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Three Songs No Flash

Do You Think It's Sexy? Rod Stewart Live At The O2
Tariq Goddard , January 22nd, 2020 11:13

Tariq Goddard and Carl Neville went to see Rod Stewart live at the O2 just days after the General Election last month and were faced with a distressing vision of the past, present and future

Rod Stewart live photograph by Lawrence Matheson

It’s axiomatic that any review should tell you more about the artist and the event than it should the reviewers. Every letters page and comment box will let you know as much. 'Who cares about you, what about the gig?' But axiom or otherwise it’s impossible for us to disentangle our state of mind; disordered, confused, possibly paranoid from the evening’s entertainment, as we try and make sense of what we witnessed at the end of another year and decade. And at the beginning of another five years of Tory ascendency, surrounded by affluent baby-boomers paying tribute to an icon of their youth in that monument to cool Britannia hubris turned shabby; the windswept dining and shopping experience that is the O2 (nee Millennium Dome).

Cards on the table, the election is a few days behind us and we are reeling from the defeat.  For various reasons neither of us have had much sleep. The Decade of Trump and Johnson is upon us, two blondes who look to be having all the fun, with ethno-nationalism on the rise, if not triumphant, and Brexit, at least in name, now imminent. One of us has just become a father at the ridiculous age of forty-nine, having grown up in a shipyard town in Cumbria having just watched the North vote Tory, and the other, like Rod a London exile, fresh from campaigning in rural Wiltshire, where he has run the gauntlet of his neighbour's dogs. 

Never mind all that though, what about the gig?

Who could be better to lift the spirits than Rod Stewart? That great working class troubadour whose glory days straddle two continents, three decades and several wives? Who brought uncomplicated bonhomie, mixing British grit with L.A. glitz, to millions? Rod, who was big in America back when the American dream, the promise of plenty, opportunity, ease and razzamatazz, still dazzled…we came this night to praise the man, not bury him, as any fool ought to know what to expect from a show like this: a bloody good laugh, and a holiday from life’s more serious concerns.

We join the crowd shuffling through the gates. No spring chickens ourselves, and  accustomed to often being the oldest people at any given gig, as well as the greying demography at stadium concerts, even we feel youthful in this company. Who are these people? Brexit voters probably; Johnson Tories, clinging on to their overvalued properties and fat pensions, addicted to equity release and the frisson of increasingly less casual racism. Boomers! But no, that’s unworthy of us. They are probably teachers, social workers, NHS stalwarts, good people. And yet they are identifiably also a cohort, a group whose glory days were the sixties through to the nineties, the fat years, the years of growth and accumulation that have proven leaner and sparser for successive generations. We arrive in the arena itself a few moments after Rod has appeared on stage and are hissed at and directly told to hurry up and sit down by some disgruntled audience members. We are barely interrupting them and it’s hardly begun but having spent a lifetime bossing around employees, colleagues, service people, kids, insisting on value for money and making sure everyone smartens up and gets their act together, they are perhaps incapable of stepping out of their middle-management armour even for an evening. That said, having to pay £100 plus for a ticket isn’t likely to encourage a live and let live attitude, and some of the best gigs we have been to have not been about coming together as one.

But now we are talking about the audience. Revealing more about our own unseemly prejudices that anything else. What about the music?

Our mood is tested further; 'Some Guys Have All The Luck' is not our favourite Rod track, not even our favourite Rod cover, his voice buried under an ersatz gameshow house-band that appears hellbent on making the rest of his back catalogue sound just like 'Some Guys', as two more covers, 'Having A Party' and 'It Takes Two', pass by near identically. The thought occurs that it may not be an accident that Rod is choosing to showcase the less raw, edgy, or emotional aspects of his pantheon, when it is so much easier to set the controls to the heart of autopilot; tracks that cost his artistry nothing at the time, and that exact nothing from him now. Moreover, Rod is quite clear that we will be here for two hours and that he will perform X number of songs as per his contractual obligations; it seems important to lay this out at the start in order to forestall any criticism later. You were told! It was all spelled out quite clearly! The audience chuckle with cynical acquiescence, but the joke, if it is funny, is on us.

