There are those rare moments in life which are so transformative that they pass into your own personal lore. Fossilised memories like little nuggets of amber – murky and precious. Things you can keep and hold up to the light to try and recapture the sense of them. For me, one of these gems was created on 28th January 1995, when a Vancouver-based band called (of all things) Moist, walked onto the stage at The Garage in Islington and blew my fifteen-year-old mind.
As a kid growing up in the eighties, my musical education came from the adults in my life. Saturday afternoon Don Williams and Fats Waller in my grandma’s front room. Granddad singing Danny Boy while ‘doing his ablutions’, as he used to put it. Whitney Houston in my mum’s car. Choreographing dances to True Blue by Madonna with the babysitter.
My dad has always been a total muso. A dedicated audiophile, I’ve inherited his eclectic tastes. I seem to remember him getting me out of bed one night to watch the premiere of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. He introduced me to David Bowie. Well, him and a certain goblin king. Through Bowie, I discovered Lou Reed and I spent most of my time listening to either Changes Bowie or Transformer on my trusty Sony Walkman. I had a brief Kylie phase, but I was nonplussed by the New Kids on the Block vs. Bros debate that raged in our playground. Somewhere along the line, I developed an inexplicable passion for show tunes.
It wasn’t until the early nineties when my mother remarried and we moved to a different area that life as I knew it metamorphosised. Outside the chrysalis of the drab army town which was the only home I’d known, I was forced to expose my wet wings to a group of kids with established dynamics. I remember having to get up on stage during one of our first assemblies, only to slip and fall in front of everyone. The embarrassment was so acute, I genuinely wondered if it was possible to die of it! I missed my bestie, Liz, like oxygen. It had been the two of us against the world since we were six years old. I made peace with the fact I would never fit in again, and started living more and more in my own head. I’d come home to an empty house before Mum got back from work, make myself a bowl of instant custard and a cuppa, and sing along to the original cast recording of The Rocky Horror Show.
My mother’s decision to install Sky (despite my stepfather’s disdain for television) was a game-changer. MTV was the holy grail to kids my age. Suddenly, I had access to an entire world of transatlantic music videos and comedy shows that seemed impossibly cool and exotic. I discovered such dark delights as Nine Inch Nails, Tool, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Beavis and Butthead, Kids in the Hall. Nevermind became a permanent fixture in the tape deck. I would count down the hours in the unfamiliar school where no one wanted to know me until I could go home and lose myself in a world of beautiful boys from Seattle with long hair and gravelly voices, girls who could shred guitar and look effortlessly sexy and detached while doing it. I wanted to be them so badly.
I tentatively started to make friends at school, some I haven’t seen since I left for college, and some of whom are veritable earth angels in my life to this day, but I’d still have to wait until the weekends when I could see Liz before I could shed the polite, eager new girl mask. We’d go to HMV and spend our pocket money on Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica cassettes. We laughed more than talked.
In the summer of ’93, I was charged with showing a new pupil around. Louise had just moved down from the north, and seemed hugely unimpressed with everything and everyone. Older than her years, I soon found out she’d been to see Babes in Toyland with a friend’s big sister, had a boyfriend back in her old hometown (they’d kissed and everything), and was into The Cure. Initially wary, we bonded in art class one day. We shared an ennui inspired by our new surroundings, a passion for Bowie, and boys in smudged eyeliner. We fell in love the way that only teenage girls with mutual interests can, the kind of kinship that quickly turns to breathless symbiosis. We became the nucleus for a small cell of outsiders. An unlikely gang of friends with nothing and everything in common. While our peers were outside hoofing footballs around, we’d hide in the snug wardrobe of the drama department, cocooned in theatrical costumes and the smell of bacon flavoured crisps mingled with the incense clinging to our (not strictly regulation) clothes. Usually someone would have a guitar.
Weirdly, I don’t remember actually seeing Moist’s single-shot video for Push the first time, but I do recall discussing it with Louise in that drama cupboard afterwards. How lead singer, David Usher, looked a bit like Keanu Reeves from My Own Private Idaho, which we were watching on repeat as some kind of mourning ritual since River Phoenix’s death (the news of which on the radio, incidentally, caused me to drop one of my preprandial bowls of custard). We were transfixed by the moody Chiaroscuro caused by a swinging lamp, the angry lyrics, the grimy warehouse aesthetic, the undeniably homoerotic and borderline violent altercation between the front-man and guitarist, Mark Makoway, throughout the bridge, David’s vocals becoming increasingly tortured. I’d never seen anything like it. This was completely new. It felt dangerous. Something we were witnessing the birth of. It felt like ours.
