Your love is the place where I come from

Teenage Fanclub

A song from northern Britain; a song, to be specific, from Teenage Fanclub’s album, Songs from northern Britain. Not her part of northern Britain, but the bit beyond the Wall. As we’ve already heard on ‘Deceive yourself (in ignorant heaven)’, they know their way around a melody up there, and here songwriter Raymond McGinley pairs it with simply stated, beautiful words, the kind which make you think when you first encounter them that however many love songs you’ve heard before, there is always something more that can be done within its apparently confining limits.

I might easily have chosen another song from northern Britain, ‘I don’t want control of you’, written not by McGinley but by Norman Blake, because it too has that magical pairing of melody and lyric – ‘Every day I look in a different face / Feelings getting stronger with every embrace’. Beatles-style, there is a third songwriter in the group, who goes by the name of Gerard Love, and my favourite of his songs from northern Britain is ‘Ain’t that enough’, in which he asks his love to bring her loving over, and then in the chorus sings: ‘Here is a sunrise, ain’t that enough?’ There’s a lot of lived wisdom in each of the trio’s songs.

But ‘Your love is the place where I come from’ speaks to me most of all, sings to me most of all, because yes, her love is the place where I come from. It’s the place where I have felt most me, but paradoxically it’s also a place where I can lose myself, where my sense of self is abnegated, or rather, subsumed within something greater than myself. In that sense it’s an other-wordly place. Because when you are in love, you move towards someone, out of your own self, and if they do the same, then the essence of you both seems caught between your two beings, your two bodies, simultaneously inhabiting them, but also existing beyond them, in a place no-one but you two can access. It’s the most beautiful place, and I love to go there. A secret place, a midnight place. Ethereal, she used to think and call it, one that might evaporate in the full light of day. I always contested this, but reflecting on it now, perhaps she was right, that we are ethereal creatures as much as we are physical ones. That said, while by the light of the moon we can indulge in all kinds of magical practices, I still like to think that we would be physically fine between sunrise and sunset.

The place she is, is not where I am. That soon became a seemingly insoluble problem. Her place is beautiful, rolling green, spacious and open, and I would never wish her to leave it, certainly not against her will. I am attached to the place where I live, but the bonds are much less strong, the roots do not run anything like as deep. It’s not the place where I was born nor the one where I grew up, nor yet again the one where I started to make my way in the world. I’m here as much by geographic accident as design. So it’s easier for me to locate my love where she is, but even if all this were not so, her love would still be the place where I come from. We’ve experienced so much, in that other-worldly space. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that anyone has ever experienced or indeed imagined more there than we have. It’s become as familiar a place as the respective houses in which we live, and yet its air remains as intoxicating to me as it was when we ventured there for the first time.

I can put myself in there in our other-worldly place even when she cannot, and I think the reverse is also true. Of course, nothing beats being there at the same time. But life often seems to have other ideas about that. So I no longer ask her to enter it, because entry comes at a cost for her. All the same, the place remains, will always remain, while we still live. A room of requirement, there when we need it most. ‘A secret place to call our own / Where we found ourselves / When nothing else would work or do or comfort.’


And I love her *

The Beatles

Because this is her favourite Beatles song, or at least it’s one of them. Because she thinks a person could die happy knowing that they had inspired such a beautiful song (even if the real life love which was its inspiration didn’t itself last very long). Because with each story I tell, every poem I write, I aspire to make her feel the same way that Jane Asher must have felt when Paul McCartney played this to her for the first time.

You know, really, regardless of the complexities, for the most part, it’s as simple as that, as simple as Paul’s celestially beautiful song.

* The YouTube version of the song is from the film of A hard day’s night, and runs a little slow, to these muso ears. Dig out your copy of the A hard day’s night album for the perfection of the version recorded with George Martin at the controls!


Wish you were her

Billy Bragg

On which Billy reins in his habitually unromantic and rather foghorn-like voice to sing this bittersweet song as beautifully as anyone might.

Although the tone of this vocal performance is unlike anything else I’ve heard him sing, the political firebrand has always had a lyrical, lovelorn side, right from his earliest recordings, and through it an engagement with the human condition which goes beyond politics. Songs such as ‘The Saturday boy’ and ‘St. Swithin’s Day’ capture the trials, tribulations and often unrequited nature of young love with a rare mix of sensitivity and humour. What we have in ‘Wish you were her’ is the mature, requited version of that.

