Biopics are not easy to get right. Squeezing an entire life into two hours, with commercial considerations banging on the door… meaning, it usually has to be a PG13/12A rating, and you have a big story to tell, often of sex and drugs and rock and roll. Nine years in the making, with three leads, three screenwriters, two directors: these are not the ingredients that result in a gratifying portrayal of a human life. And with Freddie Mercury, lightning in a bottle personified, it was always going to be a fool’s errand. It’s a two-star film, at best, with a four-star performance. Rami Malek’s virtual channelling of Mercury just barely saves the film from total disaster.
First off, there’s a problem with what they’ve chosen to include: half the film is set in the 70s, and there are lengthy sequences of recordings, including of the nonsense masterpiece the film is named after. There are some people – myself included – who find the inner workings of recording studios grippingly fascinating. But I imagine the majority of an audience wants to see something else, even though I found those scenes fun, mostly because I was listening out for different vocal takes and such like. No doubt putting that much music in is a done deal when you have band members producing a film, but it doesn’t make for terribly interesting scenes. A great many exciting events happened to Queen, from their formation in 1970 to their sad, enforced end in 1991. With their first album out in 1973, the band recorded music for only 18 years, and Mercury has been gone for very nearly 27. So it seems cynical to attempt a biopic now, after all these years (original Queen fans + their offspring = double the audience), and the controversy, and firings, around it have hardly helped to cement a consistency of storytelling. Bryan Singer (who will shortly have an Esquire article expose him as a predator) has tried to do a good job, with help from the underrated Dexter Fletcher. And it is nearly impossible to cohere multiple satisfying narratives into two hours, especially with the subject gone. But there is no reason for the script to be this terribly poor. It shouldn’t be, with The Queen showrunner Peter Morgan’s original bolstered by The Theory of Everything’s Anthony McCarten. Why is it so bad? Freddie Mercury was passionate, generous, gifted, very funny, sometimes difficult and, yes, sex-driven, with a side of shy and vulnerable, and this is a meek, painfully sanitised exploration of his private life. I’m not saying I wanted the bathhouse-based director’s cut, but a bit more bite would have been great. His seven-year romance with his lifelong muse, and the woman to whom he left his grand home and half his wealth and royalties, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, doing well with bad writing) is covered in endless detail. Austin has not played any part in this film, understandably; indeed, since he died she has given only a handful of interviews, and her relations with the rest of the band, his friends and family are said to be tense. With one person gone, and the other unwilling to discuss the reality of a private relationship, the scenes between Malek and Boynton feel like basic coming-out-story melodrama, when the reality must have been much more complex. It is important to note that Mercury’s bisexuality is not washed over, at least. And nor is the gay side of his life, later on. It’s also correct that Austin should be given the credit and legitimacy in his life that she deserves, but it’s all rather bloodless. It also means that, unfairly, less importance is given to his relationship with the late Jim Hutton, the Irish barber (here a waiter, why?) who he also shared his life with for seven years, until the end. You can’t get private moments right without input from those who were there, of course, but they don’t even get close to making a decent job of it. The Hutton storyline is undercooked in the extreme, little more than a footnote, which is insulting to his memory, too (he died of cancer in 2010, aged 61; when Freddie died Mary had him evicted abruptly from the home they shared for years).
The band, even today, seem uncomfortable with his sexuality, with a recent interview with May discussing his ‘men friends’ alongside Austin. Understandably, if you lose both your friend and your career overnight it’s not something you ever get over. I’m just not sure that that discomfort should be shared beyond boilerplate rock-star autobiographies: such coyness has no place influencing the content of a film that’s should have largely not been about you. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) is hardly a ripe character for a biopic. He may be a musical god, but he’s a gentle, quite dull man who cares more about badgers, physics and stereoscopic photography than any person should – Lee manages to do miracles with the character, frankly. His dry humour comes across nicely. While bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello; the little lad from Jurassic Park, trivia fans) is imbued with a rather surprising amount of subtle personality by an actor who’s been doing his homework. But drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) should have been made much more of; he’s a spiky, no-bullshit, Tigger-like presence in real life, and his closeness with fellow hedonist Mercury doesn’t come across at all. The character is dull, and the actor is too, and it does Taylor a disservice. Let’s not talk about Mike Myers, in his Jeff Lynne costume. He was amusing as a composite character of a snooty record exec and their first manager Norman Sheffield. But he just seemed to be there so the band could say, ‘thanks for making the song big again in America via Wayne’s World.’
As for the ‘straightwashing’ the trailer was accused of: I didn’t find that to be true. I wasn’t expecting a Caligula-esque series of scenes set in London’s iconic 80s gay club Heaven, or any one of the myriad Munich bars that he spent most of his nights in starting from 1979 or so. A big studio picture is never going to allow that level of exploration of gay life, especially with the spectre of Aids hanging over the film like a black cloud. It did feel like a series of missed opportunities, however, to rip open the virulent media-led homophobia that he faced his whole life, and his fear of being outed.
Also a missed opportunity was a more rounded storyline for the villain of the piece, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). One can’t libel the dead, and this snake should have been written with much more narcissism. He drew Mercury away from the band and into drugs and long nights in dark rooms that ultimately proved his undoing. Glossed over, too, was his heartbreaking betrayal of Mercury, which he never recovered from. He sold his story to The Sun for £30,000 in 1987, outing the singer in the process (in the film this was a fictitious TV interview where he slings a racial slur at Mercury: never happened). Prenter may as well have a neon sign saying ‘danger: I can’t be trusted’ hanging above his head, but this terrific actor is wasted in an underwritten part. Two more great actors do wonders with average parts: Aiden Gillen does the best he can as the band’s 1970s manager John Reid, while Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, who guided the band at their imperial 1980s peak, does sardonic well. But everything should be sharper: the drama, writing, plotting.
One faultless aspect of this flawed film is the musical sequences. In this, we get perfection. The swirling, thrilled, sweaty crowds; the peerless music, sometimes overblown to the point of laughter, sometimes achingly beautiful, always decadent, works a treat. The live concert scenes are handled with great skill by Singer. These details, speaking from a fan’s perspective, are spot on. From the costumes to the settings, the performances are finely tuned. And Rami Malek comes close to saving the whole movie, somehow. The depth of understanding from this fine actor of his subject is critical. Immersion in such a life only works if your subject was layered, thrilling company, and it helps if there’s a creditable, exciting, possibly tragic, story to build on. Malek is given all that raw material to work with, and he runs away with it. There is no shortage of drama and dynamism and power on show. Embodying a beloved person is an impossible job, one that can go wrong without the right focus, or can veer too much in a Stars in Their Eyes direction. To inhabit a rounded portrayal of a real man, with very little offstage material to go on (Mercury did precious few interviews), is not an easy task, but Malek pulls it off and then some. He captures a perfect mix of bravado and vulnerability. The script makes a cheap shot about ‘having not enough time left’, sold to us as prescient but it made my eyes roll, yet he still manages to imbue these moments with the ending we know is coming, of a life over at 45. He beats the thin script into a pulp with sheer force of will. In particular, the big finish of the film, a full-length recreation of the band’s Live Aid performance, is breathtaking. I have no issue with the lack of descent depicted, that the film ends in 1985 rather than going toward deathbed drama. There are plenty of films, and documentaries, that show the cost of Aids in grisly extreme detail; it’s not needed here. And for those of us who lived through it well enough at the time, traumatised by seeing this extraordinary man turned into bones in front of our eyes, there is no need to portray it here for prurient interest. If you want to see what happened to Mercury, his devastating end, the video footage is available. It was a smart choice (badly handled, as I’ll get to later) to end the film at his life’s professional peak.
Much like the tedious Queen musical, We Will Rock You, here the music works and not much else does. And for Malek, it’s the star-making performance of a lifetime. But if you let a band produce a film about themselves it will have music-making, and their version of events, as its centre, rather than a truthful core about the person who has no ability to reply. Worst of all, the falsities on show here mostly in the final third are wild and reckless. And there is no need for them: his life was a thrill-ride without the need for embellishment. If you’ve gone to that much trouble to get a piece of recording studio equipment right, or the correct Japanese light in a recreation of his house, then why on earth would you allow complete lies to be in the film? I don’t mean something like a gig showing him crowd-surfing: that’s in the film, it was apparently not in the script; Malek just did it. Mercury never did that in his life. There are tons of small things like that which are wrong. That’s fine, a bit of exaggeration, who cares? It’s not a documentary. But the big stuff, you have to get it right.
The remaining band members’ judgement looms large: we’re normal Freddie, we have families, you have to slow down. Never mind that May cheated on his wife with groupies multiple times and just after Live Aid left his family. Never mind that Taylor shagged everything on the road that moved, unable to create any sort of stable relationship for decades. Oh, it’s Freddie and his ‘appetites’ that are destroying the band. They’re having normal heterosexual sex: the kind of sex Freddie has is the wrong kind. Their resentment of him beams through. I always thought it was grief. That the loss of their friend was something they never recovered from. It’s not. It’s anger, at his gayness destroying their careers. And it culminates in changing the truth for their own ends. And incidentally, if Brian and Roger are going to make a big deal about how Freddie’s solo career put the band in jeopardy, they might mention that they had already made three solo albums between them by that point. His solo record came out after Live Aid, not before. It’s one thing to put in a stupid press conference where Freddie is pressed on his sexuality while high (never happened). It’s a badly written scene but changes nothing that’s materially important. It’s another to indulge in a parallel universe fantasy.
And that leads me to the biggest, and most insidious, lie in the film. He is given his HIV diagnosis, for dramatic effect, just before Live Aid – as fuel for that career-defining performance. The real diagnosis happened two years after. This is sick, distasteful stuff, as is the fictitious meeting with an Aids patient covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions outside the doctor’s office. What were they thinking? Everyone involved in this film should hang their heads in shame for making it happen. The band has thrown their friend under the bus to make themselves look good and benevolent for letting him back in the band (never happened).
He put on that 20-minute performance of his life at Wembley Stadium because he was fucking remarkable. Not because he had been told he was going to die. This messianic trash, this ‘I’m going to die for you, audience’, cheapens the power of the scene, the film, and worst of all it cheapens his life and death. Malek plays it, despite it being nearly shot-for-shot, with a determined face: I’ll make this the show of my life because I have limited time left. Watch the real thing.
It’s not determination. It’s joy. It’s conviction. This guy knows he is doing the 20 minutes of a lifetime. A year later he is said to have started to feel unwell, telling everyone the tour they undertook was to be his last. He avoided tests, in fact, for another year, out of fear. Then he was calm about it, wanted no sympathy. Just wanted to get on with it, make music until he dropped. This is an era of ‘my feelings matter over your facts’. Well, no. Facts matter.
This Live Aid fantasy was the filmmakers’ insulting solution to dealing with his illness? They made the correct, quite brave, decision to not do his death onscreen. But the fix for this problem was not to openly lie. It was not to create an alternative timeline that ruined a good idea with a bad one.
It could just have been a post-script: you don’t change history and a person’s literal HIV status for show. It could also have had a braver end: Hutton was backstage at a Queen show for the first time, and Freddie was in love, after being lonely, and taken advantage of by hangers-on, for so long. Finally, he’d found someone to whom he could come home to, who nursed him to the end. But I guess a gay love story isn’t going to sell the way the fake inspiration of illness does. It makes me so angry that people will watch this and think it’s true. I hope they seek out what really happened, I hope they seek out the real thing and consign this version of events to the bin. Freddie Mercury deserved better than this film.
Girl from the North Country – Written and directed by Conor McPherson. Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.
Artists who diversify have sometimes been viewed with suspicion. An actor makes music? Bruce Willis crooning Under the Boardwalk springs to mind (don’t bother). A rock star makes a movie? Mick Jagger played a mercenary in Freejack (really, don’t bother). David Bowie’s last work, Lazarus, was a sprawling, experimental piece of theatre which used his songs in a dynamic, thrilling way. But would the play have worked without the music? I don’t think so, and I saw it workshopped in New York and then tightened up in London. In fact, after seeing Girl from the North Country, I wished that Conor McPherson was the Irish playwright that Bowie had engaged, rather than Enda Walsh, the one he did. Because while Lazarus could not stand easily on its feet as a play, Girl from the North Country certainly can. There were a couple of ill-judged parts, more of which later, but on the whole this was a dazzling night at the theatre.
It’s 1934 in Duluth, our man’s birthplace. The Great Depression has taken hold and casts a chill over proceedings like the local cold. The parallels between Dust Bowl America and our own recession, turned into cutting, cruel austerity, are marked. The narrator (Ron Cook), a doctor, introduces us to the scene, and provides grounding throughout. We are in a guesthouse, leaking money and about to be put into foreclosure, run by Nick (Ciarán Hinds), a gruff man with a complex life: a wife with dementia (Shirley Henderson); an adopted African American daughter (Sheila Atim) who is seemingly pregnant at 19 by someone long gone and also being pursued by a predatory, creepy old man (Jim Norton); and a layabout son (Sam Reid) with his head in a whisky bottle most of the time. He has a mistress (Kirsty Malpass, stepping in from the ensemble, superbly), who asks for little, and can’t stick around much longer in this desperate economic climate. We meet a variety of dishonest lodgers, tempers fraying, trying to eke out a living in impossible times.
The dialogue races by, each strand woven together masterfully. I was gripped by the intensity of the storytelling. And then, there’s the music. I thought, how on earth could this work? Will dropping a bunch of Dylan songs into an autonomous play distract? Will Americana arrangements suit? Will the choices make sense given that they can’t further the story? After all, he didn’t write these for the play. And then the first song, Sign on the Window, drifts in and wow, just wow, it all coalesces better than I could have dreamed. A hipster-looking (1930s beards/attire is twenty-first century hipster chic) house band (double bass, piano, fiddle) accompanies the actors, who take turns on percussive instruments. Twenty songs are used to soundtrack lives of anger and passion, sadness and regret, worry and loss. I was sometimes taken out of the moment, if briefly, to reflect: this song is part of me, part of the fabric of who I am. But then a second later I was locked back in to 1934 Minnesota. It’s a tightrope walk and McPherson, previously known for his supernatural works, has aced it. There are no easy choices here: you try and pick 20 Dylan songs out of them all to accompany a plot organically and soundtrack this highly strung chaos.
The performances are remarkable, particularly Henderson as Elizabeth, Nick’s wife. She gives an untethered lightness to the role that is sure to win her buckets of awards; I predict the Olivier for Best Actress. Physically slight, and 51 but looking two decades younger, she is a mismatch for a big man of 64 like Hinds. They don’t convince as a couple in that sense but there is genuine chemistry between them as he tries to cope with her disinhibited behaviour towards the guests. There are no weak links in the company, with Sheila Atim in particular owning the stage during both dramatic and musical moments as a woman who everyone wants to control. Her version of Tight Connection To My Heart took my breath away; nearly unrecognisable, it is all the better for it. As the stories interlink, and there is much to weave in, we come to a couple of troublesome moments.
A young African American man arrives (played flawlessly by ensemble player Karl Queensborough) and reveals himself to be a boxer just out of prison, so he says. This is a pretty clumsy way to shoehorn Hurricane in later on; it didn’t fit, at all. In fact, after a tight first half, it came off the rails, briefly, shortly into the second. It almost felt like McPherson had lost his own threads and, while he tried to find them, shovelled in a couple of songs that didn’t fit. He pulled it all back together but then took the only major misstep in the play, a storyline of parents and their adult disabled son.
Portraying disability is not easy, and unless it’s central (like in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) it’ll come across as throwaway or played for effect. The actors in this plotline were fine enough, with the mother in particular (Bronagh Gallagher) compelling. But a confusing blackmail scenario with a menacing Bible salesman (Michael Shaeffer) led to exposure of their ‘secret’: the son had sexually assaulted a woman and the family had to flee. Their section ends with the father, at the end of his tether, letting his son drown. Then, appearing as a ghost in white clothing, the son (Jack Shalloo) returns to render a gospel-tinged rendition of Duquesne Whistle. None of it worked and such a portrayal of disability was inappropriate and veered to the offensive given that the ghost was miraculously cured of his learning difficulties. This inherent condescension was compounded by a regressive decision to cast this character as dangerous in the first place. I tried my best to forget it, because it should not sully the rest of the play.
I’d decided not to spoil any musical surprises by finding out the ‘setlist’. My dad bought a programme and scanned carefully to see which were to be featured. I turned away, much as I had done for Lazarus: I wanted to gasp with surprise when Jokerman appeared (it was the first Bob song I loved; Infidels came out on my seventh birthday). Or grin and feel an inner thrill at the storming, foot-tapping, tambourine-bashing version of Slow Train, making it sound better than it ever has. I’m not going to drone on about voices, and how these singers give new life to the material. But they do. I don’t need to tell you anything about Bob’s voice, its tenderness in these later years mixing with a road-worn timbre (she said politely). Watching excellent actors embody these songs sets light to them, shooting jolts of electricity through their hearts. And quite frankly, it is no bad thing to have an audience become agog at these lyrics because they can actually hear the deathless words perfectly. It all reinforced my great love for this material; you won’t believe how delightful it is to hear Like a Rolling Stone with a snippet of Make You Feel My Love in the middle. A pleasure to hear tracks from each decade too; it would have been easy to make it all 1960s stuff, given its relative proximity to the 1930s – acoustic renditions would have fitted seamlessly. Instead, there are just three songs from that decade, a welcome, gutsy, non-obvious choice.
McPherson has set himself a challenge and pulled it off. He manages to evoke Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town as well as the work of Eugene O’Neill. He also makes you want to drag Street-Legal and Infidels out of storage. The songs run between 1963-2012, and each one is judiciously chosen. What Simon Hale, the orchestrator/arranger, has done with them will melt you in your seat; simple but ravishing, these often moving interpretations of music you know inside out will make you hear them anew.
Girl from the North Country, described by McPherson as a ‘conversation between the songs and the story’, is full of life. It is about trying to find hope through suffering and making the best of it. Dylan’s ‘team’ approached McPherson to write and direct this play, no doubt having heard tell of his acclaimed works The Weir (which ran at the home of new theatre, the Royal Court) and Shining City. And of course we know that hands-off Bob is never quite hands-off; even though he played no part in the writing or arrangements of the dialogue or songs, he did send Jeff Rosen to attend rehearsals. The last time the canon was offered it was a flop, a Broadway show in 2006 that closed after three weeks. But this time, gold has been struck. I hope Bob gets to see it and I feel sure he’ll be very proud of this inspired play bearing his name.
Girl from the North Country ran at the Old Vic from July-October 2017.
Make no mistake, Donny McCaslin, this genial giant sax player from California, has had a distinguished career in jazz. He’s spent nearly three decades carving out a groove in modern jazz playing, starting with filling the huge shoes of Michael Brecker in the legendary fusion group Steps Ahead. With three Grammy nominations to his name, he’s become the trusted right-hand man of bandleader Maria Schneider, herself a multiple Grammy winner. The dreaded term ‘crossover’ has come to be applied in jazz to artists who break out of the somewhat closed jazz world (closed to mainstream rock/pop fans, in that sense) and make a break across the aisle. In the 70s it was Herbie Hancock who did it, and even before then Miles Davis – the greatest jazz artist of all time – had broken the mould, with Kind Of Blue becoming the best-selling, and most famous, jazz album of all time.
