Lez Miserable: "Here's my second coming out: I hate music festivals"

Live music is great. But you know what's also great? Bands not sounding like they’re shouting into saucepans.

With light seeping in from outside, I can just about see my breath in front of me. My head is a pulsating hurt orb. Need painkillers. Now. Torch in mouth, I rummage around the tent, through bags of fermented socks. So many socks. No sign of pills. I think they’re socks now. Everything is socks. I drop the torch (my only non-sock possession) and sit in the dark with my head in my hands. Then the shivering starts. Uncontrollable shivering. I need to put on more layers, but I only have socks. I put socks on my hands. It’s a start. Swampy water has seeped in from somewhere and my sleeping bag is a giant, flaccid slug. The wind carries in the stench of raw sewage. Then come the Outside People. Grotesque human/traffic cone hybrids, silhouetted against the walls of my tent. They’re shouting something about burgers. Sweet Jesus: they’re hungry.

What kind of post-apocalyptic, dystopian nightmare is this? One I paid nearly £200 for, actually. The gangrenous trench foot-like smell of festival season is beginning to pollute the air. And I’ve realised that it’s about time I stop telling my friends that I’d love to go with them to Beefstival/Dick Party/Green Bidet. So here’s my second coming out: I hate music festivals.

One day, when I was seven, a filth-encrusted spectre waded in through the door. It spoke little and when it did, it was in grunts. Its hair was matted, its eyes were glazed and reddish. It was only when my mum addressed The Thing as “Ruth” that I realised it was my big sister. I learnt that she’d returned from something called “Glastonbury”. I vowed never to go there.

But I eventually forgot about my sister’s haunting, post-Glasto thousand yard stare. Nine years later, I went to my first festival. And my God did I pretend to love it. I pretended so hard, in fact, that I continued to go to festivals for many years. See, festivals have us all by the balls. Their organisers and sponsors have come up with a genius business model where they get young people with low self-esteem to spend hundreds of their parents’ pounds on living like medieval peasants for a weekend – wallowing in actual faeces – while vehemently declaring that they’re having “OMIGOD-THE-BEST-TIME-EVERRRRR”.

But what about the music? Sure, I love hearing live bands. You know what else I love? Them not sounding like they’re shouting into saucepans. Let’s face it; outdoor gigs sound atrocious. Imagine an hour of saucepan shouting. Imagine seven hours of saucepan shouting. Imagine three freaking days of saucepan shouting. Throw in some rancid, ersatz falafel and an armpit-load of anonymous bodily fluids and you have yourself a festival. Plus, in one of this year’s viral videos, attendees at the Californian festival Coachella-goers feign  interest in bands that don’t exist. This just goes to show that a lot of festival-goers don’t even know what they’re doing there – “Music? Yeah, great, I guess. I like that band with the guitars.”

These people have been inexplicably lured into a three-day-long masochism fest, worthy of de Sade. I’m beginning to wonder if festivals are manifestations of middle class guilt. Therapeutic weekend-long sessions in which we abandon comfort, in order to feel slightly better about spending £6.99 on single loaves of quinoa bread.  What results is an uncanny circus of young humans in animal onesies and “aren’t I adorably ditsy” flower headbands; each and every one of them pretending to have a fantastic time. To be fair, I hear that the ones on enough MDMA to get a giraffe doing the Harlem Shake are genuinely enjoying themselves. Isn’t it telling that in order to have real-life fun at a festival, you need to self-medicate with a delicious cocktail of class As? For me, drug-taking usually culminates in curling into a foetal position and/or being convinced that Robin Williams is going to murder me. So no help there.

When I got home from Field Day (a day-long festival in Victoria Park) last month I had sunstroke and about nineteen “Where are you???” texts from friends I’d lost in the heaving crowds. What seems like the entire day was spent on the phone to these friends, saying things like, “Err, I’m by a thing that looks like a thing.” Even safe in the knowledge that I’d sleep in my bed and not a soggy tent that night, I came to a life-changing conclusion: I’m too old for this shit. So, mates who invited me to Bestival this summer, here’s my honest RSVP: Not even if I get to share a tent with Natalie Portman.

Let's be honest - no one is really having fun here. Photograph: Getty Images

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State