Rock culture has always adorned its most prolific performers with utmost adulation. Those who can master the stage are considered immortal, because being able to capture the imagination of hundreds and thousands of worshippers with an ephemeral showcase of talent is no mean feat. In fact, the ‘Front Man’ (or woman) has become a stock character: overtly sexual, self-assured and hedonistic. Think Ziggy, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry and, more recently, Florence Welch…. but what about those whose fear of the stage kept them hidden?
Kate Bush announced she would return to the stage this year after a 35 year absence. This woman is undeniably creative, with ten studio albums and a career spanning almost 40 years, she is one of the most important female artists of our time. Her first tour in 1979 was a theatrical delight, but Kate described feeling exhausted and stressed after it ended. She would then go against the grain and eliminate the ‘performer’ within. Many have speculated the reasons behind her reluctance to perform again. Kate admits she has “more nightmares than dreams” about the stage, and describes the process as ‘impersonal’. I can only imagine looking out upon a sea of black with bright lights shining and blinding me, with just a loud indistinct hum of an audience to anchor me, and agreeing that live performances are, in fact, very impersonal for some artists, especially some solo performers. They stand alone upon the stage, it is the audience that feel the unity as they cheer and sing together.
Another performer who could not bear the stage was Nick Drake, an English folk singer and poet whose reluctance to perform live is well documented. His good friend and fellow songwriter John Martyn wrote ‘Solid Air’ about Drake’s depression and the fear he felt for the presence expected of him. Sadly, Nick Drake took his own life, and his legacy lives on only through his recorded songs. Drake’s popularity was never wide-spread when he was alive, perhaps as a direct result of shunning the stage.
However, these two astonishing artists clearly had enough raw talent to allow their music to be heard. But what other talented musicians might have remained in obscurity if their initial stage fright had not waned?
Would The Doors still have shaken the world if Jim Morrison never turned to face the audience? His first shows fronting the band saw him face inwards towards the drummer, John Densmore, and he never made any contact with the crowd. We all know of his evolution (with a little help from LSD) into a sexual and formidable performer, and the band’s notoriety and famed sky-rocketed. It is very hard to imagine Morrison sitting cross legged on a shabby wooden stool cooing his poetry into the microphone, isn’t it?
Pop icon Adele has admitted being a shy performer, yet is capable of belting out pitch-perfect, emotional songs night after night. Another modern gal, folk singer Laura Marling, used to stare empty-eyed at the floor in her early career as a teenager, but has found a unique stage presence at last, and we rejoice!
At the other end of the spectrum- I can think of some rather average bands and singers whose success relies almost completely on their stage presence and character. Isn’t that the basis of pop music today- to look good, be bold and act like you’re the greatest performer since Freddie Mercury?
So how much importance should we put on live shows? As a gig goer, I can think of nothing more exhilarating than seeing my idols play the songs I adore back to me and feeling like I am a part of the atmosphere. But as a devotee of music from the 60’s and 70’s, many of the bands I love the most no longer tour- hell, some of them are dead and buried. Not seeing them perform live does not detract from my love for them- the albums I listen to contain everything I need from music, and I can access it whenever I choose.
It seems in this modern music world, the live shows are where the money is, and the pressure on young artists to create a stage persona separates the amazing from the frankly average. Sadly, I doubt that another artist will be able to base a career on albums alone, as Kate Bush has done. The industry simply cannot afford to function without the profit of touring… which is a shame because more sensitive souls, like Kate Bush or Nick Drake, are often a welcome antidote to the over-confident, under-talented front-man stereotype that might leapfrog them on the way up.