A must-read for anybody who treats music as a matter of life and death, Tom Kirkham takes us on an unfiltered, funny and insightful journey of self-discovery and self-annihilation as he goes on a year-long mission into the heart of the live music scene.
There have been many pivotal figures responsible for keeping this minor musical expedition alive. I am however acutely aware that the acknowledgements page is invariably the least interesting section within all but the dullest of books. Hence, I shall be brief.
I’d like to afford the highest praise imaginable to Caitlin, my perpetually optimistic editor, and Emma, my creative consultant, whose role predominantly comprised trying to stop me slagging off Adele, for fear it might lose me readers.
Next, I’d like to thank every one of my erstwhile expedition companions. This list is as comprehensive as memory allows, so apologies if I’ve neglected anyone. Sincere and heartfelt thanks go to Laura, Joe, Alex, Lewis, Frances, Sash, Christine, Chris, Yulia, Zowie, Frances II, Mel, Abi, Dana, Brett, Philip, Jonathan, Agatha, Joe II, Giles, Miki, Hannah, Catrin, Lexi, and of course, the old devils Rick and Brendan.
Special mentions must go to my good friends Rhys and Eleri. I’ve lost count of the number of shows we attended together along the way, and I couldn’t have made it through this journey without them.
Finally, a note on the title. I originally wanted to call this book ‘Dance, Music, Sex, Romance’, in the ultimate tribute to The Purple One, whose unassailable genius and majesty will remain with me for now and always. However, upon realising that my account lacked at least three of these quintessential qualities, I was forced into a hasty rethink. “Pop Life” is the standout track from the 1985 Prince album Around the World in a Day, and it feels perhaps a little more appropriate. After all, “Life it ain’t real funky. Unless it’s got that pop…”
It’s April 21st, the year is 2016, it’s eleven twenty p.m. and I’m slumped at the glass table in the front room of my Camden flat listening to “Purple Rain” and blubbing my heart out. I’ve been drinking heavily, but that hasn’t stopped me recording a commemorative podcast in Prince’s honour with my best friend Emma (aka Dr. Bearhead). My housemate Philip has just been in to check on me, but now I’m alone once more, trying to edit the podcast recording down to size, while simultaneously bellowing out the words to “Take Me with U” at the top of my voice.
Prince wasn’t supposed to die. Like the annual new Woody Allen film or Arsenal F.C.’s spring collapse in form, his records are one of life’s great certainties. How can there not be a new Prince album this year? The news of his passing has put me all at sea and I have no idea what to do next. So, I just carry on listening, crying, singing and basking in music so powerful that I can hardly believe it’s real. How can music possibly be this good?
I feel compelled to write about music right now because, like many of my contemporaries, my life began with music. The earliest memories I have are of my dad playing me “Starman”, “Get It On” and “Yellow Submarine”. Aged seven I borrowed and never returned a cassette from Richard, an older kid who lived across the street from me, containing on it albums by Jesus Jones and James. Introductions to Oasis and Pulp followed a few years later. By age fourteen I was diversifying in the directions of Marilyn Manson, Lamb, Björk and Kate Bush, before changing course once more and discovering Steely Dan and The Smiths, two bands who have next to nothing in common other than a sense of humour. R.E.M.’s often overlooked classic “Reveal” coincided with my eighteenth birthday. In the summer of my nineteenth year I discovered pop music; twelve months later I was immersed in Johnny Cash and his country vibes. In early 2004 I suffered temporary insanity and developed a six-month long obsession with Amy Lee of Evanescence, during which time, I held myself hostage to the “Fallen” album, until eventually, like any Stockholm Syndrome sufferer, I found that I’d become rather fond of it.
But nothing compared to Prince, and now I feel as though I need to tell a story about music, simply because I can’t think of any other way to deal with his not being there. I need to keep him alive for the sake of my sanity. Not that I have a great deal of sanity left to cling to. My mental health is a disaster zone – I’m half expecting the UN to rock up in my head in a belated attempt to stabilise the region.
Last year was a catastrophe, the last nine months have been hell and now Prince is gone. All I have for company and comfort is my longstanding cat Mr. Kitten, and he’s asleep.
