Memories Can't Wait: A friend
This week's subject: A friend
'The Riddle' - Nik Kershaw (Swiss Toni)
I didn't grow up in an especially musical household. Neither of my parents are particularly into music and because it had never formed a large part of their lives, it was only natural that my two brothers and I didn't initially form much of an interest ourselves. I've always found it a little hard to understand how two people, both just five or six years younger than Paul McCartney and presumably slap bang in the prime demographic for the Beatles, could have both have missed out on such a vibrant period of British music, but miss it they did. My mum tells me that she owned a copy of Revolver and my dad had a pile of 'Top Of The Pops' LPs that he had inherited from his father's pub, but their hearts weren't in it and our house was largely devoid of background music.
My first real musical exposure, then, came instead from regular visits to the house of a friend just down the road. Like me, Will had two siblings, although where I was a middle child, he was the youngest by several years. I don't know if his parents were especially into music, but his dad worked for Rotel, manufacturers of high quality stereo equipment, and their house was naturally filled with top-notch hi-fis. Although we spent a lot of our time together mucking about with computer games, playing with our Star Wars figures and riding our bikes outdoors, we did occasionally mess around with the record player and with his brother and sister's 12" singles. Although I can remember listening to the likes of Murray Head's 'One Night In Bangkok', a bit of Level 42 and 'Hole In My Shoe' by Neil from 'The Young Ones', the artist that always stood out the most for me was Nik Kershaw.
Both Human Racing and The Riddle were released in 1984, and we used to sit entranced by songs such as 'I Won't Let The Sun Go Down On Me', 'Human Racing', 'Wouldn't It Be Good', 'Wide Boy' and - especially - 'The Riddle'. Our listening coincided with our reading of 'Masquerade, the book of illustrations for children by Kit Williams that concealed clues to the location of a golden hare hidden somewhere in the UK. The book was first published in 1979, but the hare had only (apparently) been discovered in 1982, so the idea of riddles was fresh in our minds as we tried to work out what on earth Nik Kershaw was trying to tell us when he spoke of trees by rivers, holes in the ground and old men of Arran.
Kershaw has, of course, subsequently revealed that there is no meaning to 'The Riddle' at all, but to our ten-year-old minds it was a puzzle well worth trying to solve. Besides, it was (and remains) a fantastic record, and through it I began to discover a love of music that has stayed with me to this day. I can't say that I listen to Kershaw very much any more, but he has the proud distinction of being the artist who created the first two albums that I ever bought with my own money. Better yet, whenever I think of him, I can't help but think of the letter that I wrote to Jimmy Saville in the summer of 1984 asking if he could fix it for me and for my best friend Will to meet our hero. Saville never wrote back, sadly, and he certainly never fixed it for me.
Although his parents still live down the road from my folks, I lost touch with Will a few years ago after we both went to university. Musically we had drifted apart, with him baffled by my love of heavy metal and me a touch confused by his love of Lenny Kravitz. We'll always have Nik Kershaw though, and whenever I hear the chiming opening chords of 'The Riddle', I'm reminded of my first best friend.
'Howya Julia' - The Saw Doctors (Paul)
When I was younger, my friends and I would merrily copy albums for each other on to tapes. Of course, given that most albums were somewhere around the hour mark, this often left the best part of half a tape blank. However, rather than give each other a part-filled cassette, we'd fill the remaining blank space with other music which we liked, and thought the other person would appreciate.
In such ways, lifelong affinities to bands were created.
On one such occasion, my friend Duncan gave me a tape (Parklife by Blur from memory) which also featured about six songs by an Irish band I'd never heard of called The Saw Doctors. As Duncan explained to me at the time, in his view they sang about the important issues in life: beer, sport, religion and women, and did so in a generally bouncy fashion.
So I listened to the tape.
After enjoying Parklife the music of the Saw Doctors took hold, and I was captivated.
