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One for the Road

Kanye West, Sensitive Soul
John Doran , June 24th, 2008 00:00

Quietus Editor John Doran gets drunk, falls over, destroys phone, makes noise like "broken panther" and has Proustian recall of two run ins with the "resolutely mediocre" Kanye West

It being my birthday last weekend, I went out for a drink. The landlords of one of my favourite drinking establishments, the Mucky Pup in Islington, finally managed to pry my fingers off the bar at 5am on Sunday morning. After a dimly remembered cab ride home which featured much shouting about David Soul, it turned out the spare set of keys were not in their usual hiding place. Fearing the three-line whip of my sister, my brother-in-law and my girlfriend if I rang the bell, I decided to sleep on the doorstep. I was rudely shaken awake two hours later by Paul, who was on his way to work. I had my laptop pulled up to my chin like a particularly rubbish plastic and silicon duvet and was making a noise “like a broken panther”. While thrashing round in the grip of some particularly demented night terror, I'd managed to smash my phone in such a way that I deleted all of my text messages.

Along with the messages from my girlfriend and pals, I'd lost a load of work- related texts, the best of which was a mini-epistle from my friend Simon Price, New Romantic and man of letters. It basically referred to a time when I'd gotten up Kanye West's nose so badly that he stopped his gig at the Hammersmith Apollo for two nights running and got the crowd to boo me. As strange as it sounds, the fact that an obscure music writer like myself managed to get under the skin of the world’s leading rapper should tell you quite a lot about him.

When reviewing his album Late Registration for Playlouder, I gave it a not particularly vicious three out of five and made what I thought was the fair observation that the self-styled college dropout chose to be mediocre as it helped his sales figures. I mean, why choose snippets from various rare records to make something entirely original when you can just add your own lyrics to a record that’s barely been altered? From Shirley Bassey to Curtis Mayfield, West’s choices were embarrassingly gauche – not that this seemed to matter to lovers of Tesco or Walmart hip hop worldwide, even when his production work for other rappers, such as Common, was far better.

So I was more than a little surprised when Pricey texted me the following message: “You aren’t going to believe this. Kanye West has just stopped his show at Hammersmith Apollo and flashed up these words in ten foot tall lights: ‘Late Registration is mediocre’ – John Doran, Playlouder. And now everyone’s booing you!” My heart filled with joy. Hammersmith Apollo? Sold-out two nights on the run? Over 16,000 people? That’s probably the most readers I’ve ever had for one sentence.

To upset Kanye West once may be regarded as good fortune, to do it twice is pretty much a red letter day. Some time later I am invited by some mobile-phone salesmen to go and watch him play live myself. Keeping an open mind, I decide to attend to see if West can cut it live. On arriving at Westminster Central Hall I regret it instantly. First of all I have to sign forms saying I will mention various mobile phones in whatever I write about it. The really nice guy from Sony Ericsson is sweet and sounds ever so embarrassed but, as he says, he’ll get bollocked if I don’t mention them. “I’ll send you a barcode to your phone and you’ll be able to get in.” After I informed him my current cellphone was ten years old and already featured in a design museum, he said he’d give me a new phone. It broke my heart to turn him down. They’re amazing these phones, they play music – everything. Worth a lot of money as well. The trouble is, you’re not really in a position to tell people exactly how shit these corporate gigs are when you’re in their pocket. So there you go: Sony Ericsson Walkman phones, they’re top. Buy one if you’ve got lots of money. Personally, I can’t afford one. (Which is a shame given that I've just broken my old one by going to sleep on it.)

So, these nights are supposed to be incongruous. “Oh shit! Kanye West! In somewhere they usually have opera, classical music and university graduation ceremonies.” But of course, it isn’t at all. The “college dropout” belongs in this venue, which I’d never be able afford to visit in a million years if a phone company hadn’t just hired it for me. He belongs here with all these braying hoo-haws, with that girl who won that talent contest on the telly, with some footballer I don’t recognise, with a load of cunts in pink Hackett shirts with the collars turned skywards. West isn’t ghetto fabulous tonight, is he? He’s gentrified Georgian council estate in Islington fabulous. This evening he's providing the soundtrack to dinner party b-boys and Pilates-class MCs.

If there are 15 different flavours of music-industry scum here then I suppose I’ll be the first to admit that tonight Matthew, I’m one of them. (Full disclosure: I have three glasses of robust but drinkable merlot for free as well as one vomit- inducingly bad glass of cabernet sauvignon.) TV’s Zane Lowe turns up and tells us a charming story about a girl shitting herself while watching Muse. He keeps on telling us that we “love live music”. He keeps on saying “Vodafone”, the name of the other sponsor – sorry, media partner. What is he doing on stage in front of us? It’s like some fucking dreadful motivational course for Hoxton hairdressers and estate agents. He’s right though – I do love live music, which is why I pick up an empty wine bottle and start feeling its weight in my hand and imagining it sailing through the air towards his fucking forehead.

