Sweat Out That Angry Bits of Life

“I remember thinking murder in the car.”

For all manner of reasons, I’ve been revisiting a bunch of music from the late 1990s recently, and have zeroed in especially on Blur’s self-titled album from 1997. That was a big year for me, in terms of what I was listening to: the trinity of Super Furry Animals’ Radiator, Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point, and David Holmes’ Let’s Get Killed took me outside of my indie kid/Britpop era and into more interesting areas thanks to my curiosity in hunting down the originators for all three of those albums, each of which wore different (but overlapping) influences on their sleeve. Without those three, my self-mythology goes, I doubt I’d be so eager to find new sounds even today, and to be willing to give almost anything a listen for a few go-rounds before deciding if I’m into it or not.

Looking back now, though, I’m probably shortchanging Blur in that version of the story. Of course, I loved that album — it’s still my favorite Blur album, I think, even now — and I remember getting a copy of it early through a record mart or something similar, someone selling a pre-release review copy for a tenner and me going “I loved ‘Beetlebum,’ and I think Blur’s a great band,” because I was 22 and it was the start of ’97 and of course I did. What I wasn’t ready for was what the album sounded like, all the sonic gruffness and stutters and self-conscious attempts to do something different from the pristine, over-worked Britpop glory of The Great Escape.

It’s still very much a pop album, but one that pulls from a different lineage of pop music than what the band had previously stolen from, even if the hooks remained admirably intact. It was those hooks that brought me into the obsessive re-listens immediately (“Song 2”! “Movin’ On”! “I’m Just A Killer For Your Love,” with that bassline!), but within days, it was the more awkward stuff that I found myself playing over and over again.

For weeks after, I’d find myself walking through Aberdeen streets at night on the way home from being out with friends, or visiting folk, or whatever, listening to “Essex Dogs” on repeat — the sound of this 6+ minute spoken word track with grumbling, discordant guitars squealing as backing feeling just right for the headspace I was in at the time; I was transfixed by the possibilities the song suggested not just as music, but as storytelling and narrative. It felt like there was something more out there to find, if I knew where to look.

I got distracted by other bands, other sounds, other things happening in life before I really had the chance to look; it would be years before I started listening to things like the Last Poets, Gil-Scott Heron, or even John Cooper Clarke. But I can see a through line there that I hadn’t before, stretching back to Blur. Maybe I should give that album more credit, in retrospect.

When You Think You Know, You Know What

Whatever the reason, February always ends up feeling like a curious rush by the time the second half of the month rolls around. It’s something that happens every single year, so there would be a sense that I’d be on some level used to this rhythm by now, and yet… nope. Every single year, I feel taken by surprise and thinking to myself, where did all the time go?

There’s a cheap answer to this, of course: I get lured in by the fact that February is shorter than the average month, which I remember intellectually and forget in every other way every single year. That’s hardly an explanation, though, especially given that it’s not that much shorter; it’s two or three days, which isn’t really any kind of amount of time that should make that much difference, especially year upon year. (As proof that, occasionally, my brain decides not to work properly, I submit the evidence that upon starting this paragraph, my brain went, it’s only 28 days normally, that’s five whole days shorter than the usual month, almost an entire week. I then… well, realized how bad my math was, if nothing else.)

I blame all the fault at the feet of January. January, my regular enemy, is such a difficult month every single year that, when February rolls around, I’m just so grateful to make it there in one piece that I almost lose track of time and common sense. Sure, there might only be four weeks in February to do anything, but those are four non-January weeks, and that means everything: they’re going to be less cold, less dark, and less shit merely by not happening in January, and therefore the sky is the limit. Or, at least, that’s what I end up telling myself in that way that our beliefs are spoken without any words.

I like to think that, if I did use words, I’d realize how ridiculous it sounded at the time. But then, I like to think that without using words as well, so what do I know?

The Ghost At

Since we got divorced, the ex-wife and I have spent the last few years sharing custody of what was once our two dogs, and has been one dog since 2022. Every month or two, we meet up and hand off the little guy, Gus, and get used to the reality of the next few weeks: he’s here, or he’s not.

What that means, in practice, is what I’m going through as I write this: spending the evening of the handoff by feeling as if I’m haunted. He’s not here, but I feel as if he should be, I keep looking around to find him, to see where he is. When he is here, he’s almost certainly almost underfoot or somewhere close by, asking to cuddle or at least find somewhere to sleep nearby; almost immediately, I get used to that, to the sound of his snoring and the feel of him lying against my side when I’m sitting on the couch or lying in bed. I get used to the rhythm of the house when he’s here, which means taking him out the back to piss or shit, and also checking for him when I don’t know where he is, in case he’s decided to piss somewhere inside the house because he’s 15 years old and dumb. (It’s happened.)

It’s those first nights when he’s gone that feel so odd; the sense that he should be here, should be underfoot or leaning against me. Even though I know he’s going to be back in a month, there’s a sense of loss and disorientation that I find myself pausing, having to take a mental step back to think about what’s happening for a second. It’s like a surprise sadness every single time I remember.

The Anniversary Waltz

Something I’m all too aware of right now is that 2024 is the year I turn 50 years old. Ever since the year started, it’s been playing in the background of my head, as if something changed on January 1 and I started some kind of special anniversary year. Technically, that anniversary year began with my last birthday, of course, but this awareness of that big birthday didn’t dominate my subconscious until the new year; such neuroses are rarely logical or practical.

It’s not as if my brain really knows what to do with this half century information; I’m not planning anything grand to mark the occasion just yet, beyond finally taking my health more seriously — something that, let’s be honest, medical professionals and loved ones alike would have rather I started a decade earlier. Nonetheless, it’s a fact that just lies in the background, hoping for purpose and giving significance to whatever is happening around me. As I clean the house, it asks, perhaps this is a sign that you’re going to be more ordered for your 50th? I read more books, and it suggests that maybe you’re finally settling into this elder reading statesman thing. Really, I’m just trying to do whatever to make it through and have some fun in the process. Maybe that’s a notable thing in and of itself, who’s to say?

(Is the second-guessing everything also something that happens as you approach the half-century mark, I ask myself in some kind of parodic, more-serious-than-it-should be, metatextual moment of almost self-awareness. There’s a moment of falling down the rabbit hole, and I worry that I passed that some time back without even realizing. Alas.)

I think the problem is that, somewhere along the way, my head decided without conscious thought that 50 is a Big Deal that Has To Mean Something. I went through the same thing at 40 — a quiet existential crisis that resolved itself with a shrug long before the birthday actually arrived. The same might be true of my 50th, in the end; I hope so. There’s something overly exhausting about this feeling that absolutely everything in your life has some additional significance just because of what the calendar has to say, especially when the feeling of the day-to-day says something entirely different.

Bam! You’ve Been Had, Dad!

I’m hyper-fixating on a detail from an old Superman comic I was re-reading recently, mostly because of the sheer fucking delight that it gave me; it’s a comic from the mid-1950s, when such material was firmly aimed at kids, and as such freed from the need to offer more than hand waving at any plot contrivance or speed bump on the road to where it needs to be, and as such is as bold and blunt as necessary to achieve its desired result.

The gimmick of the story is laid out in its first page: this time around, Superman isn’t just dealing with one villain, but three — and they’re all working together! Calamity! What made me laugh out loud with joy wasn’t that simple idea, though, but the way the villains met in the story. If that story was being told today, they’d meet in jail or through some appropriately grim, Machiavellian method, but in 1950-something, it was deemed entirely fine not only for all three to be escaping their glumness at the same local carnival, but for all three to literally bump into each other on the same carnival slide, each complaining that they were being jostled by the others.

It’s such a silly idea that it’s stuck with me ever since. I read a lot of superhero comics — it’s part of my job, sure, but they’re also just something that I deeply love personally — and seeing three bad guys on a slide together was a necessary reminder of how unserious and whimsical the genre is at its roots, and how playful this material used to be when it began. I’m not saying that I want more villains taking breaks at amusement parks at every given opportunity, but when repeatedly faced with the prospect of the world ending and an apocalypse on a monthly basis, maybe it’d be nice to remember that not everything has to be solved with a grimace and a seriousness that belies whimsy.

Even as I write that, I remember Marvel’s upcoming gimmick of releasing polybagged alternate versions of their superhero comics with more violence for “mature readers”…

I Hope, If Nothing More

Occasionally, I think about how unlikely my life has been; about the fact that my job — writing about pop culture, but especially nerd culture, for the internet — didn’t really exist even when I moved to the United States two decades ago — and about the fact that I did move to the United States two decades ago. For that matter, thinking about the fact that, somehow, I ended up working, if not in then at least tangentally connected to the industry that I always wanted to as a kid. How did all of that happen?

When I ask that question, I tend to answer it by thinking that it all started when I went to art school, lo those many decades ago. I’ve said multiple times that the most valuable thing about that whole experience, all five years of it (there was a Masters degree in there, too; if we’re adding in the time I spent teaching at the school as well, we’re up to seven years), wasn’t the official lessons, such as they were, because those were ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things — I studied graphic design just as digital tools were being introduced, so the majority of the practices I was taught were no longer industry standard by the time I graduated.

Instead, what I came away with of value was the fact that I had five years of just… possibility. Of being around people not only being creative in their own practices, but encouraging others to be the same way; of being tasked with doing new things on a regular basis, even if I was neither good at, or fond of, the majority of them; of having a feeling that I could try new things and fail at them, and that was part of the process as opposed to a bad thing. Looking back at it now, I see the whole thing as an extended lesson in the “Yes, And” theory of improvisation; a chance to just be comfortably uncomfortable for an extended period of time.

All of this was brought to mind the other week, reading Peter Capaldi talk about how the opportunity for poor people to have this experience has basically disappeared because of government cuts in the UK, and realizing how lucky I was to be born when I was, how lucky I was to have that chance. My life has been impossibly fortunate, when I stop and think about it. It’s good to appreciate that, every now and then.