Monday, March 09, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: A partner

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

This week's subject: A partner

'You're Gorgeous' - Babybird (Skif)

Keen as you might be to project your conjoined index and middle fingers in the direction of your glottis upon seeing that title, do read on, as what follows is certainly not a soppy eulogy to big big love. This one’s not about the current incumbent, and thus will contain very little by way of sop.

When we think of our exes, a usually modest squadron of the jiltees and the jilters (well, only the latter in my case), it’s perhaps best for our mental well-being that that memory be combined with a cringe. A deep stomach-stapling, goose-fleshing, "Ye Gods"-exclaiming cringe. That is how I remember my first girlfriend, when I hear ‘You're Gorgeous’ anyway.

The mid-90s, littered with ephemeral dance pop and the Dadrock types keen on parkas and helmet hair that were dragged along in Britpop’s undertow, also had the ability to propel the occasional bedroom popster with grand ideas and articulate execution to brief stardom. There was Jyoti Mishra, better known as White Town, almost inexplicably taking 'Your Woman' to the acme of the tip-top pop charts. In addition, of course, there was Stephen Jones, aka Babybird and, err ... well ... umm ... Scatman John? Like I say, it was occasional.

Babybird’s biggest hit came out in October 1996, reaching #3 and staying in the Fun Forty for nigh on four months. That same October, I began a four year relationship that went on, roughly, three years too long, but that’s easy to say with hindsight. Naturally, in that October, it was all fresh and new – and I don’t just mean that relationship, I mean any. My mid-teens had dragged considerably amidst unrequited love (that admittedly I didn’t bother to communicate other than via the medium of the mixtape), mournful poetry and the music of Morrissey. You like clichés? How d’ya like them clichés?

Also in that October, being my first semester at university, I was given my first assignment as a cub music reporter for the Student Union mag: to go and interview Babybird prior to his red-hot sold-out show at Portsmouth’s wonderful Wedgewood Rooms. The gig took place exactly a week after ‘You're Gorgeous’ had hit the charts, and thus interest was high. As such I had to undertake my interview at the same time as the representative from our university radio station. I would later blag a subsidised trip to a Sheffield student radio conference out of said station despite having little to nil involvement with their output, so I can’t be too bitter about it.

The PURE FM type asked many questions upstairs in the old Wedge dressing rooms, and appeared very relaxed about the whole process, making herself at home and comfortable on the battered old sofa next to Stephen, whilst I perched on the edge of a plastic seat on the other side of the room. I think, all in, I asked two questions. The first I remember not, but given my greenness in the role, it was probably something like "Where do you get your ideas?" or "What’s your favourite dinner?" rather than anything that would penetrate a musician’s soul and have them providing me with an answer that managed to squeeze Genesis P. Orridge, auteur theory and Tom Paine’s 'The Rights Of Man' into the same scholarly sentence.

The other question I asked is the source of my cringe. You have to remember I had been going out with m’then ladyfriend for exactly two weeks, and tonight (revealing here a schoolboy error in terms of timing the amorous pounce, particularly if your student loan has already been earmarked for plentymuch snakebite 'n’ black) was her birthday.

So there I was asking a talk-of-the-nation indie artiste to dedicate a song to my girlfriend, seemingly believing him to be a wedding DJ or a working man’s club bingo caller. It wasn’t as if this was a genius romantic brainwave of mine either, having spent the entire day up to that point being brow-beaten into it by a lady already skilled, in a fuggin’ fortnight for Christ’s sake, in the art of guilt-tweaking manipulation.

Of course, I knew that the song 'You're Gorgeous' itself, whilst perfectly fine for the wooing if you take the chorus and its gentle musical sweep at face value, is actually about a sleazy amateur photographer exploiting a girl desperate for fame. Thus when requesting this favour, even more embarrassing in the presence of the cool radio type, I was pointed in the caveat that "It doesn’t have to be ’You're Gorgeous’ though". Yet come the encore, there he was, dedicating his hit in a Wedgewood Rooms suddenly pin-drop silent save for one teenage girl yelping. Fair play to him, of course, but I can’t help feeling he enjoyed the irony-heaped-upon-irony of it.

So, whenever, I hear that song, I feel that awkwardness, that embarrassment about having to ask against my better judgement and in a situation completely devoid of sweetness or charm, what with having had to be asked over and over again to do it. Young love, eh? Crap, innit?

Besides, I always preferred ‘Too Handsome To Be Homeless’ anyway.

'Fever' - Peggy Lee (drmigs)

I was 19, and in a ridiculously romantic relationship. I was in one university town, and C was in another. We only saw each other at weekends, and so our relationship didn't deal with the mundanities of who should buy the milk on the way home from work, or who should do that miscellaneous bit of washing-up. No, we wrote letters, went to cafes, bought flowers, went to parties; every day was like the first day we'd met. We were well and truly caught up in the throes of young love. If we had been puppets, Richard Curtis would have been the puppeteer. We looked into the sky one night and a shooting star appeared that spanned the whole of the horizon, strangers even stopped us to tell us how happy we looked. This wasn't so much a relationship than a mutual infatuation, which felt as though it was being controlled by fate. No doubt we sickened our respective flatmates to the core.

