When I was a young teenager I would while away damp lifeless Sunday afternoons in my room reading and losing myself inside my head. I was, I find myself forced to admit, into comics about superheroes and magicians and fantasy characters often written by people with over-inflated senses of high drama. Somewhere along the way I muddled my admiration for the story’s turn with a sense that these tales might be telling me something more. Whilst other kids were still just about fantasising about scoring the winning goal in the FA cup final or discovering a cure for dementia I was looking for the secrets of life in four-colour pamphlets.
I got over it in the end. Music and girls and proper books without pictures became more important, but still I would let my mind drift into images of the impossible. Save the world? Pah, I couldn’t even stay awake during class.
This meandering narrative which I’m trying to explain is about heroism. Not real heroism. Not saving people from burning buildings without flinching but idealistic heroism, an idea of the hero as an abstract. Something to believe in. We, all of us, need those sorts of heroes in our lives. Ideals can be false, but they can also bring us hope. As the global economy teeters towards wilful self-implosion of greed where do we look for inspiration? If there was any righteous anger behind the opportunism of the kids that ripped apart London and Birmingham and Manchester and, God, even Gloucester one week in August then wouldn’t be better if that could be articulated into something better than nicking shit?
So, for those of you who haven’t been keeping up: Sportsmen may bring a sense of drama, they break hearts and offer elation, but surely it’s only ever fleeting? You could call in entertainment, even something which has the potential to unify peoples but it lacks the ability of communication to offer a message. Scientists may well be great men and women, striving for the betterment of society even if the by-product is personal glory, but their objectives and methods are too far out of most people’s realms of understanding. Writers, alas, are possibly too anonymous as individuals. So where do people look? To whom will they still listen?
I can’t remember when I last fell in love with a band. Or, if not a band for there’s often something more functionally workmanlike about a band, then a pop star. I do still get arguably too obsessed about music meant for the young when I’m a thirty-something, but it is one thing to be nodding appreciably at the drum riffs or the myriad range of influences being cleverly note-checked it is quite another for them to matter more than life.
Of course, once upon a time it was easier. There was an enemy. These days Tinne Tempah talks in management speak about his global brand, but once youth hated the establishment whoever it was. Thatcher in the eighties or Wilson in the seventies, the “man” was always someone to push against. Pop could harness the natural rebellion of the teenager into listeners. Sid Vicious and Adam Ant, Jarvis Cocker and Pete Townsend, Elvis Presley and Dizzie Rascal, the purpose of the pop star has always been to be confrontational; to stick two, preferably outlandishly garbed, fingers up at government and encourage teenagers around the world to slam their doors and play it fucking loud.
So they’re the ones, the last ones left who can help us. Right?
Well, no. Not really. Sorry.
Billy Bragg, the champion of the downtrodden wearily romantic lost causes everywhere, appeared in the Guardian at the weekend in conversation with Johnny Flynn about the St Paul’s protestors. By coincidence I’d first heard of Flynn, an earnest floppy haired young singer-songwriter with some acting in his back pocket, the night before. He’s appearing in the play Jerusalem, which my girlfriend and I are going to see soon, and someone insisted on playing us some of his songs. “It’s the most amazing music ever,” she gushed. It’s not, but that’s kind of beside the point. No, the curious point was Flynn’s claim that in 2011 it’s harder for pop stars to play a part in the end of capitalism protests, to have a platform for any articulated voice because the charts are dominated by X-Factor sponsored rubbish.
But then it’s always been like that. Just think of The Osmonds, Boney M, Chicago, Mud, and any number of shit seventies plastic pop bands. Punk was partially a nihilistic resistance to society but it was also a protest against there not being any music to love aside from Iggy Pop. Even Bragg’s earliest stuff was more about East End teenage heartbreak and not wanting to be in Pink Floyd than the more clear political agenda of the red-wedge eighties.
The disadvantage today’s politically aware musical rebels have is that the X-Factor tripe has a multi-million marketing campaign absorbed by millions of dribbling brain drains on a Saturday night. It’s as though it takes pride in being the optimisation of the giant disco hits album available in the supermarket that the Clash had such disdain for, but still everyone laps up the advertising like its entertainment in itself.
