When the phone rang at three am Richard feared the worst. He sat up in bed, turned on the lamp, and rubbed his eyes, all the time scrolling through a list of vulnerable relatives and friends. The last time somebody rang him at three am was in November 1990 after his father walked out on his mother the day before their twenty fifth wedding anniversary. The time before that was May 1988 when Richard’s sister converted to Islam. What now could it be ?
‘Richard ?’ said a female voice tinged with high pitched excitement. ‘Are you doing anything on July the fifteenth ?’
He pressed the ear piece to the side of his head and began disseminating a flood of neural information, much of which advised him to replace the phone, turn off the lamp, and return to his sleep. Instead he said: ‘Lene - it’s three o’clock in the morning.’
‘I know, I know. Are you doing anything on the fifteenth or not ?’
A long pause ensued. ‘I can’t, Lene, at this point in time, even remember what month it is.....’
‘It’s June, you jerk.....’
‘.....And my diary is in the living room.’
Lene’s irritation transmitted itself down the line - a short volley of obscenities in the guttural Scandinavian language that was her mother-tongue. Then, in English: ‘July the fifteenth is less than six weeks away. You must have some idea whether you’re free or not.’
‘Why ? Why do you want to know ? What can possibly be so important that you have to ring me at three o’clock in the morning ?’
For the next fifteen minutes Lene explained how her friend, Ziggy, who worked for MTV Europe, had given her two tickets to see Alanis Morissette at the Zeebrugge Beach Festival in Belgium. Not only had Ziggy presented her with tickets, Lene continued, but she’d also given her two backstage passes. ‘And you know what that means.....’
Richard yawned. No, he said. He didn’t.
‘It means that we’ll be able to attend the post-concert party and meet - I repeat, meet - Alanis Morissette! In the flesh! What do you think of that ?’
Richard said he was thrilled.
Lene, her tone dropping, said: ‘You don’t sound thrilled.’
After assuring her that he was thrilled - ‘absolutely, unconditionally, and without question thrilled’ - and that he was available on July the fifteenth, Richard managed to convince Lene that all further discussion on the subject should be postponed until the following day. Then he blew a number of drowsy kisses into the mouthpiece and replaced the handset, breathing a sigh of relief as he did so.
Closing his eyes and feeling soft waves of sleep begin to wash through him Richard’s neural activity continued to flicker as he wondered: ‘Who’s Alanis Morissette ?’
The following afternoon, after his class, Richard visited the central library. He made his way through the urine-scented atrium, side-stepped two down and outs drinking from a bottle of Martini near modern history, and skipped the short flight of stairs to the music section where he began thumbing through c.d.’s pertaining to rock artists whose surname began with the letter M. He presumed that Alanis Morissette was a rock artist although the name suggested to him something else - something wispy and avant garde: acid jazz, perhaps. He thought it wise, though, to stay within the boundaries of rock. The last time Lene had dragged him to a ‘gig’ Richard had been confronted by an androgynous creature wearing a leather jump suit - another M who basked in the name of Marilyn Manson. He hadn’t had time to carry out pre-gig research on that occasion and so was half-expecting a pleasant evening being serenaded by a rosy-cheeked country-and-western singer, not the scowling anti-christ whose open crotch seemed permanently aimed at Richard’s forehead. The concert would have been consigned to the outer reaches of Richard’s memory had it not been for the electrified sexual activity that took place in his car afterwards. ‘I don’t know what it is but that guy really turns me on’ Lene had growled, snapping a button from his Red/Green slacks, Richard acutely aware of the thousands of people streaming from the concert hall into the cars parked around them. Now, flicking through a sea of M’s and ignoring the scuffles accompanying the forced removal of the down and outs, Richard felt a shudder of mild excitement as he anticipated seeing for the first time the deranged form of Alanis Morissette.
