‘It is like forming part of a single electrical circuit’: poet laureate Simon Armitage recalls the thrill of the crowd
There can be no such thing as a socially distanced mosh pit, can there? This is the centre of a gig, a place where semi-legitimised frenzy and mayhem take place, where drinks are lobbed, shoes are lost, clothes are torn, human beings are borne aloft, and where entanglements of bodies move in unpredictable directions to the push and pull of invisible forces, like a glass in the centre of a Ouija board in contact with a particularly violent spirit. (If you’re thinking, “Blimey, poetry readings aren’t what they used to be,” then bless you.) True, spaces of two metres or more do occasionally open up in the mosh pit, breaches and rents in the crowd where the actual floor becomes visible, but they are momentary and quickly mended. The music stops, the crowd settles and finds its level, only for the music to start again, this time with a more urgent rhythm or tribal beat, and the upheaval resumes.
In a poem about a music festival, I likened a large audience to the swell of the sea under a harbour wall, and wrote about a “sweet spot” somewhere in the middle and near the front. I’ve been in a lot of large gatherings, some jubilant, some seething. At Old Trafford in the 70s, I watched Manchester United versus Juventus in a roiling mass of scarves, fists, beer-breath and raucous chanting, with only a few crush barriers to stop a whole grandstand of spectators from slewing down the terraces. It was breathtaking, and not just metaphorically. I’ve taken part in demos on the streets of big cities where there’s been a great unification of purpose and cause. But I’ve never lost sense of myself as an individual, whereas at a gig – a good one, anyway – I’ve experienced a kind of oneness with everyone else, like forming part of a single electrical circuit, a feeling generated by the hypnotic qualities of the music. Alcohol, of course, is often a contributory ingredient, and it’s my understanding that other mood-altering substances are sometimes taken.
Live music was enjoying one of its most important periods, as a riposte to the near-collapse of the record industry
Obviously that level of intensity, proximity and participation isn’t a requirement of every show, and most music-goers are content to stand or sit shoulder to shoulder (some chattering or refracting proceedings via a mobile phone screen, though that’s the subject of a different article and rant). But if ever a dastardly curse could have been designed to strike at the heart of the live music scene, coronavirus is pretty much the perfect enemy. And this at a time when live music was enjoying one of its most important periods, as a riposte to the near-collapse of the record industry and an antidote to an increasingly virtual existence.
A few years ago I entered the mosh pit for what was probably the final time – my bones won’t take it any more, and I now have designer varifocals and branded footwear to protect. It was a hometown Wedding Present gig in Leeds, and I’d been on stage with them at one point, reading a poem of mine they’d set to music. Back in the stalls, I remember deliberately edging towards the vortex of arms and legs, like standing too close to the edge of a pier in a storm, volunteering to be dragged in.
A month ago it was my birthday. Following the slight relaxation of rules, and having been pretty much housebound for three months, I set off to the coast. Walking along the seafront at Bridlington, sidestepping pedestrians and body-swerving cyclists, I realised how people-averse I’d become. The idea of being close to a complete stranger, let alone brushing up against them, seemed not just undesirable, it felt unnatural, alien.
When the virus is beaten – and it will be – it might take a force of will to dismantle the circumference of unapproachability we’ve installed around us. Or a really good song, to bring us into contact, get the current flowing, and let the conductivity begin again.
‘Never invite a Tinder date to your gig’: comedian Lolly Adefope on performing (and watching) standup
People expect a comedian’s first gig to have been painful. Not in my case; I brought my friend Sam, who has the best laugh – one that’s extremely contagious. Whether the audience were laughing at me or with him I’ll never know, but it didn’t matter. The gig went well, and I felt the rush of knowing I’d been able to make a group of strangers laugh.
It can be hard to hold on to that rush. When you first start gigging, it’s about finding an audience. As you attempt to turn it into a career, it often becomes about who’s in that audience: are they there to hear what you have to say, or did they think it would be a funny ‘random’ end to a stag do? I think it’s important to keep that original magic alive. There’s something really special, and addictive, about making that connection with an audience – knowing that they may never have seen you before, and may never see you again, but that for those moments you’ve been able to unite them all in laughter, and provide the escape that lies in that involuntary response.
A sad truth I’ve learned is that I watch a lot less live comedy than I did before it became my job. Knowing that live comedy and music are likely to be the last emblems of normal life to make their return, it’s something I’m planning to rectify. When all this is over (yes, I know, it’ll never be really over; if I hear the words “The New Normal” again I’ll cry) I’m going to aim for a 1:1 ratio of my gigs as performer to my gigs as audience member. Onstage, I tend to get most nervous before new-material nights – where the jokes I thought of that very day might disappear the moment I step off stage. But as an audience member it’s exhilarating to know you got to experience a raw slice of comedy (be it bad or good, and it can be Bad) that might never be repeated.
It’s freeing to be that person who people turn around to look at, wondering who could have a laugh that loud. I can’t wait until the next time I take someone I care about to see a comedian I love, throwing the occasional subtle look their way when I hear my favourite joke, to see if it resonated with them, too.
With the Edinburgh festival fringe cancelled, I’ve been thinking about my visits over the years – first as a punter, then a flyerer, where my only real stress came from sharing a four-bedroom house with 20 other students. Then, the years spent performing every night for a month, where I was lucky enough to have never really been heckled. Except on one occasion: there was a part of the show where I pretended to be at an audition where I was asked to state my height, and so I said, “Five-foot-four”. Someone in the audience shouted, “No you’re not!” Confusing at first, because I absolutely am, and then less confusing to find out it was my dad, “just having fun”. That’s the first rule of comedy: make sure your dad knows your height before you get on stage.
It’s been inspiring to see how people have kept the spirit of live comedy going online
The second rule is: never invite a Tinder date to see you gig. In my defence, he was a comedy fan, and I was headlining and wanted to impress him, but I was quickly brought down to earth when only 30 people turned up. It was still a lovely gig: sometimes the smallest crowds are the nicest (as I screeched repeatedly at him at the bar afterwards).
When lockdown began, the idea of online gigs terrified me. I pictured a stony-faced audience with their mics off; you can’t politely ask someone to be quiet when you can only see that they’re not listening. Now I think I’m nearly ready to embrace it. Of course, I miss doing my regular comedy night, but with a Zoom gig there’s no risk of my Joker mask falling out of my bag on the train.
While we can’t congregate in real life, it’s been inspiring to see how people have kept the spirit of live comedy going online. Personally, I’m welcoming the advent of sit-down standup; after all, when will comedians next get the chance to work from home?
Lolly Adefope has appeared in Ghosts, Shrill and This Time with Alan Partridge. In normal times, Lolly & Friends perform at Moth Club, London