Searching round the garden for fag ends with soggy meat still on the bone in the pissing night rain. Not quite what Albert Myers had in mind for his twenty-eighth Christmas.
The last honest job a distant memory, the last byline months ago. The only paycheque of late was the £105 for a 1,000 word gardening trade piece. What happened to the anarchy? The cheek? The tantalising wit that danced on the page, lit up the eyes, troubled the morals and tickled the sexes? The big papers used to lap it up. What happened to the muscially-inspired musings of his youth? The ill-informed cultural commentary so absurd it worked? He’d won awards, he’d been bylined everywhere.
Albert’s theory was he getting stupider every year. And it tied in. The older he got, the less successful he got. Every passing year pushed him further into obscurity.
The blackwash of depression was on him; a familiar feeling. He got sober at 25 when his options narrowed to just two: jump out the window or get help. Getting help had improved things but he missed his medicine – it seemed the more he drank the more successful he got; and the bigger and better the bylines. His muse, his magic, he missed his medicine – but it would have killed him. Still, doing life neat was a daily struggle too – and he feared this would be the day he’d take the decision again, but this time as a sober, rational man.
Glasgow’s bloody cold this time of year, especially at the backwater area his mum – and now he – called home. He could just about deal with the sex vacuum consistent with living with your mum but the house’s proximity to nothing, and the freezing cold, made it extra intolerable. Going out was unpleasant so he rarely did it. With exceptions. He was now sifting through stones in the back garden to find any salvageable cigarette ends with which to stuff a Rizla; and breathe dark, poisonous relief.
A whisky would’ve made the night-time labour tolerable, warm him up, but that ship sailed over three years ago – coffee his stalwart addiction right now. Chain-drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, the only chemical cocktail acceptable to his metabolism; and mental health.
On this December 23, 2013 he had the relief of coffee, but a prickly cigarette craving; and no money or will to go get any. One last smoke – that’s all it had to be this time.
The sad, resigned delight when he located three soggy dog-ends was as close to an orgasm as he’d felt for some time. Wanking was just another perfunctory thing to do. Richmond Menthol roaches with mucky, gritty tobacco hanging off the end like an unkempt minge. He dabbed them in some toilet paper and withdrew the moisture … just like “an unkempt minge” he laughed to himself. The wit, a double-barrelled simile, why couldn’t he channel that into his work? No inspiration. None.
He’d get enough out of the cigs ends to roll one-skin relief in his Rizla. He traipsed back into the kitchen and switched on the bright light, illuminating the fixtures of a very middle-class hell. Stone work surfaces, a top-of-the-range cooker and a well-stocked drinks cabinet Albert always did well to ignore.
He extracted the tobacco onto a branded saucer; part of the John Lewis set his mum received as a present ahead of her doomed five-year marriage to Fred. The booze got Fred too but, old dogs and new tricks, he wasn’t prepared to change in his seventh decade so off he went, back to a quiet, claustrophobic despair Albert could relate to.
He thought about Fred as he switched on the Russell Hobbs kettle – yet another wedding present mum got in the divorce. Not that Fred ever drank hot beverages. The plan was – and one thing Albert was good at was improvising – to put the tobacco plateful into the Bosch microwave at a low setting, extract the moisture, dab and repeat then roll, smoke, and secretly hope some chemical reaction would help erase him quickly. If it didn’t he’d take himself out, sober, dignified, clean and easy.
Albert filled the cafetiere with the expensive stuff from the fridge, the powerful stuff. It was a five scoops kind of a night. The Bosch microwave dinged its chirpy ding and the enveloping smell from the steroid-standard coffee had competition. Cooked, radioactive tobacco. Yum.
But it rolled up just right. Albert roached it expertly with the Rizla packet’s shape holder card. He’d done this many times in his teens as a joint-rolling, and smoking, aficionado – but that was another chemical that didn’t agree. Just like the booze, where once it had given him life, confidence, gusto, and fired up the senses, it came to strip him of all those things – replacing the euphoria with alienation, despair, and panic. His mind would race relentlessly, processing multiple calculations like a super-computer; but with no off-switch.
He wasn’t allowed to smoke in the house. At 28 years old he had not an ounce of autonomy. The plush flat in London, the big job, the career teetering on the edge of some kind of stardom – flaccid flashes from a life he didn’t any more relate to. Relief and hope at this moment was rolled in a Rizla and pulsing in a Suzy Cooper mug. So, onto the black garden for the improvised relief only a hopeless person would appreciate. A hopeless, jobless, sexless, possessionless alcoholic who just couldn’t be arsed any more.
