It’s life, and life only: Bob Dylan at 80


It’s estimated that more than 1,000 books have been written about Bob Dylan. There must be tens of thousands of articles. Millions of words. Even I’ve put down a few. I’ve done reviews of two gigs (Brixton and the Roundhouse) and the play based on his songs, Girl from the North Country, which was published by the only fanzine that Bob himself gets a copy of, Isis. Another time I did a short piece about my dad being at the ‘Judas’ concert. There was even a review of the brilliantly strange I’m Not There, a semi-biopic that I think will hold up well as the years pass.

But writing this, as Dylan’s 80th birthday arrives, is a different matter, because trying to embody the depth of feeling I have for him is… impossible. I don’t know how to do it. How can I possibly use words that have been used before to say things that have been said before about my Bobby? A remarkable, yet ordinary, flesh-and-blood American man whose music will be listened to for thousands more years and inspire tens of thousands more books and millions more words? I can’t. There aren’t enough words in the world or hours in the day to dig out the inside of my heart and shout from the rooftops about what he means to me. If souls exist, and if I have one, I can only tell you that he reaches its edges and turns them inside out. In a very different way to Bowie, as well. He’s all about reaching my brain’s insides, my id, my body, my being; he consumes me, he stands alone. I am made of his music. Maybe Dylan’s meaning to me is more cerebral, less personal. To see what he is, is to acknowledge what he means to the world, whereas to know what Bowie is, is less tangible, but far more a part of my bones. Such different men, but also their stories interweave so much (that’s a whole other article).

As I write this, as we all stumble into the third decade of the twenty-first century, all the old rockers are dropping, the second generation (after the 1950s era’s Elvis, Little Richard et al., of whom Jerry Lee is the last man standing) of popular music stars who, quite clearly, nobody could see getting old at all. It’s a surprise to many that ‘one of the last legendary boomers left standing’ (if I can steal that phrase from a forthcoming book) is reaching 80 at all, I bet, as so many of them died before they were even adults. Even Bowie said, “I had this poetic, romantic, juvenile idea that I’d be dead by 30; that’s what all artists think, I’ll be dead by 30, I’m gonna get TB and die. Aubrey Beardsley and all that.” That he, a drug addict and alcoholic, made it to 69, just about, now feels like some sort of miracle. But it does change your relationship with the music, when its creator has departed. That was the spur for writing this. I decided last week to play his canon, from the second record (1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) onwards. Almost immediately, I was overcome by emotion that I didn’t expect. Overcome by that young man’s words and his voice, its spoken-word quality, for he has never been a singer in the traditional sense (“I’m just as good a singer as Caruso!”). It took a while to figure out what the sensation was… gratitude. Because the dominant musical figure of my life, David Bowie, is gone. And I don’t remember having a moment like this when Bowie was still alive where I thought: I must appreciate this person because they won’t be here one day and everything will change. Perhaps that’s what this bit of writing is an attempt to do, to show that I am achingly grateful because I’ve realised that I must savour and hang on to every single album, song, gig (one can only hope for more, I’ve only seen him 12 times), lyric and moment while Dylan is here sharing the planet at the same time as me. I am lucky to have lived at the same time as both men. But now Bowie is gone and my relationship to his music has changed, because it was forced to. Thinking about the musical figures I was aware of when I was young, played loudly and often by the parents, it was always Bob and Miles Davis. But Miles died in 1991, when I was 15, so he switched from being an active person, who released music and could be seen in concert, to a gone person. I knew him as a living artist for only a short time. But Dylan? He kept on going. He kept on making albums too and, no, not all of them were great. Some of them weren’t even good, especially from the 80s to the mid-90s (with 1989’s Oh Mercy being a rare highlight). But the point is that he is here. And maybe you shouldn’t care to be heavily critical when that person has given you so much. Having said that, he has had a pretty surprising late-career renaissance, bookended by 1997’s Time Out of Mind and last year’s wonderful Rough and Rowdy Ways, a self-curation of his own legacy and the latest acknowledgment of his mortality. But even if he just phoned it in like Jagger, even if he’d not written a good song since the 70s, I wouldn’t love him any less.

Because love doesn’t work like that. There’s so much in the credit column that even if the debit column builds up a little, it doesn’t matter. It’s complex to talk about the warmth for Dylan that envelopes me and my dad now, especially now my mum is gone. I wish she was here to read this and celebrate the birthday milestone. She’d have a lot to say, for sure, about her Bobby. And what she’s missed eh? Not just five albums – two of his originals and three covers collections – but… he won the Nobel Prize for Literature! That was pretty surreal. When it happened, in fact, it was quite funny to see the fusty old academics and their spluttering, affronted articles talking about a pop singer who’s dared to walk the halls of great poets and novelists. But if the most significant influence on twentieth-century popular music culture doesn’t deserve a Nobel (and an Oscar, he has one of those too) who does? Like all the other gifted Jews who wrote those songs, he’s responsible for a second version of the Great American Songbook. Okay, yes, we can speak up for Sinatra and Elvis as towering figures. And honestly, I think Joni Mitchell is better on each individual count – musician/songwriter/lyricist/producer – than anyone else, full stop. But Dylan is the greatest and most influential musical figure of the last century. I’m not saying anything new here. But does anyone know what Bob Dylan, the constructed persona of Robert Zimmerman, actually thinks about it all? His lecture, given in writing, not in person, to accept the Nobel was sprawling, wild and filled with literary allusions, namechecking The Odyssey and Moby Dick, but it was also very self-aware. I suppose you’d become a monstrous asshole if you believed everything that people wrote about you. He does give the odd interview that lets the light in, just for a second but he’s also smart enough to know his place in history yet be able to brush it off his shoulder. Living long enough to see these types of tributes to your big eight-zero must be like reading your obituary.

It makes me think about how it must have felt for Bowie to witness the mass freakout when Where Are We Now? came out in 2013. It was probably a little like being present at your own funeral. Watching people react as if it were to a joyful eulogy. He had plenty of ego to him, but I suspect he was quite shocked at the outpouring of happiness that greeted his return and I’m glad he got to witness that. I hope Dylan is similarly tickled by how loved he is: perhaps he might catch some of the excellent articles and radio shows that have come out in the last couple of months.

Listening to his early stuff now, you can hear this arrogant, brash young man who knows how brilliant he is. He simply reeled off dozens upon dozens of songs that people will still be listening to for millennia. Sometimes I think about what he’s actually like, because none of us knows him. Only his family get to see past the character of ‘Bob Dylan’. To them he’s just an ordinary zayde (Yiddish for grandfather). A cousin of my dad’s told him that Bob showed up about ten years ago at her synagogue, near Encino, California, which was hosting a social occasion for Chabad (an Orthodox Jewish organisation which he has publicly supported, appearing at a telethon, of all things). A friend who was there told her that this unkempt man shuffled over and started a polite conversation, before asking her out on a date. She had no idea who he was. Equally politely, she said no thank you and he said it was nice to meet her. After he walked away, someone else came up and said, ‘You know who that old man was? Bob Dylan!’

Who else knows him, family aside? Maybe his famous friends (sworn to an omerta for fear of ex-communication). But not biographers or acolytes, and certainly not the bizarre, obsessed fan (one of many) who made a habit of going through the bins outside his house. You might think he’d be understood by others on his level. But even then, a figure such as President Obama found himself beautifully baffled by Dylan – and that was just how both parties wanted it. In 2010, two years before he awarded Bob the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Dylan performed at the White House. There was no rehearsal. He turned up, played one song, shook the president’s hand, tipped his head and gave a small smile, then disappeared. Obama later said, “That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.”

These types of odd stories abound: showing up at his grandson’s school, coming off like the ‘weird guitar guy’. Taking the bus tour of Lennon’s childhood home with everyone else and just sitting quietly on John’s bed. The surely apocryphal tale of mistaking a plumber called Dave for his mate Dave Stewart in Crouch End in the 90s. The author Merrill Markoe, who lives near him in Malibu, has related a decade’s worth of cryptic but magical tales about his Christmas lights; some years they were very plain but later they became a touch more opulent. (I find it strange that any Jew would celebrate Christmas in any way but I know this is a great deal more normal for American Jews than British ones!) Another great story is told by the brilliant writer-director Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Borat), who walked into HBO with Dylan to pitch a slapstick comedy at Bob’s behest. At the meeting, the head of the network, Chris Albrecht, approaches Bob and says, “It’s so nice to meet you, I have the original tickets from Woodstock!” Staring him up and down, Dylan says, flatly, “I didn’t play at Woodstock” then walks over to the windows overlooking the city and spends the entire time staring out of them. It’s also worth mentioning that Charles resembles a more far-gone version of The Dude – with long hair and long white beard – and at that time was going through a phase of wearing pyjamas every time he left the house, while Dylan was wearing a cowboy outfit like Lee Marvin’s in Cat Ballou. They sold the show but, on the way out of the building, probably because the HBO chairman thought he played at Woodstock, Bob said he’d changed his mind and didn’t want to make a Buster-Keaton-esque comedy sitcom starring himself after all. He and Charles later did make a movie together, the extremely loose and weird Masked and Anonymous.

Then there was the time when he got escorted by the police back to his hotel because a local homeowner in a New Jersey neighbourhood he was walking around in, late at night, thought he might be casing the joint. The deathless standfirst is one of the finest I’ve ever read, not least because, although he lived in the town at the time, there’s no reason to, again, mention the 1969 music festival: Forty years after Woodstock, Bob Dylan is mistaken for a homeless man. There are dozens more of these tall tales.

My dad told me the story that, I think, sums him up best. It’s my favourite because it makes me laugh every single time I hear it. Sometime in the 80s or 90s, an anecdote made the rounds about a guy getting into a lift at a hotel and, to his surprise, there was Dylan. He recognised him immediately and moved toward him, saying, ‘I know who you are, but you don’t know who I am’. To which Bob turned toward him, giving a death stare, and replied, ‘Let’s keep it that way.’

He’s always got his eye on the future. Selling his songs may have, to some, seemed a cynical venture but not only does it secure his legacy forever, it also ensures income for his descendants for the next ten generations. In fact, he’s well known for saying yes to any song licensing request whenever asked and has shilled for products for years, from lingerie to cars to his own whisky. I guess what we can infer from all those moves is that he doesn’t value his music as much as others do, which frankly comes off like a fairly healthy attitude to have. People have spent 60 years trying to understand Bob Dylan. And good for them. But I’m not interested in reading books about his private life or raking over the same old coals in nostalgia rock magazines or buying remasters on the anniversaries of album releases. And I don’t imagine that’ll change when he’s not here. I just want the music that he’s in control of putting out and I can leave the rest.

There’s a Yiddish phrase, I suppose the Jewish equivalent of ‘knock on wood’, which is keina hora. It, roughly, translates to ‘no evil eye’. Saying it out loud makes a fervent wish that a person will continue to have good health. Bob Dylan has reached 80 years old, keina hora. May he have another lifetime to go.


Stardust – 2 stars



Between lockdowns, on a rare day in the office, I watched the trailer for the Bowie biopic, Stardust, drop on Twitter. Reaction was… uh… mixed. And that was just the trailer. A few reviews already existed, as it had been shown at American film festivals in the spring, so I read them: all the young dudes carried the news, and the news was not good. I knew then that I didn’t want to see it: I wanted to review it. In a display of entirely unearned confidence, I jumped up from my desk and followed the floor sticker arrows around to the desk of Phil de Semlyen, my colleague, the Global Head of Film at Time Out. I said, “Lovely Phil, how do you fancy letting me review the Bowie movie? Okay, I’ve never reviewed a film ever for any publication but I can do it, I think. And someone who knows the subject should do it anyway, so go on, let me! How hard can it be?” He said, “Sure, no problem. If I can do it anyone can!” Such a nice man.

Well, then. Slight panic. I did some research, made notes about technical things, then watched it on the Raindance website. Surely, surely, it was going to be better than early reviews said? Or, best-case scenario, those reviewers weren’t Bowie people and didn’t get it, and it would be filled with Easter eggs for the nerds. Why not? I’m an optimist by nature. Then I pressed play.

It became clear quite quickly that Stardust was, in fact, going to be even worse than the reviewers said. After about 15 minutes, hysteria set in; I couldn’t stop laughing at how bad the dialogue was. Then another 15 minutes passed, the laughing ceased and I started to get annoyed, because it wasn’t even bad in a good way. It was just terrible and humourless. And long. 109 minutes of my short life on this spinning rock I am never getting back.

