You’ve probably experienced this yourself at some transitional point in life – listened to a song, and its melody and/or lyrics leapt out to fill your mind with stunned silence, that weird missed-step feeling of Fate having a hand between your shoulder blades. Regardless of its release date, that song would then become synonymous with a fragment of time when, for a few moments, you didn’t feel quite so unique, or so alone and unheard by the world, depending on how you viewed it.
This is how music has always underscored different aspects of my life. Each year, I’ll find at least one song/album which can define the overall mood based on events, or my mindset. It’s been an ongoing game for a while now, one I believe to be integral to building something like a rapport with the artists involved (though they’ll never know my shadow, of course.)
Taking a leaf out of Simon Goddard’s excellent chronological analysis of The Smiths, I’ve compiled a series of these songs to mark significant periods of time, either in my life or the lives of those I care about. They’re listed according to the chronology of when I first heard them, or how I “relearned” them through the filter of changed circumstances.
Since musical taste is an excellent way of getting to know people, I invite you all to join me; either as entries on your own blogs, or as stand-alone articles. I’ll include relevant personal meanings for each song, and ask that you do the same; as descriptive/sensory as you like. Paint a Vulgar Picture, if necessary – or indeed, a Starry Night. Make it a journal-account of sorts. Keep to around 15-20 songs, include music videos and pictures if you wish; but above all, go in-depth about how these songs wove themselves into the fabric of your being, how they mark those defining moments.
1) Leonard Cohen, Suzanne / The Smiths, How Soon is Now? (1985-9)
This was the period of time I spent in Gutersloh, N/West Germany. Those were golden days, when my child self would wander carefree (and carelessly, regardless of my poor parent’s feelings) up and down the sunbaked crazy paving of our little cul-de-sac, just outside the old RAF barracks where my father was stationed. Those were the years of the Falklands – not that I was aware of it at the time, only of the screaming whine of Harrier jets overhead, the guttural throb of Chinook helicopters (the sound of those twin rotors would become intrinsically linked to Johnny Marr’s oscillating guitar.)
The days seemed full of green and gold light, the evenings with street BBQ’s, where our neighbours would gather to discuss whatever it was adults found interesting at the time (no doubt, the ongoing conflict was high on the topic list.) My four-year-old self would be allowed to stay up later than usual on these occasions, so long as I stayed within the boundaries of our garden – ringed about as it was with tall Leylandii, like so many silent solemn sentries. Their sap released a spice to the warm winds, which always takes me back to that time of BBQ sauce, chattering crowds along the sun-struck streets, and standing on tiptoe at the window of my bedroom, to peer out onto the horizon which was already calling my blood. This song permeated that time, for it was one of my father’s favourite songs to play whenever we were packing to head back to the UK, for family visits. So it goes that Suzanne is synonymous with travel for me; of wandering, and longing for something that I couldn’t (and still can’t) put my finger on. It remains my favourite song to this day – one that could best define my character, if I may be so bold to say so – while The Smiths were firmly set as a mainstay in my listening experience.
2) Tracy Chapman, Fast Car / Art Garfunkel, Bright Eyes / Don McLean, Vincent (1992-5)
Having a father who DJ’d part-time in the NAAFI at the German RAF base, meant I was exposed to songs from across many genres and eras. He had a particular love for the acoustic guitar, and would often host impromptu parties at our house, inviting musical friends over just to practise together over beers and talk. It was one of my favourite pastimes to sit quietly in a corner, knees tucked under my chin and listening to their harmonies. Among the repertoire would be contemporaries like Art Garfunkel, Don McLean and Tracy Chapman – all of whom left an integral mark on this period of my life, when we were living back in the UK and I was becoming dexterous enough with my hands to warrant the gift (after much pleading) of my own acoustic guitar, Christmas 1993. I had an ear for music, it turned out, though still can’t read a note; like Dad (and my younger brother) I learned to play by ear, as well as by the strange mnemonic effect of all the colours I saw/see in my mind, which is akin to using Post-It notes in a literary text.
