Madonna, O2, London, October 15, 2023

Image: Getty

“Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free”

“I think when you start off in your life with a very big slap in the face you have a different view of the world. You just do… There’s a line in my [Madame X] script, when my mother dies, I get back up and I keep going. And [when] all my friends died of Aids, I get back up and I keep going. Basquiat dies, and I get back up and I keep going. This stranger rapes me with a knife to my throat, I get back up and I keep going. My ex-husband betrays me, I get back up and I keep going. My brother betrays me, I get back up and I keep going. Either you have that mentality that you get back up and keep going, or you sit around, thinking about what people are thinking about you all the time. The challenges I’ve had, since I was a child, are the things that make me realise how precious life is, and leaning over and kissing my mother’s lips in a coffin made me think… in the blink of an eye, everything could change. I’m not wasting one second of it, and fuck anybody who tries to get in my way.”

Madonna, interviewed by playwright Jeremy O. Harris, 2021, V magazine

It feels like there are artists who have always been around, present in your life, in your DNA, in culture, and you can’t remember a time before them. Some are no longer here (Beatles, Bowie), some are here but are well into their twilight (Dylan, Elton, Stones, McCartney), but the list of pop stars who are still interesting, still making songs worth hearing, still pissing everyone off, still completely themselves, still breathing… it’s a short one.
Madonna has outlived, outwitted and outlasted every motherfucker who ever went up against her. Obviously, Beyoncé has come the closest to a dethroning. Sure, people adore Taylor Swift. I find her a nice girl, and some of her songs are good, though she is undeniably rather dull. Gaga has done a few good songs and she’s trying her best (like Madonna, she is a Bowie obsessive). But the copyist is the copyist, even if Gaga is a better actress. Adele’s great as both songwriter and singer but her ‘local girl done good’ shtick is as fake as her nails. George Michael had prime years where he was on her level but could never last or listen. Prince (born two months before Madonna) and Michael Jackson (born 13 days after), both of whom she adores, shone brightly and burnt out, like many others.
Nobody else comes to mind. No other man or woman has come close, kept up or worked harder. For 40 of my 46 years on earth, there has been one dominant pop star who remains standing. No artist has done a better run of singles, none. Sixty-five-year-old Madonna lives exactly how she wants and it’s tough shit if you don’t like it.
I had never seen her live, for two reasons. Firstly, the best tickets have always been eyewateringly expensive and I couldn’t justify it. Secondly, she doesn’t play many of her hits. While I admire that on an artistic level, I didn’t want to pay £300 to listen to half of a new album, no offence. Then she announced the Celebration Tour, which began its 78 shows in 15 countries with four nights at the O2, starting on October 14, the night before I went. It was different: her first not in support of a new album, with a decent price range and big songs promised. I failed to get a ticket. The cheapest ones – a still not-cheap £90-£150 – went, fast. I hadn’t given up hope of going but it felt unlikely. Then last week I was at one of my offices (Time Out, as it happens) and someone said a few tickets had dropped back on. I immediately saw a bad seat (Block 406, at the vertigo-inducing top of the arena) on sale for £135. Sold! I was thrilled and walked around smiling for the rest of the week.
On Sunday, a stressful travel situation had me arriving after 8pm. I bumped into a journalist I know in the lobby and said, half-joking, maybe I’ll ask if they’ll move me out of the nosebleed seats? I’ve seen plenty of gigs up there, I’ve done my time in the 400s, I convinced myself. Nothing to lose. I went to customer services and said, extremely politely, genially, “Can I be honest with you? I’ve got a shit seat. It’s so steep and the narrow stairs are anxiety-causing, would you by any chance be able to move me? I know it’s a long shot but I’d be extremely grateful for anything you can do.” The young guy behind the desk took this in and said, “let me look, it might be possible”. There are always spares dotted around for any ‘sold out’ gig at a place this size. Swiftly, he returned with a Block 111 ticket. My mouth fell open. I’d had a bad week and decided I deserved it. I thanked him profusely, realised it was bashert (Yiddish for ‘destiny’) and virtually skipped away to my amazing new seat.
Time-travelling for a second, it was 1986 when I found her. My mum, not honestly a huge fan of music made after about 1980, bought True Blue on vinyl. I had never heard anything like it. And the cover! This perfect, androgynous, spiky-haired girl, head back, eyes closed, in ecstasy. It makes me laugh to think mum was only 35 at the time! I saw the video for Open Your Heart soon after on Top of the Pops; in a vibrant Cabaret-inspired performance she plays a dancer at a peep show being ogled by multiple men (talk about the male gaze, this was only 11 years after Laura Mulvey coined the term) and one short-haired woman. She was 28, I was nine (and soon to see Labyrinth at the cinema, a life-changing event). You can track your life by her songs, everyone who loves pop music can.
So many beats of her career are my music memories. 1989: the cross-burning/Black Jesus Like a Prayer video? The furore was so significant, it made the news; Express Yourself, that choreography, that gorgeous suit; Vogue, a video for the ages; 1990: the best greatest hits album of all time, The Immaculate Collection; staying up late to watch Justify My Love premiere on Channel 4 after its MTV ban; I rewatched it yesterday and it is still a stunning piece of erotic art; 1991: I was a scandalised 14-year-old when In Bed with Madonna, still a masterpiece, came out; 1992: SEX, a book of her fantasies, still subversive and controversial 31 years later, was published. I’ve never seen a physical copy, but its extremely explicit contents, much of which are BDSM-themed, still have power to shock the easily shocked (the only thing that makes you cringe is the presence of Vanilla Ice). The pop video as a piece of cultural record and remembrance is nearly dead, but I have images from her 90s videos, like Erotica, Human Nature, Secret, Frozen and Ray of Light, burned into my brain.

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Even if I only got half of her hits, it would still be 25 songs or thereabouts. In my excellent seat, I waited patiently for my audience with pop history alongside a multi-generational crowd, many vibrantly kitted out in her most famous outfits, though the group wearing her simple, black Papa Don’t Preach shirt saying ‘Italians Do It Better’ made me chuckle. Madonna is a distinct, demanding perfectionist who won’t give you everything you want (you don’t want her to) so, inevitably, the show started half an hour late, went over curfew and had to drop its encore. It begins with MC Bob the Drag Queen dressed-as-Madonna-dressed-as-Marie-Antoinette (Vogue VMAs) letting us know that mother is about to arrive. You can immediately see that the show is technologically complex, typifying her relentless reinvention and mastery of how to create an arena spectacular. A gargantuan amount of work, it must have cost millions. Many think she looks weird now, because of her unlined, plumped-up face. People judge her for these changes and I do not exempt myself from that. On my immature, uncharitable days, going with the cruel crowd for a cheap laugh, I’ve judged her too. Would you like to have seen her natural, wrinkled face? What does it have to do with you? You’re fine with her body hurting to dance for you but not for vanity? You don’t get to choose which Madonna you get. As it turned out, at this show you get them all, though it ended up being far more complicated than a routine ‘greatest hits’ parade.
Ghosts roam the stage as she takes you on a journey, starting with her 1978 arrival in New York from the suburbs of Detroit with $35 in her pocket, a much-repeated but true story. She has no money, nowhere to live, no job and no way to survive. We get a tour of NYC’s filthiest nightlife, where she is (fictitiously) refused entry with Jean-Michel Basquiat, her then-boyfriend, to queer club Paradise Garage. We see big-screen clips of CBGBs and Danceteria, as she performs her first two singles, Everybody and Burning Up. A run-through of a young life in a city where she posed nude for cash, lived in a rehearsal studio without a bathroom and dated men so she could wash (“yes, blow jobs for showers!” she said, matter-of-factly, on opening night). It was NYC where she was assaulted at knifepoint aged 19. It was where her friends were soon to become ill. This New York was not like it is now, corporate and unaffordable. It was dirty and dangerous. Her 1980s life was about survival, then, and is about survivor’s guilt, now.
Straight after a wonderful pairing of Open Your Heart with Holiday, that joy of being on the dance floor falls away into her pain on Live to Tell, where she rises in a small, oblong, glass box that moves out over the audience at great height as multiple retracting screens unfold to show photos of dead, gay men (and some women, including the mother of Trinity the Tuck, Bob the Drag Queen’s Drag Race compatriot). First, we see her best friend, English designer Martin Burgoyne, dead at only 23, then close friend Keith Haring, 31. We see her first dance teacher Christopher Flynn, 58, and Howard Brookner, 34, who directed her in 1989’s Bloodhounds of Broadway. Then the photos widen to people she was acquainted with or inspired by: Arthur Russell, 40, Robert Mapplethorpe, 42, Sylvester, 41, Cookie Mueller (star of John Waters’ films), 40, Herb Ritts, 50, Freddie Mercury, 45. Then each screen splits, as she sings surrounded by these spectres, into space for 10 photos, then 50, then 100. This latter section was curated with the help of The Aids Memorial, which shares stories of those lost. We see hundreds of faces and it is overwhelming, unbearable. She’s the one doing it every night, carrying this young, grieving version of herself around, and she has been doing it since day one. There’s a reason Madonna is never accused of queerbaiting. Her whole life has been spent worshipping gay culture, as well as stealing from it, and embracing her girlfriends as well as her boyfriends. Multiple new posts this week show bereaved husbands thanking her for honouring their lost partners. This one says he was a superfan and is now “touring with Madonna!” She has taken all these lost boys on the road with her…
Not everything completely works. Some of the songs have different backing tracks to the originals, which works sometimes (fantastic remix of Ray of Light) and not in others. This despite her English musical director Stuart Price, who has done a magnificent job with the music, saying, “what we realised is that the original recordings are our stars”. Would a live band have been better? I don’t think it would have made any difference to my enjoyment. I’ve also heard some claim the vocals are on tape: not true. Her voice sounds brilliant. The narrative falters in the next section, with its vague stab at the usual let’s-wind-up-the-Catholic-Church stuff (big crosses, a little tired), before the revived Blond Ambition Tour velvet bed has M getting into a bit of groping with a female dancer in the Gaultier conical bra with a rubber hood on (quite fun). There was also a slightly strange tribute to Prince, with his unreleased solo placed back into Like a Prayer; a dancer mimes to it on his ‘symbol’ guitar, while wearing the My Name Is Prince cap with chainmail. (Later, a parade of other heroes appears on screen: Nina Simone, Angela Davis, Brando, Bowie. Then Sinead, which I’m taking as penance for how uncharitable Madonna was at the time of the SNL incident.) It’s unfocused compared to the brilliant first half, though it does all get back on track with the deathless semi-Abba hit Hung Up, which she performs flawlessly, at first blindfolded, with topless dancers gliding around her, an homage to her movement heroine Martha Graham, before stopping for a quick snog with a female dancer. The usual.
The sharp, hugely fun Bob the Drag Queen reappears up to tell us exactly who we’re watching before Vogue, which turns into a fantastic Paris Is Burning ball, with each dancer walking while M holds a ‘10’ sign, sitting alongside none other than FKA twigs, as good a dance judge as anyone (this was Madonna’s oldest, 27-year-old Lola, on the first night). Bob reads the ball using the lyrics of Beyoncé’s Break My Soul, nice touch. Her twins, Estere and Stella, only 11, DJ and walk, respectively. Another of her children, Mercy James, 17, plays piano, exquisitely, on Bad Girl. Before a brilliant La Isla Bonita, her son David Banda, 18, plays acoustic guitar on deep cut Mother and Father, as she honours his mother, who also died of Aids (only the presumably non-musical Rocco, 23, is missing). All the figures of her life, those lost forever and remembered, those who keep her going, are present in some form. This night is about what she has lost – her mother when she was five, her friends and mentors and heroes – and the family gained: the one you choose, the one that chooses you. Beauty’s where you find it.
After that high point, there’s some filler – Bad Girl, Die Another Day, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, Bedtime Story – that would be better replaced by missing hits. There are also understandable musical interludes without her on stage, there to allow costume changes and the taking of some breaths backstage, and they are not very interesting. But that’s just because you crave her being there. It’s almost intolerable when she’s offstage because you know each second gone is one closer to the end of the show.
I wasn’t surprised by how well she moves, despite the occasional application of a blue knee covering, shoring up an old injury. She has always been a serious dancer, the woman can move and remains super-fit. Of course, after decades of relentless touring, with Celebration taking her over the 700-show mark, she isn’t going to do all the routines she used to (which most people could never have done), but at times, she keeps up with the dancers, 40 years her junior, after enduring no doubt all-night rehearsals. The songs not performed make a decent playlist: Express Yourself, Beautiful Stranger, Cherish, Lucky Star, Borderline, Material Girl, Papa Don’t Preach, Rescue Me, Deeper and Deeper, Secret, Music. On occasion, she’ll have a chat with the audience; less interesting when it’s boilerplate ‘be yourself’ inspo, more interesting when she talks about her life.
Because of that broken curfew – she’s always late – the encore was absent, but honestly I don’t think I missed much: it starts with a taped version of Like a Virgin, accompanied for no real reason by a tribute to her relationship with Michael Jackson and a mashup of her hits into his. Of course, he would have performed This Is It here and died trying to do so. They’re on the main screen together in some sort of AI silhouette dance, which looks cheap. And let’s take an eyebrow-raising moment to ponder the wisdom of it. Is Like a Virgin (!) the best song to use for an MJ tribute, girl? Awkward. The show ends with a couple of later cuts, 2015’s great Bitch I’m Madonna and 2009’s Celebration, which includes a dash of Music, as dancers appear as incarnations of Madonna in her most famous costumes. Not the most banging encore, you have to say. Maybe I can quibble about the songs not played but what’s the point? I wish I had spent the last 30 years of my life seeing her live, frankly.
You can’t be cynical in the presence of the greatest pop star who has ever lived, an Italian-American Catholic who has been excommunicated three times by the Vatican, who only four months ago spent five days lying unconscious in the ICU. Her life is a triumph of spirit and work over obstacles and she is ready to stop treating her hits as a chore. You want pop stars to be like this: eccentric, unrelatable, thrilling, stubborn – never ordinary company, only extraordinary. Is it preferable to think you could have a pint with your fave, like a Bruce or a Liam? That’s not what I want.
I’m forever removing the word ‘icon’ when I’m at work, because it is ubiquitous in copy. You can use it literally, to talk about religious works of art. But you aren’t permitted to use it to describe every pop star/actor/public figure who does something well. On vanishingly rare occasions, when hyperbole takes your mood, it can be used to describe actors (she’s told you who: Garbo and Monroe, Dietrich, Brando, Jimmy Dean, Grace Kelly, Harlow (Jean), Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Lauren [Bacall], Katherine [Hepburn], Lana [Turner], too, Bette Davis… ladies with an attitude, fellas who were in the mood) or musicians (Bowie, M’s muse, Elvis, MJ, Aretha, Prince).
I’m going to say it, though, because she is a religious work of art: Madonna is an icon. To be in a room with her even for a short time is to experience the 20th and now the 21st century of popular culture. She makes you feel as powerful as she is. In a remarkable speech in 2016 at a Billboard event where she was honoured as Woman of the Year, she said the “most controversial thing I’ve ever done is to stick around”. In the same speech, she said “to age is to sin” and there is no doubt that Madonna is powered by the misogyny and bullying she faces (and much of it comes from women). Every person who calls her an old bitch, who says don’t wear that short skirt or those fishnets, who says take off that make-up or stop putting that filler in, or filter on, your face, cover your tits up and stop showing your 65-year-old ass to the world… all are reduced to rubble. She discards every person who has tried to harm or shame her, from clerics to critics to cops. She burns them all on a fire until they are ash, then smokes their remains. I saw a few fans online whining about her being late or not getting 100 per cent of her hits.
To them I say: be quiet. You’re lucky to be alive at the same time as Madonna. This isn’t your show, it’s hers, and the ticket price grants you an audience. You get two hours of near-perfection. Show up, do as you’re told and kneel.