A big screen flickers into life. Radio’s Chris Moyles is on it but they’ve got the widescreen ratio slightly wrong and he looks like Jabba the Hutt. Lowe keeps on saying names of bands and then Vodafone and it’s becoming like that Art Brut song. Take That. Vodafone. Take That. Vodafone. Take That. Vodafone. I’m becoming delirious. Zane Lowe doesn’t love live music. He doesn’t even like live music, which is why he’s a shoeshine boy to a big corporate hobnailed boot crushing the life out of the gig-going experience. Whether he’s whoring himself out to the phone pimps or the atrocious party dampeners at Carling, he’s the enemy of anyone who has even the most passing interest in watching music live.

Too many tickets have been given away and it’s a struggle to get everyone in, but when we’re all penned in a fat man with a headset comes on stage to tell us what “the rules” of the gig are. We’re to stand still. We’re not to interfere with the cameras. We’re to make noise when Kanye’s on stage as it’s being filmed for promotional uses. It starts to occur to me that it’s a matter of perspective but all these people who have been told they’ve won free tickets are actually being used as unpaid extras in a video shoot that otherwise would have cost the rapper a lot of money. He carries on. This isn’t like a gig at all, it’s like having the safety lecture on a plane before you take off. He needs us all to scream because they need applause and cheering to dub in over the video wherever they need to. Scream now! Scream now! Scream now!

And then we wait and wait. A less nice man from Vodafone comes and talks to me very quickly, “You’re making a lot of notes,” he says suspiciously, and then talks some more so I have to stop writing. He talks about trad jazz and under-branding. When he leaves I count the word Vodafone in about 20 places I can see from my vantage point. An hour and 20 minutes we wait, too tightly packed in to sit down, just standing, sweating in the heat. Finally a full orchestra of girls in brightly coloured taffeta frocks and matching trainers come on. And we wait and wait some more. I can’t bear this. Why do we allow ourselves to be treated like this? Something must be done.

Eventually a preternaturally posh woman comes on stage and simpers: “Are you having a good time?” “No!” I shout back at her and half the audience starts laughing. “Fucking get on with it!” shouts someone else. “This is fucking rubbish!” I shout. “Play some fucking music!” shouts another. Then someone starts booing. It’s me. Then everyone starts booing. This is absolutely mint.

Eventually, a backing track comes on and half the audience are clapping and the other half booing. A figure comes on stage for a split second and then leaves just as quickly. The next day I find out it was West and that he was spitting blood because of the booing. So I’ve managed to upset him again. Good, I’m pretty sure he thrives on it.

When he eventually comes back on he isn’t good, he isn’t bad, he’s still resolutely mediocre. His voice is fed through a lot of reverb and echo and his delivery still sounds forced, all lacking in flow. “I. Am. Never. Wrong,” he incants spasmodically. It’s hard to care what he thinks one way or the other.

Outside in the cold, just for a few minutes, it’s pure. Parliament Square. Westminster Abbey. Big Ben. Portcullis House. Middlesex Crown Court. There’s a young black kid sat at a bus stop. “Do you like Kanye West?” I say to him. “Eh? Fuck off,” he says. “No, seriously. Do you like Kanye West? He’s playing in that building over there and I can’t fucking stand him. Take this VIP pass and go inside and watch him. Have a good time.” “Safe? Fucking hell. Cheers.” He starts jogging off towards Central Hall. “Make sure you go to the Library Bar afterwards and drink as much of the wine as possible. Tell them your name’s John Doran and ask for your Sony Ericsson phone,” I yell after him but he just looks at me like I’m insane.

Then it’s back on the tube and I can tell I haven’t taken my medication because all I can see is advertising. Labels, brands, markings, symbols, trademarks. Rows of posters, ambient ads spilling out of mags, free papers, tracksuit symbols, nightclub flyers. All of it like a tight band around my forehead. All of it shit.

And as a postscript, I’m not stupid enough to think that Kanye West spends his own time looking through Metacritic for people who’ve merked him on the net, but he patently employs people who do. So, to the guys who pick out the quotes that go in big letters at the back of the stage, thanks for my four glasses of wine and this is for you: “Watching Kanye West live is more unpleasant than watching a spider walk through sick.” You’re going to need more lightbulbs for next year’s tour.

And I'd also like to take this opportunity to apologise to Catherine, Paul and Maria for sleeping outside the house. It won’t happen again.

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