Hence, Vincent is synonymous with the colours blue and silver, as it appears to me with each listen; while Fast Car is broad strips of umber and desert blacktop, wavering with heat (well, that’s the image I’ve developed over the years; the actual “sight” is just a cloud of these colours, moving with the trail of sound.) Bright Eyes will forever be silver and green, the paleness of living death. Incidentally, it was a song I would play a lot in later years, when anorexia took hold.
These were some of the first songs I learned to play, and are the ones I return to when feeling particularly nostalgic, or am back in the South visiting family. Then, my old man will hand me one of his spare guitars, and we’ll sit together as father and daughter again, rather than two adults who’ve become loving strangers over the years. Music has always been one of the few understandings we have – a wordless agreement between two different personalities, that the songs we play are vital to our bond.
3) Ralph McTell, Streets of London (1998-9)
When my Year 8 English teacher told the class that we would be writing about personification – a subject recently delved into – the room held its collective breath. This wasn’t to be a regular essay, with easy copy ‘n paste lines from texts we’d thumbed through; it was to be the very definition of “personal”, taking a theme or topic that we held dear and were familiar with, and animating it with such description that it would stand up from the page, full of character.
Well, I’d recently got into reading Robin Jarvis’ excellent Deptford Mice trilogy, as a progression from Brian Jacques Redwall saga. Both employ personification, with the animal protagonists given human qualities and traits to make them more easily accessible for the target audience of primary / middle school children. I was 13 years old at the time, and as impressed by the strong characterization as by the settings. London, in particular, was brought to vivid life in Jarvis’ books – both its medieval and modern versions.
While reading these books cover-to-cover, and agonizing over what to turn into a Who for this damn project, I’d been listening to one of Dad’s albums from the 80’s – a favourite of ours, which has proved largely influential on my own personality and writing. Vincent by Don McLean was the opening track, with Cohen’s Suzanne a bit further down; and towards the end, Ralph McTell’s Streets of London.
The latter, in conjunction with Jarvis’ stories of murder on moonless nights, sunlit cobbled streets and the do-or-die attitude of the city’s animal denizens, brought the answer home to me. I was in the right frame of mind, and in one evening rapped out the poem “London” (how original), submitted on the penultimate day of our allocated time to complete the project. I always leave these things to the last minute.
It was my first published piece; not that I knew about it for weeks, for my English teacher submitted that poem to a creative writing competition which happened to be doing the rounds of our college at the time. No one was more surprised than me when the result was a certificate, and the promise of two free copies of the poetry anthology it was to be published in. Turns out the competition was a country-wide gig, plucking poetry from various middle schools and colleges, to showcase the student’s work.
It’s always nice to have a little ego boost. I guess that was the pivotal moment, when London became more than just a dream but an emblem of my future writing career, for I began to take the latter seriously thereafter. I have only to listen to McTell’s guitar-trickle melody to go back to that time – that priceless moment, when I saw the printed copy of my poem for the first time, and felt its ink tingle through my hands.
4) Fastball, The Way (1998-9)
Summers 1998 and 1999 were heatwaves to remember. I’d recently fallen in with a gang of friends from school, all of whom were – no other way of putting it – misfits like me. We were readers and dreamers and IT techs; some had military backgrounds like me; the only other two girls were social butterflies too, and we meandered from one group to another, with their own idiosyncrasies and levels of “popularity.” Yep, that was the unspoken rule of the time, when age 13-16 was the hellish era of Look but Don’t Touch among peers; when a lot of the better-looking girls were nicknamed The Goddesses, by boys too scared stupid to approach them even for a glance, let alone a lighter.
Well, this little group of mine, we started hanging out down the old Clay Pits near to my home, on a housing estate bordering the town. Being “out in the sticks” as we were, it was easier still to define ourselves from the main bulk of the teen-scene, who in the majority hung around bus shelters and became known (originally) as The Townies. Yes, it was that embarrassingly sincere.
