On finding unexpected connections

I seem to go through phases of reading certain types of books. For a long time I was deep into the Beats. Then I forayed into filling the gaps in my reading of modern classics – Catch 22, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, some Hemmingway, some more Salinger. Then in response to the Black Lives Matter movement I read several books on that theme – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I like to immerse myself in an era, a genre or a milieu, finding the structures of it, seeing all the elements interplay, exposing the commonalities and highlighting the differences. Now, it seems, I’m taking a turn at autobiographies and memoirs. Two that I’ve just read back-to-back have thrown up some unexpected connections between individuals that I wouldn’t have expected to have much in common, which got me thinking more broadly about the connections between us all.

The memoir train started because my older daughter is learning about World War 2 at (home)school. She had spotted my copy of Anne Frank’s Diary on a shelf some years ago and had expressed an interest. Now that she’s a bit older (11) I figured it would be ok for her to read, but wanted to do so myself first, just to be sure, to jog my memory and also so that I’d be better equipped to discuss it with her. Around the same time, I was on the Waterstones website ordering her a thesaurus and I spotted that they had Barack Obama’s A Promised Land reduced and Mikel Jollett’s Hollywood Park in paperback. I had been meaning to buy Jollett’s book since it came out, so both got moved into my basket and arrived a few days later. While I was waiting for them to arrive, I finished Anne Frank, handed her over to my daughter and up popped an email from Bookbub (if you are a reader and aren’t signed up to this already, then check it out – daily personalised ebook offers usually for a few quid each) letting me know that Janey Godley’s memoir Handstands in the Dark was on offer. Well that would bridge the gap nicely.

Ok, maybe an explanation of who those people are is required. Not Anne Frank or Barack Obama, I assume you all know who they are…

Mikel Jollett is the lead singer of The Airborne Toxic Event, one of my favourite bands, I wrote about seeing them here and here but definitely saw them one more time then that. In recent years the band haven’t been quite so active, but Mikel has become prominent as a political commentator on Twitter. Jollett is based in California, and while I haven’t “met” him – despite various attempts I have met almost all the other band members but not the man himself – I have, however touched him and had his sweaty t-shirt pressed against my face. Don’t worry, it’s all part and parcel of being front row at a smallish gig. In any case, we have connected, in a manner of speaking. We have been in the same place at the same time and are connected by not only the music but shared interests in writing, literature, politics and possibly more. We would have a shared frame of reference.

Janey Godley is a Glaswegian comedian famous for her “Trump is a C*nt” sign on one of his Scottish golf courses a few years ago. I first came to know her work on an appearance of Have I Got News For You, and more recently she’s been entertaining us during lockdown with voiceovers of videos, most notably of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid briefings. We both live in Glasgow but I haven’t met her, or knowingly been in the same place at the same time. However, all Glaswegians, adopted or native, share a special camaraderie and we would certainly have a shared frame of reference.

In his book, Jollett writes about his life born into a cult, living with addicted and mentally ill parents, his chaotic, impoverished and often violent and neglected childhood. So far not much I can directly relate to, although it makes for fascinating reading and is beautifully written. Later he writes about finding his way in a middle-class world, having to mask, suppress or hide his working class background. He attends a prestigious university and finds himself a fish out of water. Here I can definitely relate. As the book goes on, I find more and more commonalities between us. Our shared frame of reference gets wider.

Godley’s memoir recounts her life growing up in Glasgow’s east end in the 1960s and 70s. It too is a life of extreme poverty, surrounded by people struggling with addiction and violence. There is abuse, albeit of a different type. I didn’t grow up in Glasgow but I worked for a voluntary sector organisation providing advocacy to children and young people with disabilities all over the city for 8 years. A lot of my work took me to the east end. I grew familiar with Shettleston, Parkhead, Haghill and Bridgeton. I spent many hours on the number 19 and 41 buses to Easterhouse and all stops along the way. I saw the poverty and abuse that still persisted in the early 2000s-2010s. Kids who had never been near the City Centre, whose whole lives were contained in one postcode. Older siblings caught up in gangs, groomed or selling themselves on Glasgow Green. Kids driven to stealing phones because there was never any food at home. Kids sent to young offenders prison because they wouldn’t admit that’s why they stole. The shame of poverty still hung in the air. Kids in wheelchairs who had worn out shoes because they weren’t deemed worthy of spending money on. So many disabled children in inadequate housing. Families worn out from fighting for things they should have been entitled to. It may have been 40 years after the time Godley was writing about, but, all too sadly, we would have a very wide shared frame of reference indeed.