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Image: Getty
            .           ‘It’s Not a Party... It’s a Celebration!’ (opening by Bob the Drag Queen)
            .           Nothing Really Matters
            .           Everybody
            .           Into the Groove
            .           Burning Up
            .           Open Your Heart
            .           Holiday (with Chic’s I Want Your Love)
            .           Live to Tell
            .           Like a Prayer
            .           Erotica
            .           Justify My Love/Fever
            .           Hung Up
            .           Bad Girl
            .           Vogue
            .           Human Nature
            .           Die Another Day
            .           Don’t Tell Me
            .           Mother and Father
            .           I Will Survive (cover)
            .           La Isla Bonita
            .           Don't Cry for Me Argentina
            .           Bedtime Story
            .           Ray of Light
            .           Rain

Abba Voyage, London

This review contains spoilers

“To be, or not to be? That is no longer the question,” said Benny Andersson from Abba, last week, at one of the weirdest and most astonishing nights I’ve ever had watching a concert. God, it’s hard to know where to start. Well, it started with a long, dark walk through one of the most grim areas of London. Stratford has been regenerated, incoherently, over the last couple of decades, with much of the new-build ugliness coming in the post-Olympics ‘legacy’ period of the last ten years with billions more in investment on the way. As it stands, what is there has no architectural consistency, style or substance. This part of E15 seems to contain only unsightly boxes in which to live. There is little sign of people, shops, restaurants, bars, cafés, community centres: life. If an alien landed there, they’d think, “Blimey, isn’t London shit?” And perhaps part of the joy which followed that long, dark walk around the unlit bypasses (where I accidentally walked into a protruding metal bar, giving me a magnificently large and painful bruise on my arm) and bleak, community-free streets lived in contrast to this lifelessness because of it, not despite it. If the venue was in the middle of Leicester Square or a buzzing neighbourhood, it’d have already taken the edge off the technicolour shock that hits when you reach the 3,000-capacity, sustainably designed venue, as collapsible as an Ikea flatpack cupboard: boom, you are in a hen night. People are simply… happy. It feels like quite a few are not here for the first time. Some are in Abba cosplay, from glittered catsuits and feather boas to electric blue satin flares. The crowd spans generations. There are daughters with their mums; there are entire families out on a birthday trip; there are gay couples in matching outfits. It is adorable, a delight even before you go into the arena.

Abba, like many other artists who were successful in the 1960s or 1970s, endured a disrespected decade, in the UK at least, in the 1980s. From Dylan (the maligned Christian period; badly produced, average albums) and Bowie (Tin Machine; critical hatred which lasted until Glasto in 2000) to Neil Young (sued for not sounding enough like himself), McCartney (Frog Chorus; derision for his wife; the thumbs-up cringe, started by Smash Hits) and more, their legacies were not burnished by being in their thirties or forties; they were sneered at and called ‘old’. Boomers’ reps began their restoration in the 90s and the same happened to Abba, who were already into their mid-late twenties and on their second marriages when 1974’s Eurovision breakthrough came. A fan’s Google review of their 2021 album, Voyage, their first in 40 years, has as its first line: “I have been an Abba fan since way back when it was so uncool to love them.” Björn Ulvaeus (the one who plays guitar; Benny is on keyboards) spoke to that, too, in a Guardian interview last year: “In the beginning of the 80s, when we stopped recording, it felt as though Abba was completely done, and there would be no more talk about it. It was actually dead. It was so uncool to like Abba.”

The newfound appreciation back then usually came from a younger band who grew up with your music talking you up in interviews or covering your songs (in Bowie’s case, Nirvana and NIN did the trick). In Abba’s case, the beginning of their reappraisal was brought forth by the great British duo Erasure, who made similarly perfect pop music. Their four-track Abba-esque EP, released in June 1992, was a sensation in the UK, giving them their only number 1 record. It was the sound of that summer, a wonderfully queer package filled with glitter that was dropped right into your living room via Top of the Pops for weeks on end. Five months later, Abba Gold transformed the band back into what they always were: beloved creators of some of the best pop songs ever recorded. Erasure’s covers and that album, which has sold 30 million copies and is on a par with Queen’s Greatest Hits as the best singles collection ever released, hit people my age like the freshest songs we’d ever heard. Even my parents, no more the right age to be into Abba than I am, being the same age as the youngest member, Agnetha Fältskog, bought it.

Two years later, I fell in love with a wonderful Australian film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which had Abba as a guiding light for the characters and was the second time I’d seen drag versions of Frida and Agnetha (the first being Erasure). The performance, by Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving, of Mamma Mia, in the film’s finale, knocked me off my feet like a lightning bolt. I didn’t see Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths doing the same in Muriel’s Wedding until years later, but I know it had a similar effect at the time (the band have always had vast popularity in Australia). The final piece of the puzzle, Mamma Mia!, arrived in 1999 and has become one of the most successful musicals of all time. The two film versions of the story – a girl searches for her dad on a Greek island, set to their music – have between them made a billion dollars at the box office. There are also two other Abba-related events on in London right now – the long-running West End musical, of course, but also a restaurant, themed around the films, at The O2. While I have no interest in buying a ticket to either, I take great pleasure in how their music has become a soundtrack to pure joy, played endlessly at parties and weddings, fuelling warm nights out among friends. There is a Swedish concept, lagom, which has no direct translation, but roughly means “everything in moderation”. Abba are wonderfully, vibrantly… anti-lagom. To attempt a technological transformation of their music and person, who else could do it first?

Abba Voyage began with the chilly, electronic brilliance of the title track from 1981’s The Visitors, a gutsy choice, given that it was the last album released before they split. And then… there they were. Sort of. Yes but no. My eyes blinked, my mouth dropped open. My ears were fine with the music of course, which sounds as punchy live as you’d hope: a ten-piece band, including three backing singers, work behind vocal stems from their live shows and original recordings (the band was put together by Klaxons’ keyboardist James Righton). But what the actual fuck is going on here? Seriously. Your eyes can see these four figures near the back of the stage… and they look real. Staggeringly, confusingly real. That is, they look like mid-70s Abba, still young. The adjusting to the concept comes when you see them on the 65-million-pixel LED screens, which are raised and dropped as required, and wrap around half the arena in a half-moon shape, looking uncanny valley, video-game waxy. Okay, I get it. I adjusted my senses. And then it didn’t matter, I fell into the video game, becoming immersed in the whole thing. It felt like forgetting the difference between 2D and 3D. Later on, some of the band and the three singers came out of their position stage-right to the front (where of course Abba cannot move to). I turned to Leah and said, only half-joking, “How do I know they’re real?” This was a leap into retro-futurism that, even though I had been told plenty about the show by multiple people, I wasn’t ready for.

Few bands have crafted pop songs as good as this. SOS, Knowing Me, Knowing You (reclaimed from its cheesy Partridge home), Does Your Mother Know, Lay All Your Love on Me, Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!, Voulez-vous… they kept coming. And the show could afford to leave bangers out, too. There was no Super Trouper, Take a Chance On Me, Money Money Money, The Name of the Game. It very much had a gig feel, rather than that of a theatre performance, a museum piece or a screening. Each member makes between-song speeches, which only hammers home the weirdness of this whole enterprise: it’s young faces talking with old voices, because the sentiments are coming from the band as they are now, aged between 72 and 77. Before Fernando, Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad talks about her grandmother. This makes me well up and I start thinking about my friend Ann-Charlotte, who is extremely dear to me. She is also a Swedish woman, born in Stockholm, and is around the same age as the band, with a sister called Neta (Agnetha). I thought of her, sitting at home in Gothenburg in her flat, of how much I miss her, of the Bowie shows we saw together. For decades, she worked as a ship’s bursar on cruises: a real sailor. We have talked often of her parents and grandparents, of Sweden in the twentieth century. We talk about food and family. I’m lucky to be her friend.

After this relentless bombardment of pop perfection and incredible visuals, about half way through there was a smart moment that was very gig-like in its pacing. The band vanished as the screens fell for a couple of songs, set to a Studio Ghibli-style animation that had me gripped (and no doubt sent others to the bar). Near the end, another moment took me wonderfully out of the augmented reality computer game. The intro to Waterloo was a funny speech about how the UK gave their Eurovision-winning song nul points (how embarrassing), but was then surprisingly followed by the faded, low-resolution, ESC performance on the screens. In an instant, you saw how imperfect humans are. A bump on the nose here, a hair out of place there. The Abbatars (lol) are not like that, they are blemish-free, glassy beings, made better-looking than their subjects were, with more perfect teeth and skin and hair and bodies. This is how we all wish we looked, or how we thought we looked in our twenties. But we were not that flawless, we were just as real as that Waterloo clip. Abba Voyage, being watched in the present day with our young lives in the past, replaced by that adulthood-bill-paying-body-aching-losing-a-parent-reality, makes you feel that you can remain young forever. Everyone there felt it, even if you weren’t old or young enough to be an Abba fan first time around, as I wasn’t. It’s not even really about the band. It’s about you, about applying what you’re seeing to yourself. It became about what you’ve lost, how innocent you were back then, your self-vision being yours to remake and be wistful, and perhaps a little inaccurate, about. The real imperfections of your human face and body, ironed away just for one night.

The last song is the heartbreak of all heartbreaks, The Winner Takes it All, the pinnacle of the band’s emotional core. That song is a lot. Björn wrote it about his divorce from Agnetha and she sings it. What it must have taken to do that, can you imagine? “Building me a home / Thinking I’d be strong there / But I was a fool / Playing by the rules… Somewhere deep inside / You must know I miss you / But what can I say? / Rules must be obeyed”. That song is too much. Too many people think Abba are superficial, the embodiment of music that electric blue satin flares and silver-glittered platform heels are worn to, but these are serious musicians. There is magic in the marriage of Benny and Björn’s songwriting and out-of-this-world production, and their ex-wives’ incredible, dovetailing voices. In the post-split years, another thing that happened was the withdrawal from the public eye of Agnetha and Frida, leaving the men to sell everything from their majestic score to Chess to Mamma Mia!. The stage has been half-empty for a long time. Abba Voyage returns half of that credit where it belongs, to the women who sell those deathless songs. We now recognise how often women are denied their due in music, so it is a particular joy that the show makes clear the stars are Frida and Agnetha; it’s about their reclamation of self, their reclamation of the stage, their stunning chemistry, their return to the public’s mind after four decades of their ex-husbands doing all that talking and leading (to this day: they did not wish to do any promo duties for the album last year).

At the end of the show, as the wooden venue still bounces with the party, the young Abba take their bow. And then… the band as they look now appear and basically everyone lost it. A wave of irresistibly manipulative emotion swept across me. On press night, a third version came out on stage, the actual real-life flesh-and-blood Abba. That would definitely be too much! But this appearance of the virtual four in their seventies brings home that Abba Voyage is about the passing of time and the beauty and immortality of music. This show could play in a thousand years just the same. The difference now, and it is crucial, is that it has been created while the members are still alive. It is not ghoulish to watch, like those appalling hologram gigs, which Abba Voyage is miles away from because this tech is universes ahead. But it’s not about tech. They are in control of their legacy and that is their privilege. It simply could not have worked without the artists being available to put on motion-capture suits, surrounded by 160 cameras, perform the show in entirety and use that as the base to create this spectacle on top of.

The estates of dead rock stars are checking their bank accounts as we speak, trying to figure out if they can do this. Not everyone has Abba’s eye for detail or creative control, or their deep pockets, as the show has to make £140 million to break even, and it will make a lot more than that in the end. Certainly, the rich estates of dead artists – MJ or Elvis or Freddie Mercury – would happily hire an impersonator of approximately the right size, choreographed to get the moves right. But that does not solve the problem of the face. A face-cast mask, think Bowie’s in Cracked Actor, won’t do it. An impersonator can’t do it. You cannot de-age a face if you have no access to… well, not to be morbid, but… their skull. Can’t do it. “Capturing every mannerism, every emotion, that becomes the great magic of this endeavour. It is not a version of, or a copy of, or four people pretending to be Abba. It is actually them,” said Ludvig Andersson, one of the show’s three main producers (the others being Svana Gisla and music video director Baillie Walsh, with the tech wizards at George Lucas’s ILM doing the thousands of hours of work to bring it all together). The creative director of the project, incidentally, is none other than fellow Swede Johan Renck, who directed the videos for Blackstar and Lazarus. But if it’ll be difficult for late singers to go on their own voyage, there is no doubt that living artists like the Stones or Elton or McCartney, who definitely can afford it, will be hiring those suits any day now. I thought about Bowie, because his estate has money and no soul, and I bet they’ll find a way to have a go. It’d be Ziggy, because people are basic, but I did allow myself a moment to imagine going again to my show, 2003-04’s Reality Tour. What would it feel like? Like time-travelling, I suppose, something acknowledged by Benny at the start when he made reference to the show being like having their own Tardis. You wonder if one day there’ll be tech that lets the projection, or whatever it is, move around more. That would be wild.

