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.
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.
Last year, the brilliant Mikal Gilmore wrote a tender, heartfelt piece about Queen that encapsulated what kind of band they were and carefully unravelled the nightmare that saw their end. The subhead was the best summation you could imagine: theatrical, brilliant, excessive and doomed. Of course, they were a million other things too, and there was not only no other band like them, but their leader was… well, what adjectives are left to describe him? I thought of that article this week, in the lead-up to seeing (half of) them live on Sunday January 18th with Adam Lambert, who is going to do a fine job, because he gets it; his American Idol audition was Bohemian Rhapsody.
So why I am writing this? I’m not even certain I want to write anything down for permanence, opening up those old wounds, let alone have anyone read it. I have so many memories and thoughts swirling around my head, some of which are profoundly strange, so I feel uncertain about whether anyone should read this, even if it is a personal catharsis. This band are the most personal to me, more than any other, and their emotional effect is indescribable, more so than Bowie. Perhaps it’s because he’s still here, even if I don’t get to gaze upon that beautiful face in real life anymore. Perhaps it’s because I went through a trauma with them in a way I never have with anyone else. I have never loved a band like I love Queen – that first, teenage, love, right? It never goes away and it is never surpassed. The Beatles and Stones and Zeppelin and The Doors and Dylan and all the rest are the bands of my parents, first. Queen never were. They were mine. My dad doesn’t get it at all. He finds them ludicrous, overblown, preposterous and irritating – he is right on all counts. I learned, recently, that it’s Brian May’s playing that lies at the crux of his allergy, which is a bit of a problem because his sound is Queen as much as the voice. He couldn’t exactly explain what his problem with Brian is, something about wringing the notes out, the very timbre of the sound of his playing is like Marmite to dad, which is funny in a way because he loves old fashioned guitar playing and in July will make me sit through 2 hours of Santana’s scrunchy-faced, over-wrought, endless soloing.
I think (hope) he recognises that Queen have written some great pop/rock songs, but he’s formed in his head a pre-conceived notion that will not change, despite being based only on the ‘famous’ singles they’ve released. If I told him I’d discovered this awesome prog band from the 70s he’d never heard of, and sent him a copy of Queen II with a fake name, he would love it if he thought it was by someone else, for its sheer musicality and inventiveness. The core of their appeal, I think, is that there’s something for everyone. They were wonderfully hit and miss, and god knows there is some real dreck in their catalogue, entire albums with only 2 or 3 good songs. But when they hit it, boy did they hit it. Only Bowie has attempted as many genres, which is probably why he fancied them as a perfect fit for Under Pressure, which let’s face it is a pretty strange record. You know it well, but if you actually listen intently it’s most oddly structured, has no chorus and faintly disturbing and doomy subject matter. They’ve done it all – big pomp rock (what is more ridiculous than We Are The Champions?), massive stadium pop tunes (Radio Ga Ga), vaudeville (Old Fashioned Lover Boy), prog, classical and operatic madness (all in one song, you know which), gorgeous love songs (You’re My Best Friend), novelty records (Bicycle Race), Elvis-pastiche-rockabilly (Crazy Little Thing Called Love), fairly heavy metal (Sheer Heart Attack, Stone Cold Crazy and lots more), even pop funk, Moroder-style, on the not-as-bad-as-you-think Hot Space album (Dancer).
Freddie used to say that they were the most preposterous band that ever lived. I think what sets them apart is sense of humour; a bit like Jethro Tull, and unlike other prog luminaries (yer Genesis, ELP), they knew they were outlandish and it was all rather done with a wink (just give a glance to the video for I Want To Break Free). You may be surprised to hear me say they were prog but for much of the 70s, certainly their first five records, they absolutely were. Every member was a songwriter and had an ear for a great pop song, each contributing plenty to the canon. I forget exactly when I fell for them, but I think it was around the time of The Miracle’s release in mid-1989. I was just starting to get into heavier rock and I Want It All was a big record for me, as was the follow-up single Breakthru (its video is still tremendously fun). I had a friend at the time who loved them and I’m certain she was partly responsible for introducing me to their music. I couldn’t take my eyes off the singer and I fell in love with the brilliant musicians around him instantly – I marvelled at the guitarist’s mastery, ideas and ability to control a song so completely, and of course, I had the biggest crush on the drummer… what a pretty boy he was back in the day. The bassist always seemed out of place, like he’d rather have been a provincial Home Counties chartered surveyor, though he certainly knew his way around the instrument and penned some brilliant songs as well. When he retired from music in 1993 and retreated completely from any kind of contact, except financial, with Roger and Brian, absolutely nobody was surprised.
When they went one man down, on November 24th 1991, they all agreed the band was over – but it just wouldn’t die. After all, what else can touring musicians do? They don’t know how to, nor do they wish to, do anything else. Remember also that they had missed out on the last five years of the band’s touring lifespan and hadn’t played a gig since 1986, at Knebworth. Oh for a DVD of that gig… but having had two shows already filmed in entirety on that tour (Budapest and Wembley) they chose not to film it so it’s lost to the mists of time forever. They wanted to play live again, which is understandable, so in 2005 recruited the very macho, heterosexual, bluesy ex-Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers to front. I thought it was a huge, nay gargantuan, mistake. You don’t have to be gay to sing for Queen (and indeed Freddie himself liked a bit of both in his younger days) but it helps. You have to acknowledge the thoroughly bonkers, camp, heavy and commercial songs and persona that came before you. Doing it straight, no pun intended, was not the right approach. A leaden, lumpen, and worse than anything else, boring set of live shows, and a badly received album, set the band back. I also felt that the We Will Rock You musical, though lucrative and hugely successful, was damaging to the legacy, not least because it’s such a piece of shit. The songs are what they are, and nicely delivered and staged, but my god, you can barely believe the guy who wrote it once did The Young Ones and Blackadder. I suppose, however, it’s kept the band in people’s minds; they are bigger now, it seems, and more sewn into culture than they were during the 18 years (yes, only 18) they were making records.
Another example of poor legacy management, and one which I don’t think much of either, has been to haul out the last demos of songs and work them round, like The Doors did with An American Prayer. Not a lot of quality control going on though when the poor fucker doing the singing is just getting out as many notes as he can until he drops. Last July I did get to stand on the very spot in Montreux he sang his last in (the famous Smoke On The Water casino, now turned into a small but wonderful Queen museum), which was almost unbearably moving. However, I have little desire to listen to bits of songs magically discovered from some old demo (the truly awful There Must Be More To Life Than This, a duet with Michael Jackson, proves beyond doubt that these things should be left on the cutting room floor); let the albums rest as they are. Innuendo was a fine enough swan song, equal parts overdone, heartbreakingly sad, funny, majestic and filler. It was, in fact, when Innuendo, the title track, came out (entering the charts at number 1, which is common now but was almost unheard of in 1991) that I became so devoted. It is an absurd epic, an ambitious and intense six minutes of ageless prog opera (it even includes a flamenco section rendered by Brian and Steve Howe from Yes, it’s that arrogant!) and to this day it makes me walk a little taller when I hear it on the iPod. I bought the album, on cassette, the day it came out. It was shortly after its release when the black clouds started to gather and trouble began to loom, with accompanying whispers and rumours and worries. In early 1991, I was watching the video for Headlong on TOTP when mum came in and told me, for she was as blunt as the day is long, how ill Freddie looked, how gaunt. I was a pretty naïve 14-year-old, quite sheltered, and I said: don’t be daft, he’s fine! What did I know? Absolutely nothing it turned out. I marvel now, and shake my head, just thinking about it because you can see so very crystal clearly exactly the progression of AIDS just from watching the band’s video clips. How could I have not seen it?
