Motivated by my 6 year-olds recent statement that she… hates spring… because I love winter so much… I’ve had September songs on my mind.
While most of the 4 songs in my pocket come from a hemisphere where that month falls in autumn, signalling the approach of winter, I live in New Zealand where it means warmth and light, daffodils and lambs.
The September song foremost in my head is Here Comes September by Waikiki. I know it from the Triple J Hottest 100 collection my Australian sister sent me in 2003. They’re a great way to hear vaguely alt popular music that doesn’t necessarily get noticed in New Zealand. It was a great mix that year and I remember only ever needing to skip the odd track. While this wasn’t my initial fav I was soon skipping back to repeatedly sing along. Its hooky jangly pop seemed to exude the hope of September. Never having heard of them I assumed they were Australian (the singer tries to sing ‘American’ at times, as is the fashion/compunction for many vocalists, but broad Aussie vowels give her away).
The song is about an ended relationship, being positive and remembering the good stuff.
Though there were others, you never left me at all
Here comes September, and we both know what that means
Sometimes it’s out of our grasp, not everything is made to last
If that’s the way you wanna remember, then that’s the way you gotta remember
But I won’t cry now, here comes September
A Fender Jazz Bass, much like the beauty I once played
And although I was seduced by the lack of bitterness in her delivery, I didn’t focus on that when I sang along in 2003, being more captivated by the harmonic vocal hooks, the ringing of the Rickenbacker and the rich low rumble of the Fender bass; instruments I grew up knowing intimately.
Of course, 2003 was a weird time. Across the world we were repeatedly told that the world had changed forever (as if it doesn’t every day). I was actively angry and resistant to the warmongering narrative of fear. Refusing to march to that duplicitous beat, I was living a life infused with hope.
Paris 2000. The Japanese tourist said she couldn’t fit in the tip of the tower. Just relax tourist, san, and tilt up
In 2000 I had left my job in television to tour around Europe, embracing the roots of my immigrant parents before eventually realising that it was time to embrace my desire to write. So in 2001 I bit the bullet and attended a 6 month fiction writing course in Timaru. It was amazing, I literally felt like I was Harry Potter: that my life had gone from dark containment to light-filled expansion.
Of course, despite my first short story being accepted for publication within a week of sending it off, the world wasn’t waiting to be entertained by me and the pile of rejections I studiously kept (to remind me of my early struggle) got ever bigger. And bigger. And bigger.
So I headed back to Auckland to freelance in a TV industry pumped up with the phoney money of pre-Credit Crunch NZ. I didn’t need to find work, it found me. While I continued to compulsively write and submit fiction, certain in my abilities, I socialised in a heady media scene awash with the social lubricants of the day (booze, pot, P and E).
It was a fun time, but I wanted more out of life. Yes, I craved success as a writer but most of all I had begun to seriously yearn for a committed relationship. And to be a father.
My desire was so strong that on 3 of the 5 following Christmases (’03, ’05, ’07) I found myself ‘expecting’ with a different woman (which may indicate a very casual attitude, but I would say it illustrates a certain commitment).
Yes, I admit, my taste in women has been questioned by friends and family, but that’s only ever after things go pear-shaped (and isn’t everyone wise after the fact?)
Blending into a tight spot, Paris 2005
In heart and head I’m never-endingly fascinated by women, considering myself more of a woman’s man than a man’s man. I will choose their company (platonic or not) over men any day. It’s been that way since I was a child growing up surrounded by sisters and female cousins, the only boy in girl town.
And who really fully understands the drivers of their own desires? I can’t say I’m attracted to the same thing: it’s usually a certain strength of character, and something indefinable in the eye and mind.
However, given what’s gone on in my life in the 11 years since 2003, I have lost a lot of confidence in my desires, leading to the celibate phase of the last couple of years. At the start of this phase, in a reflective moment, I said to a good friend that I always like strong women, to which he replied… you like bossy women…When I mentioned this to a sister she said… you like bitches!
I thought that was rather harsh. But very funny.
Which leads to another song from my September playlist: Miss September by Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band.
They were a family favourite on the NZBC TV talent show ‘New Faces’ in 1973. Their bouncy feel and eccentric look featured tea-chest bass, washboard and kazoo and their song about a pinup picture (naughty!) got them into the finals. Yes, they were hugely derivative (Sgt. Pepper’s, anyone?…Pictures of Lily by The Who?), but as a 6 year old I found them far more entertaining than the syrupy/sombre crooners and balladeers, and frowning girls with acoustic guitars the show was lumbered with.
