An explorative essay
by clare archibald
We are constrained by timetables of travel opportunity, of dark runs of rat from station to gig and back with unseen eyes of follow, drop-offs of warning, illuminated concrete of car parks that glower with watching. Watching the cracks in the pavement to avoid unwanted eye contact of unfocused.
We see and hear more in the dark of imagined.
You are in Liverpool to attend an academic conference on beyond the pedestrian. A day of thinking and hearing about different ways of walking, of moving, of public spaces and private bodies. Ways of wander and wonder and individuals and groups being stopped in their tracks. You are not an academic but like most women are educated in these thoughts.
Liverpool has long been on your list of places you would like to explore, but before you get there you see that a band you love is playing Manchester on the evening you arrive. You weigh up the costs, financial and otherwise, the chances of ever seeing them anytime soon anywhere near where you live, the giving up of a first evening in a city you’ve not been in for 26 years. You try and remember the last time you saw Pram and count 20, maybe more years. The numbers aren’t correlatable and you figure that Liverpool will still be there, although perhaps gentrifably different, when Pram gigs are no more. You book a ticket and think you’ll worry about the details later.
We whirl in gigs that do not land isolated in space. We hear stories, tell tales, write words of warning and restraint and we dizzy often only with perceived heights of impossible. Have daughters who do not wear long crinoline but are chaperoned in halt of free dreaming. We have venues formed from music and maze of conventions in reaching them. We have false talk of men who make music and women who look good on stage. We are told we must not wander and therefore must lose the wonder. We are said to be just fans and groupies and only like the hits. We are quietly told what to expect. We are squeezed from the musical histories of buildings unless we are the exceptions.
Sometimes we are unbuilt in invisible before the ticket is ever bought.
You spend the day listening to ways of moving through the worlds we live in and invent. You hear, see, watch, women rail at the confines and you wonder aloud how this will change in reality when you have a daughter who was reported to the police for simply playing outside alone.
You are upholder of a daughter who resists the giving of her place in the world, you are a receiver of police who have to do their job with dismay and embarrassment of time wasted. Enraged by imbalance of risk of real and imagined you walk both feet in attempt of fine tune of words.
We are holders of permission and explore, of return the stares but stay safe. Of this is how you stand with only sway of music to dizzy your dreams.
The younger you always daydreamed of being Simone De Beauvoir and eating alone at a restaurant every night. This for you, was indulgence of autonomy , and liberty of watching others, so you relish the luxury of eating pizza alone after the conference. You don’t think specifically about the fact of shortly travelling solo to another city.
You don’t expect the ticket seller at the train station to tell you not to go but he does. You ask about last trains and he warns of a replacement bus service and dark and danger of extended unusual. You ignore his words in action but carry the hum of his pre-judgement in your head.
Manchester is a city that you know just enough to mentally navigate your way to a venue that you’ve been to once before. You know that the toilets are unisex, that the bar staff are friendly, roughly how long it takes to get from the station by foot.
You don’t want to be drunk, but also don’t want to have a soft drink that will be gone in less time than it takes the band to take the stage. You look around and see no other women on their own. You are standing by the bar where some men on their own are also claiming a space of back of room nonchalance. You hold your pint of lager and feel the bright of your green dress reflected in it, in not really caring what people think. There are couples and happy drunks and a man with a pen, name dropping to another lone male. You feel safe in the small space that allows you to submerge your mind and body in the music. You asked on the way in when it would finish and so only check the time every couple of songs, just in case. You let your body go.
We weigh up the cocktail of conform drunkenly with friends or go alone and be free to not drink, to stand where we want, to buy a t shirt we already have except from a different location. We swill the pint of dancing drunkenly alone if we feel like it. We measure the scope of dancing with abandon of time irrespective of what or who is drunk or not. Stand leaning on columns or dancing with eyes of closed at the front. Feel weightless in the moment of only our own pleasure with no need to check the eyes of others for the same.
