THE TWILIGHT SAD – London Kentish Town Forum/Manchester Ritz/Edinburgh Usher Hall – 23-24-30 November 2019
These are exciting and incredible times to be a fan of this band. Anyone that knows me knows how I’ve attached myself to this band, and their ability to seemingly read my mind without even knowing it. Since this band came into my life, I’ve found new friends, and fellow idiots, who think that going halfway across the world to see a band is like, a completely normal thing to do. In fact, not doing so, would be a bit wrong.
Oh, you mean the word “tour” means the band travel and we don’t? Not the other way round? I always knew I was different from many other people.
I wax lyrical, and often about this band. But there’s a reason.
If words were enough, there would be no need for music. But the words in the music tell their own stories. Every song the band play right now connects viscerally, spiritually, to my life experiences. To who I am. To how I got here. To the mistakes I made on the way and the lessons I have learnt ; and the mistakes others made too. To explain why this band changed me, and my life, I have to tell you things you don’t know. I have to explain.
At one point, I was staring down the barrel of a big number. I was growing old. I was starting to feel hopeless : that I might never experience joy, or fall in love, or the euphoria that comes from an instant connection with a great band again. I was starting to think the future was going to be hopeless and joyless. Just an endless grind of work and bills and worry. The sun in my head wasn’t shining.
Age is a ceaseless enemy. You grow old, or you die. Life had ceased to be fun, in any way. It was an endless grind of struggle. Of health and age issues. Of receding hairlines vanishing faster than icecaps. Of pneumonia nearly killing me, and costing me a good smile. Of I, and people I love, being stricken with mystery illnesses and sicknesses. Of invisible monsters. Of unrewarding jobs and turbulent career periods. Of not quite having life working out as I hoped. Of feeling hope fade. Of starting to feel worn down by the world ; by the endless war waged upon me of bad work, hostile environments, and illness, and all the things that come with it. Of depression as a frankly natural response to a reality that just wouldn’t quit. That wouldn’t give me a break. Of not having enough to look forward to. Of people around me who were and are monsters wearing human faces. I felt that as I got older, life was starting to get smaller. I started to give up hope, and joy, and started to think the future would be a hopeless place. I needed to find spirit, to find joy, to find hope again. I was starting to lose hope that I would be happy in the long future. I was crushed by the endless moments. I felt the light me start to go out a few years ago : and this band, and my friends, helped me burn brightly again.
The world won’t get me. It won’t change me. It won’t take the shine out of me. I live on my terms these days – and not anyone elses. I live tall and won’t die on my knees.
And I fell in love with a band again. And The Twilight Sad are the first band I have fallen that hard, that deep, in love with since 1992. This band gave me a hope for the future ; that growing old need not be dimming lights in my heart, and that great music, great art, and greatness can come to me at whatever age. My life genuinely changed. I hope where before I did not.
If the cliché is that all art is autobiography, perhaps what is worth mentioning is that is not always said whose autobiography that is. Sometimes the autobiography belongs to others. These songs tell the story of my life, in ways that articulate what I cannot always do myself. The songs speak to but also, for, me. These songs are the story of moments of my life.
Over the three shows – their biggest headlining shows yet – in London, Manchester, and Edinburgh, the band triumph. At the shows, there is a remarkable (and lovely) lack of talkers. Most London gigs are blighted by yapping idiots who are there to talk loudly to their friends whilst a band plays in the background. Not tonight. Tonight it seems, everyone here is here for the band : not themselves.
After a spirited support from Man Of Moon – who sound far bigger than just two guys on stage – it’s time for The Twilight Sad. Already. I’ve been waiting for these gigs for so long, and yet, suddenly they’re here, and I’m with countless friends. [Genuinely, I tried to count how many people I knew here, and gave up at about 70]. 18 months of touring has expanded these songs with a fluid, confident knowledge. The band simply lock into the rhythm of the songs and power through, channelling some kind of invisible emotion that hovers over the crowd, and communicate through sound. To me, it’s sort of an exorcism of feeling… an expression of closely held secrets in public… a way of rebalancing the feelings I often have to keep hidden behind humour and deflection, because we still have to live, breathe, go to work, eat.
