I sat at the gate at Tegel airport listening to The Golden Hour by Firewater while I waited to board my flight to Heathrow. I think I had bags under my eyes. I was breaking my own no-flying-into-London rule because I was too distraught to care. I was eating grapes for breakfast, lunch and dinner because I’d lost interest in food. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, I just knew that I was leaving, that it was the only good option available to me.
It doesn’t really start with the break-up. It starts a year and a half ago when I joined the redundancy club. I was no longer tied to a place. I could go anywhere at any time. I registered as self-employed and earned a third of my former salary. I struggled to deal with the instability of not knowing when I’d next get a well-paid project. I traded financial security for freedom, and decided it was worth it. I started drifting, taking off places. At first it was the trip to Hong Kong, Macau and Australia, which began six days after I said goodbye to my old job, while my colleagues were busy trying to find new ones. Later it was rural Wales, to recover from punishing my liver with free alcohol throughout the film festival, and because I got a couple of free lifts. In the autumn, frustrated by my sort-of girlfriend’s failed attempts to make it to Edinburgh, I found myself a cheap flight to Barcelona and was there the next day.
But now, with this whole Berlin thing … three and a half months there, living rent-free, being generally happy, and now I felt like I’d taken a holiday from reality. What was going on, really? I left, and few people were going to care that I’d left: not that that is a measurement worth looking at. The night before I flew to Heathrow, I raided the bathroom cabinet and gathered my findings together for a game of What The Fuck Is This. Pills labelled in Czech, Danish and Spanish. I wasn’t looking to do anything drastic, I was just desperate for something to help me sleep: the prospect of going through another night like the previous one filled me with dread. I fed the brand names into a search program, used an online translator. Nothing useful. My friends in Edinburgh and Belfast authorised me to have a glass of wine. Just one; okay, maybe two. And it really did take the edge off things, it calmed me down, I stopped crying and was able to sleep for more than two hours at a time.
mostly the nights, they ain’t half bad
it’s the days that seem designed to drive you mad
sometimes it feels like the end of the world
You can’t really write about music without describing its sound, not if you want people to take an interest. You have to slot it into a genre or two, name a couple of instruments. This is where I’m liable to trail off and abandon the narrative, because I can’t bluff my way through it, so let’s take it from the frontman himself: Tod A describes Firewater as “a wedding band gone wrong”. The Golden Hour was the result of his departure from the USA after his marriage ended and he couldn’t stand the Bush administration any more. He went to India, Pakistan, Israel, Indonesia, Turkey. I imagine he spent a lot of time not knowing what the fuck he was doing either. But he jammed with local musicians everywhere he went and he wrote down some lyrics that expressed how he felt, and the end result is good to listen to. Mostly good. It feels weak when he throws petty insults at Bush, but raw and honest when he focuses on his own loss. And the sound of it: I’d rather avoid listing a bunch of genres I don’t know enough about, but other people will talk about klezmer and Bollywood and bhangra and gypsy punk.
A brief history of Tod A, beginning on the night we crossed paths in Belfast: he was the singer and bassist of Cop Shoot Cop, who I had the good fortune to see supporting Therapy? in December 1993. They blew me away. After the gig, I got him to sign my shirt. I had tie-dyed a black army shirt in bleach so that it was part black and part khaki, and I was gradually filling all the khaki bits up with scribbles from members of mid-nineties indie bands. (Sidenote: army shirts. What the fuck?)
The day after the gig I went to Underground Music in Bangor on an urgent mission to find stuff by Cop Shoot Cop. All they had was a vinyl copy of Ask Questions Later. I hated vinyl, but I needed this music so badly that I bought the record anyway. It was a historic purchase, testament to how strongly I felt about the band.
Cop Shoot Cop were never that well-known, or not in my world at any rate, but once in a blue moon I’d meet a fellow fan and then we’d both be giddy with excitement. I stuck magazine clippings about Cop Shoot Cop on my walls: reviews and small photos, since full-length features were hard to come by. One reviewer described Tod as the spiritual sibling of Denis Leary; somebody compared Phil Puleo’s drum set to a giant cheese grater. One time, a boy I corresponded with in Lurgan gave me a video of stuff he’d taped off MTV, including Cop Shoot Cop’s Room 429 video. I’d already decided that it was my favourite song, and finally getting to see the video was like getting another piece of a puzzle; in both visuals and lyrics, small glimpses of misplaced romance offset the overall macabre tone. Cop Shoot Cop’s world was tough and dangerous, and I had some teen angst to work through.