You leave just after the set, no external chat of deconstructed wonder to stay for and go for the train. You wait on the platform and are surrounded by hordes of young people in arena gig t-shirts you do not recognise, sleeve tattoos in unison of happy but you feel only interest not envy. There is banter on the train, but it does not notice you because you are not a young woman, alone or not. The replacement bus is miles from the centre and you silently thank the efficiency of on time and no waiting and the range of people on it that allows the quiet song of not quite anxiety to remain as background noise to cosy. You get off in the centre of Liverpool and manage to walk in a circle of almost lost but do not panic because only you are aware of it, you think.
We spike our desires with real and imagined worry of others, have drinks dripped in piss of disrespect and uncare, memories wiped by secret pill of real others. We feel pits transformed into cess as hands and hard bodies think they possess us, our motion suspending their belief in our rights. Worry about taking up too much space or occupying so little we will be overturned.
We dance as if all are watching.
We immerse ourselves in environments of held trauma to overcome the power of the memories, to reclaim the notes as we want to play them. We are not seen but we are there, and we are brave and eventually we enjoy what should never have been taken away in fields and stadiums and frenzy of dead melodies.
There will always be men (and some women) who are not there for the music.
As you daylight and dark wander about Liverpool you think of the patterns of embed, of the becoming second nature to feel almost free to. Of first times decades before and how you made yourself do it. Made yourself listen to what you wanted and go to the gig alone. Of why of wanting to see the band whatever, and how of drinking too much too quick so as not to care. Of an empty red seat next to you that flashed with both embarrassment and reassurance when you saw someone you knew next to it. You think about your friend who couldn’t come because she had her own frontwoman gig to play and think she too made the right choice. There is a procession of women in your head, friendly ones on the door that laugh at the volume within your bag, behind merch desks and record shop counters with words of encourage and interest. Sound waves of women’s words hitting ears and eyes from podcasts and reviews, of word of mouth, on the radio, the television, the internet, on the street with headphones and without. Real- life signals of positive beats of possible and you feel proud of these unstitchers visually and verbally picking at the stories women are told of their place. Are emboldened by their examples of taking up the space.
We go with uncoil of nerves in open to experience, make friends of new in places we will come to know. Find our own fan-base of support in lines of adoration and follow. Wonder at the time we have wasted on buying expensive tickets of unused, watching as others go with the flow not realising that the crowd is not everyone. We blether in toilets and fields and swap numbers of safe meaning and this is what it means to share. We are admired by unknown others as we immerse in indulge of falling in waves of sound that carry without grope, in mind and body floating in free, leaning into the music wherever we stand or sit.
You think of how you spent many years in a whirl of gigs of mainly together, only alone when separated by height or drunk of disorientation. Of being lucky to share music with friends and lovers in dance of understanding, of not having the moment ruined by different taste of bored face and leaving early or arriving late. Straightforward twenties and mid-thirties with no thought of turns to go out or childcare or newly felt parental responsibility of getting home safely alone.
In deep acts of uncool you ask venues and bands the set times despite knowing they will enact the ritual of ignore. You wonder the reason for the ritual out loud online and are told in reason that it depends on soundchecks, in realism that it boils down to songs to be sung in drunken chorus of profit. You watch in silence as accusations are flung by others that asking for set times equates to wanting small venues to die out, assumptions of wanting to know so as to drink alcohol elsewhere until the main act comes on. You wonder what would happen if all gig goers were sober, and feel annoyed on behalf of the ones who try to be. You see a woman suggest that asking for times must mean that you do not support the support acts and wonder at how a shared passion becomes a tug of war in either or and how lucky she is that for her it is straightforward. The question of choices of misunderstood resonates so loudly that you cannot hear the arguments.
We add pounds to babysitter charges, get to places too early to spend money we do not have on drinks we do not want in order to reduce the awkwardness or anxiety of waiting, waiting to be judged as somehow weird or sad or irresponsible or simply alone.
In waiting for music in our ears and eyes we play with hair and finger phones, write worries in flip of fake notebooks, take photographs with purpose, as definition, as defence. We are marked out by our contours, by our difference, by borders that we cross, by the language that we speak, our confidence in the carry and by our very absence in the room.