And for the last time until who knows when, The Twilight Sad are in Edinburgh, opening with “10 Good Reasons For Modern Drugs”, there’s the pull back/tension/push release of the songs as they build, build, and explode. The songs are a divining rod of sentiment.
Even this song, the most clear kicking of the stupid mindgames of fumbling relationships there is. We’ve all used sex as a replacement for love – and if you haven’t, you’re lucky – and it’s all in this song. And when you’re just one of many in this day and age Being exclusive seems an obsolete concept these days. The lyrics may be drawn from observation and imagination, but they exist, and people have lived these lives. I see my life, my situations, moments I have lived, in every song.
Do they understand you?
Do they call out your name?
And do they even miss you?
All these boys look the same
All these boys look the same.
Can I explain what these words mean to me? They mean stupid boys who don’t understand, who don’t care who it is, as long as it is someone, anyone, there, and my mind swirls images of all of this, of intimacy, of bodies, hands, arms, and that he doesn’t know her name, can’t say her name, doesn’t know enough about her to miss her, and these parts that fit together, they’re interchangeable. It’s a complex unravelling of a thousand things, of things I have seen in other people, of the times I was just meat to keep someone warm, when there was no connection : where it was intimate without there being intimacy. Why can’t you remember me?
I’ve changed. I’ve learnt. I’ve made mistakes, and learnt from them. Not everyone does. But I was there. It happened. It cannot be undone.
And as with everything, underneath and on top of all this, is a cacophony of noise, of dynamics, of swirling rhythms, precise, powerful drums, and at the heart of it all is the human diving rod of James Graham who seems inhabited by the music, channelling the sound from the atmosphere and directing it back.
Why can’t you remember me?
Why can’t you remember me?
With barely a pause, a howl of feedback, and we’re back to “Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting” which returns to the set after a nine month absence. It’s a dense, hard song built on the sound of betrayal. Like many Sad songs, there’s a kernel of truism at the heart of it : “Take good care of yourself, take good care of friends”, surrounded by betrayal and brutal infidelity.
I caught you kissing on the backstairs.
Again, there’s autobiography in this song. I’ve been cheated by people I trust. I caught them kissing, and not just kissing, – but not on the backstairs. I wanted to kill him. I didn’t, because murder is bad. But I know that feeling. I wish I didn’t. And yet somehow, in his eyes, the problem wasn’t what he did – it was how I reacted to this betrayal. That it was her fault, not his, because a man in possession of a dick can’t think for themselves? And it’s not fair.
Because even now, I know I’m not the one who caused that. Don’t try to gaslight me. I know the truth. And if its not just once, it’s a pattern of behaviour. It’s who you are. The problem isn’t how I respond to what you do, it’s what you do that is the problem.
And it all comes back but it never went away. It happened. I can’t pretend it didn’t. Those feelings come back. But they don’t stay. The feelings pass through and fly into the atmosphere, and with every gig, every song, I carry less of the weight of life and more of the joy. Another thousand Sad gigs and I might be cured.
And I’m not alone – I think most of the crowd have had these depressingly familiar tales of hurt and heart and loss and love and life itself. There’s a unity, and community in the songs, and a community of people, who recognise in each other a sense of fighting the same battles, each unique, each similar in its own way, and that somehow by being together we take good care of our friends.
I’ve been waiting for you.
Third song, and again, from what is, to me, the best album of the decade, is “VTr”. It’s propulsive beast on a compelling rhythm, haunted by a droning, threatening guitar, and lyrics that… well, you get the picture. To me, who experiences a form of depression – or, as my therapist says, a natural response to a difficult set of circumstances I never chose to live, it feels like I share my own head with an invisible monster who lives inside me, who we never chose, and who we can only see - like staring at a black hole – through detective work.
There’s a monster inside of you. It’s a cathartic sense unlike anything else I’ve ever quite experienced. It’s an affirmation, a recognition, and an exorcism you can dance to. And he won’t leave me alone.