In Godley’s book there here are gangs, not cults, but the similarities and overlaps with Jollett’s book and life were striking. I never would have imagined that a Californian rock star and a comedian from the east end of Glasgow would have quite so much in common, or that I would find so much in common with either of them. Even little things, like they both take to running to cope with the harshness of their lives and to take back what little control they can. I get it – running is cheap and can be done anywhere, so perhaps isn’t too surprising, but it was interesting to see layer upon layer of common threads woven through each life story.

It made me wonder what other two apparently random people might find themselves connected? I can’t remember when I first heard of the “Six degrees of separation” theory – the idea that any two people in the world are linked through a chain of no more than six acquaintances. At first it seemed unlikely to me, but then I thought. I’ve lived in Scotland, London and Sweden. I have family in Australia and Sri Lanka. That already extends my first links to a good spread around the world. I have friends from places as disparate as Finland, Malawi and the US. That covers even more of the globe. Maybe it’s not such a crazy theory after all.

I love it when I meet people and we have something unexpected in common. Finding that shared interest or experience reminds us of our common humanity. People are people, after all. We may be different ages, nationalities or come from different cultural backgrounds but if we allow ourselves to look beyond preconceived expectations we will find something that will make us yell, “really, me too!” and share a profoundly beautiful moment together. I adore those moments.

Indeed thinking back to this time last year, it was both horrifying and fascinating to see just how quickly COVID-19 spread from a localised outbreak to a global pandemic. News reports in the UK focussed on China, then Iran, then Italy as it crept ever closer to us. The virus doesn’t travel by itself, it travels from human to human, from person to person as they move from place to place. International travel, full flights and packed commuter trains help transmission, but it still spreads around the world one person at a time. We have been told to isolate ourselves for almost a year now, while we as humans, in all continents, have never been so connected by a single event. We are not only experiencing it as those who lived through previous pandemics or significant global events like the world wars, but thanks to technology we are able to witness others, share our stories and have more of a collective experience like never before. We all now have Covid as a shared frame of reference, for better or for worse.

So in short, Janey Godley, Mikel Jollet and I are connected by only a few degrees of separation. I’m just about to start reading Obama’s book, I wonder how many degrees between he and I????

The Airborne Toxic Event, The Garage Glasgow, 18th April 2015

I love The Airborne Toxic Event. No-one else even seems to have heard of them, even among my music friends, so I rarely get the chance to celebrate this.  Luckily, they tour fairly often and Glasgow is always on their schedule. Thanks guys!

It was at the Garage again. Last time, I got there lateish and wasn’t familiar with the venue so ended up perched on the only raised section I could find, which turned out to be the steps to the male toilets. Oh my actual god, the stench was atrocious. But I suffered it to get a view of the band.  But to say it spoiled the occasion would be putting it mildly.

So this time I arrived in plenty time, handily the gig fell on Record Store Day so I was in town already. (See previous post). By the time I got in, deposited my bag in the cloakroom an went to the loo, there were a few people on the barrier.  I went up, but found all of them were saving spaces for friends. So poor all alone me had to hang back and hope I could squeeze in somewhere.  As it later turned out, the lady I was stood behind had a photo pass, which she apparently hadn’t known about, so she scooted off, leaving me in prime position. Yay!

No stinky toilets for me today!
No stinky toilets for me today!

The support band came on pretty quickly, they were Dead Man Fall, a local band.  At first they sounded like a bog standard rock band, competent but kinda predictable.  Then they brought on a brass section.  I didn’t predict that. They veered into tropical rhythms, the singer wielding maracas (one of which flew out of his hand in his enthusiasm and whacked a fellow barrier-stander in the face – he survived and the singer apologised profusely) So that was more interesting. I liked them.

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Dead Man Fall

A fairly quick turnaround and we were welcoming TATE to the stage. I was extremely glad of my barrier spot – the Garage is a smaller venue than the Arches, where I was also on the barrier, so here I got a much closer experience.

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Without any introduction they bashed on with the tunes. In fact there was very little interruption to the wall-to-wall tunes for about an hour.  I didn’t want it to end, but I was exhausted after the hour.  They played  a few songs from the newer albums at the beginning, but later in the set they reverted to their first 2 albums.