But for the six or seven of us who scratched out old rabbit burrows to make firepits, climbed trees to watch the sinking sun, and had more dens in the hawthorns growing thick and wild in the fields surrounding the pit, these were halcyon days. We spent them hunting each other through the long grass, crafting catapults and snares to string up around our dens (there were other kid-gangs running around the estate, too – we liked to imitate what we’d seen in war films, and could only guess at in history lessons) – oh, and scooping up great jelly-globules of frogspawn, to be tenderly replaced further downstream, beneath our favourite climbing tree. Needless to say, a lot of very confused frogs soon made this stretch of water their home, where the evening sun would slant in through the overhanging boughs of that vast oak, along which we all lay, to watch the silt turn from brown to gold.
“It’s always summer, they’ll never get cold
They’ll never get hungry, they’ll never get old and grey
You can see their shadows wandering on somewhere
They won’t make it home, but they really don’t care
They wanted the highway, they’re happier there, today
Today.” – Fastball, The Way
That summer, it seemed to go on forever; a handful of moments, a world of tomorrows. Still, we all grew up and away from each other in the end, as friends sometimes do, without malice and with faces turned to the changing winds.
5) David Bowie, Heroes / The Levellers, Too Real (1998-9)
Around the same time, when the nights were too sultry for sleep, I had started jumping out of my bedroom window to climb down the garage roof, and run off through the lamplight haven of orange and black. It was the only way to expend all that energy, to burn up the wanderlust in my blood, which had only increased from childhood. Ma had given me The Best of the Levellers album, and I was listening to it pretty much solid – stoked up on the thrilling dream of leaving home for good, to live in a tree with Swampy (remember him?), if only to royally piss off my father. Wandering through town barefoot, with twig-knotted hair and long gypsy skirts, I wasn’t far from realizing my unwashed ideal already. Teen years are fun, aren’t they.
The 1998 remake of Godzilla by Roland Emmerich was by that point out on video, and I’d watch it at least twice every 24 hours for that entire summer; staying up until 3am to eat raw crackers and sketch images from the movie book, while the film flickered in the background on my little TV/VCR combi. I ached for Manhattan, had a huge street map of the city pinned up on the wall by my desk. There was this romantic dream of journalism growing behind my eyes, of constant action and rain-slicked streets – whenever anyone asked what I planned to do with my life thereafter, this was my answer, since up until then I hadn’t had any real crystallization of what I wanted to do. Dad had already made it clear that writing, while handy as a hobby, would probably remain as such unless I struck lucky with a book deal. Ever a realist, but I owe him on that one, since it grounded me in the truth that to sell writing, was to have some kind of format.
Even at age 13, I knew that by just throwing stories out there, I wouldn’t make Things happen. Since journalism seemed to encapsulate an awful lot of what I was interested in or had natural affinity for (or as Dad put it, “you’re bloody nosy enough”), it seemed one path to tentatively walk down. I could also use it as ammo against my year group’s careers advisor, who was by that point tearing her hair out over my wispy answers of what I wanted to do with my life. I was signed up for GCSE Media Studies.
Yet another reason to stay up ’til 3am, reading all the books that were stuck under my nose. But Godzilla usually won out in the end, along with the soundtrack, movie book and all other related paraphernalia. Over time, with research, those romantic notions would fade away; but I still have a soft spot for the silver-glint skyline of Manhattan and all it represents, in conjunction with a transitional period of my life, when the world opened up a little more.
6) R.E.M, Daysleeper, Everybody Hurts / Del Amitri, Driving with the brakes On (1998-2000)
Sad to say, it was around those formative years that my parents began – quite out of the blue – to argue in earnest. They’d always had little spats here and there, but this was the Real Deal, and could no longer be contained behind Ma’s pained eyes and Dad’s newspaper (though when she began flinging words like darts, he would conceal himself there nonetheless.) I still can’t work out what was worse – the stony silences, or the screaming matches. It was like tasting the iron-air before a storm; as soon as I heard the raised voices in the kitchen below my bedroom, I would hoik my earphones up over my head, and get lost in music and writing/reading. Or if they were down in the lounge, I’d slip out of the window and out to the Clay Pits, to wander aimlessly in the rain.