Living with a black dog is hard. It’s invisible. You can only tell its there by the trails it leaves : and even though I’ve thought I’ve conquered it on occasion, what I now realise is that it’s not a war I won, but the battle of my life. If I win each battle, I get to live. If I don’t, I don’t. I’ve won every battle so far, and I’m going to keep fighting. But it’s the defining battle of – and for – my life. I have to win.
Fourth song, back into the set after a year away from the stage, is Don’t Move. Taken from the claustrophobic, and intense, No One Can Ever Know, it’s a propulsive song built on a complex geography of sex and passion. I want you, more than you can ever know. No One Can Ever Know. And they know, even if no one else does. There’s a goddamn novel in that song to me, and I can’t explain, so you’ll just have to trust me. You fit around me, paired off in the violence… and there’s a huge sense of sex as a form of consensual, passionate violence without the threat or hurt.
The placement of the songs creates a narrative inbetween them, the common themes that bleed through and across the songs, of sex, lust, love trust, and then there’s also the nearest thing to a “hit” (at least, in terms of instant audience reaction) is Last January. The thing with this band is that they don’t write hits, they just write great songs and haven’t released a bad one yet.
Last January is a song – like most Sad songs, the title has next to nothing to do with the lyrics – that sits on the common theme. This time around it’s around the human connection between mates, and sometimes around how what the heart wants is wrong but it wants it anyway. The idea of someone we build up in our mind isn’t quite who that person is, but the idea of you is what we fall for. We’ve all kissed the wrong person. We’ve all sat on the right side of the wrong car.
This isn’t you that I came here for.
This isn’t you that I waited for.
The song builds to a crescendo. The sound burrows away like the most beautiful army of angry wasps. It feels like flushing through the soul with a cleansing detox of noise. It’s everything I ever wanted from music. I look behind me. And somehow, this band are playing to nearly 3,000 people. There’s a sense of being amongst my people. It’s beautiful.
The cunt sits at his desk, and he’s plotting away. Now they’re sitting around the table, and talking behind your back.
After having about a year away from the setlist, “That Summer” is back. And there’s a story behind this song too. Somewhere in this world there’s a cunt sitting at his desk. I could name them. I can almost definitely tell you exactly which desk they’re sat at as well. He plotted away, and sat around a table, and talked behind my back. Plotting away. And in one specific case, designed terrible things to come to me. Not in the anonymously cruel way of a tidal wave, or a rainstorm. But in a very specific, targeted manner. Aimed directly and solely at me for who I was and what he felt I stood for. Because I was everything he despised. And he could hurt me. So he did. I was subject to a genuinely cruel conspiracy and he tried to threaten me, my family and my home. He tried to make me lose hope. To inflict misery, because he could. Some people enjoy power, and being able to exercise it. They think that for them to win, others must lose. Damaged people damage people. And I’m aware of everyone around me, but also, I need to vocalise what I wanted to to his face but couldn’t. I’m surrounded by 1,000 friends and strangers in Manchester, whilst Andy McFarlane creates the most beautiful noise with a guitar, and I’m venting about the cunt that sits at his desk, plotting away, talking behind my back. I let go. My anger and fury at being targeted for destruction, and the pointless battle I had to fight to survive. Because the cunt at his desk didn’t like me, he tried to destroy me. And failed. I’m still here.
There’s a brief pause in intensity for “The Arbor”. It’s not a song that connects with me ; not that there’s anything wrong with it. But it doesn’t touch me. I can’t wrap myself into the song.
“I’m not here today, Mr Coppolla. Today, I’m in Connecticut.” – Hearts Of Darkness, 1991.
That line, from that documentary, about the difficult filming of Apocalypse Now, has always stayed with me. I’ve been in countless situations where I’ve told myself that I’m not here. This isn’t happening. It’s just temporary. It will pass. Whatever it is. That I’m somewhere else. I’m on a beach. I’m at a gig. I’m not here. I’ve been absent from whole chapters of my life : standing outside, looking in, as I’ve had to remind myself that it won’t be like this all the time, that whatever it is, I will survive. And that’s why I’m lost in the moment, arms aloft, yelling “I/M NOT HERE.”