But even if a film is profoundly bad, a review must be fair to the hundreds of people who worked hard on it. There is usually something to recommend it, to stop it from being a one-star. Stardust is not poorly made; the cinematography and other technical aspects are well rendered. But they alone can’t make for an enjoyable watch.

Also, what I didn’t entirely take in during that interminable viewing was the baffling decision to cast actors decades older than the people they’re playing. Obviously I knew that Flynn was a dozen years too old (when filming took place, last year). But Jena Malone (35 playing 22) looks young. I hadn’t given a thought to how old Ron Oberman must have been back then: he was 28, Marc Maron was 56. There was one scene with Bowie’s manager, in which the character was so primly English I thought it was Ken Pitt (49 in 1971). It was not. That was supposed to be the charismatic, cigar-chewing Tony DeFries, who was 28 in 1971: the actor, Julian Richings, who looks like Pitt and looks nothing at all like DeFries, was 64. That was so unclear I thought it was a totally different person! And on it went with the Spiders: Ronson’s actor was 42; Mick was 25. The guy playing Woody was 38; the drummer was 21. (Trev Bolder doesn’t even get an IMDB listing)

Why on earth would casting directors take out the young, vigorous heart of a biopic and fill each role with actors all far too old? I had only noticed Flynn at the time – the rest made so little impression that their various levels of decrepitude must have passed me by. I don’t believe the filmmakers didn’t know how old these real people were: they chose not to care. That’s the level of detail and commitment to reality we’re talking about here.

Anyway, my review was well-received. People told me it made them not want to see the film.

The version below is 95% the same as the original. I have reinstated a couple of bits I felt were important and dropped back in a few extra details for colour. I’ve also added links to provide backstory, which isn’t the style of TO’s Film section but no harm in adding here.

I’m very proud that I was allowed to write this review and grateful that I am Time Out’s person of record who gets to stand up to show and tell people what I know and think. This film won’t affect Bowie’s legacy or anyone’s feelings towards him. The gifted people who understand, who love him, who have something to say that’s carefully well-researched and cited, will continue to produce work about him that is credible and worth reading, watching and listening to.



Rock biopics that don’t have rights to the artist’s songs can work, as seen in England Is Mine (Morrissey) and Nowhere Boy (John Lennon) – but both were set in their subjects’ late teens. In Stardust, we meet 24-year-old David Bowie (played by 36-year-old Johnny Flynn) in 1971. He’s on his first US trip, promoting his Led Zeppelin-esque third album The Man Who Sold The World, presented here as a hard sell because he wore a dress on its cover (though Americans wouldn’t have known this, as the US cover was an odd cowboy cartoon). You need to believe this young man becomes one of the greatest rock stars of all time. You won’t.

The disastrous Bohemian Rhapsody was, by a (moustache) hair, saved by the music; no such luck here. Bowie’s estate, it turns out wisely, denied use of his songs. Then a one-hit-wonder with Space Oddity, Bowie tries to behave like a star before he is one, but is written as a boring, pathetic, hippy rube who misses every opportunity his publicist (Marc Maron, always watchable) finds. How about a modicum of research? David Bowie was ruthless, camera-ready, bright and funny, with megawatt charisma and unshakeable self-belief. Here he’s an unengaging wet failure, tortured by fear of succumbing to ‘madness in the family’. The severe mental-health problems of his half-brother Terry, seen in flashbacks, are treated crassly. While his wife Angie (Jena Malone) is a hectoring presence that doesn’t credit the significant contribution she made.
Flynn, who does a decent job singing songs that Bowie covered by Jacques Brel and The Yardbirds, works hard with a weak script. And Stardust does try to call some truthful Bowie bingo numbers: a song by one of his early heroes, ’60s singer Anthony Newley, plays on the radio; there’s a nice touch showing a recreation of his screen test at Warhol’s Factory; we briefly experience the bizarre tale of Bowie spending an evening talking to Lou Reed only to find out later he’d met his replacement, Doug Yule (according to Bowie’s version of events he never knew but Yule says he explained Reed had left the Velvets months before); and he wears that dress for a hopeless Rolling Stone interview – though the film erases his bisexuality, which is poor stuff. But this biopic can’t sell the idea of his progression as a songwriter because it can’t show us that he wrote Life on Mars and Changes around this time.
Ultimately, Stardust doesn’t work on any level. Not having his original music means it can’t truly let go, which makes this Bowie nothing close to the magnetic performer he was, despite a reasonable finale (with a Ziggy hairpiece that’s the wrong colour and inaccurate make-up). Because the songs aren’t here, his music is forced into becoming entirely unimportant, which is criminal. This film adds nothing interesting to his story. You’d be a great deal better off seeking out Todd Haynes’s gorgeously camp, self-aware, fairytale Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine – it’s much more fun than this. 

Hartsfield’s Landing: a West Wing story about how much your vote matters


This was written just before the American presidential election.

It’s been a hard year. People are reaching out for comfort. You might have remodelled a room, bought new art, a rug, plants; got new clothes, even though you have nowhere to go; hunkered down to watch TV, as we face whatever the fuck this is and is going to continue to be.

How can money be sucked out of you? Pay-per-view football, a live-streamed gig (remember gigs?!), benefit for a struggling theatre, donation to a food bank or community food project? Are you bereaved? Working, furloughed, made redundant or on the dole? Getting government money, barely enough to survive on? (which you – not the rich – will be repaying via higher taxes for the next two decades) Or have you fallen through the social support cracks into anxiety-induced near-penury?

The roulette wheel spins, we pick and yet… sameness. A tiny event like a distanced visit with a loved one marks out a day. You pounce on any work offered, as who knows when the next will come. Talking a walk in a wood or park near home, if you don’t have a garden, has become important, and yet it takes a gargantuan effort to muster any energy to go out. Out in shops or on public transport, on overloaded buses, half-full tubes or empty commuter trains, you weave around the chin and nose cunts, too self-absorbed, too selfish, to notice or care about fallen masks. Recipes distract, it’s a surprising interest in cooking a passable version of food you can no longer order in restaurants. An acceptance that there will likely be another year of this shit. Who knew the end of the world as we knew it would be so… slow.

In reaching out, maybe you (re)discovered something that doesn’t remind you of all this. John sang, ‘whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright’. Me? Buffy again. The warm, delightful Schitt’s Creek. The viciously good Better Things. And partly because of all this and partly because of White House occupancy, a walk back to the warm hug of how American politics can be of The West Wing.


I’m not sure any other show inspires such devotion and blame. American journalists are obsessed with ripping it up, as if it actively harmed their country. It’s dated, smug, preachy, a liberal fantasy, or an act of self-harm so egregious you’d think people voted for the White House’s occupant because Toby Ziegler chewed a cigar and expressed a progressive opinion that social security could be saved for generations, healthcare should be available to all and university tuition should be tax-deductible (an idea so left-wing it was backed by Rand Paul, one of the most viciously right-wing/libertarian politicians). TWW has a huge amount in common with the sweeter small-government politics of Parks and Recreation, a show that never got called a liberal fantasy, despite being exactly that (with showrunner Mike Schur massively influenced by The West Wing). It might come down to creator/head writer (for the first four of its seven seasons) Aaron Sorkin, the Bono of screenwriting. Journalists hate that guy. Yes, The Newsroom was bad; yes, Studio 60 was flawed but watchable; but The Social Network, Molly’s Game, Sports Night, Moneyball, Charlie Wilson’s War, A Few Good Men, The American President and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are all very good indeed.

Such hatred is based on a shallow understanding of The West Wing. The administration achieved… very little. There is no triumphalism; they don’t remake America. They were blocked by Republicans (portrayed as John McCain types, not venal Mitch McConnell types, at least during the Sorkin years), blocked by themselves and blocked by circumstance, incompetence, arrogance and hubris. Yes, they are sexist. The sexual harassment in the boys’ club workplace is sometimes borderline, sometimes blatant. But the idea that Sorkin painted perfect characters and we should all wring our hands over the damage they did to liberal causes because of their implausible idealism, and that we should stop trying to make America like this, is naïve. It’s not like those who love it are blind to its flaws. The West Wing Weekly podcast calls out those flaws in detail. But it also posits that, especially given the trauma of the last four years, politics can be different. Why not? What’s wrong with a bit of hope?

TWWW, co-presented by podcaster Hrishi Hirway (Song Exploder) and former cast member Josh Malina, started in March 2016 and was a deep dive, with episode breakdowns and interviews featuring ex-cast members, guest stars, technicians, producers, writers, directors, famous fans and a whole bunch of experts – senators, speechwriters, military figures, press secretaries, chiefs of staff and more, most of whom worked in the real White Houses of the last 40 years. These were political operatives from the administrations of Nixon, Carter, Johnson, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton (whose White House the show is largely based on) and Obama (whose staffers told the cast they went into politics because they grew up watching The West Wing). If you like to know how things are made, if you want to be inside baseball, as they say, it’s a wonderful insight.


The West Wing is a relic, as are other late-90s-early-2000s shows about cops, lawyers, doctors and aliens (and by the way, nobody writes articles saying The X-Files damaged America because it popularised conspiracy theories and pushed them into the mainstream, even though arguably it did).

I don’t doubt that getting the band back together for the podcast is part of the reason that Sorkin, who gave TWWW his full, grateful participation and appeared in many episodes, decided to come back for a one-off reunion episode to benefit When We All Vote (it’s supposed to be a nonpartisan organisation but I don’t see any Republicans in its ranks apart from a few local mayors; nevertheless, the episode raised more than $1m for it). And so, in this era of visors and distances, most of the cast of The West Wing got together in LA in September and filmed a staged reading of season three’s Hartsfield’s Landing. It is, simply, about how important it is to vote, with side plots of a chess game (figurative) with China and Taiwan, and two chess games (literal) between the president, Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), and two of his staff, Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and his deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe).

I got an evening of it going, first watching the 2002 original to play spot the difference. The 2020 version started thus, with Bradley Whitford (Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman), now a multiple Emmy winner, giving a bit of charming side-eye, fully aware of the ridiculousness of the entire enterprise: “We understand that some people don’t fully appreciate the benefit of unsolicited advice from actors. We do know that. And if HBO Max was willing to point a camera at the ten smartest people in America, we’d gladly clear the stage for them. But the camera’s pointed at us. And we feel at a time like this that the risk of appearing obnoxious is too small a reason to stay quiet if we can get even one new voter to vote.”

We were off. All the setups are on the same stage, LA’s Orpheum Theater. The design, deceptively simple, is stunningly directed by the executive producer of the Sorkin years, Thomas Schlamme. He is the ‘walk’ of the famed ‘walk and talk’. It asks whether a TV drama can be broken down, reverse-staged: usually plays become films, not the other way round. The dynamic energy of the 2002 episode is brought about by camera movement and the actors’ physical movement, as they rush from office to office… now, in 2020, nobody goes much of anywhere, and the power of the setting is allowed to come through, which lets the actors, cameras, plot and even the chess pieces settle. That comparable stillness is what makes sure the dialogue sings even more than it did first time around.

On first watch, I found it all so moving. Eighteen years have passed. Some of the women look different but the same, in the way that Hollywood insists women’s faces must look. The men look genuinely older, greyer, more worn (even Rob Lowe). But certainly, the political devastation of the last four years sees the toll written on each face. The lines were delivered with more anger in 2002; this time there’s weariness, a resignation to the mileage taken on. Adding poignancy, one role had to be recast, because of the passing of John Spencer, whose Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, was TWW’s heart. Leo was transformed into a younger version, played very differently by Sterling K Brown (Sorkin said if he ever rebooted TWW – making clear he would never do so – Brown should be the president). Brown did a great job: being nothing like Spencer helped both him and viewers disassociate from the overall sadness of the lost cast member.

On second watch, beyond how lovely it was to see them all together again, I remembered how sharply funny so much of Sorkin’s dialogue is, even in tense moments. To leaven the China plot and the big finish, a heavy chess game between Toby and the President, there was a lighter chess match with Sam, wherein the machinations of the diplomatic dance between China, the US and Taiwan were played out like real-life Battleship. There was a very funny thread, where press secretary CJ (Oscar winner Allison Janney) and Charlie (Dulé Hill, the youngest cast member – now 45 – the president’s ‘body man’, an executive assistant) battle over a missing paper schedule, which escalates into a prank war that puts the life of a goldfish in danger. We also wisely avoid the fairly inappropriate workplace flirtation between Josh and his deputy Donna (Janel Moloney), who get the title card plot. Hartsfield’s Landing – based on two real towns in Bartlet’s home state, New Hampshire: Hart’s Location and the brilliantly named Dixville Notch – is where 42 voters will cast their ballots at midnight: the town has been historically successful in predicting the general election winner, so these 42 votes matter. There is a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through here, wherein we are half a season away from the general election (Bartlet beats Rob Ritchie, played by Barbra Streisand’s husband, James Brolin, to win his second term) so what are they voting for? It can’t be to choose Bartlet as the candidate because he is running unopposed so wouldn’t be on the ballot. But… we gotta let it go.