So, if pop hasn’t ever really tried to lead us, what about their precursors as the representation of the teenage wet dream, movie stars? Douglas Fairbanks Junior, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, an ever changing cast of smouldering dark eyes in the skull of young men questioning what the future was for, fighting against the establishment with sexual deviancy, powdered thrills and broken down livers. Only Errol Flynn became sufficiently confused to believe his own legend when, drink sodden and without a bow and arrow in sight, he flew off to Cuba to report on and play a part in the revolution.
We can’t really blame them for failing us. I mean, they were only ever supposed to be acting, but they would be so beautifully outrageous that we’d occasionally forget. We’d imagine they could be something more, something greater than us. Today’s movie stars are too well media briefed to ever wander off message and say something that matters to anyone other than to the people whom they’re making money for. As Noel Gallagher, to return to music, recently said about the Arctic Monkeys and Kasaibian, they’ve got the tunes but you just want them to start sounding like pop stars. Say something controversial for god’s sake. No-one’s paying you to be nice boys. We want you to live a life so that we don’t have to.
Droning self-indulgent drip Ed Sheeran makes Lego models to relax for fuck’s sake. I can do that, if I wanted to. He’s supposed to be offering something more, but at the moment I can see the puppet strings of reality. If we’re to love our pop or movies stairs we need to believe in them wholeheartedly. True adoration comes when we’re fooled and they transcend reality. It’s never been about the politics or the hidden message. Sorry, Paul Weller, people loved the tunes and the brashness of Eton Rifles and Going Underground and a Town Called Malice, they loved your skinny trousers and sparkling shoes and the tight hair cut, they loved you more than they loved Margaret but they could never quite join in with your hate. That’s why they kept on electing her.
We need a hero. The St Paul’s protesters are being accused of not knowing what they want when asking for in an alternative to capitalism, of hypocrisy when they wee in Starbucks, of slipping off home at night to a comfy bed. Tuh. What’s a middle class revolutionary to do? Can’t pee in the streets, the concrete is tough on the hips as you get older and as for coming up with a whole new economic system that needs global buy-in? Come on, surely it’s just enough to be asking the question rather than blindly following. So they, we, need a hero of some sort and if music and film aren’t going to provide them, then perhaps we better make them up.
Because sometimes what you make up comes true.
To return to my younger, more teenage self, reading late at night by the lamp stuffed down the bed, face splotched with zits, hair just beginning to snake down to the edges of my collar. One of my favourite comics was Hellblazer starring John Constantine. Constantine was a trench-coat wearing, chain smoking, sarcastic, heavy drinking mage made out to look like Sting in a cheap suit and a hell-blood stained tie. Alan Moore invented him in the eighties and claims to have met him shortly afterwards. In a cafe.
“All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trench-coat, a short cut—he looked—no, he didn't even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner.”
Jamie Delano who took over writing chores after Moore, had a similar experience outside the British Museum. “I didn't realise I'd walked past him until I'd gone fifty yards down the road, I looked round, and he was just vanishing round the corner.”
For a while, I completely believed in this idea that you could write stuff into existence. Grant Morrison, writing the bonkers conspiracy end of the millennium psycho-babble romp that was the Invisibles, claims that by shaving his head and buffing up to look like the main character he began to take on the fictional characteristics, even to the point that when he put his invention through a torture scene Morrison’s own body collapsed and replicated the ailments, all the way down to blood poisoning, a collapsed lung and a rotted hole in his cheek. Morrison, allegedly, almost killed himself through writing.
More recently, in a performance art piece, Moore claimed another encounter with Constantine: "Years later, in another place, he steps out of the dark and speaks to me. He whispers: ‘I'll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’"
And then the spell is broken, because it’s too wry and too knowing. It’s too close. I can see the strings again as Moore uses the invented anecdote to make a joke, to prove a point about the reality of magic. Fictional heroes, they’re all mysterious and enticing, but they’ll only ever go and let you down.
After all, they are only made-up. Just like Pete Docherty. I had a moment, sometime around 2004, where I latched onto the idea of the Libertines as a band for tomorrow. It only lasted for a few months, but briefly I almost loved them in the way a late teenager loves a band. Especially a band that carried around their own lyrical myths of country and self and lifestyle; a band with an ideal for living. And I then woke up, the bodies began to pile up, and I realised that they were just a gang of wannabe musicians led by a self-centred drug addict. You can’t bring fictions into the real world by making them up and you can’t apply the mythical inventiveness to real people; we’ll only be disappointed.
No, if their hero is going to mean anything it needs to come from the real world and be able to make a difference. Mr Milliband, the stage is yours.
(Part 1 to be concluded next week).