And now for yet more live event reportage and cultural pontificating. The Crab Fair is a straightforward traditional country show, it dates back to the 12th century. It incorporates contemporary culture but is in essence I suspect unchanged in its aims to celebrate local skills and give everyone a day/week off during which they will have a good time with their family and friends getting horribly drunk. One aspect of the fair that is immediately apparent and nowadays unusual is that the commentators know pretty much everyone by their first names and comment on them and their foibles throughout the day.
The highlights of the day programme are the wrestling, its odd to see yoofs in trackies so seriously doing this traditional, skilled and slightly silly form of sport, the show of vegetables and poultry are equally impressive being of very high standard and again with many young people involved.
The famous highlight of the fair is the Gurning (making ugly faces) competition; it is slightly ruined by loads of outsiders/lads, stag parties taking part, many of whom get booed and one of who hilariously drops his trousers. Boy I’ve never laughed so much in my entire life, how my sides remained joined is a miracle, this was imaginative thinking at the cutting edge of the blue skies world of management consultantcy, brilliant, it has to be the very last thing anyone would have thought of doing, all I can say is this young man will go far, very far, very far indeed. The rest of the twats are just hopeless having not made any effort, however the organisers generously give each of them a go albeit in a disgruntled manner, the compere’s laconic asides help ease the boredom. In each heat a local master is included and when these practitioners take the stage the audience erupts into chants of ‘ugly ugly’, and indeed they are. The ritualistic nature of the event is very apparent and in effect the comperes riff on that. Everyone knows what the outcome will be, and looks forward to that magical moment played out annually. Tommy Mattinson has won the competition 9 times his father before him 10 times, he is the best and his performance well honed – he goes from suave Miami style beach bum to snarling dogwolf thing, even his back seems to articulate forming an angular jackal like hump. When Tommy inevitably wins, the stage is darkened, the dry ice floods the Dias - pierced by shards of light ala some horror film, Carmina Burana pounds out, the Omen films being the point of reference – Tommy whirls on the audience, clutching the horse collar, snarling, his George Michael beard framing his barred teeth, squatting between the two Burton besuited car salesman styled commentators in matching red kipper ties, their arms spread-eagled, Al Jolson showbiz style, it’s a fleeting but powerful demonic triptych, the audience, the tradition all adding meaning, weight, humour – it is well worth the wait (and I've seen it before). I guess it would work just as well as a photograph or film clip, you didn't have to be there but then you would have to understand the place the context, the people, know the life.
But what makes me more receptive to this performance than the others I have recently witnessed – well it’s ‘real’ for one, but that’s not enough there’s plenty of real I’d rather not see. There is a naturalness about the routine, its relationship to its audience, this is a community that's playing ball, and in the image a host of pertinent references, many of them unconscious no doubt. The celebration of being of an outsider community wedded to Sellafield Nuclear Power Station – although the event long predates Sellafield. A contemporary image of the devil, the evils of society and a way to exorcise it (as per many traditional evil/death/fear type folk events) I love the references to estate agents, the use of film reference etc. The idea of transformation, the best gurn has to transform a presentable face into an ugly one, just starting of ugly and going further doesn’t cut it at all. Even the insider outsider prejudice thing talks a lot about contemporary life, of course none of this needs articulating, as you understand it all intuitively in an instance. There is a lot of Mathew Barney in this but it isn’t ultimately produced by some super privileged celebrated New Yorker pondering the fracturing of society with a bunch of seductive but clumsy references – could be that it’s just honest.
I somewhat reluctantly agreed to attend a night of Prince – I thought it might be interesting in relation to the Il Tempo Del Postino art theatre, attending something genuinely popular. Prince will play 21 nights at the Dome – so like 200,000 people, that’s popular.
My expectations were high, with a nagging hint that I might be disappointed. I heard the tales of the purple ones hay days of flying beds, smoke and bikes and cars and knob shaped guitars and high heels and light and video shows of extraordinary sophistication and slickness.
I haven’t been to a live concert of this scale before indeed I have never been to any event of this scale and let me tell you people it was a brutal experience. The venue, the transport, the ticket price, the merchandise, the drink etc - all brutal. Karen’s camera was confiscated (the worst thing there being the que to get it back) and evidently even if you are paying £50 for a ticket the wine although costing the same as a vintage Meursault is about as drinkable as a hedgehog and comes in the inevitable plastic glass. The facilities included sitting on a dirty concrete floor followed by a deeply uncomforatble plastic chair with massive drink holders instead of armrests (form follows function). But ok so the trappings of rock haven’t changed much. The audience was big, white and middle England aged – actually I think we may have been there on roadie night, we were surrounded by Tom Saxondales. I think Karen was disappointed by the mainstreamness of it. For her Prince was a revolutionary experimental cultural innovator/musician who rocked her world – she was extremely cross when I said he reminded me of Jools Holland – it’s easy to forget that for each generation their music is very much more than the light entertainment that it is for the rest of us - it’s a radical revolutionary force. Popular music is this rather fragile territory, we all know it’s basically light weight inconsequential faff, but it is somehow vital to our identities, our ‘growth’ and when someone points out what you clearly already know it makes for a deadly assault on your very existence - hence people get murdered for asking for Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ to be turned down a tad.
