‘Where does the music go, the stuff that you dream or imagine?‘ – Dara Higgins on forgotten songs and hidden grief
Where does the music go, the stuff that you dream or imagine? Why is it so hard to remember? It’s an ephemeral thing, an ululation or a rhythm that you think up that’s briefly important, and then it’s gone. You can whistle a line and think that you’ve given it life, but you haven’t really. You need to get it down, record it, make a record of what it is. Because if you don’t, did it ever exist? Like all those great stories and tunes you’ve dreamt but couldn’t pin in time; An idea without a body, a mere skeleton, fleshless. A memory, like your first kiss or the first time you held hands with someone or your first cigarette. Things that happened, but have left no corporeal trace. But still in there, somewhere, rattling around your many-roomed brain, always kinda-sorta just on the edge, somewhere in the fog. Where do they go, these things that you made real once, but neglected to get down on tape? Floating out there in the ether? In the heads of others? Are these ideas even ours to claim?
A couple of nights ago I was reminiscing with a friend. Let’s just call him G for the moment. We were talking about the band we were in, way back when. It’s 22 years since we ceased to exist. Our last gig was in The Earl Grattan, on Capel Street, January of 1993, playing with another Dublin band called The Daisy Thorns (I think). They had large Gretsch guitars and brothel creepers and played a jangly, chiming pop. We were alternative, gothy, dark, wore black, applied eyeliner. We used to have a keyboard player, but he left, so we were reduced to a 4 piece, but even that was proving problematic. The phlegmatic guitarist, let’s call him A, had recently grumbled his disaffection with the band. He’d peppered that conversation with talk about joining the army. He had, it transpired, seriously looked into it, going so far as to attend a careers event in order to sound out the recruiters. It should be pointed out we were fresh out of school at this point. A had a leaving cert, unlike G and I. We’d failed. We’d fucked up righteously. It was the rock and roll thing to do. The army simply was not.
The only thing of note that happened during that show was that myself, G and drummer P debuted a new song we’d written. We played it to A and our manager (yeah, we had a manager) and a couple of friends during the soundcheck. I remember the reaction it got, a sort of quiet awe. I remember particularly because one of the guitar players from the other band had stopped to watch. The song was impressive. We had thought so, but people’s reaction confirmed this for us. We were onto something.
But it’s gone. We never recorded it. We never performed it again. It occurred in a rehearsal a week previously, as we sat around unable to go through our set as A had never arrived. Possibly he was off buying camo and hiking boots and cleaning his carbine rifle. The three of us, with nothing better to do, created. The song is now lost to us as succession of notes, you know, the actual purpose of a song, but exists as an idea that’s still very clear. As we reminisced, G and I remembered how it felt. For me I could recall it as shapes. That’s how music works for me. Shapes and colours. Hard or soft edges. A map with a clear direction. Some kind of narrative. For G it was a door way. He could see himself on the threshold of the door, but was unable to get in and hear any more. It remained on the edge, frustratingly close, but never really within our grasp.
This tune, we never named it, felt solid. It was birthed almost complete. When that happens, a song emerging, desperate for completion, the urge to work is maniacal. We kept at it until it was done. Rough, of course, but complete, in its way. It represented something different. Part of the change we were feeling. We were young, 18 at that point. School had been a disaster, the country was still in the throes of the original (and best) recession. The new decade also represented some kind of shift in popular music. Nirvana were now the thing. Would we emulate that? Or keep on in the Bauhaus-y, Cure-y, early Simple Minds-y style direction we’d always been heading in. Tara McCarthy in Hot Press had likened us to A Flock of Seagulls. That didn’t sit well. P wrote a letter back which was printed a couple of weeks later: “Tara McCarthy talks through her arse, The Flock, Dublin.” That’s twitter before there was twitter. (Apologies if we’re bringing up painful memories, Tara.)
This gleaming new inchoate composition filled us with something that we couldn’t quite put our fingers on. Perhaps, in order to keep going, we had to evolve. The band name would need to change, for a start, it was unwieldy and not particularly easy to say, and possibly the personnel needed a shake up, but this new number proved that we were on the right track. We were growing as musicians.
