Something is spoiling live performance: The audience. I blame the internet.
In 2005 my girlfriend and I went to see a band called Joy Zipper at a venue called Koko (that’s in London, which is where I live). Rather than take my wheelchair we travelled by taxi; as we approached the entrance, one of the door staff spotted me shuffling sketchily along and offered to show us a good spot away from the crowd on the main floor.
Koko used to be a theatre; Door Bloke escorted us up to a box, which happened to be in exactly the same position relative to the stage as Statler and Waldorf’s in The Muppet Show. So we were well placed to observe – and comment upon – both the band and the audience.
The band was great. Their core is a handsome couple called Tabitha and Vincent, who have a friendly, self-effacing demeanour; they both sing, she plays keyboard, he plays guitar, and two relatively anonymous chaps play bass and drums. Although they’re from New York they have a floaty West Coast sound, which they delivered without fuss. Tabitha essayed one song a capella and made a fine job of it even though she’d never tried it live before.
The audience was a disgrace. Talk talk fucking talk they went. Some didn’t even bother facing the stage. Some monkeyed around with their phones, but most just went yap yap yap. I was embarrassed. These nice folks had come all the way from New York just to be, largely, ignored.
I suppose Londoners want to appear urbane, and not do anything as uncool as engaging with the performers and showing a bit of enthusiasm. Nobody wants to be that guy mercilessly captured in the Alanis Morissette concert video, having some kind of trouser epiphany to One Hand in My Pocket. But still. This wretched rabble’s behaviour went beyond nonchalance into rudeness.
Even back then I blamed the internet. I mean, this is way, way back – I had a Hotmail account! But music was already easily available – you couldn’t quite listen to whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted (and sometimes you had to pay) but music was much easier to obtain than it had been even five years earlier. The thing is, the experience of listening to music just wasn’t special any more, it was part of the entitlement package.
That was 2005. This is 2011, and things are worse, because now we have social media. We’re so connected that you can claim to be living off the grid if you’re not on Facebook. And yes, we talk more, to more people, but what do we talk about? Ourselves, mostly. Yes – Twitter, comment threads, forums and so on encourage discourse, but they also encourage at least a degree of self-obsession. That old favourite demon, television, can still take a share of the blame; it’s evolved so you can watch whatever you want whenever you want. The choice! Tell kids these days there used to be only fifty channels and they won’t believe you. In the words of Ozzy Osbourne: “Sharren! SHARREN! They’ve got a fookin’ bread bakin’ channel now!” You can even pause it and rewind it. And of course YouTube, the bastard child of public access TV, means that not only can you watch (again) anything, any time, but you can add to it. User Created Content! Interactivity! tyler totaly drunk face plant lol funiest video EVAR!!!!!!!
Friday the 18th of March was Red Nose Day, an annual charity event organised by a group called Comic Relief. The brief is: Do something funny. Get money. Proceeds go to various charities in Britain and Africa. It’s a big deal – this year’s total raised was just over £100 million (160,644,523 Canadian dollars). One of the events nearest to me (in terms of both interest and geography) was a one-off Literary Death Match.
As you’re here on TNB, you might well know what LDM is; a knockout format in which four writers take it in turns to read samples of their work, while three judges sit on a comfy sofa and decide who goes through to the next round. The final pair read again, then compete in a silly tie-breaker. Sometimes it’s something physical involving throwing things or spraying silly string around but in this case it was “Poet or Nutter?”, in which the contestants had to decide whether the person in the photograph was a poet or a madman and, for an extra point, name them. Photos of the likes of Aileen Wuornos, H.P. Lovecraft and Shel Silverstein appeared, all with a Comic Relief red nose superimposed. I was delighted that, in John Wayne Gacy’s portrait, his dog had a red nose too.
It was fun. LDM is usually held on Wednesdays, but because it was a Red Nose special, the contestants and judges were bigger-than-usual names and it was held on a Friday, so the audience was larger and rowdier than the usual midweek crew. Less engaged, more Friday nighty. Noisier.
