The stage set-up for Bubbi Morthens’ three-hour, live-on-TV, straight-to-DVD, 50th birthday show was beyond anything I had ever seen an Icelandic artist perform upon. There were two separate stages connected by a theatre-like catwalk and emblazoned with overpowering neon lighting, while dozens of stage lights rotated and swayed across the staggeringly packed Laugardalshöll.
Above the heads of the crowd hovered camera cranes that swept to and fro like nervous birds skittering between tree branches. The images they and a multitude of other cameras were capturing were constantly visible on huge, sail-like projector screens on the east and west walls of the hall. That is, when the screens weren’t showing dictator-like portrait photographs of Bubbi himself, as if he were presiding over his own nation.
That’s right: Satanic, fascist, sell-out media frenzy has officially come to Iceland in the form of none other than Bubbi Morthens, bitter punk turned scenic storyteller turned whiny media whore. Who else would have the lack of modesty, the nerve, the sheer balls to make such an impossibly audacious stunt out of his own semi-centennial? He is perhaps not so much the Icelandic Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash his fans claim him to be, but rather the Icelandic Bono, Chris Martin or Morrissey; well-meaning do-gooder ‘musicians’ turned pompous and idiotic prats in the face of the slightest bit of media attention, and destined to become spineless, self-absorbed nostalgia junkies milking decades-old music to sustain their descent into the mind-blowing lameness of their extended careers.
To further kick the old man’s ego into high gear were a couple of jackass hosts making sorry attempts at humour that will best go unmentioned within this article, and also the curious appearance of a multitude of musicians and celebrities on the big projector screens. And what exactly were these celebrities doing? Why, wishing the old man happy birthday of course. They would continue to pop up periodically throughout the show to remind people of why they were there.
As if they needed to be reminded.
Every single audience member seemed completely ecstatic to be there, and I admit I envied them. To see a musician you like and respect perform with all six of the bands he has been in over the course of his quarter-century-long career is an event by any standards.
It was such a side project that began the evening’s festivities: GCD was a collaboration between Bubbi and country rocker Rúnar Júlíusson, among others, and although they ostensibly failed to produce anything as epic as the expectations they faced, they were pleasant enough, performing the easy, melodic rockabilly Rúnar is known for, and leading me to believe that he, not Bubbi, had penned the mainstay of the songs.
Bubbi’s slightly more relaxed (read: boring) songs came in the delivery of the wider known Stríð Og Friður, who took it upon themselves to perform the more recent numbers in his repertoire. I recognised quite a few songs I had hurriedly changed the station after hearing them on the radio, and some others that had led me to doubt the nation’s collective IQ when I saw the albums that contain them at the pinnacles of album sales charts.
Another cause of dismay was that Bubbi was not burdened by a guitar whilst performing with Stríð Og Friður, leaving him free to prance about tastelessly in the manner for which he is known, looking for all the world like one of those spandex-clad aerobics instructors whose opinion on the latest home exercise equipment is always sought on shopping networks.
After Stríð Og Friður’s first set, Bubbi played a few songs solo, the first of which was a Kumbaya-style, Christian campfire sing-along, during which he delivered the worst sermon in the history of the universe.
“You can tell the woman you love that you love her. You can tell your mother you love her. You can tell your father you love him. You can tell your children you love them. You can tell your friend you love him. But try telling people that you love God… and everyone just gets constipated.”
So you’ll forgive me for saying that I was actually quite happy when he switched the topic to politics for his next song, which was nothing short of a furious rant against the policies of our misguided government. But it was what he said before and after that song that caught my attention.
“Today is a great day,” he said, and I rolled my eyes in distaste at his egocentrism, thinking I knew what was to come next. “Today, we celebrate the resignation of [Prime Minister] Halldór Ásgrímsson!” he said, and roars of approval rang out from the crowd. At first I was surprised at the proclamation of such a bold statement in front of a crowd conservative enough to attend a three-hour celebration of a withered relic of a bygone musical era, but then I realised that anyone who loved him this much wasn’t going to make a fuss of something as trivial as personal politics. After all, it’s easy to agree with a man you’ve already paid almost 5,000 ISK to see.
He went on to urge people to read Andri Snær Magnason’s potent book Draumalandið, in the hopes of increasing awareness of just how badly Iceland was being ass-raped by big business before joining Das Kapital for several versions of the same song he’s been writing for 20 years. It appeared that the night’s high point had come and gone and all I had to look forward to was further descent into egocentric madness, because Bubbi’s first would-be bluesman impressions came during Das Kapital’s set.
The impression is basically Bubbi hollering, “Yeah, yeah yeah yeah – yeah!” with a specific inflection that is then to be copied by the crowd. This will continue indefinitely, sometimes even to the accompaniment of a steady drum beat until Bubbi feels he has whipped the crowd into a wild enough frenzy to keep them awake through the next song.
Only the next song never came. Bubbi’s ego officially hit the mind-boggling level when incredibly terrible singers started coming forth to perform their favourite Bubbi songs, starting with ol’ nails-on-a-chalkboard herself, Diddú, who made one of his already-awful songs (Jesús Pétur Kiljan Hin Heilaga Jómfrú Og Aumingja Ég) sound even worse. People streamed out of the room for fresh air, cigarettes, beer, sex, traffic jams, diarrhea – anything else.
Thankfully, the supporting artists were only allowed one song each, and Bubbi soon returned to play the best song of the evening, a new song, a delicate, candid and tortured biography sung without the slightest hint of pretence to a surprisingly restless and ungrateful crowd. He quickly won them back with crowd-pleaser Rómeó & Júlía, to which everyone knew the lyrics. This pleased the old man to no end, and one of the more disturbing things I have ever seen was him grinning gleefully as people joyously hollered lyrics about young lovers destined to lose each other to heroin overdoses.
The night’s final redeeming moment came in the form of young singer/songwriter Hera, who performed, alone with an acoustic guitar, Stúlkan Sem Starir Á Hafið, a hauntingly beautiful tale of loss and forbidden longing, made all the more potent by Hera’s decisive, almost haughty and slightly accented voice. Too bad her own music sucks so badly; she has a gift for delivery.
The rest was painfully predictable. Stuðmenn-expatriate Ragnhildur Gísladóttir and Icelandic Idol winner Snorri Snorrason were the remaining guests; they sucked. MX21 were completely pointless. Utangarðsmenn malignantly raped blues and reggae in their customary idiocy, although at least they weren’t as methodically sound-checked as the other acts; I stood at the very back of the hall and Mike Pollock’s guitar solos were still ear-splittingly loud, and at least they followed a mantra of sorts, as opposed to Egó, who showcased how incredibly paltry Bubbi’s songwriting can be when compared to his better moments.
I was further disgusted by how incredibly obvious Bubbi’s choice of encore was. I have always despised Fjöllin Hafa Vakað. It is, in every regard, an immensely pompous personification of the ego of one man and his desire to pass insipid cock-rock posturing as poetic depth, and should by all rights go down in Icelandic rock history as the most overrated song ever written by an Icelandic musician, and this being the country that titles its musical documentaries Screaming Masterpiece. That’s saying a lot.
Even the fact that members of six bands, including two drummers, at least three bassists and about eight guitar players performed it, did little to increase its impact. And of course it goes without saying that the crowd loved every split second of it. Hung on his every word, they would undoubtedly follow Bubbi into the very depths of hell, and it is my sincerest hope that they will. I shudder to imagine the kind of event they will arrange when he finally kicks the bucket.