Thursday, May 21, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: Home

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's topic: Home

'Home' - Erasure (Caskared)

I was given WHSmith vouchers for my 13th birthday. We went to Coventry for the day with my sister's godmother, duly went into WHSmith and I ran to the cassettes. It was the end of 1991 and I bought Chorus by Erasure. I have listened to it ever since.

Listening to this album, and I would listen to the whole thing time and time again, it throws me to and fro in time. Looking back I remember the first listen on my Walkman - the snazziest I could afford from Argos with 3-band graphic equaliser. I would walk across the fields with a couple of cassettes clattering in my pocket, a damp air encompassing me as I walked with no particular aim other than to clear my mind and get some physical distance from home, from the building full of stuff, my family and homework. I listened to it on the cliffs when we were abseiling. Clear sunny days, staring out across the hills and green, taking in the beauty and thinking about the future. Time stretches out before me, a stone's throw from the door.

This album, with its synth bleeps and pseudo science cover and spaceship videos, filled me with, or rather was the soundtrack for, my chronic teenage yearning. I never quite knew exactly what I was yearning for, just an unobtainable something. I wasn't patient, wanting to do everything the world had to offer, but was trapped at home yet adoring the freedom that being young could provide at the same time.

Finally I could escape home, but not before a year of the art school system forcing me into an extra year for foundation. Ices over and freezes life. Time will come, time will come, time will fall. I bided my time, every now and again walking on a dark evenings, the blips and harmonies layering and sounding every bit as fresh as they had when I was 13. Away, in the North East, then further away, putting seas between myself and the place that had penned me in and still now, now I'm 30, and the album is with me. I listen to it, and it takes me home. I'm back there, staring out over the fields, thinking about climbing the water tower, the radio masts, but it's imbued with thinking about the possible futures I'd dreamed of.

The life I'm living is one I had wanted, but there's a melancholy, a mourning for the lost potential. I could only follow one route - what about the others I'd hoped for? I ain't never turning back. Is my prime over? Should I go home? I can't go back there, to then, when I was stuck but with everything in front of me just waiting to happen. It's not that I'm not happy now, but the last song on the album... I ain't never going home. Home doesn't exist, everywhere is home but now nowhere, I live in transience, and this song, its outer space clicks and programmed harmonies, its melody a companion, this music is as permanent as I can find but still every second renews, it sits in physical form inside its cassette casing, and now digital, but only comes to life for the duration of playing, living in my memory after the final chord fades, just as my notion of home simultaneously manifests in my here-and-now for the temporary moment and place I am in, but ultimately passes further into memory, distant.

'Blaydon Races' - Geordie Ridley (Ben)

(No contribution from Paul this week, but I think it's safe to say this choice would speak for him too...)

Since leaving the North East twelve years ago, I've lived in the Yorkshire Dales, in Nottingham (five different places), in Birmingham, in Cardiff, in Abingdon, in Oxford and now back in Abingdon again. In an emotional if not a strictly geographical sense, each successive move has taken me further away from the place I still call "home".

While abscence hasn't necessarily made the heart grow fonder, the fondness certainly hasn't faded or waned. Driving up the A1 past the Angel of the North still quickens the pulse, and looking down the River Tyne at the bridges still brings a smile to the face. Even passing the MetroCentre (or "the Metty", as it was known in my youth) in between the two more remarkable landmarks has me reminiscing warmly of half-term days spent in the imaginatively named miniature theme park MetroLand and, more recently, of a riotously drunk trip to the ten pin bowling alley for a friend's stag do (no doubt the teetotal Skif recalls the afternoon with greater clarity than I do...).

But nothing gets me so misty-eyed as the sight of the home stadium of a certain football team, perched imperiously upon the hill. Newcastle has a cathedral, sure, but this is where the city really worships, where it truly looks to for inspiration and hope (though where it very often also learns harsh lessons).

