Monday, 10 October 2011

Just Another Manic Monday (and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday...)

Since my last blog was a little sad (and since those wounds have been well and truly opened since I wrote it, as fate would have it, so I definitely need to take my mind off it all with something else!), I thought today I might tell you all a story about a love affair that has stood the test of time. A love I've nurtured for nearly 13yrs. A love that has brought me unbridled joy, wonderful friendships and of course, the odd moment of hand-wringing and dismay. A love that began by stealing one of my sister's CDs.
Yes, I'm talking - of course - about my love for four blokes from Wales (there'll always be 4 to me), known collectively as the Manic Street Preachers.
Technically, that love affair has lasted far longer than 13 years. One of my favourite memories of living in our old house in Sawtry, back when I was around 11, is of hearing a song on Radio 1, which was played quite frequently and singing the only line from it that I knew (and which I got wrong). I would get myself ready for school in the morning, singing: "Like becoming a laaaandsliiiide," to myself. Of course the line was "life becoming a landslide, but that didn't matter to the fuzzy-haired pre-teen singing along. All I cared about was the catchy tune.
Little did I know then, but that was my first brush with the band who would become my heroes.
The next time the Manics entered my life was in February 1995. My Nan was dying in hospital and we were all understandably devastated. I'd eaten dinner and was slumped in front of the news when they announced that a car belonging to a missing man named Richey Edwards had been found close to the Severn Bridge. Richey had been in a rock band called the Manic Street Preachers. I remember, at the tender age of 12, briefly thinking: "At least we know what's happening to Nan. That man's family might never be able to have a funeral or anything..." I didn't connect the dots and realise that the band were responsible for the song I'd loved a few years earlier. But I did keep an eye on the news for while afterwards, just in case Richey was found.
The following year, a little song by the name of Design For Life was released. Now this is where I am annoyed by my own story, because in theory, this is where my love affair really should have begun. Instead, it was something of a false start.
Design For Life was a massive hit, kept off the number one spot only by Mark Morrison's "Return Of The Mack" (I know which song is still considered a classic today and it's not the one that topped the charts...). They played it at the local Youth Club I attended every Friday. And every Saturday, when I went along to the bowling alley a short walk from my house, where I'd bowl, play pool and generally have fun with my friend Clare and my sister Michelle, I'd put £1 in the juke box and play the same three songs: "Someday" by Eternal (don't judge me), "The Universal" by Blur and "Design For Life" by the Manic Street Preachers. That song was something of a soundtrack to the year I turned 14. And yet, in spite of my love for it and the singles that followed, I never bought the album (Everything Must Go), or bothered to look into the band's back catalogue. My uncle Steve, who'd been a Manics fan since day one, said to me: "One day, you'll LOVE this sort of music. You'll be a Manics fan rather than listening to boybands." We bought him Everything Must Go for his birthday, but in spite of the enormous temptation I felt... I never bothered to sneakily listen to it before I wrapped it. I was still obsessed with Take That and would later replace them after their split with 911 (again, don't judge me...). The Manics did, however get a few of their earlier songs into my regular listening habits. As an angsty teenager, I'd become fond of Alanis Morisette and my uncle Steve sent me a taped copy of her album, Jagged Little Pill. Those were the days when I listened to a walkman in the car on the way to family shopping trips and rather than leave lots of blank tape after the end of Alanis' album, uncle Steve put on a few more songs. Manics songs. To my surprise and delight, one of these songs was Life Becoming A Landslide, the song I'd so loved a few years ago.
And yet I STILL didn't get carried away. I liked the songs. But that was as far as it went.
A further two years went by and my sister - three and a half years younger than me, but infinitely cooler - began widening her music tastes. We'd sit in her room and listen to Sheryl Crow and REM. Then she developed a fondness for another band - the Manic Street Preachers. By that time, the band had released the follow up to the Brit-award winning "Everything Must Go." The new album, "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" was a slightly more acoustic affair on the whole, but with anthemic tunes such as You Stole The Sun From My Heart guaranteeing that it never truly strayed into coffee-table music territory. Michelle, my sister, thought it was brilliant and I was inclined to agree. Over the next few months, Manics posters appeared on Michelle's walls and by early 1999 she owned their entire back catalogue.
And so it came to pass that one afternoon, Michelle called me into her room to play me "the weirdest, coolest thing you'll ever hear." If memory serves me right, the song she was about to introduce me to was "The Intense Humming Of Evil," from the Manics' final album before Richey's disappearance, "The Holy Bible." My reaction?