The venue was brutal to the music as well, terrible sound, the supporting act, a London African rap group sounded absolutely dreadful, brutally the audience of 10,000 Mexican wavers actually booed them off. During the extended wait for Prince we were entertained by a tiny video screen showing a series of appallingly made promotional videos for tacky merchandise available in the foyer, interspersed by the Prince logo rotating against a cloudscape – cheapo cheeseo.
Finally after 3 brutal hours of hanging around while the audience whistled, waved and were broadly irritating - a short Hall of Fame documentary puff film was shown, a multitude of people saying that Prince was the greatest thing on earth and all without any qualification. Prince finally appeared through some dry ice and worked through his multitude of MOR hits. It was like seeing a good R&B band, so okish, I was most reminded of Tina Turner complete with ghastly whirling dancers in skin tight britches, looking a lot like a couple of frogs undergoing electric shock therapy. The band was made up of some legendary figures, legendary because they can play their instruments well, a skill that for me doesn’t really deserve legendary status, I mean if you’re a musician surely it’s not asking to much that you should be able to play other peoples music well - however that’s another subject. Maceo Parker took his traditional sidekick role getting the James Brown treatment from Prince, ie being wheeled out to fill out songs when it just would be unbearable to hear yet another hard rock guitar solo (the bit about Prince I have never liked). The live versions of the songs were massively inferior to the recorded versions and additionally ruined by the audience singing along. I was placed it would seem in the centre of a choir assembled bit by bit by the legendary Dr Frankenstein, in another key, and on another planet, ‘whern dubs kurwhy’ it did make me laugh but Jesus after a while I was keen to punch something and the those tiered seats do offer a tempting target at just the right height to really get behind the punch and I am guessing that might have helped the Stigs make those high notes that Prince does so well. As you can imagine by this point my partner Karen was livid with me, furious that I could’nt just join in and be lost in the mass event instead of standing up there with my fingers in my ears stroking my pseudo intellectual beard and pontificating on ‘the interesting phenomena’, as Karen pointed out maybe if anything that I was involved in was even a micro fraction as popular. Of course this is right, the Grizedale performances, all the work I’ve ever been involved in, added together would not touch this single performance for numbers and mass enjoyment. In fact I wonder if anyone has ever enjoyed anything I have ever been involved in. I could say that enjoyment is not exactly the ambition but would I in reality like to generate this stomping appreciation?
Leaving the gig entailed a lot of queing furiously. With Karen now not on speaking terms I listened to the conversations around me, most were not about the gig, those that were tended to deal with practicalities of how Prince got under the stage (he rose on a lift through the stage) apparently he was brought through the crowd in a black box. There wasn’t really anything to say, it was, this event like a football match, an endless repetition of the same thing, same physical actions, like when footballers do that weird physical theatre, pointing and shouting, ritualistically adjusting their waistbands, theatrical spitting etc, Prince made all the traditional rock language moves, offering the mic to the audience, cupping his ear, endlessly introducing the band, it was church for Neds. But this is a reality of humanness, the capacity/requirement for repetitive ritual, all sport, most arts. Had I finally realised after 48 years that most people myself included don’t want something different every time, you cant make sense of it. Il Tempo did something a bit different from either the normal art or theatre experience and it wasn’t entertaining but it was more interesting than Prince, I remember it better, I have thought more about it and I have reacted to it. It was disappointing because it seemed it should and could have been better, Prince on the other hand did not disappoint, but he did’nt add anything either, even minutes after the experience they had nothing to say about it.
As we left the stadium the audience football chanted ‘No-thing compares, no-thing compares - to you, apart from the above men-tioned stuff’.
I was much entertained by the ridiculous quote that seemed to headline the press coverage of the recent Manchester Il Tempo de Postino theatre performance, it runs;
‘It is like being on an aeroplane in 1978, the whole audience is watching the same screen’
I can’t really imagine what happened here, did the editor think wow Phillipe has said something really stupid lets put it on the cover.
It is kind of possible to make this into an interesting statement, leaving aside the obvious response that surely it’s more like being in a theatre, etc - this fracturing of the audience is not such a common place thing as yet. I did see a news piece on home entertainment the other day which showed a family sitting room, full of kids, each of them was watching or using a separate piece of equipment , their wide screen TV was split into 4 parts and each viewer watched a separate entertainment. So I guess the procienium arch is not really so reflective of a contemporary consumption of culture, that’s not to say contrary to Ill Tempo’s notion that it’s not still the primary form of entertainment and you don’t need to go back in time and 30,000 feet up to experience this ‘weird’ phenomena ie all watching one thing. The other slightly incomprehensible cross reference re the title of the Ill Tempo thing, is this idea of the time of the post, an idea of expectation that seems to hark back to an old age where the arrival of the post was an event to savour, does anyone do that now? I thought postmen were just a bad tempered and sporadic supplier of junk mail and rubber bands.
This valuing of the live experience (theatre) has always seemed odd to me, I would far rather hear or see a recorded/presented version everytime, live is normally uncomfortable and often painful and that covers everything from sex to sking. There is I think an idea about authenticity and the historical precedent that we haven’t entirely shaken - where you did have to see the ‘live’ version, the only other option being a ham fisted wood block print of it. Maybe I need to start to value the discomfort and pain of live experience as the product.
Which brings me to my most recent live experience where 10,000 people miraculously looked at the same thing (like being in a submarine in October 1944) and collectively found that it was good, sadly for me I was not one of those 10,000 Maniacs.
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