18 Jun 2015

The tough job of being the older bloke at gigs

Being at the younger end of Ride’s original fanbase – I had just turned 14 when their debut EP was released – meant that despite now being 39, I was still in the more youthful half of the crowd when they played in Glasgow last month.  This, though, is an increasingly unusual experience for me, particularly at gigs involving new, unsigned bands.

Don’t get me wrong; this is how it should be.  Most new bands starting out and finding their way consist of younger people so it’s understandable that, in a small venue, perhaps local to the band, they will be accompanied by their equally young friends and peers.  New bands playing music I have never previously heard have always interested me but I accept now that my relationship to them has changed as I have grown older.

For one thing, I tend to live in the moment more.  No matter how much a new band excites me, I no longer map out their future careers in my head, preferring instead to just enjoy them for what they are on the night.  Years of seeing new bands, thinking they’re definitely going to be stars then hearing a fortnight later that they have split up and all hate each other has taught me that there’s little point in getting my hopes up and, trust me, even if a band does make it, no one really cares when you tell them that you were there at the start.  No one.  You’re just boring everyone.  You bore.

Also, the more bands you see, the more you notice when some bands sound very similar to other bands but if you ever find yourself saying “Well, yes, they were good but their quirky basslines put me in mind of another band I saw here back in 1996” then you should consider going home and, if you feel the urge to say “But I suppose you weren't even born in 1996” then they’ll probably call a taxi for you.  No one likes a smartarse.

Gigs are different now for another reason.  I’m approaching middle age so, in many instances, I am old enough to be the parent of a band member.  On one occasion in Glasgow, I was speaking to the drummer of an unsigned band I knew while he was smoking outside the venue.  Someone he knew asked me whose dad I was.  It was all I could do not to push him under a passing bus but, in fairness, his mistake was a reasonable one.  On some occasions, the only people in the room close to my age, apart perhaps from a promoter or sound engineer, have been parents of band members.  It’s hard not to feel a little self-conscious, that somehow you have to justify your presence a little more, especially in smaller venues.

The comedian and writer Mark Steel said that, going to grime gigs in his forties, he imagined that people there would not be surprised if he confronted a teenager in the crowd and said “Aha!  So this is where you go when you say you’re doing homework with Jessica!”  That said, it’s not the case that people at gigs necessarily think the worst of you and your motives.  It’s more that you’re a curiosity to them.  Are you a parent?  A music scout?  A journalist?  A reviewer?  A plain clothes police officer?

Sometimes, rather than being just a guy at a gig, you’re the subject of some fascination.  At a gig in Kirkcaldy in 2011 a girl who could have been no older than 16 approached me and asked how old I was.  Worried about where this was going, I quietly replied that I was 35.  She paused as if she was trying to work something out then said “So you would have been a teenager when Nirvana were around?”  I confirmed this was the case.  “That’s well cool!” she said.  I asked why and she explained “Because you were there.  That’s awesome.”  And she had a point.  I was there.  If, by “there” she means Glenrothes rather than Seattle, much in the same way that I can say I was there at the fall of the Berlin Wall because I was alive at the time.

The point at which a teenager has a misplaced fascination with your music-listening past is the point when you lose the right to describe yourself as young.  It reminds me the sort of curiosity teenagers of my generation showed to people my parents’ age, who were young in the sixties.  For some reason we imagined everyone of a certain age must have spent a glorious narcotic-fuelled summer living in a squat just off Carnaby Street when in reality they had worked in a provincial branch of Woolworth’s and bought single cigarettes from an ice cream van.

Another strange aspect to being an older fellow at a gig is that people sometimes think you might have influence in the music industry. I've been handed quite a few demo CDs over the years and, on more than one occasion, I've been asked if I’d be good enough to pass them on to anyone at the office/label/station who might be interested.

If I give the impression that going to gigs at my age causes me anxiety then I do not intend to.
Getting older has caused me to change my behavior a little – frankly, it would be in no one’s interest for me to start a moshpit – but adapting one’s actions with age is a normal part of getting older whatever the social situation.  Ultimately, I am there to hear new music, not to make a show of myself.

I feel very privileged that I still feel a rush of excitement when I hear new music for the first time, that for whatever faults I may have, I haven’t become the type of self-righteous curmudgeon who will deny himself great art because of a stubborn belief that my own generation was the one that got it right.

There are few feelings that come close to becoming completely engaged in the performance of a live band and there’s something particularly special when you hadn’t heard of them before that night.  You could be witnessing the first steps on the path to greatness or the beginning of the end for a doomed project that only works because the bassist’s dad has a decent van, but that doesn’t matter.  It’s what they are for that half hour that matters and it’s great just to be there.  When that feeling leaves me, I’ll probably look for something else to do with my time.