Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

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Your Latest Trick

Music & Personal 8 min read

Funny how a song can bring back such vivid memories.

I was listening to my Big Man smart playlist (Dire Straits or Mark Knopfler) in iTunes the other night, and Your Latest Trick came on (the original version from Brothers in Arms). Boom, swamped with memories.

I can remember sitting on the thickly-carpeted floor of my father’s music room, which was also the front sitting room for special occasions. I could hear the saxophone in the air above my head, occupying all the space in the room due to the big floor-standing Tannoy speakers hooked up to the silver Technics separates system (including an automatic turntable, which seemed incomparably sleek to my young mind). I was perhaps 7 or 8, and I was beginning to understand why music was such a significant part of my father’s life.

That room always had an air of mystery about it. It sat pristine and unoccupied most of the week, and smelled of leather and stillness. Lots of low glass tables, housing amongst other things green marble boxes containing the first teeth of both myself and my brother, crystal decanters, china ornaments and a large oak chess-board with pieces made from ebony and ivory. Bottles of whiskey lined the stone shelves running along on either side of the fireplace, and the Tannoy speakers dominated the back wall of the room. It was a strange set-piece, a museum within a house, and not generally somewhere I would ever go.

At night at the end of the week, though, my father would often go in there to listen to music for hours. The room took on an entirely different atmosphere during those times; there were two wall-mounted lamps with firelight bulbs, and they would be on and casting a much warmer light, softening the edges of all the glass and marble and wood. The air was warm and in motion with the music, and held the exceptionally exotic smell of alcohol. I very occasionally re-encounter that smell, late at night in someone’s home when they pour a glass of whiskey whilst music is playing, and I’m instantly back in that room.

The thickness of the carpet and the rugs over it meant that the only sound other than the music was the very occasional clink as a glass was temporarily set down. My father preferred to listen to his music in privacy, as I do, but I was occasionally allowed to sit quietly with him and listen. I was never forbidden to do so, it was just silently understood that that was his place, and his own time to himself; a rule created and observed without anyone ever speaking of it. Sometimes, he would talk about the music, although briefly and just to highlight an upcoming section. I remember the hypnotic spectacle of the sheer reverence with which he handled the records as he changed them. I thought they must be incredibly fragile things, and it was years before I’d even pick one up without feeling I was misbehaving.

How easy it is to wonder if any of that ever really happened; it seems impossibly long ago, and from a completely different life. The past seems so much paler than today in photos yet so much brighter and more vivid in memory.

Not long after that I started listening to the music myself. I’ve been given a Walkman for a birthday or Christmas one year (a gigantic white box of a thing, with bright orange pads on the headphones; my brother’s was the same model but silver, which I quietly envied), and my father made me some mix tapes of Dire Straits stuff to take with me on holiday. Needless to say, the tapes were played until they self-destructed, and it was on a second tape that I discovered Alchemy. Many summer holidays were spent listening to it over and over again by the side of the pool of some hotel or other in Spain or Majorca or wherever, and then again for weeks at a time as I sat on the swings in the park at a caravan and camping site up north of Aberdeen. I knew the songs inside out before very long. I bought the Alchemy double-cassette album one Saturday morning in John Menzies on the Coatbridge main street, the first of many versions I’d buy over the course of the next fifteen years or more.

The music became a part of what was normal life for me, and accompanied me through all my experiences. Increasingly, though, I only heard the music on my own tape deck or mini-system, not from the “front room”, as the music room and lounge was called. There seemed to be less of the sound of anything, actually, though there’s no way to know how much of that remembered impression actually derives from what came after. I remember waking up one night (still sharing a room with my brother, neither of us quite at high school age yet), and hearing noises from downstairs; raised voices. I went out to the upper landing and sat down, legs dangling between the railings like the cliché, and listening with mostly just academic interest as my parents argued increasingly loudly. Eventually I went back in because I thought the noise would soon wake my brother if I didn’t close the door.

This became part of what was normal, too. I sat on the upper landing many times listening to what I didn’t realise was my parents’ marriage falling apart; the same landing from which, as a much younger boy also wakened in the night before his birthday by noise from below, I had shouted down into the darkness “is that the birthday fairy?”, prompting my momentarily stunned mother to pause from picking up the wrapped gifts she’d accidentally dropped, affect a pantomime wicked witch voice, and tell me to get back to bed immediately. I complied with all due haste, as you might imagine, and later the next day apparently hesitantly confided in my mother than I thought the birthday fairy might actually be a man.

