46 years old and still sobbing on trains.
Pop music is the cruellest music. Ephemeral and eternal, pointless and profound, disposable, inescapable pop music. The crackling intro of a jukebox classic, the yearning of a timeless fade out.
Everything I have ever heard and loved takes me back to a moment long lost. I can’t ever just hear a song. It is never just playing. Songs aren’t content with being beautifully rendered pieces of art, they have to torture me with images of vanished youth, thwarted love and wasted time.
So, my walk this morning. Shuffle on. Bring A Friend – HappyMondays. I’m 18 again, having fallen properly in love for the first time ever. Delighted at this unrequited experience, a relief to find I can feel anything, having spent my teenage years till now terrified at the thought of not being able to relate to anyone or anything past my nascent record collection. All of life’s mistakes not yet made. In the psychedelic sludge of Martin Hannett’s production I am reminded of my friends initial disgust at this purchase and their volte-face at Wembley Arena a year later as they slope in with the freshly flared jeans of the interloper.
Method Man – Bring The Pain. Late 20s me, bedsit me, stupid McJob and shit relationship me. Drugs me. Is it real son, tell me is it real son, is it really real son, tell me if it’s real. I don’t even know if they’re the words. It doesn’t matter. Just one of pop music’s myriad pleasures is the deciphering, the deconstructing of it’s hidden intent.
The music obsessive is an archaeologist, a historian, a detective, a trivia buff, a snob, a zealot, a tribalist, a completist, a fanatic. We don’t know the price of milk but we know who wrote How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. We argue on message boards, write fanzines, come up with fantasy cover versions, dream festival line ups. We make compilation tapes for would-be lovers, break-up tapes for ourselves.
You can’t prove it but I’d take a stab at saying that if it was possible to have a chart listing every band that had ever featured on a break-up tape then The Cure would be in the top 20. They’d have to be. I’m not even a massive fan but even they have songs that stop me in my tracks, send a time-travelling punch to my solar plexus, take me back to a place where I can literally smell and touch every single thing in the room.
And so it is with “Plainsong” – the kind of song you’d imagine The Cure sound like if you’d only read about them. As you hear it, you realise how much they and New Order ripped each other off. Chicken and egg stuff. All those 1980s music journalism clichés rush to your mouth, synths are glacial, bass lines majestic – drums funereal etc.
Somewhere in all of Robert Smith’s pained mumbling, I’m back to 1990 and enjoying the sound of a summer storm battering the windows of my little college room. There’s a woman asleep next to me. In the background, my cassette copy of Disintegration – the nearest The Cure ever got to a heartbreak album – is purring away. At that moment, all the dreadful and terrible things me and that woman went on to do and say to each other have yet to happen – mere rumours from a personal dystopia not yet written.
At that moment, I think I’m about as happy as I had ever been or seemed likely to be.
And that’s pop music’s terrible power because there’s an equation which goes something like Power of Memory x Soundtrack x Years Passed = Amount of Pain Hearing Said Song Brings.
So it is that, on a beautiful clear Simpsons blue sky morning, I’m pretending to have hay fever on a train to a job on the edge of the world. And there’s no cure for that misery, neither would I want one.