Josh It is absurd that 42 people have this kind of power.

C.J. I think it’s nice.

Josh Do you?

C.J. I think it’s democracy at its purest. They all gather at once…

Josh At a gas station.

C.J. It’s not a gas station, it’s nice. There’s a registrar of voters, the names are called in alphabetical order, they put a folded piece of paper into a box. See, this is the difference between you and me.

Josh You’re a sap?

C.J. Those 42 people are teaching us something about ourselves: that freedom is the glory of God, that democracy is its birthright, and that our vote matters.

Josh You’re getting the pizza?

C.J. Yeah, I should call ahead.

The show said it best: “Decisions are made by those who show up”. And so, Josh elevates 42 votes to a place of high drama and high importance. Not just because politics is a superstitious game, but because every vote does count. A couple he met on the campaign trail, the Flenders, have called Donna to say that they are thinking about voting for Ritchie. She is sent out into the cold with a mobile (yes, even in 2002!) to try and persuade the Flenders their two votes matter. Back and forth it goes:

Donna They think the President is going to privatise Social Security.

Josh He’s not going to... That’s the other guys! He’s not going to privatise Social Security! He’ll... He’ll privatise New Hampshire before he privatizes Social Security!

A side note for the nerds: this remake takes a deep-dive into the supporting cast from the original. The journalists in the press room, all in multiple episodes, are recognisable to long-term fans. CJ’s aide, Carol, is there – played by Melissa Fitzgerald, she quit acting and founded Justice4Vets, an org which campaigns for veterans’ treatment courts. The China plot brought back the wonderful Anna Deavere Smith, who as well as being a brilliant actress (and professor) is a Pulitzer-nominated playwright: her one-woman show about the prison-for-profit system, Notes from the Field, played off-Broadway and at the Royal Court. She took no part in TWWW, purely, we were told, because of being too busy so it was a real pleasure to see her again.

Reading the scene directions [Cut to: Int. Josh’s bullpen – Night – Donna comes in, wrapped in a long coat] (that sort of thing) was the brilliant Emily Proctor. She joined in season two to play a Republican operative, Ainsley Hayes. President Bartlet’s nature was to be interested in those who disagreed with him, like Lincoln’s ‘team of rivals’ (as described by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), so he hired her. But there were, as Sorkin put it, ‘too many mouths to feed’; Procter was offered another job (CSI: Miami) and left for a bigger break. He regretted not making space for her, and I’m certain that’s why she appears (rather than any attempt to reach out to Republican voters). Hayes presented a realistic face of conservatism that never sneered, not even when she argued against the Equal Rights Amendment.


The episode’s big storyline, though, is Toby’s chess game with the president. The scene, simmering, comes to a boil with a question about what voters want. A guy they can have a beer with? A rich guy they’ve been conned into thinking isn’t elite? The smartest kid in the class? Watching that scene makes you recoil, knowing what we do about who sits in the Oval. While Bartlet has had enough of Toby, Toby has had enough of tiptoeing around the idea of whether a candidate should be ashamed about being smart and capable.

Toby Abbey [the First Lady] told me this story once. She said you were at a party once where you were bending the guy’s ear. You were telling him that Ellie [his middle daughter] had mastered her multiplication tables and she was in third grade reading at a fifth-grade level and she loved books and she scored two goals for her soccer team the week before, you were going on and on... And what made that story remarkable was that the party you were at was in Stockholm and the man you were talking to was King Gustav, who two hours earlier had given you the Nobel Prize in economics. [laughs] I mean, my god, you just won the Nobel Prize and all you wanted to talk about to the King of Sweden was Ellie’s multiplication tables!

Bartlet What’s your point?

Toby You’re a good father, you don’t have to act like it. You’re the President, you don’t have to act like it. You’re a good man, you don’t have to act like it. You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken... Do not, do not, do not act like it!

Bartlet I don’t want to be killed.

Toby Then make this election about smart, and not... Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight. And you’ve been holding me up for too many rounds. [Toby lays down his king on the board. Bartlet stands and turns to walk out.]

Bartlet Pick your king up. We’re not done playing yet.


That scene is incredibly powerful. It was in 2002. And it’s 100 times more so today. Sheen and Schiff are remarkable, two heavyweights slugging it out, a masterclass in tone, emphasis, balance. There is, it’s been said before, real music in the cadences of Sorkin’s words.

We know it should work like that. Because being president is a serious job and these are serious times and elevating an unserious person to its heights is disastrous. Who sits in the White House is always… a mirror. This is a bleak moment in American history and we all know the conservative side suppresses voting because they benefit when fewer people vote. So we must hammer the idea every time even if it never changes turnout: voting is a right and should be widely accessible.

In the end, with the Flenders and their economic anxiety, Josh gives in, saying ‘let ’em vote…’ And the lesson is done. This show is about public service. It’s not a harmful bubble to live in for 42.5 minutes. Between scenes, where ad breaks usually go, are unsubtle messages about voting from Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Samuel L Jackson, Elisabeth Moss (who the show discovered, she played the Bartlets’ youngest daughter), Lin-Manuel Miranda (a serious TWW nerd, he and Hamilton director Thomas Kail did a special TWWW episode and his last Hamilton curtain call was done to TWW theme). There was a return for the iconic Marlee Matlin (who played pollster Joey Lucas), the only deaf actress to win an Oscar, who looked beautiful: and looked her age. Her bit with Whitford was on why voter fraud is nonsensical, how it doesn’t and cannot happen. Some of these sections are serious, some funny, some pointed, especially interjections from Jackson and Black cast members Dulé Hill and Sterling K Brown. In a glowing review of the special, Vanity Fair’s TV critic said the show ‘feels so removed from reality’ but she said that out of sadness, rather than criticism. Buying an idea/myth of politicians acting in good faith isn’t a failure of The West Wing. You should believe that, even if it feels we’ve gone far away from Obama’s optimism into today’s cynicism. We should all know that – and this goes for politics and pandemics – it won’t always be like this.

To end, this clip (from earlier in the third season) is on the nose. It’s the worst of Sorkin if you can’t bear him, the best of Sorkin if you get him. And call me a sentimental old fool if you want, but I love it. In it, a leak has embarrassed the President and Toby assembles the junior staff. The audience expects him to be angry, take the roof off, with a lesson about loyalty. He does the opposite, and even out of context it’s… what the show is all about.

The West Wing.

It’s just a TV show: lighten up, don’t take it seriously.

It’s not just a TV show: it matters, and it has changed lives.

It’s okay for both of those things to be true at the same time.


Final note: The West Wing Weekly’s special episode on The West Wing’s reunion special

Bohemian Rhapsody – 2 stars


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.

This review, which contains spoilers, ran in Issue 194 of Isis, the Bob Dylan magazine.

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 Hearttook 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. 


Donny McCaslin :: Rich Mix, London :: 15th November, 2016

Originally published on in March 2017

Make no mistake, Donny McCaslin, this genial giant sax player from California, has had a distinguished career in jazz. He’s spent nearly three decades carving out a groove in modern jazz playing, starting with filling the huge shoes of Michael Brecker in the legendary fusion group Steps Ahead. With three Grammy nominations to his name, he’s become the trusted right-hand man of bandleader Maria Schneider, herself a multiple Grammy winner. The dreaded term ‘crossover’ has come to be applied in jazz to artists who break out of the somewhat closed jazz world (closed to mainstream rock/pop fans, in that sense) and make a break across the aisle. In the 70s it was Herbie Hancock who did it, and even before then Miles Davis – the greatest jazz artist of all time – had broken the mould, with Kind Of Blue becoming the best-selling, and most famous, jazz album of all time.


Historically, plenty of pop musicians (looking at you, Sting) have sought out jazz players on their records to give them a bit of cool. And as a lifelong jazz fan, Bowie was no different, taking on saxophonist David Sanborn and trumpeter Lester Bowie to play on his records, among others. Even Mike Garson, of course, is a jazz player. As we all know, Bowie was one of the great casting directors of our time. But beyond bit parts – musicians popping up – he had never given over an entire record to jazz musicians, until Blackstar. Everyone knows the story now. He wanted to continue his collaboration with Schneider after their magnificent foray with Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) in 2014. But she had already committed to her Grammy-winning Thompson Fields project. So she pressed a copy of McCaslin’s Casting For Gravity into his hand (having sent him this link to a live version of the track Stadium Jazz first) and suggested they visit Greenwich Village’s Bar 55 to see his quartet (with Mark Guiliana, Tim Lefebvre and Jason Lindner). McCaslin says he spotted Bowie sitting at a table with Schneider, tried to keep calm, as you would, and just concentrate on playing. Shortly after, he got an invite to perform on what would turn out to be Bowie’s last album. Since then, one imagines, his feet haven’t touched the ground as, suddenly, this brilliant, powerful quartet have become among the most famous jazz musicians in the world.

During a short European tour, McCaslin’s group (minus Lefebvre, whose regular gig – with the arena-filling Tedeschi Trucks Band – called; replaced by Jonathan Maron) called at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix, packing out the overheated main room and shaking the walls. They’d dropped into London to play some stuff from his new Beyond Now album, a follow-up to 2015’s excellent Fast Future. You could tell the crowd had some Bowie fans at their first jazz gig present; they looked a bit shell-shocked. As I heard someone say, listening to jazz on record is hardly like seeing it live. It’s so much more visceral, muscular, and frankly, louder than you can imagine, especially with a fusion quartet like the one McCaslin leads. The bass thundered. Lindner’s synthesiser textures lent a cosmic vibe reminiscent of the early 70s electric playing of Keith Jarrett when he was with Miles. Guiliana’s complex, intricate drumming evoked the greats; one can feel comfortable comparing him to all-time greats like Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, alongside recent masters like Brian Blade and Kendrick Lamar’s drummer Ron Bruner Jr. That’s how good he is. Get his 2015 album Family First; you won’t regret it.


McCaslin leads this band through twisting and turning renditions of songs new and old. You might have expected Warszawa to be on the setlist; the band closed with it. Less expected but incredibly welcome were two more Bowie songs. First, one that caused the room to experience a sharp intake of breath – Lazarus. It sent a chill, until of course the sax came in where the voice should have been and then it took off, with the closing section containing some absolutely remarkable playing from McCaslin, who was on fire all evening. Then, a lovely surprise, the very familiar drum part of Look Back In Anger kicked in and off we went. The room was electrified. If you’d never seen a jazz gig before, or even if you’d seen 100, this was a top class night.



This symphony
This rage in me
I've got a handful of songs to sing
To sting your soul
To fuck you over
This furious reign

David Bowie – Killing A Little Time

A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration

Icon (noun) – definition from the Oxford English Dictionary

I don’t write much, I don’t write enough. I don’t write unless I need to say something. There was no intention to write about Lazarus, Bowie’s final work, but here we go. Is it his final work? I suppose it’s his joint last work, alongside . These works of art dovetailed each other, the play being begun in 2014, the album made in 2015, the play finished off at the same time. Then came the album’s title track in November, following by the play’s premiere in December, and finally, the album in January 2016. They are a Venn diagram of the last two years of his life; the play bristling with anger, the album filled with sadness, creating together the masterpiece of the perfect exit. A lyric, for a song written in 1992, recorded in 2003, springs into my mind:

You promised me the ending would be clear
You'd let me know when the time was now
Don't let me know when you're opening the door
Stab me in the dark, let me disappear

I’m writing this first part the day before I see Lazarus in London, because tomorrow the meaning will change. And unlike , which I spent three days listening to (January 8-10) without knowing the meaning was about to be ripped open dramatically, I do know this time that his final work is about to come to me anew.

