting on a little step at a U2 concert reading the Céline book last night.
I’m realising this isn’t largely a review of the show, is it? It’s more like a series of musings on why we love what we love. Why does my adoration of uncool U2 persist? It’s not stubbornness; I genuinely think they are one of the great bands. Why do I bat away anyone who can’t wait to tell me how tedious they find the singer? Why do I love him despite this? For a kid from Dublin, who left school with no qualifications, who has for decades worked tirelessly for social justice, learning by doing nothing more than reading mountains of books and talking to people, who can get his calls taken by presidents and prime ministers… he is so hated, because rich pop stars shouldn’t minister to their flocks about the impoverished. He rubs people up the wrong way, despite being pretty much exactly like Springsteen, who never gets shit for doing the same thing – using his stage like a pulpit, preaching about the power of doing good and of rock and roll – and it baffles me. He’s the most hated rock star on earth. I’m trying to get to a place where I let go of my need to defend him, rather than explain why I disagree and drive myself mad trying to change minds. His music makes me happy and I like him, so I know I should stop trying to convince anyone to think like I do. A lesser version happens with Dylan as well, incidentally. How can I like such an awful singer? How can I stand such sins committed on his words, rendered unintelligible? It happens with Morrissey all the time. People can’t stand him, and can’t wait to tell me about it, though to be fair sometimes he doesn’t help himself. Perhaps getting older is accepting that you love what you love and you can’t be persuaded out of it, but the flipside is that you need to let go of the notion that you must convince everyone else why you feel that way. That kind of self-acceptance is a work-in-progress. U2’s forced album download crime, to be fair, didn’t help. You almost have to admire that level of hubris. It’s a great record, after the very flat previous one, so they didn’t need to give it away, but there you go. They took shit and then got on with it. Frankly, if you are dumb enough to trust Apple/iTunes and have switched on automatic downloading you probably deserve to get a U2 album for nothing. Welcome to the era of killed privacy, monitored liberty and big data. U2 are the least of your problems online.
Last time out for the mammoth 2009-11 360° Tour the three huge metal (not glass) spiders would live in three cities at a time. One was being put up, another being taken down and the last was being played under, simultaneously. This time it’s more of a residency venture, with between two and five shows (six in London and eight at Madison Square Garden) being played in each arena, which lets everyone settle in for around a week at a time into each city. In contrast to the largesse of 360, the main stage has few lights, and the first four songs take place under a single oversized light bulb. It must be exhausting putting on these shows but probably less so this time than previous tours: 76 arena gigs on this Innocence + Experience Tour compared to 110 on the last one (all stadiums: the highest grossing and attended tour of all time), 131 on the set before that (2005’s Vertigo, also stadia) and 113 going back to Elevation (arenas) in 2001. Today I feel both elated and knackered, which makes me realise how fit the band must be (at 15/16 years older than me) to do this every night. Let’s also take into account how, frankly, cursed the tour has been, having to be delayed for months because Bono smashed himself up in a bicycle accident, breaking his arm, finger, eye socket and shoulder. The day before the first show Larry’s father died; he flew to Dublin and back in time for the gig. Incidentally, Larry is still ageless and hot as hell (any excuse to post this) and, while I’m at it, Adam has unexpectedly become a silver fox. Edge then fell off the stage at the first show, and thinking about Grohl’s leg-breaking spill, he got lucky to get away with a few scrapes. Then the irreplaceable Dennis Sheehan, their tour manager since 1982, died just after the tour started. Yet still they go on, survivors all, toughness inbuilt.
So, trying to get back on point, we had to go and get our tickets together (security stuff, to try and avoid touting; inflexible but it’s an evolving thing, gig entrance tech) and get our various wristbands affixed. Handed my ticket, I saw that it was £215 – not the 100 he said, nor the 65 I paid. I didn’t say anything but I guess that’s the price of the best side vantage point in the house; before you even think it (that U2 are greedy), the Red Zone ticket money benefits (RED), the AIDS charity. Madonna’s most expensive, to compare, are £300 and, you will already have guessed, do not benefit a charity. I took my place in the little barricaded off section at the side. Last tour, there was a ‘golden circle’ (all big artists do this now: pay more, get to the front ahead of the hoi polloi) but they’ve changed it so fans paying their £65 can get to the front. While entry to the RZ is a touch earlier than GA, so you can go out of your side section and to the centre front if you wish, only a few hundred RZ tickets are sold, which means there’s plenty of room for fans who bought the cheap tickets. All quite nicely arranged, I thought. So I went in and found a seat, of sorts: it was where the security would stand to pull people over the barrier, but also served as a little chair. Minding my own business, reading my Céline book, I was engaged in conversation by three men in their 40s. In a display of irony so acute that their tiny minds would explode if I had suggested it, they started to tease me for reading a book about Céline Dion (i.e. they were at a U2 gig, who nobody thinks are cool). And yet, I bounced up and what did I hurriedly say? That it was not a book entirely about Céline and that I don’t like her music and don't judge me and blah blah. Yes, I felt the need to tell these total strangers that I was not a Dion fan. One of the men called her a bitch, which I thought was a little far. Music criticism aside, she’s never seemed like a bad person: “let them touch those things!” I kind of love her for that slightly unhinged CNN interview where she defends looters. I explained what the book was about and they quietened down; heaven forefend I’d have actually been a Dion fan at a U2 show. At that point they spotted my Montreux Jazz Festival shirt – this seemingly proved that I was a person of taste and worth listening to (we all judge). I bonded with them after that, and it turned out they had rented U2 seven (!) mixing desks for this tour. These were not your average consoles of course, costing £150,000 a pop (no wonder they rented). The show surely cost millions to put on. I then started to look around and realised the levels of hierarchy that surrounded me and the 150 others in the RZ. The real fans, who’d paid that much to get as close as they could, were pressed against the barriers. Everyone else was either rich men (with the stench of banker about them) and their younger girlfriends or people who’d worked on the show. Of the middle category, one couple stood out: both attractive, him about 15 years older than her, and very drunk. She kept bumping into people, all night, with no apology forthcoming. She was of the variety of girls so beautiful, for whom everything in life had gone perfectly, and had never felt a need to be polite or courteous. Imagine what the life of a supermodel-level woman is like… the world belongs to you. It must not even occur to you that other less attractive humans exist. Vapid and rude, she harangued anyone whose face she recognised. This brings me to the most surreal part of the evening.
Each night, during Beautiful Day, the lyrics are changed to say hello to whichever famous friends are in the house. As this is U2, and they know everyone, depending on the city it could be Bill Clinton or Brian Eno. As it happened, on my first night it was indeed Eno (“see the world in green and blue, Brian Eno right in front of you”). Jimmy Page was there too, just for good measure. Slightly to my right was a cordoned off section, fully on view to everyone around it, a foot or so off the ground. I didn’t pay it much mind at first; then it started filling up with faces I knew. There I was, with space to dance and jump around, while Stella McCartney, Chris Martin (and his stunning girlfriend, actress Annabelle Wallis) and, ridiculously, Woody Harrelson did the same embarrassing white-person dancing as me. The Z-list nobodies in my section behaved like drunken assholes. The A-list somebodies were courteous and polite every time they were asked for a selfie. This is something I’ve heard often about Hollywood, incidentally; that the Z-list actors/producers/directors treat people like shit, from the catering guy to the driver, but that Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise and Meryl and everyone at that level are the exact opposite and nobody has a bad word to say about them. In action, I saw it. By the way, Chris Martin took the same amount of pleasure in seeing U2 as me and sang the songs just as loudly as I did.
