Tag Archives: heartbreak

Landslide

It was my third year in Mammoth and I still didn’t know why I came. That first time he’d convinced me that I’d love it, that there was nothing like the sensation of ploughing through powder, cold Californian air in your lungs, the mountains cutting a jagged zig-zag across the horizon. I went with it then. I think I was caught up in his relentless enthusiasm, mistook it for something more joyous than all the deadbeats and down-and-outs that had polluted too many of my years. I guess it wasn’t a mistake. He was more joyous than what I’d become used to but the object of his joy seemed to largely be himself. I just got to bask in the reflected glow, catch a few rays. I never did tell him just how much powder I’d ploughed my way through when I was younger; coke was cheaper than skiing too and the risks seemed pretty similar. Maybe that just reflected my relative skills. I was lousy on the piste but a world champion ex junkie. One day at a time and all that jazz.

We met after I’d moved to San Francisco. It hadn’t really been my plan but it turned out that there weren’t too many ways to scratch out a living bumming it on Big Sur and I couldn’t face returning to Seattle. The very definition of a bad scene. Good coffee though so there’s that, I guess. I think I’d initially avoided defaulting to the Bay as it seemed too obvious. Stick a pin in the big map of Bohemia and chances are you’re going to find yourself idly imagining hanging out on Haight and losing long nights in late night bars with artists and artisans. The stubborn part of me – and it’s not like it’s a small part – resisted that for a while. Did I think I was going to go all Mary Ann Singleton, rock up to Barbary Lane and live out my own tales of the city? Swap smokes with my landlady and share my dreams with poets and painters? I was forty-one and past dreaming.

I don’t know if I was some sort of novelty for him, with my tattoos and scarves, my opinions. He was doing something in Silicon Valley that he’d told me about several times but which I never really cared enough about to grasp. A social media start-up I think. He’d been pretty bemused by my analogue habits and had insisted on setting me up on Facebook, connected me back up to a whole sequence of people I thought I’d long left behind me. Trawling through my life had taken a while, if only because I’d moved around so much. All those schools – a bunch of people I didn’t remember – as well as my various addresses on the West Coast. A lot of friend requests in Seattle went unanswered. I assumed they were either dead or they still owed me money. Like I said, it was the very definition of a bad scene.

I knew we were an odd fit. I was the exact opposite of his ex-wife and maybe that was all I was ever supposed to be. The anti-her. I don’t know what he was supposed to be for me. He was attractive in a Gap advert kinda way but I hadn’t ever thought I’d be bothered about how someone looked in tailored chinos. And he was enthusiastic. It was like he was powered on his own internal dynamo, each day permanently set to ‘awesome’. I think maybe I thought that some of that relentless energy would be infectious, that it’d be something I could catch, like a more pleasant form of crabs, you know? But it never seemed to infect me. We had a lot of sex. Enthusiastic sex, on his part at least. But it was always sort of empty for me, like he was bench pressing at the gym or silently counting off the number of seconds he could hold himself in a plank position. Not silently actually, there was always a loud and upbeat commentary. Come on. Two. Three. Four. Five. Come on. You’re nearly there. Six. Seven. Eight. Hold on. Nine. Ah yeah. Ten. It was rare for the count to get past ten.

The atmosphere between us had been different on the drive up to the resort. Maybe he’d grown tired of my sarcasm and sniping, maybe he was weary of his little collapsing star, a black hole sucking at his ever radiating light. I joked that we should head north straight past Mammoth and right on through to Mono. They would probably welcome me like the home coming queen. He didn’t get it and muttered something about there being no snow in Mono and how he’d booked just-the-best-lodge again this year and that if I didn’t like it then I didn’t have to come. I clammed up and didn’t say much else for the rest of the journey, even left his ‘Hootie And The Blowfish’ running on the car stereo. Apparently it was what he listened to in college. On its own that should have been enough for me to flip open the car door, roll into a ball, and launch myself out to bounce down the freeway. Lie there for a while on the asphalt, let it fill my nostrils. I must have listened to him hit rewind on ‘Only Wannabe With You’ five, six times, each repeat just reinforcing the irony.

