Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Manifestations


Excerpt from ‘Death is the Ultimate Orgasm’ by Robin Wheeler, released worldwide on 31 October 2018:

In early 2006, the first band I was in fell apart. Not long after the last straw fell to the studio floor, one of the singer’s friends, whom I had met on the live music circuit, a guitarist, invited me to casually “jam with a few people” one Saturday afternoon. I didn’t have my own drums yet, but there was a kit in the practice room, and so I arrived on the day open and mildly enthused, if a little cautious and jaded.

The new singer turned out to be a fine songwriter with a handful or two of roughly formed compositions to try out. The bass player, a woman ten years younger than me, had a striking backing voice and a talent for song writing too. Unexpectedly, I was part of a strong mix. Settled behind our instruments, we listened to one piece on vocal and guitar and began to pick up our respective parts. Two or three runs-through and we were already sounding like something, something notable and exciting.

By the end of the day, I knew that magic had happened in that room and that I was into a new surge of creative and productive energy with a talented and committed bunch of collaborators. The bass player had to have her scheduled wedding and go on honeymoon, but she would be back, and so the other three of us played with two sit-in musicians for a couple of months fleshing out the songs and developing the sound. When our fourth element returned, she slotted straight in and we took right off, playing our first show in the middle of that year and getting signed after our third gig just two months later.

Immediately we were opening for some of the country’s biggest bands, doing short and thrilling sets in front of significant crowds and working hard behind the scenes to be our best. My drumming leapt forward with my application of self to the challenging opportunity and fuelled by my love of the music and the thrill of a dream coming true. I was thirty eight years old going on nineteen, a grown up entrepreneur of ten years, an author for six of those, and a kid all over again. Being myself for a living had a new lease of life. Being in a band took me to the next level, and manifestation had me in its rhythmic grip.

The rise of our yet-to-be-named four-piece phenomenon happened heartily from a strong communal base of friends loving the music and supporting the shows, and it quickly reached the broader public too. The end of the year rushed up in a heady haze of late nights in a range of venues across town and a soaring, melodic indie-rock sound, festive in its sincerity and rapturous reception. Along for the ride but taking a bit of a back seat was my writing, plus my corporate speaking and training, which had more of a rock ‘n’ roll feel to them than ever.

Outside of these activities was my personal enjoyment of music, wall-to-wall in the unfolding of my ideal life. Woven into that, with the twenty fifth anniversary of the release of Wham!’s first single, George Michael had surprised the world with the announcement of a tour starting in Spain in September, covering Europe for three months, and climaxing with four closing shows at Wembley Arena in London the week before Christmas.

He had not toured for eighteen years amidst alternating doubt and confidence about his future typified by outspoken withdrawal from the industry and then comebacks that surpassed his previous peaks. Here he was, playing live again, like never before. I simply had to see him despite my frustrating isolation on the southern tip of Africa.

My sister, Heather, and her family were living in London, and so I looked into visiting them while I attempted to buy tickets online for at least one of the special shows. That pursuit proved seemingly futile as prized positions in the venue were snapped up in no time while flights in peak season were prohibitively expensive, plus my brother-in-law’s parents were scheduled to stay in the guest bedroom for the holiday season.

I had been to see Bruce Springsteen four years before, flying to London without a concert ticket, haggling at the door on the night to buy one from a tout, ultimately getting in to the show, and writing my book Hunting Power (2003) about the life-affirming jaunt. And so, doing something similar for George Michael did occur to me, but I was so absorbed in making music of my own that the longing hovered on the outskirts of my rich consciousness that was welling from within.

I did track the tour dates, though, watching the set lists as they arose, but only from the distance of resignation to my mixed fortunes. It seemed that the price to pay for my fulfilment behind the drum kit was to sit out the George Michael experience, for the time being anyway. Maybe he would tour again.

My dear friend and musical brother, Paul, also living in London, had secured tickets for the first of the four nights at Wembley, on the day that they went on sale, much to my envy, but this too had faded in my mind as the summer months down south wore on and the band and I beat our way around our gold mining metropolis at breakneck speed. 

On the Monday night of 11 December, though, I was sitting quietly at home in my apartment, a long way away in thought from Wembley Arena, when a text-message ping on my phone raised no suspicion at first but tugged at my intuition as I made my way across the room to read it. It was from London and, in Paul’s customary style, had a huge impact through minimal wording. ‘Here we go…’ it simply said.

In that instant I was electrified into full engagement. My spirit was suddenly in the cavernous room as the lights went down and the legend took the stage in the city where both he and I were born. The possibility of my body being there too burst out of the deep blue into my remote location, and I scrambled to see what was happening online.

Unbelievably, tickets had become available for the following night’s show, seemingly held back and then released for sale at the last minute. And they were at the original price! Luckily I hadn’t paid three times that on unofficial sites during my investigation phase months before. Flights were also suddenly available, those too at bottom-of-the-range fares. This was incredible. A gap was opening up in the week of the events…

I spoke to Heather, who said that her au pair was scheduled to go home to Poland for Christmas, which freed up a room in the house form me. “Come!” she said in excitement. “We’ll make it work.”
I slotted straight into gear. 