I’ve realised that part of my love of seeing multiple concerts is centred on the differences. I want to see a show twice or more so I can notice the bits that change; this details obsession translates to every aspect of my life. It’s useful, if a bit of a curse, but that’s the way I’m made. Seeing a second show can give a fuller picture and you might even hear different songs. At this high level, there are three elements to setlist design – which itself is a fine art. Songs that must go in (Streets, Pride, With Or Without You, Mysterious Ways, Bullet The Blue Sky, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Beautiful Day), ones from the new album (seven in my first show, six in the second) and then a changeable, smaller, third set, which is made up of older obscurities or forgotten classics. They’ve got a lot of songs to go round. I got five song changes for the second show, which I was pleased with. On night two of the six, incidentally, they had gotten Patti Smith on to sing People Have The Power, which they come on stage to each night, and then, the night after, Noel Gallagher popped up for Still Haven’t Found… and a heartfelt version of All You Need Is Love. I spotted him last night, chatting to a teenage boy as I made my way down the side, behind the section with the famous people in it, to the back to see the B-stage set. At first, I thought, is that his kid? No, he has a daughter that age, not a son. Then I spotted a gorgeous dark-haired woman standing behind the boy, who I realised was Alison Stewart (Hewson), Bono’s wife, and that the lad was probably their youngest. I should have gone up to Noel and asked him if he knew the City-Sevilla score, which would have been a question he couldn’t have bet on being asked, but the moment passed (we won 3-1!). He was later spotted getting as into it as any other fan would, even one who’s known Bono for 20 years, and then having a little dance with Ali. Lest we forget that, like Morrissey, he’s Mancunian-Irish. Ironically, while witnessing all this I managed to miss a little snippet of Young Americans, of all things, in Mysterious Ways. I did catch a little shot of TOTP Starman on screen during the childhood section though, which is no surprise. Last tour they came on to Space Oddity every night. Ending the show, I was particularly thrilled to hear Bad, which caused a joyous explosion of love in the room, followed inevitably by 40. There wasn’t enough time for all the songs they had to leave out either: New Year’s Day, Running To Stand Still, Zoo Station, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, All I Want Is You, Angel Of Harlem, Sweetest Thing, Stuck In A Moment, Staring At The Sun, Discotheque, Walk On, The Unforgettable Fire, Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own, plenty more…
So in the end, what am I trying to say about love and music and taste? I can only say what a pleasure the pair of nights were and what a grand time I had. Some people will never get past their Bono(Céline)-aversion and give something they think they hate a chance. I hope that one day I’m able to become someone who embraces what makes other people happy. I hear Céline’s back in Vegas…
The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
Out of Control
Vertigo (Do You Remember Rock' N' Roll Radio/God Save the Queen snippets)
I Will Follow (London Calling snippet)
Iris (Hold Me Close) (snippet of David Essex’s Hold Me Close)
Song for Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday (When Johnny Comes Marching Home snippet)
Raised by Wolves
Until the End of the World (Love and Peace or Else & Words snippets)
The Fly (remix, band offstage)
Even Better Than the Real Thing
Mysterious Ways (Burning Down the House snippet)
Every Breaking Wave
(back to main stage)
Bullet the Blue Sky (Ode to Joy & 19 snippets)
Where the Streets Have No Name (California (There Is No End to Love) snippet)
Pride (In the Name of Love)
With or Without You
City of Blinding Lights (Stephen Hawking speech intro)
One (with 'Mother and Child Reunion' intro)
The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
I Will Follow
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Song for Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday (When Johnny Comes Marching Home snippet)
Raised by Wolves
Until the End of the World
The Fly (remix, band offstage)
Even Better Than the Real Thing (Young Americans snippet)
Mysterious Ways (Burning Down the House snippet)
Desire (Love Me Do snippet)
Every Breaking Wave
(back to main stage)
Bullet the Blue Sky
Where the Streets Have No Name
Pride (In the Name of Love)
With or Without You (Yellow snippet)
City of Blinding Lights
Beautiful Day (Live Forever snippet)
Bad (with 'Mother and Child Reunion' intro)
The question that Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien has been asked most in his 73 years on this planet concerns what he thinks is the secret of the show’s success. People seem to be hoping for arcane knowledge, that he has a line to the abstract and can divine what exactly it is that has made his odd, subversive 50s-style rock and roll musical the biggest cult theatrical experience and movie of all time. Each time this question is asked he smiles benevolently, and answers very politely, as he is a very well mannered human, that he thinks it’s because the origin story is an eternal fairytale and has existed to intrigue audiences since time began since it is, essentially, a retelling of Adam and Eve (and Babes In The Wood, with a bit of Hansel and Gretel thrown in). There is innocence lured toward corruption by a snake, with human nature making it impossible to resist. For the snake, read: one of the greatest stage and cinematic creations of all time, Dr Frank-N-Furter; and for the apple, well, he’s offering a little bit more than a piece of fruit…
Along the way we have a murder, a touch of incest, transvestism, non-binary gendered characters, the hint of cannibalism, oral sex performed on both genders by the same person, straight sex with a virgin, gay sex with a sex slave, echoes of Frankenstein and King Kong, and the intimation of Americans engaging in Nazi-sheltering, all soundtracked by classic rock and roll. It’s quite a lot to fit into an hour and a half. It was written in 1972, so it was ripe for the times, as rock operas and hippie musicals pervaded. But this show is no Hair or JC Superstar (O’Brien starred in the former and was cast by Jim Sharman, who would later direct both the play and the movie, in the latter). There are no religious parables Godspell-style, anti-war polemics or longhaired hippies. Instead, it’s a science fiction horror tale that sits dead centre on the Kinsey scale and has just about zero gender/sexuality boundaries. Frank is not a woman, nor does he wish to be, nor does he dress as a woman. He is a man in a corset, stockings and suspenders, silk panties and platform heels. He wears manly leather and ladylike lace, delicate fishnet and tough chains. He’s a pansexual alien from, seemingly, a planet of transsexuals in a distant galaxy. He is the hero you swoon over, despite the fact that we see him treat his acolytes like slaves, hack someone to death (off screen) with a chainsaw, then serve the body for dinner. We hang on his every word and mourn when he is sacrificed at the end. If played right, every audience member must want to be seduced by him. That is some anti-hero.
In short, this play and its subsequent film are utterly bonkers with everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them. So tell me, Richard, why do you think it’s all been so successful? You’d forgive him for replying: ‘I really have no fucking idea. If I knew I’d have done it again’.
It wears its 1950s influences on its sleeve without ever being a rip-off; it’s too clever for that. The opening song – sung on stage by an usherette and by a Man Ray-inspired red lipstick covered mouth in the film, Patricia Quinn’s Magenta miming to O’Brien’s voice – Science Fiction Double Feature pays homage to Richard Smith’s childhood, which was spent in the cinema in Cheltenham, where he was born in 1942. He grew up in New Zealand (where he has since returned to ‘retire’), moving there in 1951 and returning in 1964 to become a stuntman and bit-part theatre actor. He chose for a new surname O’Brien, his mother’s maiden name, as inevitably there was already a Richard Smith in Equity. By the time he sat down to write this odd rock musical he was a married man with a baby son. He drew on his love of B-movies for this classic opening song, managing to name check:
The Day the Earth Stood Still, Flash Gordon, The Invisible Man, King Kong, It Came from Outer Space, Doctor X, Forbidden Planet, Tarantula, The Day of the Triffids, Night of the Demon and When Worlds Collide.
Just in one song! It sets out the stall for the rest of the play, which has at its heart a fairly pedestrian premise: an innocent young couple’s car breaks down on a rainy night; they see a house and ask the occupants for help. In both the original stage version and movie they are met by O’Brien’s Riff Raff (looking not unlike a Roxy-era Brian Eno), who lures them in with the promise of getting dry and using the phone. They’ve arrived on a rather special night, for the master’s creature is destined to be born. And we’re off. It’s all a bit Hammer Horror, which fits perfectly as the movie ended up being filmed on the old Hammer lot in Berkshire. With this simple premise comes a fast-moving tale of sex and horror and death, one which must always be driven by the master of the house, Frank, the mad scientist. I can’t say anything new about the remarkable Tim Curry, except that he owns every second of his on-screen performance. There is no moving footage of him on stage in the original 1973 Royal Court Theatre production but fortunately, for posterity, the movie captured in glorious Technicolour every flirtatious wink and facial expression, alongside that rich voice and electric sexual charisma. No actor can outdo that performance: you just have to make it different. Many have tried, and some have been very good indeed (like Jonathon Morris, Anthony Head – Murray’s brother, musical nerd fact – and a few others) but I didn’t think anyone had delivered a performance to rival the original… until I saw the show last week for the first time in 21 years. Step forward David Bedella, a 53-year-old Chicagoan actor best known for his Olivier-winning role as Satan/the Warm-Up Man in Jerry Springer: The Opera and an unlikely turn on Holby City (he’s an experienced West End/Broadway performer, having played Sweeney Todd, Billy Flynn etc.). He has said that he tried to do the English accent and it came out so much like Tim Curry it was abandoned in his first rehearsal in 2006. Using his own American accent, a deep and sonorous baritone for both speaking and singing, it changed the part completely and allowed for a new painting. Since then he has become a fan favourite and the go-to Frank. He played the role for the first time in 2006/7, then again in 2009/10 and was bound to get the call – no doubt over some much more famous actors – for this two-week engagement. I now can’t imagine anyone else playing this part on stage, which is a shame really considering that it’s fairly certain to be the final time both he and O’Brien will appear in it. His Frank is everything it needs to be: flirtatious, filthy, masculine, seductive, rapacious, cruel, funny, empathetic and incredibly, ridiculously, sexy.
My own Rocky Horror history goes back over 25 years. I’m fairly sure I first saw the movie in 1989, so I would have been 12 or 13. Perhaps it was on TV, as it’s just the kind of thing Channel 4 would put on in those days when they were actually fulfilling their own remit of interesting programming and not just reality guff. I fell in love. One might say the two imposing figures of my puberty were Jareth and Frank-N-Furter, who on the surface are not dissimilar characters. Both a little evil yet dominantly alluring, both make tempting offers to innocent virgins, both are banished at the end but appear to survive, both sing and wear skimpy pants and have expertly applied their eye shadow. It’s no wonder I’ve turned out like this. I think it best not to convey exactly how much I enjoy viewing men wearing fishnets and heels, but suffice to say it has informed my tastes to this day, as a devoted viewer of Drag Race and fan of all things androgynous. In 1990 there was a West End revival but I don’t think that I saw Tim McInnerny (from Blackadder) in the part. Memory can be unreliable but I believe that a very odd thing happened when I went to London to see this version. I was all set to see Tim in the role but, unless memory has let me down, he broke his arm the night before and had to pull out. As Frank has no understudy, a stand-in was used: to the extreme shock of everyone present, when his entrance song kicked in Richard O’Brien himself was playing the part. I don’t think he’s ever done it before or since. I recall that Ade Edmondson, a year before he’d debut Bottom, his masterpiece with the late great Rik Mayall, lent a kind of unhinged quality to Brad that had been previously unexplored. Connections abound: Tenpole Tudor played O’Brien’s Riff Raff, and would later take over for him again and deflate The Crystal Maze (about which I could write another article). Jonathan Adams played the Narrator, the part he originated in 1973; for the movie he was moved over to play Dr Scott so a famous name (Charles Gray, Blofeld from Diamonds Are Forever) could take over. What I am sure of is that I saw the next iteration with Anthony Head playing Frank the year after and also twice more in 1994, with Jonathon Morris, who was a revelation. I was also lucky enough to see the 21st anniversary show and witnessed Patricia Quinn reprising her stage and movie role as Magenta, with O’Brien as the doomed biker Eddie.