This is not a review of Lazarus, because others will do that better. Suffice to say, it’s a wonderful, odd and thrilling fever dream of an evening at the theatre. It’s confused and confusing, it’s only really got two great characters (Newton and Girl), and most of the London cast is changed from New York. The theatre is absolutely huge: five times larger, going from the NYTW’s 198 seats to 1002 (unless I’m counting wrong! I thought it was 960…) in King’s Cross. The songs carry it forward, as if he wrote them over a span of 45 years to tell this story. It’s sieved through this character, who he identified with when at his worst during the making of The Man Who Fell To Earth, and who he let follow him throughout his life and chose to ally with just before he left the earth. He sent Lazarus to London in his place. He sent his costumes and lyrics and drawings to London in his place. He sent his art collection to Sotheby’s in London in his place. The 2013 V&A exhibition was a method of ‘touring’, since he had little interest in doing any actual touring, with nothing to gain from appearing on stage. As ever, he created the parameters (choose from my archive, from the artefacts I let you see) and had the V&A curate a retrospective that he visited, quietly, privately, with his family. As ever, again, like the consummate casting director he was, he created the parameters to let Lazarus and keep him alive in perpetuity. occupies a rather physical, tangible place; it’s mostly listened to alone, at home, or during travel, or walking down the street. It’s not a communal experience; it’s not acted out without him and the musicians on it (outside of cover versions, to which I say, too soon!). Lazarus, the play, is a live version of his final thoughts. The actors give you his message, in person. I didn’t know any of this when I was in NYC in December 2015. What was it like then? What can I remember now that will tomorrow be joined by new memories in the hard drive of my brain?

I was nervous, that it wouldn’t be any good. It was ambitious, daring, a mad thing for him to do: a musical, which he’d dreamed of and planned for over 40 years, coming out at the same time as a new album. The one thing he had never done, and now, running out of time, it was the last thing he wanted to do. Gifts upon gifts for me, for us. Seeing it in NYC was a remarkable experience, done twice on consecutive nights. I hardly understood a thing on the first night; it was impossible to take in, the density and complexity of it all. Overwhelming in every way. The second night I got a handle on it, and though I try to shy away from being too literal, those I spoke to immediately after, with heads spinning, already thought it was all about death long before we realised it was about his death. Of course, it’s open to interpretation from all angles and there is no definitive reading (multiple readings, the absence of an authoritative voice and all that). Is the ‘Girl’ character Newton’s surrogate daughter? Yes, the casting call says so (though interestingly she was supposed to be over 18 until they saw then-nearly-14-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso and she dazzled, so the part went younger). If Bowie is Newton, again (as he was in 1976), is Girl a cipher for his own daughter (Caruso is 11 months younger)? I think so. I don’t know so, and I never will. Ambiguity and performance: the two constants throughout a 50-year career. He was never himself, there was always smoke and mirrors. He never explained, and you wouldn’t want him to anyway (not that he didn’t muse on the idea of revealing more over the years before losing interest and moving onto the next new thing).

I don’t want the meaning of Lazarus to change, but it will, when I see it again. I didn’t want the meaning of to change, but against my will it did. A friend told me that he couldn’t get the notion of Lazarus being entirely/only about Bowie’s death out of his head during the play when he saw it at a London preview. Understandable, and that’s what spurred me to write this, as I have the New York version playing in my head and, honestly, how many people will be able to write about seeing it in both cities? One or two hundred? It’s special to me, now, more than ever, the ‘before and after’ contexts. Now Lazarus comes to London, like a morbid travelling version of his ashes. What’s new? So far, what I know is that the brief appearance of a famous actor on the screen has been excised. Good creative decision, as I found it distracting. A too-famous face takes you out of the moment. There’s one more new big creative decision, to put Bowie’s face on screen at the end, which was absent in NYC even after January 10. I’ll see it tomorrow and decide how I feel about it, but my gut feeling (which I suspect I’ll be largely alone in) is that it’s a fucking dreadful, mawkish decision that grates in the worst kind of sentimental, emotionally manipulative way. And for sure, if you knew him at all, you’d know he’d hate that. He refused to have Heroes in the show until Henry Hey re-arranged it so it couldn’t be sung along to (the Lazarus version sounds like the bleakest John Lewis Christmas advert ever). He was not a sentimental man. The subtlety of the references to him inside the play – a few scattered vinyl albums in a corner, a brief snippet of Sound and Vision – were clever, jarring in a good way, and deliciously cheeky. But a photo of him so we can applaud at the end? He’s dead, I get it, I know it, I don’t need to hear a big cheer in a theatre. That brings me to another reason I wanted to write this, to talk about changing fandom and iconography.

It’s been a weird year, in innumerable ways. Setting aside real world life and death and politics and the depressing right-wing rise of what was previously unspoken in polite company, the transformation of Bowie from a live, real human person into this deified dead guy, standing alongside Elvis and John and Amy, has been pretty hard to take. It won’t last, I predict; most people will lose interest in a year or two. His marketable quality won’t match that of Michael Jackson or (what a year) Prince (whose ashes are being displayed in a miniature urn in the shape of Paisley Park, inside the newly opened museum of the actual Paisley Park. Not even kidding). Nor will his rock legend infamy be as long lasting as the murder of Lennon or the bloated junkie self-destruction of Presley. But to make financial hay while the sun shines, the legacy bombardment has started and it’s only the tip of the iceberg of trying to open our wallets. His own estate has many decisions to make about what comes out and when, and at what pace, as they drip-feed us promises of new mixes and alternative takes and so forth. Without Coco in charge, I have little faith that his ruthless, always forward-looking spirit will be honoured. Or more accurately, that business decisions will be made that stop at this red light first: ‘would he have been ok with this coming out? Would he have been ok with me saying/writing this?’ In the pursuit of money, and in the cloudy heads of grieving family, I’m quite sure that plenty of stuff is going to happen that I don’t like. And that’s just from the people who actually knew him.

The next category – those who worked with him either briefly or on and off – have their own books to write. The final category – those who met him briefly and are gleeful about making a few bob out of it – is the one that I must try and go to my happy place when I hear about. I don’t think I’ve ever written this word in any writing before, but there are some people who are just behaving like plain old cunts (among others, I’m talking to you, Lesley-Ann Jones, you hack; I’m flattered you blocked me on Twitter out of your own guilt and glad to hear that your shitty book has tanked). Rather than being ashamed of themselves, their greed and narcissism, like a normal human would be, they delight in the attention their falsehoods bring them. But that’s it, isn’t it? He’s no longer someone who belongs to me, to you, he’s everyone’s, for a while at least. He’s a face on a t-shirt in Camden Market.

We’re all still trying to process what life is like without him. The transformation of our fandom, which is out of our control. Mostly, I just feel… grateful. Lucky. That I exist now, a miraculous pinprick on this spinning rock, and that I existed at the same time as him on a planet 4.5 billion years old. That he made music that I’ve sewn into myself, grafted onto my heart. That he told me about non-music things (like art and philosophy and literature) like an inspiring teacher. That he gave me non-music gifts, like people who I’d never have met if not for him, who I lived half a world away from and had a one in 7.4 billion chance of meeting. It was all one way, from him to me. I’ve nothing much to offer, there’s nothing much to take…

Let’s wrap up part one: the ‘before’. I can close my eyes and think of how I felt walking into the New York Theatre Workshop on December 9/10, 2015. Excitement, trepidation. Ready to fall in love with him for the thousandth time in 30 years. So high it made my brain whirl. Dear friends around me, joined together from all over the world to celebrate the second part (after The Next Day) of this most unexpected return, after nearly a decade of near-silence. Hugging and crying, drinks and hangovers, singing and laughing into the early hours, and the next day and the next. That was how New York felt, and will never feel again.

Tomorrow that context changes, which is fitting in itself as who else was he but someone constantly on the move? Never look back, walk tall, act fine. Much more than , Lazarus is the exile’s legacy. It’s an audacious wink from beyond the grave about resurrection. It’s about a man who left England when he was young but spent the rest of his life collecting art that reminded him of home. Spent his last overseas trip taking his child around old London addresses. Spent one of his last songs talking with sadness of never being able to visit England’s evergreens again. The sailor who spent his life travelling has executed his master plan, which will leave me forever in awe, and is finally home.


Before I start, on this fine morning, where I awake to the frankly unbelievable news of my team having beaten the biggest and best in world football, I would like to say that I loved Lazarus in NYC. Sure, it didn’t make a huge amount of sense, I thought Walsh’s book was a bit of a mess and I was just happy to have the songs carry it home. I didn’t really like Cristin Milioti as Elly and the Greek chorus of girls had a fairly undefined, shaky role. The supporting characters felt a bit underwritten too. It had the air of an idea being worked out; after all, the clue is in the title. The New York Theatre Workshop. My dear friend Jake, the most knowledgeable theatre nerd I have ever known, told me that it was going to be much bigger and better in London, and that the intention was always to bring it home and watch it soar. We agreed that the NYC production was, essentially, a dry run for the real thing. I still treasure every second of the NYTW production, for what it gave me at a particular time, and that holiday will be something to remember forever.

So, you can understand that I had felt a bit anxious about seeing it again, kind of fearful that it would have the same affect on me as . That it would have its second meaning – it’s all about his death – revealed to me as the album did. That I would find it hard to get through without crying. That it would be, frankly, a depressing experience in the world of ‘after’. Absolutely none of those things happened. I’m as surprised as I could possibly be. To say the producers and creatives have pulled this show together is to commit a great understatement. It has taken all the elements that Bowie and Walsh and Van Hove put into the NYTW production and tightened them beyond what I thought was possible. There are entirely new sections of dialogue. There are performances that soar in a way they never did before (primarily Amy Lennox as Elly, with singing and acting of top quality – Always Crashing, I never thought it could be like that, with some light in it). Everything is bigger. The stage set is several feet larger all around, and this suddenly allows everyone the space they need to tell this story properly. The dialogue is polished and sharper, the central performances given the breathing space to be even better than in NYC from Hall and Caruso. It’s not at all about death. It’s about love, it’s about defeating forces that try to stop love from working, it’s about mental illness (a very old subject for Bowie to get back into), it’s about letting go. All the bits that didn’t quite work in NYC have been coalesced here. It is a truly, properly fantastic play. A theatre experience that absolutely works as a piece of art, not just a collection of great songs on a piece of string with some ropey dialogue holding it all together. There are still some rather Broadway moments (mein herr!), like Changes and Life On Mars, but that’s fine, you must allow a touch of glamour!

The final scene, of course, is still a bit of a wrench. The dialogue about reading to his ‘daughter’ on the hill, the farewell, it’s hard not to see the real life behind that. I felt a bit choked up, a heartstring tugged, but you know… Heroes will do that. He gave it greater meaning in the 2000s himself, following 9/11, and on tour, and it’s intensely powerful here. Even the photo of Bowie at the end on the screen was fairly unobtrusive and not made a big deal out of (though it isn’t needed and I still think they’d do well to drop it).

I do not subscribe to the idea that The Next Day’s songs were destined for this; rather that he fitted them around bits of the story. So on the album Valentine’s Day is about a school shooting, but here it’s the big theme for the murderous, psychotic Valentine – played with so very much more menace and darkness, eliciting genuine dread, by Michael Esper than in NYC. The Next Day is a backward-looking album, his only one. It’s taking stock, it’s angry, it’s partially a statement on the 20th century’s wars and religion and their effect on culture (I’d Rather Be High, Grass Grow, The Next Day). It’s wistful for England (Dirty Boys), wistful for Germany (Where Are We Now?) and coruscating on those who deserve it (You Feel So Lonely…). It even finishes with a nod to where he’s going next, as he often did, with Heat. It’s about love and mortality and the future. It’s about a man with a young child and a heart condition coming to terms with his own fragility. It’s actually not but The Next Day that makes more sense now, because of Lazarus. is nothing to do with this play, beyond the song Lazarus, which he only put on there, quite clearly, to promote his final masterwork. The remaining three new songs come alive here in a more convincing way than his versions on the cast album (though, as ever, nobody delivers a song better; No Plan destroys me). Killing A Little Time is absolutely thrilling here, though the band version is a level up again. The sung counterpoints of When I Met You give the song a real electricity jolt. And the new band, led briefly by Henry Hey before he goes back to NYC next week, are also more convincing and well drilled.

All the creative decisions that were made for this London run worked. Jake bumped into the director, Ivo van Hove, on the way in (ok, in the loo) and told him we saw it in NYC. He replied, “I can’t believe how big it’s gotten!” You’re not kidding. Everything simply makes more sense now, like the characters’ motivations and how they’re played. It’s about 20 minutes shorter, cuts have been made that work, speeches have been created that illuminate and songs land that hadn’t quite nailed it before (like Where Are We Now?). The visual projections dazzle and have new supercuts flashing past that will let me spot new things each time I see it (caught a fast flash of Boys Keep Swinging after the final wig comes off). I do think it made a bit of a difference to be seated right in the centre of the front row, with Valentine hovering over my head, getting to see the intricacies of the facial expressions and interplay. Having said that, I can’t wait to see it again (hopefully soon) in another seat. Then in another. Even from the back row, which must feel like a mile away.

I thought it would make me sad, make me think about him not being here. But, unlike the album, I can now see that it wasn’t designed that way. They’ve made his lifelong dream of writing a brilliant musical come true. It does him proud, and I am so proud of him for making it possible.