You go to more gigs alone now because you can take a notebook and you can make choices, define your own pleasure. You like to be alone to focus, are familiar, comfortably alert with the adrenaline pace of going home from anywhere alone as long as the transport works, and last trains are not cancelled. You go to gigs with partner and friends but know that if they were to disappear you would still go alone in enjoyment of your individual experience in rooms of collective, attend online after parties if you really wanted to. Hormones slosh in unsway of assertive invisible and you know your own life worth and limits regardless of other people’s wondering of lonely or sad or too old even if that is sometimes how you too might feel.
We scan, and we check the room for changes in atmosphere or contact, dancing with wait until the lights lower in parallel of expectations of group chat, of judged monologues of internal. Suss security as paid allies in opening the space to leap and teeter. Judge others in ways we do not want to but feel we must to mentally mark our places of safe.
We watch unscientific polls of most men having gone to gigs alone, we reply in private with detail of brave, of honest and enraged. We use technology to help us feel safe and fill time. We grow less tolerant of talking and picture taking and not listening to the words but a woman alone asking to hear is dismissed as a misery. We think that we have never thought about how we would do most things alone but not go to a gig and wonder why. Talk of seats and size, age and height, hordes of like-minded meet ups and prefer to be alone and in the moment fully, wanting waves of sound instead of people.
We have our lives restarted by death and divorce, transitions and new places and take the plunge of emerging patterns and surge in sound. We differentiate our risk in individual terms of jazz, folk, queer, beer boys, clubbing. We carry a multitude of untold stories of safe and exciting, known and unknown. Of times when it even felt safer to be a woman.
We do it and we do it again and we repeat the patterns of pleasure until we wonder why we didn’t do it earlier because we feel the joy of it.
You think of the women on stage watching the watchers and remember a young Anna Calvi in a basement when the leer of men around you was palpable. You told the ones closest to show some respect that she was a musician not meat and they told you that you were just jealous. You were with a friend and had a safety net and temperament of not caring but these are the watched and felt put downs that seep into ideas of safe. There must be found kilter of risk aware and risk taking, leaps of faith into sounds and rhythms of unexpected. You think of this when you hear of 13-year olds who go to their first gig unexpectedly alone, girls of brave excitement and worry of balancing the thrill with the trust of others. Layers of experience that should not build as scar tissue of expected. Girls bodies should spin in kaleidoscopic blur of neon melody not fragments of luck and timing from shattered foundations of codes of no conduct for staff or audience.
We do it and we do it again and we repeat the patterns of pleasure until we wonder why we didn’t do it earlier or why we stopped doing it because we feel the joy of it, of our choice. We think we will do it again.
We wait in the long in between, even knit and say I dare you to comment, we read and ignore the words, we read and mouth the words. We face fierce and resting bitch and say do not mess with me. We are dotted at gigs for serious men in uncowed reminder that we too are here for the music. Repeating and relaxing in replication of the records, grooving patterns of behaviour as who we choose to be.
We are allies of are you okay and join us if you’d like, smiles of enjoy with no pressure and we do not think you are alone and unlikeable or socially defunct.
We are vibrant, making memories of places and people, building pulsating networks of connect and learning. We are moving through the spaces in flow of internal rhythm, in beat of only ourselves and our right to choose to be there alone.
Surging in singularity or informal unison for the live rendition of body and mind in synergy of music.
Walking steps of together in routes home of the same. Watching the words of connection fall in easy harmony of perhaps only fleeting acquaintance. Standing up when others fall down or are pushed, holding imaginary hands of human of daring to be different, themselves. We must mouth the words in watch and encouragement of each other.
Watch others watch you and tell them you are there.
We do it and we do it again and we repeat the patterns of pleasure until we wonder why we didn’t do it earlier or why we stopped doing it because we feel the joy of it, of our choice.
We keep on doing it.
Thank you to all the women (and men) who shared their thoughts and experiences for the piece. Safe Gigs for Women and Girls Against work to counter the negative aspects of gigging for girls and women.
Clare Archibald curates Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness, a collaborative project exploring women’s thoughts & experiences of aloneness, darkness and wilderness that can be found on Twitter & Instagram @wildernessflash.
There will be a Lone Women event in follow up to this piece