He ran from the kitchen door to shelter from the windy downpour in the patio’s overhanging doorway. He took a slurp of coffee, fired up the cigarette, sucked it deep, and exhaled, at length, through his nose.
The relief was fizzy, dizzy and uncomfortable. It would probably make him sick, it wouldn’t kill him.
But the powerful coffee, the distinctive, soggy, pungent, toxic tobacco – and the accompanying, warming smoky pall – Albert knew the combination, the mix and the bodily sensation had lit him up before.
He imbibed a second time, sucking another choke-worthy drag and swallowing an unmanageable gulp. The exhalation effervesced around him. Something awoke.
His nose led a search into the recesses of his brain; he flipped through shoddily kept records in his memory bank. Where had he smelt that smell, and consumed that combo before?
Albert snapped back, in a luscious instant, 15 years. His senses, the taste, the smell – the memory. He was 13 again, it was Saturday – and he was drowning in the stench of the second hand music shop.
He’d forgotten the whole chapter. Music hadn’t anything to do with booze, recovery, or money so he’d let it slide. These three things had, for some time, dominated all thoughts and motivation – but here, staring him in the face and drifting up his nose was a memory he hadn’t located for years. A vital piece of his person.
Every weekend, he’d scrape what money he could find – procured via paper rounds, thieving from his mum, or selling CDs – and spaff his ill-gotten-gains on as many albums as possible. It was like sex – even at 13 he knew that. The foreplay of holding something new in his hands, the passion as he felt his way through, reading, listening, awakening. And the offloading of pleasure as he bought it at the till; that was the smell. There it was.
He’d passively smoke a post-coital cigarette at the point of purchase. The gruff rocker cashier’s billowing; questionable roll-up was left unattended in stone ashtray on the counter, next to a pint-glass full of crude-oil black coffee. He’d take years to thumb through the contents of those wooden drawers to locate the right disc. These second hand CDs probably had a hell of a backstory – who knows how or why they came to be resold. But the discs’ magical journey had ended dead. They’d sat in boxes in Albert’s mum’s garage, much to her chagrin, since 2008.
Nirvana, Joy Division, the Manic Street Preachers, Radiohead, Soundgarden, Placebo, Pearl Jam, King Adora, My Vitriol, Metallica, Talking Heads, Guns n Roses and so on and so on. Not every album he bought was a corker – he purchased duds aplenty – but within the tracks, liner notes and artwork each disc added a new dimension to his understanding, to his id, to his mission – to the man.
Every week for months he’d smell that smell. The smell which meant he was mid-purchase of another album, another music book or film – a new and exciting piece of hope. With that smell, he’d unwittingly traced his first addiction.
It wasn’t just the discs and their contents. Albert would commit the lyrics, the artwork and the notes to memory so as to find – via the second hand music shop – source material, extra media and add-ons about the bands. Their influences, their citations, their story, their debauchery, the fallouts, the hurdles, the anecdotes – and the woe when key members died, usually aged 27.
Today, music was dead. His passion for music, for anything in fact, had been snuffed out. He’d been running on empty on a dead hum soundtrack for years; a gaping wound he hadn’t realised was there.
Albert discovered Generation Terrorists by the Manic Street Preachers – almost a decade after its release – and it changed the game. He so easily fit into, and subscribed to, the nihilism, the despair, the intelligence, the musicianship. The lyrics. Those beautifully sculpted revolutionary statements that didn’t sound like lyrics at all – but a manifesto for the apathetic, a homage to the great literary and political pioneers and visionaries.
And musically, my god. The guitar work on display was raw and expert – and from a man of just 21. Albert hoped to match the album note for note. His mission started with learning Motorcycle Emptiness (track number four) on guitar. He’d stayed up all night trying to perfect that opening hammer-on; based around a B-note and an E-chord.
Albert, the teenage guitar master, could play every note on that album. The 28 year old hadn’t picked up his guitar in years.
He knew the lyrics inside out, had seen the videos and knew the backstory. He knew that on Little Baby Nothing, the Manics wanted Kylie to duet with James but she wasn’t available. Instead, Traci Lords, the 80s porn star who was found to be a minor in her early films and caused ripples and prosecutions in the industry. She was auto-tuned and couldn’t sing for shite but the song worked. She tried latterly to become a serious actor but it didn’t really happen.
