Thursday 24 May 2018

My increasingly uneasy relationship with music (and other reasons I am not a Rock Star)

I’ve been writing about music a lot lately (in case you hadn’t noticed) which isn’t really surprising since I occasionally describe myself as a failed musician. The truth is I never really tried to make it. I’m not sure if it was fear of failure, crippling self-doubt or that my father was right when he called me ‘bone idle’, but I never actually dragged myself away from my beloved Devon and seriously tried to make a career of fucking about with guitars.

Me at sixteen, still pretty sure I was going to make a living from that guitar
(the same one I still play every weekend)

Sometimes I regret this - but that’s the nature of mid-life crisis (or ongoing personal emergency as Tim Dowling calls it). In the wake of last week’s mental health awareness week I found myself wondering whether that bone-idleness wasn’t in fact a debilitating mental illness? (It's okay, I've been reading a lot of Matt Haig recently and have self-diagnosed as lazy shit with a side order of grumpy twat.) I certainly spent most of my teenage years self-medicating for one. In my forties I am still too scared it might be true to go and do anything about it, and last weekend’s cider-based self-medication in the sunshine was much too enjoyable not to continue with.

My ongoing personal emergency should probably involve my giving up playing music I don’t like to people I don’t respect every weekend. Every cover-band poster I see of grizzled ‘mature’ musicians gurning against a brick wall in ill-fitting jeans and unfunny t-shirts kicks my self-loathing into over drive and my heart yearns to sell all my instruments and just stop. I probably look no better. The audience don’t know I’ve been doing this since I first put on a cassock and joined a choir, and my arthritic fingers ensure I play just as badly as the guys who just took it up at forty. I should stick to the writing.

Seriously, if we look anything like this tell me and you can have all my guitars
Apologies if this is your band, I'm sure you're great

Music still has an indefinable magic however. Its ability to conjure memories long forgotten, its inextricable link with the past, unlocking all the best and worst parts of your youth. It is a common complaint among people of my age that there is nothing new anymore, all the good music's been done, etc. etc. To an extent this is true, but it always has been. There is only so much you can do with 11 notes and the odd micro-tonal aberration. The difference is that you can only hear that descending I-V-IV chord sequence at the beginning of The Who's 'Baba O'Riley' for the first time once. I first heard it on Aerosmith's 'Angel' but the effect was the same. It's a pretty common chord sequence, but 'Baba O'Riley' seems to execute it best. If I could wipe anything from my mind it would be that intro, just so I could experience those crashing piano chords effortlessly making sense of the trance-like synth loops for the first time again. It is indelibly linked in my head with a sunny afternoon in June 1992 when I first played it from a Best of the Who album I had been bought for my 15th birthday.

Songs do that, they remind you of a time. I cannot hear anything from the first two Oasis albums without being transported back to the All Seasons in Bideford in the mid 90s. The specifics of that time are blurred with alcohol and class As, but that feeling of being young, able to do anything and having plenty of time ahead to do it swells up with every boring, whiny, nasal verse. I am not a fan of the music, but I cannot help but smile as I turn the fucking radio off.

A brief refrain of long-forgotten Europop will flicker by as you trudge through the shops, the Vengaboys assuring you that they like to party, they like, they like to party. Despite the utter pointlessness of this song, the fact that it is without substance, unable to produce genuine emotions on its own merit is of no matter. It could make you smile at the memory of a shared eye-roll. Joy at a meeting, a spark kindled, an awkward first dance in a shit-awful night club. Not the endless drag of the painful breakup, the price they extracted from your soul over your time together. That all came later, the music only recalls that first burst of excitement.

Any overheard melody, drifting from a window on a summer's night can leave you with a sense of indefinable contentment. It may just sound a bit like something else you can't remember, it might be a song you once knew and have long forgotten. You may not consciously be able to place the reason, but your medulla oblongata knows. It remembers, it transmits serotonin in reaction.

