Today’s date had been circled on my calendar for weeks. It would be my first solo drive, my first drive to Oxford, and, most importantly, the first time I’d attend a gig by myself.
I had printed out the ticket and placed it on the passenger seat next to me as, checking mirrors for the fourth time, I manoeuvred the car out onto the long, straight road that would take me to my destination. I could feel the thump of my heart making itself known through the layers of band t-shirts.
I was pleased to be going by myself – I’d been relieved when my friends had turned down my hasty invitation. They wouldn’t get it; they’d ask questions, they’d say they were bored, that it was just one man with a guitar and you could hear that any time.
But when I entered that pub – carefully timed so I wouldn’t be the first to arrive, but I certainly wouldn’t be the last, risking a poor vista – self-consciousness kicked in. I reminded myself of the lyrics he had written, sung in one of the band’s biggest hits: ‘Alone in a crowded room.’ It was to describe how it felt to be part of a subculture of truth-seekers, of ethical warriors. I looked around me, taking in this sea of tartan trousers, multiple piercings, waist-length dreadlocks, shaven undercuts, battered boots, band t-shirts faded and punctured by knackered old washing machines. There were people sitting on the flagstones, on stools, leaning against the bar, animatedly talking in groups with their greasy heads together, hands that weren’t holding pints gesticulating. I imagined they were planning protests against quarrying, sharing the best ways to construct weatherproof temporary housing in the trees owned by global conglomerates, or the best banks to smash up during the next Iraq war protest in London. I smiled. ‘My people’, I probably breathed, then exchanged a few quid for a weak Coke and watched them without contributing a word.
My friends would have looked at them in astonishment, maybe even disgust. In their clean, branded trainers and clean, branded clothes, they wouldn’t have got it. I got it. This was the first solo tour of the front man of the band I had revered for years, whose words had taught me about politics, had shown me what I believed to be the unflinching truth, so willingly ignored by the masses.
But where to sit? The earliest had already bagged their spots at the very front of the tiny platform, serving as a stage. Their tangle of combat trousers and boots obstructed the doors. For a moment, I nervously surveyed the emergency exits, then chided myself. When there was a world to right, what need was there for a fire exit? I plumped for a stool at the side of stage, a tall wooden structure, like an oversized cotton reel, to support my glass of diminishing ice – I’d already necked the Coke in a few speedy wrist flicks, to give myself something to do amongst this sparkling sprawl of crusties.
Then he appeared, the base of his acoustic guitar gently nudging bodies so they parted like crops in a field as he picked his way to the platform. I saw a woman fan herself with a beermat as the backs of his legs passed her eyes, while a man, his dreadlocks piled on his head like a turban, left the conversation with his friend hanging in the yeasty air as he whooped and cheered in astonishment, as though he hadn’t bought a ticket and hadn’t expected his very hero to materialise and take to the stage.
A steady calm descended, and we settled in to listen. He started in a familiar place, the audience quietly whispering along, as though concerned he might hear us. He told us the truths that we knew, that we had internalised from the records. It was all the same: the words were the same, the melodies and chords, the vocal intonation, the state of the world. He even looked the same as the photographs, too, which was surprising given he was real, in the flesh, within stroking distance.
His greying beard, his thinning hair, his few extra pounds, were respected: he hadn’t sold out, he still had the same mission he had when the band started out in the late eighties, when he was twenty and I was three, and he was a beatnik beauty with a mop of chestnut curls packed into a daring array of headwear, smiling despite the world’s problems bearing down on his skinny shoulders. I might have missed the band at their peak unfashionable, when they played the Pyramid Stage and upset NME journalists with human turds, but I was here now. He was still the same prophet to me.
But suddenly, his guitar stopped. His voice didn’t carry into the next line I knew so well, which had already formed in my own mouth. My eyes flashed open, startled from a reverie. My view was partially obscured by a woman half standing, smiling uncertainly as his microphone stand rocked back and forth like a pendulum. His left hand crouched over the fretboard, his right hand suspended above the strings. He watched the mic stand sway. His eyes narrowed.
‘Well done, fat arse!’ he barked, snatching the stand and settling it.
The woman’s arms fluttered down to her sides as she considered what to say.
‘I’m sorry,’ she answered, quietly, ‘I was just going to the toilet?’
She waited for permission like a pupil, torso cowed. Entwined bodies turned to her with an excruciating curiosity. She crabstepped to the door, facing him, awaiting his response. I could see the glisten of sweat on her reddened cheeks where the frames of her glasses met her face.
As she finally turned to the door, I scanned her arse. It most definitely wasn’t fat. It was small; nondescript, hidden in swathes of corduroy. It wouldn’t even have been circled in one of those gross women’s magazines. He was mistaken, he didn’t always have the truth.
But perhaps he was shocked, or concerned that he would make a mistake, I reasoned. It was self-preservation. And what was she thinking? I would have been more careful; I wouldn’t have left the floor when he was performing. Real fans would have reduced their liquid intake as the start time neared.
He looked to his hands, reminded himself where he was and what he was doing. He commanded his fingers into another song, the one lamenting the young people preferring drugs to direct action.
We were fickle, that audience. We had forgotten the woman until she came back in from the toilet in the breaths between songs, bowing her shoulders and daintily pointing her Doc Martens into the gaps vacated by body parts. We watched, eyes small, tongues clucking, as she took her same seat carefully, lowering her pink face.
He didn’t look at her but announced the next song, a new one we didn’t know.
Sophie Parkes has published two non-fiction books: a biography of musician Eliza Carthy, entitled Wayward Daughter (Soundcheck Books, 2012), and this year’s From Light To Dark, a ghostwritten autobiography of blind endurance athlete, Dave Heeley. She has contributed to the music press since she was 15 years old, primarily writing about her passion for folk and traditional music, and works at a Manchester-based creative agency. She read ‘Hero’ at The Real Story’s Manchester Literature Festival event at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on October 22nd, 2016. You can find out more about Sophie on her website, www.sophieparkes.co.uk