I’ve not felt like writing this year at all, but I know from previous experience that when that feeling is ready to pass I will just get this… compulsion to put fingers to keys as there’s something I need to get out. I’m still processing the last six months, which have contained the most significant personal events since my mother’s passing nearly four years ago. I know what loss feels like. In the last few weeks I’ve talked to several friends who’ve asked for my version of events so, perhaps in some desire to not forget anything, I’m going to try and write down what’s happened.

As it’ll be long I’m making a decision to do something I’ve never done before, not a diary exactly, but to split the events into different months. A friend told me that the lead-up (the play, the album, the holiday) to Bowie’s passing is the most remarkable part of my version of the story, and I know what she means. She asked me if there was a word to describe how that feels – to be on the top of the world, with no idea something awful is coming – and I don’t think there is, but it’s certainly… cruel. Perhaps all this would have been easier if he’d shuffled off this mortal coil in 2007 or 2009 or 2011, when he was just doing his thing, at home, with seemingly no interest in making music at all. I now realise how lucky we were not to lose him in 2004. Gail Ann Dorsey relating what happened when he had the heart attack, which nobody present had spoken about before, chilled me to the bone. But he didn’t die in 2004, or during 2012, when he was making his return record, The Next Day. He came back and gave us three more years of music, which only seems to have made coping with losing him worse.

One day perhaps a book will be written about the making of Blackstar. But, briefly, what we know so far is that during his cancer treatment he went into the now-closed Magic Shop studio two blocks downtown from his Manhattan apartment and recorded in the first week of each month of January, February and March 2015, as much as chemo would allow (I know all about the effects of chemo, sadly, and one week’s work in a month sounds about right). His initial idea was to continue the collaboration he started with Maria Schneider the year before on Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) (single edit), but by then she had committed to her brilliant Grammy-winning record The Thompson Fields. As she couldn’t help out, and he didn’t have time to waste, she recommended one of her principal musicians, saxophonist Donny McCaslin. She pressed a CD of his excellent album Casting For Gravity into Bowie’s hand and advised him to visit the jazz club Bar 55, which he did without fanfare, to see Donny’s quartet play. He invited the band (on drums the remarkable Mark Guiliana, Ben Monder on guitar – they both appeared on Sue – Jason Lindner on keyboards and Tim Lefebvre – whose day job is with the Tedeschi Trucks Band – on bass) to play on Blackstar, sent them highly evolved demos and they made the album. That’s the short version of what happened. Tim Lefebvre has done some excellent interviews about the process, like this one, which are well worth seeking out. Bowie and Visconti produced the record and it was completed over the next few months. At the same time, incredibly, Bowie was also working, with playwright Enda Walsh and director Ivo Van Hove, on a sequel of sorts to his first starring role, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He would record/produce Blackstar during the day then head to Enda’s flat to co-write this new play, Lazarus, at night. It was a race against time in every sense. That’s the background. Here’s where I come in.


Lazarus was due to premiere in New York in December. I can’t remember whose idea it was to go, but it was based on getting tickets to the opening night, which our wonderful community of Bowie freaks had decided on as the night we all should go. When they went on sale Leah and I were at the mercy of friends who’d joined the New York Theatre Workshop and we crossed our fingers for a pair. Charlie Brookes was our saviour and tickets were procured (on the night, BowieNetters dominated the theatre, with probably 60+ of the 198 seats taken up by friends), at which point the search began for accommodation and flights. Division of labour is the best way to plan a holiday, so Leah did the flights while I trawled Airbnb for suitable apartments. The first couple of days were fun, looking into people’s houses and lives, but the novelty wore off quickly. After a long week of searching I found a pretty perfect, sparse, one might say minimalist, 3rd floor walk-up apartment on East 14th Street and Avenue B. It was near NYU, where Leah would work during the day (it’s how she got a week off work mid-term, by being a visiting scholar). Everything was booked.


Nothing momentous, comparatively, happened this month. I worked on an inflight magazine. I went to see the Rocky Horror Show a few times. We went to see Morrissey, which was, as ever, fantastic. My 16th time seeing him – that’s one more than Bowie. Though if we’re going to be technical and nerdy about it, which I always am, I’ve seen Moz 17 times because there was that gig at the Roundhouse where he sang three songs and walked off (lost voice), but I also saw Bowie in person twice more for TV shows, so really that’s 17 as well. I digress.


Bowie announces to my excitement that his new album Blackstar will be released on his 69th birthday on January 8th 2016. The Blackstar single and video were to be released on November 19th and it felt like all was good with the world. A New York trip to look forward to and a new album were more than I could ever have hoped for. I think now of how we all waited nearly a decade between Reality and The Next Day and it seems like another lifetime.


The week before the song premiered, my friend Mark and I drove to Cambridge University on the 11th to see Leah do a talk about Bowie and what was coming. At that time we had only a 30-second clip of Blackstar from the opening titles of the Sky series The Last Panthers (directed by Johan Renck, who also did both Blackstar videos). It was a fun evening, filled with excitement about the new record and a seriously brilliant presentation on his music (yeah, not on his hair or his clothes; on his creative practice and life as a composer, plus awesome data analysis).

On the 17th dad, Leah, her partner Ben and I went to see the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, near Sloane Square. We sat front row and it was just fantastic, what a great night. McCaslin, who dad says reminds him of the late, great Michael Brecker, was the lead soloist, blasting away five feet in front of me, and I had not a clue in the world he was on Blackstar. I heard the song for the first time two days later.

I feel so grateful now that I have a relationship with Blackstar, the song, which predates the events of January. The video (shot in September) is a masterpiece and I obsessed over it for days, then weeks. The song I think is absolutely one of the best he has ever done, and it’s starting to rival Teenage Wildlife for my Bowie Desert Island Disc. I did think he looked old in the video but then, he was pushing 70 and the flattering camera filters and copious make-up used for the videos from The Next Day were clearly no longer being employed. It was clear to me that he had finally released all vanity and was just being seen; he looked so engaged, enthused and vibrant in the video, and it gave us all so much pleasure. Some fans had said they hated jazz then had no choice but to grudgingly accept it when Sue came out because it was such a brilliant record. The same people were now faced with yet more non-pop music that challenged them, which as a jazz nerd I took a perverse pleasure in. Bowie does jazz? Then hires five jazz musicians to play on his last record? It’s like all my Chanukahs came at once.


For the first time since Bowie last toured, a big contingent of British (and some European) BowieNetters made their way to New York, to be united with our American BowieNet family. Leah and I arrived on Saturday the 5th, in the evening, and decided to do a bit of grocery shopping and spend our first night in the apartment. My recollection is that we watched The Wiz Live! on TV and fell about laughing at how terrible it was. We met up with the legendary Dick Mac on Sunday and went to the famed White Horse Tavern, once the haunt of Dylan Thomas, Kerouac and other luminaries, and then for dinner. It was at that point that I met Paul, Leah’s friend from Brisbane who’d come over for the show. What a fantastic guy, I adored him from the first minute. We headed over to Otto’s Shrunken Head, a dive bar three doors away from the apartment (we’re no fools!), to meet up with Bowie friends. My remembrance of the evening is somewhat coloured by pints of cocktails followed by a 4am stagger into bed.

The Monday contained perhaps the worst hangover I have ever had. Mountains of sushi did nothing to calm it, so as Leah went to work I hooked up with my wonderful friend Jake, my daytime companion, and off we went on a pilgrimage I’d always wanted to make, one that my mum talked about often, which was to see the grave of Miles Davis, up at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I felt so ill, I can’t even tell you. But we made it, with Jake’s excellent navigation, and I paid my respects, which mum would have been proud of, before we headed to Harlem to visit Langston Hughes’s house then eat at Sylvia’s, the legendary soul food place. I put my head on the table and struggled through a bit of food (mac and cheese, and little else; not much available for the vegetarian). We went to the legendary Apollo, where I bought dad some gifts (and impressed the guy behind the counter by identifying Miles in a photo collage in two seconds) and then walked down to Central Park, laughing hysterically all the way. We were a bit worried about Lazarus not being any good and had a few parodies ready at its expense (mein herr!). Jake was flagging and bailed out of evening activities, which were dinner at Sigiri, a Sri Lankan restaurant (too spicy, I was still ill), followed by some live band karaoke at Arlene’s Grocery.

This was the day of the play’s press night – Monday the 7th – and many of our friends had gone to the theatre to wait outside to see if Bowie would turn up. It never occurred to me to do the same, it’s not my kind of thing. I saw him live plenty of times, I didn’t need to watch him walk into a theatre for five seconds, but I’d be lying now if I said I wasn’t at least slightly regretful that I didn’t get to see him in person one last time. At dinner, Leah showed me the pictures that had been posted on our Facebook group; indeed, he had turned up of course, looking happy and handsome, taking his bow on stage at the end with Ivo and the cast. Friends came to join us at dinner, straight from the theatre, looking high and glazed, having laid eyes on him for the first time since 2004 (a few others had seen his final live appearance in 2006).

That night at Arlene’s Grocery (Leah performed Superfreak and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life) was one of the most fun nights I can remember. Everyone was so incredibly happy. To be in New York, ready to see his play, most having seen him in the flesh earlier in the evening, it was a beautiful, special night. People got up and sang and the organisers were amazed that so many of us in the bar had flown over just for the play. I think we watched Tootsie when we got home (might have been the night after).

The next day, Tuesday, after a bit of gift buying, Jake and I spent the afternoon in the Mad Hatter, a Man City pub, believe it or not, watching City play. We won in the last few minutes, which felt fitting for such a trip. Then we all went to a friend’s party at her apartment, which was so much fun, one of those proper New York evenings where you feel like you’re in a movie. I wasn’t sleeping well of course, in a strange bed, using earplugs to block out the famed NYC hum, but I didn’t care. Subsisting on four hours a night on holiday is par for the course, even if it does later in the week lead to sleep-deprived, jetlag-induced hysteria. I don’t think have ever laughed as much as I did on this holiday.

Wednesday was Lazarus day and my friend Kate was flying in just for the show. I had not seen her in several years and we’d arranged to spend the day together. After another play of Blackstar on You Tube, Leah went to work and I went to Katz’s Deli on East Houston for breakfast as I waited for Kate’s plane to land from Ohio. She’s a hairdresser and we had organised to meet at the Aveda salon on Prince Street. In between Katz’s (a 10-minute walk downtown from our apartment) and Aveda is a building on Lafayette Street we now no longer need to pretend we don’t know about. There is a collection of penthouses and Bowie’s family live in two of them. I’ve walked past it and looked up many times over the years, even though I didn’t know which penthouse was his and nor did I care. It was kind of lovely to just know he was up there, tootling around in his man cave, making demos in his studio, reading and emailing incessantly, doing school stuff with his daughter, just doing New York things. A friend of mine, Lori, who works downtown, said that she would always wave up to him if she happened to walk past the building because she knew “he was up early too”. She didn’t wave because he could see her, nor did she walk past because she ever wanted to bump into him on the street (can you imagine! I’d have run a mile if I’d ever seen him slinking around, with his flat cap on). She did it just because he was there, and it was good to know he was just living life in his city, like we all live our lives in our cities and towns. I walked right across the front of the building to get to the salon and I looked up and smiled, wondering if he was happy with Lazarus and how the press had received it. Kate’s plane was delayed so I took a walk around the neighbourhood and popped into the Taschen store on Greene Street, which happened to have Mick Rock’s huge Bowie book on display. When Kate arrived we leapt into each other’s arms like we’d been apart a hundred years. After a quick drool over the Bowie book back at Taschen we got a ludicrously slow taxi uptown to meet a friend of hers for lunch, then came back down to meet up for a long coffee date with a big cheese at Aveda. He was English and seriously good company, the kind of guy who remembers very little of the 90s in London. It was time for Lazarus.

The play was a feast for the eyes and ears. He had done it, and I knew he knew he had done it on Monday. When I saw the photos of him walking into the theatre, smiling, he looked so content and I knew it was going to be great. Sure, Lazarus is odd and cryptic and abstract and trippy, but it coheres well and the brilliant cast constructs the songs, both new and old, masterfully. It was an experience to see, so dense and complex and very emotional. I didn’t understand some of it, but I now realise that, like Blackstar, it was designed to be understood after the final piece of the puzzle was revealed on January 10th. A post-show party took place at a nearby gay bar, a long, booze-soaked night of off-key singing, reunions and endless Bowie on the jukebox.

