Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks fame died last December. He was 63 and had a heart attack. I wandered about in a bit of a daze that morning and then … well you have to get on with things, don’t you? I ordered a t-shirt from their website, a sad, middle-aged nod on my part to his influence, and once it arrived it became more or less instantly a favourite part of my wardrobe (which I realise pegs me as a man of a certain age and disposition, and so be it).
Shelley wrote perfect, ambiguous three-minute songs of love and desire, both mostly thwarted. I’ve been listening to them all over again for the last couple of months. They come on at the gym and I look around at all the poor bastards around me, stuck probably with their Bieber or their Stryper. I’m a lucky guy.
The news right now - that Mark Hollis of Talk Talk has also died, at the age of 64 - is equally depressing. He wrote, most famously, It’s My Life, and Life’s What You Make It, a particularly wonderful out-of-time pop song with a video that still stands up well to the crushing influence of time and technology. But he also went on to make some nearly ambient music beyond the reach of lyrics, music that was infinitely labour-intensive and astonishingly pretty. It was also the soundtrack to a thousand walks through grey, slush-filled streets my early days in Canada.
It’s not nice when the musical heroes from your teenage years begin to drop off the map. I don’t think that’s got an awful lot to do with the fact that there won’t be any new albums. Shelley and Hollis had been quiet for a while. It’s more that they were not much older than I am now. When Buzzcocks released their first EP, Spiral Scratch, in 1977, I was fourteen and Shelley was about 22. An older brother is how he sounded. Same with Talk Talk. Even though I didn’t really get into until them until It’s My Life in 1984, when I was studying Film at Queen’s University, and 21 years old. The move to Canada had thrown me for a loop and I leaned heavily on records like this one to get me through the isolation I often felt.
And now they’re both gone. Mixed in with the sadness (which isn’t a very intense sort of grief; I’m not pretending to any special connection here) is a mundanely common anxiety: their dying reminds me that I will die too.
I arrived home this afternoon and told Sam what had happened. “He was only 64,” I told her, gesticulating a bit too dramatically, I’ll admit, and expecting I don’t know what – some minor sympathy, some acknowledgement that I had at least an emotional attachment to the British music stars of the 1970s and 1980s. But without even looking up from her dicing and grating, her cauliflowers soaking in milk, she said, “That’s not that young.” As if it was almost to be expected that a man would keel over. As if she understood full well it could well happen to me in a few years too and wasn’t particularly fussed by the notion. She was, I observed, so absentmindedly and impressively calm about the whole idea, so driftingly cruel.
I didn’t know what to do. And so I simply muttered off (as I so often mutter off) into the other room and put on The Clash. Should I Stay or Should I Go eventually filtered in. A lousy choice, all thing considered, what with the unfortunate sentiment and what with Joe Strummer on vocals (born 1952, died 2002).