The first song to hit my Walkman headphones was 'Howya Julia' - which was all about the scandal which had erupted over the Bishop of Galway's illicit sex life. I loved it. To this day the lyric "Sitting in the chapel, attending exposition, dreaming Karma Sutra and his favourite position" makes me smile. From that point on, I was hooked.
Duncan and I went on to make a fairly hardcore effort to take in a few Saw Doctors gigs, on one occasion heading all the way up to Dundee and spending the night in a B&B to see a gig. We caught the Saw Doctors at festivals and generally every opportunity which presented itself. With hindsight, they embodied our friendship, built as it was around beer, sport, religion and women (or more pointedly our oft frustrated quest for women).
In subsequent years, the line-up to the band has changed, and to my mind they've never hit the peak of their third album Same Oul' Town, but Duncan and I have remained friends, thanks in no small part to our shared experiences following the Saw Doctors. Experiences which all flowed from the tape he made me, and the Bishop of Galway's extra-curricular activities.
'Pride & Joy' - Coverdale/Page (Skif)
Friends at school often come about merely as a result of trying to avoid cabin fever. Better, I guess, to talk with ill-informed and aggressive enthusiasm about the front plate of the unfathomable fem-bots stationed in their own enclaves elsewhere in the form room, than to fully acquiesce to the debilitating effects of going totally hat-stand stir-crazy.
That’s how Personal, Social & Health Education lessons felt back in them days as our form tutor held as little truck for actually educating us in these sessions as he did for presenting a professional veneer and not shuffling around the classroom talking and chuckling to himself about, well, who knows what. Whether it was our group that had driven him to his unsettling eccentricity, I am still unsure.
The first year or two had been OK. My best mate since toddlerdom, still occupies that role to this day gawd bless ‘im, had been in said form group, and so we could chat about things in Kerrang! (as our musical tastes back then dictated) and delight in our shared history of playgroup and beyond. However mid-way through secondary school he left for a brief stint in the grim north, leaving me scrabbling around for chums.
Another old mate from middle school, Sheep, was still around, and our collected sporting interests kept us entertained (he was to be the vice- to my captain in the first year of school cricket, before we switched roles for the second year after my hopelessness in the top job had been made excruciatingly obvious) but he had little interest in music, particularly not in the heavier spheres. However, there to fill the musical, and the, err, professional wrestlingal, voids of chat was Big Mark who had also lost his regular ally to another school.
Mark was big alright, as the name suggests, advanced enough in girth to make me feel thinnish. If it wasn’t for the cricket I imagine it would have been I who wore the ‘Big’ pre-fix particularly with my advanced height; however Mark was developed in many ways. Whilst the rest of us were tugging at the tufts to make good our swift escape from childhood, Mark’s appearance in the showers already took on the look of three whinchat eggs in a shoddily built nest.
Considering we were 14 at the time, perhaps the most impressive, and yet absurd, aspect of Mark’s look was the presence of a full beard, all dense curls and grease. Beneath his chin it hung, all curly and unkempt, like a bushy pube snood. Often he would be requested by our tutor, stopping by mid-chunter, to shave it off but Mark stubbornly clung on to it ‘til we all departed that place of learning.
Still, as I say, Mark was good for chat about the wrestling; in fact we would sometimes wrestle each other (ahem) in the form room, and often I would come off worse. He also shared an interest in loud music played with guitars and glottal shouting, although his interests lay mostly in what might be called classic rock. Once I went to stay around his house, and we would listen to Deep Purple, Rush, Free, AC/DC and the brief union twixt David Coverdale and Jimmy Page.
My musical tastes have shifted and warped, some might say, a lot since then, but if I ever I think of that Coverdale/Page album, and particularly ‘Pride & Joy’ (with its typically cerebral and poetic lines teaching us boys the language of love, such as "You look so good, oh babe, you must be bad"), I am taken back to when me and Mark were mates.