For the actors, it’s a bit of a strange ‘adult panto but worse’ vibe. There are, effectively, two scripts: that of the play, that of the audience. Heckles are established and well practiced. An actor can barely reach the end of a single line without having something shouted at them that has wildly varying levels of cleverness and wit. Creating space for pauses, getting a song to yourself, allowing comic timing and interaction with other performers are all on shaky, often absent, ground. It must be a weird show to be in, where the audience are such a part of the experience, though you do get to be a rock star for the night. It’s the kind of thing you need a break from, and perhaps that’s why I’ve not seen it live in so long. I love the movie and its exquisite timing, so being surrounded by people screaming out every 10 seconds can be intensely irritating. But, as the song goes, once in a while…
There have been tours in the last decade but they never quite registered with me. However, when I heard that Richard O’Brien was returning to the role of the Narrator, surely for the last time, I was drawn out of my Rocky hibernation and grabbed a ticket for the Saturday night, which I thought would be the last performance but the week-long run got extended to two (good job it wasn’t more, my debit card would have been begging for mercy). What a rush, what a beautiful teenage nostalgic rush it was. By the interval I knew I had to get a ticket to see it a second time. The crowd created a deafening noise and gave O’Brien a standing ovation before he’d said a word. He raised an eyebrow, always the commanding performer, and took all hecklers on with panache. David Bedella, however, is not one to be outshone. I’d heard that he was a fan favourite and now I understand why. The man owned that theatre, right to the back row. By miles, the best stage Frank I have seen, and probably that has ever played it. Interestingly, he’s the first gay actor to take on the part. I can’t figure out why it’s always straight men who play Frank but there we go, an odd fact. No particular reason I’m sure, in the same way as Hedwig (another character that owes a fair bit to Rocky Horror) is fairly often played by straight actors. Everyone played their parts with aplomb and the show was as tight as a drum, as you’d expect and as it has to be given the nature and timing of the audience participation aspects. It rattled along at a breathless pace and the songs seemed closer together than I remember; for that reason, I was struck by their sheer quality. From the iconic There’s A Light… to the blustering Hot Patootie (Eddie’s cameo, Meat Loaf in the film of course) to the classics (Time Warp, Sweet Transvestite, which were reversed in order in the play, changed for the film then kept that way), and my personal favourite, the suite of ‘floorshow’ songs at the end: Rose Tint My World/Don’t Dream It, Be It/Wild and Untamed Thing.
During that run of songs comes a delicate invocation, almost a limerick, of Frank’s origins, which I’ve always found rather sweetly poetic:
Whatever happened to Fay Wray
That delicate satin-draped frame
As it clung to her thigh
How I started to cry
For I wanted to be dressed just the same.
The Rocky Horror Show, an unlikely phenomenon, continues to tour worldwide and play to packed houses. Now that this two-week London run is over it’s off on another national tour (albeit without Bedella and, of course, O’Brien), starting in Brighton at Xmas. Not bad for something that came to be performed by chance as part of a deal: its Australian director Jim Sharman had been engaged to direct at the Royal Court but only agreed on the proviso that they let the little room upstairs be used for this weird sci-fi B-movie musical he had fallen in love with and wanted to direct. Sixty-three people came night after night (including Bowie, allegedly) and it became so successful it transferred to Los Angeles, Broadway and then returned for a year in 1979 to the West End: it ran for nearly 3,000 performances. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is in its 40th year the longest running movie of all time, but don’t forget it was a flop when it came out until the Waverly Theatre in Greenwich Village started showing it at midnight a year after its release (it still plays weekly there). The rest is history. Somewhere on earth, from Sao Paolo to Sydney, from Cologne to Colorado, it is always playing. As Roger Ebert once wrote, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much a movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon.” I was knocked out to see the audience at the Playhouse as engaged and excited as ever; half were dressed like they were going to an amateur fetish night, with plenty of kids half my age seeing the show live for the first time. Of course, every time I enjoy a show and have the chance to see it again I never pass up that chance. So the day after the show – I had been seated in the dress circle, not a bad view at all, if a little obstructed – I got another ticket for the penultimate performance, the matinee. This time on Row C, which was the fifth row, somehow. Proximity is everything.
The events of Saturday 26th were so surreal it would be, as you’ll see, ridiculous to not report them. I was all set to have a long day: a football match at White Hart Lane and then the matinee (oddly, at 5.30; they’re usually at 2.30) before the final show played at 8.30. On Friday, after a glass of wine, my aunt said she’d love to come with. She’d taken me to see it when I was a teenager. Don’t ask how, but she accidentally bought two tickets – K20 and B1 (the seat in front of me!) – and so the spare went to her best friend. Then my cousin came home and we tried to get a ticket for her as well, in D3 this time. So now we were all going, a little comically in four separate seats, three of which were by coincidence very close together. The seat next to me turned out to be free so for the second half we were all pretty much seated together. So, I went to the football (a 12.45 kick off) and it went… poorly. I walked out with 10 minutes to go, which I have not done for many years. In a dark mood, I headed into town and was regaining my composure on the South Bank at about 4.30pm when I got a text from my aunt: “Richard O’Brien, at the stage door, now!”
I jumped up and headed across Embankment Bridge. He was long gone by the time I arrived: everyone met one of my childhood heroes but me. Of course. That was how the day was going. Nevertheless, I was excited to see the show again, and so close to the front. It was again superb, though the crowd were a little dull. Some I suspect had just fancied going to the theatre and weren’t particular fans. They were won over by the remarkable lead, but it put into sharp relief how superb the audience had been the week before. During the first half a slightly bonkers thought occurred to me: I wonder if there are any spares for the very last show? No, I’m being ridiculous. I can’t go for a third time. But my companions egged me on and, at the interval, I went to the box office to check. There was one seat left, H20. Tempting. I went back in and resolved to let fate decide: if it was still there at show’s end I would get it. When I went back I asked if it was, “No, that one sold but one more came in, a return, in K21.” Meant to be. I bought it, had a quick dinner and came back to the theatre, like a crazy person. In my seat by 8.20, I got chatting to the gentleman seated to my right, a wardrobe dresser from Toronto. Then the seat on my left was filled by a lady; we smiled at each other and exchanged pleasantries. She was about my age, dressed in black, leather boots, very slim, long black hair, with some old tattoos (I got an old goth vibe). A short while after, her companions arrived, three men. One of whom I recognised immediately, I was certain I knew him. The show began, again, and was just marvellous. You’d never think they’d only finished the matinee an hour earlier. Tremendously enjoyable. I was resolved to ask her at the interval if the gentleman two seats over was who I thought he was. The conversation was so surreal I have to report it as it happened:
Me: [quietly] Excuse me, but can I ask you, that gentleman seated to your left, I think I recognise him; is it Peter Straker?
Lady: Yes, that is Peter, where do you know him from?
Me: I’m a big fan of Freddie Mercury; they were lifelong friends. For a Queen nerd like me he’s a legend. He even appeared in one of his videos (he’s the one in drag who isn’t Freddie or Roger).
We then made small talk for a few minutes, I asked her where she was from, she said Munich, we chatted about the show and then, the immortal question came:
Me: Have you seen the show before?
Lady: [smiling] Oh yes, many times, I’m Richard’s wife.
- blink -
- pause -
Lady: I’m Richard’s wife, Sabrina.
To say this was an unexpected turn of events would be an understatement. As I tried to remain cool and calm, we then chatted about him and his agelessness, the show (she stopped counting how many times she’d seen it at 200, she was a fan before she met him; they were friends for a decade before they married in 2013), New Zealand, where they live, how tough the flight is, how far removed their rural life is from London, his children and two grandchildren, how wonderful David is as Frank, etc. I told her how much I loved The Crystal Maze and that once I had written to the show asking to be on. The age limit was 16 and I was younger so I got a polite letter back from the producers and a personalised signed postcard from Richard, in silver pen (I have to find it, must be in Manchester in my bedroom somewhere), which I was thrilled about.
She was absolutely charming, very warm. It was all a bit distracting but the second half started and off we went, probably the last time I’d see the show for however many more years. We got up and danced the Time Warp. We cheered until we were hoarse. The show ended, as it has done each time I’ve seen it on this run, with a kiss between Bedella and O’Brien, who leave the stage arm in arm. I felt elated and grateful I’d taken this chance (I’ve never regretted seeing any show more than once). At the end, without being asked, she retrieved my jacket from the floor, and told me what a pleasure it was to meet me. I told her to tell her husband how loved he is in England and she said she would. This is the kind of thing that could only happen to me. The afternoon started badly and ended up being one of my more memorable days. Here’s to 40 more years of Rocky.
He does test you though. Having ditched Kristeen Young (for the second time) as a support act, he’s extended the video that has been playing before his stage entrance for some years. In my recollection, it used to be about 10 minutes long and took place when the house lights were off. Most people thought it was a short intro film and when they realised it wasn’t boredom and fidgeting set in. At least now he keeps the lights up, so everyone realises they’re going to have to sit/stand through 30 minutes of what goes on inside his mind. And quite the eye-opener it is too. Some of it’s pretty normal, unsurprising: The Ramones, the New York Dolls, Ike and Tina, and, in the past, The Small Faces, Jobriath, Eno, Nico, Francoise Hardy, even Tim Buckley. But interspersed between these music clips you get some outright weird shit. From poetry – Anne Sexton reciting Wanting To Die (cheerful) and an interview with Edith Sitwell – to a grainy 70s clip of Charles Aznavour, a brief interview with novelist James Baldwin, and a bit of prog-metal from System of a Down-adjacent band Mt. Helium (highly uncharacteristic of his taste), immediately followed by a movie clip of flamenco dance pioneer José Greco. Then, just when you think it can’t get weirder, on comes 60s comic Rex Jameson, as his cross-dressing alter ego Mrs Shufflewick. And just before the brief final clip, which is always drag performer Lypsinka, we get an indescribably weird song with Leo Sayer-as-a-clown. It’s all very Morrissey. It’s all very odd. Who else could get away with this? The things you’ll endure for love.