The day Albert discovered Nirvana’s Nevermind was the moment his dress sense – to this day – was settled. Cobain’s wit and talent was one thing, but Albert dug the look and wore it well. He adored everything about that album, especially the cover. That innocent underwater baby with bright eyes trained on a dollar bill – how perfect, what a photo. His love of photography was spurred by that image. He used to breathe in galleries, exhibitions and splash out on photographic albums and coffee table books regularly – but not so for years. He didn’t read, he didn’t watch, he didn’t study, he didn’t observe – unless researching a paid job, and they were few and far between.
He remembered the Nick Broomfield documentary Kurt and Courtney which kick-started his obsession with conspiracy theories. Broomfield had a very good knack for conspiracy. Kurt and Courtney ended in intriguing murder before the documentary cameraman missed most of Broomfield’s Poirot moment due to a panic attack. Albert loved that shit. He read volumes on Cobain’s death.
He did the same after buying Nevermind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols – reading much about the birth of punk, its damp squib of a death and what the hell happened with Sid and Nancy. Those musical conspiracies led him to the great conspiracies of the day: JFK, The Moon Landing, and latterly 9/11.
The death of punk begot the birth of post-punk and Joy Division. Every pitch-awful note Curtis sang was etched into Albert’s brain. He had been infatuated with that man: his lyrics, his deathly droning vocals and zombierific dancing. Peter Hook’s bass lines were Albert’s inspiration for moving from six onto four strings and perfecting bass. He played four strings in his first band and practiced daily to stretch out and train his fingers.
From Joy Division came New Order and Albert’s love of Electro was born. The spacey effects, the relentless beats, the simplicity of sound. New Order made their own synths – and Albert loved that level of passion. He also loved that Blue Monday was New Order’s way of doing encores without having to play. This just hit the on button, the crowd danced, and they went off to get pissed.
Metal, Britpop, indie, pop, dance, shoegaze – Albert bought seeds at that shop and they germinated in at speed. He bought albums and heard them back to front, the supporting literature and media told him more. The art, the lyrics, the citations led him to books, films, music and exhibitions and quenched his thirst for knowledge.
He’d watch the films and documentaries to see it dramatized, he’d buy the biographies and photo books for the reality, and watched live performances to nail the sound, the technique, the look and the attitude.
He knew the rock-star look – bright eyes, skinny waist and ripped. From reading a Guns n Roses or Motley Cru biography – it’s clear the formula worked. The sex they got was obscene, so Albert carved his own physique in the same mould – and the action he got in school was so voluminous it makes today’s flaccidity even more appalling. He got more nookie at 13 than 28.
Music. It opened up his mind, and his life, and gave it meaning. It was the gateway to everything, the key to being, his raison d’etre. He’d seen and heard and read so much.
During those university years his passion and knowledge was utterly attractive to friends and females. He could talk for hours about his bands with anecdotes to hand. His knowledge of politics was informed by the artists he’d listened to and read. The Stones, Dylan, The Sex Pistols, The Manics, Billy Bragg – he knew it all by association, so he always stole the show and soared through the debate.
His love of writing, his future career, was formed and inspired by the great authors his bands put him on to. From the seminal films that influenced.
He wrote for the uni paper and blew socks off with musically-inspired quips, subcultural pulp fiction, and pseudo-political propaganda thanks to Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Camus, Keruac, Burroughs and Famte. Albert took their drug-induced, nihilistic ramblings as his own, creating a style in the written word that won him awards and made him happy. It lit him up, until it didn’t.
Today, for some reason, that coffee, faggy, horrible, delicious smell threw him back to the start and proceeded to drag him on a frame-by-frame, chord-by-chord voyage through his life when things could light him up. When his mind was open. Those formative years, so long forgotten, took residence in his head. He was so much more.
The pungent coffee and the mucky Rizla – it woke him up. Where once he had passion, where once he cared, where once he furiously read, challenged and cultured himself – he sat today bored, depressed, despairing, unhealthy, unhappy, utterly fearful and desperately lonely.
Albert the 28 year old pulled the last tarry draw of his roached and radioactive Rizla and breathed deep. Life used to happen to him, now it happened around him.
He went out to the garage, walking under the beams and treading on a length of rope, and ripped open a box. In the dark he slid his hand to the bottom where the CDs were, packed tight, chaotic, and unloved.
The first one he extracted, Generation Terrorists – liner notes et al.
He went inside, put the scratched disc in the tray, hit play and closed his eyes. Impending doom, impending hope, it felt like a choice now.