The sunlight was keeping me awake, creeping in between the window frame and the ill fitting curtains; it was that awkward kind of heat, unrelenting and nauseating, but hey, it was summer and it was only a three day trip home by coach. I’d been away from my family before for extended periods of time, venturing forth to various camps and outdoor getaways, but never this far away.
A few days prior I’d been bounding over mountains, swimming some rather chilly alpine lakes, and erecting temporary monuments of dubious nature (and adolescent humour) atop glaciers. All in all it had been a rather enjoyable trip.
I wrote this song to the footage of a run down the mountainside on a dry toboggan near the Oeschinensee, Kandersteg. The video spoke to me because it allowed me to reflect upon one of the (many) highlights of my two trips to Switzerland with the Scouts.
Needless to say my walkman got a serious workout en route as I passed through England, France, Luxembourg, Germany, and onward into Switzerland. It was nothing special; I was not quite 14 and certainly not to be trusted with an actual branded device, especially not on an adventure that could easily cause its destruction. This wasn’t the end of the world though, despite being cheap and cheerful, my little portable tape deck had an ace in the hole… it sported an LCD display and some additional buttons not at all related to the audio reproduction of magnetic tape. Tetris. It had Tetris. Not half bad. And it made some of the others pretty jealous.
My carry on luggage was crammed with all manner of dentist friendly sweets, enough Irn Bru to last the trip (if rationed properly), and more mix tapes than I could care to count. As you can imagine, at least you should be able to if you’re over 25, there were many tapes flying around the bus as folk got bored of their tunes and decided to inflict their musical taste on another increasingly restless and weary traveller, expecting a reciprocal tape to try on for size.
To those under the age of 25, I would like to make you aware of the technological limitations of these devices. Each tape only held around 18 tracks…
Curiously, this trading process shuffled the deck a little; there were around 40 of us travelling, mostly between the ages of 13 and 17, and generally set into social groups divided by age and where we went to high school. As the coach entered its second full day of travel, new social groups began forming based upon musical taste, i.e. who had the tapes you enjoyed the most.
At the point of departure I was pretty big on my Californian punk music, and had dabbled a little in metal. Prior to the expedition I had rarely hung around with Ali or Sheepy, but I found myself drawn to their musical tastes mainly because on the face of it they were similar to my own. I always kind of looked up to them because they were the cool kids* in our year group at school, or at least I perceived them to be. It probably helped that Ali was shit hot at guitar too. Sheepy, to this day, is still pretty useless if you chuck an instrument at him.
*I should note I don’t mean the ‘popular kids’, I mean the ‘cool kids’, those with subcultural capital (Thornton, 1995) within the set in which I aspired to belong…
The music I had brought to the party, to them, was a little old hat. They’d grown bored of Green Day and the Offspring and, as teens so often do, had cast them aside for new heroes. Even the latest albums “Nimrod” and “Americana” couldn’t hold their interest. I still love both, but their loss was my gain because they introduced me to two of my favourite albums; NoFX’s “So Long & Thanks for All the Shoes”, and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness”.
Ali, the perennial trendsetter that he was, would go on to further inform my taste on a subsequent alpine adventure in the summer of 2000, but I’ll leave that for later.
How he found this stuff I’ll never know, but I’d wager it had something to do with him having Sky TV and my access being limited to council telly.
Although NoFX have gone on to become what is closest to what I’d describe as my ‘favourite’ band, which in itself is surely their highest accolade to date, I think that my exposure to Smashing Pumpkins was timely. My tastes had been growing darker and heavier, and the melancholic overdrive and passionate dissonance with bubblegum pop culture suited the vectors in which my palette sought to expand.
Having returned from another enterprising day filled with multiple hazards and dangerous activities that would give my poor wee Mum heart palpitations, I’d hand washed the alpine mud from my adventure shorts and whipped out my friesian cow print phone card** to call home to let dear old Mum know I hadn’t killed myself recreating Steve McQueen’s great escape plan.
**something else you young ‘uns won’t have seen or heard of… we used them in phone boxes… oh, never mind…
Mother poking fun at my freshly broken adult voice and the joyous recantations of my escapades of previous calls were cut very short indeed as she got straight to the point; Granddad was very ill and had been taken in to hospital. He was always of the opinion that they’d need to drag him kicking and screaming from his home, so it must have been bad, but I wasn’t really prepared for a what was to come.
By all accounts, apart from the Swiss trip, I was having a pretty rotten year. Our family was going to lose the last of a generation, suffering a third bereavement in just over a year.
The sun crept through the cracks between the shades, flirting with my eyes as I tried to get some shuteye. It was nauseating and unrelenting, but the apprehension of Granddad’s situation probably wasn’t helping. We had some incredibly interesting conversations when it came time to visit. As always, attentive to his grandchildren, and willing to indulge and engage them in dialogue. We spoke of Switzerland and the Alps, he’d spent time stationed in Austria after the war having fought his way through North Africa and Italy; the lucky beggar was not only unscathed from combat, but placed in charge of a brewery for a couple of years.
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It also turns out my great Grandfather only had one thumb thanks to an enforced sojourn in a German gasworks during the first World War. It was news to my Mum… and my aunt and uncle… none of whom could recall the state of their own granddad’s left hand. Or it may have just been the morphine. Weeks raced past like days, hours like seconds, and the strongest man I have ever known disappeared behind the opiates that were clouding his proud and steel eyed gaze.
A blanket of dew dressed a damp, overcast September morning, a far cry from the blazing sunshine bursting between the peaks rising high above the Kander river valley. The velvet rope slid between my fingers as my childhood slipped from grasp.
Thematically, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” certainly seemed apt. It just fit.
“Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness, and cleanliness is Godliness, and God is empty, just like me.” Smashing Pumpkins, Zero (1995).
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