There is no way this is going to make any kind of coherent sense, let's all just accept that now. Tonight I walked home from the tube with music loud in headphones for the first time in probably 14 years (safety first, children) because today Father John Misty has been a life support machine for me and I couldn't totally be sure the blood would keep going round my body without him in my ears. (“She said music is like literally the air that I breathe, the malaprops make me want to fucking scream.”) I wasn't supposed to go to his gig at Village Underground tonight: I tried to buy tickets soon after it was announced but they'd sold out days beforehand; I tried to pull strings but the saintly patient PR at FJM's label Bella Union was like, you must be kidding, the beardy male music journos are salivating all over him; I tried pitching a review to the Guardian but the email wasn't answered. I'm so fucking glad I didn't get that commission. Because for a few days now I've been noticing that not writing on here was feeling like I'd amputated a part of myself and the wound, far from healing, has been seeping and sore. Tonight walking home from the tube with Father John Misty loud through the headphones I looked up at the sky and through London's light pollution visioned the constellations and all the stars aligned. This is what I fucking live for.
I have a lot of trouble being alive. (“I've brought my mother's depression, you've got your father's scorn and a wayward aunt's schizophrenia.”) This week I've been doing a lot of lying awake looking at the darkness (“and there's a black dog on the bed”); this morning the guy who sweeps the local streets smiled at me when I was walking home from school and that small act of kindness made me cry. I came home and vomited over twitter how distraught I was that I didn't have a ticket for the Father John Misty gig and started quoting choice lines. “Oh and no one really knows you and life is brief, so I've heard but what's that got to do with this black hole [in] me?” “How many people rise and say my brain is so awfully glad to be here for yet another mindless day?” I managed to hold myself together through most of the gig, by which I mean I spent almost all of it with one arm pressed hard against my stomach or clutching my left ribs, locking my heart in its proper place, but the song that second line comes from, Bored in the USA, broke me right open. It's the one that on record Tillman punctuates with brutal spasms of canned laughter; live, he keeps it simpler, and delivers the sardonic commentary in his gestures instead: a mocking shrug for “they gave me a useless education”, a flourish of the hand for “sub-prime loan”. (I didn't take notes, by the way. This is impressionism, not journalism.) It's a song that expresses acutely how the world we live in is a fucking joke. I was walking across the Thames yesterday and realised I've come to hate the London skyline. My city has been taken over, diseased by money, and now I have no true home.
Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted?
Who said that?
Can I get my money back?
A look of what-the-fuck bewilderment for: “When I was young, I dreamt of a passionate obligation to a room-mate.” (Actually, apart from I keep staying up too late, the marriage is fine right now. Thanks for asking.)
The only thing that makes living in a city like London bearable are the moments of connection. Just before going to the FJM gig, I co-hosted a Dialogue Theatre Club on Kim Noble's You're Not Alone, where this question of connection was vital. (OK, more truthfully, I ran out on the Theatre Club to go to the gig, which is rude, but sometimes even passion-work has got to take a back seat. And anyway, as usual, 75% of the people who booked didn't bother to show. Do those people realise how fucking dispiriting it is to be stood up like that?) I felt bruised by Kim's show; someone else at the Theatre Club said she found it difficult but ultimately cleansing to watch; what both of us responded to was the search for connection, the exterior aggression of that, the gentleness beneath. I got all muddled up trying to say something about how Kim normalises extreme behaviour, like drilling a hole through a neighbour's wall; what I meant, but didn't manage to articulate, is that through this extreme behaviour he conveys tender messages about what human beings need from each other. The graph he plots of his neighbours' sex life after drilling the hole shows that whenever the sex plummets, the arguments increase. There's a lesson in that for all of us.
Back to FJM.
Having vomited over twitter, something amazing happened. Someone who doesn't have an account, but had some tickets they needed to sell on, saw what I wrote, found my Dialogue email address and contacted me offering them. And when it turned out that I would need to meet them at the same time as doing the Theatre Club to be able to get in, gave me their mobile number so I could call them on arrival and they would leave the gig to come out and get me. A total stranger, going out of their way to be nice to me. Meanwhile, saintly patient PR at Bella Union – the label I once impatiently described as home to 50% geniuses, 50% vacuous soundalikes-by-numbers – contacted everyone with a plus one to find out if they really needed it, and got me on the guest list. And then, someone I once had a terrible crush on, who rested his chin on my head at a Smog/Palace gig in Camden, and took me to the best pinball-machine bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and laughed at me for using fuck-off as a quantifying adjective, and pretended to need an eye-patch after not seeing me for several months (turns out I still haven't forgiven him for that one), he picked this day to find me on twitter as well. Connections, people reaching out to each other, to me. Small acts of kindness. And then it's 9.15pm and I've missed the first three songs (including Honeybear! ach) and I'm worming my way closer and closer to the front where Father John Misty is scissor-kicking and hurling himself to his knees and rolling his hips this side, that side, like he's dancing a cha-cha with his own songs, and his voice is pouring through me like golden honey, spiced rum, and it's like I have wings, because a handful of people have been good to me. I'm not supposed to be here, on the right side of paradise. But I am.