Now the article that came with your picture, says you hail from Illinois
Now I know Illinois-a-noise an oyster, but an oyster will only bring me joy
The lyrics were wonderfully silly (how is Illinois an oyster?) while still appealing to popular music’s reliable workhorse of unrequited romantic yearning.
Miss September, Miss September, I know I’m gonna meet you some day
Miss September, Miss September, though you’re 12,000 miles away-hay-hay-hay
The allusions to masturbation (of course) were lost on me.
Spot the Rickenbacker
Such things were more apparent in my (short) encounter with The Bangles’ cover of Big Star’s September Gurls in 1986. I never liked them as much as the Go-Gos (much more flaccid, musically). Maybe it’s unfair to compare them but both bands were sold directly to pubescent boys (for obvious reasons), and rock/pop is never shy of such subjects. I liked that Susanna Hoffs played a Rickenbacker (John Lennon played one!), and that the bass player sang this song (I was playing bass in a jangly-pop band by this stage).
By the 1990s I was much more familiar with the original version by Alex Chilton/Big Star. While his version has a lot more life to it (his delivery is heavily nuanced, maybe to counterpoint the bland lyrics: the Bangle delivers with dead-eyed ‘80’s coldness), the song is the least favourite of the September songs I know. I just don’t find much meaning in the lyrics. (What’s a September Gurl? A Virgo? I dunno). But maybe you don’t have to. Lyrical clarity is an overrated part of music, especially when compared to the open and inclusive reading of poetic imagery.
September gurls do so much…
December boy’s got it bad…
That said, it’s clearly got something going for it in that a female vocalist can sing it without feeling the need to change the respective genders of the lyrics (something that always irritates me, especially when the P.O.V of any song is all over the place).
Which leaves the September song that had the biggest impact on me. Wake Me Up, When September Ends by Green Day. A song that became intimately associated with both my very personal experience of September 2005, and an awful ‘Act of God’ that affected countless lives.
Catching up with a beloved ex-lover for coffee in 2003 had resulted in the first of the 3 Christmas pregnancies. That one ended on New Year’s Eve. I got the text while dancing with strangers, high on a mix of P and E. Although at the time I saw it as lucky escape, it was an incredibly lonely moment and I eventually came to grieve deeply for the unborn child and the unfulfilled relationship with his/her mother. But back then my heart was set on a come here/go away long term flame, and by 2004 I had moved in with her, happy in a relationship I imagined lasting forever.
Waiting for my partner to finish work, the first thing I visited in Paris was Diana’s tunnel. People still left tributes 8 years later
Which is why, at the end of August 2005, I flew to Paris to accompany her on a work trip she had left for the week before.
When you fly to Europe from NZ you tend to fly through the night so I arrived in Paris on a hot, sunny autumn morning. As I checked into our hotel, the first English I heard being spoken was two clearly shocked Americans, reading a newspaper at the check-in desk… They’re shooting each other… looting the place… Animals… Once I got up to my partner’s room and turned on the telly (this was before the internet became something you carried in your pocket) I realised who they were and that a hurricane had devastated New Orleans.
When September Ends by Green Day wasn’t my favourite track on American Idiot, an album I loved thinking it both entertaining and brave (especially in a time when there was little push back in popular culture against the proponents for war), and I played it many times before I headed to Europe in 2005.
The song didn’t fit my particular concept of September, speaking of rain/winter/loss. I was embracing the future, heading for a hot month in Europe with the woman I wanted to spend my life with. And we had decided to make a baby.
I now know the song is about the vocalist losing his father at the age of 7, which explains much of the lyrical imagery.
Ring out the bells again, like we did when spring began
Wake me up, when September ends
It’s testament to the strength of the very personal lyrics that the single, released August 2005, became the unofficial anthem for Hurricane Katrina, which hit as I arrived in Paris.
It has the poetic/fluid nature of good lyrics in that the video for the song ignores Billy Joe Armstrong’s intimate meaning to take on the blustering pomposity of sacrifice and war that many American videos were plastered with at the time.
A rainy night in Brussels and a very fine, boozy meal
But that song was not in my head as I flitted from Paris to Florence to Lucca to Pisa to Brussels to Maastricht to Amsterdam to London and back to Paris: exploring, being, loving.
And it wasn’t all fun and games. I was also doing some research for a historical novel I was writing about the founding of my hometown of Christchurch, which was set up after the formation of the Canterbury Association in London in 1848.
Place of the first meeting to found Canterbury. Spot the three lambs in the shield
Communards at the barricades
Due to the utopian ideals of a group of graduates of Christ Church College, Oxford (yip, Harry Potter’s school) who sent the ‘Canterbury Pilgrims’ to found Christchurch, I was making a study of the Paris Commune of 1871, established when the decadent, corrupt government of Napoleon III let the invading Prussian’s get within a humiliating cooee of Paris (WW1, 40 years later, was a replay of this schmozzle).
