Fan Letter to Portishead, 25 years later
Yesterday I was scrolling twitter, and saw someone shared a clip from your Roseland NYC video. I didn’t even have the sound on, just recognised the picture, and immediately my hair stood on end, goosebumps head to foot. So I took that as a sign it was time to watch the whole film again. I was 13 when it came out. My big brother owned the VHS so I used to watch it all the time. But I hadn’t seen it for probably 15 years, til I sat down last night to watch it again on YouTube.
Watching it again as an adult, here’s what struck me: it’s still really good. Exceptionally good. Songwriting, orchestration, lyrics, filming, audio engineering, all perfect. A masterpiece. I wonder how many of you on stage that night knew that you were maybe playing the biggest night of your lives? Adrian looks like he knows, he’s having a blast. That big tall guy on drums looks like he knows, too.
I kept getting goosebumps last night, and they’re back again now while I write this. There’s something I want to say:
Listening again as a grown up, what’s different is that I can recognise some of the sources of your sonic inspiration. Spy movies, hip-hop beats, sci-fi effects, Janis Joplin… But at the time I first heard Portishead, I was a completely blank canvas, I’d not heard any of your reference material. So the first-time listening experience was staggering, almost overwhelming, like having the time of my life at an amazing party without knowing the language. Portishead took me from a very sheltered life in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand, and immersed me in the most incredible sounds. Wave after wave of new sounds, like being trashed by heavy surf. Like discovering there are a thousand new colours in the specturm. I’m so grateful, I decided to write you a fan letter all these years later. There’s more I want to say though.
Portishead and Radiohead and Massive Attack and the other bands my brother showed me all have something in common, a distinct kind of attractive ugliness that was totally new to me. I could not compute that as a teenager. It’s still enigmatic to me as an adult. But a lot of your sonic choices are dischordant, out of tune, harmonically complex. It’s not all easy to listen to. Parts of me recoil, are pushed back. But at the same time, you’re making an impossible alchemical transmutation. Because the ugliness pulls me in, it says come closer, this is real, this is what a life feels like, its crushing, painful, meaningless, hollowed out, its loss after disappointment after fuck-up after another. But listen: that’s not the end of the story!
Maybe you were the first adults who were willing to be honest with me about what life is actually like. That no amount of obedience or tidiness will protect you from the black hole of life. It exists, your job is not to avoid it, but to survive. There will be moments of heartbreak that feel like an amputation without anaesthetic, a dirty hatchet in a bombed out shack. There will be moments when the seat of your identity is kicked out from under you. There will be moments of existential confusion so profound you’ll feel the oxygen leave your lungs and you’ll think twice before refilling them. If you want to be an adult, awake, free, full-hearted: that’s the price of entry. Some days the fabric of the universe will split, give way, pulverise you into subatomic particles. And haha! some of those days will literally feel interminable. Hell was easy to invent because it’s a normal part of a full life.
That’s what I hear in the ugliness of your band. All this despair, grief, and loss. And the alchemy that turns all that shit into gold. Beauty, gorgeous beauty. Overwhelmingly beautiful. So intense it makes a thousand tiny hairs stand on end, from my shins to my elbows.
Beth, that’s what I saw you doing on that microphone. The first fucking adult to show up and be honest with me: listen Rich, you can’t even imagine how bad it gets. But there’s a way of breathing, of speaking, of expressing, that pushes it all out and leaves you so much bigger & more tender… you’ll find wisdom… you can take it and help others… if you can just learn how to survive the intensity without turning away and pretending it’s not there.
All that! I didn’t know that’s what I was getting. But somehow some part of me was pulled inward. Something in me knew: this way. This way lies real life. Will you join us?
So thank you for the invitation, I’m glad I said yes.
Love from Richard D Bartlett