Monthly Archives: January 2014

Just Write: Week 2, Jan 27

Second week of my writing group / class kicked off with our homework from week 1. We had been asked to think about an item of clothing from childhood and what it meant to us and write a short piece about that. Here was mine:

It was a black shirt. Just a plain black shirt.

Except of course it was so much more than that. Since I’d seen that Sisters Of Mercy video on Top Of The Pops it wasn’t just a black shirt anymore. It was a new identity. It was freedom. It was rebellion. Still quite a polite, “no, actually, I don’t think I will take those posters off my wall and no I haven’t done that History course work yet” kind of rebellion if I’m honest. But, nonetheless, rebellion. Sticking it to the Man. Sticking it to him by sitting in my room listening to doom laden bombastic music. Goth music. In my black shirt.

With that black shirt I could stalk the streets of the West Country, maybe in a long trench coat, quoting Poe and Coleridge, my raven hair lustrous beneath the full moon. Like that guy in the Sisters Of Mercy… Look at him in the video striding through a post apocalyptic wasteland in all that leather. All that leather, and his black shirt, with just that similarly clad dominatrix for company. That could be me. That could be me in Plymouth. That could be me, in Plymouth, in my black shirt.

I’ll have to wait for some of the stuff obviously. Dying my hair seems like quite a big step. Can’t really afford any leather and I don’t know any dominatrixes. Dominatricies ? What is the plural for that anyway ? Whatever, I don’t actually know any women as such so, I guess, it doesn’t really matter what the plural is. I suppose I don’t really need a trench coat either; I’ve already got that ski jacket. It’s reversible – so, practical but quirky. You don’t see many Goth’s skiing though.

But I could memorise some poetry. And I had that black shirt. That bible black shirt. See, poetry. The black shirt was working its dark gothic magic already.

I only wore it once. My mother washed it. Not washed it so much as boiled it really. It came out an insipid washed out grey and shrunk to a third of its former size.

Now it was a grey shirt. A tiny, grey shirt. No one strides through a post apocalyptic wasteland in one of those. No one even strides around Plymouth in one.

Best do that History coursework. Maybe take a couple of the posters down.

I actually had a couple of the bits for this already in a previous post – way back at the start of writing about 42 records in my second entry about “This Corrosion”. The stalking the streets of the West Country paragraph is lifted from that and I think I started there and then worked the rest around it. I liked this one and it came out pretty much how I wanted – tonally I think it works reasonably well although it should perhaps concern me that I still find that “voice” relatively easy to write in some twenty five years later…

The bulk of the class was dedicated to looking at characters and playing around with unusual or quirky traits that might lift characters out of cliche. We used a variety of professions as a route into this and then wrote about one. So:

He started to straighten his tie, catching sight of himself in the mirror outside his office. It was loose, top button undone. He turned his face to examine his profile and ran his hand across two days of greying stubble. His hair was unkempt and his eyes were shot with blood.

It had been like this since Grace had left. Emotionally immature she’d called him. A child. She’d raised their children already. Didn’t want to raise another one. What was it she’d said, he thought ? Incapable of expressing himself ? Something like that. Perhaps he should talk to someone about it she’d yelled at him that last time they’d seen each other. A professional she’d sneered.

He left the tie. Thought about straightening it again before, finally, taking it off. People liked casual now anyway. Less intimidating. He was sure someone had told him that. Maybe it had been Alice but he tried not to think of her now if he could help it.

He looked away from the mirror and toward the door with its familiar sign. William Rogers: Psychiatrist and Marriage Counsellor. 

This was more of a mixed bag for me than the homework piece. Having started the exercise looking for ways to render characters as non caricatures I feel a bit like I fell into a great big “psychiatrist with own emotional problems” sized cliche hole. I don’t mind his inner dialogue though and I threw the Alice hint in quite late (if there can be a quite late in the space of ten minutes) and it does provide a bit of a tease. I have also noticed that I seem to write in quite short, staccato sentences a lot. Like this. Particularly when I’m on the clock. It can be effective. But also a little wearing when over used. As here.

All of that self flagellation aside it was another highly enjoyable couple of hours. Some of my fellow class mates came up with some great character sketches and it’s fascinating to hear just how many different directions twelve people can go given the same jump off point.