The day he left me half way up a mountain was when I knew we were done. Or more like it was the day I resolved to make us done, I think I’d known we were done for a long time but just got stuck in my own inertia. I don’t even remember the details of the row. Just me being me, wise cracking, whip snappin’, smart ass me. And him being him, lame ass him. We were off piste – literally off piste, that’s not a metaphor – and I’d only gone to keep the peace, to appease his incessant need to do something: it’ll be gnarly, come on. So really I knew the problem wasn’t him but was me: when did I start keeping the peace and appeasing people? When did I nod along dumbly to something being gnarly that wasn’t a fucking tree? When did I ski? When did I go off piste? Again, literally. Metaphorically half my life had been somewhere way off piste. I watched him disappear down the slope in a spray of snow, sun radiating off a million unique frozen flakes thrown into the air by his departure. It was a good exit, I had to give him that, and it spared me the indignity of anyone witnessing my own descent. Most of it was on my ass.

I thawed out in McCoy Station with the other mountain refugees. Pitch black coffee and wi-fi: everything I needed to plot my trajectory back home. I figured I’d hire a car and hit the road. If the pass through Yosemite was shut then I could always head south and find a motel in Fresno or some other collection of malls masquerading as a town. I pulled out my phone to call down to the lodge’s concierge service, might as well get them to book the rental and with any luck my soon to be ex would end up picking up the tab. I had a notification in Facebook. Usually I ignored them, someone I’d long forgotten wanting to ‘connect’. There wasn’t much in my past, save a few precious months of genuine connection across the Atlantic, that I cared to revisit. I opened the app resolving to erase myself, to disappear from the digital realm, but the message stopped me. It was my old school in England extending an invite across twenty five years to a reunion.

I was sat inside and if I pressed my face up close to the glass screen separating me from the cold then I could make out my reflection, the translucent outline of my features superimposed on the white capped peaks in the distance. I looked old. So did the hills but they carried it with a certain rugged charm. Through the glass, way out in the distance on the mountain opposite, a shelf of snow dislodged and discharged itself down the slope, obliterating my reflection in a sudden and shocking blizzard of the brightest white.

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Tangled up in blue

I didn’t get Dylan until I was 33. I don’t know why it didn’t happen earlier. There was a time in my mid 20s, a time half lost in a fug of smoke, incensed and insensible, when I remember really trying to get him. I was listening to a lot of Neil Young and it seemed like a logical progression. Maybe I had it back to front. Everything was a little back to front then, dealing with the fall out from the end of love number four. It even sounded a bit like a Dylan song. Talkin’ love number four blues. Ballad in desponden-cee minor. Maybe not. Look, he’s a genius that shaped the entire cultural landscape of the twentieth century. I’m not. I’m just someone chalking up too many failed love affairs, measuring them all against a teenage friendship with a girl from America who disappeared, and finding them all wanting.

I think an appreciation for Bob is hard won. I don’t think it’s something that just slots into place instantly. There’s that snare shot at the start of Like A Rolling Stone, like a starting gun for a century, but otherwise it doesn’t offer itself up easily. You have to work at it. Stick with it, live with it for a while, let it percolate into your soul. Perhaps that’s the great lesson here: that anything worthwhile is going to take a little work. Anything including you but I guess it’s a bit late for that.

You choose your poison. I got tired of feeling blunt so I knocked the smoke on the head sometime in 2012. My standard joke is that I quit after discovering it wasn’t going to be part of the Olympics in London: that I’d trained all those years for nothing. I think I had a line about being disqualified for taking performance enhancing drugs as well. One of those standard, semi rehearsed bits of conversation you carry round with you. Scarily enough, if by some oversight on the part of the IOC, pot smoking had been approved as a discipline (or an indiscipline I guess) than I’d have backed myself for a medal. Probably not gold. It’s the sort of event where you could imagine none of the participants quite rousing themselves to strive for the gold but I reckon I’d have split the bronze with some other lost stoner. Maybe from Estonia. There you go, another Dylan-esque turn of phrase for you.