I was interested to hear how the latest album would play out live – it has more electronic influences in it, and I feared a laptop, pre-programmed, soulless element, but it turned out to be largely Anna playing those elements on the keyboard, and the rest of the guitar-based sound still remained.

At first Mikel seemed annoyed at some sound engineering problem, but it either got fixed or he let it go and relaxed into playing.  He also seemed to be playing and singing more aggressively than I remember from before.  If I was new to the band this would definitely have put me off.  Not sure if he was pissed of or just getting into the mood of the songs.  Steven Chen is the coolest – most of the time he stands stock still when he’s playing, looking down, concentrating on his guitar, looking all tense as if he’s terrified of making a mistake, then he bursts into full-on rock guitarist, jumping off the monitors, posing like he is in an extreme air guitar contest.

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I can’t figure out TATE’s audience. I was about the youngest person I saw, which NEVER happens at gigs now. There were particularly a lot of “older” women, which also never happens.  People who don’t look like they normally go to gigs. For me, TATE sit comfortably in my field of indie-rock bands that I like and go and see.  I get used to the kind of crowd at these gigs, but TATE gigs look completely different.  I don’t know who a TATE fan is.  I don’t know where we cross over, who else they like or go and see. It’s good, and a refreshing change, don’t get me wrong.  It’s a relief not to be amongs kids discussing their exams. Or be more akin to their mums who are chaperoning them. And it was a more diverse audience. I met people from Spain, Italy and some Chinese (maybe, sorry if wrong) Canadians. People had travelled from far and wide to see the band, taking in several UK/European shows.

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The crowd obviously gave the biggest reception to the 2 older albums, but I felt really uncomfortable when Sometime Around Midnight started and got a massive cheer. That song (watch video here) should be met with revered silence, not a raucous rabble “yeah, I know all the words to this one!”, then appropriate appreciation at the end, once we are all reduced to tears and shaken to our cores as we share in this man’s intense grief and pain.  But it wasn’t to be.  I’m just glad I wasn’t at the back where undoubtedly people would have been STILL TALKING throughout.  I would not have been responsible for my actions.

I almost lost it when a phone was rammed in the back of my head for the hundredth time as people held them up behind me constantly trying to get a good shot/video. I took a few, but as I was right at the front I could keep my phone quite low and not disturb anyone. A few shots and it was away in my pocket again. I looked behind me and saw not faces, but a wall of phones. I’d be happy if they were banned.

On the first song of the encore (I’m sorry, I have completely forgotten what it was. It was a bouncy one.) Mikel jumped off the stage, on to the barrier. He was over to the left of me, then suddenly he was right in front of me. I mean RIGHT in front of me. I got a face full of sweaty t-shirt. I got shoved from behind and had to (yes, I HAD TO!) put a hand up to hold on to him to stop myself suffocating. Although that wouldn’t have been a bad way to go. He was encouraging us all to jump, so I was pogoing along as it would have been rude not to. Also I was clinging to him for dear life. I was mildly sweaty beforehand and extremely sweaty afterwards. He leapt back on to the stage and I could breathe again.

A few songs more and it was all over. It had been intense. Back-to-back songs, lots of jumping, singing along, shouting out the expected chants, “Gasoline!” and apparently we even got a world exclusive of “Poor Isaac” from their recently released Acoustic album “Songs of God and Whiskey”.

Mikel threw all his picks into the crowd and personally handed his setlist to the Canadian guy 2 along from me.  I was just turning to go when drummer Daren came forward and started handing/throwing drumsticks.  Setlist guy grabbed one, but I protested at his double haul (in fact he had gathered some picks too) so I got the stick. Woo! On closer inspection they have been properly used, and signed by the man himself. Double woo!

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Due to the early start, it was all over by about 10pm, so I headed round the back to see if I could catch any of the band.  After a short wait with some of the people I had met last time I was stalking them, I met Steven (again – he’s so cool) and Daren.  I thanked him for the stick and told him I was a drummer, he was pleased and I told him I’d definitely try to use it.  Canadian guy was there and was bummed that I had it, but relieved I wasn’t going to sell it on eBay. Daren was really nice and chatty too.

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Me and Daren. And drumstick.

Me and Steven Chen. He's so cool.
Me and Steven Chen. He’s so cool.

