Songs 2 & 3: Absent Friends

Poor Kirsty McColl. In life she was always overshadowed by her father, folk singer and songwriter Ewan. In death, she is remembered more than anything else for her duet with Shane McGowan on Fairytale of New York. Even in this post, she suffers the indignity of having to share space with another. Never mind, she produced so many jewels of the songwriting art that I’ll have plenty of material for a later post dedicated to her alone. Despite her roots, McColl wasn’t much of a folkie. One of the Pogues once joked that she had to learn the words to her father’s songs – it was only Beach Boys songs that she knew by heart. She specialised rather in witty, polished pop, sometimes shot through with melancholy. Her persona; smart, funny, nobody’s fool but hopelessly romantic, was in place right from her first single, the deathless “They Don’t Know”.

Though held in high critical esteem, her record as a commercial artist was consistently disappointing. Her 1985 single, “He’s On the Beach”, like most of her releases, was a flop.

“He was just a friend of mine I’d run into from time to time” it begins. The remainder of the song is devoted to how much she misses her old friend, now that he’s gone to Australia, maybe forever. It’s possible that he was more than just a friend, but I think that this doesn’t really matter. The sadness in the song is as much about missing one’s own lost youth and the days when “we used to share a taste for wine”, as about missing the person. The chorus, decked out in 80’s synthesizer finery, is thrilling, the refrain of “He says it’s brilliant there” managing the trick of being euphoric and sad at the same time. McColl finds the time over the song’s four minutes to muse on whether her friend is happy in Australia, and speculates that he might be lonely there, might not have found whatever it was he went looking for. To my ears, this is unconvincing, like her assertions that “he’s changed somehow, it’s in his postcards now”. All of this concern for his well-being feels like window-dressing for the fact that his leaving upset her more than she cares to admit. Maybe he was the one that got away, or maybe he’s just a reminder of the foreign adventures that the singer never got around to having; either way the sadness of knowing that “he’s out reach” is palpable, and lends an air of dreamy longing to the song’s closing.

Most people of my generation will acknowledge that for much of our childhoods, the best time to see music videos was on Sunday morning. The Beatbox held the slot for longest, but the original and best Sunday video show was Vincent Hanley’s MTUSA. Hanley presented the show from New York, and only played American videos, so you could usually be sure of seeing and hearing things that you just couldn’t get at home. One of the songs Hanley introduced to an Irish audience was “Anchorage” by Michelle Shocked. The song was never a hit, and yet most people I mention it to remember it, so it seems likely we all heard it first on MTUSA. I remember liking it, but I had no very strong memories. Then, a few years ago I heard it on the radio, and it was…astonishing. It’s little wonder it didn’t leave that much a mark on my 12-year old self. Anchorage is a song for adults, more specifically for those around the age of 30.

Texan Michelle writes a letter to one of her old Dallas buddies, but the reply is postmarked Anchorage, Alaska. The rest of the song is the text of her friend’s reply. We all have old friends who live far away, and in our more sombre moments we wonder how many years it will be before we see them again. The line “Hey ‘Shelle, the last time I saw you was on Me and Leroy’s wedding day” will resonate with many of us. As much as a wedding is about starting a new life, it is often about leaving behind some of one’s past. In ways we’re not aware of on the day, it is sometimes a goodbye party. Michelle sang a love song that day; her friend can’t recall how it goes. Life speeds up when you’re far away, and changes that might have been considered earth-shattering – like moving to Alaska – can happen to friends without you even knowing about them. Michelle’s friend says she’s got a brand new baby girl, and notes that if she sounds like a housewife, it’s because that’s what she’s become.

We all make our choices for a reason, but part of us, like Kirsty McColl in “He’s on the Beach”, wonders what might have happened if we’d done otherwise. Such reflections bring with them reminders that we only get one life, and one youth, and they can’t but be bittersweet. Though happy enough in the chilly domesticity of Alaska, Michelle’s friend is envious of the different path taken by her musician friend, mumbling a half-spoken “New York City, imagine that?” in appreciation. Shocked is not unaware of the powerful symbolism of settling down in a city called “Anchorage”, and makes full use of it, repeating the phrase “Anchored down in Anchorage”, evoking security as well as an end to adventure – or a certain kind of adventure, at any rate. There’s an acknowledgment in her friend’s letter that her own wild days are behind her, but there’s no resentment of Michelle’s more footloose life, and the affection that Shocked puts into the line “Leroy says ‘Aaaw…keep on rockin’, girl’ ” is close to heartbreaking.

The world may seem smaller now, with friends never more than an email or Skype call away, but the brute facts of geography and time remain real, and these songs, though different in style, speak to our experiences of those realities. There can be few people over the age of 25 who don’t feel the truth of at least one of them. It’s sentimental to think that the roads we didn’t take must always have been better ones than those we did, and it’s unrealistic to think we can embrace the future without leaving some treasured things behind us on the way. But I think it’s only fair that we are allowed to occasionally feel sad about it.

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