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Just Write: Week 1, Jan 20

Quite by chance – reading a community centre notice board whilst waiting for my daughter to appear from one of her after school activities – I discovered that there was a creative writing group / course running locally. Thinking that it would be something fun and interesting to do in the new year I had signed myself up prior to Christmas and thought this would be as good a place as any to record my output.

So the first session was last week and it was pretty nerve wracking. I am entirely comfortable speaking and presenting in front of people – it has been a large part of my job for a long time – but there was something very different about reading your own work aloud in front of what were (at the time) a bunch of strangers. Albeit lovely strangers as it turns out.

I will type up each week’s work without tinkering. That does mean that some of it will be pretty raw and some of it will undoubtedly be dreadful – most of it is written in the class in the space of about ten or fifteen minutes so it is largely unedited. However, fortune may favour me with the occasional sentence that isn’t half bad. Even if it doesn’t then I can have a good chuckle back at this in my dotage.

Exercise one in week one was to take a blank piece of paper and brainstorm (that’s not politically correct anymore is it ?) five words that you associate with the word “write”. Then to take each of those five words and come up with five additional words for each – so thirty one words in total as a rough and ready mind map.

Here were mine with the initial five words in bold: Escape – Runaway – Holiday – Job – Calling – Dream – Sleep – Romantic – Future – Ideal – Wonderful – Stuck – Procrastinate – Blocked – Choked – Unsure – Blank – Painful – Failure – Struggle – Esteem – Poor – Fear – Communicate – Reach – Stories – Me – Inside – Touch.

Let us not trouble ourselves too much with amateur psychology at this point… (or the fact that I seem to have missed a word somewhere). The second part of the exercise was to spend five minutes writing a short piece that used all of the words you had come up with. So I had:

The holiday was supposed to be an escape. A chance to runaway. The job was going nowhere, career blocked, and she was facing up to thinking of herself as a failure. The dream, of course, had been different. Now she just thought it was romantic nonsense that had filled her head; stories she’d tell herself about her ideal future. She’d thought it was a calling, not this painful thing it had become.

But the holiday, like the job, like everything, had not been an escape. It was a struggle. Of course it was a struggle; she couldn’t escape herself and what she carried inside.

Again, we may not want to trouble ourselves with the amateur psychology. I didn’t hate it, I guess that’s a decent enough start. I didn’t really like the end though as it felt a bit cliched to me even on first writing, let alone on reading back, but for five minutes scribbling from nowhere I thought it was okay.

The second exercise involved talking about our personal bucket lists (i.e. things you’d like to do before you die) in pairs before picking one of them and free writing about it for ten minutes. In this context “free” writing is simply starting to write and not letting yourself stop for the duration, trying to disregard any internal editing process. That latter point is something I find particularly hard but also may be a big reason why I never make very much progress. Anyway, my piece was about meeting Bruce Springsteen:

The great man, as it turned out, was smaller than I’d expected. Not Bono short. Or Kylie short, but still appreciably less tall than his reputation suggested. He was Bruce Springsteen and if he was at all bored of yet another meet-the-fans-handshake-and-a-few-cursory-words then he didn’t let it show.

“How you doing ?” he asked.

Momentarily I was frozen, utterly terrified. I was having difficulty separating the myth in my head – the quasi mystical mythologiser of American dreams and nightmares – from the man who was extending his hand towards me. The touch of that handshake brought me round. His hands were still slick with sweat, fresh from leaving the stage, and the basic physicality of this made him real to me again. Holding it together I blurted out:

“Great set, great set, it’s… you don’t know what it means to me to meet you…”

He responded with a broad smile and clapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey no problem. Thanks for coming out”.

And then he was gone, on to the next out stretched hand in the queue. The next fervent believer. I watched him go. Definitely smaller than expected but always a giant to me.

Again, I don’t hate it. I do seem to have acquired a habit of pay off lines that might come off as a little too derivative but I did want to give the piece a sense of being self contained, of having a close to it. Not sure why I gave Springsteen the same vocal mannerisms as Joey Tribiani from Friends either… Obviously my short hand for New Jersey. At least he didn’t offer me any “cwoffe”. But I did like the height thing as a way in and he is only 5’9″ ish so it’s entirely possible that I would be struck by that if I ever met him.

And that was week one. It was really good fun. If I’m going to be a frustrated writer then I might as well enjoy being a frustrated writer… and actually write some stuff.

