With the broken backs and the pac a macs…

I teach at the school attended by Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera and the reason I make that clear from the start is that ‘We Could Send Letters’ was the song to which I first properly listened to the lyrics, a song probably written when he was there. Indeed, in many ways, the album ‘High Land Hard Rain’, followed closely by ‘Rattlesnakes’, ‘Swoon’, perhaps the first Smiths album, saw the beginning of a love affair with words. It seems strange that I reflect on the fact that my life long love of words does not originate in a lifetime of reading great books but I suspect it’s true.

Before that I’d mostly listened to my parents’ music and, believe me, I thank them for that. Endless country albums, Elvis, Buddy Holly. Latterly Simon and Garfunkel. Flicking through piles of LPs, listening to everything; in the process inadvertently developing a wide ranging knowledge of music. LPs meant you pretty much had to listen to every song. However, while we decry the lack of attention span and awareness of great music in our young people, we have collectively ruined music for them. Young people don’t listen to albums any more. They choose only their favourite songs to download. Why listen to a whole album? But we criticise them for that even though it wasn’t a teenager who invented the iPod.

And their experience of TV and cinema is similar. Download only the programmes and movies you want to see; no more sitting through boring ‘black and white’ snorefests on afternoon TV. Those advances in technology have provided such a plethora of choices that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between the good and the bad; all choices are merely choices. But we criticise young people for that even though it wasn’t a teenager who invented Netflix.

So perhaps school needs to be a place with fewer choices. Not ‘no choices’ but fewer and of greater quality. Like sending a reluctant reader to the library without your assistance or advice, kids don’t always have the knowledge or experience to make the best choices for themselves. Like my parents’ collection of LPs, perhaps we should parachute them into an environment filled with greatness; the best books, the best music, the best movies, the best art, the best everything. Maybe then, their choices will always be good ones.

Roddy Frame wrote those wonderful songs when he was teenager in East Kilbride, walking the corridors of my workplace (although that’s technically a lie as we’ve moved in to a new building but bear with me). Listening to his lyrics now merely confirms the greatness of his work. I’d like to think hearing them when I did changed me forever, along with the records I inherited. Passing on the best of the past so that our young people can appreciate their present and cope with their future should be the goal of education.

School should be a place where the only choices available are not merely good ones but great ones.

‘And now the only chance that we could take
Is the chance that someone else won’t make it all come true.’

The Crackle in the Vinyl

Waking up to the news today hit me really hard and I’ve struggled to understand why. I loved and lived his music but was not a lifelong fanatic. He was merely part of the wallpaper of my past. Peers and colleagues were stunned; a figure we all grew up with was gone. And anyone who’d ever dreamed and imagined, mourned his passing. For those of us who merely enjoy the music and were aware of David Bowie as a cultural icon there is a sense of disbelief. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen, does it?

There are times when we have to deal with tragedy, have to come to terms with the sad passing of idols both past and present. That our happiest moments are punctuated by music makes the death of our heroes an unavoidable fact of life.  However, it is when we lose those who have been with us forever that we begin to swallow hard and really take notice.

Flustered and bedraggled by real life, we turn to music for an escape from everyday reality. Sticking on a CD or a record, we can pretend there, hope there, even dream there. Things don’t change. We expect those voices to speak to us. The crackle in the vinyl is our crackle in the vinyl. So the reality in which we live is suspended for a time, we hope. Death does not come into that, we hope. What we think of as reality is the ultimate in escapism. It is real but not real and when reality comes knocking at the door it hits us hard.

We are hurt when our heroes disappoint us: a poor album, a disappointing tour, no tour, and we take such disappointments personally. Music fans are irrational and being disappointed by those we love does not come as part of the package. For no discernible reason than that, we expect a lot and when we don’t get it, we react. But another day arrives and we put the old record on, our favourite, and again we’re there. The perfect amnesia.

So why do we become so personally shaken when we hear of the death of people we have never met? Is it because a little part of a world we occasionally enter is affected? Is it more of a communal mourning which allows us to feel better about the loss? Perhaps. But I think it is more about the real world entering our fantasy one. When famous people die – and those we feel are one of us, part of our lives– then we are reminded of our own mortality. We listen to these guys and share their emotion and we think that they are immortal. They are merely characters we invent though, people who we will almost never meet and definitely never know. And because they are our own creation, we mourn for them when they pass.

I was stunned when I heard of David Bowie’s death this morning and moved by many of the tributes paid to him. However, I almost immediately felt guilty when I heard of the starvation of thousands in Syria and did not react in the same way. Music does funny things to us. That escapism from the real world is what makes us what we are. Dreamers: unrealistic dreamers.

I feel sad tonight. I feel old.