Early the next morning we decided we had to see it again on our last night in the city, so I resolved to go down to the theatre while Leah was at work and get more tickets, which I did. It made a more complete picture, as much as it could, the second time. Our last night in New York was spent in the apartment with a couple of beers just watching TV, out of sheer exhaustion. On the final day we went, with Paul, to Katz’s for brunch, then did a lovely walk around the Highline, before heading off to the airport, where we had a few glasses of celebratory Prosecco at Sammy Hagar’s Beach Bar and Grill (really) before a night flight home, landing on the morning of the 12th. It was a landmark trip.

We got back to real life and work, and the Lazarus single was released on the 17th (with the video to come 3 weeks later). Hearing Bowie sing it was kind of strange, given that we’d seen Michael C. Hall do it live on stage (and on Colbert’s Late Show on the 18th). It felt like Bowie’s ‘version’ of the song from the play almost! New year came and went. At some point I’d committed to going to a playback of Blackstar at the Dolby offices in Soho, with a group of BowieNetters of course, so I had a ton of stuff to look forward to in the first week of…


On Thursday the 7th the Lazarus video (shot in December) premiered. I thought the hospital bed stuff was kind of dark and a bit physically unflattering but that the sections with the stripy outfit (the master of the call-back strikes again, for the last time) were amazing and he looked fantastic. Leah and I talked about how great he looked, those cheekbones! I can’t stress enough how nobody thought he was unwell. All press coverage of his appearance at the Lazarus premiere focused on how great he looked. Yes, he looked thin, but he often did; no alarm bell was raised.

The playback that night was fun, if a little too loud, and I saw some of the same people I’d been with in New York. On Friday, his birthday, I listened to Blackstar on repeat all day. It was a lot to take in, but Dollar Days was already even then able to make me weep. I listened to it several times over the weekend. Some of the tracks I already knew – the title track was already well embedded with seven weeks of plays under its belt; Lazarus had been making me crazy in a good way for three weeks (that sax solo breakdown, my god!); the new heavy version of Sue I loved as much as the majestic jazz version from 2014; Tis A Pity She Was A Whore I knew the demo of, as Sue’s B-side; the other three songs were new to me and I devoured every note. What a weekend that was. A new Bowie album to obsess over! I was so happy. A happy idiot, like Wile E. Coyote standing at the bottom of the ravine, with not a care in the world, and not a clue that there was a huge boulder plummeting toward my head.


The beginning of Monday morning – January 11th – was a bit of a blur. I thought I heard my phone make the noise of a text alert and I roused myself from my pillow. I picked it up and saw that it was around 7.40am, and I had not one, but three, texts. I unlocked the phone and saw that I had three messages from three people who know me but not each other. I stared at the unopened messages and saw that all three had the word ‘sorry’ in the first few words. My brain works fast in the morning and, this is where you think I might be pretending that this is true, or even lying about it, but I am not: I knew he was gone. I knew in a split second that I was receiving these messages because my icon was gone. When they found out their first thought was of me. And in their shock and upset they were compelled to reach out to say something. There is no person other than David Bowie that would produce such an effect in every person I know. I didn’t even open their texts until later in the day. My head started to spin and I could feel my face going red, with panic setting in. I bounced out of bed and, shaking, opened the lid of my computer and went straight to BBC News, as that’s where you go when you want to know if something is true. His face filled the front page; I think the photo they used at first was from the Brits, 1996. I can’t really describe how I felt; I don’t think the words exist. I ran downstairs to my flatmate, in the kitchen, and burst into tears. He didn’t know how to react. I ran back upstairs and just sort of paced around for a minute, with no idea what to do. I feel sick and dizzy and flushed just thinking about it.

My phone started buzzing with more texts, emails started coming in, Facebook messages. I knew I had to call dad even though it was early, around 8.20am by now. I was in a terrible state. He later told me that when I called and said, through sobs, ‘he’s gone, he’s gone’ he thought I meant Dylan at first. He tried to handle me but it was impossible; he was pretty distraught himself and I had a flashed thought that I was glad my mum and my friend Rex were not here to see this. I called Leah and she just seemed to be in shock – Ben woke her only a few minutes before I called and told her and she said, ‘don’t be daft, he can’t be’ – and we had the phone call I’d been dreading for as long as I can remember.

Even then, at such an early stage, we marvelled at how he had pulled off the perfect rock and roll exit, a more flawless piece of death art you would never see. The man had class, right to the end. He had set it all up – from the play to the album – and executed his plan to perfection. We even laughed, and it felt good to laugh, to do that rare thing where you cry and laugh at the same time. I had been invited onto the BBC’s One Show that evening to represent my team in the FA Cup draw and I said, ‘how can I go? How can I be normal and smile on TV and pretend I’m ok?’ She said I should go. I took a pause, and said, ‘I have to do it don’t I? The show must go on!’ And we both laughed again. She had to go to work but we’d talk later, throughout the day. I remember when Lou Reed died (on my birthday), a couple of years before, we had this ashen-faced conversation on the Tube about what we’d do when Bowie goes. It gave me a shudder, like someone walking across a grave, just talking about it. Whichever one of us hears first, about Bowie, should call the other one, was the agreement. I sat on the floor and felt hot tears rolling down my face, unable to catch my breath, rasping and coughing, reaching for tissues.

I called my aunt and cousin and they were shocked and sympathetic. They didn’t call me because they didn’t know if I knew and they didn’t want to be the ones to tell me. They waited for me to call, and both were relieved when I did. After talking to them, I picked myself up off the floor, sat in my chair and tried to take in the outpouring of grief and chaos that was happening on social media. Nobody in my timeline, which is largely journalists and musicians, was talking about anything else. Streams of tweets were being posted every second, he was everywhere, his face, his videos, his performances. It was absolutely fucking crazy and unreal, what I was witnessing, this collective outpouring of pain. I sat in silence. I switched the TV on and muted it. I couldn’t bear to hear his voice. I read some posts in our BowieNet group but I couldn’t bear to write a word. I exchanged brief messages with a few close friends. Some of the Americans weren’t even up yet; it was the middle of the night still for them. The job of telling my friend Dick Mac, in New York, fell to me because he had posted in disbelief and wanted someone to confirm. I had to crush his heart and tell him that the man he had loved for over 40 years was gone. Every Bowie friend was having the exact same experience as me; all of their friends contacted them and offered condolences like they had lost a parent, because they were the first person they thought of when they heard. How could this be? It was all about ‘just’. We were just in New York, a month ago. We just saw him, just went to his play, we just partied and celebrated the album. It can’t be, all this. It can’t be happening. He was just there a minute ago, smiling at the premiere. I just saw the video for Lazarus. I just heard the album. 33 days after his final public appearance he was dead. This was one of the worst days of my life.

I decided that I was going to go to the BBC that night. I had to do something instead of just sitting in my room. My eyes were hurting. I felt like I was losing it, in a dream state of some kind, so I had to try and do something normal. The BBC News channel had been running the same package for about three hours, while they put together a real tribute. They changed it at about 11am. By then the talking heads were on, and none of them were doing justice to what I felt. I wasn’t interested in listening to pundits who met him a couple of times. The next thing I remember was deciding that I could no longer sit in silence and that I had to face listening to his voice at some point, so at about 3pm I put the sound on; I howled, it was like pulling off a bandage, getting a jolt of searing, shocking pain. I Skyped Dick Mac in New York and we cried together. I talked to Kate in Ohio and did the same. I wrote something on Facebook because I had to get down how I felt, much like this. Then I pulled myself together and went into town – I walked to Heddon Street and talked to some strangers, then looked at the flowers, got down on one knee and wept. Some guy with a camera interviewed me but I don’t remember what I said. I got the bus to the BBC building near Oxford Circus, meeting my friend Andrew, who works there, to hand over a Blackstar badge I’d promised him and we just tried to talk to each other like we weren’t living through a nightmare, making each other laugh with weak jokes while he gave me a little tour. Being at the building was pretty surreal, with its huge screens everywhere, all playing a loop of their tributes. His face covered every wall. I pretended to be a human person and did the One Show, wearing a Bowie shirt under my football one. I tried to talk a little to my fellow football fans and they did the ‘yes, ooh, it’s terrible, I can’t believe it, wasn’t Heroes a great song’ sort of blurb and I nodded and thought, ‘you have no idea how I feel today but that’s ok. I envy you.’ When the filming started I positioned myself where I knew the camera would have me on TV the entire way through the broadcast and cup draw. When the green light went on and the hosts started their monologues I put my hand on my heart and thumbed the Blackstar badge on my jacket lapel for the camera. I didn’t know if anyone could see me and I didn’t care. But I knew what I was doing. When I got home there was a message waiting about Leah, Jake and I meeting in Brixton to go to the mural and lay some flowers the day after and I said I’d be there. I passed out from sheer exhaustion at about midnight. One day had felt like a month.

I took short breaks from crying on the Tuesday and got back to work. I’d done some pieces of work on Monday and continued to do so; the distraction was valuable. People kept asking me if I was ok and I kept replying ‘it feels exactly like I thought it would’. So many said that they were shocked at the outpouring of grief. I wasn’t. It all played out exactly how I knew it would – nothing surprised me about how people were reacting. I knew when he went it would be a big fucking deal, and it was. I’d feared the day my whole life. At least it can’t happen twice. My heart can only break like this once.

My emails from Monday were filled with dazed, shaken people trying to process it all and give and receive comfort somehow. Lori told me she was still in total shock, but feeling ok until another text/voicemail came in from friends and family offering condolences again. She asked me how I was doing. I replied:

“I’m just… numb. My face hurts from crying. We are all experiencing the same weird thing: that all of our friends, near and far, close and acquaintance, are contacting us today to ask if we’re ok. We’re not. 

London is in mourning. I went to Heddon St and read the tributes, the flowers on the spot where Ziggy was photographed. I think Jake and Leah and I will go to the mural in Brixton tomorrow. TV is wall to wall. His beautiful face everywhere. I can hardly take it…”

On Tuesday we went to Brixton in the evening and joined a huge crowd paying their respects. People crying and singing, putting down photos and flowers and signs and holding each other. It felt good to do the same, though I do remember saying ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this’, as I looked at the flowers and photos. The next day I went into work at a client’s office and took breaks to have a little cry as I was working alone in a conference room. I did some writing the day after, a letter to Uncut about him, which was their lead letter in the next issue (it was good, heartfelt; I knew they’d print it). Friends had already started getting Blackstar tattoos by this point and I decided I was going to do the same. As soon as I saw the album cover in November I knew it was a brilliant tattoo idea and I resolved to get it done one day; I just didn’t realise I’d be compelled to do it so soon. It helped to obsess about it over the next weeks. After a few days I tried to listen to Blackstar, because I knew he had designed it for us, to help us mourn him. That was its purpose, it was like a puzzle with a missing piece before then and now it made sense. That Saturday we had a wake of sorts at a bar in Kings Cross. Songs were played and rivers of tears were shed. A few weeks later I got the tattoo, the five partial (well, four partial, one complete) star pieces, with a little Aladdin Sane flourish – blue and red halves, separated by a lightning bolt – in the second star. Frankly, it’s the least I can do for this man who changed my whole life. Who gave me so many people and so much music. This man who I will need and love forever; this man who is part of my DNA.


It was only in March that it really started to sink in, I think. Only in April when I started to realise the scale of what we’ve lost. The things you knew would never happen again – like gigs – now simply can’t happen again. The new music you’re always so excited about hearing is over. The person who’s every word you hung on has stopped talking. You’ll never see a new photo of him again or hear what he thinks about anything. More importantly, his daughter, who is 16 in August, will grow up without him. Too young to lose a parent. His son will become a father for the first time in June; Bowie knew about his first grandchild, who he’ll never get to meet. I think of Coco a lot, because that’s the real love story here, isn’t it? The woman who gave him her life as they grew old together. They’ve lost David Jones, who is not who we’ve lost.

The tributes have kept coming and, in all honesty, very few of them have provided any comfort (though perhaps their purpose is to give that to the writer, not the reader). I didn’t want to hear what anyone said unless they actually knew David Jones, not Bowie, which is why Gary Oldman was great at the Brits. There was also a brilliant roundtable interview with Gail and Mark Plati. I’m still processing it all. You have no idea how much you can miss a person until you have no choice. I don’t love his music more than before, I loved it to the maximum while he was here. I’m grateful for the sheer volume of stuff left behind but it’s never going to feel like enough, and I don’t care about the vault right now. Knowing there are treasure troves of unreleased stuff is not going to make this better. I go through periods of listening to Blackstar for a couple of days and then not for a couple of weeks; I have to be in the right mood because it still has the capacity to make me cry (especially those last two songs, they’re too much), and maybe it always will. It’s strange to hear people talk about him in the past tense, and to think that younger fans will never know him as someone who was alive; to them he’ll be like Elvis or Kurt or Jimi – a dead rock star. They’ll never see what I saw, or live through him being present and releasing music. He’ll not accompany them on their life’s journey, like he did with me for over 30 years. My constant companion, who was always there by my side.