Over the course of 2014 to 2015 I’ve endured acrimonious break-ups, moved flats multiple times and moved cities twice. I’ve been forced to leave my job, my band has ground to a halt and I’m plagued by insufferable anxiety and depression, a consequence of several months spent sitting on my own in the front room, with nothing but my increasingly morose thoughts for company. Despite my years of servitude, Mr. Kitten has done nothing to help, the useless bastard – he’s slept happily through my discontent, through endless hours spent pacing up and down in the flat, whipping myself up into an exasperated frenzy, trying to figure out how on earth things managed to go so wrong.
My life has unravelled. I’m broken, bereft of motivation, an abject failure. Do you hear that Mr. Kitten? A failure!
Back when I was twenty, I prophesised that this day would come, though admittedly I had expected it to arrive within the week rather than thirteen years later. Boy was I a fun twenty-year-old to be around! Still, at least back then I was younger, thinner, more alive and more inclined to believe in Kate Bush’s eternally optimistic sentiment that, “I just know that something good is gonna happen. I don’t know when. But just saying it could even make it happen.”
I need to go to bed soon, but before I do I must apply antiseptic cream to my newly minted David Bowie tattoo, my first inking, and an earnest attempt to comprehend the enormity of such a monumental loss to music. And now Prince. It’s too much to bear, and all I can do to contain my grief is to carry on writing and listening.
Weeks 1–3: Dead and Born and Grown
Where does the time go? This perennial question of those unfortunate enough to be nearing the end of this mortal coil also afflicts us thirty-somethings, as we battle to comprehend what the hell we’re doing with our lives. It seems even more pertinent in London, where entire generations are locked in arrested development, unable to transcend the mundane yet compulsive tendency to meet, eat, drink, party, hang (as in over), hair of the dog and repeat. Choose a random week from your diary of three years ago and the chances are it was defined by this pattern of activity. We are of course now cursed by the blight of the Facebook Memory, an automated tool with the unhappy knack of delivering everyday reminders that you’ve been doing the same fucking thing for the best part of a decade, except that back then you were younger, and your hair probably looked ridiculous.
When periodically we arrive at rare moments of introspection it can develop swiftly into the onset of acute depression, propelling us to come up with absurd notions to break the cycle, such as attending evening classes or moving to Australia. Today I’ve settled upon a far less preposterous answer. I’ve decided to go to a gig every week for a year, to escape this repetitive strain injury of a life.
This feels like an especially poignant decision, seeing as six months ago I was unable to listen to music. Every album I owned felt too painful, too infused with memories of people, time, places and purpose. These albums were a map of my life, and my life had fallen apart. I was lost without my music; in fact, I was lost in every respect imaginable, until one afternoon last December, while transferring a handful of files over to my new laptop, I happened upon the contemporary gothic sounds of Anna von Hausswolff and Chelsea Wolfe, and everything changed. I emailed Joe, my musical encyclopaedia of a friend, asking for more gothic recommendations. It had to be dark, brooding, utterly bleak and miserable – these were my comforting sounds. I even contemplated becoming a Goth, but ultimately concluded that I would look too silly.
Thus sparked my musical rebirth and gave rise to this bold new idea of a year of gigging, perhaps the only solution capable of addressing my obsessive compulsion to fully absorb myself in music. It will start on my thirty third birthday and continue uninterrupted for twelve months henceforth. I will preach to others about my experiences, encouraging them to follow in my footsteps. Then I will cleanse the temple of merchants and money-changers, and I will turn water into wine, and I will ride a donkey, and I will turn some more water into wine, and then, after a bit of a rough patch, I will rise from the dead and everyone will be very impressed.
For that’s what it’s about, this musical expedition. Rising from the dead.
Muncie Girls, Dingwalls, London, Wednesday 8th June
Musical birthdays: Nancy Sinatra (1940), Bonnie Tyler (1953), Mick Hucknall (1960)
Musical history: The Beatles “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” goes to Number 1 in the UK; it will spend 27 weeks atop the charts (1967)
Non-musical history: Muhammad, the founder of the world’s second-largest religion, Islam, dies in Medina in the arms of his wife (632)
I was compromised both mentally and physically going into my inaugural show. Mentally, due to an inexplicable cat illness. The vets haven’t worked it out yet and I’m left just praying it’s not kidney-related, as that would mean it’s curtains for Mr. Kitten. Physically, because Emma and I decided to go out and get Prince tattoos directly before heading for our pre-gig drink, and it turns out that the inner bicep is five times more painful than the outer bicep.