I met new bass-player guy Adrian Rodriguez too, but I look hideous in the photo, so that’s not going up anywhere. They all signed my ticket. Daren told us it was unlikely that Mikel or Anna would be coming out, so we headed off.

A great night, after a great music-filled day.

The Airborne Toxic Event, The Arches, Glasgow, 7th November 2011

I am so much in love with The Airborne Toxic Event. I’ll admit it has been a whirlwind romance and I am still in the first flushes of love, but seriously I can’t get enough of this band right now. I am having a “where have you been all my life?!” moment.

It all started in the summer when I saw coverage of them playing at some festival. I can’t remember which festival, but I remember sitting through hours of tedious sets by tedious bands, wishing that some of the more interesting/obscure / newer bands would get some airtime when all of a sudden  The Airborne Toxic Event burst on to my TV. Finally here was a band that made me sit up and take notice.  I had vaguely heard of the name, but had assumed (as many do) that they were more of a metal-type band so had rather unfairly dismissed them.  But their live set at that festival was one that stuck in my mind and made me add their name to my ever-increasing “to listen” list.

Months later I finally got round to looking them up on Spotify. Well I was captivated.  I listened to both their albums over and over. It feels so good to discover new music. The lyrics, arrangements, energy and passion all combined into one near-perfect package.  Did my research and it turns out they have a really interesting back-story. Well if Wikipedia is to be believed. A life-changing traumatic experience kick-started the lead singer Mikel Jollett (Scandinavian background? I love him already) into writing songs after previously being a literary writer.  The rest of the group have jazz/classical backgrounds. I always feel secretly pleased with myself when I discover that bands that I like have classical training. I like to think that I can recognise the influences and that I am somehow more sophisticated in my tastes than just plain old rock music. Anyway, it is an interesting combination of history and experience that goes into the band and it is a powerful result.

I found that they were due to come a play in Glasgow so I snapped up a ticket and waited eagerly.  I was ridiculously excited in the run up to the gig and some friends (sadly none near enough to come with me so I went alone. Again.) had told me that their live shows were incredible so that only added to my anticipation.  The Arches is a cool venue, there are indeed many arches (it is underneath the main rail station in Glasgow) and it has a kind of spooky medieval thing going on. Or maybe that’s just because it was near to Halloween. At one point during the gig Mikel joked that we’d all be perfectly safe if there was a nuclear attack. It’s a small-ish venue, so there were already some people up at the front. I scouted for a suitable place to park myself, but was faced with the perpetual dilemma of not being able to see versus comfort and safety. I guessed that the crowd would get a bit raucous and didn’t want to get crushed. But then I saw an opening on the barrier and decided to go for it. I’ve come to realise that it is safer at the barrier cos at least you only get crushed from 3 directions and at least you can see the stage at the same time. Getting crushed from 4 directions and only being able to see other people’s sweaty backs is not what I want to pay money for.

Unfortunately I was right next to a ginormous speaker and the sound guy was fond of ramping it up to the max, so I was pretty much deaf in my left ear after about 5 minutes. I had vowed after the last gig to get myself some earplugs, but hadn’t quite got round to it. I could’ve asked the venue but that would have meant giving up my barrier spot. Swore to buy some next opportunity.

So the support band came on. They were quite good. I can’t remember their name. They were from Leeds I think, and a girl behind me commented that their name sounded like a posh bar or restaurant.  Ok enough of the laziness, I just googled it – The Chevin. She was right.  Yeah so they were ok, there wasn’t anything that particularly grabbed me about them, nothing original, but they played well and were decent enough that I was nodding along appreciatively and they got us all in the mood. I’ll say one thing for them, their drummer was pretty amazing.  They had some really nice rhythms going on and the drummer rarely did a standard 2/4, bass/snare thing, he was all over the kit, that was good to see.

Then The Airborne Toxic Event’s sound guy came on and insisted that the volume be turned up even more. I wanted to smack him.

