Hello…how are you? Well, it’s been quite a long time. Perhaps there are two or three of you out there who still may read this. It’s been a landmark year for me in terms of the gigs I managed to see. Mainly because I kept leaving Winnipeg. In February, I got to see Gang of Four in Toronto, and they were one of the most exciting bands I’ve ever seen. Unlike The Buzzcocks, who I saw last year, GoF are still clearly passionate and earnest about what they do. Andy Gill was a badass, and Jon King was a maniac. And they continue to make excellent, thought-provoking music.
This past summer will be difficult to top, mind. My friend, Laura, and I went on a three-week backpacking trip to Europe built around the Wireless Festival. This was decided in a fevered panic after the Pulp reunion was announced in November of last year. It quickly became apparent that we had no self-control or sense of limits as we continued to plan the trip logistics. Not to mention this is the first time that I’ve had a travel buddy who actually enjoys the same things I do. When we found out that Lou Reed was playing in London the night after Wireless, we bought tickets. When we found out that Big Audio Dynamite was playing in London the night before we flew home, we bought tickets. When we found out that the Manic Street Preachers were playing the Wanaja Festival in Finland two nights before we flew home, we decided we could squeeze it in. Then we threw in the Feeling Gloomy club night on the same day we flew into London, which also happened to be the night before Wireless, just for good, psychotic measure. I don’t regret any of this, but as you will eventually see, it took its toll.
Under the poster of Morrissey with a bunch of flowers…
We attempted to stave off some jetlag by having a late afternoon nap at our hostel, which was perhaps one of the worst hostels I’ve ever stayed in (and I’ve been in ones with bedbugs before). However, exhaustion allowed us to sleep rather soundly for a couple of hours in the mouldering bedroom at the top of a stuffy, crowded building in Bayswater. Slightly refreshed, we then ventured off to Islington for dinner and to the O2 Academy for Feeling Gloomy.
Feeling Gloomy has been one of those mythical club nights I read about, like Stay Beautiful and Against Nature, that I’ve always wanted to go to, but have never had the timing right for, nor have I had a friend that wanted to go. It also seemed related to the mythical indie disco, which we don’t have over here, and for two indie-disco-deprived Canadians, Feeling Gloomy lived up to all expectations. We entered the club to Ultravox’s “Vienna” and were the last to leave as they played The Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” While it didn’t necessarily stick to doleful melancholia as its title implies, it did fulfill all of my listening wishes, including indiepop, new wave synthpop, 60s girl groups, and post-punk. It was essentially a chance to dance around in a semi-dark room full of strangers and a giant painting of Morrissey to the very same songs already on my iPod. Subtract the strangers, and it’s much like a regular evening in my bedroom. In fact, I’m fairly certain I oscillated wildly between hopping about like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club, twitching my limbs like Jarvis Cocker, and doing that “Barbarism Begins at Home” twist as performed by Morrissey and Marr. It had been such an amazing experience that it almost didn’t matter that we were stood at 4:00AM in the middle of Islington without a clue of how to get back to Bayswater. We luckily found a cab not driven by a rapist, and stumbled into our pitch-dark, crowded bedroom as the sun came up.
A few hours later, we stumbled back out of bed to wander over to Hyde Park for Wireless. Unlike nearly every other time I’ve visited and/or lived in the UK, there were absolutely no clouds and no rain. After eating small cups of pineapple and Sainsbury pasta salad and watching tourists next to the Marble Arch, we took our place in line with the most eager punters at the Wireless entrance. As much as we would have liked to see Fight Like Apes and Cut Copy at one of the other stages, we enjoyed the pre-Pulp line-up of Vintage Trouble, Devotchka, Metronymy, The Horrors, The Hives, TV on the Radio, and the utterly brilliant Grace Jones, who rode a very surprised security guard over to the crowd barrier. Frankly, we endured leg cramp, exhaustion, sunburn, and dehydration for only one band.
Sing along with the common people…
You could hear Jarvis’s laconic voice in your head as you read through each scrolling line of retro typeface projected on the massive black curtain.
Hello…how are you?
I can’t hear you.
Make some noise!!
You’re looking good.
Is it nice out there?
Do you want to have a drink?
O.k. I will meet you at the bar.
Is this crazy talk?
Is this legal?
Do you remember the first time?
Is this a hoax?
Of course, the crowd was getting pretty antsy by the time the screen asked if we wanted to see a dolphin. To be fair, despite all of the teasing, they did show us a dolphin. Once the textual banter finally exited stage right, we heard the simulated sizzle and hum of the lurid magenta letters flickering into full glow behind the scrim. P…U…L…P. As expected, once the curtains came down, amidst the blast of confetti cannon, Candida, Russell, Steve, Nick, and Jarvis began with “Do You Remember the First Time?”
I don’t remember the first time, so to speak. The rush of nostalgia for Pulp’s first time round, and its attendant mid-nineties bliss, is a strange emotion for me since it belongs to a different, but no less powerful nostalgia. Mine came out of an imagined past rather than a lived past. I didn’t know of Pulp until three years after their triumphant, myth-making slot at Glastonbury. And I didn’t get heavily into them until they no longer existed. I don’t actually remember the first time, so like watching long-dead galaxies in the night sky, I had lived through the Britpop scene after it had gone supernova.
