Can a song be like a person? They seem to share certain traits. The ability to annoy on contact or to soothe a soul back to functionality. They come and go through your whole life. Sometimes with intense meaning for a short period of time, then to vanish and reappear down the line as a fond reminder of times past, impossible to recapture. Some of them take your hand when you’re a child and walk alongside you forever, dependable and familiar and never changing. Then there are others which change unexpectedly. My parents tell me they resolutely disliked each other as teenagers and then, one day, that changed and 40-odd years later, that change seems only to deepen.
I have a song which has traveled with me unnoticed. It’s called This Woman’s Work and it’s by Kate Bush. I would have been 13 or 14 when I first heard it. I was aware of it because whenever it subsequently cropped up on the radio, I immediately thought ‘Oh no, not this song’.
It’s a stark, simple song. Backed only by piano and her own ethereal backing vocals, Bush sings in the most raw and openly emotional manner lyrics of such great melodrama and disarming honesty that one can only have an extreme reaction to it. It’s either brave or embarrassing.
I have a feeling my first experience with it was the film She’s Having a Baby. This was the first John Hughes film to disappoint me. Having been a rabid fan of his Brat Pack films, this offering – an uncharacteristically visual film in which Kevin Bacon has to deal with his wife’s pregnancy – seemed as boring, trite and cosily suburban as any other film for grown-ups. I not only didn’t engage with it, I was slightly sickened by its brazen emotion. Bush apparently wrote the song specifically for the film and, even more specifically, for the sequence in which it was used in which Bacon finds out there is a problem with the labour and both his wife and the baby are at risk. I found it schmaltzy beyond words. Self-indulgent tosh. Cringeworthy. But, what does a 14 year old boy have to engage with a film like that, so removed from his field of experience? It would be another decade and a half before life would teach me about such things. The song became a hit of sorts. It would make me cringe every time I heard it. By 14 and a half, I had discovered The Clash and the emotions I used music to channel were angry, shouty, political and passionate in a frustrated blaze of testosterone.
My love for music deepened and widened and within a few short years, I was a music snob. I had a voracious appetite for it and wasn’t against the odd ironic indulgence and KISS and Slade hovered around me as acts as I wasn’t sure I liked on a merely hilarious basis. I knew a lot about the music I liked and I liked people who knew a lot about music. I looked down upon people who engaged with it in a seemingly random and casual basis. The height of my awfulness saw me not speaking to my sister for a number of weeks after she’d phoned me to tell me she’d seen an amazing gig and it had been the Stereophonics. These were my university years and beyond and my circle of friends was at its widest with the nucleus of brothers at the tightest it would ever be. One of these brothers was Olly Lassman. We lived together and wreaked havoc in the way two intelligent (although nowhere near as intelligent as they thought), mischievous souls can before life starts to weigh them down. Olly consumed music like nobody else I had ever seen. He was the first person I knew to own a CD burner, so he copied CDs off everybody he knew. These CDs, scrawled with titles, littered the floor of his bedroom, played, then dropped, then found and played again. There was no rhyme or reason to these CDs. No obvious bonds in genre or style. It seemed to me music was just a commodity to him. He didn’t seem to care about any of these bands – certainly not enough to actually pay for their work – and wasn’t an obviously emotional person above his short temper. He just saw music as a consumable. Not emotionally indulgent, maybe. I walked into his room one day and he was playing the Kate Bush song. ‘Oh no, not this song’
“Why are you listening to this?”
“Because it’s a good song”
“How is it a good song?”
“Kate Bush is fucking great”
He was right, but I didn’t realise it then and I remain unconvinced that he really had put any effort into liking her. I felt it was just a song that he thought was ok so he listened to it. Like the breaded frozen food he ate – which was ok, so he ate it and the films he watched, which were ok so he watched them. His passion was more in reading and writing and computer-based experimentation. Kate Bush was as random as any other music he trod on as he walked around his bedroom. To me, she was a needlessly flamboyant pop starlet of the past. Like Toyah – all hair and make-up and angular posturing and wailing. This song was different from her career-high hits, she had traded in mad-girl warbling for syrupy ickiness and sentimentality.
“You shouldn’t be allowed to listen to music” I told him.
He told me to fuck off.
In the intervening years, I would hear the song and it would make me laugh. ‘Oh no, not this song’ because I imagined Olly – angry, fighty, argumentative Olly – having a tender moment and thinking ‘This is a good song’ – a phrase also inextricably linked to the first time he heard the risible novelty single ‘Vindaloo’. He’d been bored so started drinking alone at 1pm. By the time the rest of us arrived home from uni around 5, he was toasted. ‘Vindaloo’ came on the radio and Olly danced along with it, bottle in hand, when it finished, he turned to me and said ‘That’s a good song’.
Also in those years, I came to like Kate Bush. The early stuff. I came to appreciate what she was doing and how incredibly expressive her music was. That it was quite brave and progressive and had a depth and intelligence that most 70s/80s pop really didn’t. I still wasn’t interested in anything she did later. It struck me, that like most great musicians, they release a handful of albums at their most potent and then either die or become rather dull, churning out the odd album every few years to keep the back catalogue stimulated and sell out a greatest hits tour.
