Saturday, 14 February 2015

BLAH BLAH THEATRE CRITICS

I was on a panel at the Lyric Hammersmith yesterday, a sort of post-mortem thingy on their Secret Theatre rep project. As clickees on the first link may glean from the interesting spelling of my name, I was a late addition to the bill – subbing for a more important journalist who had to pull out in sad circumstances – but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a pretty partisan crowd and I was worried that I was possibly there to represent the bastard mainstream media in a sort of mainstream bastard capacity, but I think it went alright and that while generally the contributions of my fellow panelists were appreciated more, I didn't make a tit out of myself and was able to express my slight ambivalence about the project in a fairly constructive way. And I got a few laughs, which is obviously the most important thing when on a discussion panel about avant-garde theatre.

But there were two things I wish I'd said. The first is so minor that it's basically petty: there was a really cheap shot made by somebody on the panel about a theatre I'm a big fan of, and I wish I'd said something manly and rugged in said theatre's defence, hopefully history will note (it has been recorded and archived for the V&A!) that I pulled a bit of a face. It wasn't really a big deal.

The main thing, though, is that I wish I'd got to give an answer to a question one of the audience asked. I don't think there's any particular reason it didn't happen: mostly all three panelists got asked their thoughts on every question, but we were getting towards the end and Tom the chairman was trying to hurry things along and I'd certainly done more than my fair share of talking.

Anyway, the question was something like 'does a project like this require different models of criticism to respond to it?' with the general consensus from the room and the rest of the panel that the bastard mainstream bastard media bastards (there was no such hostility, just mild disappointment) hadn't sufficiently engaged with the terms of the project.

And this reminded me of some thoughts I'd had when much acclaimed etc cult theatre person Chris Goode did a popular tweet the other day (popular enough that I got an email from Twitter about it!) that said this:


And I suppose my longwinded answer to both of those is that I think for reasons that are partly completely understandable, and partly to do with the chronic self-absorption of artists, there can be a great misunderstanding about why bastard etc theatre reviewers write their bastard reviews. 

I suppose my background is music writing, and while I might have given the odd small artist a helping hand and probably encouraged the occasional record purchase, essentially the idea that any music writer beyond the very top tier writes to have any influence over musicians is absolutely hilariously absurd. And even then, I think you look at somebody like Alexis Petridis at the Guardian: he does have clout, but clearly he is very much from the tradition of writing entertainingly, for the love of it, for an audience; not offering academic critique for the artists or – god help us all – feedback

I would say the hallmark of a mainstream bastard is that we write for an audience first and foremost, both in the sense that we are trying to couch things in a useful way to that audience, but perhaps more importantly, creating works of entertainment for that audience, and I think some theatre artists really don't see that, or believe that a lengthy academic critique would be of equal value and entertainment. Time Out London's magazine readership is about 750, 000 people, many of whom read the theatre section, many of whom don't, some of whom might only do so because they're idly drawn in by a nice picture or a rude pull-quote. But I'd never try and write something that wasn't nominally for all of them. 

I don't think even those readers who are regular theatregoers would on the whole enjoy long academic explorations etc. But I think the main thing to say is it's not a compromise to have to entertain them: it just means that the article has to exist somewhat independently of the artist - if a bastard bastard bastard has any importance to readers, it's as a voice that is trusted because you rate their writing THEIR DARE I SAY IT ART. And I understand why that's a bit irritating to artists, to have jokes and analogies and theories and conceits and clunking beginner's context shoved in when they'd just like a piece of writing that was useful to them as feedback. But the review is not for them, it is a piece of entertainment that conveys to an assumed audience another person's opinion of a show. It's more op-ed than academia, though I hope it comes from a place of enough empathy to try and be helpful to the person reading it.

But what of the contrasting writings of the young bloggers?

I don't think the assumption that the young bloggers and the bastardbastardBASTARDS are essentially doing the same thing is at all helpful - it would be arrogant and not a little bizarre for a young blogger to write 'for' a large, general interest audience. Instead they're generally driven by other things, in many cases a desire to completely explore and interrogate their own response to a show, and I think as a rule that's quite appealing to an artist. And certainly beyond that one can even enter a conversation etc with an artist in a way that would be unimaginable in popular music.

So if you're an artist you enjoy the young bloggers more than the bastardBASTARDBASTARDS and maybe the general decline of print media gives you a sort of thought that maybe the print media is in decline because they're not writing 2,000-word-long critiques of your work, or is at the very least poetic justice for it. But maybe, and accepting it would be manifestly moronic to suggest every development in print media in the last 50 years has been good, maybe Kenneth Tynan wouldn't have been that arsed about your show and maybe we're just living in a moderately positive era where the young bloggers are kind of a new thing that wasn't there before and it's nice the young bloggers and the BAAAASSSSSSTAAARDSSAH are living side by side, like when mammals and dinosaurs hung out together.

And having said all that – brilliantly – to the bloke in the Lyric Hammersmith audience, I'd be all like 'so the newspaper reviewers probably were giving a reasonable response to Secret Theatre in light of the fact that they were writing for the nominal man on the street, but the young bloggers were also doing so in light of the fact they weren't, and let's all be friends, here's a cake'. And I'd have got a round of applause and everything would have been alright, forever.