Here we are now, entertain us

23. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (The Spam Ducks / Brian Clough)

I know, I know. Too obvious, right ? Well, I kind of agree but it’s not on the list, not entirely at least, for the obvious reasons. It’s here as much for the, ahem, spirited cover version of it that I was once involved in as it is for kicking in the door to the mainstream for a slew of US alternative bands in the early 90s.

There’s a whole host of musical “scenes” that I could lay claim to have been part of. Part of in the sense of associating with, using as a badge of identity, rather than literally being part of obviously – there isn’t about to be a big reveal wherein I announce that I was actually the bassist in Buffalo Tom. Any of the following would have just about fallen into my later formative years:  Madchester, acid house, the tail end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (sort of), glam / hair metal, and stretching it a bit, C86 if I’d started early and Britpop if I’d started late. Whilst there were bits in all of those that I loved at various stages, including a long infatuation with Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” which baffles me now, I never really felt like I belonged to any of them. For me it was all about the explosion of primarily American bands that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s playing, for want of a better term, alternative rock. Key reference points would include Pixies, Throwing Muses, Belly, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Buffalo Tom, and Pavement, as well as people like Teenage Fanclub, Ride, and The Wedding Present from the UK.

At around the same time – 1990 to be precise – I began to learn to play the guitar. Play probably isn’t the right verb. Work would be closer, for both me and anyone unfortunate enough to be listening. I learned – in those heady days before any of us had the internet – via correspondence with a friend who used to send me little chord diagrams in the post, gradually progressing to a sort of rudimentary tablature. He’d gone on to University, along with most of my school friends, whilst I waited another year to do fun things like retake a couple of exams and have knee surgery. That year did give me the time and inclination to pick up the guitar though so perhaps these things happen for a reason.

I think the first song I could vaguely bash my way through was “My Favourite Dress” by The Wedding Present but playing guitar also meant that I could begin to relieve myself of vocal duties in the finest band ever to emerge from the villages of the South Gloucestershire area. I’ve relived the glory days of The Muppets elsewhere in this blog but they were not the first band I was a part of. No, that honour belongs to The Spam Ducks who later morphed into Brian Clough. Not literally.

The Ducks / Clough had various line ups over a period of a couple of years but was principally the result of the friendship between three of us – Ian, Russ and myself. Those are their real names. I feel they should shoulder as much responsibility for this as me. The band was an excuse for us to mess around and entertain our friends – we would periodically put on a show at a local village hall. On very, very rare occasions we convinced ourselves that we sounded okay. We had a certain ramshackle charm perhaps, often depending on who we’d persuaded to play drums (never underestimate the power of a good drummer to make a bad band sound okay). I think we mainly did it to make each other laugh and, on that score, we were the greatest band in rock history.

As none of us could really play that well we ended up having more of our own songs than covers; we usually couldn’t play the covers. Song writing involved someone coming up with three chords – some variation on D C G proving especially popular – and someone else turning up with a set of lyrics. I say lyrics… Quite often I think a good idea for a song title arising from something we found funny was then stretched out beyond the point of absurdity. So our set typically included: “Washing Machine On My Mind” (it’s tough on dirt, it’s not kind), “Soap On A Rope” (sitting in my bathtub, it’s not a tin one), “Fishfinger” (genuinely with no adolescent sex-gag connotations – it was about fishfingers that you, you know, eat), and “Alan” (Alan, I’d rather drink a gallon… of beer… than have you near…). “Soap On A Rope” was actually a pretty good little punk song.

When we did venture into cover versions it was typically something by The Wedding Present which was helpful in that a) most of the songs were three chords, b) the vocals don’t require much by way of singing ability, and c) no one in the audience really knew the songs anyway. That all changed when we decided to take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, one of the biggest songs of 1991 and so called anthem for Generation X. So how did we approach Kurt Cobain’s sarcastic, contradictory call for teenage revolution ?

We did it sat in large, high backed armchairs with Ian reciting the lyrics in a bluff Northern accent (part Mark E Smith, part Python Four Yorkshireman sketch). There may have been an odd call and response element to the “hello” “hello” bit leading into the chorus involving waving. It is fair to say that we made the song our own. I think Kurt would have approved. If Bill Drummond had done it people would have called it art.