Historically, plenty of pop musicians (looking at you, Sting) have sought out jazz players on their records to give them a bit of cool. And as a lifelong jazz fan, Bowie was no different, taking on saxophonist David Sanborn and trumpeter Lester Bowie to play on his records, among others. Even Mike Garson, of course, is a jazz player. As we all know, Bowie was one of the great casting directors of our time. But beyond bit parts – musicians popping up – he had never given over an entire record to jazz musicians, until Blackstar. Everyone knows the story now. He wanted to continue his collaboration with Schneider after their magnificent foray with Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) in 2014. But she had already committed to her Grammy-winning Thompson Fields project. So she pressed a copy of McCaslin’s Casting For Gravity into his hand (having sent him this link to a live version of the track Stadium Jazz first) and suggested they visit Greenwich Village’s Bar 55 to see his quartet (with Mark Guiliana, Tim Lefebvre and Jason Lindner). McCaslin says he spotted Bowie sitting at a table with Schneider, tried to keep calm, as you would, and just concentrate on playing. Shortly after, he got an invite to perform on what would turn out to be Bowie’s last album. Since then, one imagines, his feet haven’t touched the ground as, suddenly, this brilliant, powerful quartet have become among the most famous jazz musicians in the world.
During a short European tour, McCaslin’s group (minus Lefebvre, whose regular gig – with the arena-filling Tedeschi Trucks Band – called; replaced by Jonathan Maron) called at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix, packing out the overheated main room and shaking the walls. They’d dropped into London to play some stuff from his new Beyond Now album, a follow-up to 2015’s excellent Fast Future. You could tell the crowd had some Bowie fans at their first jazz gig present; they looked a bit shell-shocked. As I heard someone say, listening to jazz on record is hardly like seeing it live. It’s so much more visceral, muscular, and frankly, louder than you can imagine, especially with a fusion quartet like the one McCaslin leads. The bass thundered. Lindner’s synthesiser textures lent a cosmic vibe reminiscent of the early 70s electric playing of Keith Jarrett when he was with Miles. Guiliana’s complex, intricate drumming evoked the greats; one can feel comfortable comparing him to all-time greats like Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, alongside recent masters like Brian Blade and Kendrick Lamar’s drummer Ron Bruner Jr. That’s how good he is. Get his 2015 album Family First; you won’t regret it.
McCaslin leads this band through twisting and turning renditions of songs new and old. You might have expected Warszawa to be on the setlist; the band closed with it. Less expected but incredibly welcome were two more Bowie songs. First, one that caused the room to experience a sharp intake of breath – Lazarus. It sent a chill, until of course the sax came in where the voice should have been and then it took off, with the closing section containing some absolutely remarkable playing from McCaslin, who was on fire all evening. Then, a lovely surprise, the very familiar drum part of Look Back In Anger kicked in and off we went. The room was electrified. If you’d never seen a jazz gig before, or even if you’d seen 100, this was a top class night.
The question that Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien has been asked most in his 73 years on this planet concerns what he thinks is the secret of the show’s success. People seem to be hoping for arcane knowledge, that he has a line to the abstract and can divine what exactly it is that has made his odd, subversive 50s-style rock and roll musical the biggest cult theatrical experience and movie of all time. Each time this question is asked he smiles benevolently, and answers very politely, as he is a very well mannered human, that he thinks it’s because the origin story is an eternal fairytale and has existed to intrigue audiences since time began since it is, essentially, a retelling of Adam and Eve (and Babes In The Wood, with a bit of Hansel and Gretel thrown in). There is innocence lured toward corruption by a snake, with human nature making it impossible to resist. For the snake, read: one of the greatest stage and cinematic creations of all time, Dr Frank-N-Furter; and for the apple, well, he’s offering a little bit more than a piece of fruit…
Along the way we have a murder, a touch of incest, transvestism, non-binary gendered characters, the hint of cannibalism, oral sex performed on both genders by the same person, straight sex with a virgin, gay sex with a sex slave, echoes of Frankenstein and King Kong, and the intimation of Americans engaging in Nazi-sheltering, all soundtracked by classic rock and roll. It’s quite a lot to fit into an hour and a half. It was written in 1972, so it was ripe for the times, as rock operas and hippie musicals pervaded. But this show is no Hair or JC Superstar (O’Brien starred in the former and was cast by Jim Sharman, who would later direct both the play and the movie, in the latter). There are no religious parables Godspell-style, anti-war polemics or longhaired hippies. Instead, it’s a science fiction horror tale that sits dead centre on the Kinsey scale and has just about zero gender/sexuality boundaries. Frank is not a woman, nor does he wish to be, nor does he dress as a woman. He is a man in a corset, stockings and suspenders, silk panties and platform heels. He wears manly leather and ladylike lace, delicate fishnet and tough chains. He’s a pansexual alien from, seemingly, a planet of transsexuals in a distant galaxy. He is the hero you swoon over, despite the fact that we see him treat his acolytes like slaves, hack someone to death (off screen) with a chainsaw, then serve the body for dinner. We hang on his every word and mourn when he is sacrificed at the end. If played right, every audience member must want to be seduced by him. That is some anti-hero.
In short, this play and its subsequent film are utterly bonkers with everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them. So tell me, Richard, why do you think it’s all been so successful? You’d forgive him for replying: ‘I really have no fucking idea. If I knew I’d have done it again’.
It wears its 1950s influences on its sleeve without ever being a rip-off; it’s too clever for that. The opening song – sung on stage by an usherette and by a Man Ray-inspired red lipstick covered mouth in the film, Patricia Quinn’s Magenta miming to O’Brien’s voice – Science Fiction Double Feature pays homage to Richard Smith’s childhood, which was spent in the cinema in Cheltenham, where he was born in 1942. He grew up in New Zealand (where he has since returned to ‘retire’), moving there in 1951 and returning in 1964 to become a stuntman and bit-part theatre actor. He chose for a new surname O’Brien, his mother’s maiden name, as inevitably there was already a Richard Smith in Equity. By the time he sat down to write this odd rock musical he was a married man with a baby son. He drew on his love of B-movies for this classic opening song, managing to name check:
The Day the Earth Stood Still, Flash Gordon, The Invisible Man, King Kong, It Came from Outer Space, Doctor X, Forbidden Planet, Tarantula, The Day of the Triffids, Night of the Demon and When Worlds Collide.
Just in one song! It sets out the stall for the rest of the play, which has at its heart a fairly pedestrian premise: an innocent young couple’s car breaks down on a rainy night; they see a house and ask the occupants for help. In both the original stage version and movie they are met by O’Brien’s Riff Raff (looking not unlike a Roxy-era Brian Eno), who lures them in with the promise of getting dry and using the phone. They’ve arrived on a rather special night, for the master’s creature is destined to be born. And we’re off. It’s all a bit Hammer Horror, which fits perfectly as the movie ended up being filmed on the old Hammer lot in Berkshire. With this simple premise comes a fast-moving tale of sex and horror and death, one which must always be driven by the master of the house, Frank, the mad scientist. I can’t say anything new about the remarkable Tim Curry, except that he owns every second of his on-screen performance. There is no moving footage of him on stage in the original 1973 Royal Court Theatre production but fortunately, for posterity, the movie captured in glorious Technicolour every flirtatious wink and facial expression, alongside that rich voice and electric sexual charisma. No actor can outdo that performance: you just have to make it different. Many have tried, and some have been very good indeed (like Jonathon Morris, Anthony Head – Murray’s brother, musical nerd fact – and a few others) but I didn’t think anyone had delivered a performance to rival the original… until I saw the show last week for the first time in 21 years. Step forward David Bedella, a 53-year-old Chicagoan actor best known for his Olivier-winning role as Satan/the Warm-Up Man in Jerry Springer: The Opera and an unlikely turn on Holby City (he’s an experienced West End/Broadway performer, having played Sweeney Todd, Billy Flynn etc.). He has said that he tried to do the English accent and it came out so much like Tim Curry it was abandoned in his first rehearsal in 2006. Using his own American accent, a deep and sonorous baritone for both speaking and singing, it changed the part completely and allowed for a new painting. Since then he has become a fan favourite and the go-to Frank. He played the role for the first time in 2006/7, then again in 2009/10 and was bound to get the call – no doubt over some much more famous actors – for this two-week engagement. I now can’t imagine anyone else playing this part on stage, which is a shame really considering that it’s fairly certain to be the final time both he and O’Brien will appear in it. His Frank is everything it needs to be: flirtatious, filthy, masculine, seductive, rapacious, cruel, funny, empathetic and incredibly, ridiculously, sexy.
My own Rocky Horror history goes back over 25 years. I’m fairly sure I first saw the movie in 1989, so I would have been 12 or 13. Perhaps it was on TV, as it’s just the kind of thing Channel 4 would put on in those days when they were actually fulfilling their own remit of interesting programming and not just reality guff. I fell in love. One might say the two imposing figures of my puberty were Jareth and Frank-N-Furter, who on the surface are not dissimilar characters. Both a little evil yet dominantly alluring, both make tempting offers to innocent virgins, both are banished at the end but appear to survive, both sing and wear skimpy pants and have expertly applied their eye shadow. It’s no wonder I’ve turned out like this. I think it best not to convey exactly how much I enjoy viewing men wearing fishnets and heels, but suffice to say it has informed my tastes to this day, as a devoted viewer of Drag Race and fan of all things androgynous. In 1990 there was a West End revival but I don’t think that I saw Tim McInnerny (from Blackadder) in the part. Memory can be unreliable but I believe that a very odd thing happened when I went to London to see this version. I was all set to see Tim in the role but, unless memory has let me down, he broke his arm the night before and had to pull out. As Frank has no understudy, a stand-in was used: to the extreme shock of everyone present, when his entrance song kicked in Richard O’Brien himself was playing the part. I don’t think he’s ever done it before or since. I recall that Ade Edmondson, a year before he’d debut Bottom, his masterpiece with the late great Rik Mayall, lent a kind of unhinged quality to Brad that had been previously unexplored. Connections abound: Tenpole Tudor played O’Brien’s Riff Raff, and would later take over for him again and deflate The Crystal Maze (about which I could write another article). Jonathan Adams played the Narrator, the part he originated in 1973; for the movie he was moved over to play Dr Scott so a famous name (Charles Gray, Blofeld from Diamonds Are Forever) could take over. What I am sure of is that I saw the next iteration with Anthony Head playing Frank the year after and also twice more in 1994, with Jonathon Morris, who was a revelation. I was also lucky enough to see the 21st anniversary show and witnessed Patricia Quinn reprising her stage and movie role as Magenta, with O’Brien as the doomed biker Eddie.
For the actors, it’s a bit of a strange ‘adult panto but worse’ vibe. There are, effectively, two scripts: that of the play, that of the audience. Heckles are established and well practiced. An actor can barely reach the end of a single line without having something shouted at them that has wildly varying levels of cleverness and wit. Creating space for pauses, getting a song to yourself, allowing comic timing and interaction with other performers are all on shaky, often absent, ground. It must be a weird show to be in, where the audience are such a part of the experience, though you do get to be a rock star for the night. It’s the kind of thing you need a break from, and perhaps that’s why I’ve not seen it live in so long. I love the movie and its exquisite timing, so being surrounded by people screaming out every 10 seconds can be intensely irritating. But, as the song goes, once in a while…
There have been tours in the last decade but they never quite registered with me. However, when I heard that Richard O’Brien was returning to the role of the Narrator, surely for the last time, I was drawn out of my Rocky hibernation and grabbed a ticket for the Saturday night, which I thought would be the last performance but the week-long run got extended to two (good job it wasn’t more, my debit card would have been begging for mercy). What a rush, what a beautiful teenage nostalgic rush it was. By the interval I knew I had to get a ticket to see it a second time. The crowd created a deafening noise and gave O’Brien a standing ovation before he’d said a word. He raised an eyebrow, always the commanding performer, and took all hecklers on with panache. David Bedella, however, is not one to be outshone. I’d heard that he was a fan favourite and now I understand why. The man owned that theatre, right to the back row. By miles, the best stage Frank I have seen, and probably that has ever played it. Interestingly, he’s the first gay actor to take on the part. I can’t figure out why it’s always straight men who play Frank but there we go, an odd fact. No particular reason I’m sure, in the same way as Hedwig (another character that owes a fair bit to Rocky Horror) is fairly often played by straight actors. Everyone played their parts with aplomb and the show was as tight as a drum, as you’d expect and as it has to be given the nature and timing of the audience participation aspects. It rattled along at a breathless pace and the songs seemed closer together than I remember; for that reason, I was struck by their sheer quality. From the iconic There’s A Light… to the blustering Hot Patootie (Eddie’s cameo, Meat Loaf in the film of course) to the classics (Time Warp, Sweet Transvestite, which were reversed in order in the play, changed for the film then kept that way), and my personal favourite, the suite of ‘floorshow’ songs at the end: Rose Tint My World/Don’t Dream It, Be It/Wild and Untamed Thing.
During that run of songs comes a delicate invocation, almost a limerick, of Frank’s origins, which I’ve always found rather sweetly poetic:
Whatever happened to Fay Wray
That delicate satin-draped frame
As it clung to her thigh
How I started to cry
For I wanted to be dressed just the same.
The Rocky Horror Show, an unlikely phenomenon, continues to tour worldwide and play to packed houses. Now that this two-week London run is over it’s off on another national tour (albeit without Bedella and, of course, O’Brien), starting in Brighton at Xmas. Not bad for something that came to be performed by chance as part of a deal: its Australian director Jim Sharman had been engaged to direct at the Royal Court but only agreed on the proviso that they let the little room upstairs be used for this weird sci-fi B-movie musical he had fallen in love with and wanted to direct. Sixty-three people came night after night (including Bowie, allegedly) and it became so successful it transferred to Los Angeles, Broadway and then returned for a year in 1979 to the West End: it ran for nearly 3,000 performances. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is in its 40th year the longest running movie of all time, but don’t forget it was a flop when it came out until the Waverly Theatre in Greenwich Village started showing it at midnight a year after its release (it still plays weekly there). The rest is history. Somewhere on earth, from Sao Paolo to Sydney, from Cologne to Colorado, it is always playing. As Roger Ebert once wrote, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much a movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon.” I was knocked out to see the audience at the Playhouse as engaged and excited as ever; half were dressed like they were going to an amateur fetish night, with plenty of kids half my age seeing the show live for the first time. Of course, every time I enjoy a show and have the chance to see it again I never pass up that chance. So the day after the show – I had been seated in the dress circle, not a bad view at all, if a little obstructed – I got another ticket for the penultimate performance, the matinee. This time on Row C, which was the fifth row, somehow. Proximity is everything.
The events of Saturday 26th were so surreal it would be, as you’ll see, ridiculous to not report them. I was all set to have a long day: a football match at White Hart Lane and then the matinee (oddly, at 5.30; they’re usually at 2.30) before the final show played at 8.30. On Friday, after a glass of wine, my aunt said she’d love to come with. She’d taken me to see it when I was a teenager. Don’t ask how, but she accidentally bought two tickets – K20 and B1 (the seat in front of me!) – and so the spare went to her best friend. Then my cousin came home and we tried to get a ticket for her as well, in D3 this time. So now we were all going, a little comically in four separate seats, three of which were by coincidence very close together. The seat next to me turned out to be free so for the second half we were all pretty much seated together. So, I went to the football (a 12.45 kick off) and it went… poorly. I walked out with 10 minutes to go, which I have not done for many years. In a dark mood, I headed into town and was regaining my composure on the South Bank at about 4.30pm when I got a text from my aunt: “Richard O’Brien, at the stage door, now!”
I jumped up and headed across Embankment Bridge. He was long gone by the time I arrived: everyone met one of my childhood heroes but me. Of course. That was how the day was going. Nevertheless, I was excited to see the show again, and so close to the front. It was again superb, though the crowd were a little dull. Some I suspect had just fancied going to the theatre and weren’t particular fans. They were won over by the remarkable lead, but it put into sharp relief how superb the audience had been the week before. During the first half a slightly bonkers thought occurred to me: I wonder if there are any spares for the very last show? No, I’m being ridiculous. I can’t go for a third time. But my companions egged me on and, at the interval, I went to the box office to check. There was one seat left, H20. Tempting. I went back in and resolved to let fate decide: if it was still there at show’s end I would get it. When I went back I asked if it was, “No, that one sold but one more came in, a return, in K21.” Meant to be. I bought it, had a quick dinner and came back to the theatre, like a crazy person. In my seat by 8.20, I got chatting to the gentleman seated to my right, a wardrobe dresser from Toronto. Then the seat on my left was filled by a lady; we smiled at each other and exchanged pleasantries. She was about my age, dressed in black, leather boots, very slim, long black hair, with some old tattoos (I got an old goth vibe). A short while after, her companions arrived, three men. One of whom I recognised immediately, I was certain I knew him. The show began, again, and was just marvellous. You’d never think they’d only finished the matinee an hour earlier. Tremendously enjoyable. I was resolved to ask her at the interval if the gentleman two seats over was who I thought he was. The conversation was so surreal I have to report it as it happened:
Me: [quietly] Excuse me, but can I ask you, that gentleman seated to your left, I think I recognise him; is it Peter Straker?
Lady: Yes, that is Peter, where do you know him from?
Me: I’m a big fan of Freddie Mercury; they were lifelong friends. For a Queen nerd like me he’s a legend. He even appeared in one of his videos (he’s the one in drag who isn’t Freddie or Roger).
We then made small talk for a few minutes, I asked her where she was from, she said Munich, we chatted about the show and then, the immortal question came:
Me: Have you seen the show before?
Lady: [smiling] Oh yes, many times, I’m Richard’s wife.
- blink -
- pause -
Lady: I’m Richard’s wife, Sabrina.
To say this was an unexpected turn of events would be an understatement. As I tried to remain cool and calm, we then chatted about him and his agelessness, the show (she stopped counting how many times she’d seen it at 200, she was a fan before she met him; they were friends for a decade before they married in 2013), New Zealand, where they live, how tough the flight is, how far removed their rural life is from London, his children and two grandchildren, how wonderful David is as Frank, etc. I told her how much I loved The Crystal Maze and that once I had written to the show asking to be on. The age limit was 16 and I was younger so I got a polite letter back from the producers and a personalised signed postcard from Richard, in silver pen (I have to find it, must be in Manchester in my bedroom somewhere), which I was thrilled about.
She was absolutely charming, very warm. It was all a bit distracting but the second half started and off we went, probably the last time I’d see the show for however many more years. We got up and danced the Time Warp. We cheered until we were hoarse. The show ended, as it has done each time I’ve seen it on this run, with a kiss between Bedella and O’Brien, who leave the stage arm in arm. I felt elated and grateful I’d taken this chance (I’ve never regretted seeing any show more than once). At the end, without being asked, she retrieved my jacket from the floor, and told me what a pleasure it was to meet me. I told her to tell her husband how loved he is in England and she said she would. This is the kind of thing that could only happen to me. The afternoon started badly and ended up being one of my more memorable days. Here’s to 40 more years of Rocky.
He does test you though. Having ditched Kristeen Young (for the second time) as a support act, he’s extended the video that has been playing before his stage entrance for some years. In my recollection, it used to be about 10 minutes long and took place when the house lights were off. Most people thought it was a short intro film and when they realised it wasn’t boredom and fidgeting set in. At least now he keeps the lights up, so everyone realises they’re going to have to sit/stand through 30 minutes of what goes on inside his mind. And quite the eye-opener it is too. Some of it’s pretty normal, unsurprising: The Ramones, the New York Dolls, Ike and Tina, and, in the past, The Small Faces, Jobriath, Eno, Nico, Francoise Hardy, even Tim Buckley. But interspersed between these music clips you get some outright weird shit. From poetry – Anne Sexton reciting Wanting To Die (cheerful) and an interview with Edith Sitwell – to a grainy 70s clip of Charles Aznavour, a brief interview with novelist James Baldwin, and a bit of prog-metal from System of a Down-adjacent band Mt. Helium (highly uncharacteristic of his taste), immediately followed by a movie clip of flamenco dance pioneer José Greco. Then, just when you think it can’t get weirder, on comes 60s comic Rex Jameson, as his cross-dressing alter ego Mrs Shufflewick. And just before the brief final clip, which is always drag performer Lypsinka, we get an indescribably weird song with Leo Sayer-as-a-clown. It’s all very Morrissey. It’s all very odd. Who else could get away with this? The things you’ll endure for love.
