There aren’t many things like a song for marking out the moments in your life. Sometimes a scent can awaken certain memories, but music has an inexorable ability to act as a highlighter pen and bring colour to people, places and the emotions you were feeling when a particular song was playing during an experience. I can vividly remember the churning of car sickness in my stomach as a child sitting in the back seat during those long journeys to Inverness with Sit Down by James playing every hour or so on dad’s mixtape. I still feel the same anticipation each time the opening piano refrain of November Rain begins as I did the time I waited up most of the night because a Northern Irish girl I briefly knew had requested it on Kerrang music television in the days before YouTube was popular. The weekend during which I first heard the David Gray song Shine and Dollskin by Toadies lingers in my mind, as does the sense of thrill and adventure I was experiencing at the time. The intoxication of the night the plant doctor and my brother introduced me to Wah-Wah is relived frequently.
Of late I have been creating monthly Spotify playlists in the way other people collect commemorative plates. As small wooden figurines decorate a mantelpiece, serving as a reminder of a thoughtful anniversary gift or an enticing offer in a brochure from a newspaper, so too do playlists in my Spotify library.
I mention the memories made by music because I was recently listening to the Prince album Dirty Mind whilst cooking a pasta sauce. Although my regular homemade sauce isn’t terrible and does a job when it comes to using the tremendous amount of onions I always end up with in the store cupboard, I had been looking for something to make it a little more interesting. I found a recipe on the BBC Food page which looked straightforward enough for me to follow, and where the only addition to my usual ingredients was a tablespoon of tomato purée and the use of oregano instead of my usual method of indiscriminately dusting mixed herbs over the bubbling red liquid until I think it might change the flavour.
The olive oil was heating in the pan and the ingredients for my sauce were lined along the kitchen counter like schoolchildren in a class photograph. The chopped onions were the first to be introduced, and as they were beginning to soften, the song When You Were Mine started to play from the Discover Weekly playlist which Spotify creates for each of its users every Monday. I was enjoying the rhythm, it was a funky beat for agitating onions in oil, and I decided that I liked it so much that I would listen to the entire album as I was preparing dinner. I had never heard a full Prince album from beginning to end before, and this particular record was released in 1980, a time before I had even been conceived, let alone born. 1980 is a year that I know happened, because I have read about it, but the idea of it had never registered with me and seemed almost alien, like the suggestion of putting tomato purée into a recipe which already has chopped tomatoes.
When I added the garlic to the pan it sizzled like some of the lyrics which Rolling Stone magazine had described as “complex erotic wordplay”, and my mind was drifting to the way some of my neighbours might react if they knew that I was making a pasta sauce while listening to a song titled Do It All Night. If I can be standing in my hallway and hear someone sneeze as they travel through the close, then it is surely likely, I was thinking, that someone could have been innocently going about their recycling duties as my shoulders were swooping and my sauce was stirring to this salacious eighties funk record.
By the time everything had been cooked and I was ready to sit down to enjoy my meal the Prince album was nearing its end. The additions of tomato purée and oregano didn’t do much to enhance the flavour of the sauce for me, and Dirty Mind proved to be the more significant discovery of the evening, though I would always remember the underwhelming culinary experience whenever I thought of it.
Some days later the west coast of Scotland band ‘Creel’ were playing in the upstairs lounge of The Oban Inn. My brother and I went along after a few hours in Aulay’s, and as we were being served drinks in the bar downstairs we got to talking to a guy who was somewhere around our age and who recognised the two of us as being related. Upon confirming his belief that my brother and I are in fact brothers, the guy informed us that he had once taken part in a threesome in the house we had grown up in. When I thought about it later, it was obvious that he was expecting that the story would impress us, the way someone might mention the horsepower of their car engine or how many pints of lager they had drunk the night before. But in the moment it only had the consequence of having me thinking about maths, and how I am never going to be comfortable in any situation which requires me to perform an equation.
If our familiar friend is ‘V’, and the other participants in this problem are ‘W’ and ‘X’, then V + W + X = Y. As in: Why was this guy able to have sex with a number of people in the house I grew up in one night which was equal to the number I achieved over the course of a decade?
Against the sound of traditional Scottish music with a modern twist which was whistling downstairs, the claim of an orgy took on added weight. I remembered the way our parents would react whenever an ornament was broken in an accidental act of mischief, or the terrible guilt I felt when mum found out that I was going through a several-years-long phase of smoking cigarettes, and somehow it just didn’t seem fair that this guy had gotten away with enjoying a threesome in our home. Shouldn’t he be made to sit in his room for a couple of hours and think about his actions? Won’t someone lay the evidence of his betrayal out across his desk so that he knows that we know?
I woke up in my bed alone on Saturday morning with Dirty Mind still in my thoughts as I was lying amongst my untangled cotton sheets. There was a brilliant spring sun in the sky, the first day it hadn’t been raining or threatening to rain in recent memory, so I decided that I would take a walk along the Esplanade to freshen my mind. There was a cold breeze coming off the sea, but the sky was clear. On the shoreline, a woman was removing her black leather glove as she crouched down to pick up a shell. A couple were leaning against the railing taking photographs of the streams of sunlight as they were bouncing off the white wake of an approaching CalMac ferry. Across the road from the Cathedral, I was accosted by a woman who I didn’t know.
The Blur song Out of Time was humming through my earphones as the woman was approaching alongside a man, who I presumed to be her husband. Her hair was the colour of wet sand, and although it was windswept, it didn’t look out of place for her character. She was wearing a red jacket which was puffy around the shoulders, and beneath it I could make out a long floral patterned dress. Her boots, which came up to her shins, were the colour of a camels foot, and about right for a woman her size. In all, she wouldn’t have looked out of place as a mannequin in the window of a charity shop.
As she neared I could tell from the movement of her mouth that she was attempting to talk to me. If it was anywhere else in town I might have felt bold enough to continue walking, feigning ignorance of her presence, but despite everything I wasn’t capable of doing that in the shadow of St Columba’s Cathedral. I plucked the earphones from my ears to hear the woman’s softly spoken voice ask, “Are you out enjoying some music?”
The bass from the track was reverberating in the palm of my hand as I clutched the earphones, looking down at them forlornly. I was enjoying the music, I was thinking to myself. “It’s a beautiful morning for a walk,” I responded as I noticed that the man had continued walking a few paces further on, the way a person does when the other half of a couple is raising a complaint in a shop and they want nothing to do with it.
“Would you be interested in a free magazine?” The soft voice thrust a small bundle of paper in my direction, each piece no bigger than a Farmfoods leaflet. When I think of a magazine I imagine a publication of at least sixty pages, like the glossy spread which comes with The Times on a Saturday. These looked as though they would hardly be worth the wind’s effort to carry off in a light breeze.
I squinted in the midday sun to get a look at the title which was printed on the front of the sheet of paper. “The 12 secrets to a successful family” it read, alongside an image of a family of three who appeared to be happy that their success had allowed them each to dress in the same white clothing.
“No thanks,” I sighed. “I wouldn’t have any use for that.” Maybe if it could tell me the 12 secrets to finding a girl who would smile at my jokes, I was thinking. Or the 12 secrets to meeting a woman who enjoys a man who wears pink socks which match his tie. But I didn’t feel like getting into that with the woman. She nodded knowingly and wished me a good day, while I returned to my walk and Blur.
My mood had changed, though, and all of a sudden I was thinking about Dirty Mind again. I was thinking about my recent efforts to make things more exciting, and how other people seem capable of doing it with ease and having a threesome in another person’s house, when rather than spicing up my life all I am doing is adding oregano to a pasta sauce.