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.
“That was a long night.” I said as we crept through the backdoor, quietly so as not to wake my parents.
“…and we’re finally home.” Said Bunny, with far too much enthusiasm for this time of the morning. Pulling off her t-shirt, covered as it was with dried mud and blood, flakes of the stuff already fell to the kitchen floor.
“home again, home again, jiggety jig”, she sang-sighed as she bent over to pull off her shorts. Bunny loved that film, she identified with robots more than the humans in a way that made me uneasy.
As the sun came up over the recently mowed back garden, we climbed the stairs up to my bedroom and I was filled with that early-morning wide-awake-yet-exhausted feeling I’d only previously attributed to come-downs. But this was no come-down, this was real. Bunny clutched the small parcel closely to her chest, as she kicked off her converse.
I was way too tired to be horny.
It had been a long night.
I put on the Flying Saucer Attack album on the record player as we climbed into bed together, and a the noise-drone swept over us like a codeine dream, soon the three of us were fast asleep, curled up in each other like a Russian Doll. Dreaming slow moving nightmares of the previous night.
“Lets not go down there tonight” said Bunny.
The night before we were listening to Nirvana’s new record on the stereo in my room. Everyone had said it was supposed to be ‘unlistenable’ but I didn’t think so. Not that I thought it was great, it just kinda sounded like a bunch of demos to me. My friend Mark told me he was certain they had recorded the sound of a room full of type-writers clacking away under the whole album. Mark was the laziest person I knew but he was also the smartest person I knew. He was the type of person who, if he said that he could hear a room full of type-writers clacking underneath a record it probably meant something else, like a metaphor.
“Lets not go down there tonight.”
I’d been going to the reservoir since I was a little kid as it was close to my house and me and all my friends from nearby would go and play there. When you’re little you go with your friends to build forts and try to dam the river but then you reach that age when someone shows up one day with a torn out page of their brother’s porno mag and things get weird. I could see everyone changing that summer, like some of them were left behind and some of them shot forward and started smoking and talking about girls and stuff. The one’s that were left behind seemed kinda sad, like they hadn’t evolved but kinda knew it so they were really sad about it, while the other one’s got way bigger really fast but it was also as if they got stupider; like all the things they thought made them cool and grown up kinda made them dumber as well.
I guess I felt like neither of them but maybe we all felt like that.
“Lets not go down there tonight, Alex”
Bunny was probably right. I’d started taking her there not long after we met. She went to the nearby secondary school and her gang of friends were far more exciting to me than my own. I had met them all after whiteying out from smoking with some of the harder kids one day when school was ending. I felt like I had out-grown my friends and felt like this was my last chance to find a group before the summer and loneliness loomed. I guess I was trying on different hats and somehow I found myself in a little clearing I had been using since I was a kid with a group of ravers from my school one June evening. They called each other cunt like it meant nothing and I wondered what I was doing there with a bunch of people who didn’t even seem to like each other. I had never smoked before and after a few tokes, my whole world was spinning and I felt worse than I had ever done before. I puked up in the bushes and thought I was gonna shit myself. The ravers laughed at me, calling me a lightweight and I passed out in a bush near my puke. Soon enough they left and later on I woke up and there were another group sitting around near me. As I foggily come awake I was faintly aware of a difference in the tone of their conversation – like they were friends who were nice to each other and enjoyed each others company.
The first person that turned round to look at me was wearing a pair of pink bunny ears.
She was small and thin and pale and looked about ten. She had large light blue eyes and a pink streak dyed into her blond hair tied back in a ponytail.
She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Soon after that we started hanging out down by the reservoir all the time. The group of kids were made up of all the greebo’s and metallers and weirdo’s from their school that didn’t fit in anywhere else. They didn’t quite work together but somehow they did, like some 1980s sitcom or a cartoon. The classic group of misfits. The dirty half-dozen. You had the angry guy who listened to nothing but Metallica; the fat girl, a geeky guy, a couple who seemed slightly retarded and were kind of a double act; and the strange girl and the strange girl’s gothy friend. Some had nicknames and some didn’t and it was almost as if they had been waiting for me to come along. Like some distorted fairy tale. Joining them was the easiest, most natural thing I’d ever done and pretty soon me and Bunny were kind of leading the group together. Like the King and Queen of the Greebo’s.
“Let’s not go down there tonight.”
We used to go down there some nights when we knew the others wouldn’t be there and sit by the water. About a year before I’d been going down to the old shed down there and wanking off to the stash of porno mags my friends and I had been collecting, wrapping them up in plastic bags and stuffing them under a space we’d dug underneath the back of the old shed. Now, me and Bunny would sit there with each other. She’d let me feel her tits but not much else. Once I tried to finger her but she started crying and I had to stop.
“Let’s not go down there tonight, Alex.”
Nothing could stop me when I felt like this. Sometimes I felt really happy and sometimes I felt really sad. My Mum said that I was depressed and tried to get me to see a doctor but I had read somewhere that they gave you pills that made you feel like a zombie and you can’t enjoy life anymore. I didn’t want that ‘cos when I felt good I felt really good. Now we were listening to Ministry really loud. My parents were out and I wanted to raid their booze cabinet and go out to the reservoir.