That was one of our last performances and who knows what we might have gone on to accomplish ? We were definitely branching out into experimental territory – we had supported ourselves at that gig as The Living Carpets (stolen entirely from Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer) and performed the theme song to children’s TV show “Heathcliff” with large pieces of carpet taped around our heads. I guess to an outsider it would have looked like kids making a godawful racket, full of in jokes and nonsense but for us it was just hugely fun. Part of the point, as well, was to provide some entertainment for our friends – even if sometimes they got to laugh at us rather than with us – and hopefully we managed a little of that too.

I don’t listen to “Teen Spirit” very often anymore. Don’t listen to “Nevermind” much to be honest – time hasn’t been kind to the production and I think “In Utero” is a far superior record. For a long time though Nirvana were really important to me. It sounds kind of sad but I can strongly recall hearing the news about Cobain’s death and I was affected by it. That was still no excuse for spending a couple of years trying unsuccessfully to ape his hairstyle though. To everyone that witnessed it: I am truly sorry.

When I do listen to “Teen Spirit” now I tend to remember Russ struggling to switch his distortion pedal off, hear Ian bellowing “hello hello” like he’s Graham Chapman at the start of the Spanish Inquisition skit, and see a group of old school friends staring at us in a mixture of amusement and bemusement. It makes me smile.

There’s something dying down on the highway tonight

22. Thunder Road / The Promise / Racing In The Street – Bruce Springsteen

“A reckoning with the adult world; a life of limitations and compromises… but also a life of (kind of) just resilience and commitment to life. To the breath in your lungs. How do I keep faith to these things ? How do I honour these things ?”

If writing these posts – writing full stop – is about anything for me then I guess it’s about trying to address Springsteen’s questions above. It’s the questions that I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to answer and the ones that have particularly vexed me in the past five months: where’s the balance between doing what you feel you want to do and what you think you should do ?

The conceit in threading these three songs together is mine. They’re not sequenced in this order anywhere officially but thematically they fit and, recently, I’ve taken to spinning a narrative across them. It may not be the “correct” narrative but it’s the story that the songs tell to me at this point in my life. Those three songs, spanning two albums and three years; a Great American Novel in 15 minutes. That span of two albums, of course, technically covering a third, the set of songs compiled as “The Promise” that, slightly astonishingly, didn’t make the cut for “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” and only officially surfaced thirty years later as part of its anniversary box set release.

The order is important. Opening with the defiant optimism of “Thunder Road” – it’s a town full of losers, we’re pulling outta here to win – followed by the blunt rebuttal of “The Promise” – everyday it just gets harder to live this dream I’m believing in – and closing with “Racing…” which allows for a glimpse of some degree of reconciliation with what life has delivered – tonight my baby and me, we’re going to ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands.

Max Weinberg sums up the journey Springsteen’s characters (and, by extension, Springsteen himself) make:

“On Born To Run you had the characters saying “baby we were born to run – we’re gonna get out”. In the ensuing three years between Born To Run and Darkness it was made painfully clear: you can’t just run away”

You could make the case to rejig the order with “The Promise” closing the sequence, its yearning, mournful thunder road refrain echoing back to the call of the open highway in “Thunder Road” itself; escape and freedom replaced with despair. That though would be a pretty bleak read and it’s interesting that Springsteen didn’t find room for “The Promise” on “Darkness…”; effectively you could see “Racing In The Street” as the song that picks up the journey of the lovers we meet in “Thunder Road” and it offers hope in its glorious extended coda where “The Promise” offers none. Springsteen almost always offers hope and redemption. It’s perhaps also telling that when he toured Darkness he completely flipped my order, following “Racing…” with “Thunder Road”; a second chance for his jaded lovers ?

“Thunder Road” opens “Born To Run” and is a song I’ve known by heart since I was about 16. I vividly remember sitting in my History A level – the actual exam – having written everything I was going to write about the Reformation and having twenty minutes to spare. So I wrote out the lyrics to “Thunder Road” for no other reason than I could. I didn’t submit the lyrics. My resultant grade suggests that I might as well have done.

It deals, like much of “Born To Run”, in the idea of escape, breaking out of a small town, a small life, for something brighter. Life is still enticing in “Thunder Road”, full of promise, with magic in the night and these two lanes (that) will take us anywhere. There’s a confidence, a certainty, to the male character in the song urging Mary to pick up and leave with him. There’s no doubts here other than the inference that Mary is reluctant – so you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore. An unshakeable belief that heading out on Thunder Road with the windows rolled down, wind blowing in their hair, will lead to some fabled promised land.