Surreal is an overused word. But I couldn’t get over the details. You can see their pores, the swishing of their lavish costumes (made by Dolce and Gabbana, among others, in a more tailored and modern imitation of their 70s style), the hair on Benny’s chest. It’s all perfect by design. Abba Voyage is the coolest thing, by some distance, a pop group has ever done. The band will never get tired, or any older, or split up (again). It’s a bizarre combo of something that is glassily perfect, but somehow has mountains of soul and chemistry, being smashed together with timeless music. And they’ve managed to do all this without ads, corporate sponsors and branding, which is hugely refreshing. The show can travel on its own, sustainably, with its only partner, a shipping company called Oceanbird. But I hope it stays in London for as long as possible, because seeing it again is in my future.

The naïve part of me hopes Abba Voyage does not lead to a Black Mirror-ish dystopia and become the sole future of live music, for heritage acts or otherwise, that its tech is used carefully, with integrity, but we know this won’t happen. It doesn’t matter. Abba did it first and I can’t see anyone else doing it better. This exciting, ridiculous, innovative, psychedelic show will never be equalled. It took my breath away.

Moonage Daydream

In early September, I saw Moonage Daydream at its premiere at the BFI Imax in Waterloo (followed by an amazing after-party at the Blavatnik Building, part of Tate Modern, where we danced to Bowie with Eddie Izzard: life level unlocked). Hearing too much about a film can be trouble. Trailers and reviews give you inklings while you try to avoid spoilers. But this film, which has been called an immersive (boy, is that an overused word) documentary, I’d already seen most of, so it felt organically like I had to prepare my thoughts and expectations in advance. I’d decided that the absence of much new footage, which friends rather than reviewers told me about, wasn’t going to bother me, but that turned out to be easier thought than done and not even the biggest problem with the film, ironically.

Its creator, Brett Morgen, had been courting hardcore fans for months. The early discussion last year about the film in the press continually said that it was based on ‘thousands of hours of unseen footage’. You might, then, expect quite a bit of it to be in there. Before
Moonage even had a release date, much of the narrative said stuff like: ‘While exact details about the new Bowie film are scarce, unseen concert footage is supposedly a central element to the documentary’.

Perhaps this mixes up the difference between ‘unseen’ and ‘rare’ (pretty basic for a director to know the difference you might think) because at no point was this big fat selling point disavowed by anyone to do with the film. Wait for it, surprise coming up, it turned out to be a complete lie and there is very little new stuff; I’d estimate about 5 per cent. The film’s major find is some footage from the Isolar II Tour, shot at Earl’s Court in 1978. We get all of
“Heroes” (though the first half is audio only, as we’re stuck with seeing fans coming in, for some reason) and a bit of Warszawa. There’s a little bit of Diamond Dogs Tour footage, too. But that is it. In a recent interview with the Guardian Morgen said ‘if you’re a hardcore aficionado, there’s enough new material to satiate you’. *turns to camera* *eye-roll*

He also said
Ricochet was his ‘holy grail’ when giving a story to Indiewire of finding it like he was Indiana Jones. It’s one of the extras on the Serious Moonlight DVD and is not hard to find. It’s not a big treasure. It’s some ‘stranger in a strange land’ footage of Bowie going around looking vaguely like a colonial ruler, bowing his head to foreigners. As always with him, it is well-meaning but it shouldn’t have been excavated here as the heart of the film. It’s nowhere near that interesting. But Morgen loves Ricochet so much he repeats the same footage of Bowie going up and down an escalator three times to hammer home his point (it’s not the only reused, repetitive footage). One assumes the point was Bowie at his best making music when he was searching for something. Then when he found it (the wife) he became so contented that his music went bad. Good grief.

Morgen had discovered all this material after spending five years sifting through the vast Bowie archive (made up of some
5 million ‘assets’). He was only the second party allowed in there, after the V&A curators. Francis Whately did the BBC’s great Five Years docs, but going by this interview I don’t think he had access officially, though the estate were helpful (and Bowie was alive when he started, so it was different). I don’t doubt Morgen’s love for the music and his intention – to show the world why we’re all so devoted to Bowie – is pure. He obviously loves David very much.

But despite what he says,
Moonage is not for fans; it’s for everyone else. It’s a Bowie gateway for people who are coming to him relatively fresh and, at a basic level, it does fulfil its aim. What is better than seeing a massive amount of Bowie footage on a gigantic screen? That’s always a good time. There were things I liked about it, such as the voiceover narration, which uses Bowie interviews spanning decades; that worked very well. Particularly insightful were clips from the superb Mavis Nicholson interview), recorded in 1979. It set the context well of where his life was at age 32. If he came off a bit cold or distant emotionally in those 70s interviews, that’s because he was. And therein lies the problem. So much of the film’s narration is based on early interviews, when he was just as stupid as any of us are at 26. Morgen tries to balance the interviews out by using more recent ones, when Bowie’s older, wiser, more aware of his place, and has a deepened understanding of his creativity and process. But it’s not enough. And worse, all the interviews were utterly humourless. What? David Bowie was a funny man, with a super-dry sense of humour. Using all these interviews to make him sound incredibly pretentious achieved what? Sometimes he was pretentious, nothing wrong with that. But you’re cutting off half a personality by making your film so po-faced, by believing the audience doesn’t deserve even one laugh as it’d break the mood?

Having said that, I am grateful that the film has a short section on his paintings, as it’s overdue for that aspect of his artistry to be taken seriously. Another part on Bowie’s half-brother and his illness, and his mum keeping her own emotional distance, was well-handled. The Russell Harty interview is a hoot, because he is just so incredibly weird compared to what English culture was serving people in 1973. The best-selling single of the year was the jaunty kitsch pop of Tony Orlando and Dawn’s
Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree. On TV it was the era of The Benny Hill Show. The most-watched TV broadcasts of the year were Princess Anne’s wedding, then Eurovision. It is impossible to overstate how the nation would have dropped its dinner when they saw this guy who looked like he’d just got off a spaceship from fucking Mars. Harty, who was deeply closeted, sneers and goads him over his bisexuality for the audience’s amusement yet Bowie’s relative innocence and charm survives the assault. Kids who loved him back then were beaten up at school and called homophobic slurs. Being a Bowie fan was dangerous and these clips are important to show you just why. The film doesn’t pretend any of this didn’t happen and handles his sexuality well, which I appreciated.

Moonage’s aim is to give a mainstream audience all the information so they can fall in love with him just like we did. That’s a highly valid idea for a film! But, how dull, nearly all of the material is derived from the 70s and early 80s. There is a bit of him looking hot and inspired while covered in paint on the 1995 set of Hearts Filthy Lesson (which we don’t hear), but it’s in the film three times. There’s some collaged, thunderously loud versions of Hallo Spaceboy live in 1996/7, which I enjoyed. There is a nice juxtaposed Space Oddity of old with the 1997 NYC birthday concert. There are also some great bits of the Louise Lecavalier dance footage shot for 1990’s Sound + Vision Tour (but without any context, because it doesn’t fit the narrative, more of which later). We get about a minute of the ritual footage from the video, without Bowie in it, which doesn’t make sense without context either, then we see about five seconds of him. There’s a little bit of soundless footage from a Reality promo to, I assume, compare young with old (if 56 is old). But that is it for anything after 1987. All this might take up perhaps ten or 15 minutes of the 2 hours and 15 minutes running time. Slim pickings.

It all means that we are subjected to the deeply boring reiteration of the late-work cliché. What I mean by that is the untrue and insulting idea that Bowie’s great music was over after 1983 (if not 1980). The other week in the Sunday Times, Morgen gave an interview in which he said that when Bowie met Iman in 1990 his work ‘plateaued’ [‘reached a state of little or no change after a period of activity or progress’]. How can he think that? The same paper printed a ‘ranked from worst to best album list’ that has , elevated because it’s ‘rich in symbolism’ (i.e. they consider it tragic), as the only album in the top ten made after 1980. 1. Outside is placed at 20 out of 26 (the Tin Machine albums are excised but the band is called ‘excruciating’). Look, I can understand why Morgen believes the general public wouldn’t want to watch a film that includes more than a small amount of the later work of the 1990s and the late work of Heathen onwards. The media has been ripping Bowie’s mid-career work (1984-99) to shreds for nearly four decades. Wasn’t this an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, the media has told you his 1990s output was shit, but it’s not!’? Morgen has repeatedly, openly disrespected that work in interviews. Then he backtracks on Twitter and says he loves ‘Heathens’ [sic] and Outside’? Not convincing. There is nothing in the film from Heathen by the way, a significant work that doesn’t fit his Bowie-got-boring-when-he-got-married narrative. And nothing of another important album, The Next Day, which is bonkers. Even back in his beloved 70s, there’s nothing from Young Americans and, from Station to Station, we get a minute of Word on a Wing accompanying a cringe photo gallery of Bowie and Iman, then ten seconds of the title’s track’s train sound! Very bizarre. Why not do a classic final ‘comeback’ section? Tell me a third act where he returns in his sixties and then dies a couple of days after his masterpiece comes out wouldn’t be a perfect ending to the film?

his was a chance to expose a wide audience to some of the music he made as an older person, when he deepened his thinking about life, creativity and existence. Instead, Morgen repeats the false narrative about Bowie’s later work by excising much of it, reinforcing the idea that nothing after Let’s Dance is worth anything. If you don’t want to rehab Bowie’s 1990s, okay, sure. It’s a big task, people won’t want to hear it. But the late work (2002-16) is not a hard sell. That period encompasses some of the most exciting, nuanced, intelligent and, yes, demanding and complex work of Bowie’s entire career. I don’t expect a five-hour film. And in a way it’s not even really about something being missing, it’s about a thought process that labels 1. Outside as ‘not on anyone’s bingo card’, as he did in the new issue of Sight and Sound. He sucks up to fans but fails to notice that album is one of our favourites? It’s a commercial decision to not challenge the audience by making most of the film out of footage he thinks they want. No company is going to give you millions of dollars to show a world audience the best bits from a period openly derided by so many (though the NYT recently said the production ran out of money). But if you think his work ‘plateaued’ when it got deeper and more challenging, do you understand your subject?

Thank god at least that the format isn’t one of those boring talking-heads documentaries. I don’t want to watch people who interviewed him a couple of times, or never met him at all, or ‘famous fans’ making their money out of speaking his name. I’m bored of that, aren’t you? In the last decade of his career he let others speak in his place and it worked, it was smart. But now he is gone. So those who chase that ambulance… I don’t want to see anyone churn out the same old anecdotes or stale cultural opinions for the hundredth time. I don’t dig it. I want
him. I want him to speak and sing and be heard and seen. I want more analysis of his music and fewer people talking about his ‘influence’.

Moonage is about getting a new audience to understand the essence of who he was. It’s about young people going to see it and being blown away because it’s all new to them. Bowie is the music not even of their parents, but their grandparents, now. The music of my grandparents was Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra. Falling generationally in between crooners and The Beatles was Elvis, a grand hero of Bowie’s. When I was young, in the early 1990s, Elvis was long gone, from 30 years before, full generations ago. Not even my parents were old enough to be his fans. Another 30 years has passed and now Bowie is to teenagers what Elvis was to me. I knew the real, beautiful, non-tragic Elvis because my mum and her best friend showed me all the 50s footage and some of the better movies. I didn’t know what happened to him when I was young. But most people did and made jokes about him. It was unfair, Elvis deserved better than to be remembered as a fat Vegas act who made dozens of bad movies. And so as Baz Lurhmann’s eccentric, flawed and brilliant Elvis biopic starts to leave cinemas, having completely captured how he filled the world with electricity, so arrives this film that should fill new people with the same wonder. It probably will, if you don’t know very much about Bowie. That Elvis film injects you with a thousand volts of power and energy and magic; it makes you see why, as Lennon said, before Elvis there was nothing. It manages to be kind of a bad film and a work of art at the same time. I craved for Moonage to do the same. But Morgen is not Luhrmann, he doesn’t have his talent.

A moment on the crime of using blurry footage. Morgen’s insistence on it being in Imax is a nice idea in its ambition. And some footage – D.A. Pennebaker’s
Ziggy; the 1978 clip of “Heroes”, the highlight of the film; a bit of the Jump They Say video (no audio, too 1990s), the b/w S+V footage, the 1. Outside painting – works blown up to that scale. But a lot of it doesn’t. There are significant sections that are impossible to see properly because it’s all so grainy and of poor quality. It is unforgivable to put newly discovered Diamond Dogs Tour footage on screen that is virtually unwatchable. There’s a bit from the Station to Station Tour that is significantly worse than the cheap bootleg I have of it – and worse than was seen in the end credits of the first part of the BBC’s Five Years documentary (which trumpeted its ‘wealth of previously unseen archive’ and delivered on it). I’m embarrassed for Morgen. Even Cracked Actor was a mediocre transfer, so was the Serious Moonight Tour footage, so was Glass Spider. Just put the film on Netflix, it’ll look better. This was discussed after my second viewing with an expert (hi Andrew!) and he told us it was because of the differences between what is shot on film (transfers perfectly) and what is shot on video (transfers terribly, cannot be improved). In that case, why use bad, grainy footage at all? It just makes your film look amateurish. Just be honest and say it’s not good enough to be blown up to cinema size.

The first half hour was quite dull, because Ziggy is not my favourite period, but it felt like simply sticking Pennebaker’s great movie on a big screen. That is okay I guess, I’m happy to see Bowie footage again, big and loud. But song after song? By the time we got to the video of
Ashes to Ashes looking worse than any bootleg I’ve seen, I had given up. Use my Best of Bowie DVD, mate, it’s better than whatever source you found. In the mid-80s, yes, I get it, he was unhappy. But to set up the high camp of the Glass Spider Tour as the lowest point? Playing only video from it, no audio, no context, was low. Play his entrance in Labyrinth to, what, sneer at a film that created a massive new generation of Bowie fans? Ignore Tin Machine like it never happened, despite its great importance to him as an artist, because it doesn’t fit your narrative? There can’t have been rights issues over all of it. And putting in the Pepsi ad proved what? It’s a bit of fun. This film is so painfully serious, it shouldn’t have been. It all continues to pour fuel on the idea that Bowie had ‘bad years’ without taking a second to look again and see if there is much of value. He just keeps refusing to expose the audience to anything from after 1983. We hear Spaceboy and a bit of . That is it. Not one more second from the last 33 years of his career.