"This is SHIT."
With that, I skulked back to my room, presumably to cleanse myself with some bubblegum pop. The trouble was, at the age of 16, I was starting to feel a bit sad for listening to quite so many boybands. As an adult, I freely indulge my love of Take That, I still claim 911 had some great tunes and I have CDs in my car with names such as "unappreciated brilliance" (which, okay, I don't always play when I have other people travelling with me...). But back then, I wanted to fit in. I wanted to listen to the "cool" music some of my friends were discovering, whether I liked it or not. Just days after the "this is SHIT" incident, I was at home alone, on study leave for my GCSEs. I had the usual kind of pop music playing in the background and I had completely and utterly run out of inspiration. I decided to raid my sister's CD collection, on the off-chance that she had anything I might want to listen to. On arriving in her room, my eyes were drawn to the large poster on her wall. This one, to be precise:
I found myself transfixed. I could take my eyes off it. Specifically, I couldn't take my eyes off Richey. The lost one, the one who had mysteriously disappeared. Up until that point, all I knew of the Manics was that fact, combined with the knowledge that some of their songs were brilliant. But as I sat there, staring at the poster, I suddenly felt compelled to know more. Taking The Hole Bible out of my sister's CD rack, I returned to my room, put it into my CD player and pressed "play."
Fifty six minutes and seventeen seconds later, I was hooked. I darted back into my sister's room and grabbed every one of the band's albums, before playing them back to back, copying them onto tape as I went. Many corny things have been written about the moment you find a song, album or indeed band in general that makes perfect sense to you. Whether it's described as being "smacked in the face," or "like a lightbulb going on," it's a way of saying "THIS is ME." Sitting on my bed that day, listening to every album the Manics had recorded to date, felt like a million different things combined. In some ways, it was like being handed a hot cuppa after a long walk - a massively comforting, satisfying conclusion. In others, it was like being pulled out of a coma - a sudden jolt that left me feeling more wide-awake than I'd ever been before. But one thing I knew for absolute certain, was that I'd found MY band.
Over the next few months, I collected the Manics back catalogue for myself, replacing my copied cassettes with CDs. I hungered for any information about the band and read books such as "Sweet Venom" by Martin Clarke and "Everything" by Simon Price. These were the days before broadband and we had no internet at home when my Manics obsession first began, so I would spend my lunchtimes in the computer suite in the school library, printing off pictures to stick on my wall and reading old interviews. I learnt everything there was to know about the disappearance of Richey Edwards and the various "sightings" since. I devoured the band's "manifesto," learnt the lyrics to the songs and dreamt of the day I would finally see "my boys" live.
That day was due to finally arrive back in 2001, after a friend very sweetly bought me a ticket to join him in Manchester to see the band on their Know Your Enemy tour. I arrived at my local train station, wearing a tiara and a feather boa, as was the "done" thing at Manics gigs. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, I was told that my train had been cancelled and there was no definite replacement. I returned home in tears and holed myself up in my room with only Manics videos for company.
Thankfully, I was luckier on the band's next tour, when they played Plymouth and I went along with my sister and two friends. That night was a culmination of years of adoration and seeing them on stage right there in front of me simply made me love them all the more.
In the 12 and a half years since that day when I sat at the end of my sister's bed and stared at that poster, the Manics have given me more wonderful memories (and a few bad ones) than I care to mention. I've seen them almost a dozen times, I've met countless friends thanks to them, I've had the enormous pleasure of meeting my hero, James Dean Bradfield (the band's fantastic frontman) and I've known the hilariousness of wandering through Cardiff dressed as a sexy sailor (long story...).
Like all love affairs, we've had our ups and downs. I can remember hearing So Why So Sad for the first time and gasping: "This really IS shit..." I don't hate it so much anymore, but... I certainly don't love it. And there have been times when they - or more accurately, certain sections of their fanbase - have annoyed me so much that I've even considered walking away.
But then I'll put the radio on and Design For Life will come on all of a sudden and I'll be transported back to that magical time when I first heard the album from which that glorious single comes and I'd realise that no other band has ever had the same effect on me. Never have I been so passionate about a band, or so defensive of the members and their music.
The Manics are the only band I'll dress like an idiot and wander through crowded city centres for. They're the only band I'd stay up til stupid o'clock just to catch a three minute performance from. The only band who cause me to look at my pitiful bank account when a tour is announced and book tickets anyway.
I may go for weeks, or even months without listening to their music, or even thinking about them. But then, when I play an album, or read an article about them, all of those feelings flood back and it feels like coming home again.
Now, the band have announced that, following a "Christmas party gig" at London's O2 Arena, they'll be disappearing for a few years. Some magazines and websites are suggesting that they won't be back. Obviously, I hope that's not true - I'm not ready to say goodbye to my boys just yet, or to end the journey my love of the band has taken me on.
But when that day comes, be it at the end of this year, or further down the line, I will at least know that whilst the gigs may end, the friendships the band have given me will remain. The music will be timeless. The memories will last forever.
James, Nicky and Sean... See you in December. I can't wait!

