June 03, 2005

The dreams are already sold

'You might as well try and enjoy it, because it'll probably be ten years before we play again,' Mark Stewart notes dryly towards the end of the Maffia's set tonight.

It must be seventeen years since I last saw the Maffia actually, but the first time was the best. 1987, the Astoria Charing Cross Road; we arrived on the train from the provinces intrigued but scarcely able to imagine how something like As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade could be rendered live. In the event, the Maffia's toxic metal p-funk, shredded and panned by Adrian Sherwood's mix and lightning-conducted through the gangly figure of the ranting and raging Stewart - a personification of all the excessive, 'embarrassing' political-libidinal demands Thatcherism had already, over a long, long eight years, water-tortured out of us - was the stuff of the most visceral of conversions. I came out delirious, hooked, forever a fan. But even then, with C86 in the ascendant, Stewart seemed to belong to an older, superceded age, one in which independent pop could articulate - both formally and conceptually - another way, an outside, a discontent with the reality principle itself.

That disjunction - between Stewart and his surrounding milieu - is felt even more keenly than ever tonight. The Maffia will play 'Liberty City' , the song that will for me always be the best account of what it was to feel, gradually, the bitter bite of 'methodological individualism' in the eighties, the sense of being atomised in the lonely crowd, abandoned in the virtual nuclear winter of the collapsing social wherein all possibilities of collectivity withered one by one, and the pitiful remains of an abandoned public space became subject to casual vandalism and predation. Reality shrank down to a banal survivalism, ('struggling to pay the rent the main worry's job security') counted out in the normalising pressures you become subject to when the best you can hope for is the right to maintain your own beautifully appointed prison cell. It's about the impossibility of connection, reaching out to friends who are either embittered or broken. You feel ill? It's not just you.....

Today, the scenario 'Liberty City' spraypainted is taken for granted, not even an issue. What could it even mean to expect anything else? Tonight that's an insuperable problem because the Maffia inferno can only ignite if the pain, the anger, the disappointment, the anxiety Stewart channels are there in the crowd to be fanned and fuelled. If that is to say, there is some possibility of a circuit of affect, or better, dis-affect between crowd and band. In those conditions, the Maffia alchemy could transform tribulation into exultant ego-dissolution, punk and metal nihilism into a funk celebration.

But that could not happen tonight. The crowd lacks any cohesion, what you might expect when four or five rather disparate acts are pushed into the same bill. 'Here we are now, entertain us'. But the Maffia aren't for idle passers by. A stream of latecomer lager-lads shove past (are these fuckaz hired by someone to ensure all shows in London are mean, miserable territorial wars?) , barely interested but convinced that they have the absolute right to the best view of the Spectacle, no matter how many folk they have to trample over to get it. My Latin temper snaps, and I'm censured by a security guard. This is like being in a bus queue. One of the shovers spits in I.T.'s hair.

The Maffia probably play as well as they ever have. 'Forbidden Colours' is done as a fragile ballad blasted by artillery shells of Leblanc percussion and radioactive washes of reverb. But for the most part - on the rallying cry for the dispossessed that is 'Resistance of the Cell', on the brutalist-funk sexual deprogramming of 'Hypnotized', on the straining against the limits of the acceptable of 'Hysteria' - they are a vicious, viscous, adrenally-wired riff-machine (imagine the Stooges passing from 'being funky' into actually playing funk) powered by the heaviest of vintage Tommy Boy beats. Stewart's vocal, reverbed and distorted into a Munch scream, a strangled Dalek screech, is still the Artaud howl he started to use nigh on three decades ago on the earliest Pop Group recordings.

But tonight it doesn't connect like it should. I can't get to Now. Two people in front of me are incessantly chatting (what is it that makes people pay 18 quid for a ticket only for them to jabber constantly?) There are pockets of rapt dancing, but far too much dissolute milling about. No crowd dynamics.

Stewart looks disconsolate, isolated. I sympathise.

Tonight, London 2005 seems sullen, indifferent.

Later, an hour or so after the set has finished, we spy Stewart standing just behind us. I want to say something, but before I can, he's gone.

I doubt I'll ever see him play live again.

Posted by mark at June 3, 2005 06:15 AM | TrackBack