I’m not a fool, I know this is a fan’s review. You can’t assess movies properly that way. It’s too personal. But when the director goes out of his way to appeal to fans, going so far as to make a trip to the Liverpool Bowie convention (I met him there, he was very nice), you’re saying that this is a movie as much for us as anyone else when it’s not. New people, and those who always liked him a bit and wanted to know more, should go on their Bowie journey and
Moonage Daydream will help them do it. It’s why the film reviewers, who might like him just fine but aren’t mad fans, all gave it five stars (the music reviewers like it less). It’s why the audiences I saw it with adored it. But setting out that being with Iman made him boring/out of ideas in his artistic life jarred (feels like the estate insisted on her being dropped in). Never mind that he put out his weirdest fucking work, 1. Outside, three years after they got married. The estate are going to manage his legacy however they want following the end of the first five years of what I can only assume were his wishes (when great stuff like Glasto and Visconti’s Lodger remix came out, which he consented to). We have walked through that looking glass now. They’ve sold the songs to Warners for £125 million and now you are going to be told what to think about him. One recent ad campaign was a remix by the DJ Honey Dijon for the home exercise bike company Peloton, about which she said: “I chose Let’s Dance because it’s a celebration of music and movement – just like Peloton!”

I don’t think one person is going to realise Bowie is amazing because they’ve heard a piano-led, slowed-down version of
Sound and Vision advertising the refurbishment of your spare room by B&Q (yes, this is a real example). I don’t think one person is going to buy some tat (socks, Barbies, cheap T-shirts, a Low tankard: another real example) and go, wow, I’ve just discovered Baal because of it! I want no part of this.

The film does have a purity of reach, because it takes his artistry and creativity seriously, rather than talking about his clothes or sex life, which is great. I just wish I could see the footage properly and there was some understanding of how he got better as he aged, rather than reinforcing a media-driven cliché of everything going downhill after the 1970s. Worse, setting up that the ‘peak’ we keep going back to is 1972. Are you kidding? His least musically adventurous stuff is the artistic pinnacle because of his impact? This legacy management is out of our hands, but we don’t need to buy into it. I’m disheartened that
Moonage is such a disappointment. Not even just that, it’s a fucking mess. Of course, many fans will adore it uncritically because they don’t want to find fault, as this might be seen as a ‘betrayal’ of David. This film will bring about revelations for many and that’s fantastic. But that was not my experience.

I was hoping it’d become one of those documents that we would end up watching, a bit drunkenly, in excitement at its treasures, for years. I couldn’t even say I was looking forward to seeing it a second time. But I did go, because it had to be done. The first 45 mins of Ziggy is still boring. The middle section when we get to Berlin is a little better on second viewing. The incidental music choices are, repeatedly,
Ian Fish U.K. Heir and The Mysteries (I guess he did get into my Best of Bowie DVD after all; that’s the menu music). And the last half hour is a dirty, offensive setup, lining up a bunch of great footage – Glass Spider, Labyrinth et al. – to tell the audience that he was shit in the 1980s. All set to a very on-the-nose Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. We get it, he was great in the 70s, then he committed artistic suicide, then he got married and then he died. What a waste.


It’s life, and life only: Bob Dylan at 80

It’s estimated that more than 1,000 books have been written about Bob Dylan. There must be tens of thousands of articles. Millions of words. Even I’ve put down a few. I’ve done reviews of two gigs (Brixton and the Roundhouse) and the play based on his songs, Girl from the North Country, which was published by the only fanzine that Bob himself gets a copy of, Isis. Another time I did a short piece about my dad being at the ‘Judas’ concert. There was even a review of the brilliantly strange I’m Not There, a semi-biopic that I think will hold up well as the years pass.

But writing this, as Dylan’s 80th birthday arrives, is a different matter, because trying to embody the depth of feeling I have for him is… impossible. I don’t know how to do it. How can I possibly use words that have been used before to say things that have been said before about my Bobby? A remarkable, yet ordinary, flesh-and-blood American man whose music will be listened to for thousands more years and inspire tens of thousands more books and millions more words? I can’t. There aren’t enough words in the world or hours in the day to dig out the inside of my heart and shout from the rooftops about what he means to me. If souls exist, and if I have one, I can only tell you that he reaches its edges and turns them inside out. In a very different way to Bowie, as well. He’s all about reaching my brain’s insides, my id, my body, my being; he consumes me, he stands alone. I am made of his music. Maybe Dylan’s meaning to me is more cerebral, less personal. To see what he is, is to acknowledge what he means to the world, whereas to know what Bowie is, is less tangible, but far more a part of my bones. Such different men, but also their stories interweave so much (that’s a whole other article).

As I write this, as we all stumble into the third decade of the twenty-first century, all the old rockers are dropping, the second generation (after the 1950s era’s Elvis, Little Richard et al., of whom Jerry Lee is the last man standing) of popular music stars who, quite clearly, nobody could see getting old at all. It’s a surprise to many that ‘one of the last legendary boomers left standing’ (if I can steal that phrase from a forthcoming book) is reaching 80 at all, I bet, as so many of them died before they were even adults. Even Bowie said, “I had this poetic, romantic, juvenile idea that I’d be dead by 30; that’s what all artists think, I’ll be dead by 30, I’m gonna get TB and die. Aubrey Beardsley and all that.” That he, a drug addict and alcoholic, made it to 69, just about, now feels like some sort of miracle. But it does change your relationship with the music, when its creator has departed. That was the spur for writing this. I decided last week to play his canon, from the second record (1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) onwards. Almost immediately, I was overcome by emotion that I didn’t expect. Overcome by that young man’s words and his voice, its spoken-word quality, for he has never been a singer in the traditional sense (“I’m just as good a singer as Caruso!”). It took a while to figure out what the sensation was… gratitude. Because the dominant musical figure of my life, David Bowie, is gone. And I don’t remember having a moment like this when Bowie was still alive where I thought: I must appreciate this person because they won’t be here one day and everything will change. Perhaps that’s what this bit of writing is an attempt to do, to show that I am achingly grateful because I’ve realised that I must savour and hang on to every single album, song, gig (one can only hope for more, I’ve only seen him 12 times), lyric and moment while Dylan is here sharing the planet at the same time as me. I am lucky to have lived at the same time as both men. But now Bowie is gone and my relationship to his music has changed, because it was forced to. Thinking about the musical figures I was aware of when I was young, played loudly and often by the parents, it was always Bob and Miles Davis. But Miles died in 1991, when I was 15, so he switched from being an active person, who released music and could be seen in concert, to a gone person. I knew him as a living artist for only a short time. But Dylan? He kept on going. He kept on making albums too and, no, not all of them were great. Some of them weren’t even good, especially from the 80s to the mid-90s (with 1989’s Oh Mercy being a rare highlight). But the point is that he is here. And maybe you shouldn’t care to be heavily critical when that person has given you so much. Having said that, he has had a pretty surprising late-career renaissance, bookended by 1997’s Time Out of Mind and last year’s wonderful Rough and Rowdy Ways, a self-curation of his own legacy and the latest acknowledgment of his mortality. But even if he just phoned it in like Jagger, even if he’d not written a good song since the 70s, I wouldn’t love him any less.

Because love doesn’t work like that. There’s so much in the credit column that even if the debit column builds up a little, it doesn’t matter. It’s complex to talk about the warmth for Dylan that envelopes me and my dad now, especially now my mum is gone. I wish she was here to read this and celebrate the birthday milestone. She’d have a lot to say, for sure, about her Bobby. And what she’s missed eh? Not just five albums – two of his originals and three covers collections – but… he won the Nobel Prize for Literature! That was pretty surreal. When it happened, in fact, it was quite funny to see the fusty old academics and their spluttering, affronted articles talking about a pop singer who’s dared to walk the halls of great poets and novelists. But if the most significant influence on twentieth-century popular music culture doesn’t deserve a Nobel (and an Oscar, he has one of those too) who does? Like all the other gifted Jews who wrote those songs, he’s responsible for a second version of the Great American Songbook. Okay, yes, we can speak up for Sinatra and Elvis as towering figures. And honestly, I think Joni Mitchell is better on each individual count – musician/songwriter/lyricist/producer – than anyone else, full stop. But Dylan is the greatest and most influential musical figure of the last century. I’m not saying anything new here. But does anyone know what Bob Dylan, the constructed persona of Robert Zimmerman, actually thinks about it all? His lecture, given in writing, not in person, to accept the Nobel was sprawling, wild and filled with literary allusions, namechecking The Odyssey and Moby Dick, but it was also very self-aware. I suppose you’d become a monstrous asshole if you believed everything that people wrote about you. He does give the odd interview that lets the light in, just for a second but he’s also smart enough to know his place in history yet be able to brush it off his shoulder. Living long enough to see these types of tributes to your big eight-zero must be like reading your obituary.

It makes me think about how it must have felt for Bowie to witness the mass freakout when Where Are We Now? came out in 2013. It was probably a little like being present at your own funeral. Watching people react as if it were to a joyful eulogy. He had plenty of ego to him, but I suspect he was quite shocked at the outpouring of happiness that greeted his return and I’m glad he got to witness that. I hope Dylan is similarly tickled by how loved he is: perhaps he might catch some of the excellent articles and radio shows that have come out in the last couple of months.

Listening to his early stuff now, you can hear this arrogant, brash young man who knows how brilliant he is. He simply reeled off dozens upon dozens of songs that people will still be listening to for millennia. Sometimes I think about what he’s actually like, because none of us knows him. Only his family get to see past the character of ‘Bob Dylan’. To them he’s just an ordinary zayde (Yiddish for grandfather). A cousin of my dad’s told him that Bob showed up about ten years ago at her synagogue, near Encino, California, which was hosting a social occasion for Chabad (an Orthodox Jewish organisation which he has publicly supported, appearing at a telethon, of all things). A friend who was there told her that this unkempt man shuffled over and started a polite conversation, before asking her out on a date. She had no idea who he was. Equally politely, she said no thank you and he said it was nice to meet her. After he walked away, someone else came up and said, ‘You know who that old man was? Bob Dylan!’

Who else knows him, family aside? Maybe his famous friends (sworn to an omerta for fear of ex-communication). But not biographers or acolytes, and certainly not the bizarre, obsessed fan (one of many) who made a habit of going through the bins outside his house. You might think he’d be understood by others on his level. But even then, a figure such as President Obama found himself beautifully baffled by Dylan – and that was just how both parties wanted it. In 2010, two years before he awarded Bob the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Dylan performed at the White House. There was no rehearsal. He turned up, played one song, shook the president’s hand, tipped his head and gave a small smile, then disappeared. Obama later said, “That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.”

These types of odd stories abound: showing up at his grandson’s school, coming off like the ‘weird guitar guy’. Taking the bus tour of Lennon’s childhood home with everyone else and just sitting quietly on John’s bed. The surely apocryphal tale of mistaking a plumber called Dave for his mate Dave Stewart in Crouch End in the 90s. The author Merrill Markoe, who lives near him in Malibu, has related a decade’s worth of cryptic but magical tales about his Christmas lights; some years they were very plain but later they became a touch more opulent. (I find it strange that any Jew would celebrate Christmas in any way but I know this is a great deal more normal for American Jews than British ones!) Another great story is told by the brilliant writer-director Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Borat), who walked into HBO with Dylan to pitch a slapstick comedy at Bob’s behest. At the meeting, the head of the network, Chris Albrecht, approaches Bob and says, “It’s so nice to meet you, I have the original tickets from Woodstock!” Staring him up and down, Dylan says, flatly, “I didn’t play at Woodstock” then walks over to the windows overlooking the city and spends the entire time staring out of them. It’s also worth mentioning that Charles resembles a more far-gone version of The Dude – with long hair and long white beard – and at that time was going through a phase of wearing pyjamas every time he left the house, while Dylan was wearing a cowboy outfit like Lee Marvin’s in Cat Ballou. They sold the show but, on the way out of the building, probably because the HBO chairman thought he played at Woodstock, Bob said he’d changed his mind and didn’t want to make a Buster-Keaton-esque comedy sitcom starring himself after all. He and Charles later did make a movie together, the extremely loose and weird Masked and Anonymous.

Then there was the time when he got escorted by the police back to his hotel because a local homeowner in a New Jersey neighbourhood he was walking around in, late at night, thought he might be casing the joint. The deathless standfirst is one of the finest I’ve ever read, not least because, although he lived in the town at the time, there’s no reason to, again, mention the 1969 music festival: Forty years after Woodstock, Bob Dylan is mistaken for a homeless man. There are dozens more of these tall tales.

My dad told me the story that, I think, sums him up best. It’s my favourite because it makes me laugh every single time I hear it. Sometime in the 80s or 90s, an anecdote made the rounds about a guy getting into a lift at a hotel and, to his surprise, there was Dylan. He recognised him immediately and moved toward him, saying, ‘I know who you are, but you don’t know who I am’. To which Bob turned toward him, giving a death stare, and replied, ‘Let’s keep it that way.’

He’s always got his eye on the future. Selling his songs may have, to some, seemed a cynical venture but not only does it secure his legacy forever, it also ensures income for his descendants for the next ten generations. In fact, he’s well known for saying yes to any song licensing request whenever asked and has shilled for products for years, from lingerie to cars to his own whisky. I guess what we can infer from all those moves is that he doesn’t value his music as much as others do, which frankly comes off like a fairly healthy attitude to have. People have spent 60 years trying to understand Bob Dylan. And good for them. But I’m not interested in reading books about his private life or raking over the same old coals in nostalgia rock magazines or buying remasters on the anniversaries of album releases. And I don’t imagine that’ll change when he’s not here. I just want the music that he’s in control of putting out and I can leave the rest.

There’s a Yiddish phrase, I suppose the Jewish equivalent of ‘knock on wood’, which is keina hora. It, roughly, translates to ‘no evil eye’. Saying it out loud makes a fervent wish that a person will continue to have good health. Bob Dylan has reached 80 years old, keina hora. May he have another lifetime to go.


Stardust – 2 stars


Between lockdowns, on a rare day in the office, I watched the trailer for the Bowie biopic, Stardust, drop on Twitter. Reaction was… uh… mixed. And that was just the trailer. A few reviews already existed, as it had been shown at American film festivals in the spring, so I read them: all the young dudes carried the news, and the news was not good. I knew then that I didn’t want to see it: I wanted to review it. In a display of entirely unearned confidence, I jumped up from my desk and followed the floor sticker arrows around to the desk of Phil de Semlyen, my colleague, the Global Head of Film at Time Out. I said, “Lovely Phil, how do you fancy letting me review the Bowie movie? Okay, I’ve never reviewed a film ever for any publication but I can do it, I think. And someone who knows the subject should do it anyway, so go on, let me! How hard can it be?” He said, “Sure, no problem. If I can do it anyone can!” Such a nice man.

