Coming back from the Isle of Wight, I listened to my iPod and heard in quick succession three tracks that have enormous significance in my life.
When I was about 15 or 16, I used to spend a lot of time at my hippy aunt and uncle’s out in the country. They were relaxed and messy and ate loads of junk food, read fantasy novels and had cool records by Santana and Curved Air. I would spend whole summers with them. One of the albums I carefully taped onto AGFA cassettes was the Best of Cream.
In the middle of ‘Badge’ by Cream there’s a guitar break that spirals down out of silence. A simultaneously perfect but human sound. I remember listening to that song on my Sony Walkman, sitting in the front room of my parent’s house, in a old leather wing-backed chair that belonged to my grandfather. And those few seconds of guitar sound were like a portal into another, better world.
It was a world of parties, of sexual freedom, of drugs perhaps but most importantly of friends. Warm summery friendship lived in those guitar notes and it was the golden sound of my future. In all the subsequent years of university at Cambridge or wild clubbing in Berlin I never experienced a party or a friendship as perfect as those notes. Nor I suspect was I meant to.
Next, as I cycled along the Bayswater Road, was Talking Head’s ‘Making Flippy Floppy’ off their Speaking in Tongues album.
I was a Talking Heads fanatic as a teenager. I remember going to a rather drunken all-night house party at Steven McRobbie’s house in Alverstoke with loads of schoolfriends and spending a large chunk of the evening watching MTV’s 100 greatest videos. We didn’t have MTV at home so it was a new world to me. And when David Byrne walked on stage in his sneakers to play Psycho Killer at the beginning of their movie, Stop Making Sense, I thought it was the coolest, most beautifully weird thing in the world.
The next day, at great expense, I went out and bought Little Creatures and Stop Making Sense and listened to them on a loop for a month. They became totemic – in the way teenage music does – of a freedom, an identity, a love.
I would cycle the 4 miles to school each day with Talking Heads (again on blue AGFA tapes) in my Walkman. I remember exactly walking across the carpark at Lee, towards the red bitumen promenade and the gulls and ravens down on the shingle, listening to Making Flippy Floppy and probably feeling individually me for the first time.
David Byrne was so odd and ambiguous he was the natural role model for a gay man that didn’t want to conform but couldn’t even contemplate coming out. Instead, the Heads allowed me to be oddball, quirky but still cool. It was the sylistic version of being gay. All form, no content.
For years, I went off Talking Heads for that reason, that they seemed rather too cool. Chilled infact. But listening last night, I was admiring the pristine sharpness of the instrumentation, the chiselled brilliance of Byrne’s nonsense wisdom and that weirdly chthonic synth break after he snaps: ‘Open up.’
Finally, as I approached home, there was the first movement of Duruflé’s Requiem.
I remember listening to this on an idyllic summer’s day spent with gilded university friends in an orchard in Northamptonshire – but that’s not why it has significance in my life. Rather it is the kind of work it is.
All through my childhood I sang in a church choir. I was the full-on cherubic choirboy with ruff, surplice and cassock. It was my full immersion, my baptism in the world of music: anthems, psalms, nunc dimitti, semibreves, quavers, double diapasons and the vox celesta. I became musical and spiritual inside an Anglican haze of evensongs, Easter vigils and annual performances of Fauré’s Requiem. I also became enchanted by all the scripture of music: the scores, the staves, the clefs and key signatures. I loved the notes written on the page and would hoard musical manuscript paper so I could fill it up with elaborate musical calligraphy.
I filled dozens of ring-bound manuscript books with complex (but nonmusical) openings to symphonies, cantatas and requiem masses. They’d involve huge forces and never last more than a few pages. Sometimes only a few bars.
One day, my grandmother, a ferociously precise piano teacher by profession, took a look at all these manuscripts and (with the best intention) tried to play them. But they weren’t written to be played they were graphical transciptions of these great swells of sound in my head or, just as often, artistic arrangements of quavers and sharps and flats on the stave.
Poor Gran, she was definitely trying to help, but instead of sitting me down and perhaps encouraging my vision and maybe tightening up my (nonexistant) notation skills, she had inadvertently killed any joy I had in it, by sitting behind me on the piano stool and mercilessly playing the made-up notes I had written.
Recently, after all my creative insight from Brazil, I was thinking about this. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way encourages an investigation in to who may have blueprinted the ‘censoring’ voice in our heads that stop us being creative. And – quite against her will – I realised that my very musical Granmother may have inadvertently stopped me being a composer at a young age.
No reason why I shouldn’t be one now, 30 years on, I suppose. During the sponsored walk across the spring green Isle of Wight we decided to form a chamber choir. Perhaps I could pen us an anthem or two to sing along the way. Perhaps using Byrne lyrics:
There are no big secrets Don’t believe what you read We have great big bodies We got great big heads Run-a-run-a-run it all together Check it out – still don’t make no sense Makin’ flippy floppy Tryin to do my best Lock the door We kill the beast Kill it