Tonight, K is going to do something which he hasn’t done for 18 years, but which I do quite regularly.
What do you suppose this might be?
The reason for the 18-year gap: K feels highly uncomfortable in crowded situations where there is no ready escape route. A mild form of claustrophobia, I guess. This discomfort increases sharply in situations where collective hysteria is liable to hold sway: clapping, stamping, cheering, whooping, dancing, that sort of caper. As someone who places a high value upon his sense of individuality, these orchestrated mass responses are anathema to him, causing him to feel as if he is being submerged beneath a tidal wave.
This wasn’t always the case. All through the mid-to-late 1970s, K was an ardent gig-goer. As a student in Leicester, he went to see practically every band that came to town, ending up at the De Montfort Hall on a more or less weekly basis. Until one fateful night in 1980 when Madness came to town, and the familiar venue filled up not with the usual bunch of affable stoners, but with a new breed of aggressively beered-up boot-boys. Heavy duty vibes, man. Gazing around the venue in dismay, alarm – and, above all, a new sense of alienation, a switch flicked that night, and K’s gig-going came to an abrupt halt.
The last stand-up rock gig we attended together was James – at the Old Vic, back when they were still a quirky little indie band on Factory Records, with off-kilter tunes and arty leanings, who were being championed by the likes of Morrissey. That evening’s small cluster of earnest, chin-stroking cognoscenti caused him no problems.
Shortly afterwards, I dragged him off to the Royal Concert Hall to see The Smiths. With The Queen Is Dead in the shops and Panic in the singles charts, the band were absolutely at the top of their game; it was a time when everything they did seemed Important, Definitive, imbued with Significance and Relevance. Consequently, the atmosphere inside the venue was one of the most emotionally charged that I have ever witnessed. Indie’s answer to A Hard Day’s Night, if you like.
As the band came on to a squall of screams, the whole crowd surged to their feet – even where we were, up in the circle. The two girls next to us became quite beside themselves with excitement, repeatedly squealing and clutching each other whenever the spotlight fell on their beloved Johnny Marr.
I glanced sideways at K. His face was set in stone: a stern, tense mask of barely concealed disgust. Leaning towards me, he indignantly hissed in my ear.
“If only those PRATS at the front hadn’t decided to stand up, we could ALL have had a PERFECTLY GOOD VIEW…”
Talk about missing the point.
Half a dozen songs or so later, he leaned over again.
“The Smiths are brilliant – brilliant – but I have to go. Enjoy the rest of the show.”
And that was that. For eighteen years.
With the arguable exception of that 1992 k.d.lang concert – also in the Royal Concert Hall, as it happens. Anticipating a relaxing evening of smoothly delivered, exquisitely sung torch songs with country overtones, we certainly weren’t expecting the lesbian version of A Hard Day’s Night. My God, but those dykes screamed the place down. As well they might; k.d. had only just come out as the world’s first openly lesbian pop star, and she was looking hot. For K, this was enough to induce a fully-fledged, text-book-perfect panic attack, shortly before the end of the show. His worst ever, by some distance. We met him afterwards in the lobby, still shaking slightly, having been taken suddenly and violently ill in the loos. Never again, he vowed. Never again.
But then, we hadn’t reckoned on Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band reforming after over 20 years, and playing a handful of small club dates. (Minus Beefheart himself of course, whose retirement from the music business remains total.) For you have to understand this: although his albums may not get played too often these days, Captain Beefheart remains K’s favourite rock artist of all time. As far as K is concerned, Beefheart is rock’s one true, unassailable genius, with a talent to match his two favourite composers: Bach and Reich.
And God, don’t the rest of us ever know it.
At seemingly every late night “all back to ours” session during the 1990s – of which there were many – there would inevitably come a point in the proceedings where K would solemnly rise to his feet, shuffle/stagger over to the CD cabinet, and pull out his cherished copy of Trout Mask Replica.
“We must ALL LISTEN to Captain Beefheart”, he would announce to the room, steadfastly ignoring any quiet groans of protest from those of us who knew all too well what was about to come.
“The man is a GENIUS”, he would slurringly declare, in an authoritative tone of voice which brooked no argument.
“I know what you’re all thinking”, he would parry, as Beefheart’s uncompromisingly raw, scratchy, rasping, yowling, melody-free, free-form/avant-garde dislocated blues filled the room.
“You have to give it TIME, that’s all. Hang on, I’ll just turn it up a notch…”
At this point, one of two things would happen. Either someone would gently steer K away from the hi-fi and back onto the sofa, allowing me to put Maxwell back on (or Erykah Badu, or Björk, or Portishead, or one of the early Cafe Del Mar compilations) – or else everyone would suddenly comment on the lateness of the hour, and start ringing for taxis.
But usually the latter. Not that I was complaining; as far as I was concerned, Trout Mask Replica served perfectly as Chucking Out Time music. I don’t think we ever got more than four or tracks in. In fact, I’m not even sure that I’ve ever made it through to the end of the album. Ever.
For here’s the irony. Normally, I am the one pushing our sonic envelope, threatening to send K spare with my thrashy guitar bands and my thumping dance beats. (Most of the time, we agree to meet in the middle with world music, classic soul, acoustic singer-songwriters, jazz, or downtempo electronica.) With Beefheart, however, the tables are well and truly turned. I’ve just never got him. Structurally baffling. Emotionally obtuse. Irritatingly one-dimensional.
Horrible, tuneless racket. Call that music? They’re just pulling notes out of a hat…
Nevertheless – faced with the novel prospect of K attending a stand-up gig in a crowded, sweaty venue, all other considerations paled into insignificance. Would he be OK? Would he be able to make it through to the end of the set without bolting for the door? If nothing else, he needed a strong support group: myself, Dymbel and Buni. We’d be there for him. We’d help him pull through.
To be continued.
Note: The Magic Band will be performing live on tonight’s John Peel show on Radio 1. The performance will start at around 10:15 p.m, and will last between 45 and 60 minutes. Without wishing to pre-empt the rest of the story, I strongly urge you to catch it.