Sunday, October 26, 2008

And I guess that's why they call it...

(I wrote this about four years ago, for the lamented literary magazine Zembla. Recently, while looking for something completely different, I found it again. Normally such rediscoveries are excruciating, but I think this one just about stands up.

Which is a contrived excuse for not being able to come up with anything new.)

When you're fifteen, sixteen, pop music speaks to you. Not just figuratively, in that it's aimed towards you with all the black arts that the marketing Nazis of the music biz can muster. But it really talks. To. You.

When I was fifteen, sixteen, I was listening to The Smiths, and heaven knows my bicycle was punctured and I walked home alone. The boy with the thorn in his ear and the hearing aid in his side, he knew me. He said plenty to me about my life.

But then I wasn't fifteen, sixteen any more, but I was still listening to The Smiths and Primal Scream and The Stone Roses and De La Soul and The House of Love and Syd Barrett and The Velvet Underground and James Brown and Northern soul and Jamaican ska and Stravinsky, and I still enjoyed them all. But they didn't sit down at the foot of my bed and say: "Yeah, I know what you're thinking. I know your problems. Of course I understand." And that, I thought, was that - another thing you leave behind when you're fifteen, sixteen, like acne and anarchism.

Spool forward a while and it's 2000 and I'm working for a big publishing company and life is OK, you know. I make decisions. I exchange droll badinage with the likes of Ian Hislop and Johnny Vaughan. I consider getting a suit made, a proper one. Occasionally I Google my own name and the result is not displeasing. And pop music is still there but I'm not listening to it, just hearing it. In fact, I'm starting to prefer instrumentals because they make better background music while I work. Print runs. Blurbs. Find a picture researcher. What about the Spanish edition. Talk to the Daily Express. Stay late. Drink coffee. Talk to The Bookseller. Reissue, repackage. Pick a colour for the cover.

And at the same time, I'm playing a triple CD called 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields. And, crazy as it seems, it contains sixty-nine songs about love: sweet, bitter and the other. And there I am, trying to choose a colour for the cover of the next book, when track five of the first disc begins. It's called 'Reno Dakota'. Female vocal (Claudia Gonson). Something that sounds like a ukulele or an autoharp or a banjo (as played by Gabriel the toad on Bagpuss). Crazy rhymes, some of them for "Dakota". One minute five seconds. And Claudia sings the couplet...

It's making me blue

Pantone 292

...just as I'm looking at the swatches of colours to pick the Pantone reference for the book (numerical Pantone references indicate a specific combination of primary colours, to enable designers and printers to get a precise match). And, for about two of the sixty-five seconds that the track lasts, Claudia is talking to me. Me. She said that to *me*. She's saying a little something to me about my life in a way that nobody has for a decade and a half.

And then I decide we'll do the cover in orange. Which is significant, I think, although I'm not quite sure how or why.


Anonymous said...

Zembla? Why do I feel like I'm being stalked by Nabokov every time I'm on here.

That Magnetic Fields song impressed me immensely, I remember the next opportunity after hearing it looking up pantone 292 and laughing hysterically when I realised when it was blue.

Valerie said...

Wow, you've led to me spending the afternoon listening to The Magnetic Fields on youtube. Great stuff. You have to love that Marxophone (That's the thing that sounds like an autoharp, if I'm not mistaken). And any song that uses Pantone colors in that way is a hit with me.

Tim F said...

Billy, I might just purloin "Why do I feel like I'm being stalked by Nabokov every time I'm on here?" as a below-the-title slogan. Has anyone come up with a good neologism for that, btw?

Ah, a Marxophone. Thanks for that Valerie. I'd presumed it was a uke (SM's weapon of choice) with lots of echo and multitracking. One to store up for the next pub quiz, maybe...

Valerie said...

They have a ukelele too (and banjo!), but I think you're hearing that autoharpy Marxophone sound.

I'm completely addicted to that song and "All My Little Words," now. Thanks ;-)