In the wake of Prince’s demise this week, I’ve been dwelling on the importance of music as an accompaniment to life. It still amazes me that I have important memories that are intimately tied to Prince’s music from the time I was not much older than my nearly-9 year old daughter is now to the nearly-45 year old I am. I lament the fact that there’s really no-one in the musical landscape that my daughter inhabits that will have that influence or staying power. It seemed like a good time to repost something I wrote a while ago that sums up the importance of music to me.
Words on a page don’t do justice to memories. When I peer backwards into my past, there’s a soundtrack. Music and memory are intimately entwined and the link is visceral. The tune, the lyrics, the era – for each person a different catalyst but the physical jolt that occurs years after when a song insinuates itself into your consciousness from a distant radio broadcast or a car passing by as you walk is common to us all, bringing the past so close you can taste it. They are the moments that shaped us and the soundtrack that accompanied them is integral.
Before I became a ‘responsible’ parent, I used to be a ‘girl who gigs’. Live music nourishes me. When I listen to ‘This is the Sea’ by The Waterboys, I’m thirteen again, once again living the moment when this lifetime love affair began. Simple Minds playing at Milton Keynes Bowl – I can feel the butterflies in my stomach even now. It was my first live gig and, even though it was quite obvious that I would die if I didn’t get tickets to go, my Mum couldn’t find the money to pay a small fortune in concert ticket capital. I have never been daunted by circumstance, even at thirteen, and I decided to put my skills to work and earn my ticket (OK, so I filled in a crossword and won them but I have word skills not car cleaning skills). 1986. The year of yellow pastel fishtail skirts, white stilettos and the realisation that a great band can sell themselves to you on an amazing live performance. They weren’t even the headliners but the moment they took to the stage, my life changed in a profound way. I stalked this album after the concert – Saturday afternoons in the local record store avariciously caressing the vinyl dust jacket. The skirt and the shoes were retired – denim and black was now my de facto uniform.
1987 sees a different girl pass under the Wembley lions, clutching a golden ticket, bootleg gig t-shirt casually arranged over her ripped 501s, drawn to her Mecca to see U2 play their Joshua Tree concert. The uncertain steps of the previous year are replaced by a confident saunter as she appraises the ticket touts and merchandising stalls that line the route. Even though my O-levels began that Monday, it never occurred to me that I should be anywhere else. Two and a half decades later, I don’t even remember the exams I sat that Monday but the opening bars of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ transport me back to the Stadium that day. It’s not Bono that I remember so clearly, for all his musical prowess, but the wheelchair-bound man at the back of the pitch, scooped up in the arms of his friend, dancing, lost in the music. I learnt that great music can make you less earthbound, that you can be freed from limitations by a sequence of notes.
The eighties passed but I carried this lesson with me long after the print had been washed off the t-shirts and the jeans had been folded away, replaced by tie-dyed trousers and beaded hair. The early 90s were a bittersweet time of transition, the scar left by the incision made when we left school behind still raw as the brilliance of future possibilities lit the touch-paper that ignited us and sent us skywards to explore the world. Lives are tied to moments that change our paths forever. ‘Under the Bridge’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers brings me back to one of those pivotal times, even now forcing a tightness into my throat as I relive the sadness of the passing of an era. The smell of wood smoke from the log fire in our living room and the grainy odour of malt whiskey in a crystal glass surrounded by a group of friends, mourning the passing of childhood. This was the last time we sat together as allies without the complications of partners, a widening network of friends and a lot of mileage between us. It was the reason I packed this album when I set off around South East Asia later that year, the reason it now has more associations than merely teen-angst, why I now hear it and see children playing with machetes outside a shack in a hill-tribe village in the Golden Triangle north of Chiang-Mai. I had learnt how to fly and the music lifted me.
Everything that takes to the air eventually has to become grounded again and I returned to earth accompanied by the Pearl Jam album ‘Ten’, but it was a colder, harder Eastern European earth on which I landed. November 1st, the ‘Day of the Dead’, nostrils seared by the cold and saturated by the scent of hot wax from the candles that lit the graveyards brighter than any neon could. November in Warsaw is the kind of cold that steals your breath away – Pearl Jam playing live at the Towar arena is the kind of performance that steals your breath away. My future husband and I watched them play the songs that had defined the past 5 years of my life – university, upheaval, the working world, all of these were encapsulated by Eddie Vedder’s rendition of ‘Alive’. As I relived my history, I also forged a new history. As much as the songs then reminded me of the years before, so now I am removed to that cold, cold night asleep on a bench at Warszawa Centralna station surrounded by prostitutes and drunkards, the underbelly of a post-Communist state that few have the opportunity to witness.
This is the mix-tape of my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be the same person typing here today and even as I do, I am adding to the playlist – new songs, new memories. As Eddie Vedder sang over a decade ago, ‘I’m still alive’.