It was a damn fine show. This bloke, I don’t know who he was, kicked things off with a lung-achingly funny intro. “As it’s Red Nose Day,” he said, “I’m going to do the funniest thing I could think of. I’m going to read W. H. Auden’s Stop All the Clocks…” – that got a good laugh – “…with an increasing number of ice cubes in my mouth.”
And so he did, and it just got better and better, starting with “Thtop aw the c’ockth” and ending in an incoherent series of vowels and gurgles. I was laughing so much I couldn’t breathe, it was brilliant.
Did you notice how he began, announcing Stop All the Clocks, then pausing? He got the laugh, and got the measure of the audience at the same time. Canny. I think we measured up pretty well, even if most of us (including me) only knew it as the funeral poem from Four Weddings and a Funeral. I think we came across as attentive and receptive to fairly subtle literary humour (come on, this is Friday night in East London), and matey proceeded with confidence.
As the night wore on…no, it didn’t wear or drag, it rattled along like a square-wheeled school bus with no brakes…the four starters were whittled down to two finalists, and an interval was called. Matey, who’d established himself as a hero at the start of the night with his ice cube poetry, took the mike – and was ignored. Totally drowned out by the chattering classes; I think he gave up eventually. It was hard to tell, because between the rather quiet PA system and a couple of hundred jabberers, I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Even LDM founder Todd Zuniga dropping his trousers to reveal a splendid pair of red-nose-red G-Star boxer-briefs didn’t get much attention.
Now. I don’t want to be Funcrusher Plus (sorry, what? Too late? Shut up) but please, people, a little decorum. A chap who made us laugh our lungs up earlier is trying to make himself heard, the bloke who invented this whole thing has dropped his bags, and you’re just talking and talking.
Er. Um. I think…I think I might have been a bit hasty. This was, as I’ve said, a Friday night special. A lot of the crowd may have gone there for a drink and a pizza and several more drinks, and found that there was an event on. They wouldn’t begrudge Comic Relief a few quid in exchange for a bit of background entertainment; so maybe I’d found myself (to an extent) in the middle of a normal end-of-the-working-week drink-up, So really, I might as well have gone to an adventure playground and complained that it was a bit lively and everyone was younger than me.
(An aside, regarding links. I remember when I first read about something called “hypertext”. I mean, I don’t remember the precise time and location, it wasn’t a JFK/9/11 moment, but it seemed so futuristic, like something from a William Gibson novel. In a block of text, some of the words are blue. And if you click on a blue word, you get more information on that word. Wow! It sounded pretty amazing – and it sort of is, only it didn’t really work out quite the way I anticipated. I imagined (rather vaguely) another layer of information, maybe something as simple as a little window that popped up, then went away, something brief and simple which was part of the main document. A footnote, near enough – but that’s not how it worked out, is it? A link takes you to a whole nother page, probably another website, with its own home page and more links leading to more links, and before you know it you’re miles from shore, it’s getting dark and you’re drowning in a sea of metaphors. And you may say to yourself – “Well? How did I get here?”
Only you probably won’t. Actually if you’re like me you’ll open tab after tab, and then they’ll stay open for a couple of months, until you look at them, can’t remember why you opened them in the first place, and close them. Right now I have sixteen open, two of which are called “Fuc…”.
OK, getting to the point, I don’t like to put links in essays. I want to tell you all about the Literary Death Match and so on though, so what I’ll do is, I’ll provide some links at the end. Like an appendix. “Further Reading”. Old Skool!)
Here’s a better example. The Gallery Café is part of a “community space” (words that set my teeth on edge almost as much as “organic vegetable box”), it’s vegetarian (vegan where possible) and overall maybe a little bit earnest. But the coffee’s good, the staff are friendly, and the food’s decent – apart from the pizza, which is PHENOMENAL, even without the flesh of beasts. Now they just need to introduce a “Bring your own meat” policy.
On Sunday evenings they have jazz. Not difficult freeform hepcat stuff or jovial tweedy trad, but easy, familiar sounds with a female vocalist and at least one band member wearing a waistcoat. Nice. Nice and, crucially, quiet. We’re not talking about amps turned up to eleven or a self-important DJ, but they are making an effort to knock out some ear-pleasing sounds. And is their effort appreciated?