Once we got hold of debut album, Silver, our fascination tipped into obsession. I’d listen to the CD on loop every evening in my room while I read through the lyrics booklet, wondering about the meaning in the dark words – some of them invented by Usher, their true definition known only to him. In a pre-internet world, interviews and photos were hard to come by, TV and radio appearances scarce. We scoured the usual music rags for clippings and any crumbs of information we could find. When we discovered that Moist were to play a small venue in north London, we knew we had to go and see this show or die trying.
I don’t remember how much parental persuasion it took to procure a credit card, or who made the phone call. I do remember shopping for silver clothes, silver nail polish, silver lipstick – surprisingly hard to come by outside the drag shops of Soho back then. The journey to the venue is a blur. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of the stage, looking up at a microphone bathed in red and blue light, and hearing The Cranberries’ Zombie playing over the PA system while the crew set up. The anticipation was unbearable, my stomach in knots (I’m pretty sure I threw up in the loo of the train to Waterloo) but I had a revelation at that moment: I had never felt so myself, so ecstatic as I did right then. I was home.
The shock of the crush as the crowd surged forward when the band came on was scary and thrilling. We clung to the barrier, determined to hold the space we’d jealously guarded for hours. If David Usher and Mark Makoway’s strange chemistry was potent on video, it was positively explosive in the flesh. Usher was a force of nature. He pulled his band-mates’ hair, climbed their bodies like trees, rent their clothes, and even wrapped poor bassist Jeff Pearce’s head in gaffa tape. They all played on regardless. I was mesmerised.
After that winter’s night at The Garage, I saw Moist play a set at Reading Festival, and one more intimate London gig at the Astoria 2 that Liz and I literally ran away from a holiday with her dad to attend! One time – I can’t recall which – we swore we saw Kurt Cobain’s ghost on the train home. By that time Liz and Louise had become friends, and we’d met the fourth member of our grunge girl band, Amber, although she was more likely to be seen rocking out in an immaculate powder blue dress and matching pumps than a holey, over-sized band tee. The most important relationships of my life had been forged in the swampy heat of the mosh pit.
Moist never came back to the UK, despite releasing two subsequent albums, and in 2001 the band announced that it was going on an indefinite hiatus.
Our collective memories of that era are fragmented and fallible, a Frankenstein’s jumble of several perspectives, and it’s impossible to know now which parts are truth and which are wishful thinking. How warped the same anecdotes have become in the retelling. How much the crystals have been clouded by time. The chronology is certainly iffy. The details impossible to sort from daydreams sometimes.
But the things I believe to be mine, the things I’ve always carried with me, are these: the electrifying sensation of David Usher’s thumb brushing my knuckles as he held my hand from the stage. Penning countless odes to his devilish beauty, filling notebooks with bad poetry that would never see the light of day, and which I would later burn out of shame. Snippets from the letters we agonised over before sending them off to a PO Box in Davie Street. Louise and I getting the band manager’s phone number from directory inquiries, and our delight on hearing his answerphone message was Bullet with Butterfly Wings by The Smashing Pumpkins. Erotic co-dependence. Seeing signs (and ghosts) everywhere. The painful certainty that I would never be able to inspire that depth of feeling in others. The constant, portentousness that dogged me for years – the sense I was waiting for something, and that when it came, maybe my real life would begin.
There’s nothing so doom-laden and witchy as a teenage girl with an infatuation.
In the summer of this year, Moist (who reformed and recorded a new album back in 2013) announced that they would be performing a series of shows to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Silver’s release. And I found myself on the cusp of turning forty, having recently moved house, about to be made redundant by the company I’d wrapped my identity and self-worth up in for over a decade, facing total uncertainty for the first time in my adult life.
This time ten years ago, just before I turned thirty, I had a bit of an existential wobble which resulted in me writing The Other Lamb. It’s no coincidence that the demonic, rock star antihero of that story shares many physical attributes with a certain Canadian singer either. But since the publication of my first novel five years ago, my writing career has pretty much plateaued. I wrote another book which I’m revising currently, and have had moderate success with short stories, but my creative life hasn’t ever taken off in the way that I hoped. I realised I’d been expending more energy that I’d care to admit doing a job I didn’t love, and which I knew in my heart wasn’t ever going to offer me the opportunity to grow and develop in the way I yearned for.