There’s something about seeing a second night played at the same venue. Not that I was sure the setlist would differ significantly, as you can never predict this man’s moods. He could just as easily have played the same songs in the same order as he had the night before. But he’s also capable of surprising me, and to my delight he made extensive changes, which he almost never does, letting go of What She Said (and its snippet of Rubber Ring, which would have been landmark to hear), Yes I Am Blind, two new songs, plus I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris, which I’ve always found dull. I’ve got a list going on Facebook of gigs I’ve seen, and perhaps the nerdiest aspect of it is the Moz song list. Eighty-six different songs played at 16 gigs over nine years and four months. So I’m checking the list now to see how many new songs I got to hear… seven! That is remarkable. The total now sits at 93.
He opened with an acapella line “If I made you feel second best, I'm so sorry I was blind” (from Always On My Mind) then launched into You’ll Be Gone, one of only 10 songwriting credits that had the name Elvis Presley listed (I suspect he didn’t do much writing for any of those). Let’s get the new song statistics out of the way first. That Elvis tune, obviously. Super obscure song Let The Right One Slip In, a B-side leftover from the Your Arsenal sessions (more Ronson production genius), check. Boxers, a one-off single to promote a 1995 tour, shoved on a compilation (World Of Morrissey) shortly after, check. My Dearest Love, B-side of All You Need Is Me (great song), check. Alma Matters, a bad pun and the first single from Maladjusted, which I thought I’d heard before, but hadn’t, check. Oboe Concerto, from the new album, let’s face it a rewritten version of Death Of A Disco Dancer, and almost as good, check. And finally, to push our devotion to critical mass, one of his most beautiful and most Moz-like songs ever, Will Never Marry. It’s mostly swelling strings, not much to sing, but every word is meaningful:
I’m writing this to say
In a gentle way, thank you, but no
I will live my life as I will undoubtedly die, alone
I’m writing this to say
In a gentle way, thank you
I will live my life as I
For whether you stay or you stray an inbuilt guilt catches up with you
And as it comes around to your place at 5 a.m., wakes you up
And it laughs in your face
I feel like I’ve been waiting to hear that song since the second I saw the video, in which he receives heartfelt expressions of love and affection from total strangers. If that is the last new song I ever hear him sing, I can live with that. But I don’t fall for all that drama; I think the tickets under-sold (they were very expensive) and he wanted to drum up some attention. And despite his lengthy list of issues with Bowie, I also think it was a little nod to the last Ziggy show. Without getting into too much detail, it’s fairly obvious that his whole ‘no record label wants me’ tantrum is bullshit. He has been offered countless deals and is known to turn them down because they are ‘360’, meaning that, like everyone else in music who is asked to sign a record contract, a slice of touring is part of the package due to the state of record sales. But since Moz lives in 1973 in his head – obsessed with airplay and chart positions, the quicksand last quarter of his autobiography is devoted to such statistics – he does not (perhaps understandably) want to give anyone a cut of the only way he makes money. So he remains unsigned. Then says nobody is interested in signing him. It’s a classic Moz move. Ever poetic, near the end, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard asking DeMille for her close-up, he tells the crowd, “our UK days conclude, but there is no need for me to say goodbye because we will all be close for the rest of our days” before launching into the last song of the night: a frenzied version of the ever-powerful and subversive The Queen Is Dead.
In the face of endless criticism for loving Morrissey, what is it exactly that makes me go again and again just so I can look at that square jaw and greying quiff? My gig-going companion saw him before we met at the Livid Festival in Brisbane in October 2002, 10 days no less after I saw Bowie at Hammersmith (that took some Googling!). I remember her telling me someone threw a bra onstage, which he picked up, made a disgusted face and threw back into the audience. Of course he did. He also played Meat Is Murder, bathed in red light, and that was it for her, that light-switches-on moment. I didn’t imagine when she took me to see my first show in 2006 that I’d equal the number of times I saw Bowie. She has a theory about him, which we’ve come to call ‘Morrissey is me’. I can’t do it justice but it’s about his flaws being our flaws. His imperfections and oddness and madness and anger and bitterness and vulnerability and aloneness being reflections of ours. He makes many mistakes and they are our mistakes too. And no matter how many people tell you Morrissey is a prick both online and to your face it only strengthens your adoration. Or something like that, I can’t get it right but I will never tire of hearing it. Why only this week, as I wrote this, another torrent of ridicule and humiliation has come his way, due to the release of his first, and surely last, novel List of the Lost. Nobody is taking any pleasure in reporting that it’s an unedited disaster, an unreadable mess that a renowned publisher like Penguin should hang their heads in shame over putting out in such a state. The reviews I’ve read are by wounded Moz fans who just feel let down by him (not for the first time), from Michael Hann at the Guardian to Medium’s Emily Reynolds; they seem to be in some sort of physical pain from having to report that the book is dreck. They took one for the team and read it so we don’t have to; the consensus is that it makes his Autobiography (which was brilliant until it wasn’t) look like Ulysses. But again, this only somehow strengthens everyone’s devotion. So he’s written an awful book, so what? Love can’t be extinguished by his poor judgement – if it could we’d all have abandoned him years ago.
Of course, he can go too far, even for me. I’m already a vegetarian man, because of you, what more do you want of me? He makes me sit through footage of animal slaughter, the backdrop to Meat Is Murder; usually it doesn’t get to me, but this time it really did. I was quite near the front, maybe 15 or 20 feet back, so I got hooked in for the first minute. To illustrate his point, which you know he feels he must make night after night, he has sought out the worst examples of animal cruelty, factory farming. It’s too much for a lot of people; many look away. Cows imprisoned in tiny cages. Chickens having their beaks sliced off. That kind of thing. But of course, the very worst examples of slaughter practices are the creation of halal and kosher meat, so I’m confronted with the unedifying spectacle of Hebrew and Arabic captions stating that a lot of the footage is taken from Middle Eastern slaughterhouses, which makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. This is a language I have a tattoo in (shalom: peace), below my Morrissey tattoo, and it appears on screen as writhing, distressed animals’ throats are slit and blood pours out as their lives drain away. Stunning animals (so, it’s said, they aren’t conscious as they are slaughtered) is accepted worldwide as the only humane part of this animal losing its life so someone can eat a burger but it is banned in kosher/halal processes, for spurious reasons of course, as is true of most religion-based rulings. Too complex to go into the details (Google ‘shechita’ if you’re interested) but of course it makes for a snuff film that this trapped audience must tolerate. Of course, he goes too far sometimes and in interviews has compared the daily animal slaughter to the Holocaust, which despite my passion for animal welfare I find to be way over the line. Nevertheless, when you must stand and listen (even if you look away from much of the footage, as I did) to sound clips of cows mooing, with those brutal lyrics, which he now embellishes to make the audience feel as bad as possible, well, anyone would come away feeling sick. And that’s what he wants.
Earlier in the show, not to neglect humans, during Ganglord the screen shows extreme footage of police brutality, including murders of innocent, mostly African-American, citizens by power-crazed cops. More snuff films. This is who he is. You walk into his house, where you’re held captive and confronted with the worst of humanity, the worst of human behaviours. And yet, in between songs he makes you laugh hard, he gives you every droplet of sweat from his body, he encourages fans to try to make it onto the stage to touch him, he reaches down and touches as many hands as he can. This is the dissonance that makes us go back again and again.
On the musical side, he’s finally added some nuance and subtlety to his band, who’ve been slogging on behind him for a decade or more, with occasional member changes. Mostly this comes in the form of Colombian-American Gustavo Manzur, who plays keyboards, trumpet, accordion, flamenco guitar, and even steps forward to sing the last half of Speedway in Spanish. He’s genuinely added something new, a Latino flavour which fits perfectly, to the proceedings. He joined in 2009 but his impact has grown year on year, with his influence felt in all corners of World Peace Is None Of Your Business. The new Alain Whyte is finally here.
After Meat Is Murder, which only a heartless person would be untouched by, he creates a calm after the storm as we reach the show’s end. It’s like he’s thanking you for sitting through the red light, torture and feedback by playing one of his sweetest, gentlest, most touching songs, Now My Heart Is Full. It’s the perfect five words. It’s how every fibre of my being feels during one of his concerts. That man gave me life in Hammersmith and will do so again today and the next day. He is me, I am him, and we are all together.
The gig ends in chaos of course, like all of his do. The crowd surges forward to catch his discarded shirt, with the fight for it broken up by exhausted security guards and their scissors long after the lights have come up and the venue is nearly empty. They don’t want to let go. That, I understand. Until the next time.
