Thursday, 31 December 2009
50. I'll Read You A Story, Colleen (2005)
Everything begins here.
April 2005, my first time in New York. Three months earlier, they were here, trying to make stitch and mend. Now I am here, after their knots of their marriage unravelled, trying not to think what we are patching together back home, trying to find my own place in the city. On Broadway, Alex and Welsh Dan are arguing in a clothes shop, and I know I have to get out. I need some time alone. I leave, turn off the busy, bustly sidewalk, wriggle through yellow cabs, pretzel vendors and soapy launderette vents, and weave past NYU. And then, quite by chance, I find the record shop I've been looking for for the past four days. The orange Other Music sign smiles at me from West 4th Street, and its dusty door welcomes me in like an old friend.
And the sounds that I heard as I do...I still struggle to put into words the effect they had on me. I knew I had never felt like this before. It was like I was walking into a dream, or a dense, lovely fog; a warm welcoming bath. Even though I could pinpoint why the music was doing this to me – it had the minimal beauty of Brian Eno's Ambient records about it for starters, especially 1/1 from Music For Airports; it also used the sound of a music box in such a heartbreaking way that it took me back instantly to my grandmother's bedroom in Swansea, and the chipped little girl in her jewellery box doing an endless pirouette among old pearls and bright gemstones – I knew there was something deeper going on here. It was like heaven speaking to me in-between the dusty jewel cases and recommendation labels, the light getting in through the crack in everything. Wide-eyed and slow-limbed, I remember asking someone behind the counter who this was, and he said "a French woman called Colleen", but the album was only on promo, and "wasn't out for two months". I remember the sadness rising in my chest when he said this, the next twenty minutes or so floating around the shop like a ghost, taking in every note of the rest of the record, feeling my mind and body dissipate. I'm still surprised I left on two feet of my own volition, rather than on the shoulders of the staff, or the back of one of my friends.
One week later, back in London, I was still carrying this song with me. I kept wondering what would have happened if I hadn't left Alex and Dan at that moment, walked in that particular direction, not looked up and saw the sign, walked into the shop right at that time. I was still thinking about it at work, opening our reviews post, chatting to Keith and Andrew – tear red tape, open jiffy bag, read press release, shelve sleeve – and didn't notice a cream and black case falling out of the envelope, the feel of jewel case in my hand, then the jolt, the eyes to my hands, the smack of realisation that it was there, there it was.
Colleen's The Golden Morning Breaks, sitting here in my hand, its cover a little girl with wings, being consoled by an unicorn. I have it here with me now, on the desk next to me as write, and the image on the front shouldn't work, but it does. There is something eerie about its composition that cuts through the sweetness, the same sinister sheen in its black, inky lines that ripples through the smallest details in Colleen's music.
I remember taking the album to Dan's the night that I got it, him falling in love with it too, and soon it becoming the soundtrack to that strange summer. The summer where Andrew and I became close in our little flat overlooking Lower Clapton Road; the summer where our Sunday club, The Light Programme, started to focus our lives; and the summer when we laid in one morning, him freelance, me part-time, Tim calling Dan's mobile three times before 10 o'clock, asking him what was wrong with the trains into town, could we turn the radio on, then the young man phoning in, his voice rising with panic, a bus roof exploding in Tavistock Square, us turning it off, thinking he was lying, then the pictures of the road outside my old flat in Edgware Road, quickly becoming a makeshift hospital and morgue, the panicked phonecalls and emails about where everyone was, Barry writing that his boss couldn't find her son, his DNA being found some months later between Kings Cross and Russell Square. Us all meeting, as friends, for drinks again and again over those peculiar days, trying to stay together, just because we could. Dan and I getting back together, keeping each other warm in his tiny flat in Stamford Hill, listening to Colleen to warm our cold bones.
So I haven chosen this track not because it offers a fanfare to finish the decade with a flourish, nor because it is a little-known curio, popped into this place for the sake of obscurity. It is, very simply, the track that I have loved the most from the album that has made me smile, soothed me, lifted me, comforted me, more than any other record in the last ten years. It gets to the heart of me, somehow. It's as though I can see my 21-year-old self in it, the girl with a sad soul starting the decade, and the way she has changed into this 31-year-old woman – the relationships she has had, the things she has done, the way she has grown. This is because of the melancholy in it, I know – moving and surging in huge, cresting waves – and the unbearable tensions before it breaks at 1.53 and 2.46. But there is also plenty of me in the hope it holds, too, the sunlight sparkling at its lovely edges, the magic that pours out of its every tiny movement.
And this song says much more about me, looking back, than if I just looked at my life in chronological form. I could have written a musical history of myself following the places in which I have lived (Edgware Road, 2000; Muswell Hill, 2000-2002; Dalston 2002-2003; Archway, 2003-2004; Hackney Wick, 2004, Clapton Square, 2004-2005; Green Lanes 2005-2006; Clapton Square, 2006-), or the boys I have gone out with (Richard, 2000; Barry, 2001-2004; Dan, 2004, 2005-2008, 2009-), or the various stages of my whirling dervish career (Masters degree, 2000, theology publishing 2000-2001; advertising sales, 2001; NHS secretary 2001-2002; charity worker, 2002-2003; reviews assistant/reviews editor at Word, 2003-2007; website editor, 2008, freelance jill-of-all-trades, 2008-). By themselves, the lists suggest stories too, great narratives hidden behind the peculiar transitions, but without the little details to accompany them they are only rough sketches – odd, disjointed chapters. With songs to give them shape, they become very different things.
And now, it is time to leave all of them behind, in words at least. It has just gone 6 o'clock on the last evening of the decade; I'll Read You A Story is playing again through my Mac speakers; Emily has just come in from the shops, and tonight we will drink cheap wine and eat scotch eggs with old friends as we see in the new year. Dan is coming round in an hour, and I'll put my party frock on in a bit. Still, it's funny to think for a moment about the girl I was ten years ago, sitting in the front room, crying on the phone to Steve, wondering how my life would change. I don't think she'd have believed that my grandfather would die two years later – the lovely, precious man; that her brother would get married and teach at their old school; that she would be lucky enough to end up writing about things that she liked for a living; that she would go through such crushingly low moments and such gloriously high ones; and that her love life would take on so many ridiculous tics, twists and turns.
But when I listen to Colleen, and hear its heavenliness taking me over, I can understand how I got through everything in one piece. After all, there have always been things around – like wonderful, life-changing songs – to help us all on our way. And as I listen to I'll Read You A Story putting its arms around me, rubbing its nose against mine, I can also understand how anything this lovely as my relationship with Dan could get through so much. It tells me that some things can get to you out of the blue and transport you completely; that something that began in the dust and the dirt of the past can survive ruptures and devastations; how the deepest scars can heal over; and how we can face our future together, as husband and wife, our eyes bright and alive.
Music has always been there to give me strength, give me support, give me solace. And in two weeks, after the new decade has made its mark, I will be moving out of here, and in with my boy, where I'll take the vinyl version of the Colleen album with me – something we're getting as a joint engagement present for our new record player. I look forward to setting the stylus on those warm, lovely grooves, letting this track take us into the times that lie ahead. As I do, I will also remember the times that have gone by, treasure their lessons, and keep my old songs singing.