What kind of musical comfort does the inveterate fan of gloomily melodramatic recording artists like Nick Cave and Nico reach for when genuine personal sadness comes a-knocking? So asks self-confessed lyric junkie and pop song connoisseur Jamie Holman after finding unlikely, revelatory succour in the kind of music he thought he hated…
I’ve always been about the lyrics, obsessed even; poring over sleevenotes, reviews, features and books of criticism that emerge around any successful artist or band. From Little Richard’s “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop…” to Dylan’s ‘Tangled up in Blue’, I’ve devoured and savoured every word, chewing over each turn of phrase, clever rhyme or primal howl. And not just the obvious stuff much loved by rock writers and reviewers at Q magazine; I could find joy in obscure punk singles (Fatal Microbes’ ‘Violence Grows’, for example), psych-stomp screamers (The Great Believers’ ‘Coming Up Fast’) and in the wailing of Jon Spencer in any band he’s ever been in.
The lyrics of pop music soundtracked my life, serving as the props and crutches for every romance, rejection, celebration and wild night I ever had. Regardless of the situation, there was always a song, a lyric or a wail to reflect my circumstances – a road map for the soul offered by a guide who reassured me that they’d been here before and that everything was going to be OK.
Somewhere along the way, however, something changed. It’s hard to pinpoint when, but like many in their early forties, I experienced a wave of bereavements, each sudden and unexpected. Over a period of ten years I went to four funerals that were equally devastating in their own way.
It’s not like I’m known for my uplifting record collection, but when you listen to sad music for fun, what do you play when you’ve lost someone you loved? And that’s not someone who ran off with another lover, or doesn’t return your phone calls; this is someone who was there one minute and gone for good the next. This is where the words began to fail me. I had nowhere to go and no one who could articulate the pain I felt at the despair that death had brought to my door. I simply couldn’t get through a side of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call or anything by Nick Drake or Nico. My records were letting me down, and so I stopped listening.
Around this time, I also stopped drinking for good. It was just one of those things that was also happening in my life, but sobriety impacted on everything else. I was teetotal, sad and without the crutches I had come to rely on. This made me very popular at parties, as you can imagine, and I found myself in huge demand as the go-to guy for a sombre discussion about the inevitability of death while everyone else danced on tables. The phone stopped ringing. Rave on.
The last friend who died was a work colleague. I’d known him for 20 years, and a week or so after the funeral I was in his painting studio clearing the last of his things. He’d had a good record collection and, as per his wishes, his friends had taken what they liked from the boxes he’d left out. There had been some good stuff in there, some rare Stones and Beatles vinyl in good nick, and all the classic rock LPs you would find in music magazine “all time best” lists. But all that was gone. What was left was half a box of what appeared to be charity shop fodder, consisting mainly of classical LPs and two Shakespeare box sets. They needed throwing out, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I took the box home and placed it with my own records, telling myself I would deal with it at some point in the future. Perhaps I would drop them at a charity shop when I felt ready to let it all go. I looked at my own rows of records and felt a real sadness that there was nothing in there that I could bear to play. Perhaps I’d get rid of them all.
Eventually I went back to the dusty box and, at random, pulled out a slim box set of Beethoven String Trios. The case was knackered but the vinyl was immaculate. The LPs looked mint but had obviously been played and looked after. They had been loved. As I dropped the stylus on Side One, I reminded myself how much I hated classical music. And then I honestly had a road-to-Damascus experience. I was overcome by the music that filled the room. I still don’t have the words to explain it, other than I found what I was looking for. The music made immediate sense. I could hear it, whereas in the past the mere mention of classical music made me feel queasy and was, to my ear, just horrible noise. I spent the afternoon playing the four records from the box set and continued through the others, each more appealing than the last. I found sadness, joy, anger and tranquillity in the grooves of these discarded long-players. I found a music that could articulate the rage I felt at the pointless and empty absences left by departed friends. In fact, it was the very absence of other people’s words, other people’s responses, other people’s lives, which allowed the music to ‘speak’. It explained why words were never going to be enough. I listened to these records every night, with the TV switched off, just like the old days. I sat up late listening to the Beethoven Trios over and over, finding new layers with every listen. Slowly, the foreign and exotic became familiar and reassuring.
After that, I began to trawl the charity shops in earnest looking for classical music in good condition. So far it’s been hit and miss. As with the pop and rock music I collected, I’m not a fan of the bombastic or showy. The only language I have is that of the indie fanzine reviewer, so I hope you’ll understand when I say that much of what I’ve found feels ‘overproduced’ or ‘noodly’… I don’t go for the big stuff or the Four Seasons fare I remember from school assemblies, but I have found that a little Beethoven, Prokofiev or Bach can be fantastic. I still know nothing about this stuff, but no longer feel the need to know anything about the music at all. I just listen to it and let it do what it’s supposed to do.
Perhaps the most unexpected outcome is that this box of classical music, destined for the charity shop or skip, has signposted me back to where I came from, albeit with a twist. I began to realise that it was the nature of the instrumental itself that I was attracted to, and so began new adventures in music without words. I even re-visited my old stomping grounds and fell in love with the LP soundtracks of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Dylan’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid and David Holmes’ soundtracks for films The Hunger and ’71.
The records I play the most, however, remain, Beethoven’s String Trios – the first records out of a box that no one else wanted.