Postscript: hilariously, a week or so after publication, The Stage got in touch to ask me if I'd be up for turning this here blog into a 500-word article, for money - so maybe I'm wrong about the motivations of bloggers, or possibly I'm such a corporate shill that I can't even write an obscure blog post without it going mainstream.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

BOB DYLAN'S VOICE

For reasons that are far too vague and uncontroversial to explain, I've never been 'into' Bob Dylan in the way people are 'into' Dylan. So I assumed I'd never write a piece about him, meaning of all the things I've ever written than make me sound like an arsehole, a Bob Dylan article wouldn't be one of them – because it is a fact that nobody has ever written anything about Dylan without sounding like an arsehole. No exceptions.

Anyway, that was well and fine, until I kind of realised that if I didn't write the review of Bob Dylan's Sinatra covers album Shadows in the Night for DiS then no-one would and long story short I have become obsessed with Dylan's voice and now I'm going to write an arsehole thing about Bob Dylan.

Basically, I wrote the review (here is a link in the interests of not looking ostentatiously humble) and I ended it by using my unparalleled grasp of rock trivia and referencing the time Dylan said 'I don't believe you' to a heckler, but I wanted to check I'd got the quote right so I looked it up on YouTube and HOLY FUCK I watched this…

.

…which I have maybe seen clips of before and is quite famous (I have a feeling that it's the Manchester 'Judas!' incident spliced into the actual live performance from the Royal Albert Hall show on the same tour) but I've certainly never watched all the way through and to reiterate HOLY FUCK. I have a semi-irrational aversion to watching online videos, partly because everything's so tinny and crappy, but this performance actually seems to work better with that – his voice is just totally fucking glorious, a wild foghorn so loud and rough and untamed that the tape can't record it properly, the top end is all battering ram crackle and it is indescribably exhilarating, by far and away the best live performance I have ever seen on a tiny video on my small laptop. It obviously helps that he was cool as fuck etcetera, but I think the two things that make it for me are the is the sheer, seething impoliteness of it, combined with a madly winning puppy dog enthusiasm… about 4.15 he starts bellowing through his cupped hands while bouncing up and down...  if his records sounded like that I would be writing arsehole essays like this all day every day.

And this fascinates me because while I have been long aware that his voice is a mess now, I didn't realise that he was so good back then. Which kind of makes the mess more fascinating. Seriously, look at this:



Or fuck me, in many ways much worse, this:



Now I am even less of a music expert than I am a theatre expert, but let's be clear about this: it is 100% objectively straight up bullshit to say that his voice sounds in any way good now. It is a gurgle, a deathrattle, enfeebled and sickly. On one level it seems remarkable to me that anyone could possibly fail to appreciate this fact – and on the off-chance this blog has acquired enough SEO for a random Dylan fan to accidentally read it: sorry buddy, it is a fact – and yet go and look at the comments under any of those videos, or an article like this, and you will find very angry people saying his voice sounds amazing, and that indeed the whole sound of it is the culmination of some sort of elaborate masterplan.

On the one hand, this is obviously just partisan silliness. His voice sounds shit, thin, hopelessly diminished: if he had released 'Like A Rolling Stone' in that style the first time around, the limited number of people that would have noticed would have told him to piss off. And let's be clear: there is absolutely no way that Bob Dylan wants to sound like that, because whatever else he is, Bob Dylan is not a fucking idiot.

And yet, and yet… the music Dylan DOES make with his horrible, ruined voice is probably almost as good as the psycho Dylan fans say it is - again, not necessarily my bag, but this, for instance, is something I can get on board with:



My theory after listening to loads and loads of Dylan to try and pinpoint when it all went to shit (he still has some frayed bottom end in 1989's Oh Mercy; 1990's Under the Red Sky is getting gurgly; 1992's Good As I Been To You is full gurgle) is that part of his appeal is his intrinsic tragedy. People like Neil Young and Springsteen have been essentially unaffected by the years; McCartney and Jagger have turned themselves into perfectly preserved theme park attraction versions of their old selves. Dylan, though, is touched by the intrinsic sadness of the fact that you hear not only the death of his '60s self in every ghastly, wheezing syllable, but worse than death: degradation, debasement, decay. He defiles his past every time he tackles one of his old songs. And yet he dusts himself off and makes music that is good, that is different: he is a triumph over adversity, and inspirational, but part of his triumph and inspiration is that he doesn't admit that he's fucked, maybe he doesn't even know he's fucked. And possibly his fans who won't admit he's fucked don't know either.

Sometimes looking in from the outside you want to shriek 'ARE YOU ALL EXTREMELY HIGH?STOP PRETENDING THIS IS NORMAL'.

But like the scene in T2 where Arnie says 'I know now why you cry,' I think I get it. And while Dylan fans may disagree with me, it is worth pointing out that Arnie never actually expands that thought and so it's in fact quite possible that he doesn't know why we cry. Yeah.