Meaning Where There Is None

2014-12-07 11.06.20

[This was originally posted in 2014 on a separate blog as a part of a university assessment and is therefore fairly different from anything else I publish on here. This is a travelogue and is meant to be an example of how to write the city through music. It is weirdly personal, and probably one of the articles I feel most proud of having written. I’ve decided to post it here because it is related to music, and because I for professional reasons would like to have it in the same place as the rest of my blog posts.]

Music, the city and The Libertines

 

Living in a city can sometimes feel alienating. From the second you step outside your door, as you travel by bus to your destination, as you do your shopping, go to your classes, attend your meetings – you are always surrounded by people. But they are people who, like you, have their own lives and their own concerns. As someone who comes from a small country and an even smaller town where everyone knows everyone, where you are expected to greet each other and have a quick conversation so long as time allows it, it is sometimes strange to be in an environment where people don’t acknowledge each other. As an introvert, some days it is nice to have that mental space so readily available. I can go outside, be amongst people without really interacting with anyone and go about my own business comfortably. Other times it feels strange and alienating to be constantly surrounded by people, but not really feeling comfortable enough to strike up conversations.

My escape in situations like these is music. I plug my sound isolating headphones into my iPhone, press shuffle on my music library and I walk around the city, consciously shutting out everyone else in an attempt to hide the fact that, really, I’m being shut out by the world (so to speak). I, like many others who do the same, exchange the vibrant and sometimes overwhelming sounds of the urban city for something safer, something a little more comfortable. I create my own soundscape in which I exist by myself, still surrounded by people who do the same. This process gives me a level of control over my own movements about town. It allows me to decide what kind of interaction I want and when I want it from the people I come across. A filter, so to speak. At times it even saves me the rejection of no interaction at all. On bad days this can feel quite alienating, but for the most part it is freeing.

The funny thing about music though, is that it not only helps me cope with the sometimes oppressing loneliness of the urban landscape, but it also allows me to see places and experience sights differently. It brightens up the mundane everyday chores of live, and creates new associations. The nostalgic quality of music has always been one of my favourite things about it. How a song can be just that, a pleasurable auditory experience, but at the same time be incredibly evocative. It’s always been like this for me. I can listen back to songs I haven’t played in a few years and remember exactly where I was when I listened to it either for the first time, or sometimes just moments when I heard that song and reflected on it. That’s why ‘Right Now’ reminds me of a bus trip to Edgware, ‘Strange and Beautiful’ reminds me of a cold early morning on the bus to class when I went to high school. “In My Life” reminds me of my dad’s terrace during summer holidays and conversations about our favourite Beatles songs, “Rolling in the Deep” reminds me of both the elevator in my dad’s old apartment building and a plane ride to London back in 2011, my second time ever visiting. I have a multitude of examples I could give. Some of them, like “Stairway to Heaven” which was played at the funeral for my stepsister’s husband, carry strong emotional associations for me, while others are just visual memories of mundane routines such as travelling to and from appointments. But they are none the less parts of my history that have all been improved by music.

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What I find particularly fascinating about this is how this process of using music to apply meaning to spaces that have little or no meaning of its own is not always just an individual process. Music, unlike many other triggers for nostalgia, is incredibly universal and experienced by a large group of people. While a set of lines carved into a door frame in your old family home to mark your increasing height might spark memories of growing up that are very personal, a song can resonate with several people at once, sometimes even in similar ways. The lyrical content and the history of the artist might come together to create a shared understanding, and a shared set of emotional connotations that together contribute to a shared experience. And sometimes this can be connected to space.

Take for example Grove Passage in East London. For all intents and purposes, this passage is just that; an alley used for a shortcut, and perhaps sometimes a place for people to meet up for pre-drinking and other activities you would commonly associate with back allies in big cities. It is a non-space, just another piece of negative space that has unintentionally been created as a result of the surrounding architecture. But for anyone familiar with the London-based band The Libertines, this alley suddenly carries a lot more meaning. For them it has become known as “Libertine Alley” or “Up the Bracket Alley”, named after the music video for “Up the Bracket” in which it was made famous. It’s a place where many a fan went to write their messages and their love letters to Peter Doherty and Carl Barat after the band split up in 2004, and where they now go to write encouragements and “thank you’s” or simply out of curiosity now that the band is reuniting again for a new album. Thus, a rather dull and inconspicuous alley becomes something extraordinary, at least for one select group of people.

The fact that this happened with the Libertines is perhaps not so surprising when you take into account their history. The band has on multiple occasions been credited as the first band to really break down the boundaries between musician and fans. In their early days they were known for arranging guerilla gigs in their own home. They did this by posting about concerts on forums and charging a few pounds per head to be allowed entrance. In a world pre social networks, this was almost unheard of, and is just about impossible now because of the pace with which information is spread around the internet. Were they to do this today they would likely put their own privacy at risk. Which in many ways may have necessitated this communal area where both people who were able to attend those gigs back in the day can go and reminisce, but which also is a space where more recent fans like me can go and experience just a bit of the magic they created at a time before I even knew who The Libertines were.

