So I was listening to Kermode’s review of Frank yesterday, and I’ve read a couple of others which praise it in equal measure.
I’m trying to remember exactly what year it might have been, but I once had the misfortune to witness the phenomenon that was Frank Sidebottom at close quarters.
Jonathan Richman is one of three musicians I have seen in concert at least six times; the other two are Bob Dylan and Tift Merritt.
Now, you know a Dylan concert is a crap shoot. I rate my Dylan live experience as 1.5/6, or around 25%. In other words, go to see Dylan and you’ve got a 25% chance of seeing something good. In his case, the 25% mostly consisted of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
As for Tift Merritt, leaving aside the time when we couldn’t go in because the venue had an age restriction and we had, as usual, bought the kids along, she’s a 100% kind of artist. In other words, there’s no possible way I wouldn’t take the opportunity to buy more tickets, even with the bitter memory of being turned away at the door in Oxford.
Jonathan Richman lies somewhere between the two. As with Dylan, you would never know what you were getting with him. Is he on his own, with a couple of sidemen, with an unplugged acoustic, or a plugged-in electric, or (at least once) a saxophone? The variety of the experience is what kept you going back for more. At one venue (Riverside Studios?), the support act was a magician. The magician wanted an assistant from the audience. It was I who was pulled up onto the stage. Jonathan Richman was watching wide-eyed from the wings. I locked my keys in the car. Someone helped me break into it with a coat hanger. That was a memorable night.
Once, at the Mean Fiddler, the support act was Tanita Tikaram, just before she had some chart success. Another time, at the Town and Country club, a man in the audience rubbed himself against me with too much enthusiasm. When Roy and I went to see him at Camden (Jazz Café), Richman attempted to perform not only with a nylon stringed acoustic guitar, unplugged, but without a microphone. This would have been great, if the fucking audience hadn’t continued their loud conversations and trips to and from the bar throughout.
Which brings us to the Mean Fiddler again, and the night Frank Sidebottom was the support act. Kermode said something in his review about the fine line between tragic and comic, and the damaged person behind the mask. Here’s what I saw: the damaged person behind the mask. I didn’t see anything remotely funny. It was like watching someone with deep psychological problems act them out in front of an audience. It was awkward. It was awful. It was like watching that terrible fly-on-the-wall documentary, Titicut Follies. Sidebottom was Titicut Follies in living colour. I found the experience so miserable that I didn’t enjoy the Jonathan Richman gig that followed.
Needless to say, I won’t be watching the film.