Parts of this lyric are directly relatable to my own experience, other aren’t. As listeners, as lovers, we weave ourselves in and out of the sense of a song, even as we fully take on board the story the songwriter is telling, whether that story comes straight from the heart (as I believe is the case here), or is a fiction fashioned from editing or amalgamating the solid or ethereal bricks of their own or other people’s love lives. And the essence of the song, which hovers ghostlike between the vocal, music and lyrics, the thing that makes it so special, is a truth – the melancholic longing and disappointed yearning – with which many a lover can surely identify.


Deceive yourself (in ignorant heaven)

Del Amitri

‘It’s a kind of madness, it’s a kind of sin
To live in the state of mind I’ve been living in
Her face imprinted on my sight
Her voice resounding in my skull at night’

At whatever age we subsequently experience it, however mature we have become, love has the capacity to render us teenagers again, to take us back to the time at which we first fell.

Justin Currie would have been either in his late teens or barely out of them when he wrote ‘Deceive yourself (in ignorant heaven)’. He went on to write a lot of very grown-up love songs – ‘Be my downfall’, ‘Driving with the brakes on’, ‘Always the last to know’, and ‘Kiss this thing goodbye’ being among the best of them – but probably because I first heard this one when I was myself in among those late teenage yearnings, it remains the song of his which means most to me.

There is a moment like this in every relationship, the one when for the first time it becomes clear that the feeling’s mutual. I have the most recent of those moments in mind now. I never believed I would be that lovestruck boy again. And yet somehow I was, and she and I met, over a table and a glass of sparkling water and a half of lager, and we both knew with a certainty against which any other definite thing paled in comparison, that we would love each other, that we would – that very day – jump ‘into the ignorant heaven that is the lovers’ place’.

From the vantage point of experience and disappointment, it would be easy to snigger at Justin’s verbose, purple-tipped poetry, at the adolescent nature of love as it is experienced for the first time, but oh, its intensity, its purity; and in middle age (however you define it) who would not want to feel the blood course through your veins and arteries in that way again? In the song, the tumble of words mirrors that tumble of bewildering emotions. So thoroughly schooled as we have been by then, with our minds pin-sharp and on fire with curiosity about everything, we desperately want our hearts to burn as brightly. So much so that you don’t quite believe Justin when he sings, ‘And if she refused I wouldn’t walk into the ocean / Just because my world was left all out at sea’. A voice and a song this plaintive? The boy would only ever take the disappointment hard.

Against this heartfelt, emotional outpouring, what then to make of the title, with its implication that love is a deception, that experience and knowledge will destroy blissful ignorance? Was the song written beyond the bitter end of the relationship whose start it depicts? Had one of the lovers proved themselves to be less in love than the other, or perhaps more in love with someone else? Does it show an awareness of the seemingly inevitable trajectory of love beyond the tender age at which the songwriter wrote the song? Or conversely, and more hopefully, is it a reflection of the fact that lovers lose themselves in the heaven of love, and for a time – a honeymoon period of lesser or greater length – they couldn’t care less about the world outside of the hermetic one that in a godlike fashion they have created together? Except for those ways in which it simply and deceptively mirrors the glow of their love, that is.

Perhaps it is all of these things, and more. In the majority of the other songs Justin wrote at the time, and in those grown-up ones he went on to write, the dramatic momentum is provided by a heartbreaking feeling of mismatch, by a seemingly inevitable tipping of the scales of love into imbalance. Perhaps he deliberately or subconsciously chased that kind of melodrama, knowing he could turn it into songwriting gold, until the woman who proved to be the one finally faced him down. ‘Deceive yourself’ depicts the glorious moments of beginning, when anxiety turns to euphoria, and the stars become aligned. Everything is perfect, and in a heaven where we choose to remain ignorant of the world beneath it, any kind of ending is impossible to imagine.


I don’t know

Lisa Hannigan

When I first met her, I didn’t know anyone who did what she did. In fact, I’m not sure I knew anyone who was what she was, in a more existential sense.

It was part of the appeal, of course – she was both a woman and a world beyond, if not my understanding, my ken. I wanted to love her, but I also wanted to learn from her. I was fascinated by the way she made her living (I still am). When I watched her work, I saw a side of her that she did not show me directly. A flintier side, driven in a way that was embedded deep in her personality, from long experience. So deep, that I’m not sure how aware of it she was, or is. Because she does not think of herself as a go-getter. She is absolutely not part of any rat race. She is actually rather a hippy at heart. But there it is, all the same, a steeliness, born of necessity, to make ends meet. And I love that she is both soft-hearted and flinty. I wouldn’t want her to be one thing or the other alone. I guess I wouldn’t love her anything like as much if she were.