This was what I was going to do, provide a brief moment of joy at a memory inextricably caught up in something I wrote. It took me a very long time to realise that I write terrible lyrics, and am a mediocre singer at best. I can do the odd killer riff, and had my ego allowed me to collaborate with somebody else, and the music industry been willing to centre itself in rural North Devon it might have worked out. Who knows, maybe one day somebody will be reminded of 'Fuck Me Gently With A Chainsaw' and be lost in happy reminiscence.

I was good with these guys – because Maz wrote all the songs (I know this one's a cover)

There is still no better feeling than jamming a plectrum into a set of steel strings and hearing the screaming beast it unleashes from the overdriven amplifier at the other end. I am as excited by it now as I was when I first sellotaped a microphone to my dad's acoustic guitar and cranked the volume. But with mid-life comes self-awareness (mostly out of fear that the crisis will make you do something really stupid) and while, when I was a kid, I never understood why my father wasn't that bothered about the whereabouts of tapes featuring his own adolescent foray into being a musician, now, I find I have no idea where all the tapes of my own awful teenage angst-ridden ballads are.

I understand his ambivalence. My new greatest fear is finding them and having to listen.

I did manage these 27 minutes of music which I am unjustifiably proud of in my long musical lack-of-career

I always used to blame the decisions (many, various and too boring to go in to here) that led to my never making a go of it on the women in my life at the time I made them. I have finally grown up enough to realise that they didn't force me into anything – didn't even ask me not to, it was just that I was making huge, life-changing decisions with an organ that I can no longer rely on to tell me if I need a piss.

I have long since admitted that the greatest love affair of my life is with the county I was brought up in and have lived in since I was five years old. Devon. The reason for not giving it all up for music and a free electric band (other than the usual fear of failure and galloping anxiety) was my unwillingness to leave this place, with its hills, its moors, its coastline, its well-meaning-despite-the-casual-racism indigenous population. Sitting in my garden now, writing this while looking over the fence at Dartmoor, lazily dominating the horizon as it does from pretty much anywhere inside a twenty mile radius I regret nothing.

Had I made any of at least five key decisions differently my life would undoubtedly have wandered off down another leg of the trousers of time. I might have gone on to have a proper musical career (and no doubt be dead of a drug overdose by now) or done what so many others of my generation have, gone and had a proper career up in 'that London' then come back to breed with a nice middle-class girl named after some obscure plant that sounds like a venereal disease who can do her made-up and unimportant job (this is not rampant sexism, my own job is made-up and unimportant, as I have no doubt the proper career in 'that London' would have been) from home now.

What definitely wouldn't have happened would have been the many coincidences, drunken decisions, and stupid ideas that have led to this exact point in my life. I would probably never have met my wife, or her kids. Would not have spent time with the many pets I have gone through in the last twenty years. Would not live in this insane little town I love in a house I adore. Probably wouldn't be as happy.

Tuesday 1 May 2018

I'm Not A Fan

I'm Not A Fan

The only time you'll find me spinning around is on the dancefloor, though come to think of it, just being in my presence will make you instantly cooler, so maybe I am.

Fan, short for fanatic: –

(informal) a person who is extremely interested in something, to a degree that some people find unreasonable

(disapproving) a person who has very extreme beliefs that may lead them to behave in unreasonable or violent ways

Not admirable qualities right? Those with the patience of a toddler who hungrily pre-order every release from their favourite band/author/movie franchise/crockery creator etc. The people who camp out in the streets to be first to get the new shiny thing/tickets for band that should have stopped touring thirty years ago/a look at a posh baby. The one-upmanship of those desperate to be first, who fuel the ebay sales with 500% markups of things that will be easily available at a huge discount in a few short weeks time (hi record store day friends). Handy for a certain sector of consumer capitalism that relies on blind hero-worship and impatience though.

Once upon a time I did pre-order books, movies and records to get them at full price on release day, then pore over them for days until I knew every part of them. Now I know if I leave it a bit, I can probably get them for less than half the price when those early adopters have finished, and it has been a long time since I read anything twice (although that is more to do with my fear of dying before I have managed to get through the mountainous to-read pile next to my bed – which is quite likely to be the cause of that death).

