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The Old Now Blues

People are always saying they wish they lived in another era. It seems like a pretty natural thing. I doubt whether a single one of us has not at some point fantasised about living in a time before we were born. I know for parts of my adolescence I quite desperately wanted to be somewhere else, someone else, sometime else.

I recall watching videos on Youtube of Woodstock ’69 as a teenager. I burned with envy for all the people who had got to be there, who had got to witness and be a part of that magical moment in history—seeing Jimi Hendrix in the flesh, riding that 60s wave, feeling the power of everything that was happening at the time. Everything seemed so ‘happening’ then! Now everything was stagnant.

When I was about 17 or 18 I wrote a song bewailing having been born at the close of the 20th Century. Part of it went:

Good plays nowadays
are about how bad plays are nowadays!
We can think of nothing new to create,
so let’s destroy it all!
History is a hard act to follow, God—oh God!
History is a hard act to follow, God—how can we follow God?
We can think of nothing new to create,
so let’s just f**k it up!

That feeling of being overwhelmed with the busyness of history, and all the competition I was up against as a young songwriter, haunted me throughout my teenage years. Every decade of the 20th Century, at some point or another, was a time I wished I could transport myself back to. I would watch old black-and-white films, especially the silent films of the German Expressionists, and be overcome with this awful passionate yearning—I couldn’t even say what for. All I knew was that the dizzying speed, the garish colour, the loathsome detail of Here-and-Now daunted me.

I wanted out of reality. I sought escape from it by all means: music, books, films, booze, drugs—anything. I spent my waking life lost in reverie. I would be dining with Oscar Wilde at a gentleman’s club in 1896, sipping absinthe while he charmed me with his wit; or else I’d be snorting cocaine with Marilyn Manson on his 1996 tour for Antichrist Superstar; or else I’d be in London in 1976, hanging out with the Sex Pistols in Malcolm MacLaren’s shop on the Kings Road. I wanted to be anywhere but here amid the dullness of Now.

I think very differently now. It has since occurred to me that this yearning of mine to live in another time was pathological. It had all the impotency and futility of blind rage, and in its own way was equally destructive. Blind rage stems from being frustrated at something beyond your control, but it is fleeting and its damage is swiftly caused and conspicuous. My yearning, on the other hand, was the result of deep and chronic dissatisfaction, not with what was around me but with myself.

It is always something we are uncomfortable or insecure about in ourselves that causes us to envy. “His life is so much better” is as good as saying “I am unhappy with who I am”. Whether it’s the grating laughter of those tossers you saw today in the street finding life so effortless and carefree, or the imagined glories of people, places, and things you never experienced, or are missing out on now, the problem remains the same and the problem is your opinion of yourself.

Anyone who is truly happy to be who, what, where, and when they are simply because that is what the Fates have decreed is never plagued by envy. People who are truly comfortable in their own bodies, content and at ease, will not spend a second singing paeans to the past and complaining about the failings of the present. Any person who moans about how much better music was in the 70s overlooks the fact that it is from the vantage point of Now that their appreciation is possible. Music is nothing until it is turned into music by you; and you create the music played to you in a way that is entirely unique to you because you occupy this particular place in time and space. The music you are listening to may have been written in 1603, 1979, or 1991, but it is happening now and everything you bring to it you bring from now.

It is only when we are acutely aware of and sensitive to what is going on around us that we can create any kind of vivid and truthful image in our minds of what the past was like. It certainly was nothing like my whining daydreams or mad fantasies. In fact what it was like, in essence, we already know. We are humans, they were humans, and everyone after us will be humans too. All you have to do is take the complexity and beauty of everything you see around you today and work backwards. Life to an individual person was no less weird, painful, or full of wonder than it is to you today. Only the clothes have changed. Beneath them everything still hangs pretty much the same.

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