There are years when I go to plenty of gigs, at least one per month. Some years, like last year, I go to hardly any. In 2017 there were planned shows that had sold out before I could get tickets, like Tony Visconti and the remaining Spider from Mars playing the whole of the Ziggy Stardust album at the Shepherds Bush Empire in March. A tribute show at the same venue in September, for Marc Bolan’s anniversary, and also featuring Tony Visconti, had already sold out by the time I tried to get tickets in March.
In May I planned to take my son (then aged 12) to see a couple of guys I know playing in a band at the Bush Hall, but he suddenly turned weak and shivery. He was asleep in bed by 7.30pm, for the first time since he was a toddler. And, for the first time since he was a toddler, I wondered if we would need to take him to A&E, wondered if he was developing one of the childhood ailments that all parents fear, beginning with “m” and ending in “-itis”. It’s a word that I do not want to say out loud, or even write out in full. The following day he was pretty much recovered, and it was the only day he was absent from school in the whole academic year.
Later, in the summer, I failed to get tickets for Tom Petty’s Hyde Park gig, and a handful of other, much smaller shows came and went without me turning up. Most of these smaller shows involve at least one person I know performing on stage. With more effort I might have made it to their appearances at the Union Chapel Islington, or the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell (a venue I still haven’t visited), but it didn’t happen.
By November I had not seen an organized, pre-arranged gig anytime in 2017 but a handful of shows “broke my duck”, as cricket watchers would say. (Breaking your duck, in cricketing terms, means scoring at least one run, and not ending up with a score of zero.) There was a Don Williams tribute act in a pub in Ealing, I finally got to see the band that I had been unable to see in May, and I saw Andy White at the Half Moon in Putney.
Like John Cooper Clarke, who I wrote about earlier this month, Belfast-born Andy White is a performer whose shows I have attended regularly over many decades. I first saw him as a student in the 1980s in Cambridge, where he went by the name “The Ghost of Electricity”. By then I knew enough about Bob Dylan to know that this was a reference to “Visions of Johanna”, from “Blonde on Blonde”. At those Cambridge gigs he played solo. In the late 1980s he had a backing band and I saw them at places like the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden. One of the band members was married to a girl I knew from primary school, so at those shows there was a bigger crowd of people I knew than at most gigs I have attended.
At some point (in the 1990s I think) Andy White relocated to Melbourne Australia and played for a while with Liam Ó Maonlaí (from Hothouse Flowers) and Tim Finn (of Split Enz and Crowded House fame). Their band was called ALT, formed from the first letters of their three names.
At least 10 years passed between those late 1980s shows in London and the next time I saw him play, as a solo artist again, in the early 2000s. He played the 12 Bar Club and the Bush Hall and, especially during “Religious Persuasion”, I was taken back 30 years to those Cambridge shows, glad to be there hearing the same tunes I had first heard in my late teens. A few years ago I saw him at the Half Moon Putney. The opening act was Boo Hewerdine, another artist who came out of the Cambridge 1980s scene (The Great Divide, The Bible, and then solo work).
At the Half Moon there was more merchandise on offer than I had seen at White’s previous gigs. I arrived home with £50 less in my pockets than when I had set out. As well as the price of admission (£10) I had spent over £40 on a combination of t-shirt, CD compilation and book from the headline act (the latter entitled “21st Century Troubador”) and a Boo Hewerdine CD.
10 or 15 years ago there were large record shops being kept afloat by people like me, people of a certain age who either hadn’t been able to afford all the records we wanted to buy when we were younger, or who now wanted to augment existing vinyl collections with CDs. We would regularly make shopping trips to HMV, Tower Records or the remaining Virgin Megastores and spend £50 on a combination of new and old releases, maybe buying CDs bundled into “5 for £20” deals, and two or three discs priced at £10-15. In my case there would be CDs by artists like Led Zeppelin, David Bowie or Bob Dylan to fill in the many gaps in my collection, and newer releases by bands like Arctic Monkeys and The Cribs.
Journalists and marketing men had a name for us: “50 quid man”. In record shops I was “50 quid man” for a while, until my CD collection grew too unmanageable for me to find things quickly, and streaming services made it easier to find tracks, whether I owned them or not. I still am “50 quid man” to some extent, but now it’s mostly at gigs, where more of the money goes straight into the artists’ pockets. At shows by numerous artists, including John Cooper Clarke, The Fall, The Rutles, The Undertones and Andy White, I have spent at least 50 quid a time, on t-shirts, books, CDs, badges, even the odd hoodie.
At last November’s Andy White show, which was great, and at last week’s John Cooper Clarke gig in Oxford, I didn’t make it to the table selling merchandise. Sorry about that. I’m sure I’ll make up for it next time.