Well, then. Slight panic. I did some research, made notes about technical things, then watched it on the Raindance website. Surely, surely, it was going to be better than early reviews said? Or, best-case scenario, those reviewers weren’t Bowie people and didn’t get it, and it would be filled with Easter eggs for the nerds. Why not? I’m an optimist by nature. Then I pressed play.

It became clear quite quickly that Stardust was, in fact, going to be even worse than the reviewers said. After about 15 minutes, hysteria set in; I couldn’t stop laughing at how bad the dialogue was. Then another 15 minutes passed, the laughing ceased and I started to get annoyed, because it wasn’t even bad in a good way. It was just terrible and humourless. And long. 109 minutes of my short life on this spinning rock I am never getting back.

But even if a film is profoundly bad, a review must be fair to the hundreds of people who worked hard on it. There is usually something to recommend it, to stop it from being a one-star. Stardust is not poorly made; the cinematography and other technical aspects are well rendered. But they alone can’t make for an enjoyable watch.

Also, what I didn’t entirely take in during that interminable viewing was the baffling decision to cast actors decades older than the people they’re playing. Obviously I knew that Flynn was a dozen years too old (when filming took place, last year). But Jena Malone (35 playing 22) looks young. I hadn’t given a thought to how old Ron Oberman must have been back then: he was 28, Marc Maron was 56. There was one scene with Bowie’s manager, in which the character was so primly English I thought it was Ken Pitt (49 in 1971). It was not. That was supposed to be the charismatic, cigar-chewing Tony DeFries, who was 28 in 1971: the actor, Julian Richings, who looks like Pitt and looks nothing at all like DeFries, was 64. That was so unclear I thought it was a totally different person! And on it went with the Spiders: Ronson’s actor was 42; Mick was 25. The guy playing Woody was 38; the drummer was 21. (Trev Bolder doesn’t even get an IMDB listing)

Why on earth would casting directors take out the young, vigorous heart of a biopic and fill each role with actors all far too old? I had only noticed Flynn at the time – the rest made so little impression that their various levels of decrepitude must have passed me by. I don’t believe the filmmakers didn’t know how old these real people were: they chose not to care. That’s the level of detail and commitment to reality we’re talking about here.

Anyway, my review was well-received. People told me it made them not want to see the film.

The version below is 95% the same as the original. I have reinstated a couple of bits I felt were important and dropped back in a few extra details for colour. I’ve also added links to provide backstory, which isn’t the style of TO’s Film section but no harm in adding here.

I’m very proud that I was allowed to write this review and grateful that I am Time Out’s person of record who gets to stand up to show and tell people what I know and think. This film won’t affect Bowie’s legacy or anyone’s feelings towards him. The gifted people who understand, who love him, who have something to say that’s carefully well-researched and cited, will continue to produce work about him that is credible and worth reading, watching and listening to.


Rock biopics that don’t have rights to the artist’s songs can work, as seen in England Is Mine (Morrissey) and Nowhere Boy (John Lennon) – but both were set in their subjects’ late teens. In Stardust, we meet 24-year-old David Bowie (played by 36-year-old Johnny Flynn) in 1971. He’s on his first US trip, promoting his Led Zeppelin-esque third album The Man Who Sold The World, presented here as a hard sell because he wore a dress on its cover (though Americans wouldn’t have known this, as the US cover was an odd cowboy cartoon). You need to believe this young man becomes one of the greatest rock stars of all time. You won’t.

The disastrous Bohemian Rhapsody was, by a (moustache) hair, saved by the music; no such luck here. Bowie’s estate, it turns out wisely, denied use of his songs. Then a one-hit-wonder with Space Oddity, Bowie tries to behave like a star before he is one, but is written as a boring, pathetic, hippy rube who misses every opportunity his publicist (Marc Maron, always watchable) finds. How about a modicum of research? David Bowie was ruthless, camera-ready, bright and funny, with megawatt charisma and unshakeable self-belief. Here he’s an unengaging wet failure, tortured by fear of succumbing to ‘madness in the family’. The severe mental-health problems of his half-brother Terry, seen in flashbacks, are treated crassly. While his wife Angie (Jena Malone) is a hectoring presence that doesn’t credit the significant contribution she made.
Flynn, who does a decent job singing songs that Bowie covered by Jacques Brel and The Yardbirds, works hard with a weak script. And Stardust does try to call some truthful Bowie bingo numbers: a song by one of his early heroes, ’60s singer Anthony Newley, plays on the radio; there’s a nice touch showing a recreation of his screen test at Warhol’s Factory; we briefly experience the bizarre tale of Bowie spending an evening talking to Lou Reed only to find out later he’d met his replacement, Doug Yule (according to Bowie’s version of events he never knew but Yule says he explained Reed had left the Velvets months before); and he wears that dress for a hopeless Rolling Stone interview – though the film erases his bisexuality, which is poor stuff. But this biopic can’t sell the idea of his progression as a songwriter because it can’t show us that he wrote Life on Mars and Changes around this time.
Ultimately, Stardust doesn’t work on any level. Not having his original music means it can’t truly let go, which makes this Bowie nothing close to the magnetic performer he was, despite a reasonable finale (with a Ziggy hairpiece that’s the wrong colour and inaccurate make-up). Because the songs aren’t here, his music is forced into becoming entirely unimportant, which is criminal. This film adds nothing interesting to his story. You’d be a great deal better off seeking out Todd Haynes’s gorgeously camp, self-aware, fairytale Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine – it’s much more fun than this. 

Hartsfield’s Landing: a West Wing story about how much your vote matters

This was written just before the American presidential election.

It’s been a hard year. People are reaching out for comfort. You might have remodelled a room, bought new art, a rug, plants; got new clothes, even though you have nowhere to go; hunkered down to watch TV, as we face whatever the fuck this is and is going to continue to be.

How can money be sucked out of you? Pay-per-view football, a live-streamed gig (remember gigs?!), benefit for a struggling theatre, donation to a food bank or community food project? Are you bereaved? Working, furloughed, made redundant or on the dole? Getting government money, barely enough to survive on? (which you – not the rich – will be repaying via higher taxes for the next two decades) Or have you fallen through the social support cracks into anxiety-induced near-penury?

The roulette wheel spins, we pick and yet… sameness. A tiny event like a distanced visit with a loved one marks out a day. You pounce on any work offered, as who knows when the next will come. Talking a walk in a wood or park near home, if you don’t have a garden, has become important, and yet it takes a gargantuan effort to muster any energy to go out. Out in shops or on public transport, on overloaded buses, half-full tubes or empty commuter trains, you weave around the chin and nose cunts, too self-absorbed, too selfish, to notice or care about fallen masks. Recipes distract, it’s a surprising interest in cooking a passable version of food you can no longer order in restaurants. An acceptance that there will likely be another year of this shit. Who knew the end of the world as we knew it would be so… slow.

In reaching out, maybe you (re)discovered something that doesn’t remind you of all this. John sang, ‘whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright’. Me? Buffy again. The warm, delightful Schitt’s Creek. The viciously good Better Things. And partly because of all this and partly because of White House occupancy, a walk back to the warm hug of how American politics can be of The West Wing.

I’m not sure any other show inspires such devotion and blame. American journalists are obsessed with ripping it up, as if it actively harmed their country. It’s dated, smug, preachy, a liberal fantasy, or an act of self-harm so egregious you’d think people voted for the White House’s occupant because Toby Ziegler chewed a cigar and expressed a progressive opinion that social security could be saved for generations, healthcare should be available to all and university tuition should be tax-deductible (an idea so left-wing it was backed by Rand Paul, one of the most viciously right-wing/libertarian politicians). TWW has a huge amount in common with the sweeter small-government politics of Parks and Recreation, a show that never got called a liberal fantasy, despite being exactly that (with showrunner Mike Schur massively influenced by The West Wing). It might come down to creator/head writer (for the first four of its seven seasons) Aaron Sorkin, the Bono of screenwriting. Journalists hate that guy. Yes, The Newsroom was bad; yes, Studio 60 was flawed but watchable; but The Social Network, Molly’s Game, Sports Night, Moneyball, Charlie Wilson’s War, A Few Good Men, The American President and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are all very good indeed.

Such hatred is based on a shallow understanding of The West Wing. The administration achieved… very little. There is no triumphalism; they don’t remake America. They were blocked by Republicans (portrayed as John McCain types, not venal Mitch McConnell types, at least during the Sorkin years), blocked by themselves and blocked by circumstance, incompetence, arrogance and hubris. Yes, they are sexist. The sexual harassment in the boys’ club workplace is sometimes borderline, sometimes blatant. But the idea that Sorkin painted perfect characters and we should all wring our hands over the damage they did to liberal causes because of their implausible idealism, and that we should stop trying to make America like this, is naïve. It’s not like those who love it are blind to its flaws. The West Wing Weekly podcast calls out those flaws in detail. But it also posits that, especially given the trauma of the last four years, politics can be different. Why not? What’s wrong with a bit of hope?

TWWW, co-presented by podcaster Hrishi Hirway (Song Exploder) and former cast member Josh Malina, started in March 2016 and was a deep dive, with episode breakdowns and interviews featuring ex-cast members, guest stars, technicians, producers, writers, directors, famous fans and a whole bunch of experts – senators, speechwriters, military figures, press secretaries, chiefs of staff and more, most of whom worked in the real White Houses of the last 40 years. These were political operatives from the administrations of Nixon, Carter, Johnson, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton (whose White House the show is largely based on) and Obama (whose staffers told the cast they went into politics because they grew up watching The West Wing). If you like to know how things are made, if you want to be inside baseball, as they say, it’s a wonderful insight.

The West Wing is a relic, as are other late-90s-early-2000s shows about cops, lawyers, doctors and aliens (and by the way, nobody writes articles saying The X-Files damaged America because it popularised conspiracy theories and pushed them into the mainstream, even though arguably it did).

I don’t doubt that getting the band back together for the podcast is part of the reason that Sorkin, who gave TWWW his full, grateful participation and appeared in many episodes, decided to come back for a one-off reunion episode to benefit When We All Vote (it’s supposed to be a nonpartisan organisation but I don’t see any Republicans in its ranks apart from a few local mayors; nevertheless, the episode raised more than $1m for it). And so, in this era of visors and distances, most of the cast of The West Wing got together in LA in September and filmed a staged reading of season three’s Hartsfield’s Landing. It is, simply, about how important it is to vote, with side plots of a chess game (figurative) with China and Taiwan, and two chess games (literal) between the president, Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), and two of his staff, Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and his deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe).

I got an evening of it going, first watching the 2002 original to play spot the difference. The 2020 version started thus, with Bradley Whitford (Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman), now a multiple Emmy winner, giving a bit of charming side-eye, fully aware of the ridiculousness of the entire enterprise: “We understand that some people don’t fully appreciate the benefit of unsolicited advice from actors. We do know that. And if HBO Max was willing to point a camera at the ten smartest people in America, we’d gladly clear the stage for them. But the camera’s pointed at us. And we feel at a time like this that the risk of appearing obnoxious is too small a reason to stay quiet if we can get even one new voter to vote.”

We were off. All the setups are on the same stage, LA’s Orpheum Theater. The design, deceptively simple, is stunningly directed by the executive producer of the Sorkin years, Thomas Schlamme. He is the ‘walk’ of the famed ‘walk and talk’. It asks whether a TV drama can be broken down, reverse-staged: usually plays become films, not the other way round. The dynamic energy of the 2002 episode is brought about by camera movement and the actors’ physical movement, as they rush from office to office… now, in 2020, nobody goes much of anywhere, and the power of the setting is allowed to come through, which lets the actors, cameras, plot and even the chess pieces settle. That comparable stillness is what makes sure the dialogue sings even more than it did first time around.

On first watch, I found it all so moving. Eighteen years have passed. Some of the women look different but the same, in the way that Hollywood insists women’s faces must look. The men look genuinely older, greyer, more worn (even Rob Lowe). But certainly, the political devastation of the last four years sees the toll written on each face. The lines were delivered with more anger in 2002; this time there’s weariness, a resignation to the mileage taken on. Adding poignancy, one role had to be recast, because of the passing of John Spencer, whose Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, was TWW’s heart. Leo was transformed into a younger version, played very differently by Sterling K Brown (Sorkin said if he ever rebooted TWW – making clear he would never do so – Brown should be the president). Brown did a great job: being nothing like Spencer helped both him and viewers disassociate from the overall sadness of the lost cast member.

On second watch, beyond how lovely it was to see them all together again, I remembered how sharply funny so much of Sorkin’s dialogue is, even in tense moments. To leaven the China plot and the big finish, a heavy chess game between Toby and the President, there was a lighter chess match with Sam, wherein the machinations of the diplomatic dance between China, the US and Taiwan were played out like real-life Battleship. There was a very funny thread, where press secretary CJ (Oscar winner Allison Janney) and Charlie (Dulé Hill, the youngest cast member – now 45 – the president’s ‘body man’, an executive assistant) battle over a missing paper schedule, which escalates into a prank war that puts the life of a goldfish in danger. We also wisely avoid the fairly inappropriate workplace flirtation between Josh and his deputy Donna (Janel Moloney), who get the title card plot. Hartsfield’s Landing – based on two real towns in Bartlet’s home state, New Hampshire: Hart’s Location and the brilliantly named Dixville Notch – is where 42 voters will cast their ballots at midnight: the town has been historically successful in predicting the general election winner, so these 42 votes matter. There is a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through here, wherein we are half a season away from the general election (Bartlet beats Rob Ritchie, played by Barbra Streisand’s husband, James Brolin, to win his second term) so what are they voting for? It can’t be to choose Bartlet as the candidate because he is running unopposed so wouldn’t be on the ballot. But… we gotta let it go.

Josh It is absurd that 42 people have this kind of power.

C.J. I think it’s nice.

Josh Do you?

C.J. I think it’s democracy at its purest. They all gather at once…

Josh At a gas station.

C.J. It’s not a gas station, it’s nice. There’s a registrar of voters, the names are called in alphabetical order, they put a folded piece of paper into a box. See, this is the difference between you and me.