He was unlucky enough to have gotten it at a time before the treatments and medications changed the lives of so many millions of people, who are now living long lives with the disease. If he’d contracted HIV even just a few years later he’d probably still be here. It’d be him marrying his handsome Irish partner Jim Hutton, a shy, quiet barber (also now gone, to cancer 5 years ago; if you have the stomach for it, here’s his account of the last days, grab a tissue) instead of Elton and David. It’s possible to make an estimate for when it all began as being somewhere in early 1987, just after he had left Munich (he’d spent several years living there, the city being famous for some of the most bacchanalian gay nightlife in all of Europe) for London. You can see it all, laid bare in the videos he made: the early drugs like AZT could cause bloating, which you can see in 1987 (The Great Pretender), 1988 (the fantastically ridiculous Barcelona) and up to May 1989 (I Want It All). He even grew a bit of a beard to hide the weight gain, which nobody, I don’t suppose, thought was a sign of anything. By Breakthru he is still obviously in very good health but slowly the weight is starting to go. He gets slimmer, slowly, as each video goes by: The Invisible Man, Scandal and The Miracle, by which time he’s certainly looking slender, but still not ill, as such. But, by February 1990, when he made his final public appearance at the Brits, where the band were to receive an honorary award, the truth was naked for all to see. Clean-shaven, dressed in powder blue silk, he looks frail and sick, a completely different human from the master of Live Aid, 4½ years before. And it would get a lot worse.
There had been no video for Innuendo (released in January 1991) and the rumours, among those who knew what they were looking for, began to mount. So the band must have thought, fuck it, let’s just make videos and let history record the truth. The video for Headlong, filmed in late 1990 but released as the third single, concealed nothing but he was still energetic, at least. Then, the monochrome I’m Going Slightly Mad, filmed in February 1991, with Freddie in wig and make-up, also hid nothing (though he was certainly very mobile and expressive). The Show Must Go On, the next single, released in October, had no clip to sell it; Brian’s lyrics are among the most defiantly moving I’ve ever heard, while the vocals were recorded in one take, incredibly. The final video, These Are The Days Of Our Lives (written by Roger, vocalising impending loss and death in the most tender way), was filmed on May 30th, though it was released in December. Finally, there it all was, out there in public – no denying it now. It shows the truth: a man in the last months of his life who can barely stand; it had to be filmed in black and white because the colour rushes were just beyond words, almost impossible to watch. I still find it painful to watch the original video, and when writing this I got in and found the link as fast as I could, choosing not to watch it, because it tends to leave me in tears.
For me, it was a very confusing time, because on some level I think I knew something was wrong (or maybe I really was in complete denial), but I had no knowledge of AIDS; in the very early 90s, most people didn’t know what was really going on, and teenagers certainly had less information and education on these things than most. We had no idea of the entire generations of men being taken in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The tens of thousands in London and San Francisco and New York and countless other cities wasting away in front of their families and friends. The hundreds of funerals friends of mine went to, one after the other, every week. Freddie Mercury was simply one of the 39 million people who have died since the epidemic began. It wasn’t like governments cared: Reagan famously didn’t even say the word AIDS until 1985, by which time thousands were dead. Only gays though, who didn’t vote for him anyway, so it was hardly a surprise that his administration openly laughed at people even asking questions about it as thousands lay dying and in need of medical attention.
The tabloids have pretty much always been filled with craven, judgmental, misogynist, homophobic invective. But what they would find fit to report today is a cakewalk compared to how they treated Freddie Mercury as he had a few months of life left. Instead of going to die in Switzerland, a place he had a beautiful home in, right on the lake in Montreux, he wanted to spend his last days in England, his adopted country. I always saw him as this rather posh, endearingly reserved (very few filmed interviews exist, but in them you can see he was as shy as he could be outlandish), very English bloke, and didn’t know at first he was actually born on a small island (then called Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania) off the coast of Africa and grew up in India, educated in a boarding school (hence the posh accent), before his well-off Gujarati parents fled a revolutionary uprising (to glamourous Feltham, Middlesex) in the early 60s. Mind you, as Zanzibar was an England protectorate he was a British citizen from birth. There was nobody more English in spirit and persona than Freddie.
So, as he wanted to die here, the tabloid press embarked upon a sickening game of hide and seek, as they tried to catch him out, the lying queer, and out him as a sick man, punished by his own promiscuity. To what end? Sales, I suppose, and it became quite the game of cat and mouse as he left home briefly in the early autumn for doctors’ appointments and the like. The final photo caught him on Harley Street less than 2 months before he died – he didn’t leave his house after that. The vernacular they used to sneer and speculate about his health was deeply unpleasant and would never be employed now, even by a piece of shit rag like the Daily Mail. He had no right, it seemed, to live his remaining days in peace. The paparazzi camped outside his Kensington house, where the curtains had to remain drawn for fear of a last, profitable, photo. He had never sought sympathy, and never complained about his lot; he just got on with it. When he told the band, who immediately closed ranks around him, he had said, paraphrasing, “rumours about my health are true but I don’t want to talk about it, I just want to make music until I fucking drop”. That’s what he was like, very matter of fact, unrepentant, and without a shred of self-pity.
Some AIDS activists attacked him for remaining so silent about his illness (and for leaving everything to Mary Austin, his lifelong confidante and partner for six years in the late 60s/early 70s, rather than the man he lived with, who she cut out of all arrangements even as he nursed Freddie to his end; it was a different time, as we say a lot these days) but he didn’t owe anybody the grim details of his health status. The press hounded him to his grave anyway. The Daily Star, and this is the one I really remember, put out a cover a few weeks before his death. It said: “Why are you hiding, Freddie?” The private business of celebrities being in the ‘public interest’ is not a new phenomenon, but that was way over the line. The Sun’s “Tragic face of Freddie Mercury” cover was just another example of his treatment. The same paper, in 1987, had bought a tell-all interview from his assistant Paul Prenter (everyone in the band suspected him as a snake from day one, but Freddie was a trusting type and it broke his heart when Prenter betrayed him; he was paid £32,000 for his betrayal, I hope it was worth it) with the charming headline: “AIDS kills Freddie’s 2 lovers”. He was 45 when he died, which to me seemed ancient at the time. Now it seems like no age at all. To see this virile, masculine, vibrant, tough, resilient, brave, proud man, so full of life, taken down to a bony husk is, to this day, a painful thing to even think about, let alone express out loud, like I’m doing now.
If I sound appalled and ashamed of the tabloid press, I am. He deserved better but there were papers to be sold, and you can’t imagine the virulently homophobic fear-mongering that took place back in those days, with John Hurt’s words on that TV ad terrifying the life out of everybody. I remember the final turn of events like it was yesterday. I was supposed to go and see a Senser gig with my parents on the Saturday night, November 23rd 1991, and for some reason I had started to feel nervous about the news, probably because of the tabloids and their coverage. I was checking Teletext obsessively and up it popped, clear as day: I have AIDS, says Mercury. Even now, in my mind’s eye, I can see the words, in capital letters, on the TV. Frozen in time, in horror, forever.
The rest of the weekend was a blur. I didn’t want to go out, so I just kept reading it over and over. I spent Sunday in shock, watching videos, not knowing what was to come, and so soon. I wondered how long he had left, months maybe? On the Monday morning, November 25th, dad knocked on my bedroom door, came in and sat on the edge of my bed and told me he had died. I refused to go to school and spent the day crying, watching the morning shows and their tributes, my youthful innocence destroyed and turned to ash. Mum bought me the Sun’s commemorative issue. I hadn’t realised the gravity of their treatment of him yet, and I had to read everything. I went to school the day after and this bitch, Laura Edelson (she was quite the entitled cow; her dad was a millionaire businessman and director of Man United), backed me up against a wall by the lockers and laughed at me, remarking that I was stupid because I was upset about a stranger dying. Everyone at school knew I was two things: a City fan and a Queen fan. She didn’t understand how anyone could be upset about losing someone they’d never met. So much for empathy – I hope she’s a nicer person now than the bully she was then. I escaped and found a friend of mine, Louise, who was the only other Queen fan in the school, as far as I knew, and we had a cry together.
I was a fan club member by then, I’d joined at least a year before. Every week the club president, a lovely lady called Jacky Smith, who has been interviewed for Queen documentaries and wrote the band’s official biography, would leave an answerphone message for fans to listen to with the news of the week (oh, the pre-internet days!). I had called the number a few months before and she picked up; we ended up chatting every few weeks for a couple of months after that. I remember so clearly asking her if she thought I would ever see the band live. She said she was sure I would. And I can’t help think of that conversation now, as 24 years later I finally get to see them live, in whatever form. She took time out of her day to comfort a worried teenager, I now think, because she must have known that he didn’t have long left. Though not public knowledge, then, it was, I am certain now, obvious to ‘adults’ exactly what was wrong. I did get to see ¾ of the band live actually at the tribute concert in April 1992, having made a pilgrimage to the fan club offices to get my tickets the day before. That was a special day, one I’ll never forget. There was a great sense of closure, of saying goodbye, and that the whole world was watching and we, Queen fans, must do him proud and sing as loud as we could to make up for the inadequacies of most of the singers attempting to sing his songs. Nobody can ‘be’ him, as that gig proved. A few vodkas, a couple of cigarettes and some vocal exercises was as much as he ever did for a pre-gig regime. There were no half-measures, he was just ready. He was born to do it.