Because many, many times of my life, I’ve not been there. If I survive this, I get to see that band in Turin. If I survive this, I get to kiss again. If I get through this, whatever it is, I survive. And right now, where I am, I don’t want to be there. I’m not here. It happened too many times. but IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME.
And then it’s “Sunday Day13”.
You hit me too many times.
You wouldn’t know how many times I’ve been assaulted by a ex-partner. Or the hospital visits. The thrown scalding kettles I avoided by instinct. The days off work. I do. Hopefully you won’t ever experience it. Life is much better now. But it wasn’t, once.
…Would you throw me out into the cold?
What does this mean? Would you know what it means to someone else? Would you know that for me, it brings flashbacks of pleading with a violent person not to spray me in the face with WD40 and thrown me out of a moving car in the depths of winter? I succeeded, but I should never have had to negotiate that.
Would you throw me out onto the road?...
Why would you know that, unless I told you? You wouldn’t. You’d just know I was some idiot in the crowd, bawling his eyes out like a bairn. How could, even over a decade later, such a song touch such a specific and raw memory?
You Hit Me Too Many Times. It won’t be like this all the time.
Being human is the art of forgetting. The art of not remembering the experiences that shaped us. Imagine how terrifying and painful perfect recall of everything would be : every memory, forever haunting us. I have to forget so many things just to function. People mistake my occasional cheerfulness for lacking gravitas, or being easy to manipulate. No. Just that every time you go down – or try to – I get up, and I keep getting up, and I’m going to keep being at it for as long as it takes. You aren’t going to dim my light. I’m going to burn like a thousand suns, and that means that I’m going to be an optimist, because that is my superpower.
I’m going to live – and die – on my feet, not on my knees. These shows are a form of spiritual purging for me ; a way of letting go of the weight of years of trauma. Because despite having friends, family and pets, these songs were also a constant in hard years.
And you have to remember, sure, we might have met in person, and I might have been more cheerful in the flesh, but those are the moments you don’t see. I don’t want you to see them. I never wanted me to see them. I’m moving on. But you can’t forget how you got where you are. It’s not the hours but The Hours. The years. The accumulated toll of life. And my life is no easier or harder than most. But it’s the only one I live, and I judge it by how hard I find it. It’s not a competition to see has, objectively, the hardest life. I’ve loved and lost, I’ve battled forces beyond my control, and I still feel that – no matter how amazing my life is now – that in another universe, when I got in the right side of the right car that everything could be easier.
This band make me remember how I got here, and make me forget what I have experienced.
You’re not coming back.
And then there’s “There’s A Girl In The Corner”. In London this sees my first ever crowd surfer at a Sad show. Surprisingly not a single, this song, a live staple since release, is propulsive, expansive, metronomic groove that coils and uncurls, seems to be about the end of a relationship, and for some of us, it is. She’s Not Coming Back From This. It’s about the exact moment when it becomes clear everything has gone too far, too deep, and there’s no way back. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know how lucky you are.
And then there’s the rarely played, but sublime “Seven Years Of Letters.”
In every song, there’s a story. There’s a fraction of my life. Even something as relatively buried and – to use a horrible word – a deep cut like “Auge Maschine” carries with me a thousand memories. I battled financial and physical assaults, then just went to work like nothing ever happened.
I can't believe you hit me And it'll never show
There’s also “Videograms”, which is a cross between Depeche Mode and The Cure, but also, more than that. It pulses on a determined repetitive beat, a minimal backing, a build and fall of music, alongside another tale of uncertainty, and gaslighting. Gaslighting is something that any abuser practices. “You made me do this”, and so on. As if somehow the perpetrator is too weak to control his own impulses, and is easily manipulatable as some kind of Action Man doll.
And I'm afraid to tell you when you're wrong
Because I'm not sure.
Gaslighters make you doubt what happened that you saw with your own eyes. They want to control the reality we all live in, so they can manipulate you to do their own bidding. Like a puppet told to drive.
