Slow, distant peals of thunder late this afternoon, and again late into the night. For a stretch of early evening it cleared and the air was as fresh as you could ever imagine it could be. The brief rain dissolved into the hot tarmac of the road that runs through my estate, evaporated within seconds and, having fallen so far so recently and not wanting to ascend again right away, crawled around the driveways and garages like a lazy wraith. Clear blue sky. I walked to the post box and posted a mix MD to Scotland. Come 5am I will be wandering around the house in my underwear, unplugging anything electrical and listening to the percussion of the clouds.
The clearest blue skies are in November. Day after day of pale blue canopy, not a whisper of rain, the only vapour above our heads trailed by planes, the air chill but not abrasive. You feel it clean your throat as you inhale.
Autumn 1995 and my room was to be decorated. Sixteen years old now, and the grey-red-white-black racing car utility of my bedroom’s colour scheme, chosen as a boy, no longer fitted. The new carpet would be a deep burgundy, the walls a pale green, the curtains light and deep green and splashed with claret to tie the walls and floor together. For two months after decorating I had no furniture, just a mattress, CD player, pot plant, and three piles of stuff; books, clothes, and CDs.
The habit of falling asleep late and waking early for college had been found, and as a result I would often doze for an hour in the afternoon when I returned home. Normally it was the television, the banality of pre-6pm children’s’ programming, that accompanied my sleep, lulling my brain gently away as my attention wandered into blankness. This particular day though, a Friday, I flopped onto my mattress and set a CD to 5000 rpm.
The Stone Roses had weaved their insouciant, insular way from my older brother’s bedroom when I was ten and I had been ill at ease with their strangeness. I disliked them. Five years later, after The Beatles and George Orwell and Buddhism, one friend introduced another and the other introduced me, during a long car-ride to a destination where we would race remote control cars. I knew the songs but they were still mysterious; I couldn’t plot their destinations, their courses. I liked that. I remember one evening in another friend’s front room, waiting for a party to start, equipped with one compilation CD that held “She Bangs The Drums” somewhere in its running time, and I played it over and over again, each time fascinated by the lazy movement of it, the dispassionate passion, the obscured truth, the subdued euphoria. “Have you seen her / have you heard? / The way she plays, / there are no words…” Simple, so simple, an entire scope of feeling hinted at with a few lazy words. You never fall so far as you fall that first time. The next January I would buy a t-shirt in London a few days after the IRA had started disrupting people’s lives again. Oxford Street would be slowly cordoned off and we would be ushered out of one shop after another. A t-shirt and a poster. The t-shirt is still in a draw somewhere, misshapen and faded, worn almost every day for a year. The poster creased and ripped and faded too over the years, but is still on the back of my door.
This particular afternoon the CD I put on was a recent acquisition, only a few weeks old but already often played and much loved. At 4pm it was still light outside, the pale and sharp and clear light of a late autumn by the sea. My mind began wondering during “Waterfall,” Ian’s mysterious, dreamy descriptions of a girl’s flight from “this hole she calls home” ringing through my mind, and before “Don’t Stop” had finished my body had succumbed and I was drifting in dreamless emptiness.
Unexpected, dreamless sleep could well be proof that, essentially, we are nothing. Safe in our beds at our allotted times, dreams secure the belief seated deep in our consciousness that we have essence, an intangible something that, even with our senses gone, can experience and feel and which continues to exist. Something that we hope will remain when it’s no longer slumber that robs our senses. But when sleep catches us unawares, in unfamiliar times and places, and deprives us of dreams to entertain our elusive, reassuring souls… It’s then that we find ourselves in the presence of dangerous nothing. The invisible nets and wires that hold up our souls against the gravity of emptiness are revealed as invisible not because they are magical but because they’re not there. There is no guarantee that we will ever find our way back from within this nothingness. No guarantee that there’s even anything to find a way back.
