Sunday, 24 June 2012
What We All Want?
What do we all want? On Saturday 24 June, England's Guardian newspaper heat sealed a CD into the plastic bag which contained their listings guide and magazine. It was Pills n Thrills and Bellyaches by Happy Mondays. Inside the paper one of their writers contributed an article on why he won't be going to see the reformed Stone Roses next weekend, when 225,000 others will brave torrential rain (inevitably) to see the Mancunians perform their twenty year old back catalogue in a Manchester park. The writer's not going because actually, they won't be very good, and he saw them in 1990 when he was young and impressionable, which is a valid point.
On Friday night hundreds of thousands of people crawled through rain and mud, traffic jams and a forest of news reporters wearing flak jackets, to reach a field on the Isle of Wight. Once there those hundreds of thousands could strain their hearing, possibly poking an ear out of their pac-a-macs in order to catch a chorus or three of songs originally written and recorded forty (Bruce Springsteen), thirty-five (Tom Petty) and twenty-five (Pearl Jam) years ago.
Like most everyone else, I didn't really care enough about my past to have collated, collected and filed away physical or metaphysical artefacts of a life well lived. I barely keep any memories, either. Only musicians get to re-sell their past, in the form of 'new' editions of old recordings, or by performing those songs from a long time ago when they were relevant, exciting even. Now they're mostly stale 'classics' performed in order that the punter gets to sing along with the star.
I do still have a collection of vinyl records, a 1977 black Fender Telecaster Custom and a 1963 Ampeg Reverborocket amplifier (both gathering dust) that remind me of some parts of my distant past. I also have a backstage pass for the Stone Roses at Alexandra Palace from 1990, a laminate pass for Farm Aid VI in 1993 (Willy Nelson, Johnny Cash, Neil Young and Lyle Lovett in Ames, Iowa) and a pile of old magazine and newspaper cuttings printed with interviews, reviews and articles I contributed to a range of different magazines (1987-1995). But they are all lost somewhere in the attic, waiting for my passing away when they will be sold (on eBay, probably) by the inheritors of my 'estate'.
While I don't 'want' them, other people clearly do. Old gig tickets, old records, old magazines, old t-shirts, hell even old cigarette butts are traded and prided by 'collectors'(one of George Harrison's old ciggys once sold for thousands of dollars at auction). What such physical items contain is a kind of runic authority, a link with a now almost mythical past. In many ways attending gigs performed by aged and ageing old rockers are a kind of pilgrimage to a past that the attendees never had, even those people who might have been at Spike Island, Alexandra Palace or even the original 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.
What we all want is a shared past and experience that in actuality very few people ever had. Creators of what was cool and anti-social in decades past have been serially exploited and co-opted by media manipulators who use them to sell crap to people who think that by buying an Xbox because it uses a track by the Gang of Four that they are somehow 'cool'. They're not, they're just several hundred dollars less well off. Lydon selling butter was entirely expected and refreshingly uncool.
What's not cool are the promoters and musicians who make up the bill of the numerous ludicrously over-subscribed open air festivals which blight the European and American countryside during the summer. At the back of everyone in the crowd's mind as they make their weary way toward their own 'garden' in front of a stage is the hope that they're going to be part of a 'new' Woodstock/Altamont/Bath etc. Glastonbury (mercifully not on this year) is the best con job of the lot, with it's faux-mystical stage shapes (a fucking pyramid) and eco-concerned message: what damage do you think that the hundreds of thousands of cars and tons of human crap produced at the event do to the environment?
What we all want, it seems, is to have lived someone else's life, in another time. The middle-aged, middle class managerial class who glamp out at festivals doubtless think that they're 'having it large', and maybe they believe that the odd distorted guitar solo wafting from the stage is the ghost of Jimi Hendrix. Maybe the unlucky people who weren't even born when the supposed rock n roll hero up there creaks through the millionth version of the hoary old chestnut that helped forge their reputation, believe that it's just like it was in 1972/1977/1989, and they're 'being' rock n roll.
What we all want is a little bit of past cool, whether it comes from an old ticket, a haircut that only ever looked good on Steve Marriott (without exception; Weller just looks stupid), a 1960s-vintage electric guitar or a 1970s-era scooter. We might think that by buying into a past life we're avoiding the crass consumerism and homogeneity of modern life, but actually we're just buying into another aspect of it.
Once upon a time religion was the opiate of the masses; now it's nostalgic pop culture. What we all want?