Happy birthday, kid

I turn 50 years old today, and it seemed appropriate that I should post some thoughts about that here.

Over the past few months, I’ve read a few other people’s ‘I just turned 50’ posts for reference, and they’re packed with wisdom and lessons as you might expect, along with some political reflection and renewed vows to make a difference in the world. So I’ve been searching for my own piece of half-century insight and come up sort of blank.

Of course, I know some stuff I didn’t know before, I’ve had some experiences that have shaped my beliefs about the world, and of course I’ve travelled a whole lot, so that makes a difference. The people I’ve spent time with have had a huge impact, and the last five years have been completely transformational for me, as some who have been along for the ride have probably noticed.

But what do I have to share on this auspicious occasion? What, for instance, would I tell my teenage self if I could?

My wisdom

If I really give it a decent amount of thought, it occurs to me that my teenage self probably isn’t all that interested in what 50 year-old me has to say – and probably rightly so. He can find all this stuff out for himself as he goes along, and he can be surprised and damn grateful for it along the way if he knows what’s good for him (and mostly he won’t until much later). There are some rough times ahead for him and there are some amazing times.

Kid, you’ll go to some mindblowing places. You’ll do some things that will stay with you your whole life. People, in particular, are just incredible and oh my god, just you wait until… nah. Who am I to give spoilers?

Perhaps I’d say something about imposter syndrome. That feeling that at any moment you’re going to be found out as a fraud. He should probably find out a lot sooner than he will that this is something that everyone has to some extent. I might say “you know that thing you’re doing that you think isn’t good enough? Maybe just keep on doing it because being bad at it is just part of the process. Everyone has to do that bit”.

But so, still – even then, I wouldn’t want to divert the course of this particular personal history even by giving some sort of motivational speech about self-belief. Confidence at an earlier age might have gone badly, got me into all sorts of trouble and prevented some of the things I’m now most grateful for ever having happened. So let’s just leave things as they are and try not to change the course of history.

Rewriting history though – now that’s another matter. Perfectly happy to do that.

Teenage kicks

I read somewhere that the problem with meeting new people was having to relate your life story as if it’s some sort of coherent narrative that you endorse. I get that. There are loads of bits that don’t make any sense to me, and nor do I recommend all of them, particularly. But “in a band for a bit” is a good thing to have been, and in many ways it makes sense of a lot of what has happened subsequently.

I was in a band in the 1980s. We were… well, we were pretty terrible, actually. Not delusional pub rock covers band awful, but we were not going to be bothering the charts any time soon.

We got together, wrote some songs, rehearsed them a bit, argued endlessly about what we should be called (Step Up Jack was always the fallback position, though nobody’s actual preference), and even recorded some demos that never saw the light of day – and for good reason. We played some gigs, usually outnumbering the audience, unless you count the snoozing dog and the two old guys playing pool in the next room.

That said, my own musical trajectory was not universally shared among the group. Some of the guys do completely other things now, while some continued. There were a handful of incredibly talented members of the band, hampered by circumstance and company, but at least one of whom has since gone on to some significant popular success and even more award-winning critical acclaim. I’m not naming any names here simply because my experience with musicians has led me to understand that not everyone is super excited to be associated with their juvenelia, and whatever I happen to think of their position on that front is immaterial.

There were also one or two people in that group who were incredibly formative in how I think about the world and what is important in it. Time spent in Step Up Jack (or whatever) was time well wasted. Even if absolutely zero music had come out of that group, all the time spent would still have been 100% worth it.

But something did come out of that group. The demo tapes. I kept them.

From the archives

I have very little else from when I was younger. I was never one for archiving my personal history (something I kind of regret now, if you’re listening, teenage me), but to be able to listen to the sound of who we were 30+ years ago – earnest, mostly fairly inept… I love that I still have this stuff.

And I have to say, with the benefit of a lot of hindsight, a hefty amount of distance and a good deal of selective deafness about the calibre of performance (and perhaps after a whisky or two), I genuinely think there were actually one or two good songs in there. Performed fairly poorly, of course, and recorded to the best of our meagre budgets at the time (so, not brilliantly) – but all the same, quite good songs.

And so I bought myself a 50th birthday present. I picked my favourite of these songs, mostly written by the aforementioned talented member, but with contributions in kind from the others, and I sent it to an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist friend of mine, Rhodri Marsden.

I commissioned him to remake this song. I wanted to hear it in its best light. Mostly, I just love the chorus. I wanted it to finally get the treatment it deserved. My simple instruction as I handed over the demo: “Make it just like this band, if this band was good.”

What Rhodri has done, with the help of a superb vocalist friend of his, Nic Prowse, is a remarkable thing that entirely exceeds my expectations. If this had sounded anything like this in 1985, I’d like to think it would have been a hit. I’m surprised by just how well this works as an actual straight-up pop song – and this was not at all what we thought we were doing.

Of course, in reality, this ended up being something only a handful of people have ever been exposed to – and fewer remember. The demo has not been played to other human beings pretty much since it was made. Nobody’s heard this song. Until now. Over 30 years later.

This is Shadowlands – the revisionist history version. Enjoy.

Secret candles will one day shine…

To the next 50

I don’t know if there’s a lesson in there. Or any sort of wisdom. Maybe it’s ‘hold on there son, perhaps you’re not as crap as you thought you were’ or ‘for god’s sake, whatever you make, preserve the masters because one day you’ll be old and sentimental and want to go back to them’. ‘Write names and dates on the back of your photos’, ‘Back up your hard drives’… sort of thing.

Or perhaps not. It probably doesn’t matter.

Either way – this makes me happy and it’s my birthday, so maybe that’s enough.

I’m 50 years old and the collected inventory of my life is, to date, way beyond what I deserve. Other than spending far too much time in front of a laptop, life is exceptional: I find myself engaged to an incredibly beautiful and off-the-charts brilliant woman; where I live is amazing (and have you seen my dogs?!); the friends I have and the people who have been with me along the way are and have been extraordinary; I’m proud of where I come from; my family is exactly what families are meant to be; and I’m very, very grateful for everything and to everyone pretty much all the time.

Can’t ask better than that.