Saturday, March 13, 2010

Live: Peter Green & Friends, Nottingham, March 12

The back story. All anyone seems to care about is the back story when it comes to music. Record sales decline to miniscule levels but yet music fans still buy magazines by the million and those Behind The Music documentaries still get made. It's because even the most level headed, genuine music fan can't help but be titilated by the idea of stepping behind the curtain and seeing the stuff you're not supposed to see.
It used to be that press officers were paid to keep this kind of info to a minimum. Now, it's a part of their job to give away enough information to somehow validate the product. So a band like Joy Division - a good band, maybe even a great band - get elevated to the status of deities because the back story of their existence validates the product they made. Or take In Utero by Nirvana, an album that sounds incredible but is split between a handful of genuinely forward-thinking, wonderful songs matched to some pretty average tunes left off of Nevermind. But because he topped himself after it's release, the suicidal act is seen as validation for the record and it removes the doubt that what you're listening to might not actually be as good as you want it to be.
Now we're in a situation where any self-respecting singer songwriter has to have had a nervous breakdown (and talked about it in a 4 page spread in MOJO) in order that their new product is seen as being genuine or worthy of attention.
One night this week I stumbled across a treasure trove of photos of Jimi Hendrix taken by fans in the crowd on their cheap cameras. I am too young to have shared the planet with Hendrix so I can't say for sure but there's something very real in those photos to my eyes. You can imagine the man in 3 dimensions: young, spotty, awkward. The smaller venues he played in then look like the venues I go to now, the photos are blurred but lively and they could have been taken yesterday. They brought him to life better than any live DVD or pro photo shoot could have done. And in seeing this you realise he's just a bloke like Ian Curtis or Kurt Cobain was. They fucked up, they made mistakes, they weren't sure of themselves and any act of genius on their part was only recognised and labelled as such by other people not themselves. We, as fans of music and readers of the rock biography, create these things ourselves. That's why the sales of MOJO probably aren't going to downturn to the same level as the sales of albums anytime soon while they keep rediscovering and rewriting the life stories of ordinary people who made some records and hopefully had some bad fortune too to make it a bit more interesting.
After tonight's Peter Green show at the Rescue Rooms, I was taking a piss at the urinal and a man next to me asked me what I thought of the gig. In a rare moment of lucidity I replied:
"It was beautiful"
He replied something along the lines of it being good considering what had happened to Green. In fact, I think he said
"A lot of stuff went down in the 60s"
And there we are at the back story again. Because Greeny, alongside people like Syd Barrett, is one of rock's great lost heroes. A man whose mental illness has been romanticised to sickening levels by a rock press who don't have to tie his shoelaces, show him how to use an oven, cut his fingernails, tell him to take a bath or work out why he keeps cheese in his hair.
So everyone in the room knows the outline of what happened to him. Of how he rejected making money from music, wore a Jesus smock on TV, fried his mind on acid and disappeared from public view before being "found" again and coaxed out to play. Eavesdropping on people's conversations in the crowd is like listening to 20 episodes of VH1's Behind The Music playing at the same time. People love this shit.
But here's the flipside: they still want him to play in the way he used to, to play songs of the era in the same way now and to reignite something within them. This is a shitty road to go down because what the fans of this man are saying is they want him to be a liar.
They want him to sing these beautiful songs like Man Of The World, or songs of genuine horror and defiance like The Green Manalishi (he doesn't play either) and for him to mean them now like they mean something to them. But he meant them so much in the first place that they made him the way he is now.
Take someone like Eric Clapton who sings about the blues, plays the songs of Robert Johnson but yet collects vintage Ferraris and wears Armani. I'm not saying doing the latter is bad, it's just he has somehow managed to keep it just the right side of "real". Real enough to be able to divorce yourself from the original sentiment of the music you play long enough to actually play it and to earn from it.
Green not only doesn't seem to think like that, he actively sought to give the finger to it. At the time when all his contemporaries were bringing in the cash by the bucket, Greeny was giving his away and writing songs like the aforementioned Green Manalishi which, for all it's ominous talk of monsters is about nothing more supernatural than the lure of the dollar and his fear and distaste for it.
Midway through the set tonight the band play Oh Well and Albatross in a little medley. It's unbelievable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I imagined that the voice of Peter Green singing
"Don't ask me what I think of you, I might not give the answer that you want me to"
might be akin to the clouds parting and the giant finger of God pointing down upon the crowd and making us cower in awe. Even now, croaky and quiet (despite the giant PA here the band is noticeably timid in volume to allow Green's voice to be heard), he is in possession of one of the great voices in music history. It's sonorous, human and beautiful. It speaks of sadness but it has tenderness and compassion. Seriously, listen to those early Mac records and it's all about his voice. Something tells me Billy Gibbons might agree too.
At the very least I hoped everyone would shut the fuck up anyway. In actual fact, everyone sings along and claps. It's weird. Not as weird as Albatross though. People talk through it. People talk about it while it's happening. I had a vantage point now where I could actually see Peter Green, sitting stage right on a stool, lightly fingering a pretty cheap looking guitar. He fixed his gaze somewhere above the crowd at a spot on the roof. Even when the bar staff chose to empty the bottle bank midway through he just gave a little grin. At that point something clicked within me and, like the photos of Jimi Hendrix, for a split second I could see him as a real man, 3 dimensional and there in front of me like a total hero. I shit you not.
The rest of the set was throwaway Commitments-style R&B delivered with (too much) taste by a fairly able band. Completely devoid of grit, dirt or passion for the most part. The guitarist (and from what I understand band leader) whooped it up, sang a few songs in a pub style and generally looked and played out of his depth. Green sang a few and picked his spots to add perfectly judged guitar solos that glide and bend like a weird hybrid of Scotty Moore and Albert King. But it never ever looked like becoming emotionally involving, especially not for Green.
But that one second in Albatross, you could see in his face that it meant something and more importantly that he almost didn't want it to. That sort of emotional plumbing is not on the agenda anymore for him or for the music he performs. I figure if music had caused you to suffer such real and human suffering, suffering that goes beyond a magazine article or a documentary, then you'd be very wary of revisiting it again too. It's just too real. But his music and his personality is so powerful and radiant that it's hard to escape these tiny moments where the "old" Peter Green shines through despite absolutely everything - band, crowd, venue etc - being stacked up against this happening.
That's why the show was beautiful. You have a crowd of rock historians, re-bleeting the same old shit from magazines they've read. They want the best of both worlds, they want their rock stars so real it hurts, they want them to speak of their inner turmoil. But they want it on tap. Peter Green was so emotional and so open when he wrote the music they want to hear, that it properly fucked him up. It upset him. He broke his own heart. So he can't sit up there and churn it out but he still wants to play so we get 90 mins of jazz blues and R&B, some good solos and a lot of appreciative pondering on the crowd's part. At the end they'll pat him on the head like a retarded child and say he played well, "despite his problems" and express disappointment in private that he doesn't play like he used to and then they'll read the next issue of MOJO about Dennis Wilson, or Harry Nilsson, or Sly Stone and so on and so on.
Meanwhile, Peter Green has to carry on being Peter Green. It can't be easy. I'd love him to make an album of improvised guitar with Jim White on drums, or front a back-to-basics blues band heavy on volume and low on good taste. Ultimately though, he can do what he wants, it's not my business. When he opens his mouth and sings or lets himself drift away in the moment on his guitar that's good enough for me, no matter how infrequently he feels comfortable enough to do it.
In the meantime watch this and love it:

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