There is a box in my lap. It is a shoebox and it is green.
I am sitting at my desk at my computer listening to the first strains of Neil Young’s album ‘After the Goldrush’ playing through my computer in mp3 format. The aural contradiction that confronts me whenever I listen to this album is embodied through the confrontation between the saccharine sweetness of the melody and the nihilistic, self-despairing, lyrics.
“I was lying in a burnt out basement, with the full moon in my eyes… There was a band playing in my head, and I felt like getting high”
The effect of these lines to my thirteen-year old self has always stuck with me. So that even now I still feel the same as when I first heard it. The whole album as a deep emotional connection to me as powerful as Proust’s Petit Madeleine or Barthe’s Winter Garden Photograph. The knowledge that my mother listened to this album, upon its release in 1970, as a young woman, intrigued me as a teenager.
What thoughts did she have about these lines – and what, more than 20 years later, did she think about her young son listening to them? I come from a typically conservative British family, who by the time that I was old enough to be interested in this album and the others that came with it, my parents had become simply that; parents. I was the second son of a family so conservative that we had long ago stopped watching television together, due to a series of increasingly embarrassing ‘romantic’ situations recurring weekly through the usual shows. Who were these people I thought I knew? What mysterious life had they lived before me, who surely must be the center of their world. My eleven-year old self was intrigued by the idea that they had been vastly different people, but outside of a box of photographs, there was no inkling of their former lives prior to our arrival, no connection between the young happy, good-looking couple on the beaches of Italy and the angry, unhappy people they had become.
The green box and the items inside were our key to that former life.
“Look at Mother Nature on the run, in the nineteen seventies”
My brother, older by three years, and I had discovered ‘After the Goldrush’ sat in a green Clarks shoebox filled with other relics of the sixties and seventies that constituted a hodge-podge representation of my parents record collection from their youth, repurchased in tape form, presumably to be played during the long car trip all the way from Airdrie, to Rome where the moved in the late-seventies. My Father had met my Mother at a dance at her teacher-training academy in Hamilton when they were both barely out of their teens. My Father had trained at the College of Building and Printing in Glasgow and was working for an architects firm. He has never told me but I suspect that he knew he would marry my Mother the first time he saw her.
Some people just know these things.
“but I still love her so, and brother don’t you know? I’d welcome her right back here in my arms”
They had married quickly and lived in Airdrie only briefly before traveling, by car, to Rome – where my Father, desperately trying to escape his domineering Italian Mother, had secured a position with an Italian architects. To me, these tapes represent the freedom they must have felt at escaping the conservative Scottish gloom of the nineteen seventies for the excitement and glamour of Italy. By the time I came along, born in Surrey in 1980, my Father had started a business in London, commuting in every morning, while my Mother settled with my Brother and I into a newly built housing estate reminiscent of the Californian suburbia of a Steven Spielberg’s movie.
Somehow, gradually, in the intervening years, the eighties happened, and as the clothes, the music, and the attitudes of Thatcherism came to destroy the dreams and hopes of an entire generation, so too did my parents settle into a dull sort of family life with us at the centre. We moved to a larger home in 1983, where things seemed a little less fantastic to me. Upon childhood explorations into the many drawers, doors and cabinets of the dining room dresser, my brother and myself discovered the green shoebox, as dull as a green shoebox from Clarks can be, but which was packed full with about twenty or so tapes. I had been listening to my Father’s Blues, Doo Wop and R&B tapes since I was about eight years old but this was the first time I had seen anything that looked like this before.
With their strange, psychedelic cover art, their tiny covers were works of art for us before we even knew the term. From The Eagles Native-American styled artwork, forming a continuous thread throughout their discography, Dylan and the Band caught mid-performance in the very basement that The Basement Tapes were recorded in, the young, beautiful Carol King perched on a windowsill as that eternal Californian sunlight enshrouded her, even Neil Young’s head , seemingly appearing out from an old woman’s back-pack – each one existed within its own tiny Universe. To my Brother and I we had uncovered a sacrosanct world of adults – something forbidden to us, like alcohol and sex – which these tapes represented.
“I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down, I feel my heart start to trembling whenever you’re around”
As we grew into our teenage years and acquired tape and record players of our own, my brother and I stumbled through those first, awkward steps to formulating our own musical identity, so that along with the typical early-nineties fare of Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, and Sonic Youth – borrowed and taped, begged and stolen – were these tapes-of-the-green-box that, unbeknownst to our parents laid the foundation of our musical knowledge. Outside of the popular music one was expected to listen to and discuss during the school day, were these secret gems, which we shared with nobody but each other. Replacing them in the green shoebox in the dresser after each listen. At an age when one has little understanding of the passage of time, somehow, we knew that these tapes were important. Both to American culture as well as to the history of music; we knew that, like stepping into a museum or an archive, we had unprecedented access to priceless relics from the past. We knew that they were uncool in the current climate of Industrial music and Experimental Indie Rock, but we didn’t care, they provided us with a road map for an understanding of popular Rock n’ Roll up to the contemporary bands. Somehow it was all connected.
“Well, I’m running down the road tryin’ to loosen my load, I got seven women on my mind.”
My Brother, given his pedantic aptitude toward order and completion, connected mostly with the Eagles, who were the only band to have almost every album in the shoebox, while I connected with the emotional expressionism of Neil Young and Carol King. In retrospect, the familial connection we had towards our individual choices to specific artists reflects our similarities to our respective parent. As we found out later, The Eagles and Dylan were our Fathers while Neil Young and Carol King, my Mother’s. My Brother has always been more like my Father, me, like our Mother. One of the prevalent threads that run through these albums is that they were mostly made in the early to mid seventies by artists who formed part of the LA folk and country rock scene. The connection between our parents, traveling from Scotland to Italy – two places we barely knew outside of family visits – and the exoticism of nineteen seventies American culture was mind-boggling to us as two children only just figuring out how to become people ourselves.
“So tell me now and I won’t ask again. Will you still love me tomorrow?”
Each item in the box represented a part of us that could be employed emotionally to represent a different aspect of our personalities, as much as they represented the soundtrack of our parents lives before us, so too did they provide a map to our own development as people existing in the potential future. In this sense, the box acted and continues to act as a vessel between the past, the present and the future; existing to all of us during different periods and places throughout our combined histories, as a family unit and as individuals. The box continued throughout the physical world as an individual entity yet also exists as a puzzle box of sorts, containing individual elements that pertain to a different aspect of the users life at a separate time. The green shoebox remains a single entity as well as the container of a puzzle. The meaning that can be extrapolated for each individual are specific and particular and change over time, for my Father, Mother, Brother and me.