There’s something about seeing a second night played at the same venue. Not that I was sure the setlist would differ significantly, as you can never predict this man’s moods. He could just as easily have played the same songs in the same order as he had the night before. But he’s also capable of surprising me, and to my delight he made extensive changes, which he almost never does, letting go of What She Said (and its snippet of Rubber Ring, which would have been landmark to hear), Yes I Am Blind, two new songs, plus I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris, which I’ve always found dull. I’ve got a list going on Facebook of gigs I’ve seen, and perhaps the nerdiest aspect of it is the Moz song list. Eighty-six different songs played at 16 gigs over nine years and four months. So I’m checking the list now to see how many new songs I got to hear… seven! That is remarkable. The total now sits at 93.
He opened with an acapella line “If I made you feel second best, I'm so sorry I was blind” (from Always On My Mind) then launched into You’ll Be Gone, one of only 10 songwriting credits that had the name Elvis Presley listed (I suspect he didn’t do much writing for any of those). Let’s get the new song statistics out of the way first. That Elvis tune, obviously. Super obscure song Let The Right One Slip In, a B-side leftover from the Your Arsenal sessions (more Ronson production genius), check. Boxers, a one-off single to promote a 1995 tour, shoved on a compilation (World Of Morrissey) shortly after, check. My Dearest Love, B-side of All You Need Is Me (great song), check. Alma Matters, a bad pun and the first single from Maladjusted, which I thought I’d heard before, but hadn’t, check. Oboe Concerto, from the new album, let’s face it a rewritten version of Death Of A Disco Dancer, and almost as good, check. And finally, to push our devotion to critical mass, one of his most beautiful and most Moz-like songs ever, Will Never Marry. It’s mostly swelling strings, not much to sing, but every word is meaningful:
I’m writing this to say
In a gentle way, thank you, but no
I will live my life as I will undoubtedly die, alone
I’m writing this to say
In a gentle way, thank you
I will live my life as I
For whether you stay or you stray an inbuilt guilt catches up with you
And as it comes around to your place at 5 a.m., wakes you up
And it laughs in your face
I feel like I’ve been waiting to hear that song since the second I saw the video, in which he receives heartfelt expressions of love and affection from total strangers. If that is the last new song I ever hear him sing, I can live with that. But I don’t fall for all that drama; I think the tickets under-sold (they were very expensive) and he wanted to drum up some attention. And despite his lengthy list of issues with Bowie, I also think it was a little nod to the last Ziggy show. Without getting into too much detail, it’s fairly obvious that his whole ‘no record label wants me’ tantrum is bullshit. He has been offered countless deals and is known to turn them down because they are ‘360’, meaning that, like everyone else in music who is asked to sign a record contract, a slice of touring is part of the package due to the state of record sales. But since Moz lives in 1973 in his head – obsessed with airplay and chart positions, the quicksand last quarter of his autobiography is devoted to such statistics – he does not (perhaps understandably) want to give anyone a cut of the only way he makes money. So he remains unsigned. Then says nobody is interested in signing him. It’s a classic Moz move. Ever poetic, near the end, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard asking DeMille for her close-up, he tells the crowd, “our UK days conclude, but there is no need for me to say goodbye because we will all be close for the rest of our days” before launching into the last song of the night: a frenzied version of the ever-powerful and subversive The Queen Is Dead.
In the face of endless criticism for loving Morrissey, what is it exactly that makes me go again and again just so I can look at that square jaw and greying quiff? My gig-going companion saw him before we met at the Livid Festival in Brisbane in October 2002, 10 days no less after I saw Bowie at Hammersmith (that took some Googling!). I remember her telling me someone threw a bra onstage, which he picked up, made a disgusted face and threw back into the audience. Of course he did. He also played Meat Is Murder, bathed in red light, and that was it for her, that light-switches-on moment. I didn’t imagine when she took me to see my first show in 2006 that I’d equal the number of times I saw Bowie. She has a theory about him, which we’ve come to call ‘Morrissey is me’. I can’t do it justice but it’s about his flaws being our flaws. His imperfections and oddness and madness and anger and bitterness and vulnerability and aloneness being reflections of ours. He makes many mistakes and they are our mistakes too. And no matter how many people tell you Morrissey is a prick both online and to your face it only strengthens your adoration. Or something like that, I can’t get it right but I will never tire of hearing it. Why only this week, as I wrote this, another torrent of ridicule and humiliation has come his way, due to the release of his first, and surely last, novel List of the Lost. Nobody is taking any pleasure in reporting that it’s an unedited disaster, an unreadable mess that a renowned publisher like Penguin should hang their heads in shame over putting out in such a state. The reviews I’ve read are by wounded Moz fans who just feel let down by him (not for the first time), from Michael Hann at the Guardian to Medium’s Emily Reynolds; they seem to be in some sort of physical pain from having to report that the book is dreck. They took one for the team and read it so we don’t have to; the consensus is that it makes his Autobiography (which was brilliant until it wasn’t) look like Ulysses. But again, this only somehow strengthens everyone’s devotion. So he’s written an awful book, so what? Love can’t be extinguished by his poor judgement – if it could we’d all have abandoned him years ago.
Of course, he can go too far, even for me. I’m already a vegetarian man, because of you, what more do you want of me? He makes me sit through footage of animal slaughter, the backdrop to Meat Is Murder; usually it doesn’t get to me, but this time it really did. I was quite near the front, maybe 15 or 20 feet back, so I got hooked in for the first minute. To illustrate his point, which you know he feels he must make night after night, he has sought out the worst examples of animal cruelty, factory farming. It’s too much for a lot of people; many look away. Cows imprisoned in tiny cages. Chickens having their beaks sliced off. That kind of thing. But of course, the very worst examples of slaughter practices are the creation of halal and kosher meat, so I’m confronted with the unedifying spectacle of Hebrew and Arabic captions stating that a lot of the footage is taken from Middle Eastern slaughterhouses, which makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. This is a language I have a tattoo in (shalom: peace), below my Morrissey tattoo, and it appears on screen as writhing, distressed animals’ throats are slit and blood pours out as their lives drain away. Stunning animals (so, it’s said, they aren’t conscious as they are slaughtered) is accepted worldwide as the only humane part of this animal losing its life so someone can eat a burger but it is banned in kosher/halal processes, for spurious reasons of course, as is true of most religion-based rulings. Too complex to go into the details (Google ‘shechita’ if you’re interested) but of course it makes for a snuff film that this trapped audience must tolerate. Of course, he goes too far sometimes and in interviews has compared the daily animal slaughter to the Holocaust, which despite my passion for animal welfare I find to be way over the line. Nevertheless, when you must stand and listen (even if you look away from much of the footage, as I did) to sound clips of cows mooing, with those brutal lyrics, which he now embellishes to make the audience feel as bad as possible, well, anyone would come away feeling sick. And that’s what he wants.
Earlier in the show, not to neglect humans, during Ganglord the screen shows extreme footage of police brutality, including murders of innocent, mostly African-American, citizens by power-crazed cops. More snuff films. This is who he is. You walk into his house, where you’re held captive and confronted with the worst of humanity, the worst of human behaviours. And yet, in between songs he makes you laugh hard, he gives you every droplet of sweat from his body, he encourages fans to try to make it onto the stage to touch him, he reaches down and touches as many hands as he can. This is the dissonance that makes us go back again and again.
On the musical side, he’s finally added some nuance and subtlety to his band, who’ve been slogging on behind him for a decade or more, with occasional member changes. Mostly this comes in the form of Colombian-American Gustavo Manzur, who plays keyboards, trumpet, accordion, flamenco guitar, and even steps forward to sing the last half of Speedway in Spanish. He’s genuinely added something new, a Latino flavour which fits perfectly, to the proceedings. He joined in 2009 but his impact has grown year on year, with his influence felt in all corners of World Peace Is None Of Your Business. The new Alain Whyte is finally here.
After Meat Is Murder, which only a heartless person would be untouched by, he creates a calm after the storm as we reach the show’s end. It’s like he’s thanking you for sitting through the red light, torture and feedback by playing one of his sweetest, gentlest, most touching songs, Now My Heart Is Full. It’s the perfect five words. It’s how every fibre of my being feels during one of his concerts. That man gave me life in Hammersmith and will do so again today and the next day. He is me, I am him, and we are all together.
The gig ends in chaos of course, like all of his do. The crowd surges forward to catch his discarded shirt, with the fight for it broken up by exhausted security guards and their scissors long after the lights have come up and the venue is nearly empty. They don’t want to let go. That, I understand. Until the next time.
You'll Be Gone / Let The Right One Slip In / Suedehead / Speedway / Ganglord / Boxers / World Peace Is None Of Your Business / Kiss Me A Lot / Staircase At The University / Alma Matters / Will Never Marry / My Dearest Love / The Bullfighter Dies / The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores / Oboe Concerto / Meat Is Murder / Now My Heart Is Full / Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed / I Will See You In Far-Off Places / Everyday Is Like Sunday // The Queen Is Dead
In 1997, during a visit to London, I saw The Dance, a VH1 concert that Fleetwood Mac had been persuaded into reforming for; Lindsey Buckingham had been out of the band for a decade by then, with the exception of an appearance at, erm, Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball in 1993 (he’d used Don’t Stop as his campaign song). I was instantly smitten by such perfectly formed songs – I also developed quite the crush on Lindsey, I freely admit. More than that, I was utterly entranced by Stevie’s voice and that whole lace-clad ethereal gypsy persona (much copied, stand up Florence, Courtney Love (love this cover), and many more). She threw him some serious shade, as they sang to each other:
And if you don't love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain.
I’d never seen anything like it, that charged connection between two singers, and his incredible, intuitive guitar playing, without a pick, which was another first for my eyes. I knew very little about them, but learned fast, via the BBC’s brilliant Rock Family Trees documentary series. I may have a tendency toward sonic oddities, but I love, just absolutely love, impeccably sophisticated pop music, which no doubt comes from being raised on Motown and the Beatles/Stones. I never bought into the idea that Fleetwood Mac were bland soft rock. They are not The Eagles. I think that attitude toward them came from post-Peter Green snobbery, based around the opinion that a blues band is more authentic and should be more respected than a band who ditches that style entirely and brings the hippy Californians in so they can become huge-selling. The Fleetwood Mac of the late 60s and early 70s is dramatically different in tone from the Buckingham/Nicks version and I think English blues fans, my parents included, felt they had lost something. To me, they had moved forward, with only the band name remaining the same. Peter Green’s FM are great, but the mid-70s output is what I fell for. I also only recently discovered the album that got the Yanks into the band, the superb Buckingham Nicks, which has never been reissued or remastered on any format since it came out in 1973.
Everyone knows the tales – addiction, rehab, affairs, divorces, rancour, break-ups; they embodied that 70s private jet, separate limos, bowls of coke excess – and to an extent that lived experience is part of the attraction if you see them live. You’re paying to see Stevie and Lindsay, who met in high school and were together for almost a decade, a lifetime ago, give each other the side-eye and bicker. You’re there to witness that attraction between them that will never end. You get the feeling neither is still entirely comfortable with having to spend their professional lives together, playing out songs from their break-up every night on stage, like a lifelong version of The Mousetrap, but they accept they are destined to stand on stage together, holding hands, until someone drops. Neither seems to be easy to get on with either. Lest we forget, in 1987, with a tour for their hugely well received comeback album Tango In The Night already booked, Lindsey airily announced at a band meeting that he had had enough and was leaving. Stevie chased him out of his own house, pinned him to a car bonnet and tried to strangle him. These rock tales are part of the attraction, but there is also clearly genuine affection between them, if a little sadness on her part. By virtue of biology, men get to move on in ways women can’t, inhibited by time. In his 50s Lindsey (now 65) met a blonde woman just over half his age and got married, then had a family; Stevie has said she knew it was finally over when his first child was born. A woman is not afforded that same luxury. Stevie married her best friend’s husband in the early 80s, a few months after losing her (cancer grief makes people do odd things), annulling the marriage a few months later, but she seems not to have had a significant relationship since, aside from one in the 90s with a younger non-famous man. It fell apart because, she said, they couldn’t go anywhere because of her fame. I get the sense she never got over Lindsey, that he is her great lost love. Incidentally, how weird must it be for his wife to see him holding his ex’s hand, singing to her every night? He’s worked through it all – it might be easier when love is found again – and you can tell he’s spent a long time in therapy just from the way he talks about full circles and patterns, that slightly loopy Esalen-style psychobabble. That story, that dynamic, is how you get drawn in, true enough, but if the music was average your attention couldn’t possibly justify the investment. It’s those songs; they are for the ages. I’d walk a million miles to hear their masterpiece Landslide, which has taken on such a poignant ache now the duo are approaching 70….
I took my love and took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
Till the landslide brought me down
Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well, I've been afraid of changing
'Cause I've built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I'm getting older too
There is also one, very new, X factor in this soapy drama: the return of Christine McVie (the oldest, at 71). If Lindsey’s tenure out of the band had ground them to a halt between 1987 and 1997 (they toured without him after his Tango tantrum but it was half-hearted), Christine’s departure in 1998 didn’t change the band’s plans. They toured without her because they had the momentum, even though it wasn’t the same and led to the loss of many great songs from the setlist (Say You Love Me, Everywhere, Little Lies, Songbird, You Make Loving Fun). She was happy and had retired to the Kent countryside; nobody expected her to return to the band, who, remember, have weathered the departures of Spinal Tap levels of members. Peter Green took too much acid, went mad and left. Jeremy Spencer got plucked off the street in LA by a religious cult and went off down his own path (still touring and making music at least). Danny Kirwan’s alcoholism got him fired. Bob Weston was fired for having an affair with Mick’s wife. And so on. So they are used to moving forward when a member has had their day. But it felt different with Christine. She’s always been the heart of the band, a hugely gifted songwriter and keyboardist, with a flawless voice, and her returned presence alone seems to just knit everything together. Stevie is visibly happier since she returned, following a one-off 2012 appearance at the O2 that last year turned into full un-retirement (she’s older than Bowie. It’s never too late. I’m just saying). Everyone seems thrilled she is back; they’re genuinely having a grand old time doing what they were born to do. The vibe on stage is warm and filled with energy. Mick and John in particularly are quite a pair of old boys, travelling musicians, on the road for nearly 50 years together. It’s what they do, it’s who they are. It’s life, living in hotels, always on the move, the adrenalin ups and managed downs (not with mountains of coke, these days, fortunately).
I’d never seen them live before; I’d been tempted on many occasions in the last decade but somehow never got round to it, perhaps it never felt right. I’m glad now that I didn’t see them without Christine – those five people are special, you can’t replicate that chemistry with just the four. For a while there I thought I might not see them ever, what with John McVie’s cancer diagnosis last year. He was looking a little grey around the gills (he’s 69) and only a few weeks ago talked about how he’s not got much more touring left in him, which is understandable. His musical partner and best friend Mick Fleetwood (68 and behaves like a teenager) is going to tour until he drops dead on stage, of that I am quite certain. His energy levels put us all to shame; he’s a funny, eccentric man who would have fitted in quite nicely to a Bonzo Dog Doo Dah line-up. He once played a fish in Star Trek: TNG you know. Anyway, my excitement level for this gig was sky high, as I’d loved this band for nearly two decades. I think perhaps the moment I realised they were for me back in 1997 was this crazy brilliant solo version of Big Love, where Lindsey plays both rhythm and lead parts at the same time; it’s a remarkable piece of work, I still have no idea how he does it. People don’t play guitar like him anymore, the way he does it, with all the solos and O-faces (seeing Santana next month, mind you, am expecting a two-hour-long solo). I wasn’t certain if they played it live, and given that the version from The Dance is nearly two decades old, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d chosen to play it a bit safer (with full band, like the original). So, I was utterly thrilled to hear the acoustic version exactly like I remembered it, now that was a serious highlight.
The big tunes kept coming, breathlessly, with the three singles from Tango In The Night – Big Love, Everywhere, Little Lies – getting huge responses. As many fans present were in their 40s and grew up hearing those late 80s singles as remember Rumours from the 70s. The only lengthy interludes, aside from a ridiculous drum solo (is there any other kind?), were a pair of songs back-to-back that saw them play around beautifully outside of their comfort zones as four-minute pop song purveyors. I’m So Afraid had such prog majesty it bordered on Pink Floyd-esque. But my highlight was a dramatic, lengthy, epic version of Gold Dust Woman, with Stevie doing her twirling mystical thing and the band getting a real head of steam on.
Oh, Stevie Nicks (the youngest of the five at 67). As 70s icons go – Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell – she is in their exalted company, easily. Her voice has no high range these days but she’s developed this gorgeous, deep, gravelly, powerful tone that has no trouble at all delivering these songs. She’s just so likeable, too; she exudes a kind of maternal kindness. And to have her girl Chris back in the band, it’s just added so much to the dynamic, musically and personally (interesting section in there about how they both felt unable to have families, like the men did). Stevie, incredibly, was only accepted into the band in the first place because Mick wanted her boyfriend in to play guitar and they were a package deal. They had no idea what they had; what a singer/songwriter she is, well able to write beyond the band too – her 1981 solo album Belladonna is superb (there’s no beating Edge Of Seventeen, a classic, or Leather and Lace, a Don Henley duet). She told a long, entertaining story before Gypsy – she probably tells the same one every night but I don’t care – about how she and Lindsey supported some of the big bands in San Francisco in the late 60s (Hendrix, Santana, Janis, who she is not a million miles away from, a pop version if you like). Her day job, as a waitress, supported them both while they toiled away, waiting to be discovered. There was a clothing store in the Bay Area, called The Velvet Underground (said without irony; how many minds but mine in the O2 wandered to think of the band?), which sold hippy clothes to the local rock stars, like Janis and Grace Slick. Stevie would go in and know she couldn’t afford anything, but dreamed of being able to buy something without looking at the price tag, which she went back and did only a few years later. Like most stories told by people in therapy/recovery she makes it a paean to not giving in, believing in yourself and following your heart/dreams and all that kind of West coast guff. Gypsy’s opening lyric, of course, runs:
So I'm back, to the velvet underground
Back to the floor, that I love
To a room with some lace and paper flowers
Back to the gypsy that I was
To the gypsy... that I was
And it all comes down to you
Well, you know that it does
I enjoyed the story, it was well told, and the song itself has a beautiful simplicity to it, which is not something you could accuse this band of too much. Their Rumours follow-up, the sprawling but not unlistenable double album Tusk, cost over $1m to make and Lindsey was so out of it, and being an unbearable control freak, he thought it sensible to hire a 112-piece marching band for the title track. Fleetwood Mac are why punk had to happen.
Anyway, regardless of their crowded and complex history, and disparate personalities, all given equal front-time, when they are on stage they click into that rhythm that all great bands have, and everything just works like magic. You get exactly what you want, without that predictability ever being a bad thing; this was their 95th gig of the tour and it still felt fresh as gig 1. You sing and do embarrassing white person dancing and everyone is just so happy. What more could anyone ever want from a gig? I hope I get the chance to see them many more times.