Monday, 3 October 2011

It's Not War (Just The End of Love)

Take That once asked, in their song of the same name: "What is Love?"
I don't claim to have the right answer. But if the last few months of my life have taught me anything, it's that love is one of the most powerful, primal emotions a human will ever feel. With it, it brings a myriad of other emotions to confuse and delight the brain. Without it, a person can feel lost, even when at home. Lonely, even when with friends.
In terms of romantic love, the emotional rollercoaster has even more dips and loops to endure. Life would be easier if love was simple. If we could say "I am in love with him" and KNOW he felt the same. If someone said "I love you" and we knew we could believe them. If we could be closer to someone than anyone else in the world and not be so utterly apart just days or weeks later, that we start to question whether they ever cared for us at all. Or if the line between friendship and romance was never blurred.
The end of love - in any form - throws up so many unanswered questions and barbed insults, it becomes a bizarre edition of The Weakest Link for broken hearts. "Has he just replaced me with her (or in some cases, them)?!" May be the unanswerable question. "Of course he has; you're ugly and fat and he never really cared about you anyway," is the barbed insult we can't help but direct at ourselves.
Because of course, when someone we love loves us, we are confident. We look in the mirror and see the beautiful/handsome/funny person that they tell us that they see. We think "yes, I am a great cook/amazing in bed/the best listener in the world," because we hear those things from someone we trust. Someone we think all of those same things about. Someone we want to love us, because we adore them.
So it only stands to reason that should that person reject us, push us away or replace us, we magnify our own feelings of rejection by taking negative comments they may have made about us and not only agreeing with them, but deliberately building on them. Or, when the person has never really made a convincing argument for your sudden and complete dismissal from their life, trying to work out what it is about you that is so fundamentally unloveable (even though the truth usually is that there's nothing unloveable about you at all). "It's because I do that thing he always nagged me to stop doing," or "what if it's because she thought I was crap in bed?!"
And of course, if you're the one doing the ditching, you suddenly view this person who changed your whole life in an entirely different light. Whether that's because you genuinely don't love them anymore, or because you've met someone else and decided not to bother with the old partner anymore, or because you're simply looking for an excuse to end things (for any number of reasons, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous). Suddenly, the person you called and talked to for hours and hours is being "too in my face and not giving me enough space." The person you had once been wanted to see as often as possible, who you hated to see walk out of the door, is suddenly "clingy" or "possessive" if he or she shows that they feel exactly the same. All those "funny" little habits that person had - the silly things you'd tease them for, just as much as you loved them for them - are suddenly annoying.
Then, when it's all over, neither the dumper nor the dump-ee emerges as a "winner." Unless someone is completely devoid of all human emotion, or is burying their head so firmly in the sand that they truly believe they can let go without having to feel any pain whatsoever (regardless of whether they pushed the person away or whether they themselves were pushed), there will be suffering on both sides. Guilt is the primary feeling. "Should I have fought harder to keep us together?" Or "Did I do something to make them not love me anymore?!" Then loss and anger, confusion... With all of these horrendous, painful emotions swirling through every break-up like a hurricane of misery, it's a wonder anyone ever enters into a relationship, such is the risk.
In the aftermath of any kind of break-up, some people jump into bed with another man or woman as quickly as they can, thinking they can somehow replace the person they lost or pushed away. Others try to find answers at the bottom of a bottle. You might take it out on yourself, be it physically or emotionally.
But what astounds me most about love, is that no matter how much it breaks our hearts and leaves us feeling sick, under-confident and angry, it rarely leads to us giving up forever.
Time apart can lead someone to look back on the person they lost and, someday, to remember their good points. What silly things you shared together, the memories you created and the chemistry that you once had. Of course in other cases, time apart causes someone to suppress every positive thought they ever had of the man or woman who was once the very centre of their world. An olive branch may be offered and ignored, causing a barely healed wound to open up again.
But either way, some day we find ourselves ready to try again. I'm not talking about shagging around with random people. I mean to try a relationship with one person. One, special person who we feel ready to open up to. To share that closeness with again. And unless we close ourselves off and refuse to learn, or refuse to take our fair share of the blame for the downfall of our last relationship, we will hopefully avoid repeating the same mistakes again.
Love has a strange way of bringing us full circle. And even a broken heart will - I hope - not prevent us from going forward and finding someone to share our lives with.
Whatever love really is - a best friend, a lover, someone we're closer to than anyone else in the world - I know I don't want to stop learning more about it. You can bury your head in the sand, you can suppress your feelings and make out as though you never cared for someone, or replace something real with something frivolous. You can weep and wail and declare yourself to be unloveable. You can tell youself you'll never love again.
But almost all of us will.
Because, as Take That sang, we all want to learn what love really is:
If love is truth, then let it break my heart.
If love is fear, lead me to the dark.
If love is a game, I'm playing all my cards.
What is love?