My eyes opened some 25 minutes after they had unwittingly closed, and in that time the sun had sunk behind the trees. My senses weren’t awake and their subjects were ebbing and fading in the twilight anyway. A handful of bass notes climbed up and then quickly, ecstatically tumbled downwards and forwards. Had I been fully awake I would have recognised the familiar path of the notes and beats and pauses, I would have expected the guitar to join, the drums to move just so, the arrival of a disembodied glisten above and to the left. I knew the moments so well. Half sleeping though, ambushed by nothingness, I was trapped in the moment and knew nothing of what had passed or what was approaching. Stuck in that moment that was in between the past and the future, dozed and immersed in twilight, I lost sense of who I was, where I was, what I was experiencing. There’s a quote from Sartre’s Nausea that I keep going back to,
“I am moved, I feel my body as a precision tool at rest. I for my part have had some real adventures. I can’t remember a single detail, but I can see the rigorous succession of circumstances. I have crossed seas, I have left cities behind me, and I have plunged the course of rivers towards their source or else plunged into forests, always making for other cities. I have had women, I have fought with men; and I could never turn back, any more than a record could spin in reverse. And all that was leading me where? To this very moment, to this bench, in this bubble of light humming with music…”
The realisation of one’s self within the world through music and light, the realisation of one’s self within the world because of the lack of a self at all.
Puzzled by reality and beguiled by unreality I picked up the jewel case, the anarchic spray of black and white and green, the slices of lemon, the tricolour bars and the gold letters of the cover, and it made no sense to me at all that this thing in my hand had anything to do with this bubble of music and waning twilight I found myself so blissfully within. What must it be? It must be magic. But of course it isn’t. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy he describes intimately the process of sublimation that accompanies great craft, Lyra’s loss of self as she reads the alethiometer, Will’s necessary surrender of thought as he wields the subtle knife. There are certain times when you can bring yourself to a point of this immersion, and there are others when you can find yourself within it all of sudden, only to find the realisation of the state must necessarily bring about its death. But to wake in music and find yourself there, unknowing, and to stay there for a time, an age when all you have is that present and no past and no future…
There have of course been dozens of occasions, maybe hundreds, since then, when I’ve lost myself in music. Not had my pain reflected in catharsis. Not sung myself hoarse. Not danced drunkenly with no care for what I danced to. Not hummed along. Not shaken my head and banged my hands against the steering wheel in (almost) time. No. Lost. My. Self. How pretentious do I sound? You know what I mean… Eight minutes and something into “Spanish Key” when that electric piano motif rolls around again, this time larger, more pronounced, the whole goddamn band subsumed in its movement, and the air stills a second on climax before Miles wafts upwards, beautifully, on a catch of notes that climb for a second and it could be forever… Caught in the double snare tip, hazy chords and draughty, resigned melodica in “Big Shot”, two minutes and eleven seconds in when the guitar first spirals like a solitary star’s shimmer… Immersed in the pulsing noise and blissful rhythm of “Soon” as it finally unfolds forever… The delicate blip, forlorn beat and angelic voice that means exhaustion and hope in “Belfast”… You have your own moments… A joy not to be experiencing something but to be of something, even if only for second…
I’ve found it elsewhere since, maybe before as well, but that was the first moment when I realised it was what I wanted, where I felt most at peace, sublime, surrendered and lost and not wanting to return, in the final, tumultuous minutes of “I Am The Resurrection,” euphoria and redemption sought and almost caught. It’s not even the piece of their music that most sends me, and wasn’t back then. The sinister and divine seethe of “Something’s Burning,” the liquid, alien Krautrock of “Fools Gold,” the eerie promise of theft that is “I Wanna Be Adored” and the lovelorn shuffle of “Standing Here” all do it much more often and effectively for me. But that one moment, on that twilight evening, eight years ago… Every record I’ve bought, every song I’ve heard since, that moment, trying to find it again, is what they’ve all been for.