This all cuts so deep with me, reminding me of my own loss of innocence, of that first feeling of losing a stranger and it mattering, and it’s all about to come to a head this weekend. I feel like I’ve waited my whole life for this gig. I know exactly what it’s going to be like. I know exactly how I will feel. The tribute concert was an odd, overwhelming occasion, but it did not, for a second, feel like what a Queen show must have felt like – because it wasn’t trying to be one. It was something else. This show can’t really get close to how it would have been to see them for real, but it’s as much as I will ever get. How different the outcome of this band could have been, but this is how it is now. My only chance is here.
“As long as there’s me, as long as there’s you…”
On January 8th 2013, David Bowie’s 66th birthday, he dropped a bomb on an unsuspecting public: a new single ; with a new album, The Next Day, to follow in March; then, we got a second video just before February’s end; and finally, ten days before the album’s release, an iTunes stream. Following nearly a decade of semi-retirement (or was it misdirection?), the release of Where Are We Now? was a PR masterstroke that provoked an astonished outpouring of love and excitement among starving acolytes. Nobody knew it was coming – even The Outside Organisation, Bowie’s long-time PR company, didn’t know until Christmas 2012. In the cold light of day, he did nothing except make a record and keep it a secret. He did this in our online era, where everyone is over-sharing, stealing music is commonplace, the music industry is transforming, against its will, and most public figures can’t buy a pint of milk without media training. In the process, he made what could have been a drip-drip publicity campaign of teasing and snippets and buzz that would have cost millions completely obsolete. There was a rush to explain how on earth this had happened. Sony’s president, Rob Stringer, was so peeved with the perception that he might not have known about the existence of an album his own label was releasing that he insisted on a correction to a Guardian piece that had dared to claim he found out at the same time as the PR agency. He knew in October, he snorted, desperate to appear to be two extra months inside the loop. He didn’t know earlier because Sony obviously didn’t fund the recording – and if record labels aren’t paying for that old staple, what do they even do now? He is oblivious, seemingly, to his own irrelevance – the joke of being so unimportant to an artist comically lost on him.
As I sat, with The Next Day’s iTunes preview before me, I felt like I’d been given a 14-course Michelin-starred meal all at once and was expected to eat every last morsel. Reviewers got a couple of hours in a darkened room with this album. What a task to demand of them: to write defining reviews for serious newspapers , magazines and websites with only a couple of plays under the belt, the first of which is really just reverberation from the shock of the existence of the album in the first place. What’s the point of such secrecy anyway – to prevent leaks? The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing because the album started streaming online 10 days before the release date and can now be easily found, online, for free. The music industry have given up trying to sell music at all but PR companies can’t let go of their tiny measure of control. How pointless. But then, half way through my second play, I was driven to write something too, and it felt possible. Perhaps that’s the lesson of these past two months – everything is possible.
We will each have our own unique relationship with The Next Day. There’ll be teenagers coming to him anew, with this album being the first one they’ll have bought (or stolen). What must it feel like to be at the beginning of such a journey? They have untold riches ahead. But whether you’re a kid or Bowie’s age, you’ll have your own personal connection to this album. I can only talk about my own. My first play was rushed, as I was heading out of the house, and I barely heard anything, I couldn’t take it in. Later that same day, I closed the door and the curtains, turned the light off, put on my headphones and pressed play. As the album was nearing its end, about half way through How Does the Grass Grow? I realised that tears were rolling down my face. Why that song in particular I have no idea. It was just too much, perhaps, and it all got concentrated into that one moment. I’ve lost so much in the last year, and while I have never written about it, never felt the desire to write down how I feel, and have felt, I found myself crumbling to a moment of loss, of my own sadness.
Since I lost my mum my heart has hurt every single day. She would always ask me when Bowie was going to make his comeback, and I’d tell her it didn’t look likely at all. And no matter what anyone says now, it fucking didn’t. In a millennium, I could never have told my mum that I thought he was secretly working on an album. I had no clue, none of us did. So she will never know this joy, she will never hear this record. She was the first person I would have called on that breathless day, January 8th. She loved him and would have been so happy about this unexpected turn of events. She would have watched the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) a dozen times. That I never got, and will never get, to tell her has caused a sadness that will never leave me. And yet, this record does what it’s supposed to do, at its very heart – it makes me happy.
During the creation of any album, there are a thousand creative decisions to be taken. Whether you make an album that takes two weeks or two years, it’s all about the roads you choose to take. I couldn’t possibly trust Bowie more than I already do to make the right choices and, expectedly, every element of this album has been carefully picked to work and fit together. Every guitar break (the three-pronged attack of Gerry Leonard, David Torn and Earl Slick works wonderfully throughout), bass line, horn and string part, and every insistent, powerful, drum beat is filled with conviction; every lyric and thought is crafted with precision and passionate expression, and every charismatic vocal delivery employs the guile and instincts of the seasoned actor he is. He has created an entire world in which these songs live.
Visconti wasn’t kidding when he said the single wasn’t indicative of the album. The whole experience of listening to The Next Day is to find yourself battered around the head by a man who is letting his silence on life, love, death, war, history, religion and politics end. And yet, and this is the crucial point, this is an artistic statement of someone who wants to fight. It is an angry record, one that expresses vicious and contemptuous judgement, but it also talks of the journey of mortality; it’s partially reflective, true, with the odd look back, but it’s very much thematically rooted in the present, in the world he’ll leave for his daughter one day. It would be easy to say that this bit sounds like it could be on Lodger, that bit is straight out of Scary Monsters and so on. But such flourishes are the lesser strokes of a paintbrush on a huge canvas; The Next Day very much lives and breathes in the present. It has its own personality and will find its own place in the canon. You knew it would, because he is far too clever to put something out after this length of time that didn’t stand proudly alongside the rest. Every decision made is a careful one, and there’s nothing wrong with employing his famed level of control freakery if you’re adding to a back catalogue of such immensity.
The first thing that knocks you over is the remarkable pace it sets off at, with the title song having more than a touch of Tin Machine’s abrasive propulsion as it tells a dark tale of medieval death on the gallows. Dirty Boys is like the sex cousin of Sister Midnight , with a groove so filthy you could imagine a tassel-twirling burlesque performer getting off to it in a Soho dive bar. The Stars (Are Out Tonight), divested of its staggering video accompaniment , is a solid gold pop hit, with wonderful melodic work from Gerry Leonard and David Torn and a gorgeous Visconti string arrangement. The dramatic Love Is Lost tells a dynamic yet indifferent, lonely tale of displacement, which seems to lead perfectly into Where Are We Now? For all the talk of nostalgia, it’s the only track that harks back, lyrically at least, to bygone times. When you know you have more years behind you than ahead, and the gift to siphon those feelings into a creative outlet, the desire to blink for a second and allow for reflection is understandable. But it’s a fleeting moment before we’re off again, into a lovely, light pop song, Valentine’s Day, though the subject, a troubled and dark-minded protagonist, muddles its musical sweetness. The face-melting If You Can See Me follows, a song ambitious and portentous enough to have sat comfortably on Outside. The time signature alone is a blood twister and the chemistry of the brilliant Tony Levin and Zachary Alford makes the song what it is.
It’s at this point that there’s a dip, which after the blast of the first seven tracks feels like a surprise. But then again, Scary Monsters aside, it’s par for the course that a Bowie album has a filler or two, which is no crime. Dancing Out in Space is pretty pedestrian (and the title, good as it is, inevitably makes me think of Flight of the Conchords ) and I’d Rather Be High and Boss of Me (great verses, prosaic chorus) are just good songs, they’re not great. But so what? It’s an album where the ideas spill forth unrestrained, and that’s worth a couple of tracks you know you’ll skip after you know it all better. The odd bit of imperfection is offset by huge swathes of intensity and dazzling quality. How Does the Grass Grow? is beautifully crafted and seems to have some combination of cadence and timbre that makes my tear ducts overflow. How does it do that? (You Will) Set The World on Fire is a mammoth track, with a Slick guitar line Pete Townshend would be proud of. It’s the kind of song that he tossed off in the 80s and, because of his general disinterest in his own music during that period, would have let become submerged amid layers of someone else’s production control. Here, it’s powerful, sleek and insistent.
