Glastonbury 2003 Diary Day One (Friday)

I’m not at all good at early starts but I click awake at 5.59, a minute ahead of the alarm clock. I’m ready to go when the taxi shows up at 6.30. I’m the first to arrive at Rob’s (our companions living much closer to him) but we’re on the road by seven, stopping only for a second breakfast somewhere on the M5. Traffic is light and we approach the festival site through back lanes. There’s no queuing whatsoever, in stark contrast to my 2000 experience (this diary will assume you’ve read my 2000 diary and the novel Festival). The main suspense is whether there’ll be room in the hospitality car park (there’s loads) and – now this is more familiar – when it will stop raining. For the light spots that greet us as we park the car are soon superseded by increasingly heavy rain. We look for a spot to camp. The only remaining space big enough for four in a row is on a slope, near the stream.

I get mine up first and am soon queuing in the crowded hospitality bar. We sink a couple before the rain diminishes and go to catch the last of Echo And The Bunnymen. Ian McCulloch can write songs of heart-rending beauty but, in person, plays the archetypal Scally smartarse (sample intro – ‘anyone here from Newcastle/Gateshead? Your city’s shite!’) and the end of the set sags badly.

De La Soul made one great album a decade or so ago but the snippet I see of them is shouty and annoying, like a lot of live hip-hop. Pretty soon, I’m in my tent, catching up on some sleep while Tom McRae lullabys me (our tents are very close to the Other Stage). Outside, the sun comes out, burning off most of the mud. When we stumble out to the Other Stage just after 4PM, Yo La Tengo are playing my favourite of their songs. I stick around for their set, forgetting that I’d planned to catch some of Mogwai. This Glasto, I’m determined to go with the flow, rather than timing myself with military precision as I did in 2000.

The big advantage of the Hospitality area isn’t the bar (more expensive, harder to get served) or John Peel brushing past you, but that, being in the centre, it’s easier to get everywhere: you can cut straight through the middle of the festival site rather than wading through crowds and becoming increasingly disoriented.

I only speak to one ‘celebrity’ all weekend. As I’m leaving the bar, I spot Luke Haines, the Graham Greene of English rock, wearing a black suit, the elbow spattered with mud, with a couple of young women. I’ve noticed that his ‘hobby’ band, Black Box Recorder, are down to play in the Guardian mini programme, but they don’t feature in any of the publicity or the daily ‘Q’ festival paper, so I go over and ask him when and if they’re playing. He tells me they’re on instead of the Kills that evening. He doesn’t know what time and asks ‘Sarah’. I realise I’m standing next to BBR singer, Sarah Nixey, who I spent an hour ogling in 2000. In denim, minus her make-up and frosty stage demeanor, she’s small and pretty and tells me when they’re on. I say a few nice things about BBR’s last Glasto appearance and shake Luke’s hand – and that’s the total of my weekend’s ligging – unless you count my taking a copy of Festival to the ‘Q’ office for self promotion purposes.

At least I resisted the temptation to tell Luke that BBR are far too studied a concept to make it in the mainstream. Nor can they completely convince the fans of his ‘real’ band, the Auteurs, who seem to be in retirement at the moment. BBR’s set in the New Bands tent at 7.20 is better than that of Brendan Benson, who precedes them, but rarely catches light (Girl Singing In The Wreckage and Lord Lucan Is Missing come off best – in fact, SGITW seems to stuck in my head at the moment).

For the rest of the evening I attempt to avoid seeing David Gray, who I loathe, while still getting a good spot for my favourite band, REM – the main reason I had to come to Glastonbury this time (as it turned out, I saw them play a superb set at Brixton Academy three nights ago, but I didn’t know they’d be doing a small warm-up gig when I applied for a Glasto ticket). I catch the end of Beth Orton on the One World Stage, having to keep moving closer because the sound seems to be drifting. I’ve seen her before and love her albums, but live, she can be irritating, as she has a habit of mucking up one song in three (here, it’s Central Reservation that’s completely out of time) and talking drivel between songs. (She calls out ‘enjoy Glastonbury. It’s your rite of passage’ after one song – condescending if true, which it isn’t for 99% of the crowd). The Sweetest Decline is nice, though.

I’ve arranged to meet Rob in the bar (I sit near an Oscar nominated actress who my partner used to teach) but he isn’t there by half ten. I’m determined to get a good place for REM so set off on my own, working my way in from stage front right until I’m to the left of the video screen, about fifteen metres from the speaker and twenty metres from centre stage – the furthest I’ve been from the band in all but one of the eight times I’ve seen them, but pretty damn close all the same. It’s absolutely rammed, as they say these days, and there’s a strong sense of anticipation. The crowd is really mixed, impossible to categorise.

REM are my favourite band, have been since 1984. My old home page used to carry a cartoon of me wearing an REM T-shirt. The first chapter of my first novel contained a line from Popsong ’89 (until the reissue when the publishers could no longer get copyright clearance and I had to replace it with a paraphrase). Why? It’s got nothing to do with their politics, though I broadly share them, or their most popular songs, most of which I’m fed up of Losing My Religion is great, but I’ve heard it too many times, unlike the great song that is LMR‘s immediate forerunner, World Leader Pretend. I like them because their songs intrigue me, move me and sometimes make me want to throw myself all over the place. They come out of a recognisable rock tradition (a vague similarity to the Byrds first drew me to them) yet are uniquely, undeniably themselves. Also, they’re terrific live and – unlike many, indeed most bands – they treat their fans incredibly well. Yes, I’m the same age as the band and I belong to their fan club.

The stage set is the same as at Brixton, three nights before. Michael Stipe is in ebullient form, if less chatty than at Brixton. It’s a carefully balanced classics/greatest hits set. They do six songs they didn’t play the other night (though not Cuyahoga my favourite song, which they seem to play often, but I’ve never seen them do). Begin The Begin kicks things off and they’re very tight, with a crunchy sound that’s just loud enough. Later, they do my favourite REM ‘dance’ number What’s the Frequency Kenneth?. It’s odd not to be in a position to throw myself around (probably a good thing though – I’d work up such a sweat I’d be rank for the rest of the showerless weekend to come). The crowd swaying around is reserved for the ‘big’ numbers, like Losing My Religion which the crowd go mad for. I join in – it would be churlish not to. In this atmosphere even the couple of songs I’m not keen on seem great. I don’t mind that the girl next to me is shouting along in a horrendously out of tune voice (after all, so am I). Between songs, we make friends and I help her on and off her boyfriend’s back.

The band slip their anti-war-on-Iraq song The Final Straw into the encore, though I doubt anyone can follow the words. They finish with the obligatory, cathartic It’s The End Of The World As We Know It. The crowd is so vast, it takes me an age to work my way round to the hospitality entrance, elated like a football fan who’s seen his team score a huge away win. I’m pleased without being delirious as I was after Brixton. For the hardcore fan, festival appearances are rarely an event in the way a dedicated band gig is. They’re aimed at the lapsed and unconverted.

Rob and I meet briefly in the bar. I’m in my tent by one, managing to nod off despite the music that goes on until five, when it’s replaced by the noise of the toilets being sluiced out. It seems that Kate Moss (who was ‘singing’ on stage with Primal Scream) showed up in the hospitality bar after I left, wearing the shortest skirt known to man, but I won’t dwell on this apparition missed.

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