In Judaism, we have an incredibly well-planned system for dealing with death. Unlike other faiths where grief is accompanied by endless decisions about coffins, funeral clothes, method of despatch, wakes and the like, Judaism has it nailed. The community know what to do. People have roles and the grieving process is well defined with a very speedy burial and a tradition for the form mourning takes. I rather like it. It forces you to confront the reality of the situation. The grave is unmarked for a year and at the end of that year, the headstone is laid in a ceremony which marks the official end of the mourning period.
It’s now almost a year since Olly committed suicide. A year since I got the phone call which gave me my first visceral experience of grief. Panic attacks, palpitations, fear and anxiety were all old friends by now. Familiar. But this phone call punched me in the stomach and forced it’s fist right through into my guts where it grabbed a handful of intestines and wouldn’t let go all night. Left me in the foetal position unable to walk and barely able to talk. Apparently a suicide makes everyone affected feel intense feelings of guilt, assuming all responsibility in the most arrogant ‘I could have saved him’ way and I wasn’t at all immune to that. Especially since the last thing he told his mother was that he was coming to visit me. I wish he had. I’m angry that he didn’t. Instead he chose the only option he actually saw open to him, which was a lonely death, planned out in a heartbreakingly thoughtful manner to be as sparing as possible on those who would discover him and as easy as possible on those who would miss him. But these things aren’t easy. My guilt was all the more palpable because the last time we had met I’d found his presence so unsettling, I was in no rush to see him again. I even discussed it with a mutual friend and I used the word ‘toxic’. Olly had got beaten up by life, bad luck and bad choices and the last time I saw him he was so altered mentally and physically that I questioned who I was with.
From that whole crazy few years in Edinburgh, where Olly was popular and highly sociable, I was the only person in attendance at his funeral. Some had scattered around the country and world and the others Olly had alienated over the years and contact was lost for various reasons. I didn’t know anybody in the waiting room. As we walked into the crematorium itself, that Kate Bush song was playing.
‘Oh no, not this song’
I guess it had meant more to him than I had realised or given him credit for. As I sat alone in this non-denominational room of strangeness, the only person I knew present lying dead in a box 10 ft in front of me, all I had to focus on was the song. The song began a full body assault on me. Having never paid attention to the lyrics, every one of them resonated unbearably.
I know you have a little life in you yet.
I know you have a lot of strength left.
Became the vocalisation of denial. Of disbelief.
I should be crying, but I just can’t let it show.
I should be hoping, but I can’t stop thinking.
Giving license to publicly weep for the first time since childhood. I’d never seen grief work a room before. Like electricity, it cracked and snapped randomly at people who had been composed five seconds ago and were now suddenly a heap on the floor. It whipped me twice, stealing my breath and forcing me to sit.
Of all the things I should’ve said,
That I never said.
All the things we should’ve done,
That we never did.
All the things I should’ve given,
But I didn’t.
The very voice of guilt.
Oh, darling, make it go,
Make it go away.
Give me these moments back.
Give them back to me.
The anger. The nostalgia.
In 3 minutes, the song that had always been there, somewhere, became the vessel for everything that I was feeling. It became one of the most important songs of my life. It was no longer embarrassing, it was brave. The suicide had taught me, more than anything, the very importance of sharing one’s feelings because when you keep them inside they destroy you from within, rendering you completely alone and, at worst, in a wooden box long before your time and in that room, connecting finally with that song, I feel I fully started to understand the importance of emotional honesty.
But this is a song written for a Kevin Bacon moment in a forgotten John Hughes film. So maybe songs aren’t just people. They’re avatars. Something for us to use to identify with. Like the best visual art, we can imbue a song with our own meanings and our own emotions and then use it to cathartically release them. I love this song now. My journey with it is one of understanding and maturing and it shows me how much life has changed me from being a teenage boy who bristled at the notion of public displays of emotion to having experienced enough to understand the need to emote honestly and the beauty of being able to do so.
A couple of weeks ago, the song started playing when I had my ipod set to random on the bus home from work. ‘oh no, not this song’ I had to turn it off as it immediately made me well up and start to shake. Both the song and the reaction took me by surprise. When I got home, I played it and it made me cry but that made me happy because it meant I hadn’t forgotten Olly and wasn’t desensitized to the sadness of his death.
This song has been with me for years, waiting calmly in the background, not taking offence at the mean things I said about it and knowing that one day I would need it and it was happy to fulfil that role. Unlike people, there is a permanency to a song. At the age of 37, I now understand that not only will those I love not be around forever, they could also disappear in an instant. I’ll never see my friend Olly again and after a year of him never being too far from my thoughts, I’m getting ready, to some extent, to let him go. But it makes me feel good to know that this one song we argued over can instantly transport me back to him and physically remind me how very important he had been to me. In times past, impossible to recapture.