And then, we get to You Feel So Lonely You Could Die (nice title nod to Heartbreak Hotel). If you’re thinking that this straight-ahead rock album is perhaps lacking something, a big overblown epic, say, this is your moment. Bowie knows exactly what he’s invoking here, and you can do nothing but marvel at its sheer bloody cheek. This extraordinary song, a companion piece to I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (itself a parody of a Morrissey homage), or even the hallowed Rock and Roll Suicide, is completely thrilling. It pulls you back and forth, it emotionally exhausts you, and the delivery is off the scale. And just when you think there’s no more emotional heft it can give or receive, as it fades away the drum beat of Five Years comes in and you almost burst out laughing at its brazen flamboyance, arrogance and utter ostentatiousness. The Scott Walker-esque Heat, the album’s closer, is like a Tuesday comedown, a mesmerising mantra-like chant not unlike Heathen.
There are no accidents here. There are no half-thought ideas executed with flippancy. The playing is exemplary and Visconti’s production is imbued with the love and respect and skilled invention that 40+ years of friendship and understanding brings. He knows what’s needed, he knows how to add the right touches intuitively, and the shorthand of their relationship is stitched into every track. Every musician who has spent time making this record has done it with love and devotion in their heart. Asked to keep the album’s existence a secret from those closest to them for nigh on two years, without blinking, without argument, the deal was done. Everyone wants to do their best for him and will wait a decade to get a call then accept the invitation without pause or even a thought of complaint.
All Bowie albums are pictures of his mind in particular moments. Has this set been formed over the last couple of years or has he been collecting and creating, bit by bit, since he walked off stage at his last public performance, the 2006 Black Ball? We will never know, but we do know that recording took place in fragments over two years. Sessions lasting a week, then not a call for months; another couple of tracks, then more silence for more months, until he was ready. If there was external pressure to record or tour, via demands from a record label, from management, from fans, from anyone, he paid little attention. There are no interviews, no explanations. The album says everything he wants to say. He ignored everyone to walk around New York in a baseball cap, and do the odd movie cameo and the school run, and this is what we got.
It’s such a gift, and one I never expected. It’s overwhelming. I could overanalyse it if I wanted. I could try and figure out if, had it come out 18 months after Reality, whether I’d love it this much. I could try and place it in the larger canon and measure it up against albums that have meant so much to me. I could try to think about whether his long absence is affecting how I feel about it. Or I could just answer the simplest question – does listening to it make me happy? Because after all the words are spoken and written, after all the discussion and critical evaluation, and in mind of all of the happiness that I’ve been unable to feel for a year, all that matters is whether it makes me happy. Yes. It makes me happy.
By anyone’s standards, the last few days have been groundbreaking and historic. Where to start? I see I haven’t written anything in this blog for a year, I can’t say why really, perhaps I’ve just not been feeling the writing since last summer. Anyway, doesn’t matter: this one is certainly full of incident. So, it’s a football blog, but it’s really more about family, as football always is. It’s about my dad, my team, civic pride, community, togetherness, and feeling connected to total strangers. Best of all, it has a happy ending.
How many years have I had to take shit from Manchester United fans? It started when I was a kid, one of three City fans in the school. At least it seemed that way, there may have been a few more, but they wanted to avoid being mocked so they probably kept quiet. This was in the late 80s through to the late 90s, a period where the reds had started to win every trophy going and the blues were hiding in the corner, with a collection of comical mishaps in our recent past – awful players, inept management and increasingly bitter fans. The United and City paths had been similar, pretty much, and then started to diverge wildly in 1990 when United won the FA Cup, then bagged a European title in 1991, and then in 1993 collected their first Premier League trophy for 26 years.
And the years came and went and City got worse and United got better (and spent plenty of cash on players incidentally, throughout) and the jokes became more painful and the relegations started. The phrases ‘Typical City’ and ‘Cityitis’ were invented, to describe our state, which you had to laugh at, otherwise you’d cry. We were a laughing stock, a once-great club reduced to rubble, patronised and ridiculed in our own town. On the rare occasions where we’d play United we’d take our beating in good humour and go slinking back to our corners. This was my life: my youth, my school years, my teens and my twenties. The final indignity came in 1998, when we were relegated to League One (the third tier of English football) and scrambled for points at teams with tiny followings, who welcomed us with glee to their grounds like it was their cup final. Humiliations aplenty followed, which included a defeat to local club Bury, who got the result of their lives by beating us 1-0 at Maine Road. As a student at Bury College, at the time, I don’t have the words to describe how painful that Monday morning was.
But we fought, and with an inspirational captain and leader, Andy Morrison, whose book I later edited, we ground out results and got to the play-off final, where I witnessed the single greatest football moment of my life in my friend Aron’s living room. Aron, a rabid United fan, cheered right along with dad and I, never thinking I’m sure that this lowly team would ever rise up to challenge his. A few days earlier United had won the treble of course (Premier League, FA Cup, Champion’s League) and held a victory parade through the city centre, where they flaunted their hard-won trophies. City were too embarrassed, understandably, to make much of a fuss about winning the third tier play-off final and shuffled off to toil some more. I remember thinking: what would it be like to go to such a parade? To be so proud of your team, instead of having them disappoint you all the time?
Our League One support had remained strong, with average crowds of 28,000 in that season, but we all knew how important Dickov’s goal was – it changed the future of the club forever. We got promoted again the year after into the Premiership, and then relegated again the season after that. I resigned myself to forever loving, unendingly, with passion and heart, a team who might escape relegation, or even become Premiership mid-table, at best. After the Commonwealth Games in 2002 was over we leased the newly built stadium in East Manchester and made our move. At first, the place was cold and empty, and even now suffers from atmosphere issues, as all big new open stadia do. It had no history. But what were we mourning? We hadn’t created anything at Maine Road worth remembering since the 70s. We bounced up and down between Premiership and Championship (second tier) and then finally attained some kind of stability, thanks to a shrewd businessman, and lifelong City fan (and now FA Chairman), David Bernstein. We got so desperate we let a former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was a criminal, take control of the club in 2007. He spent a few quid, and we did ok with Eriksson as manager, but it was always doomed to fail. And then, somehow, in what might be called the greatest bit of tourism PR in history, an oil-rich sheikh went and bought the club in September 2008. This fella, Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi, a member of the royal family, just suddenly decided he wanted to put his country on the global map, having seen Dubai start to dominate as the Middle East destination of choice. Apparently, he fancied Everton but lost interest as soon as he saw their stadium. But ours, yes, he liked it. So, we became a billionaire’s toy.
And believe me, no-one gave a shit about the money, the issue of so-called ‘selling out’ – partly because we were desperate, and partly because the owner was a crook and we wanted rid of him. It became clear very quickly that Mansour was a very different person from Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich, the previous big-bucks club owner, who had spent half a billion on Chelsea. The sheikh lived in Abu Dhabi, didn't move to England, didn't interfere in transfers, didn’t tell anyone how to run the team (Abramovich, it should be noted, does all of these things and more) and in fact didn’t even come to games (though we’re told he watches every minute of every match). Instead, he gave the Thai villain’s managerial choice, Mark Hughes, a chance and installed a very smart, Boston-educated businessman called Khaldoon al Mubarak to be the chairman and run things. Hughes wasn’t up to the job, we all knew, and sure enough he made a right mess of things, spent wisely on only half of his targets, and was replaced (in a badly handled transition) by Italian Roberto Mancini, a ruthless but fair tactician who, following a glittering career as a striker, had built teams at Fiorentina and Lazio before assembling Inter Milan’s side, which went on to win three scudettos in succession. Mancini is, one might say, a control freak: he does it his way or out you go. With his players - he’s not their mate, like Keegan was; he’s not there to kiss their arses or hug them if they’re feeling down; he’s there to win, and if you don’t like it you can leave. Or, if a player behaves badly and apologises, he’ll wait for them and then wipe the slate clean. Hard but fair, always. In his first full season we won the FA Cup. I never thought I’d be so happy again, and then came Sunday May 13th 2012.