Being a football fan is all about having a sense of belonging, community and identity. And, as keenly as that identity is felt at "home" (as it were), it comes to seem more important when "abroad". To pull on the shirt and support the team in foreign surroundings - whether encircled by plastic prawn-sandwich-eating Man Utd fans from the Home Counties or, arguably worse still, people who simply don't have any interest in the game at all (or are they actually just one and the same?) - is to make a connection with home. Catch the eye of another lone fan across a crowded bar - the TV commentary invariably drowned out by music and the inane chatter of gibbering imbeciles oblivious to how much what's unfolding might mean - and there's a nod of understanding signifying a deep bond that goes beyond outward differences, a nod that acknowledges a fellow exile.

Chants, too, unite and connect. 'Blaydon Races' was originally a folk song, but was appropriated as one of our best-loved chants. It's since been appropriated by the fans of other teams - rather ridiculously so, given that it's so purely Geordie it was even written and performed by a man called Geordie. The song evokes both specific familiar places and, through the dialect, a more general sense of home. For the rootless, nomadic traveller I feel I've been for the past twelve years, such things take on huge emotional significance.

In time, it's true, in my everyday parlance "home" may well come to refer to somewhere other than Newcastle. But that won't ever be HOME, not really. My footballing allegiances - and songs like 'Blaydon Races' - will underline that. Out of sight, perhaps, but never out of mind.

'Firesuite' - Doves (Pete)

I suppose for most the choice of song for this topic depends on your definition of home. For some it might mean where you grew up, for others where you live and for some where you feel you belong. Or perhaps it's where you feel homesick about when you're away.

Although I was born and grew up in London and returned here to live last year, if I were to move away tomorrow, I can't say I'd desperately miss the Smoke or England in general. I didn't in the decade when I didn't live there. Yet despite the fact that I haven't lived in Berlin since 2004, it's still unquestionably home for me. Frankly, it's bizarre, as I've barely only spent a tenth of my life there, but to paraphrase Kafka, "Berlin doesn't let go. This little mother has claws".

I've mentioned the place before (see A night out, Winter, A friend); I moved there for the first time in 2000 on placement for nine months, loved it, returned a year later and then once more in 2003 for my longest stint. Perhaps, because I went clubbing out there an awful lot, DJ'ed occasionally and listened to music on an almost constant basis, it's probably natural that I associate so many songs with the place (20 plus according to my playlist). And these are strong associations too, more so than the majority of those that remind me of (ex-)partners.

Some were practically foisted on me; I doubt that there was a bar in Mitte that didn't play the K & D Sessions in 2000, while the The Lost Riots and L'Ecole Du Micro D'Argent accompanied me on my long runs around the city while I trained for my first marathon.

I've had a theory for some time now that the best way to get the feel of a city is to see it at night, be it through the buzz and neon lights of Tokyo, the quiet grandeur of Prague's old town, kicking-out time in Pompey or driving through London's streets at midnight. Berlin is no different; in my eyes it has a relaxed yet edgy vibe in the early hours.

Although I'd had the first album by Doves for a week or so by then, it wasn't really until I was travelling back late one midweek evening from visiting friends in Spandau in the far west that I really "got" it. 'Firesuite' in particular stuck out as the practically empty S-Bahn travelled overground through the heart of the city. I played it whilst travelling past the Olympic Stadium, hit the repeat button as the train went through past the flats in Charlottenburg and again as it passed the lit-up dome of the Reichstag. In fact, it stayed on repeat until I got back to my flat. After that it seemed a perfect choice to soundtrack my journeys on nights out, or more to the point, my journeys back home.

'Graceland' - Paul Simon (Skif)

My old man isn’t really a music enthusiast. He occasionally expresses interest in something, but mainly it’ll be sixties compilations, mainstream classical music or country that get put on. Despite this he certainly knew what he didn’t like when I was a teenager at home. Given I was a Kerrang! reader at the time, you can imagine there was little to excite his interest in my record collection.

