Thursday 2 July 2009

The year the music died.

During the Top 40 culmination of the tabloid-fest that was The Battle of Britpop, I was hanging by the scruff of my Fred Perry T-shirt off the railings at the back of my family’s rented beach chalet, trying to get a radio signal to determine whether Blur or Oasis had come in at number one. I fear ‘beach chalet’ paints something of a misleading picture, actually – in truth it was a yellow, wasp-attracting wood-hut protecting the sleepy (nay, comatose) town of Sutton-on-Sea from the bitingly harsh (and, let’s be honest, probably radioactive) Lincolnshire tide. It was where my family spent the same two weeks every summer and, in 1995, the soundtrack to my fortnight was Blur’s Country House.

Fast forward 14 years to last Sunday night, somewhere half-way back in the crowd of Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage and, as a newly reformed Blur played the same song, thoughts of wasp stings, chips with scraps and shaking sand out of my Adidas Sambas immediately filled my head. Country House is by no means a great record, granted (and wasn’t that just the irony of The Battle of Britpop?), but in a couple of bars’ worth of oompah-ing brass, I was back in Sutton-on-Sea.

For a girl with a notoriously rubbish memory, it’s a comfort to know that certain songs can trigger the recollection of long-forgotten nuggets of time. It’s like being regressed to a former life (except in this case with cider and a camping chair replacing hypnosis and a couch). Ask me over a G&T what I did during the summer of 1993, for example, and I’d be hard pushed to even tell you how old I was. But stick Charles & Eddie’s Would I Lie To You on the jukebox (that’s not a request) and I’ll tell you many a teenage tale of lovestruck longing over my then-crush’s delicious thighs in his tight football shorts as I sat transfixed on the sidelines in a shameful crop-top and pink lipstick combo that I’d later come to regret.

Me and my Glasto comrades P, Tills and Si had been talking a lot over the weekend about the memories attached to music, thanks in no small part to our learning of the death of Michael Jackson. My reaction to that news took me as much by surprise as the story itself and, as a child of the 80s, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in finding myself oddly upset. I couldn’t get my head around my response – after all, it was years since I’d bought a Michael Jackson record. Perhaps it was just that I’d maxed out on my life’s quota of shock, and wasn’t prepared for any more of it. (Sodding shock, eh – if only I could remove the element of surprise, I reckon I’d be able to handle it.) But whichever it was, the passing of the loony, legendary Michael Jackson had me mourning in my camper van.

‘Sorry I’m being such a knob,’ I said to Tills after realising I hadn’t spoken for a good 30 minutes after his death had been confirmed. ‘I didn’t think I’d be so upset. I hadn’t realised I was even a Michael Jackson fan.’ Tills sipped her tea, considering a tactful response to my overreaction. ‘I’m not sure you are,’ she said. ‘I think you’re not mourning him so much as you are your memories of his songs.’ (Tills is so much smarter than I am that I often wonder why she’s such good mates with someone who considers The Hills a documentary.) Michael Jackson, to me, was the first single my parents bought to play on some bit of new-fangled kit they called a CD player. It was bragging to everyone at school that I was going to the Dangerous tour at Wembley Stadium, only to look like a prize twonk the following Monday when MJ had cancelled at the last minute. It was watching my Jacko-obsessed kid brother Jamie moonwalk badly across the living-room carpet, and him deciding at the grand old age of six that he, too, wanted to be a songwriter. (I held onto the lyrics of Jamie’s first song, If You Wanna Be A Singer, for the best man at his wedding – I am, like, the best. sister. ever.) So Tills’ comment was, of course, spot on. I was grieving for Billie Jean as much – if not more – as the man who recorded it.

Given the link between pop songs and old memories, then, it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve bought more albums in the last three months than I have in the entirety of the past year. You might consider that an odd decision, given that I’ve had so much time on my hands over the last 12 months that I could have easily reached recognising-songs-backwards familiarity with the combined back catalogues of everyone from Pink Floyd to Elvis Presley. But in truth, I didn’t really pay much attention to music during my Bullshit year. It left an undisputed gap, I’ll admit, but I put my indifference down to a simple lack of anything bordering on interest, energy or drive. I wonder now, though, whether it might have been an unconscious decision not to muddy the soundtrack of 2008/09 with the worst time of my life? The one album I did embrace during that time (The Seldom Seen Kid, obvs), I made a point of only playing in times when I felt more like a human being, careful not to taint it with crappy cancer memories. (Now there’s a question for you – if The Bullshit were a band, which would it be? I’ll start the betting with Toploader.) I kind of hope my music-shunning was done on purpose, actually, because it might just be the smartest thing I ever did.

Getting to Glastonbury (she says, as though it can be equated with reaching the summit of Everest or Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom) wasn’t just a big deal in terms of how far I’ve come in the space of my ‘gap year’, but in recognising that it is possible to fall right back into the comforting arms of the stuff you love (or love listening to), like jumping off a perilous tightrope onto a huge, enveloping cushion. And the simple fact that it all happens on a farm in Somerset only adds to its brilliance. (That’s if you gloss over the full-to-the-brim toilets, mind, and some people’s baffling reluctance to use loo roll after a shit – I felt like sticking a little sign in each exposed turd I laid eyes on: ‘Now wash your hands.’ Or, better still, ‘Now wipe your arse.’) Because, when you’re low on signal, when text messages are taking 48 hours to reach you and when you’re miles away from your laptop and your email and your Twitter account, you’re even further removed from the communication-crammed life you couldn’t do without back at home. And, strangely comforting as it is the rest of the time, you’re not continually having to return hospital questionnaires or order repeat prescriptions or book follow-up appointments or answer questions several times a day about how you’re feeling. And, by heck, it’s glorious.