We’ve been the best team in England this season, and we’ve scored more and let in less than our nearest rivals, who just happen to be our lifelong bullies Manchester United. We’ve spent money wisely, we’ve weathered storms of all types (including player misbehaviour, to put it kindly) and we came back when it looked like we’d bottled it in March. After the Arsenal defeat on April 8th, at which time we found ourselves eight points behind United, all I heard was how they’ve been here before, they’ve got the experience coming into the final month, and that they’d see us off just like they had everyone else. Well, not this time. While they are still a very very good team they are not the force they once were. They saw the whites of our eyes, coming up fast behind them and, like their fans, they didn’t know how to handle it. So, they panicked while we won six in a row. We won't be brushed off so easily now. We spent money fast and improved faster and they aren’t going to have everything go their own way any more.
We started to eat away at those eight points. And again, I heard about their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, being the master of the mind games, letting no other manager best him. And then he went up against Roberto, he cracked up on the touchline at some perceived slight and got up in his face at the home derby and, instead of backing away, as all managers do when confronted with the red-faced grandfather of them all, the greatest club manager of all time, our fiery Italian manager went toe-to-toe, snapping back at him. It was a watershed moment – you will not push us around anymore. You will not bully us. Everything will not go your way. We are not your inferiors, your rivals to be patronised, no longer. We won the derby and our celebrations were muted – we did a job we had to do, we have more in our sights now than just beating United. By then, United had already crumbled to a defeat at fighting Wigan (which I predicted) and slipped to a crazy home draw with Everton after leading by two goals, twice (which I had not). After a sleepless night I watched us play like champions away at Newcastle last weekend, the goals scored by the colossus that is Yaya Touré, who had also scored the winning goals in the FA Cup semi and final last year.
And so, to the final game of the season: home to QPR, managed by Mark Hughes, the man shifted out. He held grudges, it was said, he wanted revenge, which he denied, and he was an ex-United legend. It was all set up for Cityitis, for Typical City to screw it up. We very nearly did. We should have won the title a month ago, but we choked, and then United choked, and now it was all down to this one game. We couldn't win it 5-0, that’s not how we do things. We must drain out the last drop of nerve-shredding stress from every fan that has waited 44 years for this moment. In 1968, the last time we won the league, my dad was 17, and he missed the winning game because he was working and had to read about it in the Football Pink (a Manchester Evening News supplement printed one hour after the match ended). He’s now, he won't mind me saying, 61. When I was a kid, I would run down the street to greet him as he returned from every miserable home match. One year I said, ‘dad, will you shave your beard off if City win the title?’ I’d never seen him without a beard, which he grew after his father died in 1979. He laughed and said yes – I promise you; it was a safe bet back then. He said to me yesterday that he’d said yes because at that time there was more chance of him becoming Pope than us winning the title.
Both he and I had been more than nervous before the QPR match – for a week, I’d barely slept. We were both totally out of our minds. We had put so much into this. Just one win against struggling QPR was all we needed. We had the same points as United and they’d need to win by 10 goals if we both won. Considering how much better we’ve been than everyone, United included, this season, I wasn’t thrilled about it going to goal difference but never mind that, I was ready to take it. It’s said that City fans are obsessed with United. This is true. I guess it’s to be expected if you share your lives, your workplaces and your schools with them every day. I’ve been outside of that for 12 years now, having left Manchester in 2000, and I care far less about United than most blues do. It’ll always be that way back home, I suppose, since we share the city. But now they’re wondering if they’re looking at a coming era where they’ll soon feel how we’ve felt for the last 20 years.
The match was tense, and we had all the play but couldn’t break through. Yaya Touré’s last act of the season, before leaving the pitch at half time with an injury, was to set up Pablo Zabaleta for the opening goal. I was cautiously happy but I feared what was to come, without our midfield lynchpin. The second half began and the fans roared but the Cityitis tension grew, and then QPR scored twice. Doom enveloped us all, overwhelming crushing darkness. For 25 soul-flattening minutes we all just stood/sat where we had watched/listened to the matches all season, gaping in horror: the fans in the ground, dad on the bed listening to the radio (where he can see the stadium from the bedroom window) and me watching the match illegally on my laptop. We were going to screw this up, consign ourselves to a tag of history’s greatest chokers: we would never recover from this. United, despite being an average team, and desperate enough to have a midfield three with a combined age of 108, were going to win a 20th title. Worlds turn on such moments. I would have cried if I hadn’t been so numb. I got up from my chair and went to lie down on the bed. I stared at the ceiling. After all this stress, we weren’t going to do it.
But much like in that Gillingham game, when Dickov scored that club-saving goal, the universe realised that we had had to take enough of being shit, being maligned, being lesser than. In the 92nd minute our hard-working and determined striker Edin Džeko scored to equalise. But I didn’t move, it felt even crueller, to be one goal away from the title. United’s game finished, they had won their match and were ready to start celebrating. Thirteen seconds passed between the end of United’s game and what happened next. Before another thought could even get into my messed-up head, the commentator started screaming. AGUERO!!!!! GOAL!!!!! With the last kick of the season our handsome, talented, absolutely no trouble, striker Sergio Agüero , the son-in-law of Maradona no less, made time stop as he skipped round Nedum Onouha (QPR defender and lifelong City fan) and decisively blasted the ball into the net. Off his shirt came and absolute hysteria erupted . I jumped off the bed, sank to my knees and started to cry, simply praying for the final whistle. One long minute later, we were champions of England.
My phone lit up like an Xmas tree, and I talked to some friends through sobs. I called my dad. We shared our total disbelief of what we had just heard/seen. We were simply and genuinely in shock. This doesn’t happen to us, this kind of blinding triumph. We’re famous for getting it wrong, for falling down, and we always lose. United always have the last laugh. I was delirious. Without thinking, I booked a train ticket to Manchester, after calling the local radio station and confirming that the victory parade was on for the day after, and just floated to Euston. I was home in time for Match of the Day, which we watched half in joy, half in tears. I met dad at 4pm the day after in town and we got a spot among our fellow blues in Albert Square, in front of the Town Hall, a most stunning building. We were with our people. I’ve never seen so many scallies in all of my life. Yes, they’re chavs, but they’re my chavs! There were babies, toddlers, little ones, teenagers, students, mums and dads, middle-aged couples, pensioners – to a man, woman and child they were in joyous shock. Everyone had their match-day tale. For the players, it looked like this . To my eyes, it looked like this:
Truly, it was one of the best days of my life, of our lives – to share this with dad was unimaginably special and momentous. We dragged ourselves home, and I was so excited I actually tripped and fell up my own front steps. But that was it, the day that marked the end of Cityitis, the day that consigned Typical City, always screwing it up, to history forever. And yes, dad is going to keep his word on the beard bet.
So, exhausted, I got the train home this (Tuesday May 15th) morning. But that’s not even the end. I had a reserved seat, but for some reason kept walking and sat one coach down, for no particular reason. With 10 minutes to go of the journey, I got up and turned towards the rest of the carriage.
My gaze alighted on two very handsome men sitting two seats behind me. And then I had this moment. My City shirt registered on his face, which broke into a warm smile of recognition, my brain registered that I knew him and in a split second I realised that it was Kolo Touré, the City defender, who was looking back at me, sitting next to his youngest brother Ibrahim. Not all footballers are the same, and from the press you’d sense that most are boorish drunken hooker-shagging oafs. This guy, from the Ivory Coast, a civil-war-torn country, has always been different. He has always been a model professional, and he has always behaved in the correct way. Last year he made a mistake: he was so worried about his weight (despite looking like a Greek statue) that he took his wife’s diet pills, failed a drug test and was banned for six months. He took it on the chin, apologised (even though the team doctor had told him the pills were fine to take), never complained, and worked his arse off to stay fit. After his ban ended, he returned as a squad player, and was welcomed back with open arms. Fellow defender Joleon Lescott had usurped him in the team, taking his place in his absence, and he never complained. His younger brother Yaya had become the team’s heartbeat, totally overshadowing him, and he never complained. He never went crying to the press, and he never banged on the manager’s door demanding why he wasn’t in the team. When our majestic captain Vincent Kompany was banned for four games he slotted into the team and held the defence together. When Kompany returned he again went to the sidelines, and he never complained. When Lescott was injured, without a word he took his place and played superbly. When Lescott was fit, he lost his place again and he never complained. He is a team player.