You'll Be Gone / Let The Right One Slip In / Suedehead / Speedway / Ganglord / Boxers / World Peace Is None Of Your Business / Kiss Me A Lot / Staircase At The University / Alma Matters / Will Never Marry / My Dearest Love / The Bullfighter Dies / The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores / Oboe Concerto / Meat Is Murder / Now My Heart Is Full / Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed / I Will See You In Far-Off Places / Everyday Is Like Sunday // The Queen Is Dead
In 1997, during a visit to London, I saw The Dance, a VH1 concert that Fleetwood Mac had been persuaded into reforming for; Lindsey Buckingham had been out of the band for a decade by then, with the exception of an appearance at, erm, Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball in 1993 (he’d used Don’t Stop as his campaign song). I was instantly smitten by such perfectly formed songs – I also developed quite the crush on Lindsey, I freely admit. More than that, I was utterly entranced by Stevie’s voice and that whole lace-clad ethereal gypsy persona (much copied, stand up Florence, Courtney Love (love this cover), and many more). She threw him some serious shade, as they sang to each other:
And if you don't love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain.
I’d never seen anything like it, that charged connection between two singers, and his incredible, intuitive guitar playing, without a pick, which was another first for my eyes. I knew very little about them, but learned fast, via the BBC’s brilliant Rock Family Trees documentary series. I may have a tendency toward sonic oddities, but I love, just absolutely love, impeccably sophisticated pop music, which no doubt comes from being raised on Motown and the Beatles/Stones. I never bought into the idea that Fleetwood Mac were bland soft rock. They are not The Eagles. I think that attitude toward them came from post-Peter Green snobbery, based around the opinion that a blues band is more authentic and should be more respected than a band who ditches that style entirely and brings the hippy Californians in so they can become huge-selling. The Fleetwood Mac of the late 60s and early 70s is dramatically different in tone from the Buckingham/Nicks version and I think English blues fans, my parents included, felt they had lost something. To me, they had moved forward, with only the band name remaining the same. Peter Green’s FM are great, but the mid-70s output is what I fell for. I also only recently discovered the album that got the Yanks into the band, the superb Buckingham Nicks, which has never been reissued or remastered on any format since it came out in 1973.
Everyone knows the tales – addiction, rehab, affairs, divorces, rancour, break-ups; they embodied that 70s private jet, separate limos, bowls of coke excess – and to an extent that lived experience is part of the attraction if you see them live. You’re paying to see Stevie and Lindsay, who met in high school and were together for almost a decade, a lifetime ago, give each other the side-eye and bicker. You’re there to witness that attraction between them that will never end. You get the feeling neither is still entirely comfortable with having to spend their professional lives together, playing out songs from their break-up every night on stage, like a lifelong version of The Mousetrap, but they accept they are destined to stand on stage together, holding hands, until someone drops. Neither seems to be easy to get on with either. Lest we forget, in 1987, with a tour for their hugely well received comeback album Tango In The Night already booked, Lindsey airily announced at a band meeting that he had had enough and was leaving. Stevie chased him out of his own house, pinned him to a car bonnet and tried to strangle him. These rock tales are part of the attraction, but there is also clearly genuine affection between them, if a little sadness on her part. By virtue of biology, men get to move on in ways women can’t, inhibited by time. In his 50s Lindsey (now 65) met a blonde woman just over half his age and got married, then had a family; Stevie has said she knew it was finally over when his first child was born. A woman is not afforded that same luxury. Stevie married her best friend’s husband in the early 80s, a few months after losing her (cancer grief makes people do odd things), annulling the marriage a few months later, but she seems not to have had a significant relationship since, aside from one in the 90s with a younger non-famous man. It fell apart because, she said, they couldn’t go anywhere because of her fame. I get the sense she never got over Lindsey, that he is her great lost love. Incidentally, how weird must it be for his wife to see him holding his ex’s hand, singing to her every night? He’s worked through it all – it might be easier when love is found again – and you can tell he’s spent a long time in therapy just from the way he talks about full circles and patterns, that slightly loopy Esalen-style psychobabble. That story, that dynamic, is how you get drawn in, true enough, but if the music was average your attention couldn’t possibly justify the investment. It’s those songs; they are for the ages. I’d walk a million miles to hear their masterpiece Landslide, which has taken on such a poignant ache now the duo are approaching 70….
I took my love and took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
Till the landslide brought me down
Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well, I've been afraid of changing
'Cause I've built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I'm getting older too
There is also one, very new, X factor in this soapy drama: the return of Christine McVie (the oldest, at 71). If Lindsey’s tenure out of the band had ground them to a halt between 1987 and 1997 (they toured without him after his Tango tantrum but it was half-hearted), Christine’s departure in 1998 didn’t change the band’s plans. They toured without her because they had the momentum, even though it wasn’t the same and led to the loss of many great songs from the setlist (Say You Love Me, Everywhere, Little Lies, Songbird, You Make Loving Fun). She was happy and had retired to the Kent countryside; nobody expected her to return to the band, who, remember, have weathered the departures of Spinal Tap levels of members. Peter Green took too much acid, went mad and left. Jeremy Spencer got plucked off the street in LA by a religious cult and went off down his own path (still touring and making music at least). Danny Kirwan’s alcoholism got him fired. Bob Weston was fired for having an affair with Mick’s wife. And so on. So they are used to moving forward when a member has had their day. But it felt different with Christine. She’s always been the heart of the band, a hugely gifted songwriter and keyboardist, with a flawless voice, and her returned presence alone seems to just knit everything together. Stevie is visibly happier since she returned, following a one-off 2012 appearance at the O2 that last year turned into full un-retirement (she’s older than Bowie. It’s never too late. I’m just saying). Everyone seems thrilled she is back; they’re genuinely having a grand old time doing what they were born to do. The vibe on stage is warm and filled with energy. Mick and John in particularly are quite a pair of old boys, travelling musicians, on the road for nearly 50 years together. It’s what they do, it’s who they are. It’s life, living in hotels, always on the move, the adrenalin ups and managed downs (not with mountains of coke, these days, fortunately).
I’d never seen them live before; I’d been tempted on many occasions in the last decade but somehow never got round to it, perhaps it never felt right. I’m glad now that I didn’t see them without Christine – those five people are special, you can’t replicate that chemistry with just the four. For a while there I thought I might not see them ever, what with John McVie’s cancer diagnosis last year. He was looking a little grey around the gills (he’s 69) and only a few weeks ago talked about how he’s not got much more touring left in him, which is understandable. His musical partner and best friend Mick Fleetwood (68 and behaves like a teenager) is going to tour until he drops dead on stage, of that I am quite certain. His energy levels put us all to shame; he’s a funny, eccentric man who would have fitted in quite nicely to a Bonzo Dog Doo Dah line-up. He once played a fish in Star Trek: TNG you know. Anyway, my excitement level for this gig was sky high, as I’d loved this band for nearly two decades. I think perhaps the moment I realised they were for me back in 1997 was this crazy brilliant solo version of Big Love, where Lindsey plays both rhythm and lead parts at the same time; it’s a remarkable piece of work, I still have no idea how he does it. People don’t play guitar like him anymore, the way he does it, with all the solos and O-faces (seeing Santana next month, mind you, am expecting a two-hour-long solo). I wasn’t certain if they played it live, and given that the version from The Dance is nearly two decades old, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d chosen to play it a bit safer (with full band, like the original). So, I was utterly thrilled to hear the acoustic version exactly like I remembered it, now that was a serious highlight.
The big tunes kept coming, breathlessly, with the three singles from Tango In The Night – Big Love, Everywhere, Little Lies – getting huge responses. As many fans present were in their 40s and grew up hearing those late 80s singles as remember Rumours from the 70s. The only lengthy interludes, aside from a ridiculous drum solo (is there any other kind?), were a pair of songs back-to-back that saw them play around beautifully outside of their comfort zones as four-minute pop song purveyors. I’m So Afraid had such prog majesty it bordered on Pink Floyd-esque. But my highlight was a dramatic, lengthy, epic version of Gold Dust Woman, with Stevie doing her twirling mystical thing and the band getting a real head of steam on.
Oh, Stevie Nicks (the youngest of the five at 67). As 70s icons go – Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell – she is in their exalted company, easily. Her voice has no high range these days but she’s developed this gorgeous, deep, gravelly, powerful tone that has no trouble at all delivering these songs. She’s just so likeable, too; she exudes a kind of maternal kindness. And to have her girl Chris back in the band, it’s just added so much to the dynamic, musically and personally (interesting section in there about how they both felt unable to have families, like the men did). Stevie, incredibly, was only accepted into the band in the first place because Mick wanted her boyfriend in to play guitar and they were a package deal. They had no idea what they had; what a singer/songwriter she is, well able to write beyond the band too – her 1981 solo album Belladonna is superb (there’s no beating Edge Of Seventeen, a classic, or Leather and Lace, a Don Henley duet). She told a long, entertaining story before Gypsy – she probably tells the same one every night but I don’t care – about how she and Lindsey supported some of the big bands in San Francisco in the late 60s (Hendrix, Santana, Janis, who she is not a million miles away from, a pop version if you like). Her day job, as a waitress, supported them both while they toiled away, waiting to be discovered. There was a clothing store in the Bay Area, called The Velvet Underground (said without irony; how many minds but mine in the O2 wandered to think of the band?), which sold hippy clothes to the local rock stars, like Janis and Grace Slick. Stevie would go in and know she couldn’t afford anything, but dreamed of being able to buy something without looking at the price tag, which she went back and did only a few years later. Like most stories told by people in therapy/recovery she makes it a paean to not giving in, believing in yourself and following your heart/dreams and all that kind of West coast guff. Gypsy’s opening lyric, of course, runs:
So I'm back, to the velvet underground
Back to the floor, that I love
To a room with some lace and paper flowers
Back to the gypsy that I was
To the gypsy... that I was
And it all comes down to you
Well, you know that it does
I enjoyed the story, it was well told, and the song itself has a beautiful simplicity to it, which is not something you could accuse this band of too much. Their Rumours follow-up, the sprawling but not unlistenable double album Tusk, cost over $1m to make and Lindsey was so out of it, and being an unbearable control freak, he thought it sensible to hire a 112-piece marching band for the title track. Fleetwood Mac are why punk had to happen.
