Discover more from Conquest of the Useless
Portrait of the newsletter writer as a sick man + a new music column
One thing horrible, one thing cool.
Previously: A little freak writes...
No boxing matches against big old swede-head Sun writers
I am waiting for results — a panel of blood tests and a genetic screening — that will probably confirm that I have hemochromatosis (my blood contains too much iron and is poisoning me, mind, body, and soul). Why tell you? Why should you know about my health?
Because if you write about things you care about, if you write about bad parts of media as well as good parts, if you stick your head above the ramparts — who even installed these things? — people will use anything against you. Hence this was the week of Harry Cole using the Politico London Playbook PM newsletter to imply he would physically beat me then chickened out when challenged to a charity boxing match, and the one where a so-called leftist spent a huge thread on Twitter discussing their notions of my current mental health (good, actually), whether I have ‘lost’ it, and suggesting I might be some kind of stool pigeon.
When you’re a reporter and independent journalist like I am, you can’t simply ignore these things because to not challenge them is to accept them in the eyes of the partial, the partisans, and the pricks.
So, let me tell you: Last night, I woke up from a nap and found that one of my knees was not cooperating in its usual functions. Cure lots of swearing and walking around as if my leg was now made of pig iron (“Best leg in whole Soviet Union!”). Hemochromatosis or, as I prefer to think of it, reverse vampirism can be treated with bloodletting but it affects everything when not managed: sleep, organ function, digestion, mental health, joint pain, energy… the list is long and deeply tedious.
Take all those things into account though and it becomes clear why my patience for fuckery is at a reduced level. People spending their time trying to school bully me or suck eggs are even less welcome than usual. There was a brief moment at the start of this health crisis when we thought I might genuinely be dying. It put things in perspective. I write this not as special pleading or as a demand for kid-glove treatment (“New kid gloves, made with real kid!”). Life is hard in the NBA, and if you want to be on the court, you have to expect to take the charges I talk shit and will have shit talked about me. I’m just making it clear why people who need to be told to fuck off will be more likely to be told to do so at the moment.
And now… for something completely different.
I pitched the idea for a music column called A Song To Change Your World this week and this is the test version…
A Song to Change Your World
All My Friends – LCD Soundsystem
We had mobiles but they were terrible; blocks to play Snake on – a game where the line that was the ‘snake’ gobbled up food and got longer as it went – and to receive concerned calls from our parents. In the hinterland between Gen X and the Millennials (I am in the latter by just a single year), we were online but not entirely; phone addicted but also reliant on maps, meeting places, and signs and signifiers that our own parents had relied upon as drunken reprobates and inveterate shaggers twenty or thirty years before.
In my halls of residence – West House – each room had a desk phone and you could call anyone’s room if you knew their door number. It was a playground perfectly built for a boy – cosplaying as a man – who loved to talk and to hear other people’s stories. At night in those first months there, I would walk the corridors looking for the other night hawks, exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new conversations – the James T. Kirk of West House, Third Floor, Short Corridor.
For someone without a family history of university, this was all intoxicating; it offered the promise of new experiences every single day. And there was a bar with a jukebox where I could put on six songs for a quid. I did it practically every night, shifting through different drink choices as the months went by; from snakebite and black – a killer – to gin and tonic – for false sophistication – to rum and coke – for cheap and effective drunkenness.
If you love music – and I did from the age of 11 onwards when I got hold of The Beatles ‘blue’ compilation and then started gobbling up every song old and new – it maps your life for you. Songs provide waypoints and portals to specific points in time; they can be anchors to joy and pain but also power-ups. On the worst of days, I can put on Shook Ones (Part II) by Mobb Deep or Ante Up by Funkmaster Flex and M.O.P. and immediately feel 10ft tall or, if necessary, deploy P.J. Harvey and grow to be the 50 ft. queenie adore in the lyrics of the song from her album Rid of Me (1993).
This column has been about nostalgia so far; nostalgia – a warm feeling that was once defined as a mental health condition. Nostalgia is a drug that can provoke wide smiles and the deepest pits of melancholy; “what if?” is an exciting question when you’re 21 and starts to gain layers of sadness, which, to borrow from Larkin, deepen like a coastal shelf as the years go on. But you also come to realise that sadness can feel as comfortable as a hot bath slowly cooling; Kurt Cobain’s most perceptive line was to ache for “the comfort of being sad”.
All My Friends by LCD Soundsystem is a crystallisation of the feeling of nostalgia and the melancholy wish for the free and endless excitement that I experienced walking the corridors of West House in those bygone days of… 2002. To people much older than me, it will feel like a mirthless joke to read someone look over their shoulder at a time that was a mere 21 years ago but in a life of 39 years, that’s a comparatively large gulf.
James Murphy, the lead singer, songwriter, and instigator of LCD Soundsystem, was 32 when he got famous with a song called Losing My Edge. Just into his thirties, he was already wondering if he was past it. He has an uncommon gift for making individual dissatisfaction into something universal. In All My Friends – best rendered in a cover by John Cale – he writes lyrics that speak with a perfect economy about the vast longing to have your old life back, to have the ease of fun without responsibilities, and to have friends lost through time, conflict, or early death, restored to the best version you knew. It is a song that gains meaning with every passing year – admirable at 20, relatable at 30, brutally true at 40.
The whole song is perfect – the simplicity but pulsating forward movement of the music and the sharpness of the lyrics – but I think this single verse is enough to persuade you of its power, grace, and heartbreaking truth:
You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan
And the next five years trying to be with your friends again
You're talking 45 turns just as fast as you can
Yeah, I know it gets tired, but it's better when we pretend
I’m still trying to get with the plan. But All My Friends has made me, as I crash towards forty – a bus with malfunctioning brakes – make sure I’m with my friends again. You can be too.
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