I think I’ve seen him about three or four times since school and not for a decade now, and there’s probably a good reason for that. It was certainly the more antler-locking of my male friendships as that visit to his house included a game of darts that soon degenerated to the point where he was flinging the arra’s at my bare feet requesting, as he did so, that I dance. His squall of excited laughter will live long in between my shudders.
'Shirley' - Billy Bragg (Pete)
Let me dedicate this to my mate Martin. After meeting randomly in an Irish pub in east Berlin early into my first stay there, we soon discovered a mutual love for North London football teams (and hate, for he's a Gooner) and indie music. So when he moved into a ramshackle ground-floor flat in Friedrichshain and needed a flatmate/decorator to help sort it out, I stepped in.
With the flat decorated, we spent the most of the summer of 2000 rehearsing (him on guitar and vocals, me on bass), smoking Gauloises Reds, cooking mountains of pasta and occasionally breaking off for a quick beer at Blühende Landschaften, our local round the corner, to discuss the finer points of his song-writing and my lack of bass-playing skill.
Besides his stuff, we did learn a few covers; the usual stuff, an Oasis B-side or two, there was a stab at Primal Scream's 'Damaged', but the one we really nailed was Billy Bragg's 'Shirley' (which contains one of my all-time favourite lines): "How can you lie there and think of England / When you don't know who's in the team?"
Unsurprisingly, our musical ambitions never went anywhere, apart from the numerous late-night sessions (we must have had deaf or at least very forgiving neighbours). Occasionally, we got the guitars out at various friends' parties; although Martin did go on to record a few songs with a mutual friend of ours (and a far more accomplished musician than both of us).
At the end of the summer, I returned to the UK for a few months and despite returning to Berlin in 2001, we never really "got the band back together" and there was only the occasional jam session. Since then we both moved between England and Germany several times, but always in the opposite direction and as a result sort of lost touch. Nevertheless, it only takes the first few chords of 'Shirley' to remind me of the days when I smoked, had the time to plug in the Fender at all hours of the night and bash out a few songs with Martin just for the love of playing music.
'The White Noise Revisited' - The Boo Radleys (Caskared)
We're 16. We're in J's front room. His parents are in France on holiday for the week. This is the third consecutive night of all of us piling into his house - playing music, laughing, drinking, getting chips from the chip shop, or fry-ups in the morning pooled from our parents larders, smoking outside, smoking something else in a car, some are coupling, but more are not although there are some electric teenage tensions between others, a misguided attempt towards another, dancing on shag-pile, cleaning up the vomit in case the parents find out, sarcasm rules, but so does the music. No one has slept enough, we just stay up enjoying, alibies all over the estate. The record player cranks up, or the guitars and singing, half with breaking voices. Baggy T-shirts, baggy music, a baggy from a shoe being passed round. This is a small-town teenage party in the mid-90s.
And my friend, with monopod hair (not to be confused with other obligatory boy dos aerial-pie-chart hair, not the rights-of-passage number-1-all-over Renton hair) is dancing. Giant Steps is on again, and now my scarf is around his neck and we're singing "Hey, what's that noise, do you remember? Do your remember?" My limbs are loosely flailing as I bounce in time with the jangly rhythm guitar. We're full of glee - our senses are fuzzy and supersharp, the sounds fill us and it feels like a time we're going to remember forever, our hedonistic 16-year-old selves all together in the front room. And then the music distorts and the tremoring synths hijack the sweet melody and finally the elephantine calls trumpet over the melody and J puts the grey scarf over his head and with one end in his hand his woolen trunk sears through the air in a Boo karaoke. I hurt with laughter and pleasure. I'm really happy.
Later at Glastonbury we race through the crowds. I am set on being in the front rows and J slip streams behind me as I nip deftly through the people. I get on his shoulders and we sing along, fizzing with excitement! It's the Boos! We meet them at the signing tent and try our hardest to make them like us. We see them so many times - J wins free tickets from a Radio 1 breakfast-related phone in and we go to see them twice in one week, and manage to blag backstage. Over-exitable, we try to play it cool. They start to recognise us, but probably not really, but it seems like... and we see them play Kilburn.