You Make Loving Fun
Second Hand News
I Know I'm Not Wrong
Sisters of the Moon
Say You Love Me
Big Love (Lindsey solo)
Never Going Back Again
Over My Head
Gold Dust Woman
I'm So Afraid
Go Your Own Way
Songbird (Christine solo at piano)
Photo by Richard Etteridge
Not for the first time, I had a moment of realisation last night. There’s an endless list of reasons why I love gigs so much but I think a big one is the utter immersion of it. You’re in a dark room, with strangers. You don’t have anything to worry about, you leave (you should leave) your work/life stresses at the door. You’re shut in. Sound and visual stimulation sweep the space. Anything could be happening outside that room and you wouldn’t know about it. An asteroid could have knocked out half of Europe, austerity riots could be in full swing, a lake of fire could be where the Thames was, or a politician could have nearly done the full Madonna and stumbled off a stage on Question Time. Ok, that last one actually happened. But nothing matters outside the room. It’s like a football match, it’s the most pure here and now of a moment. You’re transported somewhere. Of course, not all gigs are the same. The average, good and sometimes even great ones can cause my attention span to wander (that’s what nearly two decades of being online will do to you)… what Tube route should I take home (for the South Bank I’ve taken to walking across the bridge by Embankment station, it’s lovely)? I wonder if I will get any work in tomorrow? I wonder if that person will reply to that email? Should I get a snack on the way home (I shouldn’t)? I hope I get Dylan tickets in the morning (I did). Some of it boring detritus, some is important thoughts that you wish you weren’t thinking. But not last night, not with Laura Marling. There was no distraction that floated in. I was immersed, rapt, dazzled, by this gifted young woman.
In the current age, where media training faces off in a heavyweight battle with the over-share, we both dread and desire the knowability of the famous. It’s not a new thing, prying into the private lives of people whose creativity has a crucial presence in our lives. I’m sure that admirers and benefactors hounded Mozart about his marriage, while Lennon’s wife and child were hidden from the public in the white-hot glare of early Beatlemania, and this was all before the advent of the internet. Yet, women in music seem to occupy a more studied, criticised, judged place. Perhaps the ground zero for this is Joni Mitchell, an article about whom is never written without mentioning the men she’s slept with and been disappointed by. In her rare but always compelling interviews (try to ignore the interviewer, a now-disgraced Canadian journalist, Google him at your peril) she seems to constantly exist in a state of bitterness at being treated a certain way by the music industry (meaning: men). This is how she is defined – by the male gaze. It’s how she’s defined by others and, despite being brilliant and insightful and worth more, it’s how she defines herself. She always has a bad word to say about her treatment, not without cause. And Marling has been subject to the same clichés, as each article and interview mentions how many folk band boyfriends she’s had (the singers from Noah and the Whale, and Mumford and Sons, articles are keen to tell us) and how she moved to America because she fell in love with a boy, and then they broke up and she’s back here now and she might be single, might not be… and so on. Is this newsworthy? Only if you care about that kind of thing. Does it matter even a tiny fucking amount when you listen to her songs? No.
On stage, it is only about music. Nothing else matters. She barely speaks to the audience. Dylan, incidentally, almost never says a single word between songs. Saving his voice perhaps? (eyebrow raise). She says hello about 20 minutes in, after the first suite of songs, played without breaks, has ended, as the applause and energy that has built up over those minutes explodes. The only other time she speaks is 10 minutes before the end, where she gives a short speech about how she did an encore for the first time the other night, didn’t like it, isn’t going to do it again, and if you want one, well, it’s about to happen right now. She said she had been giving variations on that ‘encore’ speech for the last 8 years. It was charming and the audience lapped it up. Perhaps they had been crying out to be verbally connected to? I hadn’t. I don’t need to know her. I was inside the songs, mesmerised by her voice and the film playing on a big screen behind her. I thought at first it was a photograph of a desert vista: a late afternoon, a low mountain range in the background, with two trails of sandy footprints leading towards (or away from, if you want to think of it that way) the camera. But when I would lose track of it just for a minute or two a small thing would change, like a time-lapse tableau; a half-moon appeared in the distance, the lighting changed, at first imperceptibly, and then the sky started to get darker, glacially slowly. Near the end of the show, time started to move faster – car headlights appeared in the distance, snaking from left to right across a northern California highway. The moon disappeared, and then real darkness fell. The camera started to tilt up inch by inch as the stars came out. By the end the mountains and sand were out of sight and a million pinprick holes glittered, like a shot from the Hubble Telescope. By the time the stars had arrived, and as she sang the aching, poignant Goodbye England (Covered In Snow), given added meaning now she has returned to live here, I felt myself well up and wondered if I could experience a more pure moment than this.
She exudes a kind of icy diffidence; she knows how good she is and isn’t wasting time and words by pretending to be your pal, your mate. She’s not in it for Spinal Tap-style ‘Hello Cleveland!’ sucking up. Without appearing arrogant, or the wrong side of aloof, she projects a mix of toughness and vulnerability. She also manages, remarkably, to not fall prey to the class-based bias that seems to affect artists whom the media designates as annoying or unworthy of success since they are felt to have gained an unfair advantage because of their white middle/upper-class-ness. Anyone else – she is actual aristocracy, the 5th generation of baronets and knights from affluent Hampshire – would get it in the neck for being a toff. I guess you have to be this good to bat away that kind of classist nonsense seemingly without any effort.
Most of her new album, Short Movie, was played. The title derives from a hippy, who turned out to be a shaman (of course, if you will live in California…), she befriended in a bar; he would say, at the end of sentences, ‘It’s a short fucking movie, man’. You get the sense she doesn’t have an interest in wasting a single minute. In a sense, the songs run into each other, but that doesn’t mean they don’t stand out. There’s just a beautiful flow to the evening, tracked by the level of control she exerts over every breath, every word. She runs through a litany of perfectly formed songs, relying heavily on Short Movie and its predecessor, Once I Was An Eagle. Time is also found for a gorgeous, delicate rendition of one of the great blues standards, Jackson C. Frank’s Blues Run The Game. Having a go at, and nailing, a song covered by everyone from Nick Drake to Simon and Garfunkel, Bert Jansch to Sandy Denny, puts you in rarefied air, where she sits with ease. Looking at the setlist, the song titles are quite bland, without much personality. Titles like How Can I, What He Wrote, You Know, Breathe, False Hope, Walk Alone, I Feel Your Love. Nothing titles. It’s hardly The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores (oh Moz, master of the pithy song title, so much to answer for). I listen to her albums while I work and that means I know all the songs but aside from the odd one, like Master Hunter, I tend not to know what they’re called anyway. It doesn’t matter. She’s building a collection. It always feels like a privilege to sit in a room and, speaking as a non-creative person, have an artist express themselves at you, to you. I could never tire of it if I went to 1000 gigs.
At the best shows, I sometimes am overcome by a heavenly feeling. Not that I believe in it, a literal version of heaven. Of course I don’t. But if it existed, that’s what I would want it to be. The music I love, surrounded by happy strangers and friends, playing for all eternity. I’ve felt that way hundreds of times. That if I was stuck in one day, I’d want it to be this one day. This one great night. At its best, that’s exactly how music should make you feel. Add up all those great nights, and you can make a great life.
Take the Night Off
I Was an Eagle
I Feel Your Love
How Can I
What He Wrote
Love Be Brave
Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)
Blues Run the Game
Photograph: Gaelle Beri/Redferns via Getty Images
I was a slightly odd teenager. I know, not a big shock. Fairly sheltered, I didn’t go to friends’ houses nor did they come to mine (they lived too far away, we had no car) and I spent the weekends with my grandparents, and from 1990 onwards just gran, who really raised me as much as my parents did. I didn’t go out partying until I was nearly 17 (which I turned in October 1993); gran would visit London and I’d be left to my own devices in her flat, where adult merriment was had. Before then, in the more innocent late 80s and very early 90s, I’d spend time watching old movies and mountains of music videos. Pop promos were the big thing in those days; they actually mattered to a career and defined bands and their songs. I taped the videos for new singles onto VHS and played them until they wore out and watched the more niche clips on TV shows (like ITV’s Raw Power) that ran well after midnight. I remember staying up late to watch the premieres of Madonna and Michael Jackson videos on Channel 4: a new pop promo was a huge deal in those days and warranted great fanfare. I didn’t have MTV, so I would tape hours of it when I went down to London to visit my aunt and uncle and their little ones. The MTV rock show Headbangers Ball was a fave, I was really into metal in those days. Anything slightly weird and/or outside of the charts caught my eye and ear, functioning alongside the musical education I was receiving from my parents. I haven’t watched MTV in years but I don’t think they put much music on now, and the videos they do put on are simple – pedestrian pop music with ladies in various states of undress. Anyway, one night I was watching 120 Minutes, their flagship alternative/indie show. It was late 1990, I was shortly about to turn 14, and this video came on.
I had never seen anything like it. It looked like what would now pass for an episode of American Horror Story. A band with big backcombed hair (and not in a Motley Crüe kind of way) and plenty of poorly applied foundation and red lipstick (men in make-up had been my thing since childhood; as I said: odd kid). It was a big dark pop tune, with an unusual voice selling it to me. The video told a tale of a carny sideshow. I had never seen anything like it. Last night, I got to hear that song, Never Enough, 24 years after I fell in love with that pop group, The Cure. I got the ticket by chance. With the closure of the essential Scarlet Mist, a face value ticket exchange, which I have benefitted from so very many times, I’ve been on the lookout for a new ticketing marketplace in order to avoid being ripped off by touts if my admittedly famed ticket-getting karma fails me. The most reliable source now is Twickets, an app (no use to me, my phone purposely has no online access) and Twitter feed. For no particular reason I was browsing my feed and a post popped up offering a ticket to see The Cure at the Hammersmith Apollo. Less than a minute had passed and I was the first to reply. I had no time to think, I just did it. Be ready to take your chances, I always say. A lovely Scouse girl had a spare, and was coming down for the show. Several excitable texts later and the ticket was mine. I met a friend at the venue and tried to prepare, for I had been warned by friends, you see, to steel myself. I already knew that they play long shows. I mean, Springsteen long. The night before they’d done a 40-song setlist. Forty songs. Ok, this is not The Grateful Dead, and their 15+ minutes of meandering solos. These are short, sharp, perfect pop songs. But still, that equated to quite the marathon, and I ain’t as young as I used to be, so my standing ticket was going to be a bit of a challenge. Wisely, I suggested we go over to one side, just behind the disabled section (where a fight nearly broke out later, due to a drunken idiot, but that’s another story) and perch by the wall, so we could lean on something. Very smart move, it turned out. For I was to get 40 songs too, and the longest gig I’ve ever seen by a single band (the previous record was Bowie, in the same venue in 2002: 33 songs and 2½ hours or so).
The support act was terrible, though the hardcore at the front seemed to like them. I didn’t realise there were still lead singers who took themselves that seriously. A bit of Ian Curtis crossed with Jim Morrison and the talent and presence of neither. A bit shoegaze-y and a bit goth, you could see why they’d been chosen. Interminable though. I remembered there’s a reason why I usually spend the minutes leading up to the headliner in the pub. They were called And Also The Trees and, as it turns out, having just researched them (they’re The Cure’s pet project, I’m unsurprised to learn), they’re ancient. That makes it worse somehow. A new band being so derivatively naïve you wouldn’t mind, you’d think it was almost sweet. Now I see they’ve been around for 30+ years – get a new act. Please. You don’t do gloomy torch songs well, move on.
The crowd seemed arranged by age: young sweet alt kids at the front; in the middle, the fans in their 20s, out of university and letting their hipster flag and luminescent hair fly. Then, in the good standing spots, the rest of us in our 30s and 40s, being sensible and not wishing to get pushed around. I’ve been each one of those groups; now and then I dip in and turn the clock back but mostly I’m the one near the bar these days, nodding and singing along; mentally, and subconsciously, noting everything. I know as much about The Cure as I do any other band from the 80s and 90s I’ve loved for years, because even though I’m certain they make new albums, I don’t pay attention to them. I’m not sure anyone outside their fanbase does. But I knew they had an august reputation as a live band, because I have a couple of friends who adore them. Strangely, I’m scooping up all the classic bands at the moment, not entirely accidentally or on purpose, and this felt like another one to tick off. See ‘em before they pop off, Leah said to me a couple of years ago, after we saw some ancient pop star I forget the name of. She’s right. It sounds a bit doomy but we’re living in an age where nearly all the great rock stars of the 50s are gone (Fats, Little Richard, Jerry Lee and Chuck are clinging on, that’s it really) and the ones of the 60s and 70s are about to start dropping like flies (the brilliant Joe Cocker left us as I was travelling to this gig). In the next decade we will lose people that… well, let’s just say I’m glad my mother won’t be here to see it. There’s a reason Lou going hit so hard, the great unspeakable truth of it is too much to contemplate... Those parts of your life since youth, those artists and iconic figures – they taught you, you made yourself out of them. They won’t be here forever.
Of course, Robert Smith is 55 and his lifelong bandmate Simon Gallup (as always, a hot tattooed quiffed rockabilly goth) is 54 so I don’t refer to them. I mention it because in 2015 I’ll be seeing a bunch of old geezers do their thing. Queen (and the terrifically entertaining Adam Lambert) in January, a band I’ve waited for a quarter of a century to properly see. The first band I loved. In March, The Who. In June, Fleetwood Mac (waited 18 years for that one). Then, ridiculously, Bette Midler in July (which will be a highly entertaining old school vaudeville throwback). Then Santana, the week after. Of all people! Rock history, right there, dad has persuaded me I must see him. In between all that, yes, I’ll see Tune-Yards and Flying Lotus and FKA Twigs and who knows who else, but I’m going on a 2015 tour of rock history (including two acts who played Woodstock, for goodness sake). So in that spirit, The Cure, as one of the favourite bands of my teen years, found themselves on that bucket list of bands to see.
And I have to say, it was one of the great pop concerts I have ever seen. Most gigs follow patterns, delineated by the material – new, old and/or obscure (deep cuts, B-sides, remember those?). The flow of a concert will be consistent with a new artist (like the aforementioned FKA Twigs, say), as everyone’s there to hear the new album. Someone with a few records under their belt (like Arcade Fire) will play half new/half old setlists, with the temperature hovering around a simmer, going up to a boil for the songs everyone loves. The Cure somehow managed to keep it at a consistent boil throughout with the occasional wild mad energy jump for the biggest hits. Even the songs of theirs I didn’t know, and there were plenty, felt familiar and were a joy to hear.
As a writer, Robert Smith knows well enough how to work incredibly hard and make it look easy. He’s so gifted as a creator of pop music; the songs are just unutterably pleasant to listen to even if they’re strangers to you. You manage to forget exactly how many, for want of a better word, ‘famous’ songs he’s written. With the exception of one of the great 90s pop tunes, Friday, I’m In Love, and Let’s Go To Bed they played everything any gig-goer could have wanted. The show was so compelling, so brilliantly executed, I forgot what hadn’t been played yet and the third and fourth encores were a blizzard of hits that genuinely surprised me. It was a special night. I made a quick exit as they played their last song and that was as the show ticked over to the three hours and ten minutes mark. I had so many moments where my brain went ‘Aw, wow, I forgot about this one!’ Like when they started the gorgeous Pictures Of You. I had simply forgotten it existed, so rapt was I by the performance. Every part of each song was delivered with care: not a note was wasted. Propulsive drumming (Jason Cooper, magnificent, drove the whole show), flawless keyboard parts (Roger O’Donnell, who has been in and out of The Cure for 27 years), Gallup’s winding, sonorous bass played like a lead guitar, and Smith’s voice sounding just like the records, strong and slightly whiny, but charming. No backing vocalists – it was all just him, though I admit I couldn’t hear a word of his between-song mumbling, though I could gather he was content and happy to be there. The chemistry between Smith and Gallup is always such a pleasure to watch, those two old stagers doing their thing for the 38th year in a row.
I also derived some amusement from the guitarist recently drafted in – our old friend Reeves Gabrels (note: their current absent long-term guitarist Porl Thompson is now a trans woman called Pearl, how wonderful). A lifetime, a century, ago (1999) he was fired by Bowie because of his coke habit. He’s obviously sorted his life out and it was quite nice to see him back, looking well, with Doc Brown-esque plug socket hair, and adding a great new sonic palate to another bunch of classic songs. Admittedly, he doesn’t seem stretched (jokes aside, he’s a gifted musician) but he’s a creditable addition, fits in nicely and kept the ridiculous guitar solos to a tolerable minimum. He gets to play legendary pop songs night after night; it’s not a bad job to have. Those songs, those towering songs… they just kept coming. They were judiciously dotted around the first 2 ½ hours of the set like gemstones sparkling at the bottom of a pool. A Night Like This, Lovesong, In Between Days, Just Like Heaven (which has one of my favourite first verses, what great writing), The Walk, A Forest, Three Imaginary Boys, Charlotte Sometimes and on and on.
It felt so good. Like a piece of my teenage years had come to meet me as I push 40 over here. I was obsessed with Lullaby in my youth. I listened to it over and over and transcribed the lyrics (with a pencil!) from the cassette tape, just because I wanted to read them (ah, the pre-internet universe!) The band were as tight as a drum, and it was a pleasure to see musicians enjoying themselves. They set about their task with great determination, stamina and style, for I can’t think of which other artist does shows like this, with such a wide scope of song choice and devotion to their audience. I suppose Springsteen is the closest, as he also plays marathons and plucks out album track obscurities for the delight of the hardcore fans and his own amusement. All pop/rock gigs are ‘a bit of what I want to play/a bit of what you want to hear’ but this one felt different, most likely because of the sheer length of the show. You felt like everyone was on this journey together, through our lives and theirs, and it built and built. People are used to 90-minute shows then schlepping home and worrying about getting up for work in the morning. Everyone just utterly lost themselves at this gig. A few filtered out, as they had trains to catch, but 99% stayed and revelled and hoped it would never end. And those songs, they kept on coming – Lullaby was extraordinary, greeted with such love. Fascination Street. Why Can’t I Be You? The Lovecats, Close To Me (incidentally, haven’t their videos aged incredibly well?!)… And of course, an oddly slowed down, but no less powerful, Boys Don’t Cry. Everything was spent, delivered, given to us. We gave our hearts back.
1. Shake Dog Shake
2. Piggy in the Mirror
3. A Night Like This
5. In Between Days
6. Just Like Heaven
8. The Caterpillar
9. The Walk
10. A Man Inside My Mouth
11. Wailing Wall
12. Three Imaginary Boys
13. Never Enough
14. Wrong Number
15. Birdmad Girl
17. Like Cockatoos
18. From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea
19. Kyoto Song
22. The Hungry Ghost
23. One Hundred Years
24. Give Me It
25. The Top
26. The Empty World
27. Charlotte Sometimes
30. Play for Today
31. A Forest
32. Pictures of You
34. Fascination Street
35. Dressing Up
36. The Lovecats
37. Close to Me
38. Why Can't I Be You?
39. Boys Don't Cry
40. Hey You!
Photo by Burak Cingi (click to see a gallery)
Morrissey must have big balls. Big brass northern balls. I grant you, this is a fairly odd way to start a review. My current slightly loopy demeanour is a result of sleep deprivation. I got home not particularly late after the show but just could not get off the high. I’m finding it increasingly tough to wind down after I get home late, and there’s a sliding scale. If I’m out for dinner I’ll get home early and usually I’m fine. If I’m at a gig and I get home by 11, which is fairly rare, that might be fine too. If I get home from a gig near midnight I might try and stay up for an hour but not go online so it gives me the best chance of dropping off. And then there’s Morrissey. I got home at a reasonable hour, just before midnight, but couldn’t resist spending an hour online, messaging and checking Twitter and watching clips and generally indulging my Moz glow. And it screwed me up for sleeping beyond words. My heart was pounding and wouldn’t slow down. I was humming with vibration. My mind had songs playing in it like a jukebox. Finally, at nearly 5am I passed out. I woke just before 10 and now here I sit, at 10.30, trying to find a way to describe what happened. This shouldn’t be new. I’ve seen Morrissey 14 (I think) times now. I’ve written about him before. And god knows I’ve heard better setlists, at least I think so, but I suppose it depends on your criteria and interest levels in the varying periods of his career. And yet somehow, somehow, somehow I have rarely seen him do a better show and never felt more in love with him than I do at this moment. How did he pull off this magic trick? To play his new album in near-entirety and still have the biggest audience he’s ever attracted in London in the palm of his hand?