This song anticipates the moment of meeting, that moment of knowing that you want to know the being before you. He or she is giving you that same sense in return, that this could go places. And yet at the same time, it’s implicit in the song’s title and its lyrics – ‘I don’t fall easy at all’ – that it may not work out. But damn, it feels good enough to take the risk, to want to spend what cannot be unspent – some or all of the hours and days of our lives. There is enough certainty there, but somehow the uncertainty is equally delicious. Mystery and anxiety collide and make a holy-unholy mess of you.

And so, I too wanted to cook for her, wanted to know if she liked pistachios or ice cream or – putting the two together – pistachio ice cream. I wondered what her views might be on Leonard Cohen or Haruki Murakami, and about this, or that, the picture growing into a portrait as I learnt the answers, a portrait which in time became ever more complete.

Of course, it cannot always be or feel this way. You cannot stay in the state of being about to know someone deeply. You come to know them, the good and not so good. You move to another level or plane of love, higher, richer, but perhaps inevitably less exciting. The largely unknown has become the mostly known. But if you dare to continue to do things that you’ve not done before, dare to give up those innermost thoughts and desires that you may have yet to reveal, if you can still surprise each other, if you do not let comfort overtake the sense of adventure that was there at the start, then I believe that you can sustain (or have back) those first days, weeks, months. Besides, even though I have talked longer and more deeply with her than anyone else in my life, there is still much that I feel I don’t know about her, that I still want to know, that I want to come to know eventually, in time, as we go along.

Shot in the snug of an Irish pub, the video for this live version of the song captures the absolute joy you feel in those moments when it dawns on you that a relationship is on the cards. The pleasure of the players, the heartfelt singing, the wonderfully low harmony vocal, they all stand for the love which is about to burst forth. That is the power of song, the power of performing it live, and the potency of love, all in perfectly imperfect combination. And even though it might be many years since you felt it, on hearing this song unfold, you are right back there in those moments of embarking.


Her eyes are a blue million miles

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band

My first choice – from which I am shamelessly plundering the name of this new venture – may well turn out to be the unlikeliest proponent of a love song that I post here. Together with his Magic Band, the Captain – real name Don van Vliet – was a pioneer of deconstruction both in terms of music and words, putting them back together in the oddest and often most abrasive of ways. He once responded to a question about his adopted persona by saying that he had ‘a beef in my heart against this society’. On another occasion he said, ‘I think people have had too much to think and ought to flex their magic muscles. It takes a while to get oriented to what I do, but people seem to be able to hear it if they give it a chance. I’d never just want to do what everybody else did. I’d be contributing to the sameness of everything.’

So to find the Captain singing a straightforward love song seems something of a surprise. Not that it’s entirely straightforward, of course. While the song sees him at his softest and most melodic, there is still his crazy woodsman growl and the awkward, puppet-on-a-string rhythms. This is probably not a love like any other. And yet all love is, if it shuts out everyone else but the one before you.

‘I look at her and she looks at me
In her eyes I see the sea
I can’t see what she sees in a man like me
She says she loves me’

‘I can’t see what she sees in a man like me’, he sings, espousing the incredulity and the bafflement you feel when a woman or a man you think the most beautiful in the whole world should for some unfathomable reason be not only prepared but keen to spend time with you. And you know yourself well enough to consider yourself a peculiar fish, and probably not much of a catch. There is a real sense here of Don dropping the act, of him laying aside the mask, or rather, his Captain’s hat. This is the unvarnished man, hiding nothing from his love. When love is true and full, the masks drop away. You are, and he or she is.

This many years since we first met, I know more or less precisely why it is that I love her, and she knows as precisely why it is that she loves me. She may still demur that she’s worth loving, and I may still avow that I’m not all that, but what first magnetically attracted each of us to the other still draws us close and incredulous all these years later.

And her eyes really are a blue million miles.


An introduction

A fair proportion of what I know about love, I learnt from pop songs.