It occurred to me that I’ve allowed myself to be mediocre. That defeatist, self-pitying attitude which let teen me off the hook twenty-four years ago still pervaded. All I wanted back then was to make music, yet I didn’t practice guitar because what was the point. I didn’t have the animal magnetism of Courtney Love or the pitch perfect voice of Tori Amos. Better to save the effort and avoid the inevitable failure.
I want to write books for a living, and yet I tweak and fiddle and rarely submit anything in a finished state because if it’s not finished, if no one reads it, they can’t reject it.
Staring into the abyss, a sense of panic creeping up on me, I decided I was going to go to Vancouver. It seemed ridiculous making a ten thousand mile trip for one night of musical nostalgia when I was about to be unemployed, so I told Liz my idea, figuring if anyone had the means and the freedom to enable such a ridiculous whim, she would. And she did. Amber had a holiday booked at the same time, but Louise agreed to come all that way just for the night – she’d fly out the day of the gig and be back before her family had chance to miss her. She’s always been ride or die.
And so the three of us found ourselves in a bar opposite the Commodore Ballroom on Granville last week, drinking cocktails and reminiscing. What none of us said out loud was just how afraid we were that we’d made a huge mistake. It had been a quarter of a century. That period of our lives was so fraught, so intense, such a roller coaster of emotions, how could anything ever live up to the elation we’d felt that first time – the taste of something utterly new? I’ve been to hundreds upon hundreds of shows since then, and some have been among the best experiences of my life, but nothing has ever shaken me to my core in quite the same way.
I felt physically sick in the queue, an echo of that old, familiar anxiety. Once we got inside, we made for the bar, resigned to the fact our days of being able to hold the front row were probably over. But although there were some die-hards leaning on the barrier, the rest of the floor was clear. We got a shot, took our places under the mic and waited…
Any doubts I may have entertained flew out the window the second the guys strode out onstage. The crowd was less shovey than back then, David and Mark’s roughhousing replaced with an easy tenderness – prolonged glances and open smiles, the odd hand placed lightly on a shoulder in passing. Jeff – performing with the band for the first time this year since 2013 – spent much of the time grinning from ear to ear instead of having to fend off his front-man and a roll of tape. But as they worked their way through track after track of that debut album, the crowd singing along with every word, the years fell away. The beer-soaked ballroom became a cathedral.
Hearing a thousand people behind us singing Silver sent a shiver through me, but when David Usher came down to the barrier and clasped my hand in his, my soul pretty much left my body and flew to the moon! He was a lightning rod. An epiphany. A portal to a moment twenty-four years in the past. All the things I thought had been dulled by time were still there, just under the surface. Everything was as raw as it had always had been. Nothing was lost or diminished at all.
Fifteen-year-old me would have seen it as an omen. She’d have thought he just knew somehow, how badly I needed that small act of benediction. Thirty-nine-year-old me knows I was probably just in the right place at the right time. But it hardly matters.
We spent the following days wandering around the city. I ate my first poutine on Granville Island, saw a wild sea otter, went to a blues bar in Gas Town, strolled around Stanley Park. I picked up a copy of David Usher’s book on unlocking creativity, inhaled it in one sitting, and just allowed myself the space to breathe and think about all the half-finished projects sitting on the laptop I’m typing this on right now. I bounced ideas off Liz. For the first time in weeks, I didn’t even think about how I was going to find another job or make ends meet. I didn’t think about the horror-show of rolling news. I only thought about what I’d do with a bit of time to myself. Running, swimming, writing, painting, volunteering. Maybe even picking up that guitar again. I noticed magic in every small thing. I noticed kindness. Sleep became elusive, partly down to jet lag, but primarily because I wanted to be awake. For the first time in a long while, I didn’t need to hide in sleep. My mind was teeming was possibilities. Raring to make changes.
In his book, Let the Elephants Run, David Usher posits that as children we all have limitless curiosity and creativity, but that we’re slowly conditioned to ignore our impulses in favour of repetition and stability. “Life changes us.” But, he believes, we all have the capacity to rediscover “the person who can still imagine the impossible.” Sometimes, faced with so much bleakness, it can seem futile to create purely for the sake of it. What’s the point? What’s our purpose? But if we don’t have art, if we don’t have wonder, if we don’t have beauty, if we don’t have the things that bind us together when our souls are being shaped, then what do we have? In all the years since four girls met and went to see a band, life has changed us in ways we could never have imagined. We’ve been wounded by the world, ourselves, each other. But we’re still us. The essence of who we were then, before all this life happened to us, is unscathed. And we can still imagine the impossible.
Sometimes, life tosses you an ‘amber’ moment. And sometimes – when the stars align – it shines a light to help you see your way back inside it.