At last night’s WERK in the Peacock, John Waters’ piece was recited to great hilarity. I wrote this piece for Hot Press shortly after it was written.
Not for the first time, I winced reading John Waters’ column, when he lambasted the young people of Ireland for their “stunted enthusiasm” and for guzzling “soul poison” in the vain hope of locating what they were looking for, at the Electric Picnic.
Una Mulally shot off a pithy, punchy response in the Sunday Tribune, with which I mostly agree, especially her assertion that he was projecting his own issues on to those all around him.
Waters’ acerbic, pugilistic style gets people’s backs up, and what annoys me mostly about his writing is that when people respond to the venom, he is rewarded with the argument he seeks, but the valid points he makes get lost in the resulting indignant froth. He is an unashamed provocateur, and of course that’s what he gets paid for.
Firstly, he is right to draw attention to how much alcohol features at the Picnic, and, indeed, in Irish society, and compares what he witnessed with a roughly similar event in Italy. Having lived in Italy for a year, I have had similar reactions and concerns about Irish drinking patterns, because the contrast is remarkable. Italian people do not drink like the Irish, and indeed public displays of drunkenness in Italy are frowned upon. Venture out late at night in an Italian city like Milan or Rome, and the difference is striking – you may come across a busy street full of young people, and instinctively go on the alert, expecting the chaotic madness of a Temple Bar or O’Connell St, the jagged violence ready to explode through the drunken stumbling. But in a late night Italian street full of similar youths, they are all, relatively speaking, sober, and they are, mostly, fully focussed on parading around and showing off. There is a need to address this issue, but it won’t be changed by hectoring condescension.
Alcohol can indeed be “soul poison”. It can destroy people’s lives. But it is not alcohol per se that is the problem, it is what it is used for, what it is masking, what is allowed to emerge when our inhibitions are down. I cheerfully admit that I was drinking for most of the Electric Picnic, giving myself permission to relax and be a bumbling fool for the few days, off-duty, in holiday mode, relaxing thoroughly. There is an incredibly good atmosphere at the Picnic, and everyone you meet is in good form and contributing to the collective bonhomie. Unlike late at night on Irish city streets, there is no aggression or fear. It is one massive love-in.
Mulally’s point about Waters projecting his issues on to the young people around him is really worth expanding. To start with, I agree with him that, in so many ways, we are all searching for something meaningful in our lives, some connection to something greater than ourselves, some sense in which we feel “held”. For want of a better word, I see it as a spiritual need. For some, this need is more pressing than others – some seek a more transcendental, mystical experience, a connection with something ineffable, subtle, and some would say divine. For many people, trying to discuss this aspect of their lives is as awkward as talking about sex – it is that complex, it is that personal. In this post-religious age, I do agree with Waters that something has been lost, some respect for the numinous, the transpersonal, the preciousness of life. But whereas Waters seems to blame the young people, I put the blame firmly on those who were in charge of religions, who have allowed them to become such vehicles of hate, of repression, of shame. Whether he likes it or not, the cruel distortions of most modern religions, especially when it comes to matters sexual, and the misery they cause to so many people, are the reasons why so many people are rejecting them. It is not the result of an “aggressive secularism” or a “hostile media”. Religions have only themselves to blame. People, in general, respond well to consistency, kindness, and coherence. In so many ways, religion, and the Catholic church especially, has been viciously inconsistent, unkind, and hypocritical in its actions over the last few decades. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
I find it odd, though, that at a music festival, Waters should ignore the most obvious reason why people were there: music. There can be nothing more transcendent or mystical than being in the presence of a favourite musical genius, listening to their art with hundreds or thousands of other devotees. The experience is not intellectual, or indeed rational- the ecstasy of being in a crowd singing along to a much-loved song is poetic, inspirational, magical. It’s the closest thing to a religious experience I can manage these days.
Having a pleasant buzz from a few pints to heighten the experience does not diminish it; religions across the world have used various means of reaching a mystical frenzy, to achieve a sense of an altered reality, through fasting or meditation or hyperventilation or chewing leaves or smoking ganja. Whether we believe we are in touch with God or the gods or nature or the collective unconscious or the essence of humanism is neither here nor there.
As Mulally says, generation after generation gives out at the spiritual deficit of those younger than them. But my point is that, far from people rejecting spirituality, I believe that they are finding it in their own ways, and these days it is music that is the main vehicle for meeting this need. It is not for nothing that, at the heart of the Picnic, there is a magical playground called “Body and Soul” – people are fully alive to the implications of the name, of the experience, and the generosity of audiences towards artists there, established and emerging, the encouragement they receive to facilitate those moments of ecstasy in the crowd, is extraordinary. And, happily, it is without the outdated, cruel baggage of Judeo-Christian hangups around sexuality, and even more important, it is without any one person dictating what the rules are, and using shame-based methods of mind control to reinforce them.
The best musical artists are those who share their own pain and sorrow and joie de vivre and insights with us, and each of us has a different, unique response to them. At festivals like Electric Picnic, we get to share that deeply personal response with like-minded souls, and that experience has all the hallmarks of a spiritual experience. We just don’t like to name it as such because it sounds pretentious, or Californian. But in order to answer the likes of John Waters’ and their withering condescension towards how we live our lives, we have to take ownership of the language of spirituality and claim it back from the demagogues and preachers. Anarchy is a vital, energizing force, and the sort of spiritual anarchy that takes hold of people when attending the ritual of something as life-affirming as Electric Picnic is something that I treasure.
I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. In so many ways, spirituality is about acknowledging that that search is never-ending – we are all trying to answer that need, respond to a certain Spirit of Loneliness, in our own unique, creative, and personal ways. The most important lesson to be learned from the decline of the Catholic Church is that we should never trust anyone who claims to know what is good for us, or who tells us where the answer lies. We’re all doing the best we can.