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It is perhaps also fitting that Libertines fans have carved this little place for themselves amongst the many walks of London, considering the love that the band itself has for the city. Having all come to the capital to experience the music scene and reach for the stars like so many before them, The Libertines proceeded throughout their (admittedly short) career to write several songs inspired by the city itself. Among these songs, and my personal favourite, is “You’re My Waterloo”. In his autobiography, “Threepenny Memoir”, Carl writes:

“But the centre of my world, the heart of Albion, was undoubtedly Waterloo. It was where the city came into sharp relief for me when I was fifteen, where, with a few friends, I came blinking into the light as we transcended from the train for the first time.”

Peter and Carl are both known for over-dramatics, but what this passage shows is that Waterloo was Carl’s first impression of London, and came in later years to be a representation of his love for the city. In one very popular interpretation of “You’re My Waterloo”, which was written and predominately sung by Peter, Waterloo is used as a metaphor for happiness, or at the very least contentment, and subsequently contrasted with various other locations representative of destruction, defeat or opposition.“You’re my Waterloo / And I’ll be your Calvary” is but one of these contrasting sentiments the song offers. It has been commonly accepted amongst fans of the Libertines that in this song Peter uses Carl’s love for Waterloo as a metaphor to illustrate that the comfort that this place brings Carl is similar to the comfort Carl’s friendship brings Peter. Likewise, the locations representative of destruction and defeat, such as “Calvary” and “Gypsy Lane”, are used to illustrate Peter’s feelings of bringing the band down as a result of his increasing drug problems at the time. This use of the city as a way of conveying emotion was by no means revolutionised by Peter Doherty or any other member of The Libertines, but it was very well done none the less. It was also very fitting, given The Libertines’ great love for England, or Albion as they refer to it.

My first thought as I went to find Grove Passage was “I am lost”. It is a narrow alley that starts at the dead-end of a part of Cambridge Heath Road and leads you down to Hackney Road, but it is not technically visible on maps. Not by name, anyway. My second thought was relief that I hadn’t come alone. Even in the light of day on a rainy Sunday morning in December, there is still something eery about spending time in back alleys. The ground is covered in various foreign substances, and everywhere there are strong and unpleasant smells, all telling a story of the parties from the night before. As I walk what will turn out to be the wrong way down the alley, my sister gives a yelp and says that she has stepped in someone’s sick. I feel a mild sense of discomfort as we turn around to try to walk the opposite way down the passage. As we shuffle our way down between the graffiti covered brick walls topped with barbed wire I can suddenly hear the thumping of loud music from behind a metal door. “Sounds like band rehearsals,” my sister says. My first thought is that this is the lesser known side of the often very glamourised music industry. In a strange way it feels oddly authentic to come across a potential band rehearsal in a location I associate so strongly with music.

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It is both obvious and not when we reach the part of Grove Passage that is now better known as “Up the Bracket Alley”. The graffiti is dense across the walls, tattooed upon the brick walls in a diverse range of fonts and colours. In some places it is literally embedded into the walls; words carved into the rock with spikes or keys or any other tools a fan found handy after being struck by a need to add to the wall. The messages range from bland to crass, from simple and short to long and thoughtful. Mostly there are lyrics. Lyrics that no doubt carry meaning for the people who put it there. There are also messages for Peter and Carl. And signatures, the kind that you would find in the guest book of a church. “Tom was here, 12/4/2012” is just one out of tens, maybe hundreds of the same kind. There are names signed under quotations. Sometimes just the names and dates of concerts the band has played. Every two meters of wall has some version of “Ally Pally” followed by one of the three dates when The Libertines played their London shows on their first tour after getting back together as a band this year. Regardless of the nature of the messages, as a whole they make it clear how loved this band has been over the years and still is today.

Walking down this passage, sidestepping soaked through cardboard boxes and subconsciously looking out for the untoward types of people I have been conditioned to believe spend time in back alleys, I easily get wrapped up in this love that the people who have been here before me have felt and expressed all over the walls. This is a place that no doubt would have attracted a multitude of regular graffiti artists had it not been adopted by Libertines fans, and the way in which this brick wall has become a canvas fascinates me. I have long since learned that graffiti is essentially defacement. It is illegal, you are not supposed to do it, and I have never really felt the urge to. But the artistic part of me, the one that is a Libertines fan, does feel the urge to disregard all of what I know and add to the wall myself. I want to write a piece of lyric that means something to me, or a message to Peter, expressing that I’m happy he managed to successfully get clean and drug free for the first time in many many years. Just on the off-chance that he might come by and see it one day, but also because it means a lot to me. But I don’t have a marker with me, so for now I remain an observer.

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As I reach the end of the passage, which I come to realize is actually the real entrance to the alley, I see the sign. The traditional London street sign, black on white spelling out Grove Passage, has been covered in writing just as much as the walls. Perhaps more, considering how little space is left untouched. Most noticeable is the black line of marker that has been drawn across its geographical name, as well as the addition of “Up the Bracket Alley”, the name its visitors have given it. It is the fans’ way of giving the alley a formal change of name even if the old one still dominates in its bold engraved lettering. Because when it all comes down to it, it is the lines in black marker that really matter.

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