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Watching Bob Dylan on stage made me yearn for the gigs of my youth

Somewhere along the line, I’d lost the punky irreverence that made me delight in iconoclasm for its own sake.

A couple of weeks ago I failed in my journalistic duty. I went to see Bob Dylan at the Palladium, intending to review it, but I found to my dismay that I simply couldn’t.

I had assumed I would enjoy it, you see; that even if I didn’t love every musical moment, at the very least it would be something to be in the same room as a legend.

What I didn’t bargain for was that I’d hate every musical moment, not even make it to the end of the evening, and would then get home and sit glumly in front of the blank screen of my laptop, until the wordless hours forced upon me the realisation that, somewhere along the line, I’d lost the punky irreverence that used to make me delight in iconoclasm for its own sake, and I’d become respectful.

It wasn’t just that I knew, and wearily accepted, that a negative review would provoke angry responses, along the lines of, “Who do you think you are, puny songstress Tracey Thorn, slagging off our trailblazing genius Bob Dylan?”

It was that, at some level, a part of me would have agreed with them. I’m under no illusions about our respective status in the story of popular music: Dylan has a starring role, is a game-changer – a Nobel Prizewinner, for heaven’s sake. I had come to praise him, and I wasn’t sure the world needed me to bury him.

All I can tell you, briefly, is this. He doesn’t play guitar, spending the show either at the piano or standing at the mike. The hits are few and far between, and when he does a song we all know and love, “Tangled Up In Blue”, the crowd almost bursts into tears of relief – yet he sings it like a man who knows neither the words nor the tune, the sound mix reducing his vocal performance to a kind of endless two-note drone: na-NA-na-NA-na-NA-na-NA.

This from a man beloved and revered for his lyrics. If you’re nodding in understanding now, let’s leave it at that, and if you’re outraged and of the opposite opinion, again, let’s leave it at that.

After the show, someone tells me he has terrible arthritis and that’s why he can’t play guitar any longer. And I think of that wide-legged stance he adopts, both at the piano and standing to sing, and I wonder if he needs a hip replacement, and I feel nothing but sympathy. So perhaps I’m not cut out to be a critic, if I only like writing about things I like.

It set me thinking, though: what do I want from a gig? What are the nights that are seared on to my memory, and why?

There was Prince in his pomp on the Lovesexy tour, when even a long show at Wembley couldn’t contain all that he was, forcing him to carry on into the night at an after-party, unstoppable, untouchable.

Or the Smiths, young and triumphant at the Hacienda in 1983, where we wore secretive little badges printed with the word “Handsome”, and Morrissey hurled gladioli out to the audience, where they were caught and brandished, then dropped and trampled into a pulpy mess on the floor. Or the Kate Bush comeback gigs at the Apollo, which left me dizzy and weeping, more dishevelled than if I’d been on stage.

But nothing can match those vivid gigs of my teenage years, where the night out mattered more than who was on stage, where what I wore mattered more than what they sang. At Ian Dury and the Blockheads in 1978 at Hemel Hempstead Pavilion, the atmosphere was more party than concert: balloons and streamers filled the air, and I was in a blazer covered in badges, dancing in front of the stage with a menthol cigarette in one hand and a plastic glass in the other, and I got off with a plasterer called Mick.

It was sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, indeed. Or snogging and smoking and dancing. No wonder I count it as one of the best gigs of my life – but was that down to the band, or the being in a room full of hormones and possibility, on the brink of discovering who I was, buzzing with nicotine and electricity? Past a certain age, can any gig hope to conjure up that type of feeling? Even Dylan? 

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.