It’s hard not to get emotional at the impossibility of it. The fact that I had consigned Pulp to the bin labelled “missed opportunity” meant that I always thought they would remain a mediated experience, a forensic encounter patched together with hours of live footage, music videos, music press clippings, book accounts, and bootlegs. They had famously never really broken up, so somehow it paradoxically seemed even less likely they could reform. If there is a benefit to all of this late-noughties-reunion-nostalgia-jingoism hangover, this particular reunion was it. After all of those years, many of them pre-YouTube and pre-torrent, I had built up my memory bank of Pulp. Through their vintage pop melodies and Jarvis’s on-point (anti)social observations, I felt a part of something years after it actually happened. All those imagined moments of jubilantly jumping up and down in a crowd singing “Misshapes” or “Common People,” all of those dreamed and simulated moments of inclusion had collected in the grooves of my brain as a soundtrack to my own awkward bildungsroman.
After their first song, Pulp slipped into the first times of “Pink Glove,” which has one of the most deliciously malicious choruses in the Pulp canon, then “Mile End,” and on into the depths of A Different Class with slight diversions into This is Hardcore and We Love Life, and a double-back into “Babies.” In an effort to take it all in, my eyes flicked back and forth between all of the band members, the inscrutable shades of Russell Senior, the flash of white jacket from Steve Mackey, the sphinxy smile of Candida Doyle, the pumping arms of Nick Banks. But at the centre of it all was Jarvis. I think we all know how I feel about Jarvis by now. The corduroy dynamo was in full flight, specs strapped on, stomach in, chest out. At one point he stood atop a monitor and leaned back so far that his upper body was parallel to the stage floor, a breathtaking act of limbo. At other points, he raced to and fro across the front of the stage, hair streaming, joints articulating and gesticulating wildly. His dance moves are a feat of improv: immediate, ever-shifting interpretations of his lyrics. Some embarassingly literal, some as oblique as a Brian Eno strategy, all of them without a whiff of self-consciousness. And his banter was better and more self-assured than it had ever been, often evoking elements of his more recent incarnation as 6Music DJ.
After lying on his back and cycling his mantis legs in the air, taunting, “I’m coming to get you,” Jarvis grabbed a torch and walked down the stairs and runway to the front of the gaping crowd. As he spoke-sang the opening lines to “I Spy” several feet to the right of me, he shone his torch into the upturned faces of his fans, his voice juddering with intensity. By the time he had moved to directly in front of me, everything seemed to have shifted into a hyperreality of specific details, mundane and yet alien. I can distinctly remember the contracted pupils in the grey-green of Jarvis’s eyes as the torchlight reflected from my glasses into his glasses, and I can recall the shape his right hand made as it gripped the torch handle, each joint of his lengthy index finger and thumb tensed, his wrist cocked just campily so. I didn’t touch him. I didn’t say the lyrics along with him. I didn’t snap a photo in his face. I just stared back at him and smiled with my entire being. I was desperately trying to isolate and preserve the moment in my mind; it was perfect timing because it seems everything else had flown out of my mind during that minute.
Halfway through the set, Laura mimed that her feet were over there. “Over there” turned out to mean several feet to the left of the rest of her body. Shortly thereafter, my feet also ended up being over there. It seemed fitting that we were contorted in a gravity-defying, Cocker-like pose. We were being quite literally carried away by the buoyancy of the crowd. There was none of the grasping tackiness and hollow gesture of so many other recent reunions by other bands. In spite of myself, my vision actually went blurry with tears during the last half of finale “Common People.” Just like the emotion of impossibility realized, a lot of my emotional state was dependent on the transcendence of the crowd; I couldn’t help but get emotional when thousands were singing along with me like every word mattered as much as every gasped breath, especially when just five years ago, I was regarded with boredom and mild confusion as I sang a lonely version of “Common People” at a karaoke night in Winnipeg. With that many people willing the night to be special, it came to pass.
Two men in their forties were behind us in the crowd, and as the audience dissipated, they chatted to us for awhile. One of them felt ecstatically vindicated that he had finally gotten to see Pulp live after missing their 1995 Glastonbury performance due to illness. His eyes were wild with disbelief over what had just happened, and his voice was hoarse with shouting “Was that not the best fucking show ever?” into the night air. He had also told us about how his grandfather always told him to “take snapshots” for his memories; these “snapshots” weren’t stored on film or hard drives, nor were they obtained at the expense of placing a lens between you and reality. His grandfather meant taking photographs with your memory. This man we had met only two minutes ago then asked me if I had taken a snapshot. At that moment, I realized that that was what I had been doing when Jarvis stood within inches of me, pointing a torch in my face. A shred of paper streamer in my damp palm; the nausea that comes with having subsisted all afternoon and night on two jammy dodgers proffered by friendly strangers in the crowd; the shaky limb weariness of catharsis; the dizzy light-headedness and body fever of heatstroke; the dazing aftermath of the enormity of the event causing me to meander aimlessly through the park as I processed it. I finally had my truly first time with Pulp, and I’m so grateful that it came at a time when they were so experienced.
To be continued…
I’ve decided to split this gig-going European vacation into at least two parts, so I will be back at least once more in the near future to write about the rest of the trip.
After that, however, this blog will likely remain relatively dormant, but for good reason: Laura and I have decided to start a new blog called From a High Horse. It will mainly be an MP3 blog, but we may also write about non-musical things as well. I figure having one extra writer may make the endeavour more sustainable. So, if you’re so inclined, pop on over…exciting stuff.