“Thunder Road” is a brilliantly constructed song. Solo piano picking out those opening notes, harmonica blowing in the background and Springsteen still in a lyrical phase that’s overtly poetic, overtly cinematic:

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways

Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays

Roy Orbison singing for the lonely

Hey that’s me and I want you only

First four lines and you’re in that scene, there’s a picture in your head, there’s movement, there’s sound, and there’s suddenly two people that you want to know more about. Past those four lines and the song progressively builds and builds, more and more instrumentation joining our protagonist’s exhortations to Mary to come away with him before the band all come in right on roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair – as if the music literally signals that sensation of release in the act. From there it’s full throttle through to the climactic it’s a town full of losers, a heartbeat of a pause, and then the joyous outro as our lovers drive off into the sunset.  

“The Promise”, recorded during the sessions that led to “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”, didn’t officially surface in the version I reference here until the 30th anniversary boxset for “Darkness” came out in 2010 (32nd anniversary not presumably having quite the same ring) although there is a stripped back take on “Tracks”.

It’s pretty hard not to hear “The Promise” as the extension to the story started in “Thunder Road”, largely, of course, because its chorus specifically references that place. In Springsteen’s words it’s “about fighting and not winning” and lyrically the song is brutally stark: inside I felt I was carrying the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost; all my life I fought that fight – the fight you can never win; something in your heart goes cold; there’s something dying down on the highway tonight. The burning certainty of “Thunder Road” is utterly gone here.

Musically “The Promise” is glorious: rising and swelling piano, guitars, strings and layered harmonies. It’s rich and beautiful and achingly sad. It is utterly astonishing that a song as good as this – good enough for many artists to hang an entire career on – was left on the shelf (as a recording) for the best part of thirty years.

I usually make it to the verse about “I built that Challenger by myself but I needed money and so I sold it” before the song breaks me. It’s a hoary old criticism leveled at Springsteen that he deals too heavily in metaphors relating to cars and highways but if you can’t empathise with the destruction of someone’s dream wrapped up in those lines then you must have a steelier heart than mine. That section gets me every single time. I’m fine… I’m fine… No, I’m a broken man. On a very personal level it also came to represent how I felt about the fact that I’d stopped writing. Had somehow become, in my head, a writer who didn’t write. Of course, a writer who doesn’t write isn’t a writer at all. It’s delusional. Dreams. However, a writer who doesn’t write might never have to face up to being not good enough and, for a long time, that was perhaps the unspoken truth I hid behind.

And then there’s “Racing In The Street”. In my contrived sequence this brings our little story to a close – an ambiguous close but a close nonetheless. The song stands easily on its own, it’s self contained, and largely wraps up the expression of that journey from hope down to despair and then back towards a glimpse of new possibilities that I’ve been trying to articulate across the three songs. The truth is that each of the three should fill a place in this list as, without question, these are three of my favourite songs and “Racing In The Street”, if you pushed me, is probably what I consider to be the finest song ever written. It’s a masterpiece. I get that these things are inevitably subjective but that’s the one I return to again and again and again.

The bulk of “Racing…” is quiet, sober, reflective. The story of a guy looking back on his youth spent racing cars up and down the strip with his buddy; a release from the drudge of working. Eventually he meets a girl, they settle down, life turns a little sour (she cries herself to sleep at night; all her pretty dreams are torn – stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born). Somewhere in their lives they’ve lost their way, he’s become one of those guys that just gives up living, starts dying little by little, piece by piece. It’s heart breaking in how ordinary it is. No dramatic event, just an implied slow erosion of the dreams that brought them together and a realisation that life isn’t as simple as blowing away other racers on a warm summer’s night. Or a realisation that maybe that was as good as life got.