I’ve spoken before about how, and this is not to cause offense or make musical comparisons, he has a surrogate Bowie effect on me and my fellow Moz traveller. We never saw Bowie live together and so somehow he has taken on this mythical quality as a performer, someone I speak about in both boastful and grateful tones, recognising how monumentally lucky I was to, as it were, follow him around Europe (and to New York) on the Reality Tour. I’m not comparing him to Morrissey as a performer – they are so very different. But that intangible quality, call it an aura if you like, is something both have a ton of (alright, Bowie has more, for the record). I can be front row, or in the swaying, violent semi-moshpit, or at the side craning my neck, or half way back so he’s nearly a dot, and the same thing will happen every time. You fear he’ll let you down and he doesn’t. And then, when he doesn’t, you think, well of course you wouldn’t let me down, let us down. You would never do that. It’s a complex relationship and it can’t be compared to anything I feel for anyone else now, not even Bowie. I have seen Morrissey deliver songs (never perform; he says: “if you have a true and physical need to sing a song then you are not performing. Performance is forced and artificial, and you are either a singer, or else you are... simply ... a costume”) from every album, band and solo, that he has in his arsenal. But last night he started and then ended with a pair of songs everyone knew, but somehow managed to make everyone embrace the fact that the songs between those four were largely unknown. And we loved him for it. And Twitter, the first place any complainer goes, you best believe it was unanimous in love (I said love L-U-V, as the Dolls go) for him. He played 20 songs (that’s a lot for him, he usually does a few less) and of the 16 in between the opening pairs he started with three from his new record in a row. Then I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris, a thoroughly average song from his last album. Then three more new songs, again in a row – I must confess to thinking that the lyrics are somewhat lacking on both World Peace… in general and on its adolescent title track (it’s the kind of impractical idealistic ‘don’t vote, viva la revolución!’ nonsense you hear from Russell Brand – this is not a compliment). He can do so much better. But just when you think ‘get on with it’ comes the extraordinary obscurity Trouble Loves Me, more of which later. And then, yes, another couple of new songs. At this point I’m amazed that he’s making no concessions to nearly 20,000 people, almost all of whom must be there to hear the hits. It’s nearly Dylan-esque in its contrariness! And what happens next? He goes into the dirge-like raw brutality of Meat Is Murder, a song still so shocking and powerful nearly 30 years after its release that has converted more humans to vegetarianism (myself included) than any other piece of art yet created. He prefaced it with: “I read the other day that 75% of chicken sold in the UK is contaminated, therefore poisonous - and I thought to myself ‘ha ha ha ha!’ (Not entirely true: there is a toxic bacteria in most chicken, true, but it gets destroyed during cooking, so unless you’re eating raw meat… never let the facts get in the way of a good story; as Tony Wilson said: print the legend). He accompanies the song with a video of vivisection, factory farming, caged animal slaughter and torture, which everyone is forced to watch, while bathed in red light, and it makes the entire audience feel sick and disgusted. And we love him for it. It’s a prestige the like of which Houdini would be proud. Also bear in mind that he had commanded the O2 to cease selling any meat products on the night of his show – an unprecedented request to which, incredibly, they agreed. They must have lost money but did it anyway. Incidentally, he’d also previously gotten the Staples Center in LA (where he’s a god, basically, and can sell out arenas with ease mostly due to his rabid Latino fanbase) to do the same. They had already said no to McCartney. These are more useful victories derived from the small amount of power he has than being snooty about the political process, if you ask me.
So then, yes, you guessed it, a trio more of new songs (and oh the irony, my favourite new song, Oboe Concerto, is not played). The main show ends with another wonderfully obscure non-hit, Speedway, the song from which I have taken my lyric tattoo design, and we’re finished. Encore. The end. And people are going absolutely mad. They’re throwing flowers they have brought at the stage. They are throwing themselves at the stage, just trying to touch him. This is normal gig behaviour at his shows and nowhere else in music have I seen it – weeping humans of all shapes and sizes and genders and ages and sexualities simply prostrating their bodies to him to touch and, one imagines, be healed. Each touch of hands provokes a roar. You’re cheering for each human who needs, just needs desperately, to feel his touch because they are you.
The setlist and its 11 new songs are a marvel, a miracle (with I’m Not A Man and Istanbul working particularly well). I’ve heard him perform everything you could imagine, from How Soon Is Now? to This Charming Man. From Death Of A Disco Dancer to Last Of The Famous International Playboys. From There Is A Light That Never Goes Out to Please Please Please (Let Me Get What I Want). From Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me to Panic to Girlfriend In A Coma and so on and so on and so on. This man has 100 songs to spare. He could perform any of his albums in entirety. Until last night I had heard 72 different songs – it’s now 84. And in researching my own Moz history just now I realised I’ve seen him 15, not 14, times (not counting that Roundhouse one where his voice gave out after three songs and the gig was abandoned). I saw Bowie 16 times. He’s getting there. I’ve had to wait two years for this 15th show, mind you. I have to hope he has many more in him. Remarkably, I cannot remember his voice ever sounding this good. He seems to be either dreadfully unlucky or prone to health issues, which he has recently alluded to without properly discussing, and why should he, as his health, like world peace, is none of my business. And yet, he looks great, muscular and determined and ornery as ever. As one might expect, he’s lost none of his tendency to confront, which feels oddly comforting. Without perceived injustice (the charts, record labels, hunting, animal welfare, the Royals, celebrities) who would he even be?
We’d managed to engineer a pretty perfect show day, it must be said. This despite the fact that I’m suffering from a trapped sciatic nerve and can’t stand or walk for more than five minutes at a time. A lovely day in the pub, then a sobering-up dinner and then a spot by the mixing desk. My location on the arena floor was not at all how I planned it. Pre-nerve-injury I was so very up for being front and centre, right in the pit. I was pretty gutted, in all honesty, about having to abandon that plan, having waited two years to see him live again. I held up pretty well in the end, despite having to spend some time crouching on the ground or bent at the waist to stave off the pain. I didn’t care. He was singing to me, he was mine again. My love affair with this Mancunian hero had started eight years ago. I liked him fine before then, I knew what The Smiths meant, but he hadn’t found me as a solo artist. One night – May 1st 2006 – at Alexandra Palace changed all that and since then… god, he gets on my nerves sometimes, with some of the outlandish nonsense he says. But I always forgive him, why? I understand him, through all the madness and militancy and attention seeking and drama.
The show began (following a lengthy set of clips – the Dolls, Nico, drag legend Lypsinka etc.) as an image of a grumpy-looking Queen appeared on the big screen. She was giving the crowd the finger, with both hands. And then, yes, of course he did it: he played The Queen Is Dead, which I had never heard him do before. The lyrics, one of his finest, which I now realise I must put here, are as follows:
Farewell to this land's cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a boar between arches
Her very Lowness with her head in a sling
I’m truly sorry - but it sounds like a wonderful thing
I said Charles, don't you ever crave
To appear on the front of the Daily Mail
Dressed in your mother’s bridal veil?
And so I checked all the registered historical facts
And I was shocked into shame to discover
How I'm the 18th pale descendant
Of some old queen or other
Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?
Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?
Some 9-year-old tough who peddles drugs
I swear to God, I swear: I never even knew what drugs were
So, I broke into the palace
With a sponge and a rusty spanner
She said: “Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing”
I said: "That’s nothing - you should hear me play piano"
We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
But when you're tied to your mother's apron
No-one talks about castration
We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
Like love and law and poverty
Oh, oh, these are the things that kill me
We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
But the rain that flattens my hair...
Oh, these are the things that kill me
All their lies about make-up and long hair are still there…
Past the pub who saps your body
And the church who’ll snatch your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it’s so lonely on a limb
Past the pub that wrecks your body
And the church - all it wants is your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it’s so lonely on a limb
Life is very long, when you're lonely
People have been sent to the Tower, frankly, for less. The crowd roared every word and we jumped and danced and punched the air and the entire O2, filled to the brim, realised we were in the presence of perhaps the greatest living Englishman, certainly the greatest one currently touring! A sweet nostalgia blast, next up, was Suedehead, his first solo single, which was surely the moment post-Smiths breakup where everyone had gone, aha, he doesn’t need Johnny to write great songs. Of course, there are many arguments to be made about the relative quality, similarity and lack of adventurousness in some of his solo output. However, he’s a pop artist and he makes pop songs because that’s the music that mattered to him when he was growing up. The (older) lyrics may be sophisticated but the music is not – and who cares? He’s not avant-garde and nor does he care for it. He likes crooners and pop music and his subversion lies in the words and persona. It is telling that this morning’s reviews make reference to his attacks on the Royal family, the meat industry, the government and his own record label. The Telegraph even makes hay out of his recent health issues, which he hasn’t discussed at all coherently. Talking of Asleep, they went full on: “Dimly lit, face obscured, it felt like he was delivering his own eulogy, made even more poignant by his health problems.” Please. Really? As if any of this were newsworthy somehow – unusual proclamations and events are just par for the course at one of his shows. Rarely do artists say or do anything beyond what is expected of them at a performance, and certainly even fewer challenge their own crowd between songs to think about animal welfare (we sing happily: “Hooray, hooray, the bullfighter dies, and nobody cries”) or the nature of how record labels shaft artists or the love of hunting demonstrated constantly by a bunch of toffs we all pay for. That’s just him. He has said he is only controversial because it’s so easy to be controversial in pop music: nobody ever is. Most of the reviews I’ve read have called the show ‘emotional’ – to which I reply, when is he not? Seeing Morrissey live is always a moving experience, otherwise we wouldn’t do it.
So after Suedehead off we went for an hour of 11 new songs and an animal torture video. But in the middle of it all, as my pain kicked in and I started to flag, out came Trouble Loves Me. From 1997’s fairly forgotten Maladjusted, this one is an epic Bond theme of a record. I’d heard it live once before, the first time I saw him, and I didn’t know it then. But I can pinpoint it as the song that made me fall for him, this Hulmerist, flaws and all. And so we sang and swayed arm in arm and it was overwhelming. So, right now, I am exhausted and starting to feel emotional about the night. I must wrap up. I cannot imagine what life would be like if I didn’t get to be in a room with that man every so often. He has come to mean so much to me. In between the times when I get to see him live I’m challenged by much of what he says – his own sometimes-muddled naïve invective, the abuse for loving him that I receive from acquaintance and stranger alike… I sometimes forget why I like him at all. But seeing him live reminds me, so perfectly, why he’s worth every second of my time. It fills you up, somehow, until the next show. It always feels like a re-acquaintance – never a goodbye.
The two-song encore began with a fairly obscure Smiths B-side, Asleep. It reminded me of an old bedtime rhyme my great-grandma, Rose, used to sing to me when I was little: “show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I want to go to bed…” Maybe his gran sang it to him a few miles (and a couple of decades) away from where my great-gran sang it to me… he stole the second line straight out:
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I'm tired and I
I want to go to bed
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
And then leave me alone
Don't try to wake me in the morning
'Cause I will be gone
Don't feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I will feel so glad to go
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I don't want to wake up
On my own anymore
You could feel the emotion coursing through the venue. You could hear a pin drop. He won over every person there, with a couple of old songs and a ton of new ones. His first words to the crowd were “I am privileged beyond my wildest dreams.” His last, delivered with a dramatic flourish, as ever, were “Remember me. Forget my fate” (a quote from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas). And then, the last song was with us, the ubiquitous Everyday Is Like Sunday, greeted like an old friend. The lights came up and Klaus Nomi’s aria Death (from Dido’s Lament, also, of course, from Dido and Aeneas) ushered us out into the cold night. People sang his songs as we made our way to the Tube, joined forever by this unique human being.
The Queen Is Dead / Suedehead / Staircase At The University / World Peace Is None Of Your Business / Kiss Me A Lot / I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris / Istanbul / Smiler With Knife / The Bullfighter Dies / Trouble Loves Me / Earth Is The Loneliest Planet / Neal Cassady Drops Dead / Meat Is Murder / Scandinavia / Kick The Bride Down The Aisle / I'm Not A Man / Speedway // Asleep / Everyday Is Like Sunday
Robert Plant, possibly the greatest rock singer of all time, and I go way back. I wish I could remember the exact moment I fell for him, like I can with Bowie, but in the mists of time I can only recall that it happened when he released Manic Nirvana in early 1990. In my evenings, after school, I was listening, on cassette, to New Kids On The Block’s Hangin’ Tough. I was still in the grip of that perfectly normal teen phase, which had started in early 1988, of liking the pretty boys and the pop music designed just for me. However, I was already a fan of more substantial music, due to my parents, by then. I was surely the only 13-year-old who could name 10 Dylan albums, watched Doors VHS tapes every weekend, rented Bowie’s movies obsessively (I had Glass Spider but it was the films that made me swoon) and knew who Robert Johnson was. And yet… and yet, I was in the grip of wanting to be some sort of normal teenager and the boybands had their hooks in. 1990 was the year it all changed. Manic Nirvana was the album that stole me away and set me on a path of seeing gigs that continues to this day. It grabbed hold of my NKOTB and Bros cassettes and threw them away because I was ready to move on.
Up to that point, Plant’s solo albums hadn’t quite registered in the old-fashioned rock world, which seems remarkable when you consider what a respected (and Album Of The Year Grammy-winning) solo performer he is today. Back then, everyone was just waiting around for him to reunite his old band; mind you, looking at the landscape of the questions he is still being asked, following the 2007 O2 reunion, you can see how little things have changed. Every week, it seems, there’s a story about how he’s turned down a truckload of cash to play soulless arenas and I love him a little more each time he talks about how little it interests him and then brushes it off with that West Bromwich charm. The man is just not bothered. He’s got a life to get on with and it doesn’t involve doing what everyone else craves so greatly.
When Manic Nirvana came out people were, frankly, surprised it was any good, as his solo output had been pretty average until then. He’d had a big solo hit with the of-its-time brilliantly awful, and comically named, Big Log (too many jokes to make) in 1983 and a trio of thoroughly average albums followed. In 1988 he released Now and Zen (as a pun connoisseur, that is a shocker) which was notable only for the excellent, and now dated, Heaven Knows, replete with overblown backing vocals and a brilliant solo (in the era of guitar solos) by Jimmy Page, the very same. But still, no cohesive whole album had made a dent. Manic Nirvana, at the time, was deemed to be a very good record, though when you listen now only a handful of tracks stand the test of time. What the album accomplished was to signal the beginning of a new career as a creditable solo artist, finally, a decade after LZ ended in a blaze of Bonzo’s alcoholism. My mum loved the album, so I did too. She must have suggested we go see him live; he was playing the Manchester Apollo that December, a few months after I’d started to wake up out of my boyband stupor (in August 1990 I saw Prince, Bowie and the Stones live in 23 life-changing days). She handed out homework to prepare me – don’t ask me why, but she put the vinyl of LZII into my hands. I can’t imagine why she picked that particular album to tell me to listen to, out of them all, but listen incessantly I did. When we saw him he actually did two songs from it; did she know that Ramble On and Living Loving Maid were coming? Impossible. I remember asking her: “Ma, do you think he’ll play Stairway?” I snort now with the notion. I didn’t know then about the two Plants. I call them pre and post the discovery of irony. (A digression: he’s had the nickname Percy since the 70s and my mum would never tell me why! As an adult, I found out that Percy was a movie starring Hywel Bennett about a man who gets a (huge) penis transplant! A rock magazine had run a pic of him in particularly snug and revealing trousers and captioned it ‘Robert “Percy” Plant’ and it stuck; always makes me smile now to think of it.)
You see, at some point between 1976’s Presence and 1979’s In Through The Out Door, Robert Plant realised he was ridiculous. He realised his band was ridiculous. And that travelling around in a private jet with mountains of coke, groupies, roadies getting favours for passes, endless thugs in security and smashed up hotel rooms were all ridiculous. Hammer Of The Gods and all that. The reasons why he woke up and saw the madness of the clichéd rock life that surrounded him are numerous, most likely derived from a combination of the loss of his son, the after effects of a bad car accident and the arrival of punk. That perfect storm of tragedy and the changing musical landscape had a marked effect on him and you can see it clearly in later LZ footage. The rock god poses struck came to be accompanied by smirks and winks; he’d clearly just become much more self-aware, self-knowing. By the time Zep were on their death knell, though they didn’t know it, at Knebworth in 1979, he was mentally out. He had been a Golden God, with his bare chest stuck out, circulation-cutting jeans and blond locks flowing, as he rescued a maiden from a castle. But he was done. A very smart man, he stopped wanting to play that part long before the hair metal understudies took over. So into the 80s he went, perm resplendent, and tried to escape the weight of being ¼ of a colossus that bestrode the planet. The 80s was a tough time generally for the old guard; Dylan, Bowie, Neil Young and many others all found themselves adrift. Manic Nirvana was the first sign of him finding his feet.
I love Led Zeppelin. Even though I don’t know what a single one of their songs are about (does anyone?) they are without doubt the most powerful and perfect rock band that has ever been. But, like Bowie, Plant had a bit of trouble in the 90s coming to terms with his legacy; he largely refused to play the so-called big songs (LZ released few singles so technically didn’t have many hits). And like Bowie, he got over it. What he does now is really what Dylan should be doing, instead of unintelligible, unrecognisable renditions coming at you via his cat-like nasal delivery (it’s just about charming, but only when you're at the front or in a small venue; seeing Bob in an arena with no screens – he refuses to have them – is frankly a shitty experience). Plant leaves the odd motif in and rewrites some of the song structure, but largely keeps the lyrical melody line intact. It makes for some nice surprises. So a song will begin and it’s familiar but you can’t put your finger on why and then he’ll start singing and this pure rush of joy will spread through the audience when everyone realises it’s Going To California.
As it happens, his new album …Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar is very good indeed, for my money the best solo record he’s ever put out. So I was very much looking forward to hearing it performed live; anything else that came along would simply be a nice little bonus. Having watched his highly enjoyable Glastonbury performance (on telly, am too old for that tent shit now) in July I knew that I was going to get Whole Lotta Love. I was ready for it. A song like that is sewn into the fabric of being English and loving music. It exists like any Beatles song or Satisfaction or Life On Mars or Won’t Get Fooled Again (speaking of, they’re the only big rock band of that era I’ve never seen live: must fix that). So I’ve done ok with gigs, let’s face it. In nearly 300 shows, and counting, I’ve seen the Stones and CSN thrice, Macca twice, Bowie has passed my eyeballs and earholes 16 times, and I’ve even seen Ian Astbury fronting The Doors; a roster of everyone who’s been anyone in popular music of the last 50 years. When I saw Plant in 1990 he performed those two Zep songs but I don’t remember any further ones; history shows the night before in Newcastle he did Immigrant Song and Nobody’s Fault But Mine so it’s very possible I heard four but it was a long time ago. When I saw him at the Freddie Mercury tribute he did Queen songs (he did Innuendo like it was Kashmir (even sneaking in a couplet from that song to make the association clear) and Crazy Little Thing Called Love like the Elvis pastiche it is) and snuck in a little bit of Thank You (said to be Freddie’s favourite Zep song). I saw him again in 2000 in a small club in Manchester but he was on a covers tour, so did no original material at all. I didn’t care: I was on the front row. Last night, well, that was my first time really hearing Zeppelin songs and it was just as monumental, adrenalin-fuelled and emotional as you imagine.