Anyway, regardless of their crowded and complex history, and disparate personalities, all given equal front-time, when they are on stage they click into that rhythm that all great bands have, and everything just works like magic. You get exactly what you want, without that predictability ever being a bad thing; this was their 95th gig of the tour and it still felt fresh as gig 1. You sing and do embarrassing white person dancing and everyone is just so happy. What more could anyone ever want from a gig? I hope I get the chance to see them many more times.
You Make Loving Fun
Second Hand News
I Know I'm Not Wrong
Sisters of the Moon
Say You Love Me
Big Love (Lindsey solo)
Never Going Back Again
Over My Head
Gold Dust Woman
I'm So Afraid
Go Your Own Way
Songbird (Christine solo at piano)
Photo by Richard Etteridge
Not for the first time, I had a moment of realisation last night. There’s an endless list of reasons why I love gigs so much but I think a big one is the utter immersion of it. You’re in a dark room, with strangers. You don’t have anything to worry about, you leave (you should leave) your work/life stresses at the door. You’re shut in. Sound and visual stimulation sweep the space. Anything could be happening outside that room and you wouldn’t know about it. An asteroid could have knocked out half of Europe, austerity riots could be in full swing, a lake of fire could be where the Thames was, or a politician could have nearly done the full Madonna and stumbled off a stage on Question Time. Ok, that last one actually happened. But nothing matters outside the room. It’s like a football match, it’s the most pure here and now of a moment. You’re transported somewhere. Of course, not all gigs are the same. The average, good and sometimes even great ones can cause my attention span to wander (that’s what nearly two decades of being online will do to you)… what Tube route should I take home (for the South Bank I’ve taken to walking across the bridge by Embankment station, it’s lovely)? I wonder if I will get any work in tomorrow? I wonder if that person will reply to that email? Should I get a snack on the way home (I shouldn’t)? I hope I get Dylan tickets in the morning (I did). Some of it boring detritus, some is important thoughts that you wish you weren’t thinking. But not last night, not with Laura Marling. There was no distraction that floated in. I was immersed, rapt, dazzled, by this gifted young woman.
In the current age, where media training faces off in a heavyweight battle with the over-share, we both dread and desire the knowability of the famous. It’s not a new thing, prying into the private lives of people whose creativity has a crucial presence in our lives. I’m sure that admirers and benefactors hounded Mozart about his marriage, while Lennon’s wife and child were hidden from the public in the white-hot glare of early Beatlemania, and this was all before the advent of the internet. Yet, women in music seem to occupy a more studied, criticised, judged place. Perhaps the ground zero for this is Joni Mitchell, an article about whom is never written without mentioning the men she’s slept with and been disappointed by. In her rare but always compelling interviews (try to ignore the interviewer, a now-disgraced Canadian journalist, Google him at your peril) she seems to constantly exist in a state of bitterness at being treated a certain way by the music industry (meaning: men). This is how she is defined – by the male gaze. It’s how she’s defined by others and, despite being brilliant and insightful and worth more, it’s how she defines herself. She always has a bad word to say about her treatment, not without cause. And Marling has been subject to the same clichés, as each article and interview mentions how many folk band boyfriends she’s had (the singers from Noah and the Whale, and Mumford and Sons, articles are keen to tell us) and how she moved to America because she fell in love with a boy, and then they broke up and she’s back here now and she might be single, might not be… and so on. Is this newsworthy? Only if you care about that kind of thing. Does it matter even a tiny fucking amount when you listen to her songs? No.
On stage, it is only about music. Nothing else matters. She barely speaks to the audience. Dylan, incidentally, almost never says a single word between songs. Saving his voice perhaps? (eyebrow raise). She says hello about 20 minutes in, after the first suite of songs, played without breaks, has ended, as the applause and energy that has built up over those minutes explodes. The only other time she speaks is 10 minutes before the end, where she gives a short speech about how she did an encore for the first time the other night, didn’t like it, isn’t going to do it again, and if you want one, well, it’s about to happen right now. She said she had been giving variations on that ‘encore’ speech for the last 8 years. It was charming and the audience lapped it up. Perhaps they had been crying out to be verbally connected to? I hadn’t. I don’t need to know her. I was inside the songs, mesmerised by her voice and the film playing on a big screen behind her. I thought at first it was a photograph of a desert vista: a late afternoon, a low mountain range in the background, with two trails of sandy footprints leading towards (or away from, if you want to think of it that way) the camera. But when I would lose track of it just for a minute or two a small thing would change, like a time-lapse tableau; a half-moon appeared in the distance, the lighting changed, at first imperceptibly, and then the sky started to get darker, glacially slowly. Near the end of the show, time started to move faster – car headlights appeared in the distance, snaking from left to right across a northern California highway. The moon disappeared, and then real darkness fell. The camera started to tilt up inch by inch as the stars came out. By the end the mountains and sand were out of sight and a million pinprick holes glittered, like a shot from the Hubble Telescope. By the time the stars had arrived, and as she sang the aching, poignant Goodbye England (Covered In Snow), given added meaning now she has returned to live here, I felt myself well up and wondered if I could experience a more pure moment than this.
She exudes a kind of icy diffidence; she knows how good she is and isn’t wasting time and words by pretending to be your pal, your mate. She’s not in it for Spinal Tap-style ‘Hello Cleveland!’ sucking up. Without appearing arrogant, or the wrong side of aloof, she projects a mix of toughness and vulnerability. She also manages, remarkably, to not fall prey to the class-based bias that seems to affect artists whom the media designates as annoying or unworthy of success since they are felt to have gained an unfair advantage because of their white middle/upper-class-ness. Anyone else – she is actual aristocracy, the 5th generation of baronets and knights from affluent Hampshire – would get it in the neck for being a toff. I guess you have to be this good to bat away that kind of classist nonsense seemingly without any effort.
Most of her new album, Short Movie, was played. The title derives from a hippy, who turned out to be a shaman (of course, if you will live in California…), she befriended in a bar; he would say, at the end of sentences, ‘It’s a short fucking movie, man’. You get the sense she doesn’t have an interest in wasting a single minute. In a sense, the songs run into each other, but that doesn’t mean they don’t stand out. There’s just a beautiful flow to the evening, tracked by the level of control she exerts over every breath, every word. She runs through a litany of perfectly formed songs, relying heavily on Short Movie and its predecessor, Once I Was An Eagle. Time is also found for a gorgeous, delicate rendition of one of the great blues standards, Jackson C. Frank’s Blues Run The Game. Having a go at, and nailing, a song covered by everyone from Nick Drake to Simon and Garfunkel, Bert Jansch to Sandy Denny, puts you in rarefied air, where she sits with ease. Looking at the setlist, the song titles are quite bland, without much personality. Titles like How Can I, What He Wrote, You Know, Breathe, False Hope, Walk Alone, I Feel Your Love. Nothing titles. It’s hardly The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores (oh Moz, master of the pithy song title, so much to answer for). I listen to her albums while I work and that means I know all the songs but aside from the odd one, like Master Hunter, I tend not to know what they’re called anyway. It doesn’t matter. She’s building a collection. It always feels like a privilege to sit in a room and, speaking as a non-creative person, have an artist express themselves at you, to you. I could never tire of it if I went to 1000 gigs.
At the best shows, I sometimes am overcome by a heavenly feeling. Not that I believe in it, a literal version of heaven. Of course I don’t. But if it existed, that’s what I would want it to be. The music I love, surrounded by happy strangers and friends, playing for all eternity. I’ve felt that way hundreds of times. That if I was stuck in one day, I’d want it to be this one day. This one great night. At its best, that’s exactly how music should make you feel. Add up all those great nights, and you can make a great life.
Take the Night Off
I Was an Eagle
I Feel Your Love
How Can I
What He Wrote
Love Be Brave
Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)
Blues Run the Game
Television used to work differently. It’s not that the internet has changed everything (though it has). It’s that in the last 15+ years there has been a shift of talent away from film to the small screen. Maybe shift is the wrong word, as it’s not like movies are now awful and all the good creatives (actors, directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, editors) are now working exclusively in TV. It’s more like a democratisation, whereby the spread of talent is more evenly spaced. This is resultant from the fact that it’s harder to create original projects via the Hollywood studio system now than at any point in history; there are also myriad new outlets available that relate to greater home viewing technology, e.g. Netflix, big flat-screen TVs, better streaming, not to mention illegal downloads and so on. Studios want financially driven certainties, and the monetary gap between tent-pole summer bankers (remakes, sequels, comic book franchises) and the smaller films that the big ones allow to be made is now a vast chasm. There’s not much middle ground, few $50-80m movies. It’s either $100-150m (and more) or $30-40m. There are zeitgeist-led exceptions, like 50 Shades of Grey (cost: $40m, box office $558m – who is watching this dreck I have no idea), but the difference is this: you can spend $30-40m on a 10-episode big drama for AMC, or HBO, or Showtime, and get creative control over everything from the writers’ room to the final edit. So who wouldn’t want to do that when the other option is to make your drama into a two-hour movie at a studio where the marketing department have creative input (read: interference from people who have never written a movie) and their script notes make you want to jump out of a window.