As you can imagine, the currency of this relationship was overblown romantic gestures. For example, I went away for a weekend to see my family, and when I got back to Newcastle station on Sunday evening, I got off the train with a focus on. If I could get that bus, I'd be home half an hour earlier, and hence, be able to have a longer chat to C on the phone. I headed across the concourse with tunnel vision, only for something to appear in my periphery, and tug on my arm. It was C - she'd come down to Newcastle, and surprised me by waiting to meet me off the train. She'd been there for well over an hour, not knowing when I'd arrive (this was in a world before mobile phones). And just when she thought the plan was destined to backfire, I appeared, and then seemingly threatened to walk straight past her. However, as befitted the relationship, the plan worked to perfection. I was completely taken aback, we got to spend the evening together, and she got the first train in the morning so she didn't miss her Monday morning lecture.

In such a context, it will come as little surprise that eventually there was the inevitable mixtape. C liked her music; she played in both classical quartets and also a signed band. So music was a natural medium through which she expressed her feelings. As befitted the intensity of our times together, we put on the tape in her room, complete with pre-requisite candles and a bottle of wine. We were soon lost in the music, and were carried away with the sentiment. And then it happened - the song that will forever be the song that I shall associate with C began to play. First there were the drums and the double-bass; that was fine. That was perfect, and the clicking fingers too were good. All good intense stuff. An understated cool that spoke to the mood perfectly. I think I even held it together for the lines "Never know how much I loved you / Never know how much I cared", but when the lines "When you put your arms around me / I get a fever that's so hard to bear" came on, the side of my lips began to quiver, and I tried to block the flow of air to the back of my nose. By the time the lyric "You give me fever / When you kiss me / Fever when you hold me tight" was upon us, I'd gone. Gone in uncontrollable fits of laughter. Everything had suddenly become too OTT and quite faintly ridiculous.

This, as you can understand, wasn't the intended response to this song. There was an uncomfortable moment when I was beside myself in stitches, and she was a little uncertain why. But soon she too was swept up by the ridiculously OTT circumstances, and we were both prostrate with laughter for the rest of the song, and more. Halfway through the song we were both listening to it as if we were actors in a Channel 4 sitcom; actors who were meant to be in a moment of passionate sincerity, but couldn't hold it together to get through the scene. Comedy gold for the out-takes track on the DVD, if only this had all occurred in the studio. In the end we pulled ourselves together, and this song soon became "our song". The song we'd play to mock each other when we'd made a romantic gesture too far.

After a few months, we came to that point where the honeymoon was coming to the end, and it turned out that a relationship built upon a series of overly romantic first dates didn't have the substance to maintain it over a long distance. As it came towards the Christmas break we sadly drew a close to our passionate term together. We decided that we couldn't make a long-distance relationship work. Maybe 'Fever' was the perfect metaphor for our fling. An uncontrollable fever, with a sentiment summed up by the way in which the song finishes: "Fever till you sizzle / What a lovely way to burn". And indeed, I'm sure for both of us that our relationship would have slowly fizzled into a pleasing winter memory, had I not fallen in to what was to be a long-term long-distance relationship with a cousin of C's that New Year's Eve. Honestly, I didn't know they were related ...

'Stuck With You' - Huey Lewis & The News (Swiss Toni)

"Oh listen darling! They're playing our song."

Lots of couples have a song; a song that has special resonance for them as a pair; a song that, when they hear it, makes them smile wistfully and perhaps allows them to shut out the world and to share a brief moment together, gazing into each other's eyes. Where these songs come from, I don't know. Perhaps there are rules and guidelines that must be adhered to. Perhaps the majority of couples sit down together in the early days of the relationship and thrash this critical issue out:

"I thought Fugazi darling."
"Hmm. What about 'Too Drunk To Fuck' by The Dead Kennedys?"

Perhaps not.

What I do know is that, although I did get an input into the record that soundtracked our first dance at the wedding ('Fell In Love With A Girl' by The White Stripes), I most certainly did not get to choose the song that has now indelibly become associated with the moment that my wife and I first kissed.

The location itself was bad enough really: the grimy cafe at the Tamworth Services just off the M42 between Birmingham and Nottingham. Not the most auspicious of places for a relationship to start, I agree, and certainly not the first one that you would pick from a list. We had stopped on the way back from a week-long residential training course in the Mendips, and it just sort of happened.


For me it just sort of happened, although my wife tells me that she'd set her sights on this moment from the first time she met me, some eighteen months before. I, naturally, had been completely oblivious to this, and had only started to notice her - to REALLY notice her - a few days before, as we went caving and abseiling and other tasks apparently essential to leadership in a mainly office-based environment.

It was nice, and it was the start of a relationship that has lasted for the best part of a decade so far, and I hope it lasts a good long while yet.

... but if I have one regret, it would be over the song that was playing through the crappy PA system of that service station as we awkwardly kissed for the first time. It's something that I had absolutely zero control over, but also something that I am now completely stuck with as being "our" song.

