Live!: Why We Go Out.

The first word in the title of Robert Elms’s excellent book – Live!:Why We Go Out —  is interestingly ambiguous. 'Live!' can be 
taken as an exclamatory adjective describing the concert experience – in the flesh, immediate and happening -  but it can also be 
read as an imperative verb. “Live!” says Elms, as if providing the answer to the rest of the book’s title. Why do we go out? We go out to live and to feel alive.

I once met Robert Elms at a gig. Given that I don’t get to many gigs, this is quite an achievement - on the other hand, given that Robert Elms clearly goes to nearly all of them, maybe it’s not. The gig in question was Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets at Shepherds Bush Empire in 2019 and I remember it well for several reasons. The first, of course, was bumping into Robert Elms. In our short conversation in the bar I told him how much I had enjoyed  London Made Us – – and that I, like him, was a regular at QPR (Upper Loft Block L). The other reason I remember that evening is because it was when  my wife revealed to me her hitherto concealed lifelong fear of masks. Given that Los Straitjackets, Nick Lowe’s band that night, perform in Mexican wrestling masks, this made  for an interesting evening.

I have, without doubt, been to more of the same QPR games as Robert Elms than I have been to the same gigs. I was at Wembley Stadium in 1975  when the Beach Boys blew Elton John away. I was at the 1978 Anti Nazi League Rally to see The Clash. I may also have been at  some of the  same Tom Waits or Elvis Costello concerts, but that’s probably about it - when put beside Elms’s mightily impressive list I might as well not have been out at all. Having read this, though, I now feel as though I’ve been to millions, hearing all kinds of music – flamenco to punk, country to jazz – in all kinds of places.

Elms takes as his starting point the pandemic which drove  him back into himself and back into his record collection, making him realise how much he missed the itch of going out, how he craved the community of crowds, how he yearned for gigs and games, how he longed for the live experience. What follows is a book about his experience of live music, but it ends up being so much more than that - memoir, confessional, cultural history and, it has to be said, a terrific read.

Much of the biography will be familiar to those who have read Elms’s previous works  The Way We Wore and  London Made Us: his willingness to embrace the latest thing (“I’ve been an honorary member of every passing trouser tribe, sported every silly haircut imaginable” ); his chameleon nature ( “for most of my formative years I had a split cultural personality. I also developed an adaptable accent to match. Grammar school lad and council-estate kid.”); his rise to media stardom (“I loved the idea of being part of the narrative; more than just a fan – a face”); his love of fashion and of London.

But what marks out his latest book is his love of music. “My taste is broad”, he writes, and so is his knowledge – broad, enthusiastic and enlightening. One of the book’s joys is that (much like his BBC Radio London show)  it serves as a gateway to new music and artists. The range of reference is huge and, although  every reader might not agree with his judgements, they will almost certainly find something that strikes a chord. Pun intended.

One of the most enjoyable things about Live!: Why We Go Out is Elms’s endearing honesty - he owns up to his blindspots, realises his past errors of judgement and even acknowledges his own questionable character traits (“It’s amazing how quickly you can become a complete twat!”, “I was now the supremely arrogant boy reporter”, “me- a prime bullshitter”) He also confesses to his own prejudices – theatre and outdoor music, for example, and, most memorably for this SW13 resident, Barnes, the “dreary” village by the river that was home to the Olympic Studios: “Barnes, a leafy London suburb stuck forever in 1956. Barnes with its common and its pond  and its cosy pubs and a level crossing that looks like Miss Marple is about to appear”.

Throughout the book Elms acknowledges the difficulty (and rises to the challenge)  of capturing the live experience, or more specifically the remembered live experience, in language. The book is as much about memory (its capacity to distort and intensify)  as it is about music - “I can watch Bobby Zamora scoring in the ninetieth minute of the play-off final at Wembley on YouTube or else I can close my eyes and remember what it felt like falling through space into the arms of a demented stranger”

That's not the only reference to the team from W12 - QPR runs through the book like blue and white hoops through a stick of London rock. The final chapter begins  ‘QPR are top of the league. This doesn't happen very often so it's worth noting’ (written, I assume, in October 2022), and ends with ‘QPR are seventeenth in the league’. (written merely months later). As I write this, QPR are 2-0 down away to Huddersfield after fifteen minutes and hurtling closer to relegation. Will this stop me going next season? Probably not. Will it stop Robert Elms going? Definitely not. He’ll be there in G block, just like he’ll be out at gigs, following his own imperative to “Live!”,  providing an emphatic answer to Homer Simpson’s question - “What’s the point of going out when we’re just going to wind up back here anyway?”