It’s a no-brainer and we think we have David Chase to thank for it, because received wisdom has The Sopranos as the ground zero for the start of movie-to-TV slide. And when it comes to adult drama on cable, that’s spot on. The Sopranos changed everything. But if you look further, beyond cult TV and its few million subscribers, and search for wider cultural influence that far outweighs the eyeballs that have ever laid eyes on Boardwalk Empire or Mad Men, you must begin and end with The X-Files. It was not a cult show, just because it was science-fiction, any more than Star Trek and its tens of millions of fans is a cult show. It was watched, hugely, massively watched, on Fox (which every American household has) by 15 million viewers weekly, often topping 20 million between seasons 4-6 (only in the final season did the viewing figures drop a bit and even then they pushed over 9 million). These are figures that not even today’s biggest cable shows – Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead – can dream of. The ‘mythology’ episodes tapped into that very peculiar American mindset of worry, paranoia, suspicion and distrust of the government, which had been growing exponentially since Watergate. It also existed in a pre-9/11 universe – when Americans thought their biggest threats would be domestic; it’s a show with no idea what was coming in relation to global political extremism but it wasn’t such a stretch to create a world that bluntly told its audience how much the authorities were hiding. It never mentioned a sitting president, nor did it make specific reference to politicians, or Congress/the Senate: this was the point; all of the people really controlling American life were faceless bureaucrats (NSA, CIA, FBI et al.) who nobody voted for. In our post-Snowden era, where drones do the work of pilots and the internet and phone companies record and examine our data and behaviours, so much of it seems chillingly prescient. It always cleverly exploited the disconnect between larger issues of privacy, secrecy, government control and interference, tapping into a somewhat libertarian angle, and the simplicity of relationships, out-there individuals, and communities and their dark secrets. As many episodes as there were about the bigger mythology of what’s being hidden from the populace by shadowy government syndicates and, more commonly, the military, there were far more stand-alone stories about the strangeness of small town life. It trod a steady line between the ridiculous and the plausible, and it was funny, exciting, terrifying, gripping, daft, outlandish and believable, and was propelled, as the best shows are, by great writing, sparkling ideas, innovative creativity and electric chemistry.
It’s important to try and quantify some of the influence it has had in terms of the current TV landscape. So what do we have to go on? Let’s start with the obvious. There would be no Breaking Bad without it. Showrunner Vince Gilligan learned his trade writing and producing X-Files episodes; his season 6 episode Drive cast Bryan Cranston as the lead guest and the rest is history. Researching this article has made me realise just how many of my most cherished episodes were his; they must get him back in the summer at least as a consultant, Better Call Saul is just going to have to cope. Then there’s Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa; they’re responsible for 24 and Homeland (talk about paranoid and preposterous, with a lead equal parts brilliantly intuitive Scully and haunted/slightly unhinged Mulder). Writing duo James Wong and Glen Morgan left in season 2 and created the wonderfully trashy Final Destination series; they now write/produce American Horror Story. Michelle MacLaren produced the final two seasons and now works on The Walking Dead, having won Emmys for her work on Breaking Bad. There’s many more… from David Greenwalt (Buffy, Angel, Grimm) to Rob Bowman (Castle), the tentacles of this show reach every corner of TV. Some of the guest writers are a pretty impressive roster: Stephen King, William Gibson, Tim Minear (American Horror Story), Jeffrey Bell (Angel, Alias, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), Chip Johannessen (Dexter, Homeland), John Shiban (Breaking Bad), Steven Maeda (CSI: Miami, Lost).
One of my favourite influences is nicely called The Scully Effect. This details, essentially, how Gillian Anderson encouraged generations of teenage girls to go into science careers. She did this not just because she played a doctor, but because she wasn’t a bimbo. That in itself caused consternation at the network, who wanted to replace her with a Pamela Anderson type (imagine that for a second would you). Chris Carter, the show’s creator, head writer and showrunner, refused, saying simply that this woman had to be believable as a medical doctor and that he had found a gem in this unknown 24-year-old. He dug in and fought for her, and everyone knows what a remarkable actress she has become. She had to be the centre of exposition, every week, reining in her crackpot but brilliant partner, and when she got pregnant one season in Fox fancied this as their chance to get rid of her, but no, Carter wouldn’t have it, so she was written around and prevailed, becoming surely one of the most iconic characters in TV history (though it took her years to get the same pay as Duchovny). Their relationship, off-screen and on, well, that’s a complex issue.
I think part of the magic of the show was their slightly distant relationship in real life. That on-screen crackle, that annoyance at each other’s viewpoints mixed with very obvious sexual attraction, seems to derive from it. They are very different people, and when the show was being made were at very different points in both their working and personal lives. In addition, working a 14+ hour day, 5 or 6 days a week, in beautiful but chilly and rainy Vancouver, doesn’t incline you to go out boozing with your co-worker. They got on, as they sat in the eye of a weird storm together for nearly a decade, but spent time enough together on set. Ironically, the two actors are very close now (and flirt with each other via Twitter, causing the internet to implode into its own event horizon), which makes me wonder about what effect that will have on-screen when the show returns. The X-Files, it is no coincidence, lost all impetus and good sense when Mulder and Scully became a couple (of sorts, they had an alien baby or something, it’s stupid and complicated). I find it best to try and pretend that large swathes of seasons 8 and 9 and the second movie didn’t happen. Having said that, they’re going to have to deal with all of this in the upcoming miniseries, 6-episode revisit/reboot/continuation, whatever you want to call it, which has me feeling a bit cautious. You can tell by now, this show means a lot to me.
I remember seeing a trailer for it on BBC2 – it was, as I have now found out, September 1994. I was 17 and my friends and I had discovered the joys of nightclubs and boyfriends. University beckoned and life was changing dramatically around me. The show had premiered in the US a year earlier, and on Sky in January. This comes back to the pre-internet era, which nobody under 25 even remembers I’m sure. You had to wait, for months upon months, to watch your favourite American shows. I started going online in the mid 90s, I would go to the Manchester branch of Cyberia (the first ever internet café) opposite the Central Library and try not to spoil episodes during my endless visits to rudimentary newsgroups, message boards and websites, or fansites as they were called then (ironically, the founder of Cyberia, Eva Pascoe, is one of my clients now, talk about full circle). I remember waiting a good 10 minutes to load tiny pixelated 30-second trailers for the next episode and gleefully perusing obsessive-beyond-words ‘shipper’ sites (like this one, last updated in about 1998). Shipping, a sub-genre of fan-fiction (which was invented by Star Trek fans in the 60s), where fans write relationships (cf. porn!) between characters/actors/pop stars, was invented by the X-Files. The first shippers were Mulder/Scully devotees and they pounced upon every glance, smile, brush of the arm, bit of chaste flirtation, and if you were very lucky, the odd hug (blogs like this and this make me feel positively normal). It was precisely the lack of on-screen physical contact that caused the tension to thrive at the pace it did. This was purposeful, and when the characters actually got together, once the initial thrill was over (they played it so well, mind you), it deflated the relationship like a Roswell weather balloon. The meta-joke of it all had been explored smartly in the otherwise terrible garbage monster episode Arcadia (season 6), where they posed as a married couple. So, anyway, yes, I saw a trailer – a tall, thin man, with a cigarette in his hand, walking toward the camera, in what turned out to be a Pentagon warehouse with boxes of evidence of all things piled high on either side Raiders of the Lost Ark style: the fruits of the government/military’s labour, working hard to hide their secrets from you. I was intrigued and watched the pilot; instantly, I was hooked. I think I watched the first two seasons on the BBC before getting exasperated with the time delay.
I had a friend called Ellen Singer; we met when I was 11 and she was 15. My first day at secondary school I think gran had taken me and she spotted this, frankly, Jewish-looking girl outside the gates. Not a lot of Jews at Manchester High School For Girls. She asked this girl, essentially, to keep an eye on me and make sure I was ok (thus beginning my tendency to basically have no friends of exactly my own age). She became responsible for my love of both Queen and Star Trek. I would go to her house on Parkhill Drive in Whitefield and hang out with her and Steven, her super geeky nuclear physicist brother. Through them I learned everything there was to know about Trek, X-Men (she was a comic collector), Dungeons and Dragons, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Terry Pratchett and very basic computer games. I used to go round every Sunday night and we’d get Chinese food and watch the new episode of the X-Files on Sky. This went on for years, but we grew up and drifted apart, sadly. Her parents were Conservatives, her father was the Mayor of Bury actually, and as I became more politically aware I realised how different we were ideologically, though it was my departure to university that caused the drift. I still retain great affection for her, however, and her role in my life, and we exchanged some messages when my mother passed.
So after a few years of watching the X-Files at her place, I yet again was driven to realise my need to get hold of episodes faster. I was active online and, I can’t at all remember how, got a penpal. This guy, let’s call him Mike (because that was his name), lived in Iowa and was about twice my age. He was very smart indeed, well-read, liberal, and a porn fan who had his creepy moments. Largely, we had brilliant email interactions, and I learned a huge amount about American politics from him. He worked in a community college in the AV department and had access to dubbing equipment. So the next X-Files era began – he would tape each episode, dub and convert it from the American system of NTSC to the UK system of PAL, sling four episodes on a VHS tape each month and mail it to me in Manchester. In exchange (before you think it, no I didn’t do anything weird for him in return) I would tape him stuff from British TV that he liked, sitcoms and music shows, and I’d find and send over bootlegs (he was a big Beatles/Clapton fan). After the X-Files was over, incidentally, he did the same thing with Buffy. For years we exchanged VHS tapes, in a pre-WeTransfer universe. It was so exciting, to get hold of American TV only a few weeks after they had seen it, and surely before anyone else in the UK who wasn’t similarly enterprising. Even Sky didn’t show the X-Files until 3-4 months after the episodes were on in America. How different the landscape is now, as the internet allows me to watch everything, from Modern Family to the Daily Show, as early as the morning after US broadcast.