I met Kat Bjelland at the Babes In Toyland gig in 1994. Oh, Cop Shoot Cop, she said, looking at my Ask Questions Later t-shirt. I hung out with Tod in New York.
Oh, wow, I said in my clumsy teen-angst way, he’s, like, my idol. I was in a phase of exaggerating everything in order to convey how deeply I felt about things.
Yeah, well, he’s kind of a chauvinist, said Kat, I wouldn’t idolise him too much.
I was 16 when I first encountered Tod and 32 when I saw him again, at the Roter Salon der Volksbühne in Berlin. It took me an hour and a half to walk there on a summer evening. When I entered the venue he was the first person I saw, and I detoured to the bar because I had nothing to say to him, I was no longer an autograph hunter, but I thought fondly of my teenage self and how that person might have reacted to this sighting. The crowd was small but dedicated; the performance epic; I danced at the front glad that no-one had come with me, glad to shake off self-consciousness. Afterwards, I bought my copy of The Golden Hour, and decided to give Tod one of my zines. He shook my hand and asked my name and my juvenile self screamed inwardly I TOLD YOU IN 1993 HOW COULD YOU FORGET, but I didn’t bother mentioning that bit.
yeah, I’ve been down so long that coming up is giving me the bends
and I’m so goddamned lonesome I count enemies as friends
Some of the time, back here in Edinburgh, I feel paralysed by the task in front of me: all the sorting and selling and packing. I procrastinate instead. You’ll be here for another six weeks at this rate, advises Penguin, and I groan and protest that I can’t, because it’s not good for me to be here too long. I feel the urge to go somewhere where I don’t know so many people. Life is simpler that way.
I find memories disguised as bookmarks. A card from a bar in Japan called Drink Drank that I don’t think I ever went to. A postcard from a girl I got my hopes up about, a very long time ago: she reported that she’d moved in with a boy and they’d got a kitten and it would be great to hear from me. An invitation to a cocktail reception in Vienna’s City Hall.
Here is how to get through a devastating break-up: first, you can’t deal with anything much at all, and you trail around behind your friends who have intact hearts and lives to be getting on with, and rely on them to feed you and come up with distracting activities. Then, you hit the road. Your energy levels suddenly climb way the hell back up because you have places you need to be and you’re all self-sufficient and you are good at this shit, and suddenly you get to be an interesting person again who has something to offer the world. You’re still allowed to mope, but it’s different now. You start to consider that maybe not everything is completely horribly fucked. And you also start to see what happened in a different light. At first you were like: perhaps I am just a complete fool. Now you are like: no, I am not a fool, because of x, y and z which made it reasonable for me to think this relationship was worth investing in. Then you start to be angry, which is a lot better than being just plain sad. And you also consider that maybe you have filtered the experience through the lens of bitterness and maybe your new take on things isn’t accurate either, but then what the hell, you’re never going to be objective anyway so you might as well just go with the reading that makes it easier for you to get up in the mornings.
Also, you listen to The Golden Hour. You’re coming round to the idea of being in places where you know one, two, zero people. You know that it’s okay to be sad about things that went wrong as long as it doesn’t cause your life to grind to a halt. You know that if you keep moving through new experiences and new places, it’s the best thing. You can feel it working already, and your soundtrack is provided by someone else who just packed up and went.
While I was away, conversations started to blur. So many people I hadn’t met before, so many things to talk about, and sometimes I didn’t know if I might be repeating myself to the same person. I’d tell a story and I’d know that I’d told it recently but I couldn’t remember in which country or to which person or in which language. But these stories, they reinforced to me that I had a lot more to talk about than just the last few months in Berlin. It had ended painfully, but it was just a small blip in the grand scheme of things. Another experience to file with those that were sad, disempowering, or cut short too soon: another experience about which I would eventually be able to say, See? Here is another thing that I got through.
deep down you know
there’s gotta be a better life for us
than drifting like dust through an hourglass
New directions, as yet unknown. There’s nothing keeping me in Edinburgh and there’s nothing keeping me in Berlin. I carry on learning about Tbilisi, Batumi, voyages on cargo ships from Odessa. I feed the names of South American airports into Wikipedia and find out which destinations they serve. I get a US visa waiver just before they start charging for them, just in case. I ask someone who’s been living in Madrid whether she knows of any rooms going there. I think about being snowed in in Transylvania. I reconsider the Balkans. I’m almost ready.