I become queen at getting us backstage. G has driven us to Milton Keynes so we can catch a later train back. The Chemical Brothers are DJing the Boos' after-party. We shake their hands while they're scratching their records. Caitlin Moran walks past, and Ash and Coast, we desperately try to not look like fans but in our band T-shirts and even though we're 17 by now we look about 12 and clearly not "industry" but we don't care because the Boos talk to us and Benny Green from 'Grange Hill' buys us a drink at the bar, it's his 32nd birthday. J and I share this night, it's brilliant and intense and baffling and wonderful!
Rewinding several years. I haven't seen J since we went to different high schools. He is a boy and I a girl so friendships weren't maintained. But I am bored and curious. I call round to his house. He is surprised but pleased, not sure of my agenda. I wasn't there to ask him out, I never wanted that, but I want to see if we could be friends beyond middle school. I want to see if his friends could be friends with mine. He was the only boy I knew and we managed to bring our groups together. We were the bridge between our schools. It worked. But to get to the party where our friends were so close, we have to bond and The Boo Radleys' Giant Steps does that.
When I call round to his house I suggest we go for a walk across the fields. It is dusk, he wears a navy tie-dye T-shirt and I my purple paisley hand-me-down shirt from my babysitter. We stride and talk music. We'd both started to read the NME since we'd left middle school. I was flirting with junior metal - Guns 'N' Roses et al but graduating to Nirvana and Sonic Youth although had indie credentials with aged 12 getting my hands on Popscene and other Blur and Cure singles. He had come in through the Beatles and now talked about the Boo Radleys.
Our next walk to see if we really did get on and that it was OK to hang out with someone from the opposite sex, he has recorded a tape for me. A C-90 with "Andy is a fool" written in pen and a scattering of the letter stickers that come with the blank tape adorned the cassette casing. I listen. It changes everything. Suddenly I hear what sounds like the most experimental thing ever. They were really doing something with the music. It chimes with me and I feel excited to hear what else was on the album. 'The White Noise Revisited' is barmy, weird. Makes me go "What?!" but then "Wow!" That album cements our friendship and I will forever love it for itself and for how much it reminds me of my dear dear friend J and the happiest days encapsulated by his elephant-dance to 'The White Noise Revisited'.
'Pretend We're Dead' - L7 (Alison))
By 15 I thought I’d out-grown the village I lived in; the people who went to the local high school were the people who had gone to the local primary school, my friends were lovely but there was nothing new to learn from each other and the local pub that would serve us felt like an after-school club. Saturdays spent trawling record and clothes shops in Edinburgh’s Cowgate and Grassmarket hinted at a different world, but one that I didn’t have a pass to with 10 miles between home and the city and my 10pm curfew.
I first met Andy when I was visiting his younger brother (boyfriend to my best friend Zoe). He came into the house dressed in black trousers and a white shirt, standard uniform for his job as a bank teller. But that was pretty much all that was standard about his appearance; his head was shaved high up the sides leaving a narrow strip of long hair running down the middle, he had a silver bar in his eyebrow and another in his lip, his earlobe sagged under the weight of a hollow piercing and an inch of black ink peaked out of the collar of his shirt. As he swapped his shirt for a T-shirt he revealed two nipple rings and a body covered with tattoos. I was completely in awe.
Zoe and I made regular visits to Andy in the last few years of school. God knows why at 20 he tolerated two schoolkids. Truth be told he was an arrogant sod and I think he probably enjoyed our adoration. We were welcome as long as our offerings of Wild Turkey and Benson & Hedges lasted. He made it his mission to educate us musically and politically, an endless supply of Dead Kennedys and Black Flag vinyl formed the soundtrack to his socialist lectures.
