Sunday, 24 November 2013

Hearing difficulties

I’ve been listening to music for 40-odd years now. Ask anyone who knows me what my favourite activities are, and they’ll put ‘listening to music’ high on the list. But it’s only recently that I’ve realised that, despite all those years of practice, I’m actually rubbish at it.

Thinking back, the clues were there at school. In music lessons, the teacher would put a record on the turntable – something by Beethoven or Britten, say – and tell us to listen to it so that we could discuss it afterwards. You then had three choices. You could look around the classroom while the music was playing, but you risked being distracted by your classmates who were doing the same, some of them doubtless up to something they shouldn’t have been, like flicking bits of rolled-up paper at each other or trying to write in chalk on the blazer of the boy in front without them noticing. You could stare out of the window instead, but again, there’d be something going on which would catch your eye. Or you could just rest your head on your folded arms, close your eyes and absorb the music – and risk nodding off. I usually favoured the latter method, but it didn’t really work. Even if I didn’t fall asleep, my thoughts would soon turn away from the music onto something else entirely.

And it’s been the same ever since. Essentially, I am incapable of simply listening to music. I can sit in a chair, will myself to concentrate – and within a couple of minutes, my mind will be somewhere else entirely and the music will have passed me by.

So the answer is to do something else while listening, obviously. Except that if it’s anything that requires any mental activity, that automatically shuts down the part of my brain that’s in charge of listening. If I’m reading, surfing the web, doing a crossword, whatever, there’s no point even putting a CD on; it really will go in one ear and out the other.

The best solution I’ve found is to occupy myself with something that requires minimal brainpower. Mindless computer games (the kind that involve clicking on brightly coloured shapes) are good. So is ironing, though it’s not something I do a lot of. Driving isn’t bad (which is a bit worrying, when you think about it), though for some reason I prefer to listen to people talking when I’m in the car these days.

Part of the problem, I think, is the way my brain is wired. It favours activities that involve the eyes, particularly reading. Even when I’m just listening to someone talking, I sometimes catch myself looking round the room for visual stimulation, rather than focusing 100% on what they’re saying.

So it seems that I’m simply not a good listener, in any sense of the term. Whether that’s genetic, or something that developed while I was growing up, I can’t say. It is a bit of a paradox for someone who loves music, though, isn’t it?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Always the traffic, always the lights

“I opened a notebook, it read ‘The Darlinghurst Years’
I snapped it shut, but out jumped some tears”

So begins the song that I’ve been mildly obsessed with recently, ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, from the Go-Betweens’ final album, Oceans Apart, released in 2005. It’s one of those songs that only reveals its mysteries gradually, over repeated listens.

As the opening lines suggest, Robert Forster’s lyric is an (autobiographical?) exercise in nostalgia, looking back to his student days, or maybe just afterwards, living in a shared house where “people came and went”. But rather than a straight narrative, the song is a series of disjointed memories, deeply personal. He remembers “gut rot cappucino, gut rot spaghetti”, and the exaggerated way he pronounces the last syllable, to rhyme with ‘say’, suggests a private joke.

There’s more obvious humour, too, in the way he takes the mickey out of his ambitious, and quite possibly pretentious, former self. “I’m going to change my appearance every day/ I’m going to write a movie and then I’m going to star in a play,” he sings. I remember people like that at college.

As for the music, it starts with a strummed acoustic guitar, then builds slowly after the first verse to incorporate electric guitar and drums as the rhythm gradually becomes more insistent. But what I really love about it is the brass section that you start to notice in the background from about two minutes in, and that slowly becomes more prominent until it dominates the last couple of minutes, like a mutant New Orleans jazz band freeforming over Forster as he repeats the song’s refrain, “Always the traffic, always the lights” until the fade.

Why a horn section? A less imaginative band would have used strings, both because they’re the classic signifier of nostalgia, and because the lyric repeats the line “Joe played the cello through those Darlinghurst nights”. But the horns contribute perfectly to the weird, skewed atmosphere of the song, adding an extra layer of mystery.

Like I say, I love the fact that Forster makes you work to get into the song, and leaves so much unresolved. Above all, I still can’t decide if the tears that jump out are tears of joy or sadness. I think I’ll just go back and listen one more time...