I stopped playing live a year ago and, with the exception of a few off-hand mentions at the last few shows, I didn’t tell anyone I was retiring or why. There were small immediate reasons like post-gig recovery time getting longer and the general feeling I wasn’t getting any better at what I was doing, but those aren’t the main factors, one can always adapt as necessity dictates. There was something in the background that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something that just made me want to stop. This blog is an attempt to get to the bottom of that feeling. It’s going to seem like I’m flagellating myself for some imagined sin but really this piece is me attempting to identify a thought that’s been stuck in the back of my mind for a while, like working a stubborn bit of food out of a molar with your tongue. It’s not necessarily the truth, it’s just the interpretation of a slow burning sensation. And to be honest, this blog contains a lot of half finished thoughts, some dodgy political analysis and what might seem like insults to fellow artists. Also, I don’t know how it’s going to end. Just because this is an article about reasons, that doesn’t make it a reasoned article. So here goes…
Britain is a country infested with elites. Elites within elites orbiting sub-sections of more elitist elites. We are the nation that perfected the smug art of the closed door. Every class and club has its own intricate filtering systems. Even in a sector as supposedly inclusive as music we have the golden circle of an arena concert, the invite only aftershow, the VIP cordon and the AAA pass; think of all those people who love a band until they become popular then cast them off like an orphaned glove, all for the simple betrayal of no longer being their special little secret. We’ve all felt the selfish warmth of advice not shared, the bitter clique of a niche craft, the little-known shortcut, the selective entrance policy, the withering collective glare of an impenetrable sewing circle. My friend Felix Hagan has a lyric that goes: “You’d better be on the inside looking out” but these days I’m damned if I know which of the countless insides I’m supposed to be looking out of.
One of the great pleasures (and indeed privileges) I felt as a touring performer was the way in which I was permitted to crash straight into the middle of people’s lives – not their work lives but their precious free time where people can be who they want to be, or the closest thing available. I was one of the things they chose to spend their time on when not up to their necks in work or family or duty. Here we bypass all the small talk, the social games, all the sneaky little ways we attempt to place each other in imaginary hierarchies. I travelled all over many countries and met all sorts of brilliant people this way. But the Brexit referendum seriously knocked the wind out of my sails. Sure there was an energetic honeymoon period in which I wrote a lot of angry political stuff but once I’d got that out of my system I found I’d somehow lost my drift. It wasn’t the referendum result itself that dealt the blow (among my audience are people who voted in both directions and though I voted Remain I sympathise with a lot of the (non-racist) people who voted Leave, particularly in places like the North East, a region that’s always been good to me but continually neglected by successive governments). What stung most was the rise in that wholly corrosive Us and Them mentality that suddenly seemed to pervade everything – be it Us as Britain and Them as Foreigners or Us as Remainers and Them as Leavers (reverse that one if necessary), it all seemed so sad, so hopeless. And then there was that phrase: The Liberal Elite. I’m definitely part of that, even though it is completely imaginary. I like novels where nothing happens, foreign films with wonky cameras, falafel, jazz and Stewart Lee; I’m descended from miners and teachers and socialists but have never truly struggled, have often run out of money but never run out of options. That liberal bubble everyone was talking about was where I lived. And it had burst.
And yes I know one can’t let propaganda and targeted rhetoric destabilise the way one operates when there is mountains of data and testimony to suggest that in fact the opposite is true. But clearly the hunger to believe this stuff is very real. And part of the reason for that is a lot of people in endangered industries feeling chronically undervalued by an indifferent society whilst simultaneously being expected to endure a perpetual drip-feed of self-congratulary pundits all flaunting their fascinating pitch-perfect global perspectives around like the unwelcome wafting of too much aftershave. And what’s worse? People like me giving pithy half-baked post-grad perspectives like that when confronted by a situation that’s immeasurably complicated.