It was easier after I left the flat in Harrow, escaped further up the Met Line into Metroland. Out here it’s all Majestic Wine and micro brew shops. A much more respectable narcotic selection to desensitise yourself and get lost in. I buried the memory of you, phosphorescent number four, in expensive reds and dry whites. It was cheaper to buy more than six bottles so there was better value in oblivion. There were occasional moments of reflection as I was stewed in the booze: why didn’t it work, was it you, was it me, wasn’t life simpler sitting up on a balcony kicking round stories about Stevie Nicks with the smartest, sassiest girl you ever met? I keep coming back to that last one. I see friends now pair off and proclaim that they’ve found their soul mate. I always shied away from the phrase. It seemed a bit, well, shit. Maybe I’ve softened lately. Maybe I think I let mine slide away. Not just my soul mate. My accomplice in chief, my co-conspirator, my confidant, my touchstone. Time distorts memory and perhaps I just see the past as a rose tinted hue, all Stevie Nicks silk scarves and bare feet and incense burners, and perhaps it wouldn’t have been that simple.

That’s why I didn’t get Dylan until I was older. He’s complex. Life looks pretty simple when you’re young and you figure getting knocked down isn’t such a big deal: you’re spry enough to pick yourself up and go again. It hurts a bit more these days. Takes a little longer to find my feet each time I lose them. There’s more dust to dust down. It’s all a bit more complicated and that’s the thing that Bob speaks to. After we finished I sank into ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and didn’t surface for weeks. Just absorbed it until it was part of me. Didn’t try to learn it (I could never get Dylan’s picking down). Just drowned in it.

Got tangled up in it as I untangled myself from you.

Don’t let it bring you down

It was the month I spent learning ‘After The Goldrush’. Holed up in a house in Harrow, curtains tight all day until I’d open them up late to glimpse the dusk. I used to watch the street lights come on before slipping out to the corner shop to pick up enough to barricade myself back in for the following day. I think I was getting by on cheap Shiraz, a pack of Marlborough Lights, and tinned sardines on toast. Sometimes I’d upgrade to a better bottle of wine and skip the sardines. There was a guy that hung out near the shop who kept trying to sell me weed, or something to ‘turbo charge your cigarettes, mate’ as he put it. After about a week he budged on his opening price and so, occasionally, I swapped out the sardines for his low grade skunk. That was pretty much my life that Autumn, sleeping through the day and numbing my way through the nights with booze and pot and Neil Young.

‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ was the one I kept coming back to. It was invariably the song that was still on when I’d drift off to sleep in the early hours, sometimes still oscillating away on repeat when I woke the next day. I’d reach across from my bed, pull my acoustic off the floor and cautiously sound out the progressions, right hand barely scratching the strings, just a faint echo of the original song coming out of the speaker. If there was anything left from last night’s joint I’d spark that up and ease into the evening semi-conscious. That whole time is lost in a haze of smoke and heartbreak. Only love can break your heart? Damn straight, Neil. Damn straight.

Early in the month the phone used to ring late at night. I was pretty sure it was you but I never picked up. I know you thought we could be something else, all that ‘I still want us to be friends’ stuff that you’d said steadily over and over again the night you told me. But who wants to snatch glimpses of a set of polaroids when you used to be in the film? We were widescreen and surround sound. We were the stars. I won’t watch someone else take my leading role while I skulk on the sidelines. We started as friends. That was your other line. We started as friends, so we can go back to being friends, as if I could go back to being the person I was when we started. You changed that person. Wrapped yourself up in him, around him, like you were ivy working your way into brick and wood, finding the spaces to catch and latch on. I guess that’s not fair. It’s not like I was unwilling; you were an invited invader. I just didn’t realise how much of me was so bound up in you, how much would crumble and pull apart when you retreated.