I remember having MTV on one day and Rollins Band’s 'Liar' came on. I was a massive Rollins fan back then, and thus the phrase, overflowing with hoity thumbs-behind-braces pomposity, "this has no musical merit whatsoever" has stayed with me ever since. As such I dug my own heels in and refused to countenance that country and western music had any either. My phrase for years was "I like all music. Except country". The implication of this, I realise now, was that racist Oi-punk, homophobic ragga and the misogynistic, violence-glorifying end of rap were all perfectly acceptable to the teenage me. Which they weren’t, nor are they now.

However, country now is more than acceptable to my ears; I have come to love it, albeit more at the Laura Cantrell and Handsome Family end of the spectrum, rather than my folks’ more Grand Old Opry trad favourites such as Crystal Gayle and Patsy Cline. That said we have an LP in common. Johnny Cash’s Live At San Quentin used to sit in bulky white plastic-cased tape form in my old man’s car. Now, as a CD, it’s between Cardiacs and Cat Power (well, and several other Cash discs) on my shelves.

What makes my obstinacy in the face of country’s homespun charms all the more ironic is that the first song I apparently really loved as an ikkle lad was 'Bimbo' by Jim Reeves, a man who certainly didn’t need his head lubricating, nor "reasonable force" exerted, to get him into a Stetson. Instead of these country options, though, I’m going to go with something else where there was consensus, even back then. "I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee" (P. Simon).

When I say 'Graceland' by Paul Simon, I really mean the album as a whole, as any song from it means I happily recall flicking through my parents’ box of 12” platters, with its Slim Whitman hits, the kids' Christmas songs albums they’d bought me as a toddler and the, ahem, James Last records. However, for the sake of argument, let’s use the title track if only for the fact it has one of the greatest opening lines in popular music. I love the figurative and quirky use of language, and if you can manage both in the first dig, then I doff my cap. For example, Elbow’s "I’ve been working on a cocktail, called Grounds for Divorce" has recently joined Graceland’s golden hello - "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar" - amongst my all-time gateway favourites.

Some might view the heavy use of African musicians as all a bit Peter Gabriel-like world-music-worthy, but the combination of the African musicians and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s vocal harmonies with Simon’s folk-troubadour vision is thrilling and much more than just a worthy experiment, musically or politically. Also, the proper pop-rock singles on the record are great too; 'The Boy In The Bubble' is another lyrical masterpiece to behold, and even 'You Can Call Me Al' is brashly brilliant, even if the Chevy Chase lip-synch video does make it feel more dated a tune than it actually is.

It’s only just struck me that I’ve never gone and got my own copy of the record, even more reason for it to remind me of home then I guess, cos that’s where it is.

Next time I’m visiting, I shall have to remember to steal it.

'If I Fell' - The Beatles (Ian)

I’m being a bit disingenuous here, but I’d feel a bit odd crediting it as 'If I Fell' by William Mathers. My dad is where I got the beginnings of what is so far a lifelong obsession with music, and one of my very first memories is of him, doing the dishes or driving the car or putting us to bed, and crooning a ludicrous, comedic version of what I wouldn’t realize for years was a Beatles song. He sang it a bit like Elmer Fudd, and sometimes he would stretch out the "true" in "would you promise to be true" into "twuuuue-ue-ue-ue" and sometimes he would shove in the "if you would only love me like you used to do" bit from 'You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling'.

My parents divorced when we were quite young, and although it was maybe the world’s most amicable divorce and although all parties concerned are happier now than they would be otherwise, there was still a mild tinge of sadness running implicit through most of my childhood. As an adult I’ve talked a bit with my parents about what happened to them when I was too young to understand, and although 'If I Fell' was always gently goofy instead of sad I do wonder a little, now, what Dad was thinking when he sang it to us. But, of course, I also remember vividly his larger-than-life rendition of 'The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill', so maybe there wasn’t any subtext; maybe he was just having a Beatles phase.

'If I Fell' is in that weird class of things that were important to my childhood that I forgot about – not rejected, not set aside, but outright forgot about their existence – in adolescence and through my early 20s and that has now come back (see also: 'Apeman' by The Kinks, the Windsor farmer’s market, the little goat statue my paternal grandparents owned that I nearly broke). I regard these things with ineffable fondness now; I’m not sure where they went when I was growing into the person I am now, but I am profoundly grateful that they’re back again.