So when I saw him, it didn’t occur to me to do anything but what I did. We exchanged a look of two people who, despite not knowing each other, had been through something together. I held my hand out, and he shook it. I burbled something – I think I told him how long we had waited for this moment, how old my dad was when we last won the title, how old I was and how I thought this day would never come – and I looked him in the eye and just said thank you. You don't know what this means to me, to my family, to all of us. He was kind and gracious. I shook his hand one more time, thanked him again, and walked down the train. Imagine that, to get a chance to personally thank a hero: I will never forget it. I called dad immediately, who was incredulous that I’d met him and that he hadn’t been sitting in first class. I then bumped into a guy who said ‘Did you see Kolo? He’s in that carriage, in standard class?!’ Footballers are reviled, honoured, worshipped, envied and hated. They’re millionaires, and we’re surprised when they behave like human beings. This last couple of days I’ve seen players strain every sinew to do something for fans like me. I don’t give a fuck how much they’re paid or how much we’ve spent. They did this for us. And today, the city is ours.
Used by figures such as Churchill, Gandhi and Pope John Paul II, the quote above, or a variation on it, has its original roots in The Bible. Its invocation is designed to inspire us into action to help those less fortunate than ourselves. But one can’t pick and choose when it comes to which of those considered vulnerable is most deserving of our concern and care. If you work in a field where the goal is to gain greater understanding of, and provision for, special needs children or adults nowhere does it say that you can’t also find it in you to care for the elderly. If you devote time to raising awareness of, and building structural support for, those who are impoverished by geography and circumstance you can also fight for those who are denied decent working conditions by their employers. It might come down to a battle for civil rights, whether that takes the form of marrying the person you love or protecting the people around you from harm.
And if those in need can’t speak for themselves you can and should stand and speak for them. Another version of the quote, as Gandhi related it, is as follows:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
When I’ve spoken about my concern for animal welfare in the past I have occasionally been met with rolled eyes. Animals matter less than people and wouldn’t my time be better spent speaking up about the welfare of children, workers and so on? As if I should have only a certain amount of concern to spare and as if it’s an imperative to rank causes of interest in order of socially accepted importance and then allocate time in the day one should give them. Is the welfare of my family more important to me than the life of an animal in a factory farm? Yes. Does this mean I can’t regale anyone who will listen with appalling tales of factory farming? No.
As a Western consumer, I’m fortunate to have a great deal of choice at my fingertips and a wise friend once told me that the greatest power you have is where you spend your money. Four years ago I chose to never eat another sentient being. Before then I never spoke out on animal welfare issues because I felt a hypocrite. That’s just me – there’s nothing to stop any carnivore from being active in animal rights matters.
My choice often provokes a curious defensiveness. I’m quizzed with suspicion on my choice of footwear material, whether I buy goods from China, eat Nestle products or avoid Nike. If I fall down on any of these standards I’m told that I’ve failed to live the life I preach about. I’ve never claimed that it’s possible to go through any given day without sometimes having to make regrettable choices: you just try to do the best you can. Defending one’s choices is part of trying to be a person of conscience, I’ve found out. However, I do notice that vegans never question me on why I’m not one of them!
I’m often asked if being a vegetarian is hard, if it’s expensive and (the classic) if I eat fish. I smile and say no to all three. The latter question is the most common, so much so that labels like pescetarian have been adopted into common language – as if eating a fish didn’t count somehow. Well, it’s not as cute as a lamb is it? Never mind that we’ll run out of fish to eat before we run out of land to raise lamb chops on.
By making these choices and talking about them, am I subconsciously telling those who make the opposite ones that their choices are wrong? I don’t mean to but perhaps I am. I’ve never tried to convert anyone to vegetarianism, but I don’t mind presenting information should the moment arise. I’m a bore to my family, telling them tales of animal cruelty I have learned of. But even in the delivery of information, sneaking it into family dinners or events, I do my best to take the McCartney family approach, even if I lean towards a cheeky Meat Is Murder reference now and then.
Morrissey, who guilted a generation into putting down their mince, is of the militant, aggressive variety of animal rights advocates. He doesn’t care if anyone listens, he doesn’t care who makes him an enemy and he doesn’t care if anyone agrees; he’ll say his piece regardless. He won’t bite his lip about any subject and certainly not about animal welfare – many of his own fans recoil in annoyance at his on-stage sermons about eating ‘flesh’ and animal experimentation. A kindlier polar opposite, Paul McCartney, appeals to the emotional and practical side – he stopped eating meat in 1975 upon seeing a happy lamb outside the window of his farm, he promotes healthy meat-free eating by continuing the pioneering work his late wife started with her cookbooks and cuisine and his daughter Stella has recently completed designs on the Queen’s guard’s bearskin hats in faux fur. This Morrissey Vs McCartney scale is the difference between the eye-catching and aggressive shock tactics of PETA (who certainly gain victories, if not friends, by the truckload) and the reasoned and intelligent campaigns of the organisation Compassion in World Farming.
A friend took me to a CIWF meeting last year and, while I do support and appreciate PETA’s stunts, from naked models to forceful lobbying, I found that the practical idealism of the CIWF lectures spoke to me. Their approach was simple enough. People are going to eat meat. Most will never give it up. But what they can be persuaded to do is find a moment to think about what they’re eating and how it arrived on their plate. At the
It helps my case that the British public is, on the whole, a compassionate nation of animal lovers. One can’t imagine this country tolerating a condition I read about on a farm in Japan where, to prevent the pigs from moving in their cramped cages, a metal spike was speared through their jaws to keep them stationary.
Of course there are endless issues to address: animal labour worldwide in zoos, circuses, bullfighting, horse-racing and more; the passion for hunting that some barbaric sections of, among others, Africa, America and Canada still have; the status symbol dogs that I see far too often in the UK and the now sadly resurgent appetite for the fur industry. It would certainly also be desirable to break the hold that cheap, poor quality fast food has but doing that would be partly connected to breaking the hold that cheap, poor quality booze has and that, I fear, is a mission too far!
It is the issue of factory farming that is most easily addressed and prime for legislation and change.
So can we all agree on one thing at least? That if you must eat animals they should be treated well before slaughter. If you’re going to eat them, why not avoid torturing them during their short lives? Of course, there are different levels of torture. There’s being kept in cages, never seeing the light of day. There’s being mistreated by workers at slaughterhouses before the throat-slitting day comes. But there is only one delicacy that has physical torture built into rearing: foie gras, recently described to me as ‘animal water-boarding’.
The literal translation of foie gras is fatty liver. Mostly produced in France, it is made from ducks and, to a lesser extent, geese. For a few weeks prior to slaughter, the animals are subject to gavage, French for ‘to gorge’. In short, it’s force-feeding. A tube is inserted into their throats and two or three times a day they are pumped full of boiled maize and fat, in order to increase the size of the liver by up to ten times, which then leads to production of an expensive and, I’m told, delicious meal. After this process many farms then put an elastic band around the animal’s neck to stop it from throwing up the food.
During the rearing period, it’s possible that some of these birds may have access to the outdoors but not enough to produce their natural behaviour. If they are allowed outdoors, they can forage for food but are not given any other food before the force-feeding begins. However, it’s more likely that they are confined in tiny cages, day and night before being slaughtered at six months old. This force-feeding in human terms would be like having 45 pounds of pasta pumped into your stomach every day. It’s cruelty, it’s torture and for what? So posh restaurants with pretentious menus can serve it to their customers.
Force-feeding for foie gras production is prohibited or prevented by general animal welfare legislation in many countries, including most provinces in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. EU laws that allow free movement of goods mean importing it can never be banned so a consumer boycott is the only option. The following places, in London alone, still serve it:
As Harrods continues to sell foie gras, chains such as Selfridges, House of Fraser and Harvey Nichols have banned it. AirCanada, AirAsia, Virgin, United, Delta, SAS and KLM have removed it from their menus. It has been removed from menus at all royal functions, thanks to Prince Charles. Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Tesco, Whole Foods and Asda will not stock it while Waitrose sells CIWF-approved ‘faux gras’. And thanks to Tamara Ecclestone, PETA’s foie gras campaign ambassador, it has been removed from the menus of Formula One teams such as Williams, Cosworth, Mercedes, Red Bull and Lotus.
I’m sure foie gras tastes great - people wouldn’t eat it otherwise. The choice is your stomach or your conscience. Whether you love animals or couldn’t care less about them, anyone with an ounce of compassion shouldn’t sanction and participate in this kind of cruelty.