And it turns out that Father John Misty is a total fucking rock star sex god. Did you imagine that listening to his records? He sings about being a ladies' man, or pulling more women than two men or a train can haul, but it's one thing talking a talk: live, he walks the walk. Struts it, peacock proud. He's skinny, dressed in black, with a gleaming swoop of dramatic hair (actually, that was vaguely disturbing, because he has the exact same hair as Rupert Goold, who to be fair totally presents himself as the rock star of theatre), shirt unbuttoned just so, and the hips, the hips, I keep talking about the hips, they are the hips of a man who KNOWS WHAT TO DO WITH YOU. I have a friend who pretty much has to start fanning herself every time Nick Cave is mentioned. Father John Misty has learned a lot of his moves from Nick Cave; he radiates charisma, it jitters through his limbs. At one point he makes a rubbish joke along the lines of doing his best to make everyone's pants wet. People: it's working.
That joke is rubbish written down, but basic lesson of comedy: it's all in the delivery. This is the other surprise. Remember the first time you saw John Grant play live and discovered that not only does he have the voice of god, he's also this sharp, spry wit, conversational and funny, a deprecating storyteller with exquisite timing? Tillman has that chattiness, too. He makes another bad joke, about mothers, and decides he's found the limits of British black humour; he teases himself for a move gone wrong (swinging the microphone, it flies off to the floor); does the whole encores-are-ridiculous schtick, but with such appreciation of its absurdity we laugh even more. Like Grant, he takes the worst of himself,
Every woman that I've slept with
Every friendship I've neglected
Didn't call when grandma died
I spend my money getting drunk and high
I've done things unprotected
Proceeded to drive home wasted
Bought things to win over siblings
I've said awful things, such awful things
Now it's out
and in song takes every step from self-pity to lacerating fury to self-mockery to quiet acceptance – then, in between the songs, returns emotions to an even keel by the simple expedient of laughing genially at himself. It's a skill I don't have and I admire it immensely.
The thing he does that Grant doesn't do is sing with his whole body – I'm going to try not to talk about the hips again – underscoring individual words with gestures. A tap to the head any time wit or brains are mentioned. A hand skimming a thigh. The Ideal Husband has him throwing himself around the stage, sinking to his knees as he screams of being tired of running, tipping back to the ground as he begs to put a bun in the oven. Holy Shit sends him over the barrier to bury himself in the crowd, singing:
Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty
What's your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?
Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity
What I fail to see is what that's gotta do with you and me
You and me. That's what this gig is about: him and us, you and me, human beings having face time, making love, finding companionship, saying the words that are impossible, reaching out at exactly the moment when it's needed. Defying every economic structure that's built to destroy us and keep us apart and creating moments of communion instead. He teases one person for watching him through the camera lens of their mobile phone but takes the phone off of someone else to sing directly into it, a private performance. We gather at his feet to sing at the top of our voices as one; I look around me and all I see is joy on faces, amazement, love. It's the mirror of what I feel shining back at me.
Somewhere in the middle I remember there has to be an end and it's like the depression that hits me every midsummer's day, knowing that this is the beginning of summer's decline. I think I might have to walk home: it's the only way I can deny that the gig is finished. But when it really finishes, I know what I have to do. It starts on twitter: “he's reduced me to archetypal screaming beatles fan”. And then, for the first time in a long time, I race home and let myself write something absolutely only for me. Because I want to hold on to this night for ever. Because I have trouble being alive and nights like this remind me why I need to stick with it. Because I got a ticket for free and that was a gift and I want to give something back. Because I'm really fucking angry right now with everything to do with theatre criticism and it feels really good to turn my back on it and write about music instead. Because I can't hold all of this love inside my body, I'm just not big enough. Some of it has to spill out into the world.
The last thing I wrote on twitter about Father John Misty was a mathematical formula:
john grant voice + nick cave moves = best sex ever
It's 2.12am and in just under seven hours I'm going to arrive back at this desk and buy as many tickets as I possibly can for the next FJM gig in London. When the midsummer day's depression hits, my consolation will be knowing that autumn will bring him and this night back to me.