With a jolt, Si looked up from his pint of cider – or piss, we couldn’t tell which – one afternoon at the festival. ‘Crikey,’ he said out of nowhere. ‘I’d forgotten you’d even been ill.’ And the beauty of it was – for the very first time in a year – I had too. Good old Glastonbury. You might come back bruised and muddy and covered in more germs than a Sunday-night portaloo, but any place that has the ability to make you forget about The Bullshit gets a McCartney-style thumbs-up from me. And so those four days on Worthy Farm marked more than just a brilliant Blur reunion, the return to fashion of Springsteen-like sweatbands and the realisation that Neil Young can make Down By The River last for three weeks. It also marked the moment when I took my finger off the pause button and finally pressed play on my lovely life once more.


Helen said...

"It also marked the moment when I took my finger off the pause button and finally pressed play on my lovely life once more."

You. Are. An. Amazing. Writer.


Michael Jackson Fan Memorial said...

Your writing slightly nauseates me because I can't even conceive of how you can pack THAT MUCH time (span-wise) into a single post and not make it boring or tedious! I'd come to read your memory of Michael Jackson, but I had to read every last (kinda hilarious, kinda tragic) sentence.

You make an awesome point - we didn't really realize we were Michael Jackson "fans" (anymore) until he passed. Now, in a way that's shameful. Are we just going with the flow? Following the trend? Having been a teenager in the 90's when it was paramount to be listless and uninterested in anything popular - it's a little embarrassing. But, at the same time.. aren't events like these what connect us in such a totally splintered world? It's not Michael as a person, because I never met him so that can't do anything but fascinate me. It's Michael as a link to our memories and how those memories connect from person to person showing that we're both different and share similarities, no matter what.

Sorry for dwelling on Jackson because I do like Oasis (my first actual CD since I was 'poor kid' with strict parents) and Blur and.. well, I like way too much music.

I'll shut up after saying BRAVO for effective storytelling! :-D

R said...

Play on, play on! I may have to steal that last sentence as my new mantra. I hope you don't mind. Glad you had a brilliant time!

swisslet said...

You thought that "Down by the River" lasted forever? How did you cope with "Rockin' in the Free World"? The song that will not end?

Ah, the cider bus.


I've just booked a tuesday night next June in the Glastonbury Travelodge. I'm fucked if I'm spending 8 hours in my car travelling 25 miles again. I want to get in, get camped and then get exploring.

Well, exploring as far as the cider bus, anyway......

Hurray for Glasto (even if I did fall asleep during Springsteen's set).


Anonymous said...

Yes, that last sentence is a corker - but more importantly, so is the sentiment.

I really like how I come across in this one by the way...

Love you x

last year's girl said...

I came here via Helen and I'm so glad I did, this was an incredible piece of writing. I'm glad you had such a memorable weekend, and thanks for cheering up my Friday afternoon!

marsha said...

Hooray for you!

Hooray for your having had a wonderful time at Glastonbury, even with the added pressure of how much you were looking forward to it. I think this says loads about what kind of a person you are. One who is able to eke real joy out of everything that is ekable.

And hooray for Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid. It also got me, and (independently) other people I know, through some tricky times.

You write beautifully. Well done.


Juliet said...

I've just pressed play on my life again too....and doesn't it feel great! The first time I realised I had 'forgotten' about IT was just the happiest moment ever.... and I bawled my eyes out!!! Here's to the destruction of that pause button - and neither of us ever need to use it again.

lilianavonk said...

...when you’re miles away from your laptop and your email and your Twitter account, you’re even further removed from the communication-crammed life you couldn’t do without back at home.

Wow. Just wow. That epitomises my life for the past five days, being up at my parents' house sans any internet access, but you're absolutely right--as per usual--about the fact that minus those elements, there's a certain type of clarity that emerges...because even though I missed mah internets somethin' fierce (though of course it was my friends I yearned for, far more than Teh Glorious Interwebs), this also enabled me to focus on what's truly important: helping my mom (and sadly, my dad soon enough) through her last journey.

Re: the MJ stuph, I just can't get beyond wondering where the hell all these people were six months ago when he couldn't sell a record for love nor money. Because I'm a bit older than you, I also could never quite forgive him for carving up the face of that adorable little boy I had such a crush on when I was a young 'un, and I could never understand why the world remained so willfully oblivious to someone who was so obviously messed up to a pathological extent.

While I resist such easy cynicism, it's still impossible not to reflect that dying is the best thing he could have done for his career, though as someone who at one time had a 25-Vicodin-ES-a-day habit, I truly hope he's in a place where there's no more pain on a physical OR psychological level.

Yet another way you're made of win is the Blur over Oasis stance, and I say that not just cos Damon Albarn's way cuter than Liam Gallagher. Cos of course I know you would never be that shallow, and neither am I.

No, really...!! ;)