A long long time ago…
I was at the Janelle Monáe gig at Wembley Arena on Tuesday, and it was as magnificent as you’d expect from this brilliant performer. We stood close enough to see properly, and far enough back to dance properly.
Between songs she said something that resonated with me, and it has prompted me to finish a piece I’d been noodling around with for some weeks. Speaking with some emotion, she said that the reason she performed was to create memories, to pass something to each of us in the audience, and she expressed a hope that we’d pass the memories we were making tonight on to others.
In one way this echoes the grand concept of her songs, which reflect the world of an android named Cindi Mayweather, an alter-ego through whom Monáe explores ideas of technology and otherness. After all, the memories of androids can be stored and transferred – or wiped as in the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture [see https://www.jmonae.com/] that accompanies the album which links the songs together with a story in which defective androids – ‘dirty’ computers – have their memories erased to make them ’normal’.
But for me, as I looked around an auditorium filled with points of light from thousands of mobile phones – twenty years ago it would have been cigarette lighters but few people carry them any more and there are probably sprinklers in the roof now- it made me think of the real organic memories that were being made in this place, at this time, with these people, making this music. Memories that can’t be downloaded or moved around on the quantum equivalent of USB sticks. It made me wonder what happens to Janelle Monáe’s music when the last person in this room, the last person to have been in the same space as her as she performs, dies.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, mostly because of Chopin and Buddy Holly, and because it’s forty years since I saw The Who play at Wembley, without Keith Moon.
Nobody alive remembes Chopin play, but if you walk down St James’s Place off St James’s Street in London you’ll pass a plaque that marks the house he was staying in before he left for the Guildhall to play in public for the last time, in 1848. I’ve seen it many times and it has always struck me, in part because when i see it I’m usually with a group of people for whom it has no significance, but mostly because I can imagine being there to see this ill and exhausted artist pull himself together to give the audience what they had come for, and I wonder whether the longest-lived person in that audience ever knew that they were the last person alive who knew what it was to be there while Chopin played his own music.
My mum saw Buddy Holly play on his only UK tour, in Newcastle City Hall on March 6 1958, two years before I was born. She talked about it, about how young he was and how excited they were and the way the music made her feel. Less than a year later Holly, along with Richie Valens, JP ‘Big Bopper’ Richardson, and pilot Roger Petersons, died in a plance crash. Holly was 22.
My mum has been dead over a decade, those memories lost to history, and I doubt that anyone else who saw the gawky kid with the glasses share his songs of love and desperation is still living. Like the First World War, Holly’s memory is lost to the world and we have only the simulacrum in scratchy television and remastered tapes. Peggy Sue wears the veil of history after her marriage, and we can only glimpse her now.
Nobody remembers Beethoven or Alma Mahler playing, but I remember Lemmy playing with Motörhead on stage at a small venue. I was right at the front in a small venue and Lemmy was there right beside me on the stage, loud and wonderful, and there was an amp right there near me and I reached over and turned up the volume. Not to eleven…
And Joe Strummer is still held within me – I saw The Clash play in Leicester when I was eighten, at De Montfort Hall, juast after Give ‘Em Enough Rope was released, and Topper’s drums at the start of Tommy Gun were the sound of a revolution. Last time I saw Joe was at the Brixton Academy about a year before he died and he played White Riot and I was sixteen again.
I was too late for some – when I saw The Who in 1979 Keith Moon was already gone, although I did get to hear Bon Scott sing with AC/DC that same day.
Some bands are still with us. Danny Boyle’s film of Richard Curtis’ ‘Yesterday’ is currently filling cinemas with Curtis’ signature bland romanticism to tell a tale of a contrived world in which everyone but his protagonist has ‘forgotten’ The Beatles, But they are still here – in my first year in college in 1979 one of the people on my staircase had seen them play live, as his parents had dragged an unwilling toddler to one of their last gigs. He’s still alive – I presume – and while he lives the spirt of the Fab Four will exist in the world, a space carved out in the consciousness of at least one human being, like the words captured in the neural pathways of the last speaker of a dying language.
And I am too hold music in my head. Like a storyteller in Fahrenheit 451 I hold on to these bands, these people, this music. I carve out a space within the totality of human memory within which they were experienced and where they still exist, exerting some influence today because they are recalled, because they directly shaped the way I engage with and model the world and therefore affect the world as it is shaped by my experience.
It may be a tiny influence, but it is there. After all, our engagement with art is part of what makes us, and each of us is different because of the ways we have encountered art in all its forms. For my generation, in my culture, live music is such an integral part of growing up that I have no doubt about its importance.
And I plan to hold on to the artists who have made my world. I’m off to see Bob Dylan and Neil Young play in Hyde Park next week and I know that part of what takes me there is the understanding that they’ll both die, and I want to have those memories, however disappointing or desultory Dylan’s performance will be and no matter what Young’s voice sounds like. I want to have been in the presence, to have touched the hem of the garment of the messiah, to have felt the air vibrate as a result not of a recording but because they moved in the same place and time as me and what they did was present to my senses.
I will always wonder what my mum knew about Buddy Holly that I never can, and what I now know about Janelle Monáe that others can’t.