With him on stage are a group of blonde cheerleaders, the back up singers and dancers, the eye-candy the big screens focus on in order to keep us from inspecting Rod himself, therefore assessing in twenty foot high, lurid detail, just what a hard living, septuagenarian rocker looks like up close, and how his famously lithe and sinuous moves might be calcifying a little. The girls are not just there to step in when Rod finds himself a bit short of breath - a bit achy and in need of a sit down, or to maintain some kind of youthful energy, sexy swing and dynamism on the stage, but also to imply that Rod, whose romantic escapades are of legend, has still got it, and can still pull. He may not be bulging provocatively out of his skin tight leopard print spandex anymore, but if our Rod can still woo and wow them so perhaps by extension can we all - perhaps time has never really moved on, decline and disappointment haven’t exercised their grip, and we’re still as gladsome, frolicsome, and full of promise as we ever were. Forever Young! The problem is that Rod is still far more interesting than his enablers, and when the River-Dancers take centre stage and actually perform a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s 'Go Your Own Way', with Rod nowhere to be seen, the spectacle begins to feel like a festival of phoned in filler.

Once he reappears with a drink, the show waltzes jerkily through the hits again, with the London Philharmonic appearing for a few slow tracks, and the pace settles down quite pleasantly. In fact, by the time 'Maggie May' is sung back to him by his audience, the night could really take off, were it not for the feeling that Rod is happy for us to do the hard lifting, and still some way short of making an effort equal to the one his audience has by simply showing up. Of course, cheeky insouciance has always been his thing, it is just that no one wants to see that spill over into taking the piss, no matter how badly we want to enjoy ourselves. And yet this may be something his base understands, and has already come to decent and sober terms with. In a musical universe that is fully mapped, in which futurity is blocked (End Of History, mate just Enjoy!!), utopian yearnings, which initially located perfection as somewhere out there in the world ( Shangri-La), and then later, in the modern age, discerned it in the “somewhere to-come”, now have only one space left to find it; the past. The cultural arm of the utopian project has become inevitably nostalgic, the recreation of a "better before”, no longer a destination in which all contradictions are resolved, but an earlier point in time in which the current contradictions have yet to occur. This is where all the fun is to be found. A great reset turns the clock back and holds its hands still at 11:59. Heaven is, after all, as Talking Heads told us, a place where nothing ever happens, or as the late Mark Fisher would add, can happen. It’s hard not to feel that as wealth and political power concentrate, we have passed through Retromania, and have entered a culturally and politically Retrotopian moment. An increasingly frayed landscape lit by the cold glow of these cryogenic domes and V.R. arenas in which the halcyon moments can be recreated, and extended indefinitely, where one generation can remain 'Forever Young', while another misses out on its youth.

Nothing could stand in greater distinction to Rod’s gold discs, platinum blondes, and Atlantic crossings, than Philip Larkin’s desiccated provincial griping. And yet the famous lines from The Old Fools are apt;

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored

The fear of ageing and death will alight a grim hanging on to money, to property, to opportunity, to the need for comfort and consolation, the warm blanket-bath of youth recalled, and envy and resentment of the young: all that unrealised, uncompromised time ahead of them! Boomers! We are not quite there yet, but neither so young that we can’t feel age’s insistent whisper growing louder. One day we may find ourselves deaf to anything else, sitting transfixed in Domes of our own, needing something to screen off its cold, close gaze, and drown out its terrible roar. But the hope is that there could be a music more appropriate to it than this.

As the night grinds on, renditions of glorious songs like 'Dirty Old Town', 'Downtown Train' and 'Gasoline Alley', sound about as vital and necessary as they would were they covered by Mike And The Mechanics, instead of the warm and humane voice that made The Faces so special. The gig inevitably climaxes with 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy', but we are already half out of the gate, even though we know he’s bound to encore with 'Sailing'.

Perhaps we are the fools, what did we expect? Gravitas? Wisdom? An elegiac dissection of the ravages of age? Everyone knows Rod isn’t Leonard Cohen. Yet over his career his voice has touched the same elated heights as his more critically lauded peers, which is why we hadn’t anticipated matters would be quite so incongruously Vegas and unwholesomely ironic, here in this chilly hanger in North Greenwich. 

We wander out into miles of frozen car park looking for somewhere to drink, ending up in the bar of a chain hotel surrounded by fellow concert-goers, up in town for the weekend. Brightly lit, overpriced, generic, subdued, everybody faintly tetchy and keen to find something to disapprove of despite the contractually agreed two hours fulfilled with a requisite degree of feel-good. The mirage has melted away, here we are, none the wiser, still unconsoled, bank-balance a little lighter, but what are you going to spend it on anyway? Same again next year? One year further down whatever road we’re on? Maybe…

After all, the future, like the past and present, now belongs to the only ones who can still afford it, the old. As for the rest of us who arrived too late, well, we’re all going to have try a little bit harder if we want a good time; it is not our world anymore.