Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Exhibition

Ellen Gallagher@AxME, Tate Modern, opens 1 May

Ellen Gallagher is one of America’s most renowned contemporary artists. Tate Modern presents the first major solo exhibition of her work in the UK. This overview provides a unique opportunity to explore her career, as well as her employment of a wide variety of media- including painting, drawing, relief, collage, print, sculpture, film and animation.

Concert

Vampire Weekend, Troxy, 2 May

Williamsburg four piece Vampire Weekend return to play a short run of UK dates, including a stop at grandiose art-deco Troxy in east London. Their infectious blend of bouncy Afrobeat and indie-pop has only grown in popularity since their formation in 2006. The band will also be headlining gigs in Portsmouth and Bournemouth in June, in advanced of their support slot for Mumford and Sons at the Olympic Park.

Theatre

A Dolls House, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1 May- 1 June 

A new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s ground-breaking classic of female liberation and empowerment comes to the Royal Exchange this week. Star Cush Jumbo is reunited with director Greg Hersov following a hugely successful production of As You Like It in 2011.

TV

Vicious, ITV, premieres 29 April

This new sitcom, originally titled Vicious Old Queens, premieres on ITV on Monday. Theatrical heavyweights Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi star as an ageing couple sharing a Covent Garden flat whose world is turned upside down by the arrival of their dashing new neighbour Ash, played by Misfits star Iwan Rheon.

Film

Stanley Kubrick’s "A Killer’s Kiss", Prince Charles Cinema, 1 May

As part of their Kubrick retrospective the Prince Charles Cinema is screening A Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick’s second feature film. Made on a budget of £40,000 which Kubrick borrowed from his uncle, the film is regarded as a telling indicator of the era-defining invention and creativity that was to come. This New York noir tells the story of a young boxer and nightclub dancer who fall in love but become caught in a web of murder and revenge.

Festival

Stratford-upon-Avon Literary festival, Straford-Upon-Avon, continues until 5 May

A mix of debate, ideas, author events and workshops, The Stratford upon Avon Literary Festival has become of the most significant literary festivals in the UK. Highlights from the programme this week include an evening with Michael Palin on 2 May and "Michael Morpurgo day" on 5 May.

Ellen Gallagher's first major solo exhibition at the Tate Modern (Photo: Getty Images)
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My first ever vocal performance was singing "Rebel Rebel" inside a wardrobe

Inspirational artists don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid. That's what David Bowie did for me.

I couldn’t write anything the day David Bowie died. Like many people in music, I was asked for a tribute, but despite being a huge fan, I felt unable to strike the right tone. A glance at Twitter showed me how upset people were, and in that immediate aftermath of shock and dismay what was needed was cathartic and expressive writing. Some people took umbrage at the declamatory grieving, but to me it felt appropriate and I never much mind other people saying things I’m too shy or inhibited to say.

The outpouring of love and affection reminded me how personally we respond to artists, how they speak to us and for us. Pop music has its greatest effect on us when we’re young, when our clay is soft and pliable, and we take its imprint and carry it for ever. The songs we hear while our hearts are still wide open to the world make such an impression that it seems reasonable to me that we care more strongly about the people who sang them than, say, casual acquaintances we make later. So we can mourn a singer we never met more than someone we actually knew.

But one thing I thought wasn’t stressed enough in all the tributes and obituaries was simply that none of Bowie’s groundbreaking work with image/gender/sexuality, would have had as much impact without the phenomenal tunes he wrote, which ensured that his records were played to a mainstream audience. Like anyone my age, I came to Bowie not through an underground record shop, or reading about him in the NME, but by hearing him on Radio 1 and seeing him on Top of the Pops. He embedded himself in my consciousness primarily as a pop artist, a writer of songs so packed full of hooks, you were caught on first listen. I loved my brother’s Ziggy Stardust album because it was strange and yet familiar and I could sing along with all of it.

If you’d never heard Bowie, many of the descriptions might make you think that his work was arch, cool and detached. But he was part of the pre-ironic period of pop, not afraid of sincerity, especially in his singing. It surprises me when he is talked about as a kind of alien, because although he often seemed heroic, and immortal, he clearly had a sense of humour, and a family, and by all accounts was witty and charming and friendly to people. A proper human being, in other words.

Through all the tributes and memories, what became clear was that everyone had some recollection that encapsulated his meaning for them. My little story is one I have told before, in Bedsit Disco Queen, of the day when I was rehearsing in someone’s bedroom with my first band, Stern Bops. I was the rhythm guitarist, and that day our singer didn’t turn up, so the boys in the band asked if I could sing. I wasn’t sure – I’d never really tried, certainly not in front of anyone – and so I replied that I would have a go but not if they were all looking at me. Instead, I’d get inside the wardrobe and sing from there. Which is precisely what I did, and once inside the stuffy darkness, out of sight but clutching my microphone, I sang David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”. It was my first ever vocal performance.

How hilarious, you might think, how pitiful even, to sing an anthem to rebelliousness while hiding in a closet. How could you take all the defiance and pride of that song and undermine it with fear? But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is exactly how inspirational artists work, and why we need them. They don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid.

And you don’t copy people you’re inspired by. Quite often you can’t; you wouldn’t know where to start. You can only stare, open-mouthed in wonder. And yet still something happens, you hear a voice telling you something, a tiny little spark is lit. And you treasure that spark, and add it to others that you’re finding elsewhere, gathering them around you like a protective halo. Until you have just enough courage to take that song you love to dance to and sing those words you love to sing. Even from inside a wardrobe.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle