Gigs. Remember them? They were awful. You’d get to some dump of avenue, in a bad part of town (if a small capacity) or out in some apocalyptic wasteland (if an enormo-dome). You’d arrive too early and have to try and dodge some mediocre support band (who’d bought their way on to the tour) or queue for seven hours for a beer in a plastic cup. If you dared to speak while some awful act was plodding away, some goody-goody would hold a finger up to their lips, glare and shoosh you. An hour and a half later in the back of the venue, you’d stand gratefully nearer to death’s beckoning cold hand. “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Yes. When Covid rampaged through the world like a Viking raid of death-cult realtors, the world was suddenly shorn of live music. For me, it wasn’t so much going to other people’s gigs that I missed (for all the above reasons). It was that I really started to miss plying my own trade.
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with performing. It’s something that I’ve done since I was fifteen. One of my earliest gigs as a teen performer mainly involved having to defend my spot on the stage from several hundred marauding acid punks intent on plundering our instruments before beating us senseless. Acid punks were a uniquely British underclass of early ’80s bathtub speed nihilists. They took the Sex Pistols’ “No Future” credo a bit too literally. The acid punks didn’t really care if they died, and they cared even less so if you did.
Recently I trod the boards again for the first time in almost two years. I was playing a couple of shows with the Swell Maps. You haven’t heard of them? OK, the Swell Maps invented Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth invented Nirvana. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, think of it like this: There was once a caveman. He urinated in one corner of the cave and called it “the restroom.” In the other corner of the cave he defecated and called it “Art.”
Have you ever played in a great rock ‘n’ roll band? I have, and I know about the sheer power of controlling an electric guitar standing south of a Fender Twin or AC30 amplifier. Don’t get the wrong idea; this isn’t some macho phallic power trip. It’s about the power of the uncanny. Electric guitars are like dream catchers, visionary machines. My Fender Telecaster has more in common with William Blake and Stanley Spencer than with Jimmy Page.
Anyway, as the summer of 2021 moved into winter, the beloved entertainers began returning to the boards, for the pleasure of you, the beloved audience. And then another exciting Covid variant hit, this time the fantastically 1970s sci-fi sounding Omicron.Will we all be allowed to stay out late and play, or will we all have to go home early for tea? It’s too soon to say. One thing is for sure: a lot of musicians and performers have had a truckload of time on their work-shy hands for the past eighteen months.
My full return to live duties begins in April 2022. Omicron permitting, I shall be stepping out to finally settle up on my tour with Peter Buck, already cancelled four times because of this damned plague. We are ostensibly promoting our album Beat Poetry for Survivalists, which was released in March 2020 at the start of it all. (Why the album was not considered an “essential” item, I do not know.) Time has passed and we have a new double album on the way. Six months ago, I wasn’t sure if this tour would happen again, and whether I could even remember how to “be” on stage. But after last weekend with the Swell Maps, it all came flooding back. The break from playing live has done me a whole universe of good. I can hardly wait to get up there and make noise.
A cautionary word to end: We still don’t really know the direction of Covid and the new Covid world. Venues that are already on their knees cannot afford to keep closing down. Also, people may not have the energy to have to go through the elaborate ritual of Covid safety measures at every gig, and they may elect to just stay home. I suspect the next year or so may be a last hurrah for the smaller artists and bands. Elton, Taylor, Justin and Ed will all survive, but for the rest the end may be nigh. Still, at the age of fifty-four, I’m in the best band I’ve ever been in. What a way to go.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2022 World edition.