I got a CD player for Christmas, and naturally I bought Alchemy once again, and listened to it on the train to high school. Before I was far into my first year, things finally came to a head at home. It was a Friday night and my mother was teaching (dance) as usual. My father came home from work just after dinner time, which was unusual for a Friday, but we thought nothing of it. After my mother finished her last class, she arrived through in the living room where my father and I were silently watching a TV programme about classic cars; what a bizarre detail to remember, but there you have it. It was time to have a family meeting, my mother said, and this was a first (and of course also to be the last). I’ve thought about that fact a lot over the intervening years: a first family meeting, order of business being the family breaking up. I wonder at her choice of words, and if it ever occurred to her to regret using that particular phrase. I’m not sure why I’ve mulled over it so, but I find that it has a melancholy beauty to it.

We gathered on the floor, my father still sat in his chair, but before the meeting could begin my brother decided to interject. He was 8, just at the age when a boy wants to assert his inexorable progression towards manhood by experimenting with more grown-up styles of humour, including sarcasm and rhetorical exaggeration and so forth. His contribution that night, offered loudly, eagerly and utterly innocently, was “Wait, you’re not getting a divorce, are you?!”

I feel for my parents in that moment, though of course it took me a few hours to realise how awkward it must have been, and years to begin to understand how painful. My mother could only quietly confirm that yes, actually, they were. And for all the warning I’d had that things were very wrong, I never really truly considered this outcome. So, I assured my brother that they were just joking, even as his confident smile faltered and then disappeared. Is it possible to deliberately forget a moment in time? I’d like to know how.

It was only when my mother in desperation resorted to threaten a smack if I said they were joking again, that I could no longer pretend that they were. Did you know that central heating actually makes a noise in the radiators? I’d never noticed it before, but I noticed it in that space after she spoke. Then followed the usual nightmare seen in the movies, which for once actually does happen in real life; the children promising to “be good” from this point on and not fight with each other, and so on. Awful stuff. And then, of course, the obvious question occurred to both myself and my brother at once: when was dad leaving? The answer of course was that 20 minutes later he had already left. The rest of the evening blurs into nothing in my memory.

The music inevitably took on an additional poignance for a time, but that passed quickly enough. I kept up with Knopfler’s solo career after Dire Straits were gone. I remember having a 6:30 am shuttle from Glasgow to London and then a connection to San Francisco one time with Adobe, on the day that Sailing to Philadelphia was released. I bought it, plugged my old black PowerBook (Lombard series, as I recall) into a socket in the departures lounge, ripped the CD into SoundJam MP (later to become iTunes), and copied it to my Rio player. 14 hours of a new Knopfler album in business class constitutes a very pleasant way to fly.

My dad got his LPs back after a few years, and my brother started collecting his own set. Between us we have the entire Dire Straits back catalogue several times over in several formats, and a large amount of memorabilia. A few years back we even treated dad to a flight down to London and a ticket to the charity gig Knopfler put on during the summer (with tickets for both of us too, of course). Knopfler, Fletcher and Illsley from Dire Straits, Jimmy Nail on backing vocals, Jools Holland on keyboards. Late train back to Stansted airport and sleeping on the floor until our early-morning flight back to Glasgow. Excellent.

So the music is still here, even after almost 2 decades. Jumping across media and formats and devices, nimbly keeping pace with the march of time so that it can still be heard. Knopfler remains “the big man” to my brother and I, and indeed “that ugly man with the guitar” to my mother, and my father still has his Dire Straits stuff. We make sure he gets copies of Knopfler’s solo stuff on appropriate occasions too. It’s as much about a necessary tradition as it is about actual musical taste, as I only came to properly understand in recent years.

At time of writing, I have about 1.5 complete sets of Dire Straits CDs, perhaps 20 assorted promo-only singles, umpteen bootlegs, 6 radio show CDs from the US and elsewhere, and memorabilia including a BMI Platinum Award for Alchemy Live and a Fender pick-guard signed by the man himself. I have 5 official CD copies of Alchemy in various places, and my brother has at least two copies including an original double-wide CD box version I gave him as a gift. Between us we have an entire set of LPs, and even some cassettes. Ticket stubs, tour guidebooks, original posters, commemorative pick sets, and so on. I even have a solid 24 carat gold version of Sultans of Swing, and an original 1984 West German copy of the Brothers in Arms single, the first ever CD single.

But far more importantly than that, I have the assurance that the music can continue to accompany me on this journey, accumulating yet more associations even as I gain a deeper understanding of what it means to me. That, and I have the memories. I’m of course intellectually aware that my memories are edited highlights, soft-focused retrospectives rather than true recollections, edited for the television of my nostalgic mind. And I’ve come to not only be comfortable with that, but to understand how utterly necessary it is.

Once, when I was in quite a bad state of mind and having trouble coping with things, I called my dad and asked him why it seemed like all the best times in your life were in the past. He understood what I was asking without any further clarification, and without the slightest pause told me that it was just a trick of the light.

The interplay of music and memory is like that; forever playing the latest variant of that same old trick. When viewed properly, that’s what lets us get on with our lives, to find meaning in our experiences, and to adapt to the changes which inevitably occur in our circumstances. I wouldn’t have it any other way.