And even now, all I really knew of 'If I Fell' are those first couple of lines, the only ones dad sung to us. In fact, listening to the proper song today, I’m really not that impressed by it. The narrative is confusing, although if you work with the awkward phrasing you see it’s not a song about falling for someone and being afraid they aren’t falling back (which is what always struck me as a kid) but instead a guy going "Look, baby, she hurt me; we can only be together if you promise me you’re serious and boy is she going to be pissed once we’re going out". It’s kind of a jerky song, honestly. But if you were to play it for me I probably wouldn’t notice. As soon as I hear "If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true / And help me understand" I’m off, humming my dad’s version to myself and thinking about our old living room.

A year or two ago, back when I only sort of remembered my history with this song and didn’t know what it was, I woke up with my dad’s version in my head and I wandered around for a few days humming it to myself. Luckily, I happened to go grocery shopping during this time, and there it was: unmistakably the Beatles, undoubtedly the same song (although not precisely the same – Dad reharmonized it, of all things, and sang the first verse in the same dreamy style that Lennon only adopts with the second verse). And I stopped in my tracks in the dairy section and I thought about the houses we used to live in, and I thought about visiting Kincardine again that summer. I used to get frustrated that there was nothing to do when I went home, but now I get that doing nothing, just being there, is kind of the point.

* * * * *

And so the curtain comes down on another regular feature on The Art Of Noise. Thanks to Caskared, Pete, Skif and Ian for their contributions this week, and to everyone who's contributed during the course of the feature.


Blogger skif said...

"more recently, of a riotously drunk trip to the ten pin bowling alley for a friend's stag do (no doubt the teetotal Skif recalls the afternoon with greater clarity than I do...)."

Certainly do, who could forget yer man chucking down one last ball and the big metal arm dropping from nowhere just before it hit the pins.

You didn't have to be steaming drunk to be rolling around laughing for about half an hour.

You probably did have to be there though, so apologies to everyone reading this comment who isn't Ben.

1:19 p.m.  
Blogger Ian said...

I don't know, I think that's still pretty amusing in the abstract.

2:07 p.m.  
Blogger Paul said...

Knowing Ben, as I do, I'm with Ian. Wasn't there. Still laughed out loud at the mental image.

2:48 p.m.  
Blogger skif said...

There was a very satisfying comedy klang. Although it needed a trumpet-with-silencer-being-waved-in-front-of-it "bwah-bwah-bwaaaaah" to top it all off really.

8:11 a.m.  
Anonymous Leon Tricker said...

Ha! I certainly have very vague memories of that trip to the bowling alley... but then it was MY stag weekend, so I guess that was to be expected :-)

My overriding recollections were Ben's brother's mate(Ricky T) being unable to comprehend why Skif was teetotal. He literally could not understand why anyone would give up the booze, no matter what the reason. I also recall when we left, we disrupted a kids play that was being performed in the middle of the Metro Centre.

Ben/Paul, what's the name of the tune they always play as the teams run onto the pitch at St James Park? It's a saxophone led piece... think it was used on a coffee advert once too. Whenever I hear that on the telly or radio coverage I get misty eyed because it takes me back 15 or so years...

11:39 a.m.  
Blogger skif said...

It's funny, I don't remember that at all. Mind you I do get it a lot. It's funny that if you quit smoking, everyone pats you on the back. Quit drinking, and they think you're insane.

I guess it depends whether or not you're quitting something that the person in question still enjoys. Perhaps people feel that quitting drinking, especially if you're not an alcoholic, implies a criticism of the lifestyle of those that continue to drink.

9:11 a.m.  
Blogger Paul said...


It's called Coming Home by Mark Knoplfer - it's the title track to a film called Local Hero.

Ben refused to allow me to copy and paste my "L" in the A-Z for this piece.

12:43 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Get Tenpin Vouchers for Discount Packages of Bowling!

7:38 a.m.  

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