I learned that grief is a state of being when I lost my mum. I was truly knocked sideways by how much I missed her, how much I continue to miss her. I have endless capacity to pine for her, to wish I could tell her about a cool thing that happened to me or email her a link that made me laugh, or talk to her on the phone about these new Dylan-does-Sinatra-standards albums, which she would have loved so much. You don’t ever get over losing a parent, or in this case a cultural parent, if you like, which you could say Bowie was. You just figure out how to fold the loss into your life. In his case, I didn’t know him so it feels different; I didn’t give him anything, or ever talk to him, I just took what he gave me, the messages that he sent. I’m still getting used to him not being here, as we come up to our annual BowieNet party in July. He sent us little notes three years in a row, which was lovely, and which he absolutely didn’t have to do. I think it kind of tickled him that we’d get together and get drunk and party and listen to his songs (and raise money for charity) at an annual knees-up. Those messages made it feel like he wasn’t an ocean away. Now he feels an endless distance away. The transition period is bumpy but it won’t always be like this. Soon he’ll be a memory; his story has ended. The only thing keeping him alive is us. I watch videos now, gigs on DVD and bootlegs, and he looks so… alive. It’s strange to see that guy performing and get that hollow feeling, that knowledge of him not being on the earth anymore. No longer sitting in New York watching the same stupid You Tube clips we do and laughing, getting to hear new music every day, getting excited about what’s coming next. Just… life.

We should all aim to leave an imprint. So when we’re gone we won’t be forgotten. For most of us that’s just to our friends and family, they’re the only ones who’ll remember us. By talking about us when we’re gone they won’t forget us. It’s a somewhat bigger achievement to be loved and remembered by millions, way beyond your own close circle, but he was a unique, special man. He’ll be loved and remembered for as long as people play music.



U2 (A Journey To The End Of Taste):: The O2, London, November 2 and 3, 2015


Why do I love music? Is it in my nature, derived genetically from my parents, and going back before that, to my paternal grandfather, who was in a singing group in his teens? Or is it nurture: was I made this way by constant exposure to music from the day I was born? Why do I love Bowie and not Céline Dion? I’ve made judgements about music all my life, and I wonder if I’m getting more argumentative as I get older. My views have become more concrete in terms of my own moral (political, social, feminist, equality-based) certainties, but I do think my likes and dislikes have evolved towards greater open-mindedness, and I certainly know myself in a way I didn’t in my 20s. I suppose we’re all the same. We have passions that we want to share with others and we want others to feel the same love we do, whether about our politics or the art that matters. What I hope to work towards, when it comes to differences of taste, is the ability to restrain myself from feeling negatively about someone who loves/hates something that I hate/love. It’s something I am trying, struggling, to do, to improve myself: to stop being so knee-jerk about oppositional views, which in the current internet age feels nearly impossible some days.

Our parents make us in their image, and we mirror their tastes because they are our first and primary influencers. But at some point, you break away from getting all your opinions from them. Yes, there’s a primal pull for me in judging someone’s music taste, as my mother did. She would question everyone about what they liked and, if their answers didn’t meet her high standards, she would, sometimes in a charming way, sometimes not, rebut them and scoff at what they loved. Once she questioned someone about their favourite band, and when the answer came back as Take That she bit her tongue and asked who this person’s favourite member was? The reply, under pressure and beneath mum’s stern, demanding eye, was that she couldn’t remember their names. This was the final straw; mum was incredulous at such a lack of attention to detail. It wasn’t about liking Take That anymore. It was about the fact that, if you’re going to have a favourite band – even if it’s a shitty one that I hate, she thought – the very least you can do is know their names.

My reactions to the music other people love have often resembled my mother’s: super, ultra, crazily judgemental. Dad is similar, but less wild-eyed about it. Though I did speak to him about this review and he confessed he is still baffled and annoyed by his best friend’s extreme dislike of two artists – Beatles, Hendrix – who most rock fans, which he is, adore without question. I’d like to evolve somehow past all that judgement. Who am I to be passing comment on what I perceive to be a lowbrow taste, a devotion to music I deem of poor quality (writing, performance, production) or sentimental in the worst way? What I should be doing is trying to strip myself of being so argumentative and just be grateful that other people have… loves and hates and passions just like mine (thank you Moz, you have a lyric, if not a novel, for every occasion). I value music and admit I feel sorry for those who think it’s alright, own a few albums, quite like it but could live without it. I barely understand how there are people on earth for whom music is not only unimportant but absent in their lives. I know: how pretentious and condescending is that? If everyone likes what I like as much as I like it, then everyone is the same. And that sounds pretty dull. This all leads me to a book I was recently bought: Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste. I actually think this beautiful, insightful, intelligent, even moving book could make me a better person. Perhaps I am this way because I’m a frustrated music critic at heart, because I don’t create. I’m cool with that – it’s a living (pretty much). But my intense need to correct doesn’t just extend to books or magazines or menus, it goes to people as well. I can’t resist telling people what I think of what they think. I’m not immune from being the subject – tying into Wilson’s concepts of the social hierarchies of how we relate to others – as only the other day I was getting into it on Facebook. The subject? U2. Having posted that I was excited about seeing them live, friends immediately rushed to tell me how much of a gigantic twat Bono is (no mention of their music from the Bono-haters). Others told me they loved U2, who put on a great show, etc. (no mention of Bono from the music-lovers). I couldn’t help notice that the haters were those with otherwise ‘cool’ music taste (indie/alternative types), and the ones who loved U2 also loved the Stones or Bon Jovi or other mainstream rock music. I admit that U2 are somewhat of an anomaly in my own music collection. If you were to glance at my iTunes Library you would find tons of classic pop/rock, certainly. But you’re more likely to close your eyes and stick a pin in Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman or Wayne Shorter or Sufjan or Terry Riley or Joanna Newsom or Laura Nyro or Björk, and so on. What this means is that, certainly as I’ve gotten older, my ears seem to like, and my brain seems to seek out, music that’s sonically diverse and/or unusual. In my teens I was all about three chords and the truth. It was all big rock by white, straight guys: from the Beatles to Guns ‘N Roses to Aerosmith to Led Zep to the Doors (all of whom I still like). In my 20s I expanded that palette a little to the Flaming Lips and Radiohead et al. In my 30s all hell broke loose in my music collection, with old off-kilter discoveries coming by the day (Tom Waits, Kate Bush, Eno, innumerable jazz albums), genre gaps being filled by the truckload (country, Americana, folk, psychedelia, prog, free jazz, krautrock, classical, electronic, ambient, everything!) and suddenly, unexpectedly, a passion for hip-hop (Kendrick, Kanye and getting in with the godfathers like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, then Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, in short catching up with forty years of rap culture). There are not enough hours in the day to listen to everything I want to listen to.

The Wilson book, which he talks about here in an excellent Pitchfork interview, has been recently reissued and extended with accompanying essays from the book’s admirers, including Krist Novoselic, Nick Hornby, Ann Powers, Owen Pallett and James Franco (my copy is the original). It has become perhaps the most acclaimed title in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 imprint, which puts out small-form books, each about one album. I was gripped from page one. It’s about judgement, taste, sentimentality (which he defines as the opposite of cool), love, hate, cultural and social capital, music history, prejudice and more. For a case study, Wilson chose an artist he hated: Céline Dion. His concluding point, in general, is that writing the book made him become more open to opposites, which goes against the way the internet is designed to dominate cultural life. The online experience is based around ‘we know you like this, here’s more just like that’, whether it’s Amazon recommendations or libraries or iTunes Genius. These systems are set up to sell you more of the same, which is the opposite of what I want now. I already have hundreds of classic albums. What I want, as I get older, is stuff I’ve never considered before.

Wilson could just have easily chosen U2 over the Québécoise chanteuse. Except his objections would have been based on music versus not-music. What that means is, despite 220 million albums sold, people despise Dion’s music and, despite 170 million albums sold, people despise Bono. They object to her music and his personality. Nobody cares much what kind of person Dion is: they just hate her cheesy, saccharine, shrill and ubiquitous songs, despite only hearing My Heart Will Go On. Nobody cares much what U2 sound like (in fact, most pop/rock fans would admit their music is actually, technically good, with its gargantuan hooks): they just hate Bono’s political pontificating and lecturing. So it came to this: in a confluence of events so deliciously perfect as to defy parody, I was sitting on a little step at a U2 concert reading the Céline book last night.

When I see multiple gigs, I’ve not planned to do it, exactly. Ok, I do with Morrissey, and I did with Bowie, but it’s pretty much spur of the moment. I am granted an experience and it’s so good that I want to repeat it. It’s that simple. It’s how I ended up seeing nine out of Prince’s 21 appearances at the O2. I had ignored/been unable to attend the first four out of U2’s six London shows on this tour; for the best, because I knew that if I had gone to see the first I’d have moved heaven and earth to get to the others. I had a ticket for the penultimate gig (my fifth U2 show overall, having seen them three times in 2005, then once in 2009). It was general admission, floor standing, costing £64 (£55+ fees); a cheap ticket by the standards of big arena shows. My Fleetwood Mac ticket, seated, was nearly three times that. U2, essentially, have fans who want to sit subsidise fans who want to stand. I found a good spot half way down the arena, which allowed me to get ok views of both stages (at opposing ends of the arena), and had just one person in front of me at the barrier, which wrapped around a catwalk that ran nearly the length of the venue. Above my head was a double-sided LED screen, but not just a screen, a 96-foot long video cage of tech and lighting and, though I didn’t know it at first, a walkway inside from which the band, one by one, in twos, then all four, would climb into and play. I’ve never seen anything like it because nothing like it has ever been made before. I was insanely close, I mean, literally a metre away during those moments. The sound was the best I’d heard at any big concert; usually there’s a ton of PA systems at one end, meaning the sound’s not great throughout the arena. In particular, if you’re high up or at the back, it’s delayed and tinny. But for this show, tons of smaller speakers were placed across the venue ceiling, making the sound constant and crisp no matter where you stood. Pretty remarkable and no doubt crazy expensive to do.

I’m realising this isn’t largely a review of the show, is it? It’s more like a series of musings on why we love what we love. Why does my adoration of uncool U2 persist? It’s not stubbornness; I genuinely think they are one of the great bands. Why do I bat away anyone who can’t wait to tell me how tedious they find the singer? Why do I love him despite this? For a kid from Dublin, who left school with no qualifications, who has for decades worked tirelessly for social justice, learning by doing nothing more than reading mountains of books and talking to people, who can get his calls taken by presidents and prime ministers… he is so hated, because rich pop stars shouldn’t minister to their flocks about the impoverished. He rubs people up the wrong way, despite being pretty much exactly like Springsteen, who never gets shit for doing the same thing – using his stage like a pulpit, preaching about the power of doing good and of rock and roll – and it baffles me. He’s the most hated rock star on earth. I’m trying to get to a place where I let go of my need to defend him, rather than explain why I disagree and drive myself mad trying to change minds. His music makes me happy and I like him, so I know I should stop trying to convince anyone to think like I do. A lesser version happens with Dylan as well, incidentally. How can I like such an awful singer? How can I stand such sins committed on his words, rendered unintelligible? It happens with Morrissey all the time. People can’t stand him, and can’t wait to tell me about it, though to be fair sometimes he doesn’t help himself. Perhaps getting older is accepting that you love what you love and you can’t be persuaded out of it, but the flipside is that you need to let go of the notion that you must convince everyone else why you feel that way. That kind of self-acceptance is a work-in-progress. U2’s forced album download crime, to be fair, didn’t help. You almost have to admire that level of hubris. It’s a great record, after the very flat previous one, so they didn’t need to give it away, but there you go. They took shit and then got on with it. Frankly, if you are dumb enough to trust Apple/iTunes and have switched on automatic downloading you probably deserve to get a U2 album for nothing. Welcome to the era of killed privacy, monitored liberty and big data. U2 are the least of your problems online.