If that was the end then we’re back in the same place as “The Promise”, have told the same story twice: bitter, disillusioned and washed up. But that isn’t how “Racing…” ends. The song turns when it’s at its darkest – it does what Springsteen at his best does which is to offer up redemption and hope when faced with life at its worst. So there at the end, with a nod to the other hopeful dreamers and travellers on the road, the characters in “Racing…” take another trip:

For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels

Rumbling though this promised land

Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea

And wash these sins from our hands

Tonight, tonight, the highway’s bright

Out of our way, mister, you best keep

Cause summer’s here and the time is right for going racing in the street

The piano then plays the main melody line unaccompanied before each instrument is reintroduced, beginning with – to my ears at least – an optimistic organ figure and then the song stretches out into an extended coda. That most glorious, beautiful coda. To me it always sounds like they’re watching the sunrise, the first rays of a new morning offering up, even if only briefly, a new set of possibilities on a new horizon.

There’s a documentary that was included as part of the “Darkness” boxset about the making of the record (you can see find it cut into small pieces on Youtube if you care to look). In it Springsteen describes the fundamentals of what the songs from Darkness are about and, in so doing, cuts right to the heart of why that entire record speaks so loudly to me:

So you had to lose your illusions while, at the same time, holding on to some sort of possibilities. But more so your illusions of adult life and a life without limitations which I think everyone dreams of and imagines at a certain point. The song that needs to be sung is the song about, well, how do you deal with those things and move on to a creative life, a spiritual life, a satisfying life, and a life where you can make your way through the day and sleep at night ? That’s what most of those songs are about.

It’s a difficult journey from the fuck-you exuberance of pulling outta here to win to the quieter contemplation of the compromises required in an adult life, a life with responsibility. In many respects I’m extremely lucky. The compromises I’ve made weren’t ones about relationships – I’m not literally experiencing the journey to disillusionment that Springsteen’s lovers are – or the people I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my life with. No, they were about how I spend my time. How and where I invest my energy. Whether I give free expression to myself. Whether I spend my moments committed to something that I believe in and care about. Or whether I punch the clock and pick up the pay cheque.

Springsteen from the documentary again:

“Life is no longer wide open. Adult life is a life of a lot of compromise… and that’s necessary, there’s a lot of things you should be compromising on. And there’s some essential things where you don’t want to compromise. So figuring those things out… 

What’s the part of life you need to compromise to, whatever it may be, pay your bills, get along, to feed your kids, to make your way in the world ? And then what’s the part of life where there’s a part of yourself you can’t compromise… or you lose yourself ?

The answer to that is probably the key to everything. And the answer to that still eludes me.

These singalong songs will be our scriptures

21. Stay Positive – The Hold Steady

So this is halfway, the 21st record of the 42. Except it’s not really. It’s actually an excuse for me to cheat the initial remit of this blog and repurpose it slightly for the future.

Of all the things that I have chosen to do in the last three or four months this has been one of the most rewarding. Not the easiest – usually in the reading back and painful awareness of my limitations – but rewarding nonetheless. So I’m absolutely committed to finishing the list, chronicling another 21 records that have been important to me so far, but I’ve also found that there have been times that the original premise has been a constraint; there have been things I’ve wanted to write about that just didn’t fit. Or could only fit via an arduous process of shoe horning. I could start a different blog I guess but it seems a shame to waste any accumulated goodwill and traffic (limited though it may be) in starting something again.

So here’s the broadening of the remit. For a while I’d been playing around with the idea of 42 as an important milestone number with half an eye (not an entirely serious eye I’ll grant you) on Douglas Adams’ answer to the life, the universe, and everything in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I’m not about to claim anything as grandiose as genuinely illuminating the question as to what it’s all about here but I think there is something in that sentiment for me personally – some of the moments captured here have touched on the things that are fundamental for me. I will try to make it less wanky than that sounds.

So that was a long winded way of saying that I’m going to carry on writing this but also write about some other things too. I imagine that music will continue to figure pretty strongly.

The rest of this post is essentially given over to a number of people who’ve been kind enough to read what I’ve written so far. A few weeks ago I had canvassed opinion on songs that were important to other people with the notion of constructing an alternative 42 compiled from friends and family. Turns out I either don’t have 42 friends or I don’t have 42 friends who were prepared to offer up a song; a mix of the two I suspect. However, I did manage to pull together a list of 21 songs (a couple of people came up with more than one) which seems fitting and, ahem, convenient as this is post number 21. Here’s the records (all with links if you want to hear them):

A Rainy Night In Soho – The Pogues

Remember You’re A Womble – The Wombles

Hocus Pocus – Focus (link is to a live version even more bonkers than the studio recording)