Since his return to Britain and his intimacy with the 25 year old Lene, a feisty post graduate design student whose hair colour changed with the regularity of traffic lights, Richard had found himself routinely visiting the central library in an attempt to re-aquaint himself with contemporary goings-on. It wasn’t that he was disinterested in popular music or some kind of cultural snob - far from it. This was a man who, in 1976, saw a pre-My Aim Is True Elvis Costello at Barbarellas in Birmingham; who saw The Clash and The Damned at the London Marquee Club and the Sex Pistols at an obscure venue in Wolverhampton when they played under the pseudonym of Spots - Sex Pistols On Tour - prior to the release of God Save the Queen. He’d hitchhiked to see Bob Dylan in ‘78, and watched Jimmy Page play his Les Paul with a violin bow at Knebworth in ‘79. He was eighteen at the time and, on that warm, hallucinatory night, became convinced that the ability to stand alone in front of one hundred thousand people and execute a twenty minute guitar solo like Jimmy Page was the greatest gift that God had ever bestowed upon a human being.
No - Richard was proud of his musical credentials. That he had never possessed any musical ability of his own was still a lingering point of contention, as was the fact that as a seventeen year old he hadn’t embraced the punk movement with more vigour. Instead of slashing his arms and chest with a razor blade like the kids from the nearby council estate Richard had merely bought a pair of customised tartan trousers from Top Shop. All that gobbing and slashing seemed somewhat distasteful to his lower middle class sensibilities. And any thoughts he may have entertained of a life of drug-induced debauchery were extinguished as he bowed to parental expectation and persued a satisfying and purposeful career. How different it all might have been! Instead of graduating from the punk era and embracing the New Romantics in the 80’s - instead of heroically dying like two or three acquaintances from that time - Richard spent much of that decade following a regime of intense study as he knuckled down and saw off a degree, a taught MA, and a teaching qualification. Even as his contemporaries were marching and battling it out on the streets, venting their post-punk frustrations in support of striking miners and print workers, or simply acquiring great wealth, Richard remained cocooned in the history section of his red-brick university, swotting up on the Periclean Golden Age and Republican Rome and the impact of millenarist groups on the English Civil War. By the time 1990 arrived and Thatcher was making her tearful farewells, Richard, unlike many of his Madchester crazed thirtysomething contemporaries, was married with a five year old daughter to support and teaching English and History at Black Friars Public School for Boys.
Even the highs and lows of his doomed marriage to Claire could be determined by a number of irritatingly catchy pop tunes. Richard and Claire’s song - i.e., the song they first groped and snogged to in the beer drenched corner of the student union bar, was the Human League’s Fascination. The day they married Richard remembers driving an open-top Golf towards the airport to the strains of The Smiths’ Still Ill, his young wife’s veil seductively flapping in time to Johnny Marr’s quirky guitar - the same guitar that, in 1985, heralded his daughter’s arrival with Nowhere Fast. And when he at last packed his bags and moved out of their suburban semi, after eight jazz-infused years of comfortable married life, a song entitled Deeply Dippy was number one in the charts. It was shortly afterwards that Richard left Britain. Seven years of teaching English in Scandinavia and the United Arab Emirates had left him sadly lacking in the contemporary goings-on department, especially where popular music was concerned. That was why, six months into the 21st century, at the tender age of 40, he was flicking through c.d.’s in the central library: Alanis Morissette had somehow managed to pass him by.
He borrowed three albums - Jagged Little Pill, an MTV Unplugged compilation, and something rather pretentiously entitled Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie - and drove, in his Ka, back to his house. Richard’s house was a two bedroomed semi a comfortable fifty miles away from his former wife - the first property he’d owned since his split with Claire. He’d picked it up at a knock-down price, carpeted with a newly fitted pine kitchen, after a young couple had drowned beneath a tidal wave of negative equity. The immediate neighbourhood had all the necessary amenities - a late night Co-op, a selection of take-aways, three pubs - and the nearby town, a ten minute Ka-ride away, consisted of a church surrounded by theme pubs, banks, shoe shops and burger bars. After the obsessive cleanliness of Scandinavia and the Emirates, where even the garbage was blessed with a wholesome air-brushed veneer, the sheer volume and quality of Britain’s filth amazed him. Discarded chip wrappers, bottles, cans, condoms, puke, blood mixed together with ice cream in the gutter – it was all he could do to lift his head from the pavement to see where he was walking. And the filth wasn’t only to be found in regional high streets. His next door neighbours’ front garden was a tiny oasis for all forms of refuse. Discarded furniture, the oil-seeping engine of a Ford Escort, rusting bicycles, a chicken coop – such a garden would provide the basis for a charge of anti-social behaviour in any one of the well-ordered countries he’d lived and taught in. But Richard, wealthy enough now to be as discerning as he liked about his immediate environment, never once complained about his next door neighbours’ front garden. In fact, he always made a point of offering a greeting whenever he saw the dysfunctional couple and their three tiny skinhead children (were they boys or girls ? Each wore a standard uniform of jeans and T-shirt while escorting a battery operated all-peeing all-dribbling doll). His neighbours were doing him a service. The dark presence of the couples’ two rottweilers, roaming freely day and night, spilled over into Richard’s property, saving him untold thousands of pounds in security systems and early warning radar. Not that Richard owned anything of great worth. After his years in Scandinavia and the Middle East he saw houses as mere functional appendages. Gone forever was the pre-marital dream he’d shared with Claire of buying a dilapidated barn and devoting a third of his adult life to its painstaking restoration. Richard wasn’t going to waste any of his precious time on that – he had far more important things to do. He was going to sit down and listen to the collected works of Alanis Morissette.