How did it go, though? G says to me as we stand in the pub amid the clamour of Thursday evening drinkers: “I can see my hand in my memory, looking down at it.” He makes a claw of the left hand, a chord. “And we went up here.” The claw dances a little further up now, the melody line that I know was there, even though the air of it is gone. It’s a soundless construction, but it makes sense to me. I remember playing the bass high up the frets. 9th or 10th. And making a chord which I arpeggiated. And then there was something solid that followed, held in place by the drumming. Still, no sounds, just these memories, some clear as day: the wallpaper and yellow bulb in the old bedroom we were practising in, a disused and disassembled bed to one side, a lattice of springs. The dark outside. I remember the Grattan, the reaction to the song. Everyone sat there with a cigarette, the smell of sour and spilled booze and the miasma of smoke. The sound man, an older guy from Canada who’d worked with us before, with the nod of his head. He rated it.
And that was it. One day a week or so later I sat at the back of the 19 bus in my usual seat next to the emergency exit on the way home into Rialto. Dozing, dazing, imagining a future, perhaps. The bus paused at the lights at the Dolphin’s Barn junction. There was a bang on the window and I looked up. P, laughing as he ran away, his work done. The simplicity of the gag. Ha fucking ha. Well done. I gave him the finger, it’s what we did. That was the last time I saw him. By the end of the night he was in a coma, and within two weeks we were putting him in the ground.
P was getting cash out of the Pass machine at the top of O’Connell Street after a night in Fibber Magees. A group of lads hopped out of a van and set about him and his friend. They wanted his money. 5 pounds. P ran. He was going to run across the road to the relative safety of the other side. The guy driving the van was parked, idling at the kerb. He saw P make a break for it and thought he’d block off his escape route. Instead he hit him. And that was that.
Three days later we were sat in G’s house waiting to rehearse, me and G and A, talking about this new song and the new direction. A was impressed with it. Maybe he won’t join the army after all, we joked. We ate bourbon creams, drank tea, watched television and cursed P’s lateness. He wasn’t usually late. Eventually we gave up, I went home through the silvery cold, breath collecting under my nose, a bite in the air. News travelled so much more slowly those days. Original reports of the incident had claimed the victim was a 50 year old Rialto man, and so we gave it no further heed, but as they became clearer on their facts, the horrible reality became more apparent to us. Calls were made, information exchanged. P was in hospital, in a coma. P was going to make it, then he wasn’t. Then he didn’t. That was that.
It felt as if things fell apart very quickly from then on. The rest of us had been friends for a long time, relative to our lives, but it wasn’t enough to keep us together. Not the band, that seemed irrelevant, but as comrades, as humans. Things unravelled. There was fights, punches, blood and self harm, wanton destruction of property, booze: Pernod mostly. It was three years before I picked up my bass again.
And there we were, two decades and more later, remembering. Remembering the shows we did, the work we put in. We weren’t bad, worse bands have made it. Everyone who’s ever played knows that, right? We lost the stomach for it though. We were done. The price, apparently, was too high.
P was a small fella with dark hair and eyes. Always having a laugh at something, quite often something that was his and his alone. Into punk, and played like it. Introduced me to The Only Ones when I’d go around to his place and he’d pick out some music for me to listen to. I still think of him when I listen to The Only Ones, and I still listen to The Only Ones to think of him. There was something soft about P, like he had no edges. Always thoughtful, or thinking, or just sitting there, giggling to himself. But he could drum. He was fast and kept time well (never a given with a drummer) and he hit the things like he meant it. Solid, predictable, metronomic. The opposite of the memories, now all faded, opaque, watery, smoky, elemental. We’re in our forties now, with these lives lived out, and all the damage we’ve suffered and wrought there behind us, like a trail of flotsam. He’s forever 19.
The song has gone. Where do they go, these songs? There were three of us in that room making it up and there’s only 2 of us left and all we can remember is maybe what the chord looked like, or where the hand went, or a feeling of intense concentration, hunched over the P-bass, plucking at those strings, 9th or 10th fret. As we talked about it, with the giddy charm of memory running through us, it occurred to me that what we were trying to create was that moment, in that room, before everything changed. Us, back there, January 1993, creating something, sharing of ourselves, more innocent. All alive. It was not, after all, the song we’d lost.