Ask anyone who enjoys live music, and they will readily tell you about the worst concert they’ve been to. The reasons will vary — lousy sound, Mother Nature’s wrath, getting dumped between the opener and headliner — but the experience of misery in the realm of performance binds it together.
Musicians are no different, as Jon Niccum discovered. Having once been caught unprepared for an interview, he developed a list of generic go-to questions, but found that asking about the positive career highlights seldom evoked the memorable soundbites he sought. One day, he shifted to a new line of inquiry:
What is the worst show you’ve ever played?
Boom. Every artist had an answer for that, many of them almost unbelievable in their awfulness. Many weren’t fit to print but were too good not to share. In 2011, Niccum launched a website for his tales of misfortune to be consumed by the masses.
The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans To Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All is a compendium of gems garnered over decades of interviews, with a wide range of musicians including Alice Cooper, Rush, Flaming Lips, Wilco, Led Zeppelin, Garbage, Jane’s Addiction, Tori Amos and The Sex Pistols. Organized thematically, Niccum provides minimal introduction to the artists before turning the proverbial mic over to them to detail the nights where their chosen careers landed firmly in manure.
For me, the most intriguing aspect of this collection is discovering how each artist defines worst. By allowing an artist to devise the parameters of what an awful gig would be, one is privy to the private psyche beneath the celebrity. Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies) opens the book with her tale of a miserable label gig filled with bored and snoring executives, made tolerable only by Gene Simmons (Kiss) being the one person in the room paying attention. It’s a tale of disrespect and of finding one’s voice to define what is and isn’t okay for the artist and ultimately, it lingers. Who can’t relate to feeling pressured into doing something that epitomizes personal hell in the name of achieving a dream? For an artist like Peter Frampton, worst evokes a poor performance, one so embarrassingly bad due to a fellow musician who couldn’t keep it together that the man broke out in hives. For progressive rockers Tool, an audience laced with skinheads beating their other fans to the music is hell.
All of their stories are terrible and certainly fit the question, but it’s the nature of the failure that ultimately speaks to an artist’s passion and priorities. For Frampton, a performance should be enjoyable for the fans; for Tool, the safety and enjoyment of the crowd is paramount. Niccum almost invites this analysis by ending the collection with It’s All Good, a series of reflections from artists where things certainly went wrong, but a positive meaning or memory was ultimately evoked from it. While the stories themselves are highly entertaining for music fans, for the more obsessive minds, this analysis is what makes the book a treasure.
Covering artists of all genres and statures, The Worst Gig is delicious fare for the music fan. The stories are short and sweet enough to be enjoyed on the fly in a busy world or devoured in a riveting afternoon. A must-read for concert addicts.
(What was my worst concert experience as a fan? It’s likely a tie between the Alice Cooper Toronto gig where a riot nearly killed me as a fetus; the opener for PJ Harvey’s 2004 tour who sang off-key about eating cooked housecats; or Edgefest ’99, which was so rained out we took shelter inside the Port-a-Potties and ultimately gave up and listened to Hole from our car in the parking lot.)