Monday, 16 November 2009
5. In The Backseat, Arcade Fire (2005)
Before the end of the decade is upon us, I'll tell you all about 2003, the magical, mysterious year in which everything changed – the year that began in an icy charity office in Acton, where a charity worker would spend every morning crying into her keyboard, but ended in the silvery offices of Word Magazine, where you'd find the same person pinching herself every five minutes wondering what precisely had happened. But let's wait a while for that. As I've been writing about this band recently, and I haven't been able to shift this song from my mind since, let's leap forward two years, and jump halfway across the world as we do so.
In September 2005, I had been working part-time at Word for nearly two years, revelling in its dusty, messy wonderland of promotional CDs, mouldy tea mugs and hoary rock anecdotes. I had started there as an assistant to Reviews Editor Paul Du Noyer, a man whose every sentence, written or spoken, was warm, elegant and covetable, and now, two years on, I was writing small pieces myself. I hadn't yet written my first feature, but I wasn't even sure if I had that ability in me, terrified as I was of the blankness of the empty Microsoft Word document. It's a fear I've never shaken, incidentally, and I doubt I ever will.
Nevertheless, I remember the morning when I had to confront it with a fresh urgency. I was in the most ordinary of environments – a queue in a hectic post office in Hackney on my day off, trying to buy some stamps, carrying a bag of shopping – when my mobile phone rang. It was Mark Ellen, Word's spry, bouncy editor. Would I like to go to Vancouver next Wednesday, he asked, to interview the Arcade Fire? I'd have to go on my own, without the band's publicist, and spend two days with them, interviewing each one of them. I remember saying no at first – I was moving house that weekend, I couldn't possibly, argh – but then, five minutes later, I realised my folly. What was I doing? I phoned him back straightaway, back-pedalling furiously. A week later, my boyfriend was packing my life into boxes, and I was on a 12-hour flight to the west coast of Canada.
I had loved the Arcade Fire from day one. The way that Funeral swept you up and took you to another realm entirely – a gloomy fantasy land worthy of the eeriest children's literature. I also became obsessed with the group's lyrics about death, and adored the way in which their songs were both gothically grand and almost unbearably intimate. Looking back, perhaps I loved them so much because I was having a tough time in 2005 – retreating into personal memories of my own bereavements, the death of my father when I was a child returning to my mind like a thundercloud, always threatening to break. In The Backseat rang particularly loudly. It was Regine Chassagne's song about the death of her mother, and I found comfort and empathy in its twists and turns. The chorus spoke to me with the most weight, presenting a woman who was similarly directionless in the grip of grief: "Alice died/In the night", Chassagne sang, in her high, childlike voice, "I've been learning to drive/My whole life."
In Vancouver, I asked Regine about her mother, but she was surly in response, as she had every right to be. The band were a strange gaggle of people, to be honest, a few of them prickly, others eccentric and adorable. Still, their gig in the most ordinary of stadium environments – a dull hockey hangar on the edges of the city - was a revelation. These seven strange creatures banged their drums, hollered in unison, and captured my heart like few groups have ever done. However, they didn't play In The Backseat that night, as the set list had promised, plumping instead for New Order's Age Of Consent. I didn't mind – the New Order song was reborn for me that night - but it also didn't matter for another reason entirely. In The Backseat, indirectly, had helped me move on already.
The Arcade Fire had made this trip to Canada possible. And my four days in Vancouver... remembering it now still makes me catch my breath, sets butterflies dancing in my stomach, tingles my limbs with euphoria. Here I was, on a plane travelling across the world, no one holding my hand as I took off and landed, all by myself. Getting a cab from the airport to the hotel, speeding down the freeway, thanking the driver, all by myself. Having two days to explore a foreign city, drinking in its neon-lit bars, feeling the Pacific breeze on my face, all by myself.
I had never thought I could do this before. This was the first time I felt that I was my own person truly, an independent entity separate from anyone or anything. Previously, I had always felt I had to have permission to do anything I wanted to – gain a degree, write an article, live my life as I wanted - because even though I was a sociable and gregarious 27-year-old, I was also very scared of the big, bad world. And when the chips came down, I preferred to be like the girl In The Backseat, not having to drive, not having to speak.
But now I was driving, and I was speaking. The feeling of freedom was all-consuming, absolute. And when I think back to the moments in my life where I was most happy, I still think of the first time I walked out of my hotel into the dark Vancouver night, watching the hockey crowds head by for the game, 20 dollars in my pocket, the brightly-lit streets stretching away to the mountains. My whole life, I'd been learning. And now, at last, I was finally me.