Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bit of autobiography before dinner

I remember, when I was about eleven I was in my friend Barry's house. Barry was a year or so older than me and was therefore that much closer to the bleeding edge of cool than I was. Also, he'd grown up in Pittsburgh until a couple of years before. I had no real conception of that place, but it was in America, so he was cool. Another reason for that was his collection of stuff. In every group I was ever a part of, there was one kid who always had every important product - the best Action Man, a Millennium Falcon, a ZX Spectrum (maybe not so much the last thing) - Barry was one of those guys. Poor guy didn't know many people, having only recently arrived in Ireland, which worked out fine for me.

We were on the cusp of things then (the embarrassing cusp, not any of the good ones), and lots of grown-up ideas started to emerge in a haphazard way, like a drunk explaining Wittgenstein. We didn't know any girls and were too small a group to play any sports, so we drifted to the other teenage one-upmanship game: music.

Barry had been given a ghetto blaster (even then that title was a little anachronistic, but from my point of view 'blaster' = Han Solo's gun, so it worked in a strange kind of way) for Christmas, I think. it was one of those designs that were umbilically linked to their time and place, like that TV in the shape of a motorbike helmet that I used to lust after in Switzers. It looked like it had been fashioned from leftover Ferrari parts. I bet some hipster is even now bidding well over €500 for it on Ebay.

What a lead in. Anyway, we were 'into' music, by which I mean Barry had money and could buy albums, while I had blank cassettes and would copy them off him. This is how I first heard Nirvana, The Simpsons album, Tone Loc's Wild Thing, Snow's Informer, and Vanilla Ice. I was eclectic even then. It was the best sort of relationship for this sort of thing - we both got something out of it: Barry got to be the gatekeeper to cool things, which made him cool; I got lots of free music. It wasn't all that different to collecting Garbage Pail Kids cards or birdwatching, except you could imagine not being laughed at or beaten up for doing it.

Having music always used to be a competitive sport. I think cassettes were the mobile phones of 1989, if you were a preteen. In sixth class, one kid whose name I have long forgotten leapt up the social ladder when he brought in a copy of Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet. This may be the only time in recorded history that be-permed men in leather trousers could be described as aspirational. It didn't last, sadly. A year later, certain older brothers passed Appetite For Destruction down to their siblings in my class. From that point we also experienced the phenomenon of revisionist history. It was like the opposite of Woodstock. Everyone who claims not to remember it was there.

Music functioned as a social measure in another way. Everything you do as a teenager is geared towards being accepted by your chosen group, not being bothered by everyone else and hopefully, getting together with someone of your chosen sex. If you were good at managing that, congratulations. Don't trip and fall on anything sharp on your way out. Knowing about music (as long as you were careful to know about the right sort - don't discuss Dr. Alban with a guy in a Jane's Addiction t-shirt) was an infinitely more socially acceptable excuse for being otherwise monosyllabic and gauche, than having a comprehensive understanding of Dungeons & Dragons (oh, happy days) or just being crap at sports. If you were rubbish at interaction:



YOU: (Panic behind eyes. Sweat glands activate. Brain leaves through back door) "Hey." (directed at shoes. Own shoes) "Er." (Dives into box of umbrellas)

AHofPP: " ."

So, as you might imagine, AHofPP's reaction would run the gamut from 'Huh?" to "Weirdo". But if you were wearing a Hole/Pixies/Rage Against The Machine/Smashing Pumpkins/Sonic Youth (I'm a creature of my time) t-shirt while you had your social meltdown, then at least you were a nerd in a good way (you hoped). It was also a great way to get into social groups:



YOU: "Oh yeah. Thanks man."

TBLMJP: "Yeah, 4 Non Blondes are wicked. Really into them."

Even in college, music was a really handy shorthand for figuring out if someone was on your wavelength, whether they would sleep with you, if their friends might, or if they could introduce you to someone who might sleep with you. It's probably the only time in my life when having an in-depth knowledge of Radiohead B-sides could be described as a pulling tool. Not a great one, mind you.


PERSON YOU ARE SCORING/VICTIM: "You're really cute."

YOU: "You too. This is like that song, No Surprises. Hang on, I'll put it on. How do you work this CD player?"

The funny thing about having kids about a decade before anyone else your age even considers the idea is that suddenly you have a real timetable. Not like the sort with lectures. You didn't need to change lecturers' nappies, or make sure they didn't drink all the cough medicine. Not every week, anyway. One of the casualties of kids for us was music. The sort of commitment necessary to be on top of what's going on in music was, at least in our house, incompatible with being broke and in charge of an infant.

Becoming deeply uncool from a musical point of view is expected when you grow up and get married. If you're tracking the newest and most adventurous music, you probably don't spend too much time in deepest suburbia.

I'm just really glad I discovered cookery books. Now I can be obsessive about Jamie, Nigel, Rick, Madhur, Nigella, Tamsin, Valentine and the Hairy Bikers. Plus, no matter how out of touch I become, at least I'll enjoy the food.

- Hope that made some sort of sense. Not convinced it did. For everyone studying creative writing, this is what happens when you sit down with a glass of wine and no outline and think "I'll figure something out". I'll write something desperately clever sooner or later, so please do come back.

As a quick aside, I'm now back to being eleven and getting my musical cues from other people. Everything I have listened to in the last three years (at least) has been a result of listening to other friends or (more often) by peeking at their collections. Let's hear it for Facebook. Here are some of the things I've enjoyed over the past while (that have been recommended, innit):

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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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