Saturday 20 August 2016

See the tree, how big it's grown

It's half past five in the morning, at my Other Place of Work,  on a sleeping shift that doesn't want to let me sleep. It's raining outside, hammering it down, and usually the white noise is conducive to sleep. Not tonight. So I put on Nick Drake, Bryter Layter, as a last resort, the big guns in the soporific stakes for me.

It hasn't worked.

I'm not especially musical. I was never given the chance to learn a musical instrument as a kid, but my own kids are, by some weird genetic alchemy, all musically talented, and maybe that's because I always have music playing, or probably just because they lucked out. This isn't a particularly unusual experience, but I've always responded to music on a personal level; music carries with it emotional beats for me, deep associations with people, times and places that I find almost impossible to shake once applied. I can deliberately evoke the pictures, sounds, smells of periods of my past life just by playing certain songs.

My father's tastes. All 60s Nashville Sound syrup, all the Jim Reeves and the Slim Whitman and the Bobby Goldsboro.

See the tree, how big it's grown
But friend, it hasn't been too long,
It wasn't big.

Ah, "Honey". It tops all the Worst Songs Ever lists, but you have to remember that it was a monster international hit and a lot of people, people like my dad, adored it. Nick's finished, so I listened to that song again just now and I realised that it falls into that late 60s genre of songs (cf. Elvis's "You Were Always On My Mind" or Tom Jones's "Delilah", or Tony Christie's "I Did What I Did for Maria") where an asshole guy experiences maudlin remorse over the loss of a lover or spouse he actually treated horribly, in this case, the man having been unable to cope with his wife's depression, he neglected her and she committed suicide.

Read it that way and it's not so horrible.

No, I'm kidding. It's still terrible.

But that was Dad. He loved that song and songs like it. Songs for dead lovers, exes long gone. Performative grief and loss.

Tell Laura I love her!
Tell Laura I need her!
Tell Laura not to cry,
My love for her
Will never die

...sings Tommy as he's pulled from the car wreck, dying.

I had no hope, really. Sentimental, sappy songs about blood, death and grief.

As soon as I was old enough to care, I became obsessed with bands. My late teens were furnished with early- and mid-period REM, all the way into university. I turned 17 a few days before Automatic for the People came out, an album largely about sadness, regret and anger, and I'd already, early on, become aware of how sad, sappy songs had the quality of sympathy to them, and in what was the darkest time of my life, the music was a comfort to me.

In my first year of university, coincidentally the day after being dumped by a beautiful dark-haired girl I was besotted with for a guy who was better than me in most ways, an earnest, nerdy boy called Phil introduced me to Nick Drake.

Sad music again. It sits by you. It places its hand on your shoulder. It says, it's all right. I know. Here is all the feeling I can muster.

Sympathy is underrated. It's a healing thing, a sign of human connection. It matters. It is the parent of solidarity. It is the precursor of catharsis.

To have this human connection with music, that has its dangers. You start to develop a sort of ownership. You romanticise it. You start to think that it's somehow yours, that you will somehow have a right to it, more than anyone else. It speaks, you think, to you and you alone.

You mythologise your music, you lose something from it. Like when you buy into the whole Beautiful Doomed Youth thing with Nick Drake and somehow miss that he was the son of immense privilege who spent most of his time getting stoned and complaining about not being famous, and that his illness wasn't a beautiful thing, because depression is a brutal grey parasitic monster that sucks all of the joy and texture from life and alienates you from everyone who matters because it makes you forget how to connect with the people around you.

And romanticising someone like Nick Drake actually disservices his music, because if you think it's all about prettiness and languid sadness and (as Robyn Hitchcock put it) "all the strawberries of English weather" you miss its mordant humour, its self-deprecating cynicism. You miss that that pretty, fragile song is actually about a guy who's cheated on his lover and is now pathetically begging for another chance, a chance that he's probably not going to get. Or that the sweet dreamy piece is actually about being so stoned you don't even know where you are.

And the thing is, you don't get to own that sort of thing. You start asserting ownership, you start thinking it's your preserve, you end up turning into the sort of person who gets outraged at the sight of someone wearing a band t-shirt when they've never listened to the band (don't be that person).

Or the sort of person who, as I once did, visits Nick Drake's grave and leaves a penny amidst the cherryblossom scattering of plectrums despite the notice from the family respectfully asking people not to litter his grave with this stuff because you're entitled to show how much it means to you, and you more than anyone else, because it's you who it's all about. Don't be that person either.

Recapitulation. I'm on a night shift writing this. I couldn't sleep. I've had insomnia since I was a kid, can't remember what it's like not to be tired, and in university, consumed with fatigue on those lonely, empty Sunday afternoons that used to extend into eternity (it occurs to me now that my intense dislike of weekends extends back to those days) I'd put a Nick Drake album on quietly and settle down for a nap, and it'd invariably make me drift off to sleep, and I've got Bryter Layter on my phone and it was worth a try.

It didn't work.

But then, and I appreciate this is a constant refrain for me, I am not the man I was.

The worst period of my adult life – still not up there with the trauma of my teens, and no, I appreciate I don't get to join in your Internet discussion if I don't disclose every shitty thing I survived back then, but you know what, I'm fine with that – was between about August 2010 and September 2011, and I pretty much lost all hope of pretty much anything.

And a symptom of that was that toward the end of that time, that final crisis point, I stopped listening to music altogether. I lived in silence. No sympathy was to be had.

Since 2005, my bad patches have come in five year cycles, regular almost to the week, and each time they last about a year, and each time, when I fight the depression off, I come out new, changed, and the funny thing that time was that when I started listening to music again I found that my tastes had changed.

Stuff that I'd spent the last decade or more listening to solidly – Belle and Sebastian, REM, Nick Drake, The Mountain Goats and so on – gradually fell off the playlist. All my favourites changed. Suddenly it was St Vincent, and Janelle Monáe, and Philip Glass, and Nico, and I started listening to new things made by people I knew, and I don't know why that is. Maybe I'm getting old.

And I'd had Bryter Layter loaded on my phone for nine months and hadn't listened to it, and still it's beautiful, its a beautiful record, it is, but it wasn't a lullaby anymore, but a reminder of who I was twenty-one years ago, but different this time, distant, a view from the outside. It's time for another new stage.

I am not the man I was.

And now it's time to get up.