I’ve known Emma since we were seventeen-year olds growing up in North Manchester. The daughter of a deliciously sardonic bookie and a benevolent hairdresser, Emma, like myself, had a thirst for live music and in her heady teenage years regularly spoke of throwing her undergarments at Chino Moreno of the Deftones or non-specific members of Less Than Jake. I remember lending her a book about Prince shortly after we became acquainted called “Slave to the Rhythm”. I’m pretty sure that she’s never given it back.
I hope that no more musical heroes of mine die before the year is out. The news of Prince’s death reached us on the very evening that my friend Rhys and I were raising a glass in celebration of our Bowie tattoos. Seeing this as an omen, I’ve been repeatedly checking my phone ever since for news of any further musical catastrophes. Fortunately, at the time of writing the remaining real estate on my arms has been preserved.
As you’ve heard already, Prince and Bowie were amongst the most significant academics of my musical education. While I was fortunate enough to see Prince four times over the past decade, I never made it to a Bowie show due to a perennial lack of funds during my final year of university. Any money I had at the time was exclusively reserved for Jack Daniels, Miles Davis records and an improvised daily meal usually consisting of pasta shells and mayonnaise. My brother and sister, on the other hand, saw Bowie at the Manchester Arena. To this day I have held a grudge against them for their good fortune.
I find it frustrating when people complain about the elder statespeople of music who continue to perform well into their fifties, sixties, seventies and so on. After his heart operation and early live retirement, Bowie managed to avoid a lot of this disdain, but others haven’t been so fortunate. McCartney, for example, comes in for a lot of criticism, despite regularly getting five-star reviews for his marathon three-hour sets. I saw Macca as recently as last year and we had a brilliant time. Neil Young shows have had their ups and downs over the years, but the high points have been inimitable. Leonard Cohen a few years ago released the best live album I’ve ever heard and he’s about a hundred and thirty. That’s life – I’d still much rather see these people at seventy to eighty percent than miss out on them just because I wasn’t a teenager in 1963. If it feels authentic and not just a weary, worn out cash cow of a show, then that’s fine with me. Believe it or not, I saw and enjoyed Rod Stewart once, and his reputation has been mud for even longer than that of Phil Collins!
Anyway, I’m digressing; this was supposed to be a paragraph in tribute to Prince and Bowie and now I’m slagging off the man that brought us “In the Air Tonight” and “No Son of Mine”. Lord Phil Almighty, I beg your forgiveness.
Muncie Girls was a peculiar gig with which to inaugurate my year of live music, namely because we were there to see the support band rather than the main act. We were also exceptionally unprepared. Neither Mel, Eleri, Philip or Emma had bothered to check out the bands, though in the case of Beach Slang, the headliner, this proved a blessing in disguise.
This sort of social unpreparedness leaves me ill at ease. I’m preoccupied by the irrational fear and pre-gig guilt that everyone might loathe the show I’ve suggested and come away feeling as though the evening was a complete waste of time. This is nonsensical; they’re all adults perfectly capable of making their own decisions and with no rational reason to blame me for any poor choices suffered. Irrespective, I slightly resented my friends for their lack of preparation and may never forgive them.
To cut to the chase, the first band was mediocre and forgettable. Not bad, but not good (hence mediocre); forgettable, as evidenced by my inability to recall their name or what they sounded like. Muncie Girls, in contrast, were a band approaching a breath of fresh air. The set was too short, and the singer suffered from naive over-exuberance (so says I, the aged pedantic musician-critic) resulting in a few missed high notes. But the music is energetic and alive in that a way that’s unique to female-fronted pop-punk bands. If guys try and make music like this, it comes off sounding like a novelty act (Blink-182) or just plain shit (Sum 41). Since I first heard Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” I’ve always had a soft spot for artists like Muncie Girls. Later in the evening we spotted their singer in the crowd watching Beach Slang who, as I alluded to earlier, were awful and not worthy of a write-up. I was persuaded by my friend Rhys, always rather more outgoing than I am, to go over and congratulate her on the band’s performance. I did just that. She seemed very pleasant, albeit a bit on the shy side, which meant that the conversation was struggling for air within seconds. I asked her where the band hailed from. “Exeter,” was her response. I said that I couldn’t hear the accent in her singing voice. She seemed surprised. I panicked and began talking about the Wurzels. This topic continued for a good thirty seconds before I decided to cut my losses and abandon the affair. Thank goodness I’m not currently in the dating game – I’d have to shoot myself.
