Every late autumn, early winter, I get to thinking about Canadian musician Mac DeMarco. His woozy, chiming, angular, swimming music puts me in the same place every time. The long clean stretch of the cycleway bridge. A wet mulch of leaves by the castle. Trekking through the graveyard in someone else’s jumper.
Someone who I dated for a few months in winter 2012 played Mac DeMarco’s album Rock and Roll Nightclub to me. I won’t say much about him at all. This is less a story about somebody good and kind who put up with me at a strange time in my life, more a story about me. He was great. I desperately wanted to be cool in the same way as him, and cool in the same way as Mac DeMarco. Insouciant, laid back, low-fi, not afraid to make stupid jokes.
I have been listening to as much DeMarco as possible lately, to write this and to see what happens to me when I do. That album, as well as other singles, B-sides, demos. I want to give nostalgia a chance and all its bad cousins. Shame. Regret. That feeling where you want to smack your forehead. There are memories I will not go into.
Winter 2012 was a time when I felt very sad very often. People who I loved had died that year and the year before. I was figuring myself out. It was my second year of university. A few months earlier, in the summertime, I had gone back to my hometown and broken up with my high-school boyfriend of four years, who remains the source of some of my finest interpersonal neuroses.
One evening, me and this new, exciting person had been out for drinks together for the first time. He hadn’t played me Mac DeMarco yet. That was another day. He looked at me, lying on my stomach on his bed reading one of his books. He said something like “this is cool” or “you look cool” and it set a hungry precedent for me. I thought yes. That’s what I want.
He wrote a beautiful story he said was partly about me, or written just after meeting me. I love it when I appear in any way in anybody’s writing. It is the only flattery that works. It makes me feel like I really exist. Perhaps when I write about anyone, it could be because I want them to feel like they exist, or to make me feel like I am making them even more real than they already are, as a gift they don’t need to know about. A less generous interpretation is that I’m trying to understand them or why I feel the way I do.
I had a friend who I felt intensely confused about. I wrote poems about him. In November 2012, I was sitting in my friend’s top floor quiet bedroom. The colour I remember is blue. The poem Blue Hour by Gottfried Benn (Michael Hoffman’s beautiful translation) captures something of the way I felt, this one night and other times:
Silence has advanced so far
it fills the room and seals it shut
the hour – nothing hoped and nothing suffered –
with its bowl of late roses – you.
It was a shock for me to read Blue Hour for the first time this year. It felt so familiar. For me, Blue Hour is about a specifically gorgeous, doomed, high-alert feeling you might get when you are sitting very quietly with someone. I guess, by the nature of the Blue Hour feeling, it is unlikely both of the people in the room will feel it.
I put on Mac DeMarco’s track Ode to Viceroy and said, “I don’t think you’ll like this very much”.
He said, “Do you want to come and sit over here?” I think he also said, “No, this is a nice song”.
I said, “No thanks, I’d better go” and left, feeling like I had made an ambiguous triumph. I walked home. It was perhaps 1am and very cold.
Once I was in the pub at a poetry reading and I read a poem all about this new boyfriend who played me albums, in which I said that my face could be in his shoulder like the moon could be in a cloud. I missed out the mean-spirited line “what’s it to you, old sneer at lips, my old enemy”, which was about my friend who confused me so much and who was not there and who did not deserve it. I felt guilty and weird. The sneer in the poem referred to my paranoid tendency to feel like he was making hostile expressions at me across lecture halls or in the bus underpass, when he probably hadn’t spotted me at all.
When I sat down again, my boyfriend looked at my crumpled up poem and said, “What’s that – is there a bit you missed off – what does that say – old…?” We went outside to look for patterns in the ice on the roads, where our friend told us facts about the stars, and it was all forgotten.
I remember at least once we got out of bed at 6pm to go for breakfast and then headed home to do more nothing. It was a time of real luxury. It was so glamorous to me when he ashed his cigarettes in an old tin can.
His old friend, visiting, said something along the lines of “look after him, he’s important to me”. I was too stoned to reply in a sensible way. I remember looking past his face at the wall of the pub and finding it hard to talk – I remember his friend just barely. His name might have begun with a W. I disregarded the fact that my boyfriend could be vulnerable and might need to be looked after sometimes. It was just a funny anecdote to me at the time: that his friend wanted to look out for him.
Of course he could be vulnerable. He was 19, like I was. He was as much in the process of making himself. This is what I find troubling about how much I listen to Mac DeMarco. It makes me wonder if I am still making myself – how much room there might be for future versions of myself. Am I solidified. Do I want to be. Have I changed enough.
The astronomical winter (Northern Hemisphere) 2012 began on Friday, December 21 and ended on Tuesday, March 19. As I sunk further into the winter, I got weirder. The poems I wrote to my boyfriend were different. I showed him one about feeling like I had a layer of glass or water around me that stopped me experiencing the world properly. I dropped cutting myself into conversation. I said that I loved him. I agreed ever more earnestly with every single thing he said.
I came back to university after the Christmas holidays and he came round to gently tell me it was over. We chatted briefly about horror films and had a cigarette. I felt like I was being cool. This was, really, quite a cool thing to happen. I put a fur coat on and went to the pub to play snooker, and said things like “yeah, oh well” to my friends.
As the winter went on and snow covered the city, I didn’t feel so cool any more. Sometimes, even completely sober, I couldn’t talk. Sometimes I couldn’t bring myself to walk through the door into a seminar and had to turn round and go home to bed. I was told I didn’t seem like myself. I couldn’t construct myself into anything. I listened to At Last by Etta James and I’d Rather Go Blind by Etta James for a long time with my whole head under my duvet, and my body, and curtains shut. One day I hiked up the hill to the park in the drifts of snow and sat on a bench and cried, watching dogs running by the lake. It was my astronomical winter 2012 for a fairly long time. A while longer than March. It wasn’t about him. It just happened.
At the time of writing, it is just about the one-year anniversary since the part of town he used to live in flooded. I wrote a poem about it at the time:
Down by the river, the lowest part of town
is drowned. In the brown water, carpets
are straining upwards like seaweed
and people everywhere are stuck
on staircases, unable to walk down
into the thigh-bruising currents.
You always knew what album to put on. I said
so many strange and thoughtless things to you.
The little yard we used to smoke in is wrecked
and done: your single mattress water-bloated
how the skin around the eye goes,
with long enough crying.
Bicycles locked to fences rust
with spinning wheels like water mills.
No pigeons left at ground level here.
M. Forster said in Howard’s End that, “actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.” I wonder what my winter 2012 self would think of me now. I wonder if I’m lonelier. Everyone I know works different hours. I don’t hike through graveyards at 2am to go and watch films with anybody. I’m happier. I work harder on my writing. I don’t air private grievances in poems.
Is that a lie? I don’t call anybody vicious things like “sneer at lips”, at least. I still catch myself agreeing with people because I so badly want to be liked. I still love Mac DeMarco. The tracks from Rock and Roll Nightclub he recommended are still the best ones on the album. I was wrong at the time. Clearly the title track is a stand out.
Lenni Sanders is a writer/performer who lives in Manchester. Her writing has appeared in The Tangerine, For Every Year and was once printed on a cake by Poetry Digest. She co-produces interactive performance group Curious Thngs, edits for Cadaverine, and is one half of poetry duo Dead Lads. She tweets at @LenniSanders
Photo by Alex Mueller.