Concert tickets were not on sale for the later shows in the week but I figured that they might be made available closer to the time. I was right. As the days passed, they came up. Also, an extra date had been added on the Sunday night, which was feasible for me since my final commitment for the year with the band was on the Friday. I could fly on Saturday and land just in time to make it. It was tight but attainable.

With George’s recent album Patience playing on repeat and the framed poster of the cover watching me from my wall, I monitored the online sales and tried repeatedly to buy three tickets as soon as they went up, with no luck. In the song “Flawless”, he kept singing that maybe he would see me that night, repeating that it I had to go to the city. Maybe? Hopefully! There was no point waiting and I was working on it.

I dropped my online application to a single seat on the Sunday and one became available. I made my move and secured it. I was in! Ten minutes later I slotted a second for Heather, a couple of rows back, and twenty minutes after that I wrapped up a third for her husband, Jason. We were in. Next was my flight, which, without issue, joined the list of confirmation emails. With that, my wind-down week took off in the most thrilling direction.

Adrenaline and sleep deprivation had me on a high, enhanced by a year-end show that blew the roof off the local venue where we had played our first gig six months before. The next day I packed my winter clothes for a month away, locked my apartment, tied up a phenomenal year with the tail of a comet, and was taken to the airport by my loving and patient father (for whom, it would turn out, it was the second last festive season on earth).

As I checked in with him by my side, I noticed that the departure time was three hours later than scheduled. Once I was through customs, I established that both the flights on my airline that night were delayed, which meant a stretching of my anticipation before getting off the ground and on my way.

While I waited, the delay was extended and the later flight even cancelled. If I had been on that one, I would have been shunted to the next night and not have made it to London for the concert. This was turning out to be most intense. 

Tired beyond belief, I eventually boarded the plane in the early hours of the morning and sat upright for half a day until we landed at lunchtime instead of before breakfast. I took the tube from Heathrow to Wimbledon, met Heather at the station, saw the kids quickly, put my bags in my new room, showered and dressed, and set out for the show.

We drove through the city streets, found parking at the venue, and queued to convert the email print-outs of tickets to the real thing. As we received those, I looked at the seating plan, which suggested that they were some of the finest in the house. Could they actually be that good? I didn’t give it much thought but we would soon see. The three of us made our way up the stairs and into the buzzing arena, finding our respective spots not next to each other but close enough to communicate.

I was right on the railing of the first tier straight up from the phenomenal and by now famous stage, with Heather beaming behind me and Jason smiling a few rows back. And, yes, the seats were in prime position, clearly kept for VIPs and released at the last minute. What a place to find myself. What a moment to be in. What a culmination of effort, opportunity and seized good fortune. What a manifestation.

I had been a fan of George Michael since I was thirteen, if not of all the music then certainly of his genius and career. I had travelled all the way through it with him from the first song to the quarter century celebration. I had seen and shared the ups and downs, been inspired and mentored, and felt concerned and supportive through the twists and turns, as had millions around the world and thousands in the room that night. 

I had made it all the way from my bedroom in early high school through my climactic week with the band to the city of my birth, and there I was looking at the big black cloth draped like a velvet void in the sizzling crowd over the soon-to-be well-lit centre spot. I was encrusted by exhaustion, cresting on cumulative experience, and liberated by pure presence. It was tough to tell pleasure from pain.

Immune to my state but speaking straight to it, the lights went down and the stage lit up. The people went crazy, my heart pounded, and the show began with an acoustic song from George’s second solo record, Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, from 1990. It was the album’s closer, now opening the historic evening, “Waiting (Reprise)”, sung from backstage. 

There was still no sign of the star but as the song ended the door in the middle of the stunning stage opened and George Michael walked out into the frenzy of love. “Good evening, London!” a most familiar voice said to us all as the next song started, the one I had heard on repeat in my lounge only days before telling me to go to the city. This time I was there, in the room, not maybe tonight, but definitely, and about to hit an all-time high.

Song by magical song I disappeared into that mystical night. My tensions fell off me like dry mud, helped along by plastic cups of strong beer and increasingly uninhibited and ecstatic dancing until I was clapping like carefree toddler under a Christmas tree. Poignant moments punctuated the timeless proceedings leading into colourful flares of escalating festivity with out-of-this-world visuals and sublime sound increasing in volume and vitality until there was nothing left but the totality of the occasion.

One of the musical highlights ever for me, the break into the last verse of “Fastlove”, came to pass and took me over the top. Two hours and a lifetime of music later, just before the end of the show, George apologised self-deprecatingly for playing it, adding that he simply had to, and then launched into the only performance on the tour of “Last Christmas”, with snowy scenes on stage one week ahead of that particular Christmas in the singular city.

By then I was a bundle of bliss. I had never known such joy, love and communion. My whole life had led me to transcendence.

Manifestations exceed all expectations.


'Death is the Ultimate Orgasm' by Robin Wheeler out on 31 October 2018

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