Josh You’re a sap?

C.J. Those 42 people are teaching us something about ourselves: that freedom is the glory of God, that democracy is its birthright, and that our vote matters.

Josh You’re getting the pizza?

C.J. Yeah, I should call ahead.

The show said it best: “Decisions are made by those who show up”. And so, Josh elevates 42 votes to a place of high drama and high importance. Not just because politics is a superstitious game, but because every vote does count. A couple he met on the campaign trail, the Flenders, have called Donna to say that they are thinking about voting for Ritchie. She is sent out into the cold with a mobile (yes, even in 2002!) to try and persuade the Flenders their two votes matter. Back and forth it goes:

Donna They think the President is going to privatise Social Security.

Josh He’s not going to... That’s the other guys! He’s not going to privatise Social Security! He’ll... He’ll privatise New Hampshire before he privatizes Social Security!

A side note for the nerds: this remake takes a deep-dive into the supporting cast from the original. The journalists in the press room, all in multiple episodes, are recognisable to long-term fans. CJ’s aide, Carol, is there – played by Melissa Fitzgerald, she quit acting and founded Justice4Vets, an org which campaigns for veterans’ treatment courts. The China plot brought back the wonderful Anna Deavere Smith, who as well as being a brilliant actress (and professor) is a Pulitzer-nominated playwright: her one-woman show about the prison-for-profit system, Notes from the Field, played off-Broadway and at the Royal Court. She took no part in TWWW, purely, we were told, because of being too busy so it was a real pleasure to see her again.

Reading the scene directions [Cut to: Int. Josh’s bullpen – Night – Donna comes in, wrapped in a long coat] (that sort of thing) was the brilliant Emily Proctor. She joined in season two to play a Republican operative, Ainsley Hayes. President Bartlet’s nature was to be interested in those who disagreed with him, like Lincoln’s ‘team of rivals’ (as described by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), so he hired her. But there were, as Sorkin put it, ‘too many mouths to feed’; Procter was offered another job (CSI: Miami) and left for a bigger break. He regretted not making space for her, and I’m certain that’s why she appears (rather than any attempt to reach out to Republican voters). Hayes presented a realistic face of conservatism that never sneered, not even when she argued against the Equal Rights Amendment.

The episode’s big storyline, though, is Toby’s chess game with the president. The scene, simmering, comes to a boil with a question about what voters want. A guy they can have a beer with? A rich guy they’ve been conned into thinking isn’t elite? The smartest kid in the class? Watching that scene makes you recoil, knowing what we do about who sits in the Oval. While Bartlet has had enough of Toby, Toby has had enough of tiptoeing around the idea of whether a candidate should be ashamed about being smart and capable.

Toby Abbey [the First Lady] told me this story once. She said you were at a party once where you were bending the guy’s ear. You were telling him that Ellie [his middle daughter] had mastered her multiplication tables and she was in third grade reading at a fifth-grade level and she loved books and she scored two goals for her soccer team the week before, you were going on and on... And what made that story remarkable was that the party you were at was in Stockholm and the man you were talking to was King Gustav, who two hours earlier had given you the Nobel Prize in economics. [laughs] I mean, my god, you just won the Nobel Prize and all you wanted to talk about to the King of Sweden was Ellie’s multiplication tables!

Bartlet What’s your point?

Toby You’re a good father, you don’t have to act like it. You’re the President, you don’t have to act like it. You’re a good man, you don’t have to act like it. You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken... Do not, do not, do not act like it!

Bartlet I don’t want to be killed.

Toby Then make this election about smart, and not... Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight. And you’ve been holding me up for too many rounds. [Toby lays down his king on the board. Bartlet stands and turns to walk out.]

Bartlet Pick your king up. We’re not done playing yet.

That scene is incredibly powerful. It was in 2002. And it’s 100 times more so today. Sheen and Schiff are remarkable, two heavyweights slugging it out, a masterclass in tone, emphasis, balance. There is, it’s been said before, real music in the cadences of Sorkin’s words.

We know it should work like that. Because being president is a serious job and these are serious times and elevating an unserious person to its heights is disastrous. Who sits in the White House is always… a mirror. This is a bleak moment in American history and we all know the conservative side suppresses voting because they benefit when fewer people vote. So we must hammer the idea every time even if it never changes turnout: voting is a right and should be widely accessible.

In the end, with the Flenders and their economic anxiety, Josh gives in, saying ‘let ’em vote…’ And the lesson is done. This show is about public service. It’s not a harmful bubble to live in for 42.5 minutes. Between scenes, where ad breaks usually go, are unsubtle messages about voting from Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Samuel L Jackson, Elisabeth Moss (who the show discovered, she played the Bartlets’ youngest daughter), Lin-Manuel Miranda (a serious TWW nerd, he and Hamilton director Thomas Kail did a special TWWW episode and his last Hamilton curtain call was done to TWW theme). There was a return for the iconic Marlee Matlin (who played pollster Joey Lucas), the only deaf actress to win an Oscar, who looked beautiful: and looked her age. Her bit with Whitford was on why voter fraud is nonsensical, how it doesn’t and cannot happen. Some of these sections are serious, some funny, some pointed, especially interjections from Jackson and Black cast members Dulé Hill and Sterling K Brown. In a glowing review of the special, Vanity Fair’s TV critic said the show ‘feels so removed from reality’ but she said that out of sadness, rather than criticism. Buying an idea/myth of politicians acting in good faith isn’t a failure of The West Wing. You should believe that, even if it feels we’ve gone far away from Obama’s optimism into today’s cynicism. We should all know that – and this goes for politics and pandemics – it won’t always be like this.

To end, this clip (from earlier in the third season) is on the nose. It’s the worst of Sorkin if you can’t bear him, the best of Sorkin if you get him. And call me a sentimental old fool if you want, but I love it. In it, a leak has embarrassed the President and Toby assembles the junior staff. The audience expects him to be angry, take the roof off, with a lesson about loyalty. He does the opposite, and even out of context it’s… what the show is all about.

The West Wing.

It’s just a TV show: lighten up, don’t take it seriously.

It’s not just a TV show: it matters, and it has changed lives.

It’s okay for both of those things to be true at the same time.

Final note: The West Wing Weekly’s special episode on The West Wing’s reunion special

Bohemian Rhapsody – 2 stars

Biopics are not easy to get right. Squeezing an entire life into two hours, with commercial considerations banging on the door… meaning, it usually has to be a PG13/12A rating, and you have a big story to tell, often of sex and drugs and rock and roll. Nine years in the making, with three leads, three screenwriters, two directors: these are not the ingredients that result in a gratifying portrayal of a human life. And with Freddie Mercury, lightning in a bottle personified, it was always going to be a fool’s errand. It’s a two-star film, at best, with a four-star performance. Rami Malek’s virtual channelling of Mercury just barely saves the film from total disaster. 

First off, there’s a problem with what they’ve chosen to include: half the film is set in the 70s, and there are lengthy sequences of recordings, including of the nonsense masterpiece the film is named after. There are some people – myself included – who find the inner workings of recording studios grippingly fascinating. But I imagine the majority of an audience wants to see something else, even though I found those scenes fun, mostly because I was listening out for different vocal takes and such like. No doubt putting that much music in is a done deal when you have band members producing a film, but it doesn’t make for terribly interesting scenes. A great many exciting events happened to Queen, from their formation in 1970 to their sad, enforced end in 1991. With their first album out in 1973, the band recorded music for only 18 years, and Mercury has been gone for very nearly 27. So it seems cynical to attempt a biopic now, after all these years (original Queen fans + their offspring = double the audience), and the controversy, and firings, around it have hardly helped to cement a consistency of storytelling. Bryan Singer (who will shortly have an Esquire article expose him as a predator) has tried to do a good job, with help from the underrated Dexter Fletcher. And it is nearly impossible to cohere multiple satisfying narratives into two hours, especially with the subject gone. But there is no reason for the script to be this terribly poor. It shouldn’t be, with The Queen showrunner Peter Morgan’s original bolstered by The Theory of Everything’s Anthony McCarten. Why is it so bad? Freddie Mercury was passionate, generous, gifted, very funny, sometimes difficult and, yes, sex-driven, with a side of shy and vulnerable, and this is a meek, painfully sanitised exploration of his private life. I’m not saying I wanted the bathhouse-based director’s cut, but a bit more bite would have been great. His seven-year romance with his lifelong muse, and the woman to whom he left his grand home and half his wealth and royalties, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, doing well with bad writing) is covered in endless detail. Austin has not played any part in this film, understandably; indeed, since he died she has given only a handful of interviews, and her relations with the rest of the band, his friends and family are said to be tense. With one person gone, and the other unwilling to discuss the reality of a private relationship, the scenes between Malek and Boynton feel like basic coming-out-story melodrama, when the reality must have been much more complex. It is important to note that Mercury’s bisexuality is not washed over, at least. And nor is the gay side of his life, later on. It’s also correct that Austin should be given the credit and legitimacy in his life that she deserves, but it’s all rather bloodless. It also means that, unfairly, less importance is given to his relationship with the late Jim Hutton, the Irish barber (here a waiter, why?) who he also shared his life with for seven years, until the end. You can’t get private moments right without input from those who were there, of course, but they don’t even get close to making a decent job of it. The Hutton storyline is undercooked in the extreme, little more than a footnote, which is insulting to his memory, too (he died of cancer in 2010, aged 61; when Freddie died Mary had him evicted abruptly from the home they shared for years).

The band, even today, seem uncomfortable with his sexuality, with a recent interview with May discussing his ‘men friends’ alongside Austin. Understandably, if you lose both your friend and your career overnight it’s not something you ever get over. I’m just not sure that that discomfort should be shared beyond boilerplate rock-star autobiographies: such coyness has no place influencing the content of a film that’s should have largely not been about you. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) is hardly a ripe character for a biopic. He may be a musical god, but he’s a gentle, quite dull man who cares more about badgers, physics and stereoscopic photography than any person should – Lee manages to do miracles with the character, frankly. His dry humour comes across nicely. While bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello; the little lad from Jurassic Park, trivia fans) is imbued with a rather surprising amount of subtle personality by an actor who’s been doing his homework. But drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) should have been made much more of; he’s a spiky, no-bullshit, Tigger-like presence in real life, and his closeness with fellow hedonist Mercury doesn’t come across at all. The character is dull, and the actor is too, and it does Taylor a disservice. Let’s not talk about Mike Myers, in his Jeff Lynne costume. He was amusing as a composite character of a snooty record exec and their first manager Norman Sheffield. But he just seemed to be there so the band could say, ‘thanks for making the song big again in America via Wayne’s World.’

As for the ‘straightwashing’ the trailer was accused of: I didn’t find that to be true. I wasn’t expecting a Caligula-esque series of scenes set in London’s iconic 80s gay club Heaven, or any one of the myriad Munich bars that he spent most of his nights in starting from 1979 or so. A big studio picture is never going to allow that level of exploration of gay life, especially with the spectre of Aids hanging over the film like a black cloud. It did feel like a series of missed opportunities, however, to rip open the virulent media-led homophobia that he faced his whole life, and his fear of being outed. 

Also a missed opportunity was a more rounded storyline for the villain of the piece, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). One can’t libel the dead, and this snake should have been written with much more narcissism. He drew Mercury away from the band and into drugs and long nights in dark rooms that ultimately proved his undoing. Glossed over, too, was his heartbreaking betrayal of Mercury, which he never recovered from. He sold his story to The Sun for £30,000 in 1987, outing the singer in the process (in the film this was a fictitious TV interview where he slings a racial slur at Mercury: never happened). Prenter may as well have a neon sign saying ‘danger: I can’t be trusted’ hanging above his head, but this terrific actor is wasted in an underwritten part. Two more great actors do wonders with average parts: Aiden Gillen does the best he can as the band’s 1970s manager John Reid, while Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, who guided the band at their imperial 1980s peak, does sardonic well. But everything should be sharper: the drama, writing, plotting. 

One faultless aspect of this flawed film is the musical sequences. In this, we get perfection. The swirling, thrilled, sweaty crowds; the peerless music, sometimes overblown to the point of laughter, sometimes achingly beautiful, always decadent, works a treat. The live concert scenes are handled with great skill by Singer. These details, speaking from a fan’s perspective, are spot on. From the costumes to the settings, the performances are finely tuned. And Rami Malek comes close to saving the whole movie, somehow. The depth of understanding from this fine actor of his subject is critical. Immersion in such a life only works if your subject was layered, thrilling company, and it helps if there’s a creditable, exciting, possibly tragic, story to build on. Malek is given all that raw material to work with, and he runs away with it. There is no shortage of drama and dynamism and power on show. Embodying a beloved person is an impossible job, one that can go wrong without the right focus, or can veer too much in a Stars in Their Eyes direction. To inhabit a rounded portrayal of a real man, with very little offstage material to go on (Mercury did precious few interviews), is not an easy task, but Malek pulls it off and then some. He captures a perfect mix of bravado and vulnerability. The script makes a cheap shot about ‘having not enough time left’, sold to us as prescient but it made my eyes roll, yet he still manages to imbue these moments with the ending we know is coming, of a life over at 45. He beats the thin script into a pulp with sheer force of will. In particular, the big finish of the film, a full-length recreation of the band’s Live Aid performance, is breathtaking. I have no issue with the lack of descent depicted, that the film ends in 1985 rather than going toward deathbed drama. There are plenty of films, and documentaries, that show the cost of Aids in grisly extreme detail; it’s not needed here. And for those of us who lived through it well enough at the time, traumatised by seeing this extraordinary man turned into bones in front of our eyes, there is no need to portray it here for prurient interest. If you want to see what happened to Mercury, his devastating end, the video footage is available. It was a smart choice (badly handled, as I’ll get to later) to end the film at his life’s professional peak. 

Much like the tedious Queen musical, We Will Rock You, here the music works and not much else does. And for Malek, it’s the star-making performance of a lifetime. But if you let a band produce a film about themselves it will have music-making, and their version of events, as its centre, rather than a truthful core about the person who has no ability to reply. Worst of all, the falsities on show here mostly in the final third are wild and reckless. And there is no need for them: his life was a thrill-ride without the need for embellishment. If you’ve gone to that much trouble to get a piece of recording studio equipment right, or the correct Japanese light in a recreation of his house, then why on earth would you allow complete lies to be in the film? I don’t mean something like a gig showing him crowd-surfing: that’s in the film, it was apparently not in the script; Malek just did it. Mercury never did that in his life. There are tons of small things like that which are wrong. That’s fine, a bit of exaggeration, who cares? It’s not a documentary. But the big stuff, you have to get it right.  