I can hear it now, pattering down on the low roof of Kensington Olympia station, where my father and I waited for our train. It was December, a night of raw black wind, skirling leaves and silver rain coming down in sheets; we’d had our annual father-daughter day out in London, attending the Grand National cat show, as had been our habit since 1995. It was a day of bonding, since we had little else in common, other than music; and one usually full of grins and admiration for all the breeds paraded on the show bench. But the strain of his marital-storm was clear on Dad’s face, and I knew to keep my mouth shut; we huddled together, staring out along the gleaming line in silence, until I heard a faded sound – my Dad, crying so quietly that at first I mistook it for the voice of the rain.
I hate seeing men cry. I know how awful this sounds, as though they have less right to, or that women are more overly given to it; but when I was growing up, it was my mother who expressed herself far more vocally, in fits of temper and golden gales of laughter. With Dad, it took a good deal more to get him to crack a smile, or to lose his temper (though when he did, it was all the more frightening for its previous absence, as of a dormant volcano suddenly erupting out of nowhere.) So to see my father standing there, unable to hide the tears anymore, was something that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I didn’t know what had gone wrong between them – still don’t, really, since it’s not an issue I ever wish to press – but what I did know, was that words wouldn’t come up my throat. So I just reached out and took his hand, instead.
Later, at another station where a music store was still open, he bought me the REM single Daysleeper, which was a favourite song of mine at the time – synonymous with the green-gold light of dawn, pouring in through my eastward-facing bedroom window. But it’ll always be Everybody Hurts, by the same band, which will stay attached to that fragment of time – when for once, it was my old man leaning on my shoulder, and not the other way around. If he ever reads this, I hope he won’t be ashamed that I’ve included it here, for it was a pivotal moment. I learned that even the strongest souls will bend under pressure, might even break; but they can reset themselves.
7) Alice Deejay, Better off Alone (1999-2000)
With the acrimonious divorce proceedings, and all the shit that would accompany it, I started going off the rails. In school, I was thrown out of pretty much every lesson I walked into, wearing trainers that went against uniform regulations, and with a wire-smile to twist around the throat of any teacher. I was a nasty bitch, truth be told; making my parents’ lives hell, even as they went through their own problems with each other. My older sister and I were for once linked in our hormonal shifts into puberty, though this was little comfort to anyone, since we fought over makeup and outfits probably too adult for either of us, at ages 14-17 respectively. Our poor little brother was caught in the middle, a wobbly-lipped bystander. He was one of the few people I could bear to be around, and felt more like my childhood self with.
Still, when he wasn’t there and I was out facing down the world, it was with the new group of peers I had fallen that I’d find solace – with cigarettes and alcohol (the usual suspects), and a new kind of lamplight haven, far distant from my old solitary wanderings. This was full of spiralling laughter and diagonal pavements, hiccups and sometimes puddles of puke in the gutter. The music scene changed with the faces, too – I was inducted into dance and trance, though I still sought out some kind of meaning behind the lyrics (such as they were.) It was that typical whirligig of hormones and Everything Bright, while we ducked beneath the shadows of our own loneliness and melancholy. No one talked about it, though when inebriated, some of the “harder” lads would suddenly break down in tears for no reason – and we’d all offer more beer, and a cigarette as comfort, with perhaps an arm around the shoulder if someone was feeling particularly mushy.
Needless to say, I didn’t hang around with this crowd for long. It wasn’t my scene, and I felt less than myself, even without the upheaval at home. The clincher was the abuse, which took place when one of that group betrayed me to her older boyfriend.
I never looked back.
That being said, I still listen to a few of those songs with a wry half-smile, remembering who I’d tried to be, and the reality of my bitchy teen self. I was a nasty piece of work, and gave my parents – already going through tough times with the divorce – absolute hell. We lost count of the yellow slips sent home from school; I collected them, with that bored sneer, to light my cigarettes, while totting up the average number of detentions at the end of each month.