Lately the phone’s not been ringing and I’ve swapped crumbling and pulling apart for crumbling and burning. A succession of nights numbed and lost in sweet, sticky smoke. It makes the music sound better even if it doesn’t really change anything. Sometimes I’ll put on Tom Petty or, if I really want to drown in nostalgia, Stevie Nicks, and try to put you in your place: you don’t have the exclusive rights on breaking my heart or the soundtrack to it. But the American Girl feels like a lifetime ago and we were just kids then. Edge of seventeen? I hear you, Stevie, I hear you. That was all too long ago. Not like you. Right up close. You were present enough that I didn’t wash my sheets for weeks because I was convinced they still held your scent. One of those androgynous perfumes, I used to spritz some on my wrist on the mornings you’d stayed over so I could keep you with me for the rest of the day. But you’re past enough that now there was mainly just an oppressive and pungent cloud of weed hanging perpetually in my room. Even through that I thought I still caught the traces of you but I was pretty stoned when I was awake so my senses were not reliable. Not to be trusted.

You will come around. That’s the very last thing I let you say to me. I didn’t believe you then and every time Neil sings it now, every time I pick restlessly at my guitar strings and murmur the chorus, I still don’t believe it.

 

Reunion (reprise)

You look surprised to see me and maybe even a little embarrassed. Perhaps she hadn’t told you that I might be coming. Most of all you look older. I know that’s a stupid thing to say after nine years but it’s what strikes me the most; you’ve hastened your hair’s natural retreat by cropping it back and it’s fading to grey. You’re carrying more weight now. Not a tummy exactly but everything’s a little looser, I have to work at making out the line of your jaw. I suppose that if we’d seen each other more often – or at all – then the change wouldn’t be so marked. I can see how the increments would have accumulated over time, I just get to see all of them unfolded at once. It’s enough to send me to the toilets so that I can find a mirror, try to see what the impact of nine years has had on my own face. I can’t judge. I’m too used to seeing it every day and it’s been a long time since I was the person that you knew who peeked up and out from under a fringe. I think I used to hide behind it in the hope of being found. I don’t hide anymore and I’m not looking to be found.

When we talk it’s less awkward than I’d expected. There’s a moment as we meet when the slightest inclination of your head suggests that, maybe on auto-pilot, you’re thinking of greeting me with one of those cheek brushes that seems to have become the standard in our 30s. The older we get the less contact we seem to want. In our 20s it was all hugs and embraces. And, for me and you, the tango of course but it’s a long time since I did any dancing. I shift backwards slightly and offer my hand. Less contact. We touch and I remember the softness of your skin.

When you meet back up with someone after a long absence there’s only really two places the conversation can go. What are you up to now or do you remember when…? We start with the now and keep it light; you’re working up in Harrow, a tech start up that I didn’t catch the name of, and I’m dividing my time between travelling and freelancing, sometimes combining the two. Writing about jazz clubs ? You offer it with a tentative smile, a cautious prod at the thin ice covering the deep waters that are our former lives together. You were always good at that. Finding ways to get me to open up, unlocking the private chambers of my heart, leavening and lightening my seriousness without belittling it. You wouldn’t have let ‘private chambers’ pass without a gag either. I catch myself missing that. Missing the fun we had, even when it was innuendo and bad puns. Writing about jazz clubs. You know me too well. I haven’t really changed. And he nods, sadly, and says: no, no you haven’t. 

We’re saved from our small talk by the arrival of the cake. Mike’s carrying it in, thirty five candles flickering and illuminating Sally’s name spelled out in icing. I knew that there’d been a similarly large celebration at her 30th but I’d been out of the country, it was the summer I spent in New Orleans. She’d never been one to pass up a party and this gathering had been billed as the warm up event for her 40th. It wasn’t clear if her and Mike were planning to do this every year but I already knew this’d be the last time I saw them. I didn’t know how I’d feel when I saw her again. Watching her about to blow out the candles, the flames dancing under her easy smile, I could see why it had happened. She’d been a pretty girl and now she was an attractive woman, lively and confident and larger-than-life. The size of her personality was still in inverse proportion to her dress size. I don’t know whether she’d ever told Mike but something about the way they are together, the way he still tracks her movements around the room, rests his hand lightly around her waist when they’re close, makes me think that she never did. Maybe she never thought it was a big deal. Better to hide the truth to stop people from getting hurt; it was just a drunken mistake.

