The Friday arts diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Music

Gateshead International Jazz Festival, The Sage, Gateshead, 5-7 April

According to its organisers, Gateshead International Jazz Festival is the largest UK festival held under one roof. Headline acts include the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Lighthouse, Ruby Turner and the Brand New Heavies. But its nuanced programme of smaller performances is equally interesting: Broadcaster/musician Alyn Shipton, will be exploring the relationship between jazz and poetry, notably the work of Philip Larkin and W B Yeats, in a piece entitled Jazz Words. Meanwhile, seminal French guitarist Bireli Lagrene will be making a rare appearance to the festival, with a jazz quartet reminiscent of the Blue Note acts of the 1960s.

Dance

Labyrinth of Love tour. Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 9-19 April

The Rambert dance company returns to Edinburgh with the critically-acclaimed Labyrinth of Love. Grammy award-wining composer Michael Daugherty’s score is performed live by both the Rambert Orchestra and soprano Sarah Gabriel, in what is both a musically and visually stunning piece. Choreographed by Marguerite Donlon, Labyrinth of Love provides a fitting centre-piece for a production which also features Merce Cunningham’s seminal work Sounddance, Richard Alston’s solo Dutiful Ducks and Paul Taylor’s Roses.

Art

Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos. Serpentine Gallery, London W2, until 7 April

An exhibition that sets about creating a space in which ideas from different disciplines can cross-pollinate, A Cosmos sees German artist Trockel situate her work among other artefacts and objects. Each one was selected by Trockel, in dialogue with curator Lynne Cooke, to produce a context for the artist’s work, including science and natural history. Trockel has resisted an identifiable style throughout her 30-year career, which has seen her exhibit in Paris, London and New York. It closes this Sunday, so catch this marvellously eclectic exhibition while you still can.

Theatre

A day in the death of Joe Egg, Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, 5-27 April

This weekend sees the revival of the critically-acclaimed play A day in the death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols. The play was first performed in 1967. This production stars Ralph Little, Rebecca Johnson and Marjorie Yates. A fast-paced black comedy centred on the struggle of a young couple raising a disabled child, Nichols’s script was described by the Stage’s Gareth K Vile as “brutal, funny and provocative. The actors are challenged to jump across genres, picturing a reality bounded by a child’s absolute dependence, but made into a hell by their own personal failures.” It’s one to watch.

Spoken Word

Scratch the word, The Ovalhouse, London SE11, 11 April

Scratch the word is an exciting "scratch" event, exploring the creative overlap between spoken word, live literature and video verse. A group of performance poets will each perform a 10-minute sample of their work, followed be a Q&A panel discussion hosted by organisers Spread the Word. It will also include performances from the likes of Nick Makoha, whose one-man show My Father and Other Superheroes is due to feature at the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival.

A tenor saxophone. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses