C30-C60-C90 GO NOWHERE
(from Plan B Magazine, Summer 04)
I found it in my chimney.
I find a lot in my chimney. Sometimes the clumsy pigeons drop their bread and it bounces into our laps. Sometimes spiders big as your hand drop down for a mosey around the living room. This chimney was in my ‘office’ and eeeh, look at the muck in here. Haven’t flicked a duster around in weeks. In a spirit of late-come springcleanliness I decided that that pitcher’s mound of tapes in my dead fireplace was just too ugly to ignore anymore and I had to shift them.
It wasn’t a task I took to with any relish: not only was it punctuated with the odd shrill girlish shriek of panic when a moth flew out or a woodlouse peered from under the scattered cassettes, it bought back too many goddamn memories. Tapes were everything to me once. Usually skint, somewhat nervous about any shops in which my contemporaries gathered, tapes (of the kind that were killing music) were the primary way in which I enjoyed pop. Such a maligned format but such a spoddish joy: from the sticking on of labels to the writing of tracklistings (I only wrote neat when filling out tape inlays). I remember making a tape of T Rex hits for the only girl in school who had the stomach to speak to me: I spent a whole hour doing each letter a different colour with my 13-colour biro and couldn’t understand why she looked at me so tragically when I handed it over.
I remember taping hip hop for tough lads and sticking Bowie tracks on the end, going home fantasising I’d somehow be turning them my way, problematising their puberty as much as mine, by stealth, as if time would drag us both wanking to the floor.
I remember those blessed years when Coventry Central Library employed some sacredly-disposed lunatic with amazing taste, and every week I’d be taping some new Durutti Column or Nick Drake or Rapeman or Penderecki s/he’d kindly decided to allow the citizens of Cov to borrow. I taught myself about pop from that library. Hurling the tapes into a black binliner a dizzying myriad of blind alleys and launch pads and dead-ends go flying by, the month I listened to nothing but Sonny Rollins, Mikey Dread (God he’s good), discovering Miles and The Fall and Prince Far I and The Ink Spots and everyone who’s sustained me for the best part of two decades.
With my library ticket, all of history was open to me, and all of it made my future that much more full of possibility, that much more an inevitable disappointment when it came. From the near-incomprehensible public generosity of the library making so much available, there was something almost sacred about tapes, the way you could just take these infinities with you and keep them, the way you imprinted the legend on each one, the way you created the object that held such possibilities within. Tapes totally suited those years when there’s too much catching up to do, when your hunger outstrips your time.
Digging my nails into the rubble and dust of the hearth, scooping up armfuls of plastic and cardboard and rattling reels, there were moments where I had to stop, stick on Brothers Like Outlaws or Swirlies or Iris DeMent or Tim Hardin or some Atlantic soul-comp to remind myself of things I’d loved, tapes full of looped beats and bad acoustic guitar I did with two tape-players and a condenser mic at age 14.
Crucially though, all the nostalgia did was make me realise how music was never something I’d simply ‘enjoy’. For the joy of every discovery carried with it the painful burden of being that pioneer, alone out on these islands. The more I looked and listened at what I’d filed and piled high the more I thought, Jesus, I was such a pseud-fucker. I was so far up my own arse. I listened to an awful lot of this music just to look cool, just to service my own endlessly enraptured self-regard. The idea that listening to music can make you attractive always running up against the sad realisation that no one cares about shit like that apart from you, y’dumb fuck. Sticking Roland Kirk next to Spacemen 3 and trying to turn the fifth-form centre on and wondering when the fucking Mission fans who made up my school’s ‘alternative’ kids would fucking catch up with me, worrying that I was too far ahead to ever be friends with my ‘friends’ again.
It’s easy to scoff at adolescent arrogance, less easy to realise you’re still exactly the same, that you still believe the mysteries of pop will slowly, steadily, somehow become accessible to you and your frighteningly heightened awareness. Including an awareness that a five-year-old Britney fan knows just as much about pop as you. Including an awareness that the moments in which you’ve managed to con someone into loving you, you’ve forgotten about how you’ve stacked your vinyl, what you put on the jukebox, how wrong everyone else is. If the tapes that were now disappearing into attic-bound sacks were a reminder of that crucial time where everything that shouldn’t matter mattered like fuck, where does that leave me now? Can I slip the moorings of all that taste and float free, unconcerned? Can this start being fun, ever?
Or will it always be the frantic effort to clip and prune and ornament that never finished work of art – yourself? Will you always need to be surrounded by these bits of plastic because they tell you who you aren’t (and who you are), tell you where you’re not (and where you are), warn you of what you can’t be (and what you should want to be)?
Or can all this crumble, could all this tape simply end up wound round the lamppost at the end of your street played by the wind to the bugs? Could your limits be set by yourself rather than so many others? Could yourself be something more than simply that space that happens inbetween all of these objects? Could you be or will you always simply be suggested by what you own? Can you, finally, now, as you commit your last oh-so-eclectic C120 compilation beyond the drawstring and into the abyss of official junkdom, start being a human being? God, what a grisly thought. Being so withered as to accept myself. Fucking never.
The bags stay downstairs. I throw press releases into the fireplace and clear the air with smoke and the kiss of Alice Coltrane. Pretension must be felt to the bone and kept close like your own skeleton. Without it, you fall apart. That’s enough goddamn spring cleaning.