I think my highlight of hearing him delve into that particular part of his history was What Is And What Should Never Be, which blew my mind. His voice is still powerful, strong and all that, but now because it’s lost range there’s much more emotion and nuance to it. He’s using it as a greater, but more careful, instrument than he has before, is learning more about his ability to interpret than ever before, and has certainly been finding new ways to convey his own musical loves. There’s a touch of Ralph Stanley here, a bit of Appalachian folk there, and a big slice of north west African rhythms, which go back a long way. His passion for Moroccan music and culture goes back to the 60s and he he performed at Mali’s Festival in the Desert in 2003. His fascination with Indian music is also well known – his and Page’s 1994 collaboration with Najma Akhtar (replacing the late Sandy Denny) on the Battle of Evermore is a joy to hear. His vocal style of the past couple of decades also undoubtedly owes a lot to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (who Jeff Buckley was famously obsessed with; his #2 obsession after, of course, Zeppelin). Then there’s his background as, frankly, a blues scholar; he knows his stuff and leads his brilliant band around a rip-roaring, heavy version of Bukka White’s Fixin’ To Die. Mention must go to the companions he uses to get the job done: what a fantastic collective they are, the Sensational Space Shifters. Playing a synthesis of African-influenced Celtic bluegrass folk blues, they’re partly made up of members of a former backing band of his, Strange Sensation. Liam Tyson from Britpop legends Cast and world music luminary Justin Adams lead the show on guitars. John Baggott on keyboards, Dave Smith on drums, Billy Fuller on bass and, perhaps the star of the show, Juldeh Camara complete the line-up. From the Gambia, Camara is known as a griot, a storyteller, and plays the riti, a one-stringed fiddle. You would not believe the range of noise and melody he coaxes from this deceptively simple instrument.
Plant acknowledges his past, takes the bits he wants, leaves the rest, and escapes from its weight with ease. I love him so very much for having less than zero interest in schlepping around some shitty arena in the Midwest playing Black Dog for the millionth time. You want to hear him sing a famous old rock tune? Go ahead. He ended the show with a drastically reworked version of Rock And Roll. It’s on his terms, take it or leave it.
He had opened the show with Friends from LZIII and I was knocked off my feet. The crowd, hoary old rock blokes mixed with old school rock chicks and, of course, some hipsters and students, loved every second of it. And by that I mean not just the old stuff but they were clearly familiar with the new album as well, and I find that to be quite something. How many heritage acts (ugh, horrible term, let’s think of something else) are releasing new material that’s resonating with audiences who look forward to hearing it live? Yes, Dylan and Cohen are putting out great albums but nobody (hardcore fans aside) wants to hear them live. They know what they want to hear and it ain’t Tempest. Plant still has priapic charisma to burn as well, and doesn’t mind at all being a bit of a crowd-pleaser. He’s relatable, seems down to earth and has shed his rock god aura. Mostly. There are moments when you do see the flash of it, the flash of former self, and you realise exactly who he is and what stages he has stood upon. And that only makes it all the more remarkable. It would be very easy to crave stadia adulation; frankly, most rock stars on his level do. I just paid £141 for a ticket to see Fleetwood Mac churn out Rumours at the O2: the ticket to see Plant was £43. He’s come from an era where albums were sold, meaning he’s got enough money, and he doesn’t seem to feel that need at all, which is hugely refreshing. He wants to play new songs to 3000 people. He doesn’t want to be a human jukebox for 150 quid a head. He played the Roundhouse 46 years ago, almost exactly. And back there again, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be, singing and banging a bendir drum during the interludes. Except perhaps Molineux on a cold Saturday afternoon.
Spoonful (Howlin’ Wolf)
Turn It Up
Going to California
Embrace Another Fall
What Is and What Should Never Be
No Place to Go (Howlin’ Wolf )
Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You (Anne Bredon)
Fixin' to Die (Bukka White)
I Just Want to Make Love to You (Willie Dixon)/Whole Lotta Love/ Who Do You Love (Bo Diddley)
A Stolen Kiss
Rock and Roll
Who knows who wrote that song of summer
That blackbirds sing at dusk
This is a song of colour
Where sands sing in crimson, red and rust
Then climb into bed and turn to dust
Here I sit. Staring at an unforgiving blank page. It’s so white, it’s so empty. In the past, when I’ve seen a consciousness-altering gig I’ve come here, to trusty old Word, and the text has just flowed. From where, I do not know. It all just tumbles out, and then I leave it alone. I go back later (1-3 hours typically), and rewrite perhaps half of it (and I’m doing that right now, and right now, get your head around that…). And it’s at that point where I’ve largely figured out what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to get the constituent parts to hang together. I’m trying to collate words that illustrate the pictures and sounds in my mind. My retinas have let my brain collect images, stored into my mind bank forever. My ears have let sound slip in and swirl around, resonances which can be recalled forever, like a jukebox inside my head. The next stage, the third draft, and I know this might make me sound crazy, is to read what I’ve written out loud once or even twice, at which point I then rewrite about 10%. Somehow, my own voice, and my own ‘acting’, as it were, of the writing manages to show up the bits that don’t work, that I’m not explaining well, that don’t read well. Because really, it’s my voice that people hear (whether they want to or not!) when they read something I’ve written. People I know, anyway. Strangers can’t hear me but I hope to convey a bit of myself in reviews like this. I will then read it once more aloud to my dad, over the phone, tweak it a little more and finally send it off to the ether. That is the process. Even this paragraph explaining how I write will get rewritten; how meta, how postmodern!
Kate Bush was once asked who her favourite singer was. She said: the blackbird, then the thrush. She is an ordinary, extraordinary human being. Her level of creative control over her career has not come easy; it is something she has insisted upon, and fought for, and been bullied over, and people have tried to take it away from her. In the concert programme, a beautifully printed annual-type book (with some pages that don’t quite open, though you can see inside them, just because), the following exchange describes a meeting with Adrian Noble, the former head of the RSC who co-directs the show:
He was charm personified and was really, really enthusiastic about being involved in the show. He loved the idea of working on something that could integrate contemporary music with theatre.
But would we get on? Still a little nervous of him taking over, we met and I gave him the full blown lecture: “I’ve had to fight all my career to be heard… people always think I’m talking out of my arse… I don’t want you to just walk in and take over.” He sat very politely while I ranted and gave me the look I know so well: “We’ve got a right one ‘ere”.
This is, I think, hugely illuminating. Of course, as the world knows, a man would never have to fight and battle and be sublimated into a passive role in his own music career. But behind that warm, genuine, gentle persona she is a formidable opponent. So here she is, as ever doing what she wants in her own time and offering us all a look inside her head with Before The Dawn. And what lives in there? Birdsong, it turns out. Nature. The calmness of a single day, from dawn to dusk, to moonlight, to dawn again. This is the story of the second half of the concert. We’ve all been pounded and hammered and, frankly, a bit disturbed by the bleak tale of the first half. Battered around the head by more emotions than you’d think possible. The second half is where she attempts to take you by the metaphorical hand into a comedown room, one of those soft chill-out spaces found (when we were all younger) in clubs and festivals. That room where you need to go to breathe, because everything has become too much, you crave human contact and just want a nice cuddle. The sounds are temperate, the surroundings are welcoming, there is nothing to be afraid of, and you get into a corner, in your own space, in your own head, and everything is alright again. That’s what the second half was like. Having Kate Bush be your mum and make everything ok. I didn’t think of this at all last night, the maternal wave that envelopes the second half, but I’m thinking of it now, which is making me think of my own mother. She was so many things, too numerous to even begin to talk about here, but the one thing she was, above everything, was kind. She never thought of herself before me. She was interested and engaged and passionate about everything I did. Though not really, in any way, a traditional Jewish mother type, in her own way she made me the centre of her universe. And that, again, was what the second half felt like: to be spoken to, and have the thoughts in another person’s head directed at you. It was so light and positive and charming and, I keep saying this, warm. She was our mum, and she held us. And above all, throughout the whole night, you got this sense that she is just a good person. She thanked everyone, multiple times; the band, the cast, the audience. It was sincere and genuine. You could feel it, in your heart.
She goes for that same kind of state of human existence in the universe connection that Björk does. That sense of: marvel at the solar system, nature, animals, birds, the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon, it is all here, for you, and in the pinprick millisecond you live on this rotating blue rock it is a miracle that you are alive. You’re only here once, so you take her hand and walk through a single day by her side. Most crucially, though, the second half is really about light. How it gives life and how it wakes birds up to let them sing their songs; and then it goes away at night and the birds go to sleep. Light is what controls nature. The soundtrack to this reverie is the second half of Aerial, my favourite album of hers. The way it was built, block-by-block, going from a lazy morning to the blasted freak out of the title track was an hour I would like to relive every day. A trilogy of its songs were worth the price of admission: the Balearic, flamenco tour de force of Sunset, the driving, spectacular Nocturn and then the sonic frenzy of Aerial itself. It felt like something just for me; many of the reviews have focused on The Ninth Wave. Is that because perhaps 75% of the audience simply don’t know Aerial that well? If this concert series accomplishes anything, it’s that everyone should realise now what a brilliant album it is.
So, as I thought it would be, it was all too much. But ‘too much’ is why we came, it’s what we knew would happen. The second half’s Sky Of Honey, as she calls it, is remarkable. As a musical, visual, auditory, theatrical experience, she has raised the bar beyond what anyone (yes, this includes Bowie) could reach, today, tomorrow, or ever again. She’s set a new level, a new benchmark for how music and visuals can be matched together in a live context. And that’s not bad at all considering that she herself had almost no live context three weeks ago. A solitary, exhausting 1979 tour, some TV appearances, a few one-off-one-song live performances, and that’s your lot. It started thus:
In March of 2013, I said to Bertie, “Shall we do some live shows?” He said, “Yes. Absolutely!” I really wanted to do something different from working on another album and felt a real desire to have contact with the audience that still liked my work.
First, praise that sweet boy, Bertie. His support seems to have made the whole thing possible. For all of her feminine credentials, incidentally, she most often surrounds herself with men as collaborators. From these live musicians to her studio bands to the creative team, the only women present are a couple of backing singers and the hair/make-up/wardrobe team. It’s interesting in itself that she relies so heavily on male energy yet creates music that is so very female; perhaps she brings the feminine side out of her musicians, as there is nothing macho about the intuitive band around her.
During the whole show, nobody looked at their phone, incidentally, and what a pleasure that was. But here’s the thing about the show, aside from all the majesty and creativity and musicianship and theatrics and performance. The thing is this: you’ve never heard this stuff live before because none of these songs have ever been played live before. Not ever! Well, ok, you can watch, if you wish, a couple of performances of Hounds of Love (mimed) and Running Up That Hill but that’s two songs, out of the 26 performed, that have been played before. The unique part, and what sets her apart from anyone else, is that you have no relationship to these tracks outside of their album context. Nobody does. The only songs her fans have a relationship to are the songs played in 1979 – and she plays precisely zero songs from that tour, from her first four albums or, for that matter, from The Sensual World (imagine if she’d done This Woman’s Work… talk about too much!). And that, for a living artist, is unprecedented. I’ve got plenty of albums, hundreds, by people who I’ve never seen live but they’ve all passed on, pining for the fjords, as it goes. Apart from Joni and Tom Waits, that is – sure, they don’t play live now but, like Bowie, they certainly have and live footage is easy to find (of the three, Tom does the odd gig so I live in hope). But even in the cases of artists long gone, if I didn’t see them live, they did of course play concerts (again, an exception: Nick Drake, no live footage of any kind exists) and you can get hold of recordings, easily. With Kate Bush, this is all new territory. Your whole life, you’ve been listening to her music as a recorded document, exactly as she wanted you to hear it, and it is your only source. And now, as if by magic, decades after her career started, she’s standing RIGHT THERE in front of you, singing at you, singing these songs and giving them a new, brand new, brand shiny and new, context. You have never laid eyes on her in person and you may never again. As Caitlin Moran said in her review, it is unquantifiably too much.
I was happy with the way the show was going even before the theatrical part began. It was a perfectly normal, perfectly brilliant rock show. The first half dozen songs were simply, powerfully, emotionally rendered, a little walk around Aerial and Hounds of Love and The Red Shoes. Lily, from that album (gave me a little smile: it’s my gran’s name), opened the show, and was later joined by Top Of The City, from the same record; the delivery on that song knocked me back in my seat. I’ve rarely heard a live vocal sound better. An Aerial track, Joanni, was sandwiched between the opener and a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser, Hounds Of Love itself. I mean, this is not up for argument: that is one of the great pop songs of the last century. As is Running Up That Hill, of course it is, which followed shortly after. What a pleasure, hearing those two songs was. But in that opening six-song salvo, which works as a sort of warm-up for The Ninth Wave, which I’m going to get to shortly, finally, the track that fucking KILLED was Aerial’s King Of the Mountain. I just can’t… there’s just no way… you’ll have to wait to hear it. It built and built (like Aerial’s title track did later on) to this sturm und drang turmoil and the backline core of the band, led by drumming legend Omar Hakim (what a privilege to see this guy play), just completely owned it.
Interlude:: my bootleg has just finished downloading. How nice. This may help with the rest of the review ::
I looked around the venue (recently refurbished and looking lovely, I’m glad to say, no longer the dump it latterly became) after it was all over and considered its history for both Kate Bush and myself. Epiphanies abounded. She sat in a seat not dissimilar to mine a few weeks before her 15th birthday on July 3rd 1973 and saw Bowie’s ‘final’ show there, then sought out his mime teacher (to have such a thing, how very 70s) and took herself forward. (Sidebar: by then she had already written The Man With The Child In His Eyes, when she was 13; she recorded the album version when she was 16). In 1979 her tour ended in Hammersmith. In 2002 I saw Bowie there, and that was a landmark night. I’m not interested particularly in ranking and lists, but I can’t deny that last night was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, or likely ever will see. The love in the room was unlike anything I’ve experienced at a live show. At the end of Aerial, she sprouted a blackbird’s wing and flew away. Of course she did, because it was a remarkable and unforgettable night where anything was possible.
Hounds of Love
Top of the City
Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)
King of the Mountain
The Ninth Wave
Video Interlude - And Dream of Sheep
Waking the Witch
Watching You Without Me
Jig of Life
The Morning Fog
A Sky of Honey
An Architect's Dream
The Painter's Link
Somewhere in Between
Tawny Moon (performed by Albert McIntosh)
Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan for The Guardian
“I am pleading for the future… when hatred and cruelty will not control our hearts, when we can learn that all life is worth saving; that mercy is the highest attribute of man.”
For an actor, assuming you’re not one of the out-of-work ones (rare itself), there’s a certain career path that has been well-trodden over the last half century, since the end of the studio system and the exclusivity contracts given to their stables of stars. The early fight for supporting roles, the toil through endless auditions, catching the eye in average movies, which lets you move onto the next rung, then perhaps getting a decent agent, and then even more supporting roles but maybe in better movies. Depending on what you look like, you could make it to the part of the best friend or love interest, though it would actually be better to be unusual or even average looking, because only then might the parts get interesting. Perhaps you’ll pull the supporting role of a lifetime, the unlikely hero or the revealed villain, and steal the movie. You can succeed because it’s been pre-decided, due to your non-Jackman/Pitt/Cruise level looks, that you’re not the leading man, but you’re eye-catching enough to form important connections with people who’ll stand up for you when the studio wants someone more traditionally handsome for their next Oscar-bait drama: the kind that Hollywood used to make, until fairly recently. This path was largely unaltered until around fifteen years ago, when a shift started to happen in the mainstream movie business. The Hollywood paymasters shoved real creatives toward the margins and even the smaller movies started to be made by committee. The approach itself wasn’t new but the players were. Marketing executives with an eye on toy markets, merchandising, one-sheets, TV spots and sequels were now sending notes back on scripts – these people had not a clue on earth what components a film needed to be good. They used to come in after a movie was made, with no part played in the creative process, but it all changed and getting great writing onto the big screen suddenly became as easy as pushing water up a hill.
Disillusioned creatives saw this commerce, rather than arts, driven approach becoming the new normal and started to do something drastic and unprecedented – they moved to TV. Before, TV had been the last refuge of the failed movie actor. There’s a lot to be said for a steady paycheck. The first stirrings were seen as the century ended, with the 1999 premieres of both The West Wing on broadcast (the channels everyone gets) and The Sopranos on cable, (which you pay for, in the US model). Bit by bit, the best actors started dropping out of movies and into TV, because that’s where the great dramas were now being made. They ran away from the comic book adaptations, the tent-pole summer blockbusters and the sequels, perhaps indulging in a little voice acting for animations to top up the bank balance. Some rushed straight into TV, while others rushed straight to the stage. A few were clever enough to do everything: take a good part in a small movie for a nice wage when the script was good enough, focus on theatre and help to get plays on not just by starring in them but by producing them, and finally, only when the absolutely perfect part came along, created by none of the established cable networks (operating outside even HBO/AMC/Showtime et al. without any constraints, the newest players are Netflix, Hulu and Amazon: with no track record comes no fear, nor limits on adventure or investment), jump on it and create a career where half the year is spent doing a remarkable TV show and the other half is spent with theatre sawdust in the nostrils. This is how to conduct a career, be in charge of it, while taking or creating the best opportunities. And thus, we come to Kevin Spacey.
Put simply, eleven years ago he opted out of Hollywood, at a time when his star was sky high and $10m a movie was on the table. He saw that great movie drama was in trouble but wasn’t quite ready to be on the small screen. So he moved to London and became the artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre in Waterloo. Many thought this was some vanity project. A chance to use his name to act in a series of revivals and just get as many eyeballs on him as possible. That may be the perception, but the facts don’t bear it out: since 2003, he has directed only two plays and starred in seven (his last being 2011’s acclaimed Richard III, which saw a reunion with Sam Mendes), but has shepherded over forty onto the stage, by focusing his not inconsiderable reserves of personal charm onto fundraising and creative partnerships. While the Old Vic, at nearly 200 years of age, wasn’t quite the busted flush that some of the media suggested pre-Spacey’s arrival, he has turned it into a theatre that can attract the newest and most exciting plays, to rival the National Theatre (which once controlled it). His aim was not just to reinvigorate the place, but also to create a structure and innovative ethos that would allow it to continue long after he abdicated. Next year he will hand over to Matthew Warchus, whose credentials catch the eye; most recently, he directed the magical Matilda musical, which won seven Oliviers and five Tonys last year.
Darrow has been called a civil rights lawyer, but this is an oversimplification. He defended murderers threatened with the death penalty to prevent the state from committing another display of dehumanising horror themselves, arguing that mercy is what makes society better, and how revenge will only make us harder people. He proudly saved 102 people from death row. Humanity’s good aims interested him more than America’s often Biblically inspired desire for revenge; he believed in trying to pry out people’s innate goodness. But more than this, his philosophy was to fight for the common man and woman. A full forty years before the turning point of the civil rights battle he lined up behind black defendants faced with all-white juries. The most celebrated case of this type was that of Ossian Sweet, a black doctor who had the temerity to move into a white neighbourhood. His home was surrounded by an angry mob and, as they advanced to his door, a shot was fired that killed one of the invaders. In many US states this would be allowed under the so-called ‘stand your ground’ law, sadly now used to free killers like George Zimmerman. Darrow defended Sweet and, in a landmark case, he was acquitted of murder.
The text of the play itself, written by David W. Rintels (based on the biography Clarence Darrow For The Defense by Irving Stone, who also wrote the famed van Gogh bio Lust For Life) and first performed by Henry Fonda in 1974, is fairly straightforward. It’s an autobiographical run through of Darrow’s most famed cases, after first illuminating his Ohio upbringing, to freethinking parents: his mother talked of suffrage in 1840, no less than 80 years before women gained countrywide voting rights. It briefly covers his move to Chicago, his first marriage, and even a little of the unfounded jury bribery allegations that beset him during the case of the McNamara brothers, who had planted a bomb in the offices of the Los Angeles Times during a labour union dispute: not intending to harm anyone, they had killed 21 newspaper employees; Darrow saved them from the noose. He defended Pennsylvania miners, who were working fourteen hours a day, 365 days a year, against their bosses, arguing for better pay and working conditions. Spacey made the audience gasp with a tale of an 11-year-old child miner who had a leg amputated due to employer negligence: he was manipulative in the way that all great arguers are. A champion of the unions, no doubt the right-wing would today call him a Communist. He never even claimed to be a socialist; he was simply a man who wanted to use his intellect and talents to stand up for the underdog. He was an inspiration to anyone who wants to speak for the vulnerable. He didn’t mind a bit of media-bait either, perhaps best encapsulated in the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial, following a schoolteacher’s prosecution for teaching evolution in the Bible Belt. The play finishes, inevitably, to a coruscating powerhouse denouement on perhaps Darrow’s most famous case, that of Leopold and Loeb, two rich teenagers who killed a 14-year-old boy merely for the experience and excitement, the challenge of getting away with it. This is where the concept of mercy came in, as Darrow fervently believed that we can only move forward as a collective culture when we reject the baser instincts of our human nature. He believed without pause in rehabilitation over retribution as a model for how a civilised society should behave.
Spacey had played Darrow no less than twice before. When pressed, he has said that the first occasion, a 1991 low budget PBS movie, was his favourite filming experience. The second time was in a 2009 Old Vic production of Inherit The Wind, (with the Darrow character alternately named Henry Drummond). He is the fourth fine actor to play the role: after Fonda, Orson Welles took him on in 1959’s Compulsion, a thinly fictionalised account of the Leopold and Loeb trial; perhaps the most famous incarnation was in the film adaptation of Inherit The Wind, with Spencer Tracy’s Oscar nominated version taking the plaudits.
A one-man (or woman) show is not to be trifled with, and few actors on earth could hold the rapt attention of a thousand people the way Spacey does. Once I got over the initial thrill of seeing such a renowned actor in person, and only a few feet away, it was an easy pleasure to get swept away in the invective and the complete command and control he has over an audience. It’s not just his level of stagecraft and experience, which is considerable (I’d seen him once before, unashamedly scene-stealing in The Philadelphia Story in this same venue) – it’s the sheer force of his charismatic presence. This is an actor at his absolute career peak, both in person and on screen. In his other job, House of Cards, he gives you barely a drip of humanity, and yet still you root for his Machiavellian politician. Such is his skill that he can strip away any remaining vestige of humanity, as in Se7en, and leave you disgusted but in awe. He can project a seductive quality, as in LA Confidential, or pathetic desperation, as in American Beauty. He can scenery-chew for a giggle, as in the otherwise unwatchable Superman Returns, or con you completely, in The Usual Suspects. He even stood up to his mentor Jack Lemmon, perhaps the actor he resembles the most in the cinema canon, in Glengarry Glen Ross. During the second half, I heard an anachronistic noise: it became clear that a mobile phone was going off (idiots are present everywhere) and, in character, without breaking a beat, he said ‘If you don’t answer that, I will.’ Everything appears to be effortless, which is as it should be when you work as hard as Spacey does.
Perhaps the only cautionary tale is that we should now be able to view Darrow’s humanitarianism as quaint, a relic of a more closed-minded century. Unfortunately, the world is no less right-wing (it just seems like it is because we talk more; activism is higher but pushback is greater) than it was during his heyday. While some progress has been made, governments are more secretive and still as keen to crush uprisings (for example, in the last year 40,000 protestors have been jailed in Egypt, with all forms of protest now banned by a government elected as a result of protests), while citizens are more suspicious, and rightly so given the inroads made on liberties and how much we are spied on daily. The game is rigged, with little advances made in social justice and minority interest groups dominating the conversation (belief in climate change is crazy and anti-business while belief in invisible gods is sky high). What is the internet itself, except a method from which data is collected on behaviours, and how long before it’s yanked under corporate control and net neutrality becomes a thing of the past? Most of the jail populations still come from backgrounds of poverty and poor education, while education funding itself is slashed and healthcare is sold to the highest bidder. He should be a winner on the right side of history, not an anomaly pushing against the tide. A century later, we need fighters like Darrow more than ever.
And so the splits went down like this: Graham Nash, from Salford, Manchester (though born in Blackpool), wrote a jaunty tune called Marrakesh Express and his band, The Hollies, hated it, which started off the trouble. I had always, somewhat unfairly, teased that Nash was a little Ringo-ish: a guy with the perfect personality who just fitted in with the more talented ones. I do find him a little cheesy, I admit, with his mid-Atlantic accent, but he’s a brilliant songwriter, with a lovely voice, and he’s even got a creditable second career, having been a digital art pioneer in the early 80s, as a rather excellent photographer. This is the man Joni wrote Blue about. There must be more to him.
David Crosby is truly one of my favourite people on earth. I met him once, at a solo show at the Jazz Café. I’d seen his former bandmate Roger McGuinn there earlier that same year, and though I’m not an autograph person, I happened to have pinched my parents’ Byrds box set and took the booklet along. Management gofers took handfuls of memorabilia, returning with signatures. McGuinn, well known as not being the nicest guy, refused to meet anyone. Crosby, on the other hand, held court in the bar upstairs, talking warmly with everyone, signing everything proffered at him. I have no recollection of my fangirl babble, but I do remember that he looked at me with the kindest face I’d ever seen, his big cheeks puffing out as he smiled, framing his magnificent white handlebar moustache. It’s what God, if he existed, should look like.
As he started to move away from the volcanic troubles in The Byrds, he found himself delving further into a hippy ideal and nowhere was that purer than, not Woodstock, at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. Of all of the landmark rock festivals, and there were plenty, that one, for me, is the standout. It had the best bill, the best atmosphere, no trouble, no lack of facilities and a manageable medium-sized 60,000 strong crowd (though the performance spaces only held 8,000 each, so most missed the bands; everyone was there for the vibe, man). Gene Clark had already left The Byrds by then, driven out by the stress of dealing with everyone else, McGuinn and Chris Hillman in particular. During their appearance, Crosby went off, ranting about Vietnam, and then further annoyed his bandmates by stepping in for an absent Neil Young to guest with Buffalo Springfield, at their leader Stephen Stills’ request. The cracks were there and, as these things go, it all happened pretty fast. Stephen and Graham quit, and David was fired. The three met for the first time at David’s house on one sunny Laurel Canyon day in 1968, and sang together for the first time.
Famously, Woodstock was only the second Crosby, Stills and Nash show. Neil Young, who did play with them briefly there but was too nervous to be filmed, had also jumped the Springfield ship and, of course, has been in and out of the band for many decades. But for me, it's all about the core three. The spikiness of Stills, who knows he’s the leader only when Neil’s absent, and the brotherly Crosby and Nash, who’ve made great duo records and often tour together. I’d seen them live at Glastonbury in 2009, though my overall experience that year wasn’t positive, and I remember little of their performance anyway. I got a last minute ticket from a woman called Barbara; after my failure to get Fleetwood Mac tickets the other week, it felt like I was meant to be there.
However much I thought I'd enjoy this concert, it completely exceeded my expectations. It was a 3-hour odyssey through some of the best songwriting of the last half-century. Crosby is now 72, Stills is 68 and Nash is 71. It’s dull to talk about ageing rock stars. There are no ageing painters or playwrights. There’s no need to be shocked when, despite grey hair and slightly wider waistbands, a band like this are in great shape. It’s what they do, what they’ve always done. They’re touring, hardened musicians who have been playing live for almost 50 years. Their energy does not flag, while new songs are numerous and hit the mark. ‘These new songs stop us from being The Eagles’, Graham quipped. One must admire their bullish insistence on playing several new compositions every night; as we know, many of their contemporaries don’t bother, either because of fear of clearing the venue or because the creative wellspring ran dry long ago. Nobody leaves for a loo/pint break during these new songs, like you usually see at gigs like this. And by ‘like this’ I mean the nonsensical concept of oldie or nostalgia acts. Get on, play the hits, the tickets are expensive, I want to get home before 11, the crowd think. A venue’s size at this level can, I think, influence the setlist, the choices made. At the Royal Albert Hall, which seats a crowd of around 4500, there was an undeniable emotional intimacy. Playing in a ‘small’ venue (as opposed to, say Wembley Arena or the O2) lets them indulge themselves a little more, maybe playing a more varied setlist. Perhaps it felt so intimate because I had seats on the surprisingly cosy floor. They made it feel like a living room.
This band have survived it all. Coked-up 70s madness, death (Crosby’s girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in a car accident, which it’s been said he’s never recovered from, though he has been evened out by Jan, his wife of 36 years), fighting (you sense Neil vs. Stephen was the main attraction), a couple of overdoses (Stills, in the 70s), and yet they kept getting drawn back together. From the opening chords of Carry On , from 1970’s Déjà Vu, this was such a special night. Those three voices soared, backed ably by a brilliant band: Todd Caldwell, organ; Shane Fontayne, guitar; Steve DiStanislao, drums (superb!); Kevin McCormick, bass, and James Raymond (Crosby’s son) on keyboards.
There’s something about the beauty of vocal harmonies at this level (there’s little, Beach Boys aside, this good) that always gets me. In particular, David and Graham’s voices ache with exquisite sympatico. The tempo never dropped, incredible pop songs just kept on coming: Almost Cut My Hair (a Crosby tour-de-force), Buffalo Springfield song Bluebird, performed without C&N, which brought a rapturous ovation following fiery guitar work, Long Time Gone (used in the opening scene of Woodstock of course), the perfect pop of Nash’s Military Madness, it was endless. Cathedral was prefaced by his tale of its creation, “One day I decided to get up really early, take acid, rent a Rolls Royce, and go to Stonehenge. In those days you could touch the stones. I lay on the ground for a thousand years, or it could have been 10 seconds, I couldn’t tell. I walked to Winchester Cathedral, and found myself chilled to the bone as I stood on the grave of a soldier who had died in 1799, but on my birthday.” The RAH’s newly restored pipe organ was bathed in red light and its tones filled the room (though it was begging for a Spinal Tap papier-mâché model to descend). Before the sweet tale of domesticity that is Our House (which has had a second life as an accompaniment to various TV adverts), he started off by talking about Joni. One day they went out shopping and she saw this nice little vase, which he encouraged her to buy. When they got home, he said ‘I’ll light the fire, you put the flowers in the vase that you bought today.” The crowd broke into warm applause, recognising that simple post-shopping trip sentence as the first lyric couplet.
It went on: Helplessly Hoping, and its perfect harmonies, brought tears to the eyes, Crosby’s signature love song Guinnevere, Déjà Vu, Southern Cross, the magnificent Wooden Ships and, of course, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. New songs and old, mountains of charm and passion, the kind of togetherness you feel lucky to witness, from men who’ve been through everything together, through rain and shine. I was overcome, by history, songwriting, guitar playing that’s hardly done like that anymore, and that sweet trio of voices. Unforgettable night. Graham’s hometown show in Manchester happens on Saturday, I envy my dad that he’ll see this remarkable band (for the first time: he’s seen solo Stills, CSNY and C&N, but never just all three).
I’ve just made an offer on Scarlet Mist for a ticket for tonight’s show. Bonkers, you may say, but if a chance is in front of you, take it without regret.
Incidentally, it seems to be considered odd to see multiple gigs on one tour. Few understand why I’ve done it so often. It’s normal to see the same band a year apart, on the next tour, but strange to see them a day apart? In all honesty, I haven’t felt like this for 18 months. I’ve enjoyed the gigs I’ve attended, but last night felt like something old was coming back, some spark of joy in myself that had been lost. It’s a tiny step, but nevertheless, it feels very real. That’s why I’m going again. More to come…
So, the second show. An even better seat this time, giving me a new angle, letting me see details previously invisible. Graham Nash performs barefoot, who knew? The stage is festooned with rugs and a couple of scarves. The interplay is much clearer second time around. You can still see, even now, the divisions between Stills and the others. I wonder if he’s jealous of their brotherhood? Maybe. I do think he’s bemused and annoyed by not being Neil Young. You get the sense he can’t believe he’s not playing arenas by himself whereas the other two don’t care at all, they’re just happy to be performing. A passage in Nash’s autobiography sums up the differing vibes, the personalities, of his bandmates: “I had never met anybody like Crosby. He was an irreverent, funny, brilliant hedonist who had been thrown out of The Byrds the previous year. He always had the best drugs, the most beautiful women, and they were always naked. Stephen was a guy in a similar mould. He was brash, egotistical, opinionated, provocative, volatile, temperamental, and so talented. A very complex cat, and a little crazy.”
Graham, though it pains me to praise a United fan, is very charming. Joni’s famous quote about free love (what bullshit it was, how it was only good for men) was, I suspect, said with him in mind. She’s the one that got away, certainly, but his wandering eye paid to that, though initially she had tracked him down and seduced him. You constantly hear ‘hey, it was the 60s/70s!’ to excuse a lot of misogynist behaviour. Not that times and the perception of morals weren’t different then. Joni had had a brief fling with Crosby, who wasn’t the possessive type and was cool when she invited Graham to live with her on his first day in LA. Indeed, he later shared one of his other girlfriends with Nash, who stole Rita Coolidge from Stills, who had a long relationship with Judy Collins and so on and on. But the machinations and treatment of women in the 1970s is a subject for another day…
I enjoyed the second gig just as much as the first, undoubtedly. It was another intimate, emotional night, which made the venue seem small. It was fun, as it always is, to watch middle-aged, middle-class, white people try to let go. A foot tap, a head bob, polite applause for Stills’ guitar virtuosity… English people are so tightly wound sometimes. Particular treats were To The Last Whale, from Wind On The Water, Crosby & Nash’s 2nd album, and a magnificent version of Triad, David’s odd yet sweet invocation of the benefits of threesomes. He’d written it during his time in The Byrds but McGuinn rejected it, horrified. Jefferson Airplane were not so squeamish and took it on, covering it on their album Crown Of Creation. Again, the S-only (no C&N) version of Buffalo Springfield’s Bluebird just blew me away. I closed my eyes and, during the free psychedelic blues jam freakout of its second half, was simply transported to another place entirely.
It’s hard to put your finger on what keeps this band together, given their histories of bickering and drug trouble. I can only surmise that it’s just pure chemistry, the non-narcotic kind, because when you watch them live it’s a magical experience. They know it, from first note to last: that they are greater together than apart. It’s all about those hugely different voices. The high notes left Stephen long ago, but a gravelly tone serves him so well, despite the odd note missed. Amazingly, Graham can still sing in a nicely high register, which is particularly welcome and surprising. Perhaps David’s voice is the strongest individually, which considering he’s been through decades of drug addiction, culminating most spectacularly in a spell in prison in the early 80s, almost feels shocking. It’s like watching Keith Richards’ gnarled, deformed, arthritic hands play a perfect solo during Sympathy For The Devil. It makes no sense but there it is, your eyes and ears don’t lie. He’s got the same childlike joy as Keith has; he’s a survivor who’s just happy, and genuinely surprised, to be alive. The harmonies might not hit the same high notes they used to but during Helplessly Hoping it was like time stood still, I’ve never heard voices so sweet. Even in lower tones, it was remarkable to witness. As the band left the stage and I took a deep happy breath, the tannoy led the crowd out with refrains of We’ll Meet Again. I hope so.
Carry On/Questions (CSNY)
Long Time Gone
Just a Song Before I Go
Marrakesh Express (night 1 only)
Lay Me Down (C&N)
Military Madness (night 1 only)
Time I Have
Bluebird (Buffalo Springfield)
Déjà Vu (CSNY)
Teach Your Children (CSNY)
Treetop Flyer (Stephen Stills song)
Golden Days (2nd night only)
What Are Their Names
Burning for the Buddha
Triad (Jefferson Airplane cover)
Critical Mass/Wind On The Water (2nd night only)
Almost Cut My Hair (CSNY)
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
Dad’s report – amazing, emotional show. Judy Blue Eyes was not played (they ran over the curfew I suspect). Graham dedicated a song to his sister and her family, who were present. David said ‘I have so much to thank Manchester for; you gave me my best friend in life.’
Dad wanted to add to this the story of how he ignored Joni Mitchell. In early 1970 he was working in Burtons, a men’s clothes store on Deansgate in Manchester. A crowd of four came in and he immediately recognised one as Graham Nash. He ran up to him and engaged him in conversation, and they chatted for a while. He told Graham he’d just bought the first Santana album and loved it, to which Graham replied that they’d just played a gig with them in New York. They talked about music, and Graham bought a sheepskin coat for his step-dad. What a trip, right? A few weeks later a colleague said ‘wasn’t that amazing, when he came in with Joni Mitchell’. The blood drained from dad’s face.
The three women had been Graham’s mother, sister and girlfriend. He had ignored her completely, so wrapped up was he in talking music. He later wrote to MOJO, apologising to Joni for ignoring her, as she was the love of his life, adding ‘don’t worry, my wife knows about that!’
The Rolling Stones are unreviewable. There is no element of surprise with a live show like theirs: you know what you’re going to get. The only surprise comes from your own muscle memory, how these songs are part of your heart and brain, how you instinctively know every note and word. For me anyway, they trace the line of so much, including my relationship with my mother, who was trying to get me into Mick when she showed me the video for Dancing In The Street. She finally got me in 1990 when we watched the VHS of 25x5 until the tape was worn out. We saw them live on August 25th 1990 at Wembley Stadium – she would always tease me and say ‘you said Keith looked straight at you!’ Hey, I was 13, we were quite near the front, and I coulda sworn he had. They were her favourite band: they were our band. More than her other faves like Miles, Bob or even the Beatles – the Stones belonged to us.
I hadn’t seen them live since we saw them again in Sheffield in 1995 – they’ve toured several times since but I always said ‘they’ve had enough of my money’. When they announced a return to Hyde Park, for the first time since the concert they had played there following the death of Brian Jones, I did raise an eyebrow but it fell on the night of a Bowie party long in the planning. But then, when they announced a show the week after, it felt like I was meant to be there – following in mum’s footsteps, she had attended the 1969 show. When I got lucky with tickets, it was on.
Concert-going, in the pop/rock arena, is split into sections – young artists, who plough their debut albums in small venues; the mid-level bands on albums 3 or 4 doing the same in slightly larger, say Roundhouse-size, places, who throw in well-received tracks from their previous records. There’s your established acts, say aged between 30-45, who are probably big enough to play an arena but prefer a run of gigs at a theatre. The audience care about the new record but the band knows there’s a balance to be found. Then there’s that hideous phrase, the heritage act. With the notable exceptions of Neil Young, Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen and a few others, new stuff is neither played nor wanted. A nostalgia party takes place. There’s a couple who don’t tour at all, like Bowie and Joni, but that’s rare, most want to fill an arena and relive their glory days. At the older end of even that scale the Stones stand alone – they don’t much care about new material, and neither does anybody else. They wouldn’t, they couldn’t, do a version of The Next Day; adding to the musical canon matters not. It’s about leaving something behind that people can actually see. It’s about the experience of being in their presence. The notion of retirement has always been a stupid question, for a different day. The blues guys they worship went on into their 80s (partly because they were ripped off and had to but that’s yet another issue) and nobody suggests that actors or painters or musicians playing jazz or classical music give it all up when they’re over 60. Pop music is certainly a young person’s game but if you can still deliver, why the fuck shouldn’t you? I watched what was allowed to be televised at Glastonbury the other week. They hit some high spots but honestly, it wasn’t great. However, many bands try and fail at that level, where you’re piloting into someone else’s stage, sound system, technicians, cameras etc. U2 fell a little flat when they headlined too, though to be fair to them that was more to do with torrential rain turning the stage into an ice rink, rendering them static and nervous. I’d seen a few clips of the O2 shows they did at the end of last year, and those were better. As such, at this level, and given the famed level of control Mick loves, when they’re on their own turf everything tends to come together.