Anyway, after not-too-long a wait The Airborne Toxic Event entered the stage. My god, the sound was so loud it had reached the point of distortion. I couldn’t make out a word that Mikel was singing and my left ear began to hurt. But the band were utterly amazing. I couldn’t bring myself to move away from the speaker despite the possibility of ear-death because they were just so awesome.  I keep saying that I don’t write proper reviews here, I just write about my experiences. I’m not very good at finding suitable adjectives to describe performances without lapsing into superlatives or sounding like a twit. So I’ll just say they were very very good.  Mikel’s performance is at once energetic, raw, sincere, tender, heartfelt and angry.  He was visibly enjoying himself, but still managed to portray the depth of feeling in the lyrics.  He came down to the front of the crowd twice, one of those resulted in a full-on crowd surf half-way to the back of the audience and back again.

The band played tightly together, despite there being 5 of them and it being a fairly small stage, they managed to manoeuvre around, swapping instruments and taking turns to come to the front of the stage.  There was nice interaction between them, I think each of them played together with the others at least once. I particularly liked it when the bassist played his guitar with a bow alongside the violinist. Noah (bassist) was apparently an upright bass player in a jazz band /music teacher in a previous life and often plays upright bass on records and in videos. Maybe sometimes on stage too, but not tonight.   Violinist / backing singer / keyboardist Anna also came down to the front of the crowd with her electric violin, but promptly got hauled back by security.

They all encouraged lots of audience participation (not that we needed much encouragement) hand clapping, waving etc etc and Mikel would stand right on the edge of the stage and hold the mic out for us to sing back lines. Favourite moment had to be shouting “GASOLINE” throughout the song of the same name.  I think he was down on the barrier at that point. One of the most surreal words to be shouted at a gig but it worked. Almost as weird and as much fun as shouting “SOLACE!” during a Mystery Jets gig.

I love American bands because they just ooze confidence and charisma, you just can’t help but love them.  All the members had the rock star pose down, they all looked super-cool but not arrogant or pose-y (yeah, that’s a word, shut up).

It was interesting because having just got both their albums recently, and together, I knew which songs I liked but I didn’t know which were the big crowd-pleasers or singles or anything. But actually every song got a great reception and I enjoyed them all, I sang along where I could, given the intelligibility of the lyrics due to the sound system and the fact that I haven’t yet learned all the words.  Not my fault, I have listened to the albums a lot but there are also A LOT of words in each song. Not a bad thing, I quite like the narrative style of Mikel’s lyrics but it’s not easy to pick them up in a short space of time. But anyway, I just enjoyed watching and listening. At least the volume of the speakers meant I didn’t have to listen to my fellow audience members caterwauling away with their own versions. And they are an interesting band to watch – 5 of them means there’s always something going on. I tried to draw my eyes away from Mikel (not easy, did I mention the oozing charisma?) because it was fun to watch Noah’s posing, Anna’s beautiful violin or Steve’s studied concentration. Couldn’t see the drums much but they sounded good.

*crap phone photo alert*

There were so many good moments, the whole evening was one super-extended good moment, but hearing, “Sometime Around Midnight” live was one of those extra-special moments.  The song is a slow, crescendoing surge of a song, with characteristic narrative lyrics, no chorus or hook and it just swells as the story progresses and every time I hear it I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach and my hairs stand on end and I just have to stop and listen to it with my full attention. One of those songs. So it was great to hear it live and it lived up to expectations, I got shivers as soon as I heard that violin intro. It is a gorgeous song with dark lyrics and incredible emotion and I’m sure half the audience were almost in tears.  I certainly was.

The set ended, much thanking and waving,  and they went off stage, emerging for a very short (2 song?) burst of encore then suddenly they were gone.  The lights stayed dim for ages and no-one moved, we all thought we were going to get another encore, but alas the roadies woke up and started dismantling the kit. The set must have been less than an hour, which on the one hand was disappointing but on the other hand I think my ears would have started bleeding had it gone on any longer. But it was one hell of an almost-hour. I wish I had been there with someone so that I could gush about how great it was. In the end I did the 21st century thing and tweeted about it. I did meet some girls in the bathroom who were swooning at the fact that they’d touched the hand of Mikel when he was down at the barrier, one of them was disappointed that she had failed in her attempt to grab his ass.

I looked longingly at the merch stand on the way out, but seeing as I was flat broke I couldn’t afford anything.  And it’s not like I need any more band t-shirts.

I’ve continued to listen to their albums since the gig and checked out their website which contains book and music recommendations and is well worth a look. I am now a total convert and class The Airborne Toxic Event among my favourite bands.  I’ll be first in the queue should they return to Glasgow and that gig will stick in my memory for a long time, one of the best I have ever been to.