I felt like I could fuck the world….
Why do these kind of a story always start in a café? A guy, two girls, a two hundred year old cat spirit – you know the drill. Maybe it’s because the writers of these stories are lonely and a café is the kind of social setting you want to be in if you’re lonely. Because of this it can also be a despairing place, reflecting your loneliness back at you like a black mirror. Anyway, this particular instance, I can’t remember whether it was a Thursday or a Friday but I do remember that it was raining outside, that kind of weather that, when it comes in Spring it makes your unconscious do a sort-of double-take and for a couple of seconds there you could swear it was a Thursday or Friday in November in 1942.
Maybe for a second it was. Maybe that’s how all this started…
This particular café had huge old oak tables which, if you were on your own reading a book or whatever you were doing and a young family came in and the place was filled with wet bags and sodden, muddy dogs because it had been raining all day then this family would just be looking at you like you are the worst person in the world and how dare you take up an entire table like that. Just you and you’re book on Scandinavian fairytales, you utter shit. Except this time there was no family and no dogs. There was only Chloé.
Chloé appeared in front of me like an apparition or the punchline to a very inappropriate joke. One moment I was sitting there, reading a second- (third, fourth?) hand book of Scandinavian folktales and then suddenly I was aware of a mist of colour in the vague blurry area above my book. Then the words;
“Don’t try to save me. If that’s what you think this is….”
I’d only met Chloé once before and though she made a hell of an impression she also scared the shit out of me. I’ve always been painfully attracted to broken girls – whether physically or mentally damaged – like a combination of perverted fantasy, like a Freudian thing, and a deep-seated need to protect and to save them like a Christian bird-rescuer or something. Obviously, this has resulted in more than my fair amount of whack-jobs but the jury was still out in this case. The first time we had met had been at a rooftop birthday party for our friend Chris who we both knew. It was one of those situations where you are just stuck with someone and you know you have nothing interesting to say but you have to say something and its like in The Simpsons where Homer is talking to his brain, telling it to work properly…. I was like that, but more out of awkward boredom than anything else.
“So, um, what do you do?” that kind of shit. Seems like everyone in this town is some kind of artist. Its makes you wonder how the whole fucking place stays upright. All these hippies living off benefits or the bank of Mummy and Daddy, like you’ve never wondered who cleans the toilets around here and who the hell makes all the falafels and Frapa-mapa-cino’s or whatever the shit everyone drinks around here? Someone’s got to do that shit.
Anyway, she wasn’t an artist. In fact she didn’t even answer my question. She didn’t give me shit, and as I stumbled around my own tongue for a good five minutes filling the blank air like an idiot she stared at me like a blank canvas, her white skin and blond curls gleaming off of the rooftop like marble under moonlight until Zoe and Chris came over and saved me. Obviously they’d been watching from afar and could stand no more of this self-inflicted torture. Even as Zoe spoke to her, her expression didn’t change, it was more that Zoe seemed more at ease with her than I did. “They go back a long way, to Uni.” Chris said about her later when I asked, adding, “She said she’s tired of life but I think it’s more that she’s tired of people not keeping up with her.”
You can’t get a Goddam drink in this city after 10 o’clock and sometimes that fact can be the worst thing to ever happen to your in your tiny little world. Sometimes I just walk all night and go up to the bridge and look out at the cars below until I’m too tired to do that anymore and then I go home and it takes another couple of hours until I’m asleep, Summer is the worst for this, when it doesn’t get dark until midnight and by 3am the sun is up again. As soon as the sun is up, that’s it for me. I’m awake. Well anyway, somehow me and Chloé got elected to go on a beer run. There’s only one place in t he hole city that sells booze at 2 o’clock in the morning and it’s at least a half hour walk from Chis and Zoe’s place so we set off through the park where, in the Summer the kids shoot off laughing gas canisters
So you see I was pretty surprised when she called me up out of the blue one day, saying she got my number off of Zoe and would I like to meet up. Not would I mind if we met up, but would I like to meet up…? It was like I was talking to a different person. I didn’t want to be rude of course so I said yes and did she know this little café in the junky/arty/party part of town and yes, of course she did so we arrange to meet a couple of days later then a couple of days later there she was, in my peripheral vision saying shit like…
“Don’t try to save me. If that’s what you think this is….”
She said that before she goes on a date she always tells the guy she’s bipolar as usually that kind of a statement clears the deck pretty quick. In fact she really only does the whole internet dating thing to stay connected to reality. She says that if she spends too much time at home alone she ends up doing noting but eating Cheese Toasties and playing Mario-Kart alone. She says she could beat the shit out of me on Mario-Kart but it would just make her feel sadder, to know that she came out here to make a friend.
She had told me she was bipolar but rather than scare me off it had just made me more curios. I told her I didn’t know much about computer games and I wasn’t here to save her. I told her that I didn’t think this was going very well and she looked at her hands and didn’t say a word but I told her that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Tell me a story from your childhood. Tell me about the first girl you ever loved.”
So I told her about Bunny…