The remaining band members’ judgement looms large: we’re normal Freddie, we have families, you have to slow down. Never mind that May cheated on his wife with groupies multiple times and just after Live Aid left his family. Never mind that Taylor shagged everything on the road that moved, unable to create any sort of stable relationship for decades. Oh, it’s Freddie and his ‘appetites’ that are destroying the band. They’re having normal heterosexual sex: the kind of sex Freddie has is the wrong kind. Their resentment of him beams through. I always thought it was grief. That the loss of their friend was something they never recovered from. It’s not. It’s anger, at his gayness destroying their careers. And it culminates in changing the truth for their own ends. And incidentally, if Brian and Roger are going to make a big deal about how Freddie’s solo career put the band in jeopardy, they might mention that they had already made three solo albums between them by that point. His solo record came out after Live Aid, not before. It’s one thing to put in a stupid press conference where Freddie is pressed on his sexuality while high (never happened). It’s a badly written scene but changes nothing that’s materially important. It’s another to indulge in a parallel universe fantasy.

And that leads me to the biggest, and most insidious, lie in the film. He is given his HIV diagnosis, for dramatic effect, just before Live Aid – as fuel for that career-defining performance. The real diagnosis happened two years after. This is sick, distasteful stuff, as is the fictitious meeting with an Aids patient covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions outside the doctor’s office. What were they thinking? Everyone involved in this film should hang their heads in shame for making it happen. The band has thrown their friend under the bus to make themselves look good and benevolent for letting him back in the band (never happened).

He put on that 20-minute performance of his life at Wembley Stadium because he was fucking remarkable. Not because he had been told he was going to die. This messianic trash, this ‘I’m going to die for you, audience’, cheapens the power of the scene, the film, and worst of all it cheapens his life and death. Malek plays it, despite it being nearly shot-for-shot, with a determined face: I’ll make this the show of my life because I have limited time left. Watch the real thing.

It’s not determination. It’s joy. It’s conviction. This guy knows he is doing the 20 minutes of a lifetime. A year later he is said to have started to feel unwell, telling everyone the tour they undertook was to be his last. He avoided tests, in fact, for another year, out of fear. Then he was calm about it, wanted no sympathy. Just wanted to get on with it, make music until he dropped. This is an era of ‘my feelings matter over your facts’. Well, no. Facts matter. 

This Live Aid fantasy was the filmmakers’ insulting solution to dealing with his illness? They made the correct, quite brave, decision to not do his death onscreen. But the fix for this problem was not to openly lie. It was not to create an alternative timeline that ruined a good idea with a bad one. 

It could just have been a post-script: you don’t change history and a person’s literal HIV status for show. It could also have had a braver end: Hutton was backstage at a Queen show for the first time, and Freddie was in love, after being lonely, and taken advantage of by hangers-on, for so long. Finally, he’d found someone to whom he could come home to, who nursed him to the end. But I guess a gay love story isn’t going to sell the way the fake inspiration of illness does. It makes me so angry that people will watch this and think it’s true. I hope they seek out what really happened, I hope they seek out the real thing and consign this version of events to the bin. Freddie Mercury deserved better than this film. 

Girl from the North Country – Written and directed by Conor McPherson. Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.

This review, which contains spoilers, ran in Issue 194 of Isis, the Bob Dylan magazine.

Artists who diversify have sometimes been viewed with suspicion. An actor makes music? Bruce Willis crooning Under the Boardwalk springs to mind (don’t bother). A rock star makes a movie? Mick Jagger played a mercenary in Freejack (really, don’t bother). David Bowie’s last work, Lazarus, was a sprawling, experimental piece of theatre which used his songs in a dynamic, thrilling way. But would the play have worked without the music? I don’t think so, and I saw it workshopped in New York and then tightened up in London. In fact, after seeing Girl from the North Country, I wished that Conor McPherson was the Irish playwright that Bowie had engaged, rather than Enda Walsh, the one he did. Because while Lazarus could not stand easily on its feet as a play, Girl from the North Country certainly can. There were a couple of ill-judged parts, more of which later, but on the whole this was a dazzling night at the theatre. 

It’s 1934 in Duluth, our man’s birthplace. The Great Depression has taken hold and casts a chill over proceedings like the local cold. The parallels between Dust Bowl America and our own recession, turned into cutting, cruel austerity, are marked. The narrator (Ron Cook), a doctor, introduces us to the scene, and provides grounding throughout. We are in a guesthouse, leaking money and about to be put into foreclosure, run by Nick (Ciarán Hinds), a gruff man with a complex life: a wife with dementia (Shirley Henderson); an adopted African American daughter (Sheila Atim) who is seemingly pregnant at 19 by someone long gone and also being pursued by a predatory, creepy old man (Jim Norton); and a layabout son (Sam Reid) with his head in a whisky bottle most of the time. He has a mistress (Kirsty Malpass, stepping in from the ensemble, superbly), who asks for little, and can’t stick around much longer in this desperate economic climate. We meet a variety of dishonest lodgers, tempers fraying, trying to eke out a living in impossible times. 

The dialogue races by, each strand woven together masterfully. I was gripped by the intensity of the storytelling. And then, there’s the music. I thought, how on earth could this work? Will dropping a bunch of Dylan songs into an autonomous play distract? Will Americana arrangements suit? Will the choices make sense given that they can’t further the story? After all, he didn’t write these for the play. And then the first song, Sign on the Window, drifts in and wow, just wow, it all coalesces better than I could have dreamed. A hipster-looking (1930s beards/attire is twenty-first century hipster chic) house band (double bass, piano, fiddle) accompanies the actors, who take turns on percussive instruments. Twenty songs are used to soundtrack lives of anger and passion, sadness and regret, worry and loss. I was sometimes taken out of the moment, if briefly, to reflect: this song is part of me, part of the fabric of who I am. But then a second later I was locked back in to 1934 Minnesota. It’s a tightrope walk and McPherson, previously known for his supernatural works, has aced it. There are no easy choices here: you try and pick 20 Dylan songs out of them all to accompany a plot organically and soundtrack this highly strung chaos.

The performances are remarkable, particularly Henderson as Elizabeth, Nick’s wife. She gives an untethered lightness to the role that is sure to win her buckets of awards; I predict the Olivier for Best Actress. Physically slight, and 51 but looking two decades younger, she is a mismatch for a big man of 64 like Hinds. They don’t convince as a couple in that sense but there is genuine chemistry between them as he tries to cope with her disinhibited behaviour towards the guests. There are no weak links in the company, with Sheila Atim in particular owning the stage during both dramatic and musical moments as a woman who everyone wants to control. Her version of Tight Connection To My Hearttook my breath away; nearly unrecognisable, it is all the better for it. As the stories interlink, and there is much to weave in, we come to a couple of troublesome moments. 

A young African American man arrives (played flawlessly by ensemble player Karl Queensborough) and reveals himself to be a boxer just out of prison, so he says. This is a pretty clumsy way to shoehorn Hurricane in later on; it didn’t fit, at all. In fact, after a tight first half, it came off the rails, briefly, shortly into the second. It almost felt like McPherson had lost his own threads and, while he tried to find them, shovelled in a couple of songs that didn’t fit. He pulled it all back together but then took the only major misstep in the play, a storyline of parents and their adult disabled son.


Portraying disability is not easy, and unless it’s central (like in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) it’ll come across as throwaway or played for effect. The actors in this plotline were fine enough, with the mother in particular (Bronagh Gallagher) compelling. But a confusing blackmail scenario with a menacing Bible salesman (Michael Shaeffer) led to exposure of their ‘secret’: the son had sexually assaulted a woman and the family had to flee. Their section ends with the father, at the end of his tether, letting his son drown. Then, appearing as a ghost in white clothing, the son (Jack Shalloo) returns to render a gospel-tinged rendition of Duquesne Whistle. None of it worked and such a portrayal of disability was inappropriate and veered to the offensive given that the ghost was miraculously cured of his learning difficulties. This inherent condescension was compounded by a regressive decision to cast this character as dangerous in the first place. I tried my best to forget it, because it should not sully the rest of the play. 

I’d decided not to spoil any musical surprises by finding out the ‘setlist’. My dad bought a programme and scanned carefully to see which were to be featured. I turned away, much as I had done for Lazarus: I wanted to gasp with surprise when Jokerman appeared (it was the first Bob song I loved; Infidels came out on my seventh birthday). Or grin and feel an inner thrill at the storming, foot-tapping, tambourine-bashing version of Slow Train, making it sound better than it ever has. I’m not going to drone on about voices, and how these singers give new life to the material. But they do. I don’t need to tell you anything about Bob’s voice, its tenderness in these later years mixing with a road-worn timbre (she said politely). Watching excellent actors embody these songs sets light to them, shooting jolts of electricity through their hearts. And quite frankly, it is no bad thing to have an audience become agog at these lyrics because they can actually hear the deathless words perfectly. It all reinforced my great love for this material; you won’t believe how delightful it is to hear Like a Rolling Stone with a snippet of Make You Feel My Love in the middle. A pleasure to hear tracks from each decade too; it would have been easy to make it all 1960s stuff, given its relative proximity to the 1930s – acoustic renditions would have fitted seamlessly. Instead, there are just three songs from that decade, a welcome, gutsy, non-obvious choice. 

McPherson has set himself a challenge and pulled it off. He manages to evoke Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town as well as the work of Eugene O’Neill. He also makes you want to drag Street-Legal and Infidels out of storage. The songs run between 1963-2012, and each one is judiciously chosen. What Simon Hale, the orchestrator/arranger, has done with them will melt you in your seat; simple but ravishing, these often moving interpretations of music you know inside out will make you hear them anew. 

Girl from the North Country, described by McPherson as a ‘conversation between the songs and the story’, is full of life. It is about trying to find hope through suffering and making the best of it. Dylan’s ‘team’ approached McPherson to write and direct this play, no doubt having heard tell of his acclaimed works The Weir (which ran at the home of new theatre, the Royal Court) and Shining City. And of course we know that hands-off Bob is never quite hands-off; even though he played no part in the writing or arrangements of the dialogue or songs, he did send Jeff Rosen to attend rehearsals. The last time the canon was offered it was a flop, a Broadway show in 2006 that closed after three weeks. But this time, gold has been struck. I hope Bob gets to see it and I feel sure he’ll be very proud of this inspired play bearing his name. 


Donny McCaslin :: Rich Mix, London :: 15th November, 2016

Originally published on in March 2017

Make no mistake, Donny McCaslin, this genial giant sax player from California, has had a distinguished career in jazz. He’s spent nearly three decades carving out a groove in modern jazz playing, starting with filling the huge shoes of Michael Brecker in the legendary fusion group Steps Ahead. With three Grammy nominations to his name, he’s become the trusted right-hand man of bandleader Maria Schneider, herself a multiple Grammy winner. The dreaded term ‘crossover’ has come to be applied in jazz to artists who break out of the somewhat closed jazz world (closed to mainstream rock/pop fans, in that sense) and make a break across the aisle. In the 70s it was Herbie Hancock who did it, and even before then Miles Davis – the greatest jazz artist of all time – had broken the mould, with Kind Of Blue becoming the best-selling, and most famous, jazz album of all time.


Historically, plenty of pop musicians (looking at you, Sting) have sought out jazz players on their records to give them a bit of cool. And as a lifelong jazz fan, Bowie was no different, taking on saxophonist David Sanborn and trumpeter Lester Bowie to play on his records, among others. Even Mike Garson, of course, is a jazz player. As we all know, Bowie was one of the great casting directors of our time. But beyond bit parts – musicians popping up – he had never given over an entire record to jazz musicians, until Blackstar. Everyone knows the story now. He wanted to continue his collaboration with Schneider after their magnificent foray with Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) in 2014. But she had already committed to her Grammy-winning Thompson Fields project. So she pressed a copy of McCaslin’s Casting For Gravity into his hand (having sent him this link to a live version of the track Stadium Jazz first) and suggested they visit Greenwich Village’s Bar 55 to see his quartet (with Mark Guiliana, Tim Lefebvre and Jason Lindner). McCaslin says he spotted Bowie sitting at a table with Schneider, tried to keep calm, as you would, and just concentrate on playing. Shortly after, he got an invite to perform on what would turn out to be Bowie’s last album. Since then, one imagines, his feet haven’t touched the ground as, suddenly, this brilliant, powerful quartet have become among the most famous jazz musicians in the world.

During a short European tour, McCaslin’s group (minus Lefebvre, whose regular gig – with the arena-filling Tedeschi Trucks Band – called; replaced by Jonathan Maron) called at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix, packing out the overheated main room and shaking the walls. They’d dropped into London to play some stuff from his new Beyond Now album, a follow-up to 2015’s excellent Fast Future. You could tell the crowd had some Bowie fans at their first jazz gig present; they looked a bit shell-shocked. As I heard someone say, listening to jazz on record is hardly like seeing it live. It’s so much more visceral, muscular, and frankly, louder than you can imagine, especially with a fusion quartet like the one McCaslin leads. The bass thundered. Lindner’s synthesiser textures lent a cosmic vibe reminiscent of the early 70s electric playing of Keith Jarrett when he was with Miles. Guiliana’s complex, intricate drumming evoked the greats; one can feel comfortable comparing him to all-time greats like Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, alongside recent masters like Brian Blade and Kendrick Lamar’s drummer Ron Bruner Jr. That’s how good he is. Get his 2015 album Family First; you won’t regret it.


McCaslin leads this band through twisting and turning renditions of songs new and old. You might have expected Warszawa to be on the setlist; the band closed with it. Less expected but incredibly welcome were two more Bowie songs. First, one that caused the room to experience a sharp intake of breath – Lazarus. It sent a chill, until of course the sax came in where the voice should have been and then it took off, with the closing section containing some absolutely remarkable playing from McCaslin, who was on fire all evening. Then, a lovely surprise, the very familiar drum part of Look Back In Anger kicked in and off we went. The room was electrified. If you’d never seen a jazz gig before, or even if you’d seen 100, this was a top class night.