In “Let’s Get Lost” he sings It’s just another heartache to me. God, I wish I’d had less of them. But as we grow old, we either grow up, or we don’t, We make mistakes and learn from them – or we don’t. And if we don’t we’re doomed to endlessly repeat the same cycles. The dog returns to its own vomit. Again, and again, and again.
I’m still yours, you know.
And saying goodbye is the hardest thing in the world.
I see it when you lie
Like a puppet told to drive
Will you come back? Come back."
The final part of the show is a triumphant and heartwrenching 4 song punch that is emotionally exhausting and builds to a precise, orgasmic crescendo. First song, from first album, “Cold Days From The Birdhouse” is the start of this ; and lyrically it sits on the basis of a ruined romantic night out. Of ruined plans, romantic gestures, and a million other things. But the bit that always gets me, always hurts, is the line where admist a cacophony of noise, he sings, clear as a bell Will you come back? Come back. A question, an instruction, a pleading. Come back. I think most of us have been there. Must of us have wanted one specific person to come back. It’s that line that always puts me over the edge.
Do you stay in at night because its more than you bear to show?
And then it’s “The Wrong Car”, which is possibly the single most important song there is for me. Everyone has loved and lost. I hoped the first princess I kissed would be my Queen, but that’s not how my life turned out. As it ended up, and not to be the Hugh Hefner of Sad Indie, every relationship before me has failed, and some of those princesses turned out to be frogs. And like everyone else on the planet, I’ve made mistakes, and not always treated people with the respect I – or they – deserved. And other people can say the same. The cliché is that Damaged People Damage People. But how does one become damaged? Is it nature, or nurture? Is it who you are, or who you respond to being brutalised in a brutal world? Are you who want to be, or who you have been forced to be? Or is there something else? How can you stay true when virtue seems to be seen as a weakness to be exploited by the evil and cruel?
In some respects, my heart wants to split itself into a thousand pieces, and live the alternate life of every option I ever had. Even though where I am now and the life I have is fucking amazing, part of me still wants to explore what could have happened if I had followed this path, or that path, or that path, with that person? And knowing that someone else lives a life that I could have once been part of, and that they are happy - and I am - on our separate paths, doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. A door opened and a world existed beyond that door, and I never got to live that life. But I got to live this life, and I have spent all my life working on making this life as amazing as I can and often, it is. But this song captures all of that.
And there’s another life, where all of the heartache didn’t happen. Where hearts were never broken, where love lasted forever, and it was true. Where I never had to pick myself up from a broken heart several times, or being discarded like an empty packet by others. Where the only baggage I had to carry could fit onto a luggage rack.
Does your stomach still ache?
For the wife that he will take.
And I am always waiting.
To see you.
And there’s a million other stories from that line. It’s not just me, as a male, aching from the wife that was not mine but someone else’s : not that that is autobiography, but that everyone who I ever explored a life with but didn’t, that could have been chose someone else, they found someone else. Explored a different life with them. It could have been me. It wasn't. But it could have been.
Whilst I made the wrong choice. And got in the right side of the wrong car.
It’s her, perhaps aching from the wife he took instead of her. It’s a million unlived lives of wonder in one single damn song. And when you can’t see them, when you ache for that, when they’ve gone and they're not coming back… I’m always waiting to see you.
Will you come back? Come back?
And none of this is true, and all of it is true, from a certain point of view. We’ve all done the wrong thing, and all tried to do it the right way, right from the day that I got a call when driving to my first wedding, and I knew somehow that I was about to make the biggest mistake of my life yet somehow, like the jumpers regret, the moment they fall from the bridge into the river, somehow I was stuck in a moment I couldn’t get out of.
Did you know that the majority of drowning/suicides from bridges exhibit muscle trauma consistent with some kind of primal instinct to survive during the drop? That 60% of bridge jumps into water don't die from impact, but drowning? Did you know I stood at the edge of Beachy Head in May 2007, and it took every inch of my soul to not leap?
And we’ve been wrong before.
