I caught a programme on music albums late last night on BBC 4. It was a toss up between a romp with the delectable Antonia Banderas in Mexico or bed. If I could have put the two together that would have been ok but as I couldn’t, I settled for the trip back into vinyl land.
It wasn’t long before the rush of youth came back to me, and my pre-occupation with music. Not only did I recall acquiring my very first album, Bridge over Troubled Waters, but the emotional pull and significance of so many others which I now realise is part and parcel of becoming a poet. The hours I would spend listening to music, grasping each lyric, learning each song, re-writing the words in notebooks, led me to writing songs myself; only as I didn’t write music, what remained was the words. A major appeal of an album was having the lyrics included so you could not only sing along (to the annoyance of parents and then partners), but also the opportunity to ponder over each word. If no lyrics were included you felt cheated. Equally relevant was the physical engagement involved with lifting the record free of the admirable sleeve, dusting it with reverence, positioning it on the turntable, blowing the speck of dust off the needle and gently letting it drop – what a ballet! No jete was ever done with more precision. The air around would change and charge, the music swelling around my teenage head (it remained a teenage head), and lift me to universes outside my tiny self and confined surroundings.
A major factor stemming from the development of the album would be an engagement with like minded others through a new and particular activity: people coming round to listen to music, often bringing their own clutched carefully underarm, excitement trembling as one admired album sleeves or argued about the importance of the tracks. Down the years it would be Pink Floyd or Cream, Led Zep and Yes who would offer such transcendental fulfillment only matched by sexual bliss.
Attaining a new album would remain a key desire for much of my life, as much time spent in the throes of tormented love, and much more important than frocks, shoes or jewellery. Someone made the comment about people coming round who checked out your record collection and knew where your head was at, you could identify a soul-mate instantly. I am quite guilty of completely ignoring potential mates who had shit records on their shelves. At fifteen I had to survive on a borrowed transportable record player from an American girl-friend and many disagreements had to be quickly solved before the golden cup was snatched away. A Saturday without Smokey Robinson? Was the earth round? In later years attaining a decent sound system was much more important than a weekend away or a new dinner set. I remember one partner spending months checking out the Which magazine on best quality buys followed by a visit round several music shops in an obscure part of London.
Many of the albums discussed last night are still in my possession, albeit the shabby chic glass cabinet. Yessongs, with the iconic Roger Dean artwork was not only played constantly whilst I learnt to be a mum, but the artwork fueled my own dreamlike, surreal doodles. Led Zep and Kashmir would not be outed by House Party (an afternoon tv show in the 70s). My Talking Heads period was decidedly weird. I liked listening to them upside down on the sofa, feet up on the wall. At social occasions aided by smoke and martinis, surrounded by head-banger mates in various meditative states, the union was akin to childhood church-going in its hallucinatory intensity.
It’s not surprising, that when I came to write my new collection of poems, Sixty Years of Loving, music would be one the themes that came sliding in as easy as that slide my dad would play on his Hawaiian guitar. Sub-consciously, the seeds were there, church songs and music on the front-steps would be part of childhood, but albums would legitimise that most natural of human necessities: the need for music and song.
I always felt something was lost with the development of music videos – although of course its advantages are deserving of another article – but for me that something was the personal engagement with the music at a particular time in our history and the way our imagination invoked its own meanings. In addition to that, the group thing, the lounging on sofas, the deep debates about particular tracks, their relevance to mankind. It was interesting to listen to the changes over time – the role of radio, the development of cassettes, ear-phones, and ‘Best of’ albums. The programme stopped there, thankfully. My brain had already re-travelled such a journey, from 1966 which is about when I became musically conscious. It couldn’t have taken the leap to mp3s, mobile downloads or Spotify. I went to bed then and didn’t dream of Mexico or Banderas. Only that line of Shakespeare remembered from school:
if music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it, so that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die. That strain again – it hath a dying sound …