Twenty years ago tomorrow, on a brisk but sunny May 2nd, I was allowed to get out of school early. My mission, approved only after some abject begging, was to hang around outside the SFX (St. Francis Xavier Hall) on Dublin’s Northside, in a bid to meet Nick Cave. It was his first Irish gig, and he was, and still remains, one of my musical heroes. When Nick and the band arrived, around 5pm, it was clear he’d already had a nip or two of sherry, but he was kind, and even wrote a note to an Irish pal who was an even bigger Nick fan than me. She was – in a bittersweet act of geographical switcheroo – in Australia, while Nick was here. My boyfriend offered to take a photo of us, and I almost keeled over when Cave put his arm around me. Suddenly, I realised that I couldn’t show the prized pic to my parents. At least not until I guillotined a bit off the end and defaced the photo with a dot of black marker, to obscure the cigarette I was holding in my teenage hand.
It was was the first of many Nick Cave gigs. I’ve seen him play in a New York tiered venue, lecture on the history of the love letter in a theatre, got pulled out of the front row of a London gig after being crushed (and was more worried that I had inadvertently flashed the nearby TV cameras in the process) and wow a tiny tent full of people in a field in Cork, duetting with Will Oldham on The Palace Brother’s New Partner – one of the most favourite gig memories of all time. I know that Nick signed my Dublin ticket, but to this day, it remains an elusive rectangular phantom. Instead, there is this one, from the same year, just months later.
I discovered it in a small box of keepsakes during a recent rummage for some grown-up form, or a child’s birth cert. Alongside old USIT cards and long-forgotten boys’ phone numbers and penpal addresses, was an assortment of gig tickets, starting with my first “big gig” – REM’s Green Tour in 1989. The only reason my parents allowed me to go was because my older brother was going. My younger brother complained that he wanted to tag along too. Then my dad started to believe the hype and got himself a ticket. 4/5ths of the Gleesons attended, but I – clad in my Wonder Stuff t-shirt, thinking I was the bee’s knees – was the one my dad kept offering to buy minerals for. Mortification then, but something I joked about with him when we went to see Paul Simon together last year. That first gig was a spectacular show, with REM almost topped by their support act, The Go-Betweens.
What strikes me now is that the chronology of these forgotten tickets is interesting, as much for what remains as for the absences. There are no tickets beyond 1994, the year before I moved out of home. I went to countless more gigs around that time, but these are the stubs that have survived. They are their own stories. When I moved out, my gig-going increased, due to living in town, but where are all those hundreds of reminders? There are so many circular elements and links too. Last December, in the corridor of a Dingle hotel, I chatted to Edwyn Collins, who came to Dublin a year after the huge success of his single, A Girl Like You.
On that same December night outside a Dingle bar, I stood in sleety rain beneath the stars. Huddled under an eave, Jason Pierce and I wracked our brains, collectively trying to remember the exact date I’d first seen his band Spiritualized. I knew the year, he guessed the month.
That January weekend in 1993 was the weekend Dublin’s Tivoli first opened as a gig venue (I went to see Clint Mansell’s Pop Will Eat Itself the following night), and there are a glut of 1993 stubs from the same venue. In March, Suede – high on the success of their first few singles The Drowners and Metal Mickey, arrived in Dublin. The gig sold out weeks in advance and had to be stopped several times due to chronic crowd crushes.
Two months later, as sweat dripped off the ceiling, there was similar hysteria when The Sundays played. Their singer Harriet, a bird-like waif possessed of a gorgeous voice reduced grown men all around me to either fainting (honestly) or chanting her name.
Looking at the Tivoli tickets, with their metallic trim, they look positively futuristic, when compared to tickets of old:
But at least the Morrissey ticket is printed, and stands a better chance of not being counterfeited, unlike this one for a Henry Rollins’ that someone scribbled on the front as if it were a raffle ticket. The cheap, unremarkable stub gives no clue to the night itself. Rollins had the audience guffawing along until the end, until he literally punched us collectively in the gut by telling the story of his best friend Joe, who had been shot and killed right beside him during a mugging, just ten weeks earlier.
Seeing Rollins speak – hurling thoughts and ideas and concepts like hammers – is affecting, but his musical performances rank as hugely intense experiences. The night after this spoken word, he signed albums in Comet Records (he wrote ‘Be nice’ on my copy of The End of Silence, in reference to something Sinéad O’Connor had just done) and supported the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. My sole reason for buying a ticket, was to see Rollins, and he blew the headline act off the stage. Years later, my husband would tell me that he was at this gig for the same reason as me.
Seeing bands so close together often gave a good idea of how tight they were as performers, but how much their Irish fanbase increased in a relatively short period of time. In 1991, Sonic Youth played McGonagles, with not a ticket to be had in advance. Their performance was an assault. Frantic, blistering and one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to.
It was no surprise when, less than a year later they returned to play Dun Laoghaire’s long-closed Top Hat venue, with a little-known band called Nirvana as support. Myself and my friend Colm got there early to see them, having worn out our US-bought copies of Bleach directly from their label Sub Pop. The gig was a year before the release of Nevermind, and most of the audience didn’t know who the soon-to-massive trio were.
Similarly, The Beastie Boys sweated up a storm at the Tivoli (and chatted to fans outside on Francis Street afterwards) only to play again (and sell out) eight months later in the big main hall of the RDS.
There are the bands who sign your tickets – and Mark Eitzel, j’accuse! Just last week, I heard a Nick Drake song on the radio and realised how much Eitzel & co. had, er, borrowed from it for American Music Club’s heart-breaker classic, Will You Find Me?
There are stubs from eccentric singers who insisted that they would “only play castles” on their current tour. Cue a hasty compromise by the promoter in booking Julian Cope to play Royal Hospital Kilmainham. And not a marquee or a Forbidden Fruit-style set-up, but an *actual* room inside. I remember royal blue deep pile carpets and paintings of white-wigged 18th century gents on horses adorning the walls.
Or singers who are eccentric, but draw the line at playing castles (yes you, Mark E. Smith) and you bump into them in the back laneway of the venue as you’re leaving the gig, wondering how they managed to get off the stage so quickly.
Or the first time at a gig that you notice that everyone else around you is on drugs and thinking that maybe they’re having a better time than you.
And the one where being up the front in the moshpit seemed almost as bad an idea as going to see Fugazi in the tiny cave that was McGonagles, packed to the rafters and ON CRUTCHES.
And being reminded that if some bands are better than others when it comes to talking politics – especially when they pass microphones into the crowd to get the views of their audience (which often end up on their albums).
(by Sinéad Gleeson)