And I’m always waiting to see you. Always waiting. As if somehow where your heart feels it belongs is somewhere it cannot belong. I never truly felt at home, anywhere, or anywhen. I know that feeling. That longing. Even when I have a place that my heart calls home, there’s always the sense that perhaps I didn’t take the best path I could have. That if I hadn’t got in the right side of the wrong car, many times before, that I’d be happier, healthier, richer than I am now.
And that song helps me access and exorcise emotions I have to, by necessity, keep hidden. I may joke about being British and not having any feelings, but how else do we keep going, keep eating, sleeping, and going to work? You just have to. You function, in the way that someone with a broken limb functions. You try your best.
My point of entry is the same way I leave.
And after that “Keep Yourself Warm”. I have written at length about this song, and how it feels. But more than that, every time it still hits me, still hurts me, still heals me. In the way that it does, there’s a whole narrative wrapped up in this song to me : the sense of abandon, the euphoria of stupid sex, the sense of inherent alienation inside that, the attempt at forced intimacy from both sides willing for more than there might actually be, and at the same time, there’s a huge sense of survivors guilt. I endured some traumatic experiences (traumatic to me, at least), I stared down the barrel of my own mortality, and I survived. Not everyone did. Not everyone else could. It’s all in this song : the sense of joy, the guilt, the fact that I lived and others didn’t. And that I came really close to succeeding in what my brother called my “Boring suicide anecdote.” Life at that time was unbearable, and I decided, I chose to live against the odds, because I wasn’t going to let the fuckers win. If I was ever going to go out of this life, it was my way, on my terms, at a time and manner of my own choosing. Not to be forced into it by others who wanted to destroy me. Others have definitely tried to destroy me using every method at their disposal up to, and including threatening my career, my family, and my home. The cunt sits at his desk, and he’s plotting away. And they didn’t succeed then. And they won’t succeed now. I’ve fought a lifetime of battles I never asked chose, never wanted, and wouldn’t leave me alone.
The flashing white light's been turned off
You don't know who's in your bed.
And that’s why I have emotions at gigs. There’s a huge sense of joy in The Twilight Sad, in the vibrant roar of their sound and in the recognition that no matter how dark the night can be, it won’t be like this all the time, and that there’s joy in life somewhere. Just sometimes it can’t be seen. And I made it to experience this. Joy, hope, and love, after what feels like a sustained and unwarranted attack on me from a world that rolls on impassively whether I am there or not. I survived. I’m not a victim : I’m a survivor, and it’s not my shame.
The last song of the night, the last song of the tour, the last song I know I will see the band play until who knows when, is “And She Will Darken The Memory.” . It’s a song that is probably the nearest I’ve ever heard to a swooping orgasm of sound – endlessly building and falling on a crescendo of riffs, before a final exhausted sigh, a pause, and a sweeping roaring race to the end.
In London, the band play so loud the PA breaks and descends into a roar of distortion. The band stop playing, laugh, and then carry on from the exact spot they stopped. James spins, rolls, climbs the speaker stacks, punches the air in a moment of euphoric release. In Edinburgh, there’s a whole room - the biggest headline show they’ve played – on its feet, lost in the moment, hypnotised maybe, the band and audience locked into a common suspension of reality and disbelief, becoming somehow more than the sum of the parts, specifically, James staring deep into the abyss, which stares back, and collectively, we somehow become something and more than that – we sway, try to catch the feelings with outstretched hands, or simply feel the noise deep inside ourselves. Every song tonight has told the story of at least some part of my life.
One by the one, the song grinds to a halt, the band leave the stage – Johnny raising his bass to recognise a moment of triumph – James collapses on the stage, and the band bring to an end a victorious year.
What do we do now? Where do we go? I’ve seen this band a surprising 18 times this year and now it has come to an end. I’ve made new friends, and chosen a family far less dysfunctional than my birth one. We look out for each other across oceans and timezones. We don’t see each other for ages, yet bump into each other randomly at bus stops 400 miles from home or on a train, as if no time has passed at all. It’s not just about seeing a band – no matter how good the band are – but about sharing these experiences with friends. And that – creating a connection and a communication between humans – is what the best art does ; making sense of the world around us, showing us a way of navigating life and helping us through. There’s no love too small.