Some of the best days of my life were spent in Dundee, a small Scottish coastal city midway up the country’s east coast. I spent four unremarkably contented years at university there between 2010-2014, each one marked by the usual array of things that just happened to happen: waterside expeditions, transitory romantic relationships and friendships built on ground less solid than the granite you’d imagined them resting on.
The best of these days were spent walking in the rain – aimless solo rambles under a sodden sky, with hood clasped over headphones, hands plunged deep into the recesses of waterproof pockets. On these expeditions to the peak of Dundee Law, a dormant volcano looming over the city, I discovered the music that would define my time in Scotland – artists like Leonard Cohen, The Fall, and the seminal debut album by the ultimate Glaswegian buzz band, Orange Juice. As these tunes streamed through tinny headphones, soundtracking a backstreet roam to nowhere, it seemed as though “this was what life was all about”, as Edwyn Collins screeches on that same album.
That sense of having it all sussed out – of seeing right through the heart of the mystery – is one of the finest and most absurd symptoms of extreme youth. It’s the time when most things are brand new or at least pretty fresh: music, independence, romance – all the consolations of adult life mapped out in front of you for the first time. It’s exciting. Which is why the things consumed and the places you consumed them tend to stick in a way they don’t later on. For me, the ages of 18-22 formed the broad sweep of my music taste, and because I was in Dundee, I associate these sounds with the city.
That said, are you ever consumed by the thought that your memories might be lies? Not that they didn’t happen, but that they might be untrue in some fundamental, unshakeable way. Nights you knew as crowning triumphs rendered dingy and squalid in the cold light of Facebook memories. That mythical student house populated by forgotten people you swore were your people forever, looking very sad and small on return. The origin stories that don’t bear or deserve scrutiny.
Unlike the excesses of artists with a limitless capacity for tears, or veiny headed vinyl obsessives perpetually on the verge of death by over enthusiasm, music has never changed or saved my life. Not even close. Neither has walking in the rain in a city that I’ll never live in again, or escaping to an undergraduate degree at a provincial university. Listening to every scratchy b-side by every Glasgow post-punk band from the 1980s didn’t cure me of irresponsibility or sadness: all I was doing was walking around like a perfect advert for the sort of person I wanted to become – someone thought in possession of valuable secrets and a semi-developed taste, listening to The Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly, Perverted By Language by The Fall, Texas Fever from Orange Juice and Josef K’s Entomology.
It’s funny to think now about the influence those albums had on me then, and the unfamiliar version of myself I see in them. Who was I, lying flat on a sloping bedroom floor and hearing the ecstatic reverby flourishes of “Otis” through budget speakers in the autumn of 2012? Or tramping through Scottish woodlands with all 08:41 minutes of “Garden” being screamed in my ears by Mark E.Smith in the long, hot summer of the following year? I can’t help but find that person a vague embarrassment, like an uncle lingering just too long at a 21st birthday party.
However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t affection for the person I was back then too, with my absurd life – one full of insanely petty dramas and vivid experience. For me, the music corresponds to the past, who I was then, and who I am now. It’s something I’m sure you share, though your myth kitty of significant tunes is most likely different to mine. It’s a hugely personal thing and what matters isn’t the content, but its effects. It could be anything, anywhere. It might be that catching a waft of the Pet Shop Boys makes you think of all the people you’ve wronged, or a few notes of Example gives you psychosomatic twinges of a £3 pill at Reading ‘11 and simpler, long lost days. I don’t need to explain. You know yourself better than anyone else.
Since the graduation summer of 2014 there have been new loves, dwellings, friendships and a return to London. But, still, from time to time, I return to the best of Edwyn Collins, the worst of Mark E.Smith, the most maudlin of Leonard Cohen – all of those tastes shaped by rain and pavement. This February, I returned to Dundee for the first time in years and it felt right, necessary – maybe corny, too – to be listening to “Rip It Up”, the best and most famous Orange Juice tune, and one of the purest, musical expressions of bittersweet joy. Walking along the leafy student heavy areas, I remembered something of another relationship and its beginnings and what the song meant to me then – the reasons we can’t help but relate certain tunes to certain places and the people in them.
Someone once special, now dimly remembered and far removed, had handed me a cable, aux and responsibility. Terrified, I went with instinct. How could you go wrong with Orange Juice? She liked it, she said. It was decent, she grinned. And with the music floating somewhere above her head, angled against the white noise of the room and the sweat beaded on the half-crumbled white plaster walls, you could be forgiven for thinking of her smile as something you could feel, or touch.
The music you love can be arrived at in a million different ways. It doesn’t have to stay static or trapped in the moorings of a past you might not want to remember. Just because I have my Dundee to link all of these associations to, doesn’t make it a prerequisite. You don’t have to have a reason for loving the things you do, or did. Though I can’t listen to Josef K without sniggering or walk through certain half-forgotten east coast streets without Edwyn Collins provoking a smile, I’m not saying I can’t let go. While I can’t shake the feelings of that time and place, it’s not something that’s always clinging onto me. Instead it’s a memory of a past time, another version of me, something to return to from time to time. In the end, it doesn’t really seem to center on where you are, but who.
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