Damn it, I love that song. And now I love it even more, because I can.
I have an older brother, J. He is seven and a half years older than me. We haven't spoken for three years, for reasons too tedious and dispiriting for me to list here, although if you look at a previous post, you may spot a correlation between the length of time he & I haven't spoken, and a period of transition
Now, I shall gladly go to my grave without speaking to him again. But. But. There is one thing I have to thank him for, and that is getting me into Bob Dylan. For my 13th birthday, he gave me a vinyl copy of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Volume 1. I'd vaguely heard of Dylan, knew one or two songs but nothing more (our mum hated Dylan with a passion, still does, refuses to listen to it, and she was in sole control of the stereo in the dining room and in the car). My parents had bought me a stereo system (two tape decks, radio and turntable for the young people who may be reading) from Secondhand Land as my main birthday present, and so it came to pass that the first the very first piece of music I heard issuing from the dodgily wired speakers of my JVC stereo system was Bob Dylan.
It was like nothing I'd heard before. Nothing, even though I'd grown up in a house where The Beatles were semi-deities, Bowie was minor royalty and Carole King our glorious leader. I listened to that same album for hours on end, lying on my stomach on my bed, trying to scribble down the lyrics as he sang so I could learn them, decipher them, pore over them and generally become obsessed. I was 13, remember?
J was building up his CD collection (this was 1993), and one of the first artists he bought on CD was Dylan. Whenever J went out, I would sneak into his room and stealthily play whatever Bob Dylan CD I could lay my hands on, keeping the volume as low as possible so that I could listen out for warning sounds of fraternal return, one ear pressed against the speaker, one ear primed as watchdog. When I heard the front door slam, I'd wrench the CD out of the player, back into the case and then dart back into my room where I would already have music playing. That way, he didn't suspect I'd been listening to his music, see?
1994. J was working for the family business in Cambridgeshire, and had taken his beloved and bloated CD collection with him. I had begged, cajoled and pleaded with him to be allowed to tape his Dylan albums, and finally, grudgingly, J had agreed, as long as I provided the tapes. And paid him £3 per album. He always was a malevolent little shit.
For more reasons too tedious and dispiriting to list here, I'd been having a fair bit of time off school, and spent a lot of time in the car with my Dad that summer, where I would insist on playing Dylan on a continuous loop. Happily, Dad was also a Dylan fan, and away from my mothers musical control, gleefully indulged me in my obsession as we drove along the A47, taking the turning at Swaffham and onto the Fens. I was especially in love with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and liked to close my eyes and imagine someone singing 'Girl from the North Country' whilst thinking about me. I was 14. Don't pretend you haven't done something similar. The other side of the tape had something called 'Five Leaves Left' on it. I hadn't bothered listening to it, because it wasn't Dylan. Instead, when the album on Side A finished I would automatically spring forward, lunge at the rewind button and listen to the scratchy tape deck spool through. Then listen to the album all over again.
So there we were, at the Downham Market bypass, one Tuesday afternoon in May. We'd been chatting about something or other, and so my normal lightning reflexes hadn't kicked in. The tape machine clunked into gear and suddenly, the most beautiful, soothing and gentle song filled the car. It was Time has told me, by Nick Drake Bye Bob! I have a new musical love now.
Now hasten along with me as I draw you to the last week of November 1994. I am in love. Frighteningly, worryingly, intensely in love. And also heartbroken. My first boyfriend has left the country and I will never see him again (or so I thought). Even better, my brother, J, has gone with him, just to rub salt in the wound, squeeze lemon juice in it, and then viciously stab me in the heart a further 57 times whilst screeching 'DIE! DIE! PAIN DEATH AND DESTRUCTION!' in my face. The only consolation is that J has returned his earthly belongings to the family home, including his CD collection.
I while away the hours of heartbreak, listening to Dylan and Nick Drake, wondering if anyone has ever been as unhappy as me, and decide that on balance, probably not. No one has ever suffered the pangs of heartbreak quite as much as me. See? Look in the mirror at my melancholy face, tears silently brimming in my eyes. How uniquely tragic I am, thought all teenagers, everywhere. Rifling through the CDs, I find one I haven't seen before. Ooh, it's that Nick Drake fella, the Five Leaves Left guy. Bryter Layter? Let's give it a whirl.
Oh. My. God. Northern Sky.
Yes. That is it. That is love. 'Brighten my Northern Sky'. Perfect. I scribbled down the lyrics to my boyfriend and posted it with a very long letter detailing exactly how much I loved him. He replied by return of post, echoing my sentiments.
And then stuff happened.
I won't go into it just at the moment. But suffice it to say, it was heartbreaking. And in the one single act of self-preservation I have ever successfully pulled off (I have no willpower, like, literally, NONE, as anyone who's ever seen me with a wine glass will attest), I split up with him. And for the next ten years I could not listen to Northern Sky. All other Nick Drake songs? Not a problem. Northern Sky? Instant tears, lump in throat, reverting to teenaged self, yearning looks out of windows, mournful face. You get the idea. Embarrassing for me and anyone who happens to witness it.
Until 07:00 16th January 2005. When W was born. After I'd had a good laugh with the gas and air, been subjected to various indignities (didn't give a toss, I was flying, man, FLYING) and A had departed to put out the good news to all interested parties, I picked W up (panicking quite a lot, I'd never held a newborn before and I was worried I might drop him, or break him, or make him explode) and stood at the window of our room. The sun was just coming up and out of nowhere, Northern Sky popped into my head. And I stood there*, holding my son, looking out at brightening fields and I sang to him. And now, when I hear the song, I don't think of pain and heartache and lost love. I think of W instead and how lucky I am.
*For reasons of accuracy, W's first few seconds were as follows: Put straight onto my stomach by midwife. Lifts head up. Looks at me. Looks at A. Looks back at me. Starts crying. Craps all over me. It's almost as though he was thinking 'Six billion people in the world, and I got you two?'. I was still wrapped in the sheet from the bed which was covered in blood and meconium, as was I. Bathing seemed trivial at this point.