(I’ve been grinding my teeth for 1,755 words now, so you can probably guess that “And is their effort appreciated?” is a rhetorical question.)
Anyway, no, it isn’t appreciated, at least not by a few punters. It’s not a big place, and as I said, the band’s quiet, and it doesn’t take much to drown them out. In fact, all it takes is two pairs of noisy conversationists, strategically positioned at opposite corners of the café, to properly dick things up, and dick things up they did. I observed them. They weren’t particularly loud and obnoxious; they were chatting in a normal fashion. There was no hair twirling, no head-thrown-back laughter or furtive glimpses to see whether anyone was looking – no apparent awareness, in fact, that there was anyone else present. And that was the problem.
The fact that there were other people present, people who wanted to listen to the band, just didn’t register. All that mattered was them themselves, right there, right then. They didn’t even lean towards one another and talk into each other’s ears, they simply increased their volume a bit to overcome the background noise.
Did anyone ask them to keep it down a bit? No. Why not? I don’t know. Too middle class, too polite, too concerned with others’ right to self expression? Whatever the reason, these were my people, and they were pissing me off.
Did the band or the café staff ask them to keep it down a bit? No. Well, fair enough, it’s a café, not a hardcore jazz club.
Did I ask them to keep it down a bit? No. Why not? I’ll explain later.
Did I mention that it’s all the internet’s fault? I know, I know, it’s an easy catch-all scapegoat, and I sound like my parents, who see “The Internet” as some sort of society separate from the real world, populated by a few thousand people. But again, I’m holding it responsible – particularly (again) social media.
Online you can say whatever, to whomever, whenever you like. You can SHOUT AND FUCKING SWEAR and u can b as inarticulate as u want omfg lol bcos…nobody else is listening. If it’s a private conversation, well, it’s private, and even if it’s public anyone else within range can block, mute, temporarily unfollow, or simply ignore the participants. Listening (reading) is entirely optional – but not in real life. And I think some people have forgotten.
So I have a satisfactory explanation for this behaviour, but I don’t understand this: Why pay to get in (and pay venue prices for drinks) and behave as if it’s just another night at the pub with your mates, when you could have, well, a night at the pub with your mates, with no entry fee and slightly less outrageous drink prices, in any of a million pubs and bars in London? Actually Koko’s in the borough of Camden, and there are a million pubs and bars in Camden alone.
I used to teach a Summer course at the art college where I worked, a one week introduction to workshops. Metalwork, plastics, wood – we covered a lot in a short time. The students (members of the public, each paying a few hundred quid) all seemed to have one of two attitudes. The majority were determined to get as much value as they could; they were at the workshop door at nine every morning, champing at the bit, eager to try out new materials and processes. A few, though, took an approach that, while it seems valid, I can’t really understand: That they’d paid their money, and so as far as the course went they could take it or leave it. They turned up for the first day, shrugged, and were never seen again.
I don’t get it.
End of part one
In part two (which is written, formatted and ready to roll, so stay tuned) I’ll explain why I didn’t ask the jazz café chatterers to keep it down, and why the business of bad audiences has got me so worked up in the first place.
Edit: Here it is. Part two.
Further reading, listening and viewing
This two-part monster rant started as a comment on a Nervous Breakdown post by Nick Belardes. Nick’s article on public speaking – specifically, reading prose – got me thinking, perhaps a bit too hard. In the accompanying video, he reads the entire first chapter of his book Anhinga (accompanied by his son Landen on guitar) – and the audience talks. A lot. Here’s Nick’s piece, Some Thoughts on Performing Prose.
Elsewhere on TNB, Matt Baldwin observes that there’s no shortage of cinemagoers quite happy to spoil the viewing experience for everyone else in When Stupid People Go To Smart Movies.
Here’s the website of the Literary Death Match.
And here’s the slightly disturbing video for Joy Zipper’s Out of the Sun.