Page One – Lemon Jelly

Best Of You – Foo Fighters

Total Eclipse Of The Heart – Bonnie Tyler

The Stairs – Inxs

Why Worry – Dire Straits

Freakscene – Dinosaur Jr (dreadful video, incredible song)

Days Go By – Keith Urban

Defying Gravity – Idina Menzel / Kristin Chenoweth

Accidently Kelly Street – Frente

Fairytale Of New York – The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl

Verdi Cries – 10,000 Maniacs

Ring Out Solstice Bells – Jethro Tull

You Do Something To Me – Paul Weller

Everything I Own – Ken Boothe

If You’re Going Through Hell – Rodney Atkins

Letter To Me – Brad Paisley

Alive – Pearl Jam

<childhood album, title forgotten> – Rolf Harris

There isn’t a neat and tidy way, thematically, to tie these songs together beyond the fact that what became apparent in hearing different people’s take on the importance of music to them, or the specificity of time and place inherent to them in some of these songs, was that songs can be a powerful anchor in people’s lives. So the headline song on this post – the mighty Hold Steady’s “Stay Positive” – was as close as I could come in wrapping up that sentiment, particularly with respect to the line about “these sing along songs will be our scriptures”. The Hold Steady have never run shy of declaring the redemptive, life affirming power of music – specifically for them rock and roll –  and its capacity to move people in extraordinary ways and this song pretty much sums up their mission statement.

It also, in its opening lines, ties up nicely one of the great things that has come out of the experience of writing many of the posts so far: I got a lot of old friends that are getting back in touch and it’s a pretty good feeling, yeah it feels pretty good. The stats will say that I’ve had something like 1200 views of this blog over the past three or four months. Pretty small beer. But I’ve worked in market research long enough to know that stats lie or, at least, never tell the whole story. I’ve also had extremely kind comments, compliments, suggestions of other songs I might like, virtual conversations about choral pieces, and shared reminiscences. The connections have made the experience far more rewarding for me.

So, that list of 21 records. There were a few new songs here for me – Brad Paisley and Rodney Atkins bringing the country (two kinds of music, y’all), Focus bringing the frankly barking mad yodeling (track reminds me a lot of Muse), and strangely I’d never heard the Jethro Tull song despite being familiar with some of their early stuff. I didn’t know the INXS track either which was a reminder for someone of a concert experience and I can imagine the song as a great opener with its steady build; plenty of time for Michael Hutchence to make his entrance. Not so much now, obviously. We’ve got songs of childhood (or some people winding me up) from The Wombles and Rolf Harris – reminders of a more innocent time. At the time of writing Harris has been charged with twelve counts of indecent assault and, depending on how the trial goes in April, may end up being expunged from the cultural record in much the same way as Gary Glitter has been. There’s Bonnie Tyler’s power ballad par excellence, an impassioned pile-driver from Foo Fighters, the sunshine pop of Frente – very hard to listen to without smiling – and the ambient electronica of Lemon Jelly. There’s Elpheba’s anthem from Wicked about realising your potential and discovering who you are (my daughter’s pick) and Keith Urban’s country rock call to live life to its full (don’t tell my wife but I actually really like this song and Urban is a remarkable guitarist). For pure romance you won’t find many finer songs than “Rainy Night In Soho” (or, indeed, the differently romantic “Fairytale Of New York”) and you won’t find many finer songs, full stop, than “Verdi Cries” – in mine and a friend’s ever shifting list of the top 5 songs ever written this was always (only half jokingly) the only ever fixed point. There are songs attached to unhappy memories from Ken Boothe and Dire Straits, and songs attached to great memories from Pearl Jam and Paul Weller.

There’s probably only one song that I might have picked for my own list, much as I like many of the selected songs. Dinosaur Jr’s “Freakscene” is one of a handful of songs from the US alt invasion of the late 80s and early 90s that I strongly associate with a club in Bristol that a group of us frequented. Happy times and one to revisit in a future post – either with that song or one of its brethren. God I love that song though.

The stories attached to all of these songs aren’t mine to tell but a sincere thank you to those who shared them and when no story was forthcoming I had fun imagining the significance of the song. A virtual group hug would be in order if that was, you know, the sort of thing I do. As it’s not I’ll leave you with the rallying “we gotta stay positive” chorus from The Hold Steady. It’s no bad way to start the year, particularly if you’ve just had a year like mine.