At the most famous bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, I bought a history of that incredible event which, when the city was retaken by government forces, saw the slaughter of more Parisians than the Great Terror of the Revolution and The German Occupation of WWII combined.
Dead Communards on the cover of the book I bought
Tomb of Oscar Wilde
I read that book throughout our travels around Europe, finishing it at the end of the trip when we returned to Paris, making a special pilgrimage to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, pushing past the tourists at Jim Morrison’s grave, stopping to take a photo of my partner kissing the toes of the lip-stick covered Jacob Epstein statue on Oscar Wilde’s grave, making a beeline for the wall at the back of the graveyard where a great many Communards were lined up and shot.
Returning to NZ at the end of the month, and still in travel mode, I flew down to a good friend’s 40th.
Towards the end of that early spring party, standing on the threshold of his back door, my friend, who I had known since my early 20s, tapped the neck of his beer bottle to mine and said… to the barren knights… It took me a second to realise that he wasn’t talking about humorous British pop group, the Barron Knights, but about us having avoided parenthood. He was clearly wistful, having married 5 years before, just before I headed to Europe for the first time.
But that poignancy became ironic when 6 weeks later I was back, escaping an awful argument that erupted after my partner found out she had got pregnant on that last weekend in Paris. She was not happy with the situation (but we planned it?), and in her bitter reasoning she was carrying the spirit of a Communard murdered at that wall. I felt betrayed and used.
The photo we took at the wall in Pere Lachaise. 134 years later, people still leave flowers for the victims
A lot went on in the next few months; too much for here. Suffice to say that my partner eventually found her peace with the child growing inside her, and we announced it to her gathered family on Christmas Day 2005. Which underlined a greater and more painful irony when, late on Boxing Day, after a hurried and tortured helicopter flight off our island home she delivered a tiny, perfectly formed boy with eyelids closed. Fingernails, clearly forming on the hand resting across his chest.
Paris, beneath the rewarewa we planted
In a strange way, the experience brought us closer, and we were happy for most of the next year. I listened to Green Day a lot as I worked in the wild, extensive garden, clearing and landscaping the area where we buried the boy we called Paris on New Year’s Eve. I loved the album; it was a journey, more than its constituent parts.
But When September Ends took on a new meaning for me, as did the month. It became a personal anthem of loss and each year I was anxious for the month to pass.
Which gets at the reason I have written this blog.
Because when my daughter said that she hated spring, my first thought wasn’t of Green Day, it was Waikiki.
Two months after I shifted out in Dec 2006, following my erstwhile partner announcing… actually, I do want a baby. But not with you… I met my daughter’s mother. Four months later she was (unexpectedly) pregnant.
Exiting the apartment in Paris
My friend and his wife, who had provided refuge in that awful time in 2005, did so again (along with his baby boy, born earlier that year) in 2007 when we shifted down to his town just before Christmas.
I ended up buying the house next door and our children grew up as brother and sister. My friends moved far away just before last Christmas but I continue to live next door to that threshold where we toasted the barren knights. I have my daughter every other week as her mother and I are no longer together (having a child with someone is not the best way to establish a relationship).
The dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford, where the founders of Christchurch (and Harry Potter) went to school.
There’s been a shit-load of loss in my life over the last few years (I have referred to aspects of it in past blogs). Paris, and the woman I was convinced I loved. My vibrant life in the media. My home town, smashed (and the novel I was writing with it). Both parents, straight afterwards. My sister, briefly here, now back to Australia. My other sister and family now following.
It seems like I’m on a beach watching an ever-receding tide, wondering if it will ever flow back.
But it is September, and I am full of hope. My girl is the greatest joy. I try not to cling but she is growing so fast. There is increasing warmth in the air, greater light in the days, the garden is growing and in 2 months it will be a year since the surgery on my ankle so I will be able to start running (gently) once more.
Like songs and seasons, we are filled with memories and meanings both personal and shared: as immutable as the ever-changing seasons, nothing is certain except for change.
I do not seek an encounter with any woman pinned above my bed. I do not hanker for the lost, or yearn for the future (well, not too much).
But I have a confession. There are boxes of baby toys and paraphernalia under the house I am struggling to let go of. It may seem a trifle sad but I would counter they are a guard against the unexpected.
I am no longer a young man, but if I pass these things on to charity do I not invite Murphy’s Law to inject a mischievous twinkle into my eye? To put a song in my heart, a spring in my step, to turn my mind to… ?
Well, it is September.
And we both know what that means…