He was, of course, mildly disappointed with the artist he discovered among the M’s in the rock section. Lying on the sofa Richard found himself staring at a rather plain but wholesome, somewhat self-conscious looking woman who was surprisingly younger than he imagined. With that big acoustic guitar she must be a folk singer, he thought – the kind of girl that his late mother, a lover of Joan Baez, would have been pleased to welcome into her home – and, the longer he studied the sleeve covers, the more he realised that Alanis Morissette was not entirely dissimilar in appearance to his daughter who had blossomed in the past few months into a rather plain but wholesome, somewhat self-conscious youth of sixteen. She, Isabella, had shorter hair, it was true, and a softer jaw line, but possessed the same wistful smile and far-away look in her eyes. Isabella was no Infatuation Junkie though (whatever that was). Far from it. With a single-mindedness that put even her father to shame she was diligently working towards her own personal nirvana: A levels, a Law degree, a high powered career in the corporate sector ‘until I’m thirty three’ and then a rambling, sprawling farm in the south west where she would rear her crop of children (three boys, two girls) and where Richard, presumably, would be permitted to drop by for the occasional long weekend. There was never any mention of a husband or boyfriend in this equation and Richard, sensing some kind of asexual secret agenda, had pressed her on this as she chopped onions before one of their periodic meals together. His daughter had merely shrugged and said: ‘I want to be like Ally McBeal’ prompting Richard to make a mental note to visit the central library the next day.
Later, half way through Jagged Little Pill, he rang Isabella on the pretext of arranging a date for her next visit. During the small talk that followed he slipped in that he was listening to Alanis Morissette. ‘Do you like Alanis ?’ he asked. His daughter sighed. ‘She’s Ok if you’re into that kind of thing.’
‘What kind of thing ?’
‘You know – mid-90’s post-feminist angst.’
Richard took up his notepad and pen and jotted down the phrase.
‘But you’re not…..’
‘You’re not, I take it…..you’re beyond mid-90’s post-feminist angst ?’
‘It’s the 21st century, dad. You can’t generalise like that any more.’
‘You can’t ?’
‘So what kind of angst is the average sixteen year old into these days ?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Surely you’re mad about something…..surely there’s an issue ?’
‘Not one that I can think of…..’
He tried hard to remember the kind of angst that was going round in the late 70’s/early 80’s. It was a weird kind of political angst – the angst you got from having a prime minister named Thatcher and a US president named Reagan. It was a post-nuclear, pre-annihilation angst that either fucked you up or sent you scurrying into the library to read for a higher degree.
After a fourth gin and tonic – and a fourth hearing of You Oughta Know, a song that made him feel as if all the women he’d ever known in his life were hitting him with a baseball bat – he tried to work out from which part of the world Alanis came from. She had a quaint, north American twang to her singing voice which, he reckoned, gave the game away: Alanis Morissette, Richard decided, was from Barnsley.