Neil Young & The Promise of the Real, The O2, London, Saturday 11th June
Musical birthdays: Nick Hallam (1960) and Robert Birch (1961), both members of Stereo MCs
Musical history: Nelson Mandela’s seventieth birthday tribute takes place at Wembley Stadium, featuring Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, Dire Straits, UB40 and others (1988)
Non-musical history: Henry VIII marries Catherine of Aragon, whose only surviving child, Mary, will later reign as Queen of England for six years (1509)
Also: Radio stations across Europe mistakenly announce the death of Roger Daltrey (1966)
My past few days have been absorbed by cat-related traumas and Mr. Kitten’s eventual admittance to animal hospital on my birthday. It was possibly the worst birthday I’ve ever experienced, quite something given that my thirtieth birthday culminated in my then girlfriend breaking into my Facebook account, reading through half a decade of archived messages and having a go at me for things I’d sent other women years before I met her.
I was wearied and worn out by the time the weekend arrived, as well as tormented by the knowledge that, in going to The O2 for the night, we’d be missing England’s Euro 2016 opener. However, this latest outing to see Neil Young, my fourth Young experience, was a Christmas present from my dad, booked well before the fixtures had been scheduled. Also, England are generally awful.
The last two Neil Young gigs I experienced were with Crazy Horse, a backing band that is significantly less crazy than the name suggests. These days they’re more akin to a group of retired Navaho Indians resting on a reservation than roaming the plains hunting buffalo or warring with Apaches.
My prior Young gig had been a difficult set at Hyde Park comprising zero hits and at least four fifteen-minute-long tracks that I didn’t recognise, supported by a Crazy Horse backbeat and rhythm section that chugged along at the pace of a Highlands steam engine beset by signalling problems. Yet, apart from the Icelandic ash cloud that once submerged Europe for a week, every cloud has a silver lining and my lacklustre Hyde Park experience prompted me to delve into the past and explore the great Canadian’s back catalogue, thus ensuring that I would never again arrive unprepared at a Neil Young performance. By purchasing a further twenty Neil Young albums over the past twelve months, it’s possible that I’ve gone slightly overboard, but then that’s what we musical obsessives tend to do.
Oh then the irony of his set choices at The O2. Beginning with “After the Gold Rush”, followed by “Heart of Gold”, then “From Hank to Hendrix”, this was quintessential Young that stretched at least eighty or ninety minutes before we arrived at the inevitable fifteen-minute electric epics. My diligence over the past year had paid off and I recognised all but two tracks, outdoing my dad who has had thirty years longer to listen to most of these records. This went some way to restoring my pride, having earlier lost an argument with him about the merits and pitfalls of driverless cars. I was in favour and my dad was against; his argument being that society appears hell-bent on using technology as a means of abdicating all forms of responsibility, and as this trend accelerates we are rendering ourselves redundant as a species. I backed down, not wishing to reveal that my own pro-driverless-car position stemmed from the fact that I still haven’t plucked up the courage to learn how to drive. It would be interesting to know what Neil Young makes of driverless cars, given his lifelong enthusiasm for battered old gas-guzzling automobiles. A couple of years ago he even wrote an autobiographical account of every car he’s ever owned, which I’ve read, and is far more interesting than it sounds. Sadly, Young didn’t mention cars once over the course of his two-hour performance, but despite this, it was a wonderful gig. I felt his iconic lead guitar playing was a little stiffer and less assured than in years gone by, perhaps no surprise for a seventy-year-old, but the quality of his voice more than made up for this; Young still sounds much the same as he did in 1971.
The band were also an upgrade on Crazy Horse (sacrilege I know), albeit with one glaring criticism – the inclusion of a bongo player whose contribution was utterly redundant. What were they thinking? Barely audible on the opening acoustic tracks, Mr. Bongo’s presence diminished further and further as the gig progressed. By “Love and Only Love” and “Mansion on the Hill” he was completely inaudible, yet so overstated in his playing motions that he looked more like a member of Pan’s People than a credible member of a legendary rock artist’s backing band.
When Young and the group returned for a final encore of “Fucking Up”, another track that did not in any way, shape or form, benefit from additional percussion, Mr. Bongo raised his arms in triumph, basking in the crowd’s adulation. This irritated me – I felt as though there was a charlatan in our midst, contributing little, yet more than happy to bask in the mighty achievements of others. My hope is that as the tour rolls on, one night, when he least expects it, his bongos will explode.