Having said that, they are not, and have never been, polished. They don’t churn out perfect Fleetwood Mac style MOR and they don’t play note-perfect recreations a la Pink Floyd. Stay at home and listen to the records, if that’s what you want. They are a bit ramshackle, it could all fall to bits, there’s the odd bum note, but this is a band with Keith Richards in it after all, and he is the musical leader, so that can’t bother you. If it does, you don’t know your Stones history very well. Their shows might not offer the danger of yore, and their (or at least Mick and Charlie’s) approach might be super-professional, but you can still let go and see the sparks between them. They’re breaking this mould – there are no other rock bands who’ve been together for 50 years. Think about that time frame, think about how many generations have come and gone, how many challengers they’ve seen off. They’re not flawless, they’re a little bit dirty and messy, and that’s why I’ve loved them so much for nearly 25 years.
It was a beautiful, blue-skied day, and we sat in the sun for a few hours before the quite enjoyable Jake Bugg came on. He’s pretty great for a teenager. We’d smuggled rum into the venue in the back of our trousers (it’s not my first time) and this turned out to be a wise move. A few bottles of mixers were procured and we were set for the evening, having found a great spot by one of the screens. The pre-show warm-up tape was a bit of blues, as you’d expect, but then on came Milestones, the 1958 classic by Miles Davis. A second later a woman wearing a Star of David walked past me. It might sound like I’m full of shit but I had a little moment where I felt like my mum was right there. The show started with a brief film of the original Hyde Park show, right on time, on the dot of 8.25pm. Start Me Up! Then It’s Only Rock And Roll, and then Tumbling Dice. Big punches, thrown one after the other, they’ve got songs to burn. The energy and noise level started to rise and, despite it being the hottest day of the year, stayed sky high for the next 2 hours. It was a pleasure to hear the languid disco funk of Emotional Rescue, a bit of a surprise (played for the first time ever 2 months ago, this was its first European performance, amazingly), and I couldn’t help but smile as Mick’s perfect falsetto rang out across the grass. It’s a ridiculous song, a daft attempt at being on-trend in the Studio 54 era, but it also feels like an old friend.
The backing players are staples now themselves – bassist Darryl Jones, who has been playing with them for two decades, impressed hugely, and nobody gave a thought to the old Bill. Backing vocalists Lisa Fischer (incredible on Gimme Shelter) and Bernard Edwards, in their 25th year of touring with the band, are beautifully settled and woven in. Chuck Leavell, a Stones veteran of some 31 years, adds boogie-woogie piano that Ian Stewart would have been proud of. And of course, the tough Texan warhorse Bobby Keys has been playing sax with these old boys longer than Ronnie’s been in the band (on and off from 1970-81 but a constant from ’82 onwards). Mick Taylor had been asked to join in June ’69 after Brian was fired and, less than a month later, two days after Brian died, he was making his stage debut. Arguably, he’s the best guitarist that’s ever played with them, and certainly their highest creative points were reached in his years with the band (1969-75). He has been playing with them on this tour and, though I knew it was coming, what a pleasure it was to hear him play on a mindblowing version of my favourite live Stones song Midnight Rambler (pleasingly, he made another bow in Satisfaction, at the end).
Charlie is of course solidity personified, even if you know he’d rather be at Ronnie Scott’s playing some Art Blakey licks. It’s charming that he’s still so thoroughly unimpressed by the machinery of the rock music industry all these years later. He likes to complain about being in this band, but he always answers Keith’s call. Ronnie, however, I was left in no doubt, is the glue that holds it all together. He was always the social glue; he was hired, effectively, to give Keith a companion who’d keep up with him and then hold him back, as and when it was needed. But now, what with Keith’s arthritis, and his attached inability to play quite as solidly, or certainly as consistently, as he once could, it falls to Woody to hold this whole thing together. Keith still leads the band, as ever, but Ronnie circles him, musically and literally, and plays through everything. He is quite brilliant, and clearly, unlike in some previous tours, on the wagon – he couldn’t possibly perform like this if he was drinking.
On July 26th, in just over a week, Michael Philip Jagger will turn 70 years old. I want you to imagine what a normal 70 year old man is like. Perhaps he’ll be still working in a job he hates. He could be retired and filling his days with gardening or reading or going on a cruise perhaps. He might have a bit of middle-aged spread (as goodness knows a lot of the men in the audience did, and felt no compunction about showing off), or even an overflowing beer gut that clothing fails to tame. The once lustrous hair he had has started to thin or even made its escape completely. Then watch Jagger, howling it out, losing himself on harmonica, he never stops moving or working. And so, despite an undeniably wrinkly face, I cannot fail to marvel at what this particular pensioner puts in. He has a nice line in acting, all that mockney ‘Ar ya doin tonight Laandaahn!’ His voice, always a classic rock instrument, is in perfect nick, and just the sheer energy and approach of his performance is staggering. Morrissey always says he ‘appears’; he doesn’t perform. What he means is that he and his emotions are ‘real’ and his singing is from the soul, he’s not putting anything on. Mick is a performer in every sense. It’s so affected as to almost be cartoonish. He has always played this rock frontman character, which is a mile away from the cultured, yet bohemian, mischievous but whip-smart economist that he really is. What he does is a job. It’s a part he plays and my god, he plays it well. He prepares himself like a marathon runner, he trains and, on stage, he works his tiny little arse off. He runs miles and engages and communicates and it is his job to get the audience off, to never let the energy level drop. He’s one of the greatest and I felt lucky to have left it 18 years since I last saw him and for the performance to be better than it was then. Good genes (his dad was a PE teacher and both parents lived well into their 90s), hard bloody work and natural gifts make him what he is. It’s easy to take the piss, but you can’t watch him and be unimpressed. It’s impossible. I won’t go on about the songs because you’ll see the setlist below – it was all a highlight. Mick even found a smock dress to put on, in the same style as the one he wore for the ’69 show. And Ruby Tuesday (pardon my shaky, excited hand), played for the first time on this tour, took me back to 1990; I remember hearing it at Wembley so clearly. There were no low points, there was no filler (even new song Doom and Gloom sounds like classic Stones) and it made me want to see them again and again.
The whole experience was a magical blur and seemed to be over far too quickly. Nobody does this kind of thing better. Their songs are part of the fabric of this country and they have always been cooler and sexier than The Beatles ever were. The Beatles get you in the heart: the Stones aim somewhat lower. I’ve seen McCartney too and it is joyous, but not as passionate or visceral or real as it is watching the Stones. I couldn’t help think how happy mum would have been that I went to see her boys. She saw them in 1964 when she was 13. She took me to see them in 1990 when I was 13. And I saw plenty of kids the same age, whose grandparents are younger than the band, revelling in this extraordinary day, something they’ll be able to tell their grandkids about when we’re all gone. All except Keith of course, obviously. He’ll be around forever.
Start Me Up
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)
Street Fighting Man
Doom and Gloom
Paint It Black
Honky Tonk Women
You Got the Silver
Jumpin' Jack Flash
Sympathy for the Devil
You Can't Always Get What You Want
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
She has always had that same rumpled charm, since the beginning. I can’t think of any women in her profession who changed the visual aesthetic in popular music so greatly. Before her, you had 60s girl groups, Janis (not beautiful but certainly intending to exude sex), Joni, and of course the Debbie Harry’s of the world, and all that came after. People knew how to treat, and react to, beautiful women in music. They were either taken seriously ‘despite’ their looks or not taken seriously at all. You sang someone else’s songs, like Dusty, with glamour, or you wrote your own, like Joni, and both critics and the public did their best to fit you into a box. I watched an interview with Joni recently where she spoke candidly about the abuse she received in the early 70s for having the temerity, as a 21 year old, to write a song that went ‘I’ve looked at love from both sides now.’ How dare she, at that age, think she knows about such things in such depth? You can’t imagine that happening now. And it certainly didn’t happen to men – nobody had a go at Dylan for writing Masters Of War at 23 even though he’d never been further than New York and Minnesota.
So in 1975, this extraordinary woman appeared. With matted hair, wearing men’s clothes, she sang political songs and was certainly not what was accepted as beautiful. She didn’t play anyone else’s game. She wasn’t gamine or coquettish, she led a band of men, she had a gay boyfriend (Robert Mapplethorpe of course), and she had a song called Rock N Roll Nigger. People must have been horrified. She got called angry, because if women aren’t overly emotional or subservient (think of the women in Mad Men, and how Peggy and Joan are treated for not being obedient) they’re angry don’t you know, and she got called a man, and a hundred worse things. She might have arrived in the 70s but the reaction to her as a woman was very mid-60s. Now, she is accepted without question but back then she was treated as a threat. It was bad enough for Joni, and she was pretty and blonde.
You’d think all of this treatment would make her a bitter person, but that was absolutely not the woman who walked on stage last night. Your audience reflects you, understands you, and she knew it, she was grateful for it. She spent most of the show smiling, between songs, talking about how stupid she is, how she knows that striking poses is what’s expected of her, but can’t stop talking about silly things on stage. And then in the next second she’s talking about the usual protest singer stuff (fuck corporations, governments, capitalism etc), telling us we have to take our freedom, talking of violent protests in Istanbul and Brazil, spelling out P-U-S-S-Y R-I-OT in the style of G-L-O-R-I-A near the end of the show, to roars. She knows how to play the audience, how to create the show in her image, but she is tremendously charismatic, likeable and sincere.
This is a woman who, between the 17 years of 1979’s Wave and 1996’s Gone Again released one album, Dream Of Life, having basically given up her music career in large part to raise her two children. Another move that confounded the male-dominated corners of music theory who had painted her as a lesbian or a feminist, as if those things are all mutually exclusive and motherhood is incompatible with either. Her daughter, Jesse, joined her on stage, to play keyboards for the last third of the set, following bandleader Lenny Kaye’s three-song sojourn into Nuggets territory, with a nicely judged solo cameo, taking in covers by The Music Machine and Count Five . Incidentally, in the pantheon of albums about loss (Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin et al), her record Gone Again must be right up there. The acute concentration of the deaths of her husband, her brother Todd, her keyboardist Richard Sohl and Mapplethorpe was poured into the record, but rather than such pain being simply too hard to listen to, it’s comforting, relatable and empathic. She dedicated Because The Night, an inevitable highlight, to her late husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, ‘the man it was written for’. There were plenty of other tributes too, with songs dedicated to and Johnny Smith and Amy Winehouse, the latter eulogised beautifully in This Is The Girl.
On stage, she is compelling, proselytising, and frankly, shamanistic. You’d follow her anywhere. I have friends in New York who have seen her play live repeatedly, and I never quite understood why until now. Her voice, a deep and powerful instrument, propels these songs of fight and hope to every corner of the venue. I was standing at the back, near the bar, where much conversation was taking place. After a few songs, people started shushing each other, during her between-song chats – something I have never seen in London at a concert. Gradually, the chatter lessened and the crowd stopped thinking about their drink orders or jobs or catching up with friends and focused their complete attention on the stage.
I’ve had a fair few live music experiences in my time. But I can honestly say that a life highlight was seeing the epic Horses/Gloria rendition at this concert. I can barely speak about it, the transformation of how I felt, the elevation, being utterly removed from the space I was standing in to feel transported to completely another place. Not just in the physical sense, where my mind fluttered to CBGBs and how it must have felt to stand in that shithole and hear the song for the first time. But also in the metaphysical sense, of being raised up off the ground. Like I said, only music does that so completely to me. It was an honour to be there, to be so consumed by a song I forgot where I was. The noise level after it was deafening, as she left the stage. The encore started with Banga, her most recent album’s title track and flew into the deceptively poppy People Have The Power. She led us on another treatise on being free, escaping governmental power and, even though you’d think a rich rock star telling us all to protest and find our joy in the world might be annoying or presumptuous or even ridiculous it just wasn’t, none of it was. Even a roomful of white people singing Rock and Roll Nigger didn’t feel bizarre or out of place, such was the power of the performer. The audience members were among the most varied at a rock concert I’d ever seen. There were people who must have jumped the Glasto fence in the 80s, old crusties, hippies, Red Wedge types, mums and dads, tattooed pin-up girls, students, hipsters, old punks, Guardian/Socialist Worker readers, people in suits who’d just left work, the age range going from fresh-eyed teenagers to desperate-to-escape wage slaves to baby boomers. Everyone listened, everyone heard, and everyone believed in the moment that we could all escape and take her advice, that we could be inspired to not put up with the social and economic conditions in which we live. Even if it was just for a moment, so what? It's better to lose yourself in it than to be a cynic, and it’s preferable to allow yourself that humanistic moment of naivety, of idealism.
It was a special night, a special connection, between two bodies of people. ‘You’re my fuckin’ show, thank you so much!’ That rare thing happened, the performer gave to us, we gave back, and the circle was complete.
Ask the Angels
Privilege (Set Me Free)
Break It Up
This Is the Girl
Ain't It Strange
Beneath the Southern Cross
Psychotic Reaction (Count Five cover)
Pissing in a River
Because the Night
People Have the Power
Rock 'n' Roll Nigger
So, to Neil Young, and his inexplicably odd approach to an arena show. At the start of his classic concert movie, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, there’s a weird play going on, where men in Ewok-style hooded cloaks are constructing the stage and arguing with each other. This time, it was mad scientists, in white coats and big white wigs, all taking place to the soundtrack of A Day In The Life. The same props from that tour were also present – 20-foot microphone, outsized speaker stacks and flight cases and so on. And then suddenly, the entire band were stood on stage, in a row, hands on heart, as a Union Flag unfurled and God Save The Queen (he covered it on his album Americana) played. No fanfare, no big intro, he was just there, all in black, saluting the national anthem. Alright then. On went the fedora, followed by the battered Gibson, and we were off. It’s a beautiful guitar sound he makes, crunchy and precise yet distorted and savage, and the collective muscle memory of this band – Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro (who replaced original guitarist Danny Whitten) – forms a cocoon around him. They’ve played together, on and off, since 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The first few songs went relatively normally, and then came Walk Like A Giant from his new record Psychedelic Pill.
It’s hard to say what audiences expect when they pay big bucks to see one of the so-called ‘heritage’ acts. But I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a 20-minute dirge, half of which was atonal feedback while pieces of paper blew across the stage. You could feel the collective disappointment that such a big portion of this show was being wasted by self-indulgence (or, if you want to pretend it’s interesting, and not pretentious, you can call it ‘a startling act of agitprop provocation’). However, in a sense, it’s entirely the crowd’s fault if they were disappointed. They should know better. I want you to imagine Mick Jagger as a quite adorable small dog. He jumps up repeatedly at the kitchen table, trying to get your attention, because he wants treats. So you make him perform for you a bit and reward him with love. He’s so keen, and he wants you to love him so desperately. Now think of Neil Young, and imagine a cat that just doesn’t give a fuck. He views you with disdain, accepts your food if you’re lucky, makes you work for affection, and buggers off out of the house if he’s bored with you.
This is the difference between someone who works hard to make you love him and someone who does exactly whatever the hell he wants and if you don’t like it that’s just tough. In a way, I just adore and hugely admire this approach. He plays his own game, and he doesn’t think about the audience at all for large parts of the show. Later on, he says ‘At times tonight, frankly, we sucked; but with what we do, that’s always a possibility’. He’s out there on a limb, and if the audience have come to hear Rockin’ In The Free World (which to be fair he does play sometimes) and half of Harvest, they’re in big trouble. He doesn’t care if there’s 200 or 20,000 people watching. He does what he does, and makes little concession, unlike pretty much all of his contemporaries. It's true that, in the current musical landscape, where getting people to shell out money is getting harder every day, live performance seems to have become more important than ever. So, what are we expecting when we pay for a gig, when the stakes are so high for the performer (though arguably, Neil is plenty rich and doesn’t actually need to do this to earn a living)? The wonderful Low recently played a gig that consisted of one song lasting 27 minutes and I’ll see Patti Smith, who’s had only had one hit record, this week. However, in the latter case, it’s a small venue, so there’s an unspoken agreement that you’re paying for proximity and the artist can do what they like. A normal musician, in the O2, would recognise that there’s 20,000 people present and tailor their setlist accordingly. But not Neil Young, not until a crowd-pleasing encore. In a way it’s maddening, but in another you just have to admire what he does, when faced with demands from a big audience. Almost every single song dribbles to an extended end, finishing with feedback and false endings. It’s almost funny, as you get kinda sorta tricked into applauding because you think it’s the end, only for the song to come back and drone on for another minute. And this from a man who has about 50 extraordinary songs to play you – instead, you sit there listening to walls of feedback for minutes on end. It’s crackers, let’s face it.
It’s not like he’s up there making no effort, he’s completely lost in the moment with his band, huddled together in the centre of the stage. He wrings every note out with utter conviction and passion. But it has its trying moments. I personally don’t get hung up in setlists, and I know enough about Neil to have expected some of the madness that met me, but even I had my patience tested. It’s a high-wire act; sometimes it works, now and then it doesn’t, but you have to appreciate the stubborn approach. After the interminable Walk Like A Giant wall of noise ended, he embarked on a trio of acoustic songs – which were utterly beautiful, and you’re even more baffled, being swung this way and that. First up, Red Sun from 2000’s Silver & Gold, then the gorgeous Comes A Time and then… Blowin’ In The Wind. It sounded beautiful, moving, and better than Bob could ever do it now. A piano-led new song followed (accompanied by another piece of theatrical eccentricity: a young woman, guitar case in hand, wandering about the stage before disappearing) and then it was back to the main show, though I could have stood for a longer acoustic section, such was its beauty. His voice, incredibly, seems untouched by decades of touring and held out its lovely high tone throughout. Then, the energy level rose, with Cinnamon Girl, but dropped on a 15-minute version of Fuckin’ Up – which was mildly funny, getting the crowd to repeat one profane line over and over, but wore thin, again (though it was amusing to see the insipid corporate hell of the O2 subjected to such a venture). My head was spinning, and then came a lovely surprise, a classic track, Mr Soul, by his old band Buffalo Springfield. A song that lasted less than 5 minutes too, how novel. He then fancied a little chat with the audience, which was just so heartfelt and charming, and started with the bit about the band sucking, and took in a whole heap of gratitude, that he understood people had to leave because it was getting late, then particularly thanked parents with little ones for coming and that he hoped they were in bed without a care in the world by now. This was followed by a massive, crunching, monstrous version of Hey Hey My My. This is a song that will be played in 100 years, a song that can never get old. The place roared its approval and then it was over, and people started making their way to the Tube. What a bizarre, brilliant and crazy show.
But then, he bounced back onto the stage, this man of 67, who was hours from death to a brain aneurysm only 8 years ago, and ripped into one of the best encores I’ve ever heard, as people danced in the aisles. First, Like a Hurricane. Second, from one of his best ever albums Tonight’s The Night, Roll Another Number For The Road, and then just one more, as we flew past the 11pm curfew: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, truly one of his best songs, to end the night. It was worth the fine he’ll have to pay (he told his management to get out their calculators). It was baffling and wonderful, maddening and affirming, unexpected and expected. He’s a crazy old bastard, but he does it all exactly how he wants it, with few allowances. How many others can say that? At his first gig in Newcastle, last week, he took on an interloper: "Sing like you mean it?" he rounds on a heckler. "What the fuck would you sing for if you don't mean it?". Exactly.
Love and Only Love
Walk Like a Giant
Hole in the Sky
Comes a Time
Blowin' in the Wind
Singer Without a Song
Hey Hey, My My
Like a Hurricane
Roll Another Number (For the Road)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere