It’s a beautiful thing, seeing your friends evolve for the evening. I suppose the first encounter is when you’re a kid, maybe eleven or twelve, and you go round to a pal’s house and they pick up an instrument. You’re dimly aware that they could play, they were learning, but it’s a whole different ball game when they’re sitting before you just riffing off something. You goof about so much together, it’s hard to believe this kid could ever be sincere. It took a little persuasion to get them to play, but here they are. Licking notes. Bashing out Nirvana or playing some Belle & Sebastian melody on trumpet. The way they’ve mastered trills or glissandos or weird keys already. You can’t help but feel a little heartsore, despite your jealousy. The neglected clarinet gathers dust in your cupboard. There’s a rolled-up poster of the Manic Street Preachers, sheet music slipped behind the back of the piano. Maybe there’ll be a subsequent period of practice, where you’re inspired by your pal’s talent to pick it up again. You join the school orchestra, ask a teacher for sheet music. Your lips start to hurt, as if you’ve been kissing someone too long and everything’s a bit sweet, a bit numb. Pretty soon though, you grow bored again. Other interests tempt you: the alluring world of video games, exams, alcohol, writing novels about warring planets or a town reservoir threatened by economic interest (lifted from a Neighbours plot-line). You get better at imitating the crazy makeup, backcombing your hair, attempting to be visually competitive. You find yourself drunk on somebody else’s bedroom floor. The room fills up with crushed aluminium. The instrument suffers again, like a child ignored. You can hear it whimpering in the cupboard, stewing in its velvet case. You’re a terrible parent, and always knew it. You let the dog chew the hell out all your dolls.
At some point, you’re old enough to have friends that perform. People you’ve known awhile—whether for years or merely months. Colleagues or soulmates; often the chiasmic entwining of each. When hanging out, you sing similar songs, you laugh about cringe-worthy hiphop or try imitating Mamas and Papas harmonies. The drunker you are, the more mangled, though sometimes the voices come out like honey. You talk about normal things, like tv shows or idiot customers you’ve served at work. Sometimes you share life’s sorrows. Then on a Wednesday night you’ll see them up onstage and each time it hits you afresh, that transition. You start to notice everyday stylish quirks, the way they cross their legs to roll a cigarette. A certain way of mussing their hair. Flickers of accents, little jokes, a certain smile they reserve for occasions. Feeling special to be around them, throwing creative conversation in the air and waiting for sparks. When you both hit upon a song, a wee thing cute and powerful from childhood. Sometimes you mess about, you have a gossip, a dissonant singalong. Some are more forthcoming about process than others. Secretly you just want to hear them wax lyrical about time-signatures or resistance to genre or the difficult middle-eight or whatever.
Onstage there’s a certain remove. Often you forget you know these people, that maybe you made them a coffee or found yourself in the same photo. There’s a respect for what they do, regardless of personality. Onstage, you just want to watch the way their fingers make effortless work on the frets of guitars, over keys; the caress of their voice on the microphone. Not everyone’s voice is a caress, but you know a girl who makes the sort of timeless sugary garage that cements a generation out of time; nostalgically in love with mid-century decades but caught up in the pains of the contemporary. Each crunch of guitar, another notch on the year’s backbone. Badiou on the Century, roll over to beauty. She has a certain command. You take a slice of that universal heartbreak, pierce through its sweet coat of icing. It’s lovely to look around at an audience and realise that everyone’s sharing your pal’s talent. It’s a type of pride you rarely get to feel. It’s not like the unconditional love of a parent; there’s an aspect of that, but also it’s based on genuine respect for the practise. If they fucked up, you’d equally feel bad for them, share in that hurt. You’d sit deconstructing it later over a Guinness or something. Even if you were too drunk to notice, you feign understanding of the gravity. You can’t do that with your kid; you have to pretend. There’s always a lush moment when they play your favourite tune or whatever and what you’re caught up in is a web of memories coming into fruition in this string of seconds where each chord and riff and melody soars through the white hot space between everyone. You feel a certain touch would incur a shock. That’s cool though, you enjoy the suspension. You want to tell them afterwards how much you enjoyed it, but words never reach their expression. It’s easier to distribute those sweaty, clumsy hugs. A sequence of thank yous. Do tequila at the bar. What it’s like to be with them when strangers come up in congratulation. A generalised bliss, the clink of ice cubes, eyes shining in the club lights. It’s good to see them up there, dancing. The electric sorcery of applause. A drunken continuity of feeling that connects you, despite the audience, like some invisible umbilical cord that is probably of your own imagination. Of course when they are up there, they don’t notice you at all. I think that’s important. There’s a sense in which you have to make the connection your own, internalise the melodies and progression for your own secret narratives. These songs will go down in the years, the meaningful soundtrack to your twenties. It doesn’t matter how much you love them, or how casually playful and silly they are. How much of sadness, whimsical commentary or hard-hitting truth. Heavy or deliciously frothy, bright; it’s all a matter of gazing on starlight. It’s hard to admit. You love the outfit: the lipstick or smudged mascara, baggy jumper or gauzy dress, faux fur, tattered cardigan, tartan jeans, glitzy earrings. You love the tangled wires, the humming amps, the pure sense of paraphernalia.
(Maybe you’ll find a video of them performing on YouTube, something handmade from a fan’s shaky iPhone. There’s a piece of them that you’ll never have, but that’s okay. Being creative is maybe the act of constantly splitting yourself into pieces, disseminating them in the hope that the world might nourish you back.)
One time, you dreamt you were a piano. It actually wasn’t farcical, or surreal as it sounds. How to feel that ache, all those shuddering, cranking pedals! You could smell your own wood-must, the crazy longing to be played. What stirs in the dust when the keys start to flicker. It’s music music music, this thing universal. You felt in the piano all these intelligent thoughts; it was like decoding the algorithms of an Aphex Twin track. Sensations in nerves never felt before. You make yourself vulnerable when sharing a friend’s music. Defragment the brain, look for meaning. Something inside just wants mutual approval. You need the rest of the world to know this whole process is beautiful. Not the stress of signing, booking and playback statistics, Spotify contracts, recording problems and the politics of gleaning a DJ set; no, the actual moment when they’re onstage just doing their thing, inhabiting a version of themselves that transcends, however slightly, the ordinary. That slippage is the charm. You love how they come offstage and the first thing they say is have you SEEN the drinks prices in here? or man I loved the support or god I need a fag or I like your dress. The simplicity. Is there anything in life as good as mutual respect? Later, you’ll stumble home, your head full of invasive tunes—each one recalling some dark room where another mind you love is at work, is shimmering in the ether of space where occasionally the stray debris of a melody will form something strong and good. It’s envy and admiration for that process that keeps you going. So you write about it, of course, because what else do you have? Sure, you know your minors from your majors, your sharps from your flats, but you lack the mathematical magic to do what they do. And that’s cool, because the chasm has its slender implication of cleverness—the ability to communicate in different styles, tongues, hieroglyphs. Remember that quote from Mean Girls about maths being beautiful, a universal language? The price of being humble is genuine friendship, and when you pay 99p for that Bandcamp release, you’re investing in somebody’s talent, the luminous halo that hangs over conversations you have in the future. I turned on the radio once, at 3am, and your song came on by chance. It felt like home, in the midst of that late-night shadow and angst. I hope you do well, I really do. I hope y’all know how much I admire you.