I can clearly remember when you told me. That morning in the kitchen in the flat. Things hadn’t been great for a while but the connection between us held fast. A little frayed but it held. I don’t think either of us really knew how we were going to resurrect what we’d had at the beginning but if you’d asked us then I think we’d have said we wanted to. We were incandescent falling in love but didn’t know what to do when the boil settled to a simmer. Maybe we’d have found the right ways and the right moments to turn the heat back up if we’d had more time. I slept with Sally. Four words that took three seconds to say between two people and to break one heart. I slept with… You were half way through saying it again, tears forming in your eyes, but I didn’t hear it. I was shaking my head, trying to dislodge the words. You stepped towards me extending your arms, saying you were sorry over and over and over again, but for each step you took forwards I took one away until my back bumped against the front door. It was our last tango. I held onto my tears until I’d slipped out the door and fled to the street.

I wound up on Shepherd’s Bush Green sobbing on a bench until some homeless guy offered me a swig from his last Special Brew. Looking back there was something blackly funny about it I suppose. Perhaps I should have invited him to sit down, maybe we could have gotten drunk and duetted on some power ballads, howling incoherently at the early risers and late finishers making their way across the park. He looked a bit like Meatloaf and I had enough mascara smudged around my eyes that I could’ve passed as that witchy woman he sometimes sings with. Anything for love but we won’t do that. Instead I smile at him, decline the proffered can, and ask if he’s okay. We chat for a bit and I give him some change for a coffee or something. I’ve seen enough bad movies that I was half expecting him to turn out to be a philosophy lecturer down on his luck offering up wisdom for the lost, or an angel testing people to see if they’re worth saving, or a lonely multi millionaire in disguise, waiting for the right person to bestow his fortune on. The best he offers is “people aren’t reliable, you can’t trust them” before he shuffles off across the Green towards the Off License.

Sally leans forwards and chases the flickering flames across the cake with the most extravagant exhale she can muster. She gets them all bar two. Thirty three candles marked now by a smudge of black smoke slowly rising into the air and two that stubbornly still burn. I look up and you’re staring at me. I hold your gaze as Sally swoops on the final pair, snuffing them out with another quick puff of air. Each reduces to a glow, like an echo of the fire they once were, and are then extinguished.

Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time

39. A Case Of You – Joni Mitchell

Heartbreak. Has ever a subject preoccupied so many songwriters, so many songs ? Specifically the kind of heartbreak that follows the break down of a love affair. Maybe falling in love is the only subject that’s covered even more comprehensively. So, evidently, there’s something potent, something that’s felt deeply, in the marriage and subsequent divorce of hearts and minds. This begs the question: where are those songs in this list ? Other than “December” back at number 9 this has been a heartbreak free zone. Sure, it’s not exactly been a party zone either but songs about lost love haven’t really figured. Have I been so lucky ?

Well, yes, in most senses I have. This is a different post on failings of the heart than I’d have written fifteen or twenty years ago. The perspective inevitably changes when you are fortunate enough to meet and fall in love with someone with whom you don’t subsequently fall out again. The passing of time and security of partnership lessen the memories of those previously painful partings. It’s tempting to discard the past – as much out of respect for the present as anything – but I don’t think my lasting relationship with my wife would have been possible without the prior experiences of loving and learning. There are people (a small number of people) who are inextricably a part of who I am even though our paths have now diverged; paths that ran together once, for varying lengths of time.

