Previously in "What I Miss Most": Worrying about nothing.
For key workers, the coronavirus pandemic means putting yourself in danger on a daily basis to deliver essential public services. For the rest of us, it's the most boring crisis in living memory: all we can do is sit inside and think about how much we want to go outside. To help you work through that frustration, in this new editorial series we've asked writers to detail the one thing they miss the most from the outside world.
Be earnest with me for three minutes – you have nothing better to do. Let’s imagine what it’d be like to feel “alive” again.
I’m talking about live music, obviously. Days before lockdown, I unknowingly said goodbye to gigs. I was at the Roundhouse, up in the stalls, hungover and alone on a Sunday afternoon. The crowd were in their 30s to 70s: these were BBC Radio 6 listeners, out for a pleasant conclusion to their weekend. When the singer came on stage, the kinetic energy in the room shifted: people woke up. With every angular jolt of her body, they were repelled or attracted. How often do we see a human being become a magnet? At the climax of the song, she dived from standing off a grown man’s shoulders into the crowd that swallowed her whole.
I’d felt pretty unmoved by shows for a while, so the adrenaline, still rushing as I left the venue, came as a surprise. I think back to it as the inevitable death certificate is sent out for every tour and festival I had in my diary for the next year.
When you’re younger, the experience of your first gig is – for me at least – as exhilarating as other hormonal-high firsts: orgasm, sex, proper romantic love, pill. You were crushed against the barrier, sweaty as someone who stepped out of a sauna fully clothed, and dry-humped to oblivion by a random teenager, all to watch someone whose "work" on whom you’d based your whole personality on prance about. You probably had to abandon a backpack or shirt to survive. I remember thinking: do other people know about this (gigs: the experience)? How could you know (about gigs: the concept) and not do this every fucking night?
At some point in early adulthood, a gig is no longer a playground, where the game leaves you elated for weeks. It's more a space in which you can hope, for 30 seconds, to feel something. OK, I know that's bleak, but it is the truth. Two hours at a gig has become a methodology framework to mirror my emotions and general state back to me. If I’m in a great mood, I relate to the people on stage and happily daydream about my life as a famous, sexualised and extremely beloved legend. I know I’m run down if I stand there, struggling to enjoy it, shifting my weight from heel to heel or if I feel the impulse to leave during the last song. When I'm crying at a song I never liked much before or relating to the hopeless, faceless crowd, then something has gone hysterically wrong – and perhaps I have not addressed it!
But when I do get fleeting access to that joy, that life-force, it's worth every penny. At its best a gig is more even than the sum of its (excellent) parts: sinking a pint so cold it leaves a snail trail on your insides, acknowledging goosebumps on your sweaty neck, the ecstasy of a breakdown, a drop, a solo and that specific moment a vocalist’s vibrato deviates from the record you know intimately.
I’d gladly accept the few parts of gig-going I don’t enjoy to have all that back. I’d take being stationed behind a group of tall men talking loudly about Idles or spotting an ex with their new girlfriend and having to use even taller men as a human shield. Or far worse: I'd bump into an imaginary ex I'm still in love with and have to stand there, while bleak music plays, and I experience the abject misery in real time and in the melodramatic music video in my head, to be replayed when I'm in bed alone that night. I would take all of those hypotheticals and so much more to be at a show tonight.
Because of the tech-aided alternatives we’ve accepted throughout quarantine – the Zoom quiz, online meetings and lectures, virtual drinks and the humble coffee machine banter reduced to sending a GChat message – the digital live show has made a strong case for being the worst. It’s spiritless, boring, just not the same. I’ve tried a few to be a good sport, to support the cause. But on their laptop, musicians only demand scraps of your attention and presence, when they’re supposed to be vivacious bastards screaming for all of it. They – just like me – need the swell of the crowd to make the magic happen. I can’t just make myself feel something by myself.
I worry that live music won’t come back for a long time. I am concerned that it’ll be the last thing to come back at all, because it is so contingent on other people and their physical presence. But I have to believe that there is a future where I’m half-cut, watching some artist – a band, literally any tolerable band – at a soulless O2 Academy with an irresponsibly oversized-and-priced two-pint special in each hand. One for me and one for a best mate, to be consumed in the company of a bunch of people I'll never know.