‘I saw Television, too. My god – how could I have forgotten about them ? The greatest band to have come out of the New York new wave movement, fronted by that gangly, anaemic looking guy playing a sunburst Fender Stratocaster…..what was his name……Tom Verlaine, yeah, that’s it – a guy whose songs were so taught and structured that I was sure they’d been written with a scalpel. Marquee Moon, Foxhole Foxhole, Prove It – some of their guitar work was stunning. The Television gig must have been sometime in ’79 during their one and only UK tour (which occurred after Richard Hell had left the band, of course). I hitchhiked down the M1 to the Hammersmith Odeon alone. My friend at the time – Rod ? Pod ? – had cried off earlier in the day. Said he’d gone down with flu but I reckon his mom had told him: “No way are you hitchhiking to London with that creep Richard.” (Pod/Rod’s mom never liked me much after I burned a hole in her sofa – but that’s another story). I must have spent an hour in front of the mirror gelling up my hair and deciding which of the three suit jackets I’d bought from Oxfam (all dark, all striped – three for fifty pence) was worthy enough to be chosen. And do you know the best of it? About that 1979 Television gig ? Blondie was the support act! I’m not kidding! Blondie. And they were booed off stage because everybody wanted to see Television. Isn’t it amazing ? – that memories like these can rise up out of nowhere…..’
In fact Richard’s memory had come to him in between mouthfuls of beef, sprouts, roasted potatoes and Yorkshire pudding while seated at Claire’s Sunday afternoon dinner table, his ex-wife having invited him over to meet Donald – Donald the bearded, pony-tailed doctor and regular Baptist church-goer – who was the New Man In Her Life. Whether this meeting with his successor had triggered some kind of psychosomatic awakening Richard wasn’t sure, but the memories had just flooded back – memories which pre-dated Claire by five or six years and concerned the 17 year old version of himself bearing witness to a number of obscure punk rock bands in pubs, clubs and cellars up and down the country. It was incredible! He hadn’t remembered these experiences in years! And he wanted so much to share them – especially his trip to see Television and how afterwards he’d spent the night squeezed into the single bed of a female Dutch student somewhere near Earl’s Court. But somehow Claire and Donald and Isabella didn’t seem to be appreciating these nuggets from Richard’s past life as much as he was. They were looking at him but in a slightly bemused way, as if trying to decide which of them should set down their knife and fork and call for an ambulance. Afterwards Claire – her hair turning a dark shade of iron-grey and given now to wearing brightly printed kaftans to assuage the onset of middle age – made no attempt to comment on Richard’s ramblings. Instead she began enthusing about the symbols and rituals of her new-found allegiance to the Christian church, symbols and rituals which, Richard noted with interest, took the form of pre-meal prayers, rugged iconography imported from the Holy Land and Gregorian music with a back-beat piped from the hi-fi – not to mention her constant show of affection for the saintly doctor by her side. No: however much he tried Robert couldn’t imagine Claire yearning for that past time when they seduced one another to the Human League in the corner of the student union bar. Neither could he imagine Donald enjoying an in-depth conversation about the lyrical genius of Alanis Morissette, who was rapidly assuming the role of Richard’s very own saviour.
The following day Richard drove thirty miles to a music shop where he purchased his very own sunburst Fender Stratocaster, a 50 watt Marshall amplifier, and a song book entitled Greatest Hits of the 80’s for Easy Guitar. That same evening the dysfunctional couple next door rang 999 in protest at his 43 decibel rendition of White Riot.
Despite his set-to with the local police, fire department and ambulance services (Fireman: “What’s the emergency ?” Policeman: “Some middle aged tit has bought an effin' electric guitar….”), and despite his inability to share his memories over Sunday lunch, Richard’s yearning for his lost self continued. Not only was he looking forward to seeing Alanis Morrisette on the 15th (and what with the air fare and two nights in a hotel, the Zeebrugge trip had long ceased to be anything other than expensive) he was looking way, way beyond – to a thorough re-investigation of the music scene over the past five, ten, fifteen years and familiarising himself with House, Rap, Hip-Hop, and all the other strains of contemporary music that had passed him by while he was busy in far-off language schools leading a mature, respectable existence.
‘You really were an embarrassment last Sunday’ Isabella told him bluntly during their next phone conversation. ‘All that stuff about punk rock bands – it really was the height of bad manners, dad. To tell you the truth I felt sorry for mom…..and Donald. You hardly let anyone else get a look-in. It was as if you were in a world of your own. Don didn’t know where to look.’
Richard tried to explain. ‘It’s just, I feel I’ve missed out on something. There’s a side of me that’s never really expressed itself. You see, when I was seventeen I was a different person…..’