At those sharp points of reckoning, the places we agreed (or one or the other declared) to walk separately, there were many, many records of gut wrenching heartbreak. All About Eve’s eponymous debut album and follow up “Scarlet & Other Stories” managed the neat trick of soundtracking both the beginning and the end of my first love. I once found Teenage Fanclub’s “Mellow Doubt” so apposite following the break down of my second love that I was inspired to buy it as a gift for my ex. On reflection its opening lines it gives me pain when I think of you may have needed some explanation to avoid confusion. Wonder if she still has it ? The debut Embrace record was basically purpose built for regret and I had it on repeat for much of early 1999 as my third love disintegrated. I think I appropriated Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks” to further rub salt into my own wounds.

Had I been writing about any of these at the time then the emotional blood on and in the tracks would have been more evident; that gruesome mixture of anger, sadness, failure, rejection, pain and guilt that stews as heartbreak. From a distance it’s easier to touch the beginnings of those relationships – the happiness, the recognition of yourself in someone else, the process of falling in love – than the end. It’s easy with hindsight but the reasons – which at the time may well have been framed in terms of blame – they ended were important as they were about working out who you are and what you need and what you can give. If there was a way of doing that without anyone getting hurt… If you could bottle that and dispense it in pharmacies they’d be queuing round the block. And that’s my only regret in each of those relationships – not that they ended but that someone got hurt in them ending. I wonder if learning that something isn’t right requires getting beyond a point at which you’re so emotionally entangled that it’s impossible to disentangle without something breaking. Usually a heart, or hearts.

The record that’s closest to this expression of lost love and that sense of reminiscence and reflection, remorse and regret, is “A Case Of You”. It’s a measure of Joni Mitchell that she nails a sketch of an entire relationship in three verses, vivid fragments from before our love got lost. We start with a rueful, knowing Mitchell reflecting on things said in better times:

Just before our love got lost

You said “I am as constant as a Northern Star”

And I said “constantly in the darkness, where’s that at ?

If you want me I’ll be in the bar…

Her shoulder shrugging retreat to the bar is exquisitely captured with a wonderfully precise image of her drawing out her old lover’s face and the outline of a map of Canada on the back of a beermat.

On the back of a cartoon coaster

In the blue TV screen light

I drew a map of Canada – oh Canada !

With your face sketched on it twice

The lover in question is reputed to be Leonard Cohen (hence Canada) but it’s the imagery, the poetry, that is so strikingly beautiful in this song. In eight lines we have a complete outline of love gone awry. For me there is pretty much nothing so flawless as the opening verse and chorus of “A Case Of You”. If the point of writing about records is to find those moments where words and music coalesce to cast light on something true then this positively dazzles. It is wonderful. There is nobody – and I mean nobody Bob – who combines poetry and melody like Mitchell.

The other verses flesh out the backstory, deftly colouring in the outline as Mitchell remembers the passion she shared with the unnamed man – her the lonely artist (I live in a box of paints) drawn to someone that seemed fearless (I’m frightened by the devil and I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid). The past and the present collide as she remembers words they shared in the full throes of love and how there’s a thread that still connects them even now the relationship is over.

I remember that time you told me

You said: “love is touching souls”

Surely you touched mine ‘cause

Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time

This section seems key to the song to me. That recognition that those you loved are never completely lost, part of them stays with you, changes you, even as you part and carry on your separate lives. It’s at the absolute heart of the melancholic contradiction in the chorus:

You taste so bitter and so sweet

Oh I could drink a case of you darling

And I would still be on my feet

I would still be on my feet

That curious mixture of the sweetness of love and bitterness at its end: that sensation that someone that used to intoxicate you doesn’t anymore. I’ve seen alternative interpretations of this record as a straight “love song” – that the could drink a case of you should be read as “I can’t get enough of you” rather than “I can take all of you but it has no effect”. This song ain’t that. It tells you it’s not that in its first line. Mitchell has written plenty of lyrically oblique songs but not many of them are on “Blue” and this is direct and straightforward – and all the more affecting because of it.

There are a handful of records that I believe are perfect: music, lyrics, context, and performance. This is about as perfect as it gets. A perfect song about that most imperfect state of affairs, the end of love. There won’t be other heartbreak songs in the 42 but there doesn’t need to be as this one says it all.