It had been somewhat of a strange week in Manchester. With the services to commemorate the Munich air disaster 50th anniversary hanging over the proceedings like a grey, sad cloud the match almost didn't matter. But they still wanted it to be perfect, and so they should. Perhaps the occasion got to Man United a little - or perhaps saying that is just a way of taking some credit away from my magnificent team. A team I have been so rarely proud of like I was yesterday. I've spent my entire life being disappointed by my team, Manchester City. They have consistently failed to do anything matching our richer, more popular neighbours, Manchester United, for nigh on 20 years now.
You can trace the history and traditions of the city of Manchester through its football teams. In the 50s, when both teams were good and one was struck by tragedy. In the 60s and early 70s when both teams were excellent, as good as each other. In the 80s when both teams were pretty poor. And then, a turning point - September 1989. A Maine Road hammering of United by City, scoreline 5-1. The United fans shouting 'Fergie out' at the hapless manager. But from then it turned. They won the then Rumbelows Cup in 1990 and capitalised on that with the European Cup Winners Cup in 1991. And from that point City have descended while United have prospered. They have become the biggest, richest, best supported team on earth while City have struggled in the doldrums. Now, with new investment we have started to rise, very slowly, from the ashes. I can't say where it will all end. I'm quite sure we will never be as famous or popular as them and nor would I wish to be. They're welcome to their overseas superstores and lucrative Dubai trips. I care about my team first. I'm a City fan, not a United hater.
At first it seemed like having the Old Trafford derby the weekend after the Munich anniversary was a pretty poor idea. Both clubs had the chance to object and, for reasons unknown, didn't. Rumour flew that some City fans (not really fans – United haters first, City fans a distant second, I have no respect for those people) were planning to disrupt the minutes silence before the game. The machines of both clubs swung into action. Warnings were given to the fans from both clubs, the media and even, in a very ill advised and idiotic last minute attack, a United player (Scholes). City were under the microscope and I feared the worst. A few boozed up louts might shame us all. I half expected to hear a few lone yelps followed by a thud as the City fans surrounding the offenders gave them a well-deserved smack in the face. I had been dreading the game and it dominated my thoughts all last week. In recent years our home record against United has drastically improved. After that famous 1989 win we didn't beat them again until 2003 - in the last Maine Road derby before the stadium move, Shaun Goater scored his 100th City goal to beat United. In the list of great footballing days of my life it was right up there with the Cup win at Spurs (3-0 down with 10 men, won 4-3) and the 1999 play off final against Gillingham (still the single greatest City related day of my life). After that we'd beaten them at home in the first derby at our new stadium, 4-1. We'd even beaten them, undeservedly, earlier this season at home.
But away from home, at Old Trafford? No wins in 27 games. No win since April 1974. Yes, 1974. My parents had been married for only a few weeks then. We hadn't beaten United away in my lifetime. I have seen all kinds of derbies there - robbed by a ref's whistle a few years ago of a perfectly good Goater winner, the draw following thug Roy Keane's career-ending assault on City player Haaland, a thoroughly depressing 5-0 hammering and so on. It's miserable playing there and on the very rare occasions we have scraped a draw I've greeted it with happiness and relief. It's just not a place anyone wins. United lose about once or twice a season at home, if that. Even teams ten times better than us like Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool often come away with little or nothing from a trip there. They have a home record that is the envy of most clubs on earth. They expect to win every home game and so they should. With four important players, all suspended, missing (two each – Rooney/Evra for them, Corluka/Elano for us) I thought the playing field, Ronaldo excepted, was relatively even. Though an excellent player I knew Tevez would find it hard to outplay man mountain and club captain Richard Dunne. The tactics had to be spot on or we'd be on the receiving end of an emotionally charged beating.
I tried to walk calmly to the pub with my iPod on. I switched it on and grinned as Don't Look Back In Anger came on random play. Oasis are the City band, always have been. I was a nervous wreck. The stadium was awash with red and white scarves, specially made for the day and given to each fan. The 3000 City fans in one corner had the same scarves, though blue and white of course. The managers walked with wreaths to the centre of the pitch and laid them down in remembrance as I felt tears welling up. And then the moment came, the silence. I held my breath and stood up in tribute in my local, a sparsely populated Arsenal pub. I blinked away tears as the fans held their scarves high and the players stood immovably. You could have heard a pin drop. Some fireworks were let off outside the stadium during the minute, which briefly confused me, but no-one batted an eyelid. They knew what they had to do. One might say, why should fans get praise for behaving properly? To say that is to underestimate the hatred that has grown between United and City fans in the years since the Munich disaster, back when many fans supported both teams. That was the 50s, things were different then. A nasty, greedy, Thatcherite veil has come down across this country in the last 20 years. Mean-spiritedness is the norm at football games. As well as good natured banter there's a nastier edge to football now, which no doubt partially comes from the increased corporate image of the game. It started when fans stopped being called fans and became consumers.
Well not this time. In that stadium were 76,000 people who felt it together. As one entity, as one city united in grief. I feared the worst and my faith in the best of people was restored. That was really all that mattered yesterday, the silence. The demonstration that for one minute people could reach out to each other and hold hands when usually they would hurl abuse. Football became honourable and pure and untouched by corporate greed, local rivalry and mean-spiritedness in that moment. It was one of the great moments I've experienced and I only wish I had been at home with my dad to celebrate it. So with the blown whistle came the sigh of relief across the 1 million-plus Manchester inhabitants who knew the world was watching. And now the usual United win could commence even with United without Rooney, City without Elano - arguably the two clubs two most important players. In the first minute Ronaldo got the ball and no less than three City players surrounded him, snapping at his heels. The tactics were clear - stop Ronaldo, stop United. How simple is that? But my god, it worked. He barely had a kick - not because of his own bad play, because he was not allowed to play. Not given the room and space that other teams give him and live to regret. He was crowded out, pushed, harried and, every so often, kicked. His own frustration, which led to typical petulance, came bubbling to the surface a couple of times. He never had two yards of space around him. And thus, United were impotent.
Tevez and Giggs were shackled by the tenacious, determined and tough Dunne and Richards. Scholes was not at his best and was repeatedly embarrassed by the talented Swiss youngster Gelson Fernandes. In the first half the best United player on the pitch, Anderson, walked all over City's Stephen Ireland. In the second half that was reversed. Hamann, who I only wish was a decade younger, was in complete control of midfield, his brain working a hundred times faster than his ageing legs. United looked dangerous going forward as they always do. But they ran into brick walls time after time. And when they got past the hard working Ball or England U21 international youngster Onouha they bumped into his England U21 team-mate, keeper Joe Hart, whose decision making still needs work but looks the real thing. And leading the line, our new signing Benjani. This guy looks the real deal. Thank you Jermain Defoe - if you hadn't settled for an easy life in Portsmouth instead of fighting for the Big Four place your talent deserves Portsmouth would never have sold Benjani. He was powerful, intelligent, did the simple things well, didn't give the ball away and held it up like the complete 29-year-old striker he is.
The first half was even. United weren't allowed to get going so they struggled. One man's poor home performance is another man's great away display. In order to win at Old Trafford you have to take advantage of weakness and we smelled blood. With two wins in twelve games for us and United going for fourteen wins in a row at home the odds were stacked against us but something happened - we scored. A United style counter attack, a jet speed break up the field and, after a poor initial shot, Vassell fired the ball home and ran towards the barely believing City faithful in the corner. And then, we started to believe. From that point onwards, despite my palpitating heart which lasted until the final whistle, we were taking punches and hitting back. We were standing up to the biggest boy in his own backyard. They found limitless heart and strength on a day where United should have won easily. A minute before half time a wickedly whipped in cross from Petrov was flicked into the net by Benjani. How could I ask for more? A goal on his debut at Old Trafford. Half time. Dazed, I exited the pub to buy some fags to calm my nerves. My stomach was churning, my head spinning. It felt like I was asleep and having the footballing dream I couldn't imagine - 2-0 up at half time at Old Trafford. But I'm no fool. I remembered a mid 90s game where we went 2-0 up by half time, with a Niall Quinn brace, and lost 3-2 to a late Giggs winner. And that was at Maine Road, not even an away derby! No chickens would be counted.