This isn't some smug money-saving tip like the millionaire fashion icon 'oh I get all my stuff from charity shops' might give you in order to fuck up the chances of anybody else ever getting a bargain again. It's because that deadly to-read pile has sibling to-watch and to-listen-to piles and the last thing I pre-ordered was still sitting around unread by the time I first saw it as a 99p kindle special offer. It's really just me: getting old leaves a lot less time to laze about consuming pop culture. I have had The Last Jedi DVD sitting on my shelf for nearly a fortnight now, and am starting to regret paying full price – cheapskate twat that I am.

This is how I will die – although not in such a hideous shirt

It's the competitive nature of fandom that will always confuse me. Those who, when I mention that I quite like band A, will immediately tell me 'I've seen them live,' with a smug face as if buying a freely available ticket in accordance with market forces is some kind of achievement. The tracking down of rare bootleg recordings did indeed used to be a difficult game, the sense of achievement could be earned, until you removed the treasured tape-of-a-tape-of-a-tape-of-a-tape from its photocopied cover and played a crackly, not-quite-as-good-as-the-officially-licensed-live-recording-from-another-date version of a song that should make you question your life choices. Being smug about owning a rare record these days is just being smug about having a lot of money and a discogs account, before it was a sign of having way too much time (also money) on your hands.

In my youth I did indeed bow down to the gods of rock. Until I learned to play well, write killer riffs (spoiler: they may not have been that killer) and understood how it all falls into place. I had no time for contemporary heroes – Kurt Cobain, Thurston Moore, Graham Coxon, Bernard Butler – the grunge-lords and britterati. But the ancient titans of rock – Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Alvin Lee, Jerry Garcia – still held a certain magic: even once I had read biographies pointing out just how spoiled, twatty and broken most of them really were. But then I got older, I came into real life contact with a few actual rock stars in the course of my apathetic failed musical career and they lost their glitter. I still love the songs, but their creators are no more to me than craftsmen doing a job. Love the song, not the singer.

With that realisation I stopped with the envy, and the contempt and all the other vague, bitter stirrings from my artistically unfulfilled heart that I aimed at the unworthy contemporary chart toppers. Truly blinkered fans – you know the ones, they'll tell you 'Octopus's Garden' and 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' are just as good as the overwhelmingly excellent finale of Abbey Road, that Titus Alone is every bit as brilliant as Titus Groan, that Star Wars movies aren't just jolly adventures for kids (they are, and that's why they're great), the kind who think Tusk and Physical Graffiti should not have been single albums without all the shit on, who want to hear David Gilmour do his non-Pink-Floyd material live and didn't cancel their Amazing Spiderman subscriptions when Dr Octopus took over as Spidey – never get to this realisation. Their religious fervour for their idols is truly terrifying. I have friends who, if I were so inclined, I could drive to tears with a pithy take-down of their favourite Green Day album. People whose entire identities are so entwined with their obsessions that to lose one is to lose the other entirely.

'Sheldon, you didn't have a personalityyou just had some shows you liked'

Separating art from artist becomes increasingly necessary in the current environment – especially if you're a bit of a lefty and you like Morrissey: like most Morrissey fans. You can try and draw a line and say you only like his work up until the point he became an awful racist cunt, but I think he may always have been an awful racist cunt. Also 'Spent The Day In Bed' is a fucking great song. So are 'Cat Scratch Fever', 'Rock and Roll part 1', 'Rooftops' and 'Jake the Peg' and I will still listen to them however cuntish their creators.

Difficult people can write great music and if you didn't know the terrible crimes of the artist you wouldn't care. Bowie and Jimmy Page both slept with underage girls (consensually, as far as I am aware, which is a crucial difference) but we're all still very happy to listen to their music. Phil Collins was always a massive tax-dodging tory but... okay, only tax-dodging tories like Phil Collins – same goes for Gary Barlow. But there are fans who are devastated when the ideals of their idols fail to align with their own.

Kill your idols, believe in nothing but yourself, your false religion will ultimately disappoint you. Believe in the music, for it shall set you free, worship the power of the instrument in your hand to change the world, for this machine kills fascists.

Love the art, fuck the artist.