Perhaps that’s why – at an age when really I ought to know better, and despite having experienced real, hard, unforgiving suffering as a result of loving – I still seem to have an unashamedly romantic view of love. Every experience of the state that I’ve had has been predominantly built on the foundations of what can be said in a three or four minute pop song. And I think you can say a lot. Love songs have been an ever-present backdrop in my life, to my infatuations, to those wonderful times when infatuated wishing transformed itself into an actual coming together of bodies and minds, through the ups and downs of giving up a part of myself to someone other, of letting them right in, of revelling in that state, to love finally overbalancing one way or the other and all of a sudden the moment (or moments) of parting coming upon me – all of this has been underpinned by songwriters’ eyes and the troubles of their own hearts.

Yet being unashamedly romantic doesn’t mean I see love as having the arc of a Mills & Boon novel, because even before I first loved someone with all of my heart it was clear that the state was messy, unpredictable, often excruciatingly painful, and that most if not all relationships were ultimately doomed, unless underpinned with a kind of compromising practicality curiously at odds with the original lightning strike or gradual sunrise. For every happy love song, there are probably five or ten or perhaps even a hundred unhappy ones. As inevitable as death, love becomes loss and grief, either in the blink of an eye, or over the course of many tides and moons and months and years. Couples who defy the odds and make it all the way to death’s door with their love intact are surely the exceptions. I think we can celebrate that, aspire to it, but also recognise that our own coupling may not last the course.

For every kind of ecstatic or sorrowful experience (and love songs rarely deal with much in between those two poles, of necessity) there is a lyric, and a singer and an object of affection to whom the song is sung. As listeners, we tend to embody one of the characters, while our lover is the other. Sure, odd details or aspects may not quite fit our personal circumstances, and sometimes we find ourselves flitting between subject and object, but nevertheless the songs which stop us in our tracks do so because we know with a certainty we may never feel about anything else that the writer has cut to the heart of it. In singing about their own, he or she is singing our love.

I’m writing these words with a lasting love in my heart. The precise circumstances – well, it’s complicated. But my love and I, from the very beginning we exchanged songs. The flow has been rather heavier from me to her, but that was only to be expected, because as she says, I am a muso. As in, I know my musical onions, and can’t help flaunting that a little when talk turns to music. Plus I’ve always had a keen ear for a love song, and the wooing use to which it could be put. It is one of the great pleasures of the early days of a relationship, to signal who you are and how you love through music. Before the internet we used to do it with mixtapes, and subsequently mix CDs. But the daily or weekly delivery by email (or indeed by blog) of one or two special songs handpicked for a lover from whom you are parted is perhaps an even higher art form; the dose more concentrated. And when I send her way a song she loves as much as I do, well, my heart could burst for the joy of it.

Even at the start, our favourite tunes and themes tended mostly to be sad – songs which dwelt on the troubles of love, songs which mercilessly and graphically yet often gracefully told of the end of love, of love gone wrong. They dwelt in the state of being parted, as we were. I guess we both knew the journey we were taking would have in it as much sorrow as joy.

So this is an attempt to document a love affair in – to pluck a randomly meaningful figure out the air – 69 love songs, from first sight to last rites and beyond; the resurrection of love, a feat that remains possible when the love simply refuses to die. And perhaps also from before first sight – that prescient sense before you love that the woman or man of your dreams will somehow soon materialise in bodily form before your eyes. As if by magic…

Inevitably, this is my take on love; these are the songs which have mattered to me (and to the woman I love, and therefore to me). Your take, your 69 love songs would of necessity be different. But I hope there is enough commonality that you can see why these songs are so freighted with meaning. Because while everyone’s view and vision of love will vary, individually informed by circumstance and the highs and lows they have experienced, and not only the highs and lows, but the how-highs and the how-lows, there are common experiences – the first kiss, the first night spent together, the realisation that you cannot take your eyes or your hands off this wonderful being who has invaded your mind and is palpitating your heart, and so on. Not to mention the anguish beyond the ecstasy, the filled heart broken and spilling. What I want to try to do here is to write from somewhere between the specific and the general, between individual experience and the collective understanding, in an effort to further or enhance that understanding, to explore the nature of love through what songwriters have had to say about it. Loving and being loved are often far from easy states, and songs help us make sense of that. They echo our doubts and fears and loss and sorrow, and that allows us moments of fellow-feeling, a step or two among many towards acceptance. Or, in their yearning desperation, they can provide us with catharsis.

Here at the outset, I’m not completely sure how this is going to work or grow or develop. But whether we’re talking about writing or love, that has always been part of the beauty of it for me.