So in short I was forced to admit I’d got a lot of things wrong about the world. Seeing red-faced EDL members quoting Winston Churchill while doing Nazi salutes made my brain do somersaults until I realised that for many of my fellow Brits the Second World War was not about fighting fascism but putting uppety foreigners back in their place. But of course all too often we just see these discrepancies as a grim joke without admitting that the one belief does not necessarily cancel out the other. And while I’m reasoning that through my liberal snowflake head all those people who are constantly being sneered at for all sorts of things decide ironic prancing bearded singer-songwriters like me are one of the many symptoms of a great conspiracy against reason. And you know what? There’s probably some grain of truth in that. My own private tragedy in all this is, however much I detest the idea, I know deep down I am fuelled by a desire to be seen as better. I am striving to be part of a creative elite. I do want people to think I’m the cleverest/funniest person in the room. I enjoy the applause and I never want it to stop. I want to be special. I’m certainly not alone in that; our whole society has become geared this way, just look at all the wits and wags on twitter trying to out-clever each other, all the tender souls on instagram with their beautiful unique view of the world trying to out-magical each other – swarms of would-be geniuses all swooning for attention. And the saddest part is most of them really are talented enough to deserve it.
When I was part of a band at least I could condition myself into thinking I was doing it to give people a good time (nothing seems more positive than making people dance) but solo? There is no excuse. Wordplay and metaphor and irony? That’s classic liberal elite stuff. See a terrible thing on the news: say something clever about it and move on; witness the unmistakable rise of fascism all over Europe and America: say something clever about it and move on. I cannot open my art up in the universal way I’d really like to, because my art is totally dependant on me being the clever one, not all of us being clever together. And the more I traipsed from town to town trying to play the sage fool yet only ever achieving the court jester, hearing about people getting deported, children getting bullied, businesses going under, the more I started to feel that yes, I am part of this problem, this much maligned liberal elite, this creative culture that is at heart hopeful and positive and inspiring but is twisted by a wider industry that sells it as yet another selective club with strict membership rules; where those inside are enlightened and those outside are brutes and drones. Another divisive thing. Another distraction.
Yep. It takes a special kind of entitlement to look at Britain’s greatest humiliation since Suez and view it through the prism of an early mid-life crisis but that seems to be what’s happening. Like I said at the start, this article does not claim to be reasonable. It’s not a discussion of ideas, it’s an exorcism of stubborn fancies.
I am certainly not claiming all the wonderful poets and musicians out there are a force for bad. They aren’t. We would be in a drastically worse state without their gifts and we will certainly need them in the difficult years to come. But I know my motives are not pure ones. I can smell the rot of ego in me and feel how far it has spread. That’s why I put down my guitar, moved to the Isle Of Skye and applied to join the fire and rescue service (I just had my interview, still lots of physical tests to go though so I’m not quite at the sliding down poles stage yet). It hasn’t escaped me that this sudden decision to be a fireman could be just an elaborate form of virtue signalling (after all, as a senior millennial that’s become second nature), but at least the job is a useful one and the skills are practical with a tangible benefit to the community. A rare thing in the modern job market.
So is that the end of my performance career? I don’t know. I still write music, I still have creative ambition. What does one do with it? Is this self-imposed exile permanent? Maybe. Probably not. I admit I miss playing live and interacting with audiences and meeting people. My problem is not the moment of performance – that remains, I believe, a very honest and open gesture – but everything around it: the hype, the self-obsessing, blasting people daily with why such-and-such a gig is the unmissable event of our times… no, just no. Moreover I can’t help feeling that, as a thirty five year old middle class able-bodied straight white man with a guitar, mine is a story that has now been told enough. There’s some really good stuff coming through from some really interesting places and I do not want to get in its way.
But there is a loop hole in all this. Friends play each other music. That’s how it all started for me, long before I went pro. My audience is not growing anymore and those that have been a part of it over the years have, for the most part, become a lot closer than just gig attendees. Indeed, I know most of you quite well now. And anyone who read this far surely must be a friend. No one else could be so indulgent. So maybe I’ll dip my toe back in the water with a few house gigs here and there. That won’t set off any nukes will it? We can sit in our liberal bubbles passing the guitar round. We could even put a sticker on it that says “This Machine Kills Fascists” (on the guitar I mean – the bubble is surely too fragile).
So get in touch before my phone number becomes 999 and we can sort something out.