Isabella sighed. ‘I really haven’t got a clue what you’re on about, dad. I think you should go for a check-up or something. So does Don. And what’s more you’re becoming obsessed with Alanis Morissette. You’re turning into an obsessive.’
Was he ? Certainly Alanis’ c.d.’s seemed to have taken up permanent residence in his hi-fi and in-car stereo system. Not only that but, during another visit to the central library, he’d found a biography of the singer-songwriter which he read avidly in a single sitting, learning that she was born not in West Yorkshire as he’d thought but in Canada and that Jagged Little Pill was ‘the biggest selling debut album by a female artist in recording history.’
‘I don’t know how you can possibly like her’ Isabella continued. ‘She’s so hysterical…..Her songs are all me-me-me.’
Richard countered: ‘A little me-me-me once in a while isn’t so bad.’
‘All that self-examination, all that self-justification…..’
‘Yes, but she’s angry…..’
‘Yes. Angry. You know – sounds as if she means it.’
‘Well, I’m not sure that anger is the reason why I listen to music.’
‘It isn’t ?’
‘So what is the reason ?’
‘I like music that pleases me.’
‘Like what ? What do you listen to at home ?’
‘Lots of different stuff – the classics, Ronan Keating, Celine Dion…..’
Richard, since his return, had listened to all of these artists and none of them sounded as angry as Alanis Morissette.
‘Why is she so important to you all of a sudden ?’
Well, she’s important to me because she’s got spunk. And I can connect with her because that’s how I was feeling twenty five years ago. When I was your age, I was rushing out to buy Pretty Vacant and Holidays in the Sun. I had no interest in studying to be a lawyer or a teacher or a doctor then…..I was filled with a nervous energy…..filled with collective angst…..and an indescribable belief that all the norms and institutions of the day could be changed or challenged or demolished. Because although my own personal rebellion never went further than a few gigs and a pair of tartan trousers from Top Shop it existed and I felt it…..felt the power it was capable of unleashing. Perhaps I only felt it for a short while – for about eighteen months, I’d say, from when I first saw Elvis Costello to the time when I was forced to make a choice and work to get through my A levels – but despite that, Isabella, I felt it. Just like Alanis Morissette feels it. And the problem is I don’t think you’re feeling it or will ever feel it and that concerns me…..it really concerns me.
This is what Richard wanted to say. Instead he shrugged and said: ‘Because she writes catchy tunes, I guess’ and after they’d finished talking went into the kitchen to unpack the Marks & Spencer oven-ready lasagne he’d purchased for his supper.
Robert and Lene had already fucked twice before the show started – once in their hotel room and again in a secluded alley-way near Zeebrugge docks. Lene couldn’t believe that the reserved, 40 year old English teacher had taken to behaving so wildly. What’s more he was dressed in a dark suit jacket, a pencil thin brushed suede tie (yellow), dark jeans and trainers – totally unsuitable for the Zeebrugge Beach Festival which, she’d told him at least fifty times, was taking place not in an auditorium but on an actual beach.
‘What are you on ?’ she asked him as they waved their passes at security.
‘A special tonic called happy to be alive’ he replied cryptically and as he made his way through the crowd he felt as good as he’d ever felt and spent the next two hours singing every word, hitting every note, and even crying a little when Alanis, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, sang If I Should be Good.
Backstage after the show they met up with Ziggy who introduced Richard and Lene to a couple of the band members. When Alanis showed up it was only for a few minutes (Ziggy: “She’s got to, like, fly out of here straight away, man. To India…..”) and Lene doubted whether they would manage to penetrate her minders. But Richard handed her his drink and pushed his way through. He pushed as if his life depended on it and got to within a few feet of Alanis, eventually catching her eye. And when she extended her hand – picking him out because of his age, perhaps, or maybe because of his clothes – Richard wanted so much to kiss her it was unbearable. He wanted to hold on to this serene young woman all night, wanted to tell her about that time back in the late seventies when he’d been angry and frustrated about things too. But he couldn’t and so descended into cliché saying: ‘Hi. I’m your greatest fan. I can, er, really relate to the energy you’re sending out…..’ hoping that those few words would convey something of what he felt for her. Whether they did or not he wasn’t sure. But as he watched her being ushered towards her limousine he felt himself as close to his former life as he was ever likely to come.