I’m getting a ride to the Stratford rail station by one of the guys from Enterprise Rent-a-Car. He’s telling me his story. Went to a nice school on a rugby scholarship. Served in the British army, trained special forces in the U.S. for a time. Had to leave service when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and now he’s in the Enterprise management program. We’re talking about the London theatre scene. “The West End. That’s my thing,” he says. “Have you seen Billy Elliot?”
He’s a nice guy, and I appreciate the lift to the station. He recommends walking down the road to a supermarket to buy my lunch. Cheaper than anything I get on the train. We don’t mention the impending Brexit vote. No one does. It’s strangely absent from conversations and the London streets.
I suppose it’s time to talk about Randy.
I’m in London to see Belle & Sebastian play the Royal Albert Hall. In honor of their 20th anniversary, they’re playing their first two albums (both released in 1996) on successive nights. Tigermilk tonight, If You’re Feeling Sinister tomorrow. I have tickets for both shows, purchased almost a year ago at 3 in the morning.
I am here because of Randy.
I had a blue cassette tape that I used to play in a small white car I have long since sold. Randy gave it to me one summer, a long time ago. A new band he discovered and thought I might like. “Tigermilk”, the cassette’s label reads.
I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975
I was puzzled by a dream that stayed with me all day in 1995
The opening lines of “The State I Am In” introduces me to the songwriting and voice of Stuart Murdoch and his Glasgow band Belle & Sebastian. I am in love.
To detail what this band has meant to me over the past (almost) twenty years would take far too long and would get way too personal. They often get pegged as overly-precious, something shy art school girls listen to while writing in their journals and clutching their favorite childhood stuffed animal.
Do I have an aspect of my personality that is shy and artsy and feminine and writes overly-sensitive entries in fancy journals while my favorite childhood stuffed animal looks on? Umm. Maybe. I’ll wear it proudly. They have been my favorite band for a long, long time, and I have shared them with many important people in my life. I have danced on stage during “Judy and the Dream of Horses” and I have skipped a show due to a mild panic attack during a rough spot in my life.
Randy was my best friend for a long time, until he wasn’t anymore. The rough spot had its consequences. I wasn’t listening. But I learned, the hard way, and I moved into a better place in my life. You had to earn your friendship with Randy, and you had to work to keep it. But the times we spent together were good times, and I loved him dearly. He had a profound impact on my life, and ultimately, he made me a better person.
I ran into him shortly after I moved into my current home, riding his bike. We said hello and caught up a bit. He was back living nearby. I wanted to apologize to him, find a way to make things right and start again, but I figured I would see him again and I would have the chance to make things right.
The band walks onto the stage and those opening lines from “The State I’m In” fill the Royal Albert Hall, this amazing, iconic English place, where Bob Dylan played at the end of Don’t Look Back, “the vanishing American,” shaking, joking with Bobby Neuwirth, “give the anarchist a cigarette!” Transformed.
A year or so ago I was sitting at home on a Saturday night, watching a film. A cold February night. I heard an ambulance go by and looked out the window, wondering if it was headed to my neighbor’s house again. It wasn’t.
Mike called me the next morning. Randy had a heart attack and died last night. He was gone, and there would never be a chance for apologies and buried hatchets. The sirens I heard last night were for him.
I once gave him a poster of the Tigermilk album cover, from a set I had ordered from the band’s website. He still had it in his apartment. It’s now on my wall.
The band has played the entirety of Tigermilk and the final verses of “Mary Jo” are wrapping up. It’s never been one of my favorites. (The flute at the beginning is unfortunate evidence of that preciousness I mentioned earlier.) But it works as a closing song amazingly well, wrapping up the journey the shy and damaged characters have taken through the album.
Mary Jo, you’re looking thin
You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”
But oh, it doesn’t help at all
Something hits me. The tears are starting to roll down my face as it all becomes a bit overwhelming and the last fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years of my life collapse and collide and I wonder if I’ve learned anything from my life, all my highs and lows, my successes and my disasters. You think you’re fine, but there it is again.
Because life is never dull in your dreams
A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it
Life is never dull in your dreams
A sorry tale of action and the men you left for
Women, and the men you left for
Intrigue, and the men you left for dead
The show continues and I am dancing to “The Boy with the Arab Strap.” I am happy. for a day at least.
You can’t outwit depression. It never really goes away. Fear and anxiety and sadness and the loneliness and this plague I carry in my head. I want it to stop I want it to stop I want it to stop. I want to be transformed, like Dylan in the movies, don’t look back as I cut through the park, walking briskly on Carriage Drive as the rain starts to fall on my way back to the hotel. I want it all to stop.
It’s someone else’s turn to go through Hell
Now you can see them come from twenty yards
Yeah you can tell
It’s someone else’s turn to take a fall
And now you are the one who’s strong enough to help them
The one who’s strong enough to help them
The one who’s strong enough to help them all