This symphony
This rage in me
I've got a handful of songs to sing
To sting your soul
To fuck you over
This furious reign

David Bowie – Killing A Little Time

A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration

Icon (noun) – definition from the Oxford English Dictionary

I don’t write much, I don’t write enough. I don’t write unless I need to say something. There was no intention to write about Lazarus, Bowie’s final work, but here we go. Is it his final work? I suppose it’s his joint last work, alongside . These works of art dovetailed each other, the play being begun in 2014, the album made in 2015, the play finished off at the same time. Then came the album’s title track in November, following by the play’s premiere in December, and finally, the album in January 2016. They are a Venn diagram of the last two years of his life; the play bristling with anger, the album filled with sadness, creating together the masterpiece of the perfect exit. A lyric, for a song written in 1992, recorded in 2003, springs into my mind:

You promised me the ending would be clear
You'd let me know when the time was now
Don't let me know when you're opening the door
Stab me in the dark, let me disappear

I’m writing this first part the day before I see Lazarus in London, because tomorrow the meaning will change. And unlike , which I spent three days listening to (January 8-10) without knowing the meaning was about to be ripped open dramatically, I do know this time that his final work is about to come to me anew.

This is not a review of Lazarus, because others will do that better. Suffice to say, it’s a wonderful, odd and thrilling fever dream of an evening at the theatre. It’s confused and confusing, it’s only really got two great characters (Newton and Girl), and most of the London cast is changed from New York. The theatre is absolutely huge: five times larger, going from the NYTW’s 198 seats to 1002 (unless I’m counting wrong! I thought it was 960…) in King’s Cross. The songs carry it forward, as if he wrote them over a span of 45 years to tell this story. It’s sieved through this character, who he identified with when at his worst during the making of The Man Who Fell To Earth, and who he let follow him throughout his life and chose to ally with just before he left the earth. He sent Lazarus to London in his place. He sent his costumes and lyrics and drawings to London in his place. He sent his art collection to Sotheby’s in London in his place. The 2013 V&A exhibition was a method of ‘touring’, since he had little interest in doing any actual touring, with nothing to gain from appearing on stage. As ever, he created the parameters (choose from my archive, from the artefacts I let you see) and had the V&A curate a retrospective that he visited, quietly, privately, with his family. As ever, again, like the consummate casting director he was, he created the parameters to let Lazarus and keep him alive in perpetuity. occupies a rather physical, tangible place; it’s mostly listened to alone, at home, or during travel, or walking down the street. It’s not a communal experience; it’s not acted out without him and the musicians on it (outside of cover versions, to which I say, too soon!). Lazarus, the play, is a live version of his final thoughts. The actors give you his message, in person. I didn’t know any of this when I was in NYC in December 2015. What was it like then? What can I remember now that will tomorrow be joined by new memories in the hard drive of my brain?

I was nervous, that it wouldn’t be any good. It was ambitious, daring, a mad thing for him to do: a musical, which he’d dreamed of and planned for over 40 years, coming out at the same time as a new album. The one thing he had never done, and now, running out of time, it was the last thing he wanted to do. Gifts upon gifts for me, for us. Seeing it in NYC was a remarkable experience, done twice on consecutive nights. I hardly understood a thing on the first night; it was impossible to take in, the density and complexity of it all. Overwhelming in every way. The second night I got a handle on it, and though I try to shy away from being too literal, those I spoke to immediately after, with heads spinning, already thought it was all about death long before we realised it was about his death. Of course, it’s open to interpretation from all angles and there is no definitive reading (multiple readings, the absence of an authoritative voice and all that). Is the ‘Girl’ character Newton’s surrogate daughter? Yes, the casting call says so (though interestingly she was supposed to be over 18 until they saw then-nearly-14-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso and she dazzled, so the part went younger). If Bowie is Newton, again (as he was in 1976), is Girl a cipher for his own daughter (Caruso is 11 months younger)? I think so. I don’t know so, and I never will. Ambiguity and performance: the two constants throughout a 50-year career. He was never himself, there was always smoke and mirrors. He never explained, and you wouldn’t want him to anyway (not that he didn’t muse on the idea of revealing more over the years before losing interest and moving onto the next new thing).

I don’t want the meaning of Lazarus to change, but it will, when I see it again. I didn’t want the meaning of to change, but against my will it did. A friend told me that he couldn’t get the notion of Lazarus being entirely/only about Bowie’s death out of his head during the play when he saw it at a London preview. Understandable, and that’s what spurred me to write this, as I have the New York version playing in my head and, honestly, how many people will be able to write about seeing it in both cities? One or two hundred? It’s special to me, now, more than ever, the ‘before and after’ contexts. Now Lazarus comes to London, like a morbid travelling version of his ashes. What’s new? So far, what I know is that the brief appearance of a famous actor on the screen has been excised. Good creative decision, as I found it distracting. A too-famous face takes you out of the moment. There’s one more new big creative decision, to put Bowie’s face on screen at the end, which was absent in NYC even after January 10. I’ll see it tomorrow and decide how I feel about it, but my gut feeling (which I suspect I’ll be largely alone in) is that it’s a fucking dreadful, mawkish decision that grates in the worst kind of sentimental, emotionally manipulative way. And for sure, if you knew him at all, you’d know he’d hate that. He refused to have Heroes in the show until Henry Hey re-arranged it so it couldn’t be sung along to (the Lazarus version sounds like the bleakest John Lewis Christmas advert ever). He was not a sentimental man. The subtlety of the references to him inside the play – a few scattered vinyl albums in a corner, a brief snippet of Sound and Vision – were clever, jarring in a good way, and deliciously cheeky. But a photo of him so we can applaud at the end? He’s dead, I get it, I know it, I don’t need to hear a big cheer in a theatre. That brings me to another reason I wanted to write this, to talk about changing fandom and iconography.

It’s been a weird year, in innumerable ways. Setting aside real world life and death and politics and the depressing right-wing rise of what was previously unspoken in polite company, the transformation of Bowie from a live, real human person into this deified dead guy, standing alongside Elvis and John and Amy, has been pretty hard to take. It won’t last, I predict; most people will lose interest in a year or two. His marketable quality won’t match that of Michael Jackson or (what a year) Prince (whose ashes are being displayed in a miniature urn in the shape of Paisley Park, inside the newly opened museum of the actual Paisley Park. Not even kidding). Nor will his rock legend infamy be as long lasting as the murder of Lennon or the bloated junkie self-destruction of Presley. But to make financial hay while the sun shines, the legacy bombardment has started and it’s only the tip of the iceberg of trying to open our wallets. His own estate has many decisions to make about what comes out and when, and at what pace, as they drip-feed us promises of new mixes and alternative takes and so forth. Without Coco in charge, I have little faith that his ruthless, always forward-looking spirit will be honoured. Or more accurately, that business decisions will be made that stop at this red light first: ‘would he have been ok with this coming out? Would he have been ok with me saying/writing this?’ In the pursuit of money, and in the cloudy heads of grieving family, I’m quite sure that plenty of stuff is going to happen that I don’t like. And that’s just from the people who actually knew him.

The next category – those who worked with him either briefly or on and off – have their own books to write. The final category – those who met him briefly and are gleeful about making a few bob out of it – is the one that I must try and go to my happy place when I hear about. I don’t think I’ve ever written this word in any writing before, but there are some people who are just behaving like plain old cunts (among others, I’m talking to you, Lesley-Ann Jones, you hack; I’m flattered you blocked me on Twitter out of your own guilt and glad to hear that your shitty book has tanked). Rather than being ashamed of themselves, their greed and narcissism, like a normal human would be, they delight in the attention their falsehoods bring them. But that’s it, isn’t it? He’s no longer someone who belongs to me, to you, he’s everyone’s, for a while at least. He’s a face on a t-shirt in Camden Market.

We’re all still trying to process what life is like without him. The transformation of our fandom, which is out of our control. Mostly, I just feel… grateful. Lucky. That I exist now, a miraculous pinprick on this spinning rock, and that I existed at the same time as him on a planet 4.5 billion years old. That he made music that I’ve sewn into myself, grafted onto my heart. That he told me about non-music things (like art and philosophy and literature) like an inspiring teacher. That he gave me non-music gifts, like people who I’d never have met if not for him, who I lived half a world away from and had a one in 7.4 billion chance of meeting. It was all one way, from him to me. I’ve nothing much to offer, there’s nothing much to take…

Let’s wrap up part one: the ‘before’. I can close my eyes and think of how I felt walking into the New York Theatre Workshop on December 9/10, 2015. Excitement, trepidation. Ready to fall in love with him for the thousandth time in 30 years. So high it made my brain whirl. Dear friends around me, joined together from all over the world to celebrate the second part (after The Next Day) of this most unexpected return, after nearly a decade of near-silence. Hugging and crying, drinks and hangovers, singing and laughing into the early hours, and the next day and the next. That was how New York felt, and will never feel again.

Tomorrow that context changes, which is fitting in itself as who else was he but someone constantly on the move? Never look back, walk tall, act fine. Much more than , Lazarus is the exile’s legacy. It’s an audacious wink from beyond the grave about resurrection. It’s about a man who left England when he was young but spent the rest of his life collecting art that reminded him of home. Spent his last overseas trip taking his child around old London addresses. Spent one of his last songs talking with sadness of never being able to visit England’s evergreens again. The sailor who spent his life travelling has executed his master plan, which will leave me forever in awe, and is finally home.


Before I start, on this fine morning, where I awake to the frankly unbelievable news of my team having beaten the biggest and best in world football, I would like to say that I loved Lazarus in NYC. Sure, it didn’t make a huge amount of sense, I thought Walsh’s book was a bit of a mess and I was just happy to have the songs carry it home. I didn’t really like Cristin Milioti as Elly and the Greek chorus of girls had a fairly undefined, shaky role. The supporting characters felt a bit underwritten too. It had the air of an idea being worked out; after all, the clue is in the title. The New York Theatre Workshop. My dear friend Jake, the most knowledgeable theatre nerd I have ever known, told me that it was going to be much bigger and better in London, and that the intention was always to bring it home and watch it soar. We agreed that the NYC production was, essentially, a dry run for the real thing. I still treasure every second of the NYTW production, for what it gave me at a particular time, and that holiday will be something to remember forever.

So, you can understand that I had felt a bit anxious about seeing it again, kind of fearful that it would have the same affect on me as . That it would have its second meaning – it’s all about his death – revealed to me as the album did. That I would find it hard to get through without crying. That it would be, frankly, a depressing experience in the world of ‘after’. Absolutely none of those things happened. I’m as surprised as I could possibly be. To say the producers and creatives have pulled this show together is to commit a great understatement. It has taken all the elements that Bowie and Walsh and Van Hove put into the NYTW production and tightened them beyond what I thought was possible. There are entirely new sections of dialogue. There are performances that soar in a way they never did before (primarily Amy Lennox as Elly, with singing and acting of top quality – Always Crashing, I never thought it could be like that, with some light in it). Everything is bigger. The stage set is several feet larger all around, and this suddenly allows everyone the space they need to tell this story properly. The dialogue is polished and sharper, the central performances given the breathing space to be even better than in NYC from Hall and Caruso. It’s not at all about death. It’s about love, it’s about defeating forces that try to stop love from working, it’s about mental illness (a very old subject for Bowie to get back into), it’s about letting go. All the bits that didn’t quite work in NYC have been coalesced here. It is a truly, properly fantastic play. A theatre experience that absolutely works as a piece of art, not just a collection of great songs on a piece of string with some ropey dialogue holding it all together. There are still some rather Broadway moments (mein herr!), like Changes and Life On Mars, but that’s fine, you must allow a touch of glamour!

The final scene, of course, is still a bit of a wrench. The dialogue about reading to his ‘daughter’ on the hill, the farewell, it’s hard not to see the real life behind that. I felt a bit choked up, a heartstring tugged, but you know… Heroes will do that. He gave it greater meaning in the 2000s himself, following 9/11, and on tour, and it’s intensely powerful here. Even the photo of Bowie at the end on the screen was fairly unobtrusive and not made a big deal out of (though it isn’t needed and I still think they’d do well to drop it).

I do not subscribe to the idea that The Next Day’s songs were destined for this; rather that he fitted them around bits of the story. So on the album Valentine’s Day is about a school shooting, but here it’s the big theme for the murderous, psychotic Valentine – played with so very much more menace and darkness, eliciting genuine dread, by Michael Esper than in NYC. The Next Day is a backward-looking album, his only one. It’s taking stock, it’s angry, it’s partially a statement on the 20th century’s wars and religion and their effect on culture (I’d Rather Be High, Grass Grow, The Next Day). It’s wistful for England (Dirty Boys), wistful for Germany (Where Are We Now?) and coruscating on those who deserve it (You Feel So Lonely…). It even finishes with a nod to where he’s going next, as he often did, with Heat. It’s about love and mortality and the future. It’s about a man with a young child and a heart condition coming to terms with his own fragility. It’s actually not but The Next Day that makes more sense now, because of Lazarus. is nothing to do with this play, beyond the song Lazarus, which he only put on there, quite clearly, to promote his final masterwork. The remaining three new songs come alive here in a more convincing way than his versions on the cast album (though, as ever, nobody delivers a song better; No Plan destroys me). Killing A Little Time is absolutely thrilling here, though the band version is a level up again. The sung counterpoints of When I Met You give the song a real electricity jolt. And the new band, led briefly by Henry Hey before he goes back to NYC next week, are also more convincing and well drilled.

All the creative decisions that were made for this London run worked. Jake bumped into the director, Ivo van Hove, on the way in (ok, in the loo) and told him we saw it in NYC. He replied, “I can’t believe how big it’s gotten!” You’re not kidding. Everything simply makes more sense now, like the characters’ motivations and how they’re played. It’s about 20 minutes shorter, cuts have been made that work, speeches have been created that illuminate and songs land that hadn’t quite nailed it before (like Where Are We Now?). The visual projections dazzle and have new supercuts flashing past that will let me spot new things each time I see it (caught a fast flash of Boys Keep Swinging after the final wig comes off). I do think it made a bit of a difference to be seated right in the centre of the front row, with Valentine hovering over my head, getting to see the intricacies of the facial expressions and interplay. Having said that, I can’t wait to see it again (hopefully soon) in another seat. Then in another. Even from the back row, which must feel like a mile away.

I thought it would make me sad, make me think about him not being here. But, unlike the album, I can now see that it wasn’t designed that way. They’ve made his lifelong dream of writing a brilliant musical come true. It does him proud, and I am so proud of him for making it possible.