After my first show, in a move that will surprise nobody who knows me, I had to go again and I had one afternoon to get a ticket. I had seen the band up close but now I wanted to see the show. A gentleman on Zootopia, U2’s message board, had a spare but wanted £100 for it, as it was in the ‘Red Zone’ (a special section at the front but on the side of the arena, a sort of VIP fans bit) and he didn’t want to make a loss. I stuck to my guns and said I hoped he could sell it for that, but that if he couldn’t find a buyer I would happily take it – though only for the £65 I had spent on my first show. I was very polite about it, of course. An hour or two passed and he came back and said ok, 65 it was. We exchanged details and met at the venue; lovely man, it turned out he was a consultant who had worked on the Olympics, now working in transport, who lived half in Norfolk and half in London and had been to see U2 on every tour since 1981. Turned out he was a couple of degrees removed from them because he knows their show director Willie Williams, who is perhaps my favourite member of U2! His tour diaries have given me endless pleasure over the years since I love to learn how everything works. I’m obsessed with the backstage, the production, the creation, the design of music and sound and performance. For example, this is my dream insight: production design pornography. As ever, Williams has planned this show down to the tiniest detail (with plenty of help from a wide range of architects and designers, like the extraordinary Es Devlin). He did the lighting design for Bowie’s Sound + Vision Tour, giving that a nod in a sequence where Edge ‘stands’ on Bono’s hand inside the screen.

Last time out for the mammoth 2009-11 360° Tour the three huge metal (not glass) spiders would live in three cities at a time. One was being put up, another being taken down and the last was being played under, simultaneously. This time it’s more of a residency venture, with between two and five shows (six in London and eight at Madison Square Garden) being played in each arena, which lets everyone settle in for around a week at a time into each city. In contrast to the largesse of 360, the main stage has few lights, and the first four songs take place under a single oversized light bulb. It must be exhausting putting on these shows but probably less so this time than previous tours: 76 arena gigs on this Innocence + Experience Tour compared to 110 on the last one (all stadiums: the highest grossing and attended tour of all time), 131 on the set before that (2005’s Vertigo, also stadia) and 113 going back to Elevation (arenas) in 2001. Today I feel both elated and knackered, which makes me realise how fit the band must be (at 15/16 years older than me) to do this every night. Let’s also take into account how, frankly, cursed the tour has been, having to be delayed for months because Bono smashed himself up in a bicycle accident, breaking his arm, finger, eye socket and shoulder. The day before the first show Larry’s father died; he flew to Dublin and back in time for the gig. Incidentally, Larry is still ageless and hot as hell (any excuse to post this) and, while I’m at it, Adam has unexpectedly become a silver fox. Edge then fell off the stage at the first show, and thinking about Grohl’s leg-breaking spill, he got lucky to get away with a few scrapes. Then the irreplaceable Dennis Sheehan, their tour manager since 1982, died just after the tour started. Yet still they go on, survivors all, toughness inbuilt.

So, trying to get back on point, we had to go and get our tickets together (security stuff, to try and avoid touting; inflexible but it’s an evolving thing, gig entrance tech) and get our various wristbands affixed. Handed my ticket, I saw that it was £215 – not the 100 he said, nor the 65 I paid. I didn’t say anything but I guess that’s the price of the best side vantage point in the house; before you even think it (that U2 are greedy), the Red Zone ticket money benefits (RED), the AIDS charity. Madonna’s most expensive, to compare, are £300 and, you will already have guessed, do not benefit a charity. I took my place in the little barricaded off section at the side. Last tour, there was a ‘golden circle’ (all big artists do this now: pay more, get to the front ahead of the hoi polloi) but they’ve changed it so fans paying their £65 can get to the front. While entry to the RZ is a touch earlier than GA, so you can go out of your side section and to the centre front if you wish, only a few hundred RZ tickets are sold, which means there’s plenty of room for fans who bought the cheap tickets. All quite nicely arranged, I thought. So I went in and found a seat, of sorts: it was where the security would stand to pull people over the barrier, but also served as a little chair. Minding my own business, reading my Céline book, I was engaged in conversation by three men in their 40s. In a display of irony so acute that their tiny minds would explode if I had suggested it, they started to tease me for reading a book about Céline Dion (i.e. they were at a U2 gig, who nobody thinks are cool). And yet, I bounced up and what did I hurriedly say? That it was not a book entirely about Céline and that I don’t like her music and don't judge me and blah blah. Yes, I felt the need to tell these total strangers that I was not a Dion fan. One of the men called her a bitch, which I thought was a little far. Music criticism aside, she’s never seemed like a bad person: “let them touch those things!” I kind of love her for that slightly unhinged CNN interview where she defends looters. I explained what the book was about and they quietened down; heaven forefend I’d have actually been a Dion fan at a U2 show. At that point they spotted my Montreux Jazz Festival shirt – this seemingly proved that I was a person of taste and worth listening to (we all judge). I bonded with them after that, and it turned out they had rented U2 seven (!) mixing desks for this tour. These were not your average consoles of course, costing £150,000 a pop (no wonder they rented). The show surely cost millions to put on. I then started to look around and realised the levels of hierarchy that surrounded me and the 150 others in the RZ. The real fans, who’d paid that much to get as close as they could, were pressed against the barriers. Everyone else was either rich men (with the stench of banker about them) and their younger girlfriends or people who’d worked on the show. Of the middle category, one couple stood out: both attractive, him about 15 years older than her, and very drunk. She kept bumping into people, all night, with no apology forthcoming. She was of the variety of girls so beautiful, for whom everything in life had gone perfectly, and had never felt a need to be polite or courteous. Imagine what the life of a supermodel-level woman is like… the world belongs to you. It must not even occur to you that other less attractive humans exist. Vapid and rude, she harangued anyone whose face she recognised. This brings me to the most surreal part of the evening.

Each night, during Beautiful Day, the lyrics are changed to say hello to whichever famous friends are in the house. As this is U2, and they know everyone, depending on the city it could be Bill Clinton or Brian Eno. As it happened, on my first night it was indeed Eno (“see the world in green and blue, Brian Eno right in front of you”). Jimmy Page was there too, just for good measure. Slightly to my right was a cordoned off section, fully on view to everyone around it, a foot or so off the ground. I didn’t pay it much mind at first; then it started filling up with faces I knew. There I was, with space to dance and jump around, while Stella McCartney, Chris Martin (and his stunning girlfriend, actress Annabelle Wallis) and, ridiculously, Woody Harrelson did the same embarrassing white-person dancing as me. The Z-list nobodies in my section behaved like drunken assholes. The A-list somebodies were courteous and polite every time they were asked for a selfie. This is something I’ve heard often about Hollywood, incidentally; that the Z-list actors/producers/directors treat people like shit, from the catering guy to the driver, but that Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise and Meryl and everyone at that level are the exact opposite and nobody has a bad word to say about them. In action, I saw it. By the way, Chris Martin took the same amount of pleasure in seeing U2 as me and sang the songs just as loudly as I did.

The show is a perfect mixture of intimate and spectacular. Now feeling reflective in their mid-50s, U2 have gone small, if not musically or visually, in telling stories about Cedarwood Road, where Bono grew up among a background of Dublin car bombings (the explosions later chillingly portrayed on screen, along with the faces of the lost, at the end of a sobering Sunday Bloody Sunday). We see a childlike depiction of his bedroom, which he walks through inside the big screen. I have to say: it’s the most audacious arena show I’ve seen, by a mile. Before that childhood trip, the nightly catharsis of his song Iris (Hold Me Close), about his late mother, takes place. It’s sentimental (that word again) as much as it is emotional but you allow that; like McCartney, he lost his mother at 14 to an aneurysm (it happened at her father’s funeral), which is unimaginable. It makes you an adult all too soon. He said he’s been filling his broken heart with music and the ‘three incredible men’ standing by his side ever since. In cynical times, we sometimes don’t recognise sincerity, but I believe him, I don’t roll my eyes at such things. Perhaps I would have done before I lost my own mother, but not now.

I’ve realised that part of my love of seeing multiple concerts is centred on the differences. I want to see a show twice or more so I can notice the bits that change; this details obsession translates to every aspect of my life. It’s useful, if a bit of a curse, but that’s the way I’m made. Seeing a second show can give a fuller picture and you might even hear different songs. At this high level, there are three elements to setlist design – which itself is a fine art. Songs that must go in (Streets, Pride, With Or Without You, Mysterious Ways, Bullet The Blue Sky, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Beautiful Day), ones from the new album (seven in my first show, six in the second) and then a changeable, smaller, third set, which is made up of older obscurities or forgotten classics. They’ve got a lot of songs to go round. I got five song changes for the second show, which I was pleased with. On night two of the six, incidentally, they had gotten Patti Smith on to sing People Have The Power, which they come on stage to each night, and then, the night after, Noel Gallagher popped up for Still Haven’t Found… and a heartfelt version of All You Need Is Love. I spotted him last night, chatting to a teenage boy as I made my way down the side, behind the section with the famous people in it, to the back to see the B-stage set. At first, I thought, is that his kid? No, he has a daughter that age, not a son. Then I spotted a gorgeous dark-haired woman standing behind the boy, who I realised was Alison Stewart (Hewson), Bono’s wife, and that the lad was probably their youngest. I should have gone up to Noel and asked him if he knew the City-Sevilla score, which would have been a question he couldn’t have bet on being asked, but the moment passed (we won 3-1!). He was later spotted getting as into it as any other fan would, even one who’s known Bono for 20 years, and then having a little dance with Ali. Lest we forget that, like Morrissey, he’s Mancunian-Irish. Ironically, while witnessing all this I managed to miss a little snippet of Young Americans, of all things, in Mysterious Ways. I did catch a little shot of TOTP Starman on screen during the childhood section though, which is no surprise. Last tour they came on to Space Oddity every night. Ending the show, I was particularly thrilled to hear Bad, which caused a joyous explosion of love in the room, followed inevitably by 40. There wasn’t enough time for all the songs they had to leave out either: New Year’s Day, Running To Stand Still, Zoo Station, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, All I Want Is You, Angel Of Harlem, Sweetest Thing, Stuck In A Moment, Staring At The Sun, Discotheque, Walk On, The Unforgettable Fire, Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own, plenty more…

So in the end, what am I trying to say about love and music and taste? I can only say what a pleasure the pair of nights were and what a grand time I had. Some people will never get past their Bono(Céline)-aversion and give something they think they hate a chance. I hope that one day I’m able to become someone who embraces what makes other people happy. I hear Céline’s back in Vegas…


Night 1

The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
Out of Control
Vertigo (Do You Remember Rock' N' Roll Radio/God Save the Queen snippets)
I Will Follow (London Calling snippet)
Iris (Hold Me Close) (snippet of David Essex’s Hold Me Close)
Cedarwood Road
Song for Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday (When Johnny Comes Marching Home snippet)
Raised by Wolves
Until the End of the World (Love and Peace or Else & Words snippets)

Inside Screen

The Fly (remix, band offstage)
Even Better Than the Real Thing

‘E’ Stage

Mysterious Ways (Burning Down the House snippet)
Every Breaking Wave

(back to main stage)

Bullet the Blue Sky (Ode to Joy & 19 snippets)
Where the Streets Have No Name (California (There Is No End to Love) snippet)
Pride (In the Name of Love)
With or Without You

City of Blinding Lights (Stephen Hawking speech intro)
Beautiful Day
One (with 'Mother and Child Reunion' intro)

Night 2

The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
I Will Follow
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Cedarwood Road
Song for Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday (When Johnny Comes Marching Home snippet)
Raised by Wolves
Until the End of the World

Inside Screen

The Fly (remix, band offstage)
Even Better Than the Real Thing (Young Americans snippet)

‘E’ Stage
Mysterious Ways (Burning Down the House snippet)
Desire (Love Me Do snippet)
Party Girl
Every Breaking Wave

(back to main stage)

Bullet the Blue Sky
Where the Streets Have No Name
Pride (In the Name of Love)
With or Without You (Yellow snippet)


City of Blinding Lights
Beautiful Day (Live Forever snippet)
Bad (with 'Mother and Child Reunion' intro)

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 22.28.55


The Rocky Horror Show :: Playhouse London, September 19 and 26, 2015


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.

Only now do we know how autobiographical that song is, as so late in life O’Brien, a three times married father and grandfather, came to terms with his status as transgendered (his word to describe himself, male pronouns are fine). He tells the story of his own struggle with his femininity: “I was six-and-a-half and I said to my big brother that I wanted to be the fairy princess when I grew up. The look of disdain on his face made me pull down the shutters. I knew that I should never ever say that out loud again.” It took him another 60 years and a long time in therapy and on the edge of breakdowns to speak out about feeling that he was, as he puts it, 70% male and 30% female (or third sex, a term he prefers). He has waited a long time to be himself; it’s ironic that the very person who started the conversation about types of trans-sexualities in the 70s should himself be out of that particular closet at such an important time for the trans movement.

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 -

Me: Hm?

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.