There was great excitement in our house when the thud of the tape on the hallway mat took place. I would usually watch the episodes at my gran’s, at the weekend, first, then bring them home for mum and I to watch together. She loved the show, truly. We would howl with laughter at both the funny bits and the scary ones; we had episodes we talked about for years. Like season 3’s Teso Dos Bichos; a very average episode about possessed animal spirits (Scully is attacked by a feral cat, not even kidding) enlivened only by a scene where a mass of rats comes out of a toilet bowl. As a lifelong phobic of both rats and mice my mother would squeal and hide behind her hands at the sight of any ‘Mickey’, as she’d call them, on TV. The idea of rats coming out of a loo when you opened the lid made her jump in the air. I feel the same way about spiders, which remained thankfully absent from any episodes, though season 3’s brilliantly weird and funny War of the Coprophages (fancy word for shit-eaters) makes me squirm to this day even if I think about its thousands of cockroach cast members. We had a particular grim affection for season 5’s remarkable Home – an episode so fucked up and horrifying that it was banned from Fox as soon as it aired and has never been shown on American broadcast TV since (it’s all about multi-generational incest, as soundtracked by Johnny Mathis, and features an inbred woman, who gives birth to her sons’ children, with no arms/legs living on a piece of wood with wheels nailed to the bottom under a bed). How it even made it onto TV I have no idea but it’s still one of my favourites. You can’t watch it late at night. It’s much scarier than The Calusari, the disturbing season 2 tale of a possessed blank-eyed Omen-like child, which still stands as the only episode to be rated 18. My mother would have been so thrilled and excited to watch new episodes, so I expect a raft of mixed feelings when they appear.
Seasons 8 and 9, the final one, had what I consider to be a few nailed-on genius stories. First, season 8’s Redrum, where Joe Morton (now having tremendous fun chewing the scenery as Olivia’s dad on Scandal, surely the best trash on TV) plays out a murder he may/may not have committed, in reverse, travelling backwards through time. The rest of that season… I can barely watch such ropey old guff, where Mulder was dead for three months before he wasn’t. Like I said, I pretend none of the mythology was happening. The stand-alone stories could still be great though. Season 9’s Daemonicus wasn’t bad at all, a big horror episode with a creepy turn by James Remar (the guest stars were always so well cast). John Doe was a creditable, gritty Breaking-Bad-style story (yes, written by Vince Gilligan and directed by Michelle MacLaren) where Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick did a great job given that nobody wanted anyone but Mulder) wakes up with amnesia in a Mexican jail. I don’t even know how to tell you about season 9’s Improbable – this one is about murder and numerology and is super clever and Burt Reynolds (and his weird plastic face), pretty much, plays God. It’s insane and brilliant. Jump The Shark (har-har-meta-joke-or-what) was great because John Gilnitz wrote it and anything with Michael McKean is awesome. John Gilnitz, you should know, is a portmanteau of a writing trio who came up with some of the best episodes: John Shiban, Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz (who knows his stuff on Chris Carter’s level and needs to be part of this new version).
Season 7 is full of gems. There’s Je Souhaite – a genie grants three wishes, it’s very funny and clever and a bit twisted (more Gilligan). Hollywood A.D. – it’s all over the place, huge fun; written/directed by Duchovny, it’s about the Catholic Church, zombies, the counter-culture, the forged gospels of Mary Magdalene, the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of Lazarus, and Tea Leoni (Duchovny’s then-wife) and Garry Shandling play fictionalised versions of Mulder and Scully. It is exactly as bonkers as it sounds. All Things – Gillian Anderson writes/directs and it’s a beautiful, spiritual, very human, oddly moving and Buddhist-influenced meditation on what’s worth fighting for. Signs and Wonders – takes on born-again evangelicals, speaking in tongues and snakes, very creepy. The Amazing Maleeni (more John Gilnitz) – it’s all about magic, sleight of hand, and is worth watching just for real-life magician Ricky Jay’s majestic title character turn. The Goldberg Variation – clever, cause and effect story about the so-called luckiest man in the world. Millennium – a crossover with the other show, this one’s about government conspiracy and Biblical resurrection, and Lance Henriksen is always so watchable.
Season 6 has some superb stories – from Field Trip, where Mulder and Scully get high, accidentally (it’s super trippy) to The Unnatural (gorgeous Duchovny written/directed story about aliens and baseball, with one of the greatest ever Mulder/Scully scenes at the end). It also has Monday, a remarkable gimmick episode where time is jammed (think ST: TNG’s Cause and Effect) and they keep dying in a bank heist over and over. I watched it with mum many times. It has a sad extra dimension now as Carrie Hamilton, daughter of the legendary Carol Burnett, who solves the stuck-in-a-moment story, passed away from the same cancers as my mother, aged only 38, three years after filming. It’ll be hard to watch the next time I put it on. Rain King – super odd, quirky, heartfelt love story about a man who can control the weather (try not to let it be ruined by the guest star Victoria Jackson, now a total nutjob fundamentalist). Terms of Endearment – Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell plays a nice demon who just wants to be a normal dad. Milagro – another quality guest star, John Hawkes, plays a writer who gets obsessed with Scully, this one has some excellent Mulder-in-jealous-mode moments. How The Ghosts Stole Christmas – Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner play a murder-suicide ghost couple trying to get Mulder and Scully to turn on each other. Dreamland – hokey but tremendously fun body-swap comedy double episode where Mulder ends up working at Area 51 and Michael McKean’s Man In Black behaves entirely inappropriately with Scully. Drive – that’s the one without which there would be no Breaking Bad, it’s like the movie Speed with extra exploding brains and secret US Army tests on human subjects; and finally, Triangle – a Wizard Of Oz dream where Mulder goes back to WWII, meets Nazis on an ocean liner and kisses Scully (who isn’t herself), before she punches him in the face. It’s ridiculous, ambitious and brilliantly cinematic, worth watching for the editing and cinematography alone.
I could go on and on back through the seasons but I think that’s enough. There are plenty of places online where you can find breathless praise dished out to the first five years, I just wanted to speak up for the good stuff in the later series. This show is everything to me. You can’t go back and fix things, and trying to better the past is a fool’s errand, so this new version has to be careful. It occupies an affectionate, nostalgic place in people’s minds. I suppose, if it’s great, I’ll be thrilled. If it's not, it won’t affect the love I already have for it. The participants, be they actors or writers/producers who’ve gone on to have successful careers, owe it a debt of gratitude. So it needs to be done right, if we’re going back there again. It has to add something, not detract, and that’s a very difficult task to take on. I hope it all comes together and provides a fitting finale – until the next time in another 15 years, with the pensioner duo uncovering truths and fighting crime, albeit very slowly. Every episode, good or bad, stands as part of TV history. I take heart from the news that Darin Morgan, who wrote three of the best episodes (Humbug, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, Jose Chung’s from Outer Space), is on board, as are James Wong and Glen Morgan (yes, Darin’s brother), who popped back to turn in the nightmare-inducing Home, and penned the terrifying occult ritual episode Die Hand Die Verletzt (season 2), along with season 1 classics like Beyond The Sea, Squeeze, Ice and season 4’s Never Again.
There are many ways to go for these six episodes, and Duchovny has intimated that the first and last will handle and address the larger issues (their part-alien baby!) while the others will do stand-alone stories (which I always preferred). Chris Carter, showrunner overlord, however, has hinted he’s going to tell six stories. But the truth is nobody knows yet, and frankly, you might say six stories isn’t enough to do a great deal of anything. A lot of fans, going by Twitter, want to do a tall alien/government conspiracy tale but I think that’s quicksand. There isn’t enough time to get it going again; the problem with that is that the first movie was a great time to wrap it all up, because I was gripped (and it all made sense) up to that point. But the show was so successful that the natural stopping point never happened and from then on it just became more convoluted and a big mess, culminating in, as previously discussed, the incredibly bad super soldiers/Scully’s alien baby/Mulder’s death-not-death storyline. I hope they acknowledge that but they have to focus on just telling great stories, and must not get trapped in trying to add yet more confusing layers to an already ill-advised set of plot lines/holes. The small number of episodes could work in its favour: it’s not as big a financial commitment as it could be, therefore the pressure is down a little and it lets you tell, but not over-tell, a story or three. A third movie would have been the opposite, eliciting huge pressure (the second one, I say a little kindly, was partially so bad because of the writer’s strike and the rush to film an unfinished draft it caused).
So, quite clearly, there’s a lot yet to be worked out. If you do an analogy with Bowie’s The Next Day: you’ve been away for a very long time, you’re not going to blow it, and detract from your legacy, with crap. The idea itself, a TV show coming back to TV after two movies, is unprecedented as it is. You have to get it right. You need the right players and should take as much time as you can. And the people waiting trust you. But, in this case (unlike The Next Day) now everyone knows it’s coming so you can’t fuck it up. It’s not going to be on cable (that would have been perfect, True Detective-style) so it’ll be a bit watered down for some people, given how much more adult and sophisticated the TV audience’s reduced attention span is now. But if the network just let the creatives at its heart get on with it, it could be everything we want. My level of optimism is climbing by the day. Now all that’s left is to watch every episode before it starts. Come and get me when it’s ready.