I Gave Myself to Sin
Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying
The moment—the memorable one; the one that rises up and crests and falls, sweeping over my consciousness even now, years and years hence—should have occurred there in the darkness of Usher Hall, during the concert. But it didn’t. In fact, I remember very little of the concert itself, or of the experience of being inside that great Beaux-Arts behemoth. Our seats were bad, I suppose, and wedged up underneath the scalloped plaster ceiling in one of the highest balconies. But I can’t actually see them, or the group of us in them.
All of those details have gone blurry because of what happened after.
In place of the velvet-cushioned concert hall, there is a grubby hotel room washed sepia with light from the streetlamps outside. There is a concrete stairwell reeking (as all such stairwells do) of urine. Instead of the faces of the band, or the agitations of the crowd, there is a quiet street tucked into the shadow of the castle, its cobblestones glinting and furred with frost. And there is me, not as an image but as a sound—the sound of my footsteps, walking uphill, alone, past windows still blank with darkness at four in the morning.
We Rule the School
We were in Edinburgh for the Belle and Sebastian concert. As a group, we had taken the train down some days before, intending to make a long weekend out of it before the final examination period set in. There were five of us total, with I the only female and adjoined, for the time being, to one of the other members. Let’s call him Greg.
My reasons for dating Greg ranked on par with my reasons for being in Edinburgh for the concert. Which is to say, I didn’t have any or, if I did, they amounted to little more than thin wisps of logic floating somewhere just beyond my reach. I had spent much of the train ride down thinking about how I neither liked nor disliked Greg, but that there was something infuriating about his inability to kindle excitement or ferocity in me. But I refused to see any of this as Greg’s fault, which meant it had to be mine. We had been corralled together by our well-meaning friends, and Greg had qualities that worked like anesthesia on my own thoughts and feelings. He was good-looking and affable and seemed to move about in a halo of what felt, on good days, like breeziness and, on less good days, like indifference. Either way, his general demeanor made the inspection of one’s darker instincts almost impossible. This is why it took me until the Belle and Sebastian concert to realize that I hated him.
All of this was back in 2003-04, when I lived in Scotland. I was twenty years old and studying abroad at the University of Aberdeen, and it was there that I first became acquainted with the music of Belle and Sebastian. I fell in with a crowd of B&S devotees who were so intimidating in their coolness that I couldn’t admit to them that I’d never heard of the band until then. I recall that I was sitting on a stone wall outside of the stately King’s College chapel, reading a newspaper, when the “leader” of the group, as I later came to know him, stuck a finger in the middle of my page. He was pointing at a list of “Top 25 Scottish Albums,” singling out Belle and Sebastian’s debut release, Tigermilk (1996). I didn’t know the guy, though we did have a class together, but I took in his conspicuously shaped hair and close-fitting trousers and, the very next day, I purchased Tigermilk on CD.
From there, I settled into the work of repeated, earnest listening. I was learning to speak the language of ironic art pop in order to earn my place amongst this crowd who, I was convinced, would light my way towards certain truths, like how to belong and how to be cool—the only truths worth knowing at twenty. A few months later, Dear Catastrophe Waitress would drop and the whole group of us, by then tightly formed within our ranks, would troop dutifully down to the local record store on the first day of its release. We would buy our respective copies along with tickets for a December concert in Edinburgh. All the while, though, as my connection to this group deepened—to the point, even, where I began dating one of its members—I would be nursing a secret: I couldn’t stand Belle and Sebastian.
Now I’m Feeling Dangerous
I got the moves and knew how to execute them, but I didn’t “get” Belle and Sebastian. Their schlocky beats and confusing lyrics, which struck me at first as being insanely puerile, left me cold. You’re such a baby, baby girl/So kiss me on the cheek before you know what’s cool. What was this, and why was I supposed to be so entranced by it?, I asked no one (except myself, often, in unspoken terms).
But I worked hard at learning to love this music, spurred by the idea that people who were much better-dressed than me already did. That included Greg, who excelled at a style of gentle, offhand manipulation. It was he, for example, who convinced me to dye my hair black, a decision that I still regret because it later doomed me to months of ghastly blonde grow-out and comparisons to Cruella de Vil. But all the work that I was doing didn’t necessarily amount to listening. I heard the MIDI solos and the canned drum tracks on songs like “Electronic Renaissance,” but I didn’t know what they meant and couldn’t hear what was going on underneath. I missed the descriptions of “cit[ies] tall with steeples” like my own beautiful Aberdeen, along with the prophecy concealed beneath the frizzled tones of the KORG-Poly 61 synthesizer in that song: You’re learning, soon you will do the things you wanted.
I didn’t hear these things because, growing up in the 1980s, I had been taught to absorb them without thinking. The KORG-Poly 61 came out in 1982, the year before I was born. This meant that, for a long time, I associated it (and its ilk, meaning a wide range of synthesized sound) with the heavily lacquered radio jams of the 1980s. Those songs were not made for listening or understanding but for movement and motion; you danced to them, maybe, but you did not, could not ever know them, which made listening rather beside the point. The surface was the point, which was also the point, maybe, with Greg.