I settled into my seat for a heart-thumping, nervy, hand-wringing second half. The Arsenal fans in the pub couldn't understand it. 'You're winning, you should be thinking of 3-0, you're so defeatist'. I attempted to explain that I had been kicked in the teeth so many times that I couldn't bear to assume anything. Emotional insurance, I call it. 'You're mad, that's why you never do well, you defeat yourself'. I took a breath and replied, 'When you've been in the third division tell me that again. It's called humility. It's something that hasn't reached the south yet'. He didn't reply. I hope, no matter what happens to my team, I am never like that. That sense of self-entitlement and arrogance is why I've never liked Londoners much. My mind was racing. We were holding them off and playing well but United are known for late goals. The crowd roared the team forward as the City fans, who could barely believe what they were witnessing, sung their hearts out. There was no complacency here, no certainty that we would win and no taking for granted how hard getting to the finish line would be. I bit my nails until they were invisible. I fidgeted and chatted distractedly with another Arsenal fan next to me. He told me to keep calm. I resisted the urge to glare at him. A little late for that I'd say.
With a few moments to go I started to relax and realised we might actually do this. As the clock ticked past 90 mins into 3 of injury time I allowed myself a smile - and then United scored. Just shows, you should never celebrate before the whistle. Talk about tempting fate. But even then, when the team could have had a last minute panic, they didn't. They stood firm and tall and batted away every desperately lofted ball. The goal kick sailed high into the crisp Manchester air and the whistle was blown. We had won at Old Trafford. I'll say that again - we had won at Old Trafford. I confess, I thought it was a day I might never see in my lifetime. There's nothing quite like breaking a decades old hoodoo. I felt like this when we won the last derby at Maine Rd/first derby at the COM stadium. I punched the air as a huge beaming grin spread across my face and I've been stuck that way ever since. I'm quite sure I've freaked out random passers-by with my plastered immovable smile today. I almost felt sorry for United, doing this to them on their most sacred of days. After the game their manager fled the country. No really, he did. A pre-planned trip to South Africa - but he left without a word to the press. He'd once confessed that when we beat them 5-1 all those years ago he went home, put his head under a pillow and didn't come out for 24 hours. He's a bad loser and all the best managers are.
United assistant manager Queiroz tried to blame the international call-ups the week before for the lacklustre performance, saying many of the United players had been tired. Perhaps he forgot that just as many City players were also called up and played 90 mins midweek for their countries? It wasn't like the home win in August when we were hugely fortunate to win. This time we deserved it - and not because United were bad, but because we were good. And once we scored we believed we could win. And when it comes to beating United, or indeed any team or foe better and bigger than you, belief is half of the battle. United were surprised to not have an easy derby game, like they have often had in recent years. We surprised ourselves. And we got our karmic reward for every single City soul in that stadium showing our respect to United and their loss in a very difficult emotional week for them. I walked on clouds out of the pub as the emotion overwhelmed me and tears welled in my eyes. When we win, I call home and shout loudly down the phone. This time I called home and my dad talked while I stayed silent for a while - I had no energy to speak. He told me he was drained. My emotional and mental energy had been sapped too. But hearing his voice, his glowing happiness over the phone, gave me my energy back and we talked animatedly about the players and the game. None of this felt real. I watched the highlights just to make sure it was.
photo by Mark Makin
A young Manchester lad, aged 15, went to see a concert 40 years ago today. He had asked a friend to get tickets for Bob Dylan at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The friend had not managed to get anything in the main, seated, floor, nor the balconies. Instead he had somehow gotten hold of platform seats.
These consisted of 2 rows of chairs behind the band. Or, in this case, The Band. With excitement and trepidation he and his friend Casper went to see Dylan perform. He had played the year before in 1965, drawing rapturous applause and plaudits. He simply strode on stage, all curly hair and leather jacket, acoustic guitar and harmonica, and played his own kind of folk music.
On that trip, following a meeting with the Beatles, he had become fascinated with electric guitar and had bought one in London. Upon returning to the US he employed Ronnie Hawkins band, The Hawks, and had renamed them The Band. In 1966 he returned to Europe with this band and the reaction was one of disgust. He was booed repeatedly, every night. The first half acoustic set went down just as in '65 but when 5 musicians appeared with him the appreciation turned to anger. The effect on Band drummer Levon Helm was marked. He decided he couldn't handle the abuse any more and with Bob's permission left the tour completely, to be replaced by Mickey Jones. Though everyone had become demoralised by the audience disapproval, the fans of folk appalled at Dylan's traitorous betrayal into the world of electric music, they soldiered on. On that day, May 17 1966, they played in Manchester. The young 15 year old took his place seated behind Dylan, to stage right of Jones's drum kit. As with all the other gigs the first half went very well.
Then, the interval. Again, murmurs spread of the electric second half. The Band were very loud indeed and Dylan's new songs pierced the auditorium. Some sat in shock, some cheered, some booed. One foolhardy young man on the main floor waited until a quiet moment arrived to shout possibly the most famed heckle in rock history - "JUDAS!!!" Instantly, Dylan approached the mic stand - "I don't believe you", he drawled, with some anger, "You're a LIAR!" Then he turned to The Band and said something only heard clearly on the recent Scorsese documentary... "Play it fucking loud". The band tore into Like A Rolling Stone.
Dylan was clearly angry at his audience’s lack of tolerance. But the gig was electric. Later on the gig was wrongly released as 'Live at the Royal Albert Hall', a venue in London. But Londoners cannot claim this piece of rock history for themselves. Manchester has always been the cooler city - from the Judas concert to the Sex Pistols first gig a decade later: attended by everyone from The Buzzcocks and Morrissey to Warsaw (later Joy Division) and Howard Devoto. We always see the truth first. Over the years many people have claimed to be the Judas shouter. Who knows who he really is... the gig and his call found their place in rock history and I'm proud to say it all took place in my home city.
Forty years ago today the 15-year-old Salford lad behind the drummer shifted uncomfortably in his seat, unwilling to make eye contact with anyone on stage. He wasn't sure if Dylan was going to storm off, he wouldn't move a muscle for fear of what might happen. It was a moment that he remembers 40 years to the day later. I know because I spoke to him this morning – my dad. And he remembers every detail. And if you look closely at the photo above you can see him, arms folded, just peeking out from the amp on the right, with the glasses on. His friend, to this day, Casper sits next to him with suit and tie on. Both of them look terrified. But it was a day neither of them will ever forget.
Getting to a game in London is frustrating. Unlike many other stadia, which are often set in industrial areas with helpful additional public transport, the stadia in London are almost all situated in residential areas. There are no extra Tubes, trains or buses (unlike in Manchester where dozens of special 'match buses' are put on) so you struggle with the regular commuters, poor bastards, who are not that happy to be stuck on a Tube with a ton of football traffic.
Add to that the Fulham ground, Craven Cottage, is quite a way from home for me and it made for an interesting, if annoying, journey. Tube from Finsbury Park, change at Victoria. Infrequent Tube meant another extra journey - Victoria to Earls Court. Then finally a few stops to Putney Bridge. The train was so packed you didn't need to hold onto anything and I was surrounded by 'Is it the next stop?' kids eager to get there. Once off the Tube I was struck by the gorgeous surroundings of the stadium and the 15 minute walk to it. It's rare that a stadium can be reached by a leisurely walk by the side of the Thames, it was quite beautiful I must say. The stadium itself is small, one tier only all sides and not very Premiership friendly! In short, it's a stadium that belongs in the league below.
I took my seat - 8 rows from the pitch, a few feet to the left of the goal, just behind the delicious City keeper David James (who had a bit of an 'England' game for us). We saved our worst performance of the season until Saturday, typical. I go and *that's* when we play like shite. We deserved to lose and we did, 2-1. But despite that I enjoyed being with the City fans and I enjoyed singing the songs, I enjoyed abusing the incompetent adjudicators with profanities and I enjoyed cheering our goal. It was a primal scream, a release and just what I needed to do.
I find that it takes me longer to get over a defeat when I've attended than when I've listened online or watched it on Sky. It's just harder, normally I'm angry and pissed off and miserable and cantankerous for about 90 mins after a defeat, maybe an hour. After I've actually witnessed a defeat... well, I didn't start to feel like I wanted to talk to anyone for at least 3 hours! Maybe it's worse because there's a 2-week break now before the next game. No matter, the match served its purpose - £29 is a lot cheaper than going to a shrink, ha!