The creative industries. The arts. Events and nightlife. Call them what you want, but at the end of the day what we’re talking about is FUN. Music, film, TV, theatre, radio, galleries, big nights out – these aren’t just job sectors, they’re the reason we work in the first place. They’re how we socialise, how we express ourselves, how we make sense of the world.
COVID-19 has taken a sledgehammer to arts and culture in the UK, and while the government’s rescue package will come as a lifeline for some, things have been on the rocks for a long time. How many beloved venues have you seen bulldozed to make room for another block of luxury flats? ‘Fund Our Fun’ is a series that goes beyond the industry’s economic contributions to tell the stories of how arts and culture impact our lives in immeasurable ways.
Under the exposed brick walls of Heaven, I’m pressed against one of the arches by the crowd as Caroline Polachek covers “Breathless” by The Corrs. “This is the last show we might be at for a long time, so let’s make it a good one,” she says, which I guess is why she’s covering The Corrs. I had gone alone, because I needed the show. To get out of myself. To be transported into another world, or at least another headspace. That was the last show I went to, back in March, before all of [waves hands] this.
It’s hard to separate live music and my mental health. As I pretend my life is some straight-to-DVD indie film (I will demand to be played by Timothée Chalamet, but the role will inevitably be taken by Dean Gaffney) and a camera zooms out on the last ten years, I can see it’s a vivid scrapbook made up of so many things – but mostly it’s smudged, dog-eared polaroids of flashing lights and bands and friends and sticky floors and too many of those double pint cups you get so you don’t have to queue up at the bar again. It’s live music.
Those flared snapshots of tumbling head first into a mosh pit at the tiny Buffalo Bar when Mclusky played, the crowd swelling and surging around me like quicksand. The end of a messy night at Ally Pally, soaked in sweat as a big circle of my closest friends bounce together joyously, arms locked around each other. Or when I somehow impossibly jumped on my mate Dave’s shoulders from a standing start watching LCD Soundsystem in Victoria Park.
There are those shows, when the blood fizzes up and rushes down your spine, that make your skin feel warm. Watching Yeah Yeah Yeahs and getting covered in WKD. Kano transfixing the whole of the Royal Albert Hall. Kate Bush and David Byrne’s astonishing shows at Hammersmith. Lady Gaga at [checks notes] Moth Club. Rihanna playing Kentish Town Forum and inexplicably shouting out River Island.
They were all joyful. But, for me, it’s the unique alchemy of two things that combine to make live music so indelible. On one side: the ritual – arranging to meet up to get a drink beforehand, that one friend inevitably being late, sending the message ‘sorry, we’ve gone in and we’re stood left of the sound desk’. On the other: the magic – the way they interact with your memories, mapping out events and milestones. Live shows frame my life. They give it structure, but also a way to escape.
They’re also an essential way of how I deal with life itself. They help to hold me together. As distraction, as solace, as a way to feel euphoria – or at least feel something. A scaffolding that holds me up when my mental health tumbles off a cliff, I hear my thoughts getting louder and it takes all my strength to simply lie in bed in a dark room, eat Tangy Cheese Doritos and doom scroll through Twitter.
Live shows jolt me out of that. They spark something and help me untangle my thoughts, help me escape my inner monologue. They’ve become a form of therapy and, before the pandemic, I was having three or four sessions a week. Studies have shown that music can help your mood and fend off depression and lower your Cortisol levels, but I don’t want to make this sound too lofty; sometimes I just want to stand in a dark room, get drunk and cry to The National.
Being at a gig is so much more than watching the people on the stage, or even really the music itself (though hearing songs live can do wonderful, transcendental things you would never hear on record) – it’s a cathartic experience. It allows you to breathe again and feel the joy of being with people who make you happy, or be out in the world, surrounded by a crowd, but at the same time, alone (I love a solo gig). It’s getting a 6AM bus home with friends after a five-hour Four Tet set as the fuzzy morning light rises between buildings. Or watching Janelle Monae crowd surfing over the Roundhouse and smiling at my wife, just as I was realising she was going to be my wife.
When things seem impossibly overwhelming, these shows feel more vital than everything. When my dad died, it became acute. Shows became a way for me to deal with the grief that was buried inside me like motionless water trapped under the ground. I remember, after he died, I felt guilty about going to a gig a couple of weeks later – was this too soon? How should I be acting? Is this disrespectful? I still felt outside of myself but it felt really special, or at least normal and comforting, to be at a show, listening to music and being around people. There was a warmth and a closeness and, after feeling like I was drowning under the weight of it all, there was a sense of release, like pressing a relief valve and slowly floating upwards. I still love I Love You, Honeybear because of that night.
As all my memories of him started to blur – the things he did, the way he smelled, the words he said to me – live shows have had the most incredible ways of transporting me back, memories hitting in unexpected and vivid waves. I remember standing on tarmac in Porto hearing The Twilight Sad cover Frightened Rabbit as the sound and emotion poured from the speakers, tears falling down my face (admittedly, I had just drunk a box of wine).
The last eight months have left a chasm; blank spaces and silences at a time when we need gigs more than ever. Those moments that you take for granted have disappeared. That buzz of anticipation in the room that you can nearly touch as you wait for the band to come on. Moments where everyone’s all together, watching their favourite band – these are the best nights and the moments we’ll all remember, the little ones.
Music is a part of life. It’s there for you when you’re feeling shit, or when that big event in your life has happened, or when you’re with all your mates. And it helps. It really helps make things better. Shows are a safe space for many people, too – a place to get away from everything else. We need the catharsis of live music right now, to have our heads shoved in someone’s armpit, screaming back the lyrics to a song.
But everything we thought was solid has shifted beneath our feet this year. It all feels uncertain. That the government is making it harder for these places to ever return, for these nights to ever happen in the small venues that have become a haven, makes it unimaginably sad. But hopefully, in the not too distant future, I’ll be there before the show messaging my mate who is asking, once again, if left of the sound desk means left of the stage or left as they’re looking at it.