A reporter once remarked to Bob Dylan that she had enjoyed Blood on the Tracks, the 1975 album constructed from the wreckage of the end of his marriage. Bob, irritatingly unwilling to accept a compliment, replied “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that, I mean, people enjoying that kind of pain.” It’s a remark that raises an unsettling question: when we play and re-play songs about personal suffering, why do we do it? Is there something wrong with us?
Well – no. What Dylan didn’t get was this: when we put on Blood on the Tracks or Pink Moon, when we mull over a Rothko or go to see John Grant in Paris or the Button Factory, we’re not being masochistic, or sadistic, or voyeuristic. It’s not the pain we are enjoying. What’s to enjoy? Pain is just pain. There’s nothing beautiful or funny or redemptive about it. What we’re enjoying is what was done with the pain: how it was neutralised and reversed and turned into magnificent art. We love to see suffering transformed into transcendence. Sorry about that, Bob.
John Grant knows about pain, and is not afraid to share. Last year’s utterly autobiographical Queen of Denmark uses Grant’s experience of growing up gay in God-fearing rural Michigan as its source material. The harm such a toxic environment does reveals itself in songs that look back on his upbringing (“I’ve felt uncomfortable since the day that I was born” – ‘JC Hates Faggots’) and in songs about his adult life. ‘Where Dreams Go to Die’ details what happens when a person reared to consider himself of no value tries to be loved (“I’m willing to do anything to get attention from you, dear / Even though I don’t have anything that I could bargain with”.
But when I’ve played, and re-played, Queen of Denmark, and when I’ve seen Grant twice in the last month, I’ve never felt like I was wallowing or rubbernecking. Queen of Denmark is emotionally complicated and challenging, but it’s almost all written from the perspective of a man who has emerged, unbeaten. ‘JC Hates Faggots’ looks back, angrily, witheringly, and from a position of strength, and it has a fucking fine, furious synthesiser solo. Turning fear into art is an act of defiance and turning fifteen years of hatred into a funny, jaunty, rocking song is an admirable thing.
‘Caramel’, then, is the most intimate and languoruous of assertions of love, as Grant sings in a tender falsetto that “My love he reveals himself with tenderness and grace / My love has constructed with his arms for me the safest place”. You would barely bat an eyelid but for the angst about his sexuality on all sides, and what you feel hearing ‘Caramel’ are two things. You feel glad that such a song even exists, describing note-perfectly what love feels like, and you feel glad for Grant that he can now, older and sober, put his name and voice to such unvarnished and unafraid emotions, and that he can do so in large rooms full of people he doesn’t know. Most people would be shy about writing the lyrics of ‘Caramel’ on a Valentine’s card. In Paris and in Temple Bar, rapture greeted the closing bars of this consummate 21st century ode to joy.
There was something unmistakably triumphant about both of these shows. Grant sang brilliantly, with total commitment, closing his eyes, tapping his foot, rocking back and forth, steam (literally) coming off him. He told stories about the songs, but less so in Dublin, because it was late in the tour and I’m guessing he considers it cheating to repeat a story. In Dublin, he waited for a mystery guest to show up to join him for ‘Queen of Denmark’, but the guest didn’t show, which was a relief. If JC himself had been on the other mic He could only have taken away from the song.
So: great stuff. But I’m left wondering is how much of my approval of John Grant live is for the perfect singing, writing and playing – the show itself – and how much is for the reception that Grant received on both nights, the way he visibly felt at home and happy. How much of my approval is really for the transformative, healing power of art? It’s not not a new notion that music is a way to endure and escape hard times, that it’s a source of strength when you don’t feel so strong yourself and that it can validate you when you’re trying to be yourself but that doesn’t seem good enough. We’ve all felt this, but it’s not often that I’ve seen it just as clearly as at these two shows, when a big bear of a man with a fucked-up past, addiction issues and microscopic self-esteem played amazing shows and was adulated by audiences who are with him all the way in a difficult journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. I’m guessing this is what every show of a tour is like for him, and I hope John Grant takes all this goodwill and internalises it and finds some peace. I hope that doesn’t mean we lose his songs in the future, but there are more important things, and he’s done enough. We’ll always have Queen of Denmark, and we’ll always have Paris.
Photos: Alessio Michelini
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