Soul poison hides lack of meaning for Picnickers


The friendly, gentle young people at the Electric Picnic were in search of something they could not find, writes JOHN WATERS

I “DID” the Electric Picnic on Saturday for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to call my reason for being there – a gig? a reading? a talk? – until I ran into BP Fallon, who told me that he was doing . . . “some verbals”. Ah!

I’m presuming everyone knows that the picnic is a different take on the traditional rock festival, combining the usual ingredients of rock’n’roll, tents and mud with poetry, theatre, polemics and strange interventions of various kinds.

It’s a better idea in theory than in practice. One problem is that there’s so much happening at any moment that everyone goes around thinking they’re missing something. People drift in and out of things, which means that only a gentle form of provocation can be offered without a risk of losing your audience.

I was involved in two quite different events: reading from my books about God and reason, between songs sung by the excellent Johnny Duhan (we call ourselves The Prodigals), and delivering a 10-minute speech on “hedonism” at an event called Chaos Thaoghaire. Thus, my preparation plumbed the full spectrum of human possibilities – and my thoughts seemed to explore a similar range, as I walked around the place in free moments.

For nostalgic reasons, I wandered into the Hot Press tent and listened to some live interviews with various artists. But they seemed to be talking about everything that doesn’t matter – touring, recording, drinking, sex – everything but what the artists wanted to say, and why they felt moved to say it.

Gradually I felt this build-up of distraction and dissatisfaction. Then it dawned on me that this overall feeling of dissatisfaction was the picnic’s most striking feature. It offered a little of everything, but nothing seemed able – or was permitted – to penetrate beyond a certain limited depth. And I was deeply struck by the hordes of young people – in their 20s and 30s – who seemed to constitute the majority of the audience: beautiful, friendly and gentle, and full of a stunted enthusiasm. A few of them recognised me and told me that their mothers loved me, or they had seen me on the telly. One guy who thought he recognised me asked whether I’d ever been in a porn movie. A group of girls gathered around and sang a song I didn’t know.

But I couldn’t help noticing that most of those I met after a certain hour in this field littered with plastic beer-tumblers were completely blasted. I’ve recently had the opportunity to observe people of a similar age attending a not broadly dissimilar event in Italy. There was drink available there also, but nobody I encountered was either drunk or drinking. And, beyond that superficial observation, what distinguished that event from this was that the young Italians seemed to be able to find total satisfaction in delving into the content of what they were experiencing, of remaining in touch with the nature of their own desires and seeking to push them further.

The young Irish at Electric Picnic were in a place where they had been led to believe they might find what they were searching for, but they could not find it. And so they were guzzling soul-poison in the hope of locating it.

The culmination of Saturday was the appearance, for the first time in two years, of The Frames, shortly to celebrate their 20th birthday, and still looking like they might be The Next Big Thing. I’m not sure why this band never really happened in the outside world, but they are deeply loved by their Irish audience, perhaps even more than otherwise on account of their failure to crack world markets. Their performance offered the only evidence of communion I witnessed all day, culminating in a stirring rendition of The Auld Triangle with Damien Dempsey and Liam Ó Maonlaí.

This highlight was also, in another sense, the lowlight of my Electric Picnic. While The Frames played, I was aware of the effects all around of a reckless, if good-humoured, inebriation. As the gig climaxed, a young woman collapsed beside me and her friends bundled her up and carried her away. And Glen Hansard sang: “I want my life to make more sense/I want my life to make amends/I want my life to make more sense to me.”

The point is not the drinking, but what it serves to drown out. The audience at Electric Picnic was, by and large, a generation of young people who appear to have received everything, but really have been deprived of the most essential ingredient of all: a comprehensible map of the greater meanings of things. Our “pop kids” are therefore lost in a sense of pessimism and confusion that is already beginning to destroy them.

There is an unwritten rule of what we call our culture that you should not query people “enjoying” themselves, on pain of being labelled a “killjoy”. Except that joy achieved through chemical assistance is not real, or has already been killed before the first sip.

I’ll say it again: the ubiquity of this poison in our culture is merely the superficial evidence of that murder.

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