It’s probably fair to point out that, two years ago, I’d never heard of John Grant. It was the title song of his second solo album ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ that brought him to my attention; a haunting song that reminded me of Jim Morrison at his best, a rich, baritone voice. Pale Green Ghosts would fit nicely onto a Doors album.
I decided to listen to the album. After three tracks I was captivated. I bought it and downloaded it onto my ipod, intending to listen to it on my long Sunday run. I wasn’t disappointed. His voice was superb, the music wonderful… but what he was singing completely threw me. These beautiful melodies combined with lyrics full of expletives and dark humour:
Remember how we used to fuck all night long, neither do I because I always passed out …
Then a truly romantic love song, which I’d listened to earlier, but hadn’t been listening closely enough to the words. Then it dawned on me. John was singing about another man.
I have no problem with this, but having heard him interviewed on BBC 6music and seen a couple of photographs – a large, bearded hunk of a man, wearing a baggy t-shirt, woolly hat and loose fitting chinos, he didn’t fit the usual image of an openly gay man. Whatever that is. (Stop digging this hole now).
So I did some research. John Grant had been in a band called The Czars. They’d recorded a couple of albums and split in 2004. Then John had a nervous breakdown, a drug addiction and was HIV positive. He left the music business and moved to Germany. Six years later, the band Midlake, big fans of John’s work, tracked him down, finding him working as a waiter.They persuaded him to return to their studio and record a solo album, which they would produce. The result was Queen of Denmark. It was given an ‘instant classic’ award by Mojo magazine in 2010, a true rarity. Another album full of quirky lyrics:
“I wanted to change the world, but I could not even change my underwear”
I bought Queen of Denmark. Then The Czars albums. My John Grant fandom had me in its grip, unlike any other artist had for many years. The next logical step was to try and get to see John live, but it seemed that he tended to play festivals rather than gigs. Having retired from the festival circuit many years ago, preferring a feather bed and a buffet breakfast rather than listen to John Grant in a field whilst looking at the back of somebody’s unwashed head, I thought I would be lucky to get the chance. Then I heard a rumour that he was playing at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I bought two tickets in the front row of the circle as soon as I discovered they were on sale.
Of course, I wanted to share my new found musical hero with my friends.
“Who’s John Grant?” asked The Sexton. We were on a weekend away with him, Pen, Jacko, Nurse Lynn, Brummie Lawrence, Jo, Suzanne and Mad Kev. We were taking it in turns to choose a track to play from You Tube Music. I chose ‘Where Dreams Go To Die.”
After about a minute, I looked at the incredulous faces of my friends. The Sexton sighed.
“Bloody hell. Is this music to end it all to?” asked The Sexton. I looked for approval from the others. No luck.
“Shall we listen to something else?” asked Nurse Lynn.
Perhaps ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ was the wrong choice.
“We’re going to see John Grant tomorrow,” I told Gerald, my old fag from school, visiting Randall Towers with Sarah for the weekend.
“Who’s John Grant?” asked Gerald. I played him ‘GMF’. He listened intently for 10 seconds. Sarah sighed.
“God, this is shit,” he said. Oh well.
On the way to Stratford, I decided play some John Grant for Lady Barton St Mary to fully acquaint her with his awesomeness before the concert. After about 20 minutes, she sighed.
“Does he do any upbeat songs?” she asked. I thought for a moment. There was ‘Black Belt’ and ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’, but this was John Grant. He writes songs about break ups and breakdowns.
“Shall we listen to something else?” she suggested. Oh dear.
We arrived in Stratford early, having booked a table at a restaurant for a pre-show dinner. But first we went and had a look at the theatre, deciding to go for a coffee in the rooftop bar.
“Sorry, we’re closed for a private function tonight,” said the bar man, “these two ladies will escort you back downstairs,” he continued, pointing at two uniformed females standing side by side, “we’re trying to hold the lift, you see.”
“Who’s booked the room, then?” I asked one of the ladies. She shrugged.
“There’s a concert here tonight, some bloke called John Grant. I’ve never heard of him.”
I explained I had all his albums, he was a songwriter, some of his songs had been covered by Sinead O’Connor. She looked at me blankly.
“I think I’ve heard of him,” she mused as the lift door closed, having dispatched us on the ground floor once more.
At the restaurant, the waitress led us to our table. We explained that we were going to a concert at 8pm. She asked what we were going to see.
“Who’s John Grant?” she asked. By this time, I felt like I was in an alternative version of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged.
Finally back at the theatre, we mingled with the other concert goers. Lots of them wore big bushy beards, mostly male. Lots of them were quite obviously gay. I’d forgotten that John Grant was hugely popular with gay people. I mentioned this to Lady BSM. She rolled her eyes.
“You’re the gayest straight man I know,” she said, “if I wasn’t married to you, I’d think you were.”
The opening act was terrific, Gemma Ray, another haunting voice and look that suggests she’s from the Deep South of America rather than the deep south of England. Accompanied by her bassist and drummer, they made some very sweet music.
Then the main event. John Grant and his Icelandic band (for that is where he lives now) come on to the opening bars of ‘Vietnam’. His voice live is amazing, effortless, rich, perfect. What’s more, he is a very funny man, self deprecating and engaging with the audience.
“Here’s another song to end it all to,” he says cheerfully before giving a heart rending performance of ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him.”
I’m delighted, trying my best not to sing along to every song too loudly. He doesn’t disappoint. Someone had asked if he was going to sing ‘Song to the Siren’, written by Tim Buckley, but said he wasn’t, since Elizabeth Frazer sang it so much better. I beg to differ.
John explains his love of ABBA before singing his version of ‘Angel Eyes.’
The encore sees him sing ‘Drug’, a Czars song. There a smattering of applause, which amuses him.
“And that’s why that band never succeeded,” he chuckles.
Then he’s gone. Lady BSM leans on me on the way out.
“That was really good,” she says. I think she means it.
I loved it. Being in an audience in a Shakesperean theatre in Stratford singing along to GMF was a delight:
“I am the greatest Motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet, from the top of my head, down to the tips of the toes on my feet…”
Yesterday I bought us tickets to see him again in November with The Royal Northern Symphonia at Bristol Colston Hall. Do you think they’ll ask who he is?