The song in question?

'Stuck With You' by Huey Lewis & The News.

"We've had some fun, and yes we've had our ups and downs / Been down that rocky road, but here we are, still around / We thought about someone else, but neither one took the bait / We thought about breaking up, but now we know it's much too late / We are bound by all the rest / Like the same phone number / All the same friends / And the same address."

See what I mean?

Happy to be stuck with you? Well, yes. But with the song? Do I have to be stuck with the damn song too?

'It's A Motherfucker' - Eels (Ben)

"It started with a mixx", sang indiepop scamps Los Campesinos! on an early B-side - and so it does for a lot of relationships. Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy tries to woo girl by handing her compilation after compilation of obscure and (with hindsight) wildly unfit-for-purpose tracks...

Y'know, things like The Black Heart Procession's sinister single 'A Truth Quietly Told', which still gives her the creeps eight years on; Stephen Malkmus' 'Jenny And The Ess-Dog', with its tale of an ill-fated romance between a young Jenny and an older man; The Jesus & Mary Chain's 'April Skies', which admittedly she does love, but which nevertheless wraps up with the cheery lines "Sun grows cold / Sky gets black / And you broke me up / And now you won't come back / Shaking hand, life is dead / And a broken heart / And a screaming head / Under the April sky"; and, most alarming of all, 'Fixit Girl' from Chris Morris' frankly unsettling Bluejam album.

So, less an exercise in sonic seduction and more a "this is what you're letting yourself in for", then.

But, in amongst them all, a song that hit the nail on the head: 'It's A Motherfucker' from Daisies Of The Galaxy, Eels' finest hour. The slow and deliberate piano refrain and opening couplet - "It's a motherfucker / Being here without ya" - is enough to indicate that it's hardly upbeat and flushed with the optimism of a blossoming romance, but it is heartfelt and possessed of a simple but remarkable emotional resonance. She loved it straight away.

Of course, after a while I had to reveal I'd taken it out of context - E isn't pining for an absent lover at all, as the tape might have seemed to be implying, but for his dead mother, the inspiration for and regular subject of the songs that make up Daisies Of The Galaxy. The fact that the title's a wry joke somehow underscores rather than undermines the poignancy.

There was certainly never any "thrashing out of this critical issue" (cheers ST!) - it just definitely became (and still remains) "our song". In 2003 we had the good fortune to see Eels perform it live in Birmingham, and, as I've said before elsewhere, if we were to get married (which we're not) there would be no doubt as to the choice of song for the first dance. Sod 'Angels' or '(I've Had) The Time Of My Life' - if one couple of our acquaintance could have Morrissey's 'Hairdresser On Fire' playing during their wedding ceremony and another could opt for The Magnetic Fields' 'Strange Powers' (opening lyrics: "On the ferris wheel looking out on Coney Island / Under more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand") for their first dance, then 'It's A Motherfucker' it would be...

'Putting Out Fires' - The Bluetones (Pete)

Bloody hell. Where do I start? Or rather, who do I start with? You see, for every girl I've seriously fallen for there's been a song (or two) that reminds me of them (I'm using the term partner here in its very loosest sense). Here's a few candidates for you:

'Honeymoon' - Phoenix

'Ruby' - Kaiser Chiefs (frankly, if the only song that reminded me of the girl in question was a Chiefs one it was doomed to fail)

'Out Of Sight' - Spiritualized

'Dirty Epic' - Underworld

'One Night Is Not Enough' - Snow Patrol (a song that has been particularly apt on several occasions).

But for this girl/woman (can some one tell me at what age does either term become inappropriate?), there's a whole album's worth of songs to consider, such as Elbow's 'Newborn', The Courteeners' 'Not Nineteen Forever', the above-mentioned Snow Patrol track, a track off Wild Wood that we listened to on a hotel bed when she was my "plus one" at a mate's wedding. In short, because we've known each other for so long, and have at various times been (just) close friends, then progressed well beyond that and now ... well, frankly neither of us really know what's going on now, so there's more than enough material for a compilation.

I wrote the above a few weeks ago, but now having met up her again earlier this evening, explaining the choice of artist and song is so easy. There was a definite sense of occasion when we saw The Bluetones perform our one of our mutually favourite albums live in its entirety a few months ago and 'Putting Out Fires' is her favourite track on the album. It's a complicated, bittersweet sort of a song, and to some extent that sums up our relationship.

I think I've rewritten this post more than any others so far, probably because I'm not sure entirely how to phrase what I've wanted to say. Instead, I'm going to stop and listen to some music instead, because sometimes (and excuse the mixed metaphor) music scratches the itch better than words can. I think you know what I mean.

* * * * *

Thanks to Skif, drmigs, Swiss Toni and Pete for their contributions this week.

The next subject, in a fortnight's time, is a job.


Blogger Ben said...

I feel for you, ST, I really do.

1:04 am  
Blogger Ben said...

Oh, and Skif, I dread to think of some of the questions a naive young fanboy of the same name as me may have asked bands in the pursuit of student journalism. Though I don't remember ever asking for a dedication...

1:12 am  

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