L7's ‘Pretend We’re Dead’ always reminds me most of Andy though, the lyrics summed up the small town claustrophobia he seemed to represent an escape from. He painted the skeleton L7 hand logo on the back of my Doc Martens in a nod to the tattooed legs that feature on the picture disc. He was a pretty talented artist, illustrating for an Edinburgh 'zine in his spare time, and he expanded into piercing and tattooing. I vaguely remember spending a bourbon-fuelled bank holiday weekend in his room because he decided to put plaits and beads in my hair during which time there was a incident with Zoe’s navel, a big needle and a lot of blood.
Andy and ‘Pretend We’re Dead’ had a huge influence on me, introducing me to the riot grrrl bands I loved, motivating my picture-disc collection and inspiring an image that would suitably upset my Mum for a few years. I didn’t stay in touch with him when I went to university and it’s clear that as friendship goes this one was pretty limited, but I love him for showing an alternative view to the one portrayed by village life.
'Pyramid Song' - Radiohead (Ian)
It’s odd, but I had a hard time coming up with a song that reminds me of a friend. Music is a huge part of my life, and my friends are another, equally large part, but there just isn’t that much of an overlap between the two. A necessary step of growing up as a perpetually infatuated music fan is to realize that the people you love won’t (and shouldn’t) always share your taste; but another part of that process is realizing that your friends and family not only might not love or have even heard of that Burial album you’re playing, but that even once they do hear it they simply may not care as much as you do, even if they do like it.
Let’s face it, the sort of person who spends their spare time writing about music for free on the internet (and to a lesser extent, the sort of person who then reads that sort of thing) is firmly on one side of the bell curve measuring how much a person cares about this stuff. I think it’s great, but if I restricted my friendships only to other people who want to respond to mix CDs with detailed track-by-track feedback and spend hours debating the merits of, I don’t know, Vampire Weekend or someone, I wouldn’t have many friends. As it is, you can split the people I spend my time talking to into roughly two groups: people I know in real life who I know and like for reasons having nothing to do with music, and friends I’ve made because of music, who are mostly far-flung and online but broadly speaking we care about the same things. I wouldn’t trade either group for the world, of course, but when you ask me to write about a song that reminds me of a friend, both present difficulties.
In the latter case, that’s because we all already have our opinions and tastes set too firmly, and we’re too remote to really have songs that are ours instead of mine and theirs. And in the former case… my friends know I’m a music geek, and they appreciate it, and they even make use of it ("Hey, can I borrow ____?"). But music doesn’t really form a big part of our friendship.
So we’re left with mixes. I’m an inveterate mix-maker, and not just for pretty girls (although yes that too). Half the time they never leave my hard drive (this used to be a much higher percentage – God bless the IMP), but it’s a pretty standard way for me to work through things or reconsider things or even just occupy a boring Sunday afternoon. Years ago I made one for a friend I don’t really talk to that much anymore. Nothing dramatic, just a sort of natural drifting apart, and I actually ran into her again recently, which was nice. But at the time, we had just started hanging out and she asked me, at one point, for a mix to explain, sort of, what music it was that I liked (probably in response to a fumbling "Uh, I don’t know, all sorts of stuff" when asked).
I don’t have the tracklisting here, but I do have it at home and I remember how fiercely proud of it I was at the time. I’d been asked to sum up my taste and I had done so, in 50 minutes no less! I had one of those moments of youthful arrogance or exuberance where I felt sure that those twelve tracks did and would explain my taste in music, maybe forever. It should come as no surprise to anyone that when I dug it back up a few months ago out of curiosity, it didn’t work nearly as well as I’d thought. It’s a decent cross-section of what I listened to at the time, but really that’s it – a time capsule.
