Long-time AUK writer David Cowling returns with a new fortnightly column as he digs into his collection of leftfield americana.
There are moments in my life when I have connected directly with a song or a piece of music, moments where I inhabited the music or it inhabited me, moments of connectedness, where you know that you are not alone. I grew up in a house with seven siblings (5 sisters, 2 brothers) where the music was usually Radio 1. I shared a bedroom with my two brothers, one older, one younger. My older brother had seven years on me; he started work as a Trainee Manager at Tesco, upgraded his stereo and banned me from touching his records – his music was Genesis and Motown. My sisters liked The Beatles, David Bowie, David Cassidy and The Bay City Rollers. Growing up I did not have any music of my own (though at one point I was obsessed with the Beach Boys and The Move). This changed in the summer of 1977, a blazing hot summer day, a tinny cassette player and ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – all of a sudden I had found something that could be mine, that spoke directly to me, that I recognized… it was the start of something. At the time I lived in the arse end of the country, I did not see the Sex Pistols, I saw the Skids. I also saw the inside of a police cell, I saw no future, and through luck, I found a way out. No, not through music, I have no musical talent (besides wrangling feedback), I was the only one of our 8 to go to University.
My University years didn’t supply me with my musical education. I flirted with synth-pop which was my second punk rock – the Cure gave me the mood I needed. I eventually fell in love with Orange Juice and through them found the Go-Betweens. And via them, I found someone who helped to shape my listening habits for the rest of my life. I found love in a C-90 tape, one that contained REM, Husker Du, Replacements and Meatpuppets, and this is where my true musical education began – this is the music that sustained me and made me who I am. There were so many great bands, so many great shows with so many moments. I can still feel the power of the first Fugazi EP, hammering the tinny speakers in a Vauxhall and every time I hear it, I’m back there in a world full of possibilities, a melancholy aural Proustian tunnel into the past.
So far, so far from Americana, but there were other discoveries – finding Uncle Tupelo’s ‘Still Feel Gone’ in a record shop in Birmingham. Discovering the genius of Will Oldham through his association with Slint, buying the ‘The Ohio Riverboat Song’ single and playing it over and over again. Giant Sand entered my life and never left. I remember starting work at a University, where I was able to listen to music whilst working and becoming very obsessed with Smog’s ‘I Break Horses’, Bill Callahan’s first great moment.
There are fewer epiphanies these days, experience sandpapers off the highs and frankly, there is no time so much to fall in love with things. That was the beauty of writing for Americana-UK – it forced me to listen to things I might otherwise quickly dismiss and it makes me search for the why. Why does this sound good? Why am I reacting to it the way I am and often, why will it not stop? I have been on a sabbatical from reviewing, due to relocating for a time to Germany, and I intended to take a break from new music and to work my way through my iPod: there are 30,000 reasons for not needing new music. I decided to listen to individual songs and work my way from A to Z. I was there 26 months and I got on D. It is great to rediscover songs that I had half-forgotten, or really listen to something that I may not have paid full attention to before and it takes discipline not to magpie my way from one shiny thing to another but to stick to a disciplined review of my music and really my life.
These are songs that allowed me to release my feelings – they have sound-tracked the most important days of my life, there are songs that decorated my wedding party. Songs that felt more like friends than anything else and songs that have a communal connection, songs that hold memories and ones that hold nothing. I disappear into this world less frequently than I used to, less frequently than I thought. Like an addict that has learned to control the urge, I am not on Bandcamp every day. True my basket is full but I do not check out. I do not need to have all that I want. I won’t stop exploring and I won’t stop buying but I don’t have to have everything, I don’t need to complete things. It’s OK to have holes in my Hallelujah The Hills collection. I am not trying to fill holes in my life anymore.
The idea for this column is that by listening to the music I have collected over the last 40 (yes I cried when I realised that) it will trigger all sorts of memories, send me off down rabbit holes and provide topics for discussion. The great thing (for me) is that I will never know what will happen; the randomness of the universe will choose the content of the column for me. It could be an American A-Z type of thing, a discussion about a song or an album, a retrospective, a fragment of memory. As I write this, ‘Terryhead’ by South China is playing, a band I had forgotten about completely but I once thought worthy of my time (and maybe money). That’s exactly the type of serendipity that I’m going to rely on. Here’s to whatever comes next.