But the music plays on, and I only ever really listened to the stuff that made my chest ache, as with all the music I choose to keep around. Alice Deejay was a perfect example.
8) Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven / Joni Mitchell, A Case of You (2000/01)
With the abuse weighing heavily on my soul, I retreated into myself, went back to being a loner – more so than ever before. This was just prior to the period when I would nosedive into anorexia. Immersing myself in fantasy fiction (Dragonlance – a saga so long that I’d never run out of books) and squirreling away old favourite albums Dad kept in the schrank (cupboard to you), I became a recluse in my bedroom. Scribbling out stories, sitting in the windowsill to watch the sky, I found one unpleasant habit had remained from those scarum-days with the gang – I needed to drink, to disappear. So raids on the fridge began in earnest, until Dad finally figured out where his beer bottles were going. His punishment – grounding me to my room – was just another excuse not to walk around town, to be seen, to talk to anyone.
I’d always heard him play Stairway to Heaven downstairs, on the magnificent Hi-Fi and its upright speakers (which I’d already blown out twice, with house parties.) Still, the haunting melody came second to the lyrics, when I actually started listening to them properly. He’d described it once, in a rare moment of whimsy, as something like “prophecy in a song.” Indeed, these lines would make my eyes fill with tears when I heard them, as though resounding down the years of wandering and loneliness; it finally felt like someone else “got it”, whatever It was:
“There’s a feeling I get / When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving.”
No lyrics have ever struck down inside as deeply as these did, when I was that 15 year old, on the cusp of something she could feel was going to be life-changing – for better or worse.
9) Gary Jules, Mad World / Bruce Springsteen, Streets of Philadelphia (2003)
Well, it turned out to be worse.
Anorexia had me snarled up in its reins by the end of 2001. The school prom, around July, had seen me at the fittest and healthiest I’d ever been, thanks to plenty of sunbathing, a new-found link to makeup and my feminine side, and a regular fitness plan. Oh, and the dieting, let’s not forget that. It began with cutting out sweets and “bad foods” –
Cut to November, and I wasn’t smiling for the camera anymore. I was staring out my GP, who had just diagnosed me with anorexia; trying to fathom how this illness (which then, I knew very little about, except that it involved supermodels) could be assigned to a boring, lazy fat fuck like me. Listening to my mother quietly crying beside me, for she’d been through her own twists of an eating disorder when the divorce proceedings were at their most stressful, I felt numb in mind and fingertips. You could collect rainwater in my collarbones.
People had alternated between praising my weightloss, “You look great!” and warning, “Don’t go too far, Rai.”
“Oh I won’t,” was my laughing reply, “I love my food too much.”
My first attempt at sixth form, in the college of a beloved town which will forever hold memories of walking in the rain, white cliffs and the green-black smell of the river, ended badly. By January 2002, I was too frail to walk, and living with my grandparents. Days bled into each other, full of heavy meals made with desperate love, reading in the conservatory (words swimming into each other) and surreptitious exercise whenever/wherever possible. When I was finally admitted to hospital in September 2003, it was to the vast relief of everyone – including me, that tiny fragment which was still Me, shoved up against the inside of my head by the screaming white monster that was anorexia.
Those were strange days. I can’t listen to Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia without seeing the green light on dark walls, when one of our number fell; and the little cat-face of the Scottish girl we loved/hated for her so-loud illness, the shreds of mischievous personality she did sometimes show when her health improved. Her heart gave out in May 2004, just after leaving the ward.
She always had that apricot-syrup smell of slow decay about her, so bittersweet and cloying. She would sit in front of me, still as a unicorn, while I carefully straightened the fragile lengths of her hair. For all the dreadful manners she sometimes displayed, thanks to her own raging monster, she could also be very sweet. Though the strands in my fingers were brittle with malnutrition, and the blades of my straighteners so terribly hot, I always ceded to her requests – figuring that if this rare need for attention kept her still and quiet even for a few moments, it was worth it.
This year marks a decade since her death, and my leaving hospital for the last time.
Never forgotten, Lindsay.
That’s enough for now. Part Two, next Monday.