At first, Belle and Sebastian’s music felt much the same. There was a confusion of Herb Albert-style trumpet licks laid over a bouncy, juvenile, inner pulse. And the lyrics, if they spoke to me of the pains of early adulthood, did so only briefly and in the most superficial ways. I recall, for instance, standing at the sink in my shared flat in Aberdeen and hearing the words of “She’s Losing It,” with its comment about “how your first cup of coffee tastes like washing up.” I was drinking coffee from a cup that had been hastily washed by one of my roommates and realizing that it did, indeed, taste like washing up liquid, as it is known in the U.K. But aside from these occasional references, Belle and Sebastian lyrics did not impinge upon my consciousness in any real way.
Which is why I missed it at first: the cruelty. What distinguishes Belle and Sebastian’s music for me now is the conviction that this is pop crafted for the sake of the unpopular. It harnesses kitsch aesthetics and melancholy, using both as a screen for insouciance and cruelty. In doing so, it speaks just as often from the point of view of the abused as from that of the abuser. Consider the callousness of a song like “I Don’t Love Anyone,” which rounds-out Tigermilk, alongside the sympathy for abused persons that appears so lavishly on display in the songs “Mary Jo,” “If You’re Feeling Sinister” and “Lord Anthony.” In this way, Belle and Sebastian’s oeuvre brandishes a record of abuses both experienced and committed.
Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying (Reprise)
This is what I discovered in Edinburgh. At the concert, Belle and Sebastian played to their home crowd, having finally returned to Scotland after six months on the road. They had elaborate stage choreography and the energy from the performance was infectious and disorienting. Previously, I had struggled to reconcile the downbeat nature of their lyrics with the manic energy of their music. But as I sat there next to Greg, thinking about how or when or if I might ever break up with him, I started to listen to their music in a way I hadn’t before; I started to “get” it.
This was music built on caring so much that it hurt, all while acting like the exact opposite. Lurking at the heart of each song, I discovered, was a species of weaponized vulnerability. I could see it in the way that Stuart Murdoch, the band’s lead singer, gripped the mic, his face tilted downwards under the protective shadow of his hat, and I could hear it in the wailing of the Morricone-style strings. These were not rock stars but their functional inversions, and I had more in common with these ex- altar boys and band nerds than I did with my own boyfriend.
Later that night—or, rather, the following morning—I committed one of the cruelest acts of my life, inspired by what I took away from that Belle and Sebastian concert. The irony of the fact that it was glitzy art pop that caused me to do this has never been lost on me. But irony, as Lee Konstantinou points out, is fueled by oppositional thinking: more than a critical mode, it is a “way of life” designed to “draw blood.” Take the song “You Don’t Send Me,” from Dear Catastrophe Waitress. The Herb Alpert-style trumpets are there, and so are schlocky drums, but the lyrics tell a story of brutal apathy: Listen honey, there is nothing you can say to surprise me/Listen honey, there is nothing you can do to offend me/You don't send me. It’s about deciding not to care in lieu of getting stuck caring too much.
This was not my situation with Greg, this caring too much. But learning the logic of this and other Belle and Sebastian songs finally drove me to consider my own motivations in a new light. Greg, it turned out, was most probably an asshole: I mentioned the story about the hair dye, but I didn’t mention the other stories or the other things that he convinced me to do and to try, most of them against my will. I didn’t mention that he was much wealthier than me and used money to patch over my hesitations and complaints, when I took the trouble to bring them up at all. And I didn’t mention his tendency to always walk about ten yards in front of me, as though unable to commit to the idea of actually being with me, alongside me.
You Don’t Send Me
Except for the concert tickets, Greg had paid for everything. That included the private room that we shared in a dingy backpacker’s hostel on the Grassmarket and also the train fare from Aberdeen to Edinburgh. I, meanwhile, was completely broke, having given all but my last dollar to the cost of a bus ticket to London and then a plane ride home for Christmas.
I don’t know what the group of us did after the Belle and Sebastian concert. Probably we went to a bar, if not a number of bars. I can’t remember, though I recall with unnerving clarity the remainder of the night, which I spent not sleeping and not thinking but, rather, kept awake by feeling. Just before four, I got up, dressed, and packed. The train tickets that Greg had bought were open return, on the off chance that our long weekend ended up being longer than anticipated. I took them both and headed for the train station. In his wallet, where they had been, I left a note: You don’t send me.
I got to the station before the ticket counter opened and with about an hour to spare before the first train. Noticing a young woman of about my age hanging about the entryway with an overnight bag, I asked her how far she was traveling. Her destination was before Aberdeen and I sold her my second open return ticket for half the cost of a normal ticket to where she was going. When I got back to Aberdeen, I used the extra ten pounds to buy myself breakfast in a musty old bar near the train station, sequestering myself in a dark booth behind a barricade comprised of a full Scottish breakfast, a pint of beer, and a glass of whisky. I consumed it all lingeringly, over the course of several hours, while reading up for my upcoming Scottish lit exam.
I didn’t think about Greg, though I probably should have. Instead, I thought about myself and what I wanted. I wanted my old hair color back, and I wanted to wear shoes with round toes that were made for walking instead of the stupid, pointy things I’d been “limping around in,” as B&S would put it. And I wanted to spend time with someone who was at least as adventurous as his haircut. And I wanted to listen to more Belle and Sebastian.