Despite that, there’s a few tracks from the mix that, even out of that context, I have been unable to hear without thinking of that mix and that friend. 'Pyramid Song', from the then-new Amnesiac album by Radiohead, is a big one. The song was huge for me at the time, I’d eagerly devoured (and still love) the dreamlike video that was posted around online before the album came out, lined up to buy the album at midnight, and etc. The huge, aching space in the middle of 'Pyramid Song' is still something I respond to strongly, and so I suppose I was covering two bases at once at the time – my love for Radiohead, and my love for songs that sound like this.
It still works strongly as a token of remembrance precisely because it’s neither too sad nor too happy – unlike some commenters I take Thom Yorke at face value when he tells us "and there was nothing to fear, nothing at all", mainly because he sounds like he’s talking about the dream world or the afterlife and not this vale of tears. But there’s of course a gloominess, or maybe a regret to the song. And so when it comes up on random in my iTunes, I think fondly of my friend and how it sucks we no longer live in the same city, and I think of what I was trying to represent on that mix, how the attempt to convey to another human being how you feel about music is noble and maybe a little doomed, and I think about the fact that 'Pyramid Song' is the only song on the mix that she ever told me she liked.
'Mogwai Fear Satan' - Mogwai (Ben)
So much for all these wistful tales of the halcyon days of youth and friendships that have since faded - time to buck the trend and wrap up with a hopefully heartwarming story about friends reunited...
As regular readers of my blog will know, I've recently relocated for the fifth time in four and a half years. This latest move has reunited me with a dear friend whom, much to my sadness, I left behind in Cardiff when I first decamped to Oxfordshire in pursuit of gainful employment in April 2007. Small but perfectly formed, reliable and dependable, capable of altering my mood in an instant...
Yes, I'm talking about my stereo.
Up until her cruel abandonment two years ago, she had been my faithful companion, never leaving my side since she was bought in September 1999. My old multi-disc changer had broken - some problem with the disc tray (wasn't that always the issue with those bloody things, which were far better in concept than in practice?) meant that at the last the only thing it would consent to play was Seafood's 'This Is Not An Exit' single, and that only after much coaxing and swearing. So off I went to what was then Jessop's in Nottingham with my friend Martin, where the pair of us worked our way around the whole section pressing the eject button on every single stereo, repeating Alan Partridge's line "Nice action" and giggling to ourselves.
But when I saw her, a sleek vision in silver, it was love at first sight. She had a TPS system (basically, a nifty mechanism for skipping songs on tapes just as you would on CDs), but, if I'm honest, the USP was undoubtedly what happened when you turned her on - the screen lit up blue and the central panel slid back smoothly to bring the various knobs into relief. "Nice action"? The others didn't come close. And so, for the princely sum of £200, she was mine.
Several blissfully happy years ensued, and even after leaving her with my girlfriend in Cardiff I still visited regularly, cherishing our time together and pining for her when we were apart. Your iPods and iTunes and MP3s and laptops are all very well, thankyouverymuch, but this old Luddite rather enjoys the physical act of selecting an album from the rack and putting it on. It's more of an experience, affords the music and the creative endeavour more respect.
So, anyway, why 'Mogwai Fear Satan'? Well, it was around the time I bought her that my love affair with the Glaswegians was in its first flush. I already had a copy of the off-cuts album Ten Rapid courtesy of him (of whom I could just as easily have written using the same song), and in October 1999 I first saw them in the flesh, in the Ballroom of Nottingham's Marcus Garvey Centre. To say the earth moved wouldn't be stretching the truth - during the extended 25-minute-long strobe-accompanied blitzkrieg version of 'Mogwai Fear Satan' that closed the set, the wooden floor was vibrating so violently that internal organs were dislodged.
I immediately went out and bought Young Team, and the thought of that album's monumental final act zooming out of the speakers of my new stereo still sends a shiver down the spine. Since then, there have been other moments when she has been instrumental in forging my love for a particular band or artist, but that was the first.
So, thank you for the music.
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Thanks to Swiss Toni, Paul, Skif, Pete, Caskared, Alison and Ian for their contributions this week.
The next subject, in a fortnight's time, is a partner.