When I was at university I wrote for the student newspaper. Music reviews mostly, gigs, albums. I’d go to the meeting every Tuesday, and when the music editor asked for someone to review this or that, I’d put my hand up, take the album home, go to the concert, listen and write. Sometimes I’d go in with my own ideas and he’d say yes or no. Sometimes I’d write anyway, and send it in the hope that he’d accept it. Sometimes he did. Sometimes he didn’t. It didn’t matter to me. I liked turning music into words. I didn’t care whether it was published or not.
My second year there the editor’s name was Brendan. He was short and stocky and had red/ginger hair that fluctuated between short and sharp and medium and fuzzy. The first time I met him I didn’t know he was the new editor. I was at a gig at this place called the 13th Note Cafe or Bar or Club – I can’t remember which – and I was leaning against the bar with a plastic pint in my hand when he came up beside me, bought one for himself, and asked me who I was there to see. I told him, and he said the support band were better, believe me.
He was right.
They came on stage half-naked and left naked. The audience booed and threw bottles. The band bottled them back. They played for half an hour and the whole time they made me think they were the only thing that mattered, the only band worth listening to. When the lights came on after they’d finished, I looked through the crowd for Brendan. I wanted to tell him he was right, but he’d already gone.
The next time I saw him was the following Tuesday at the next newspaper meeting. He stood up and did his thing – he frisbeed albums to whoever wanted to review them – and at the end I went up to say hello. He told me his name, and asked whether I’d enjoyed the gig, want to write a review of it, I’ve done one for the support act, but we’ve got space for who you were there to see. I couldn’t tell whether he was being contemptuous or not. I didn’t care. I wrote the review anyway.
After the meeting we went for a drink at the student union. He asked what type of music I was into, and I said, well, you know, this and that. He said, don’t fuck around. People only say that when they’re embarrassed, and they’re only embarrassed because they don’t want to show people how they really feel. They think someone’ll take the piss if they do.
He repeated the question, and I told him. He had an opinion about everyone – Bowie was only good when he worked with Eno, The Beatles were shit after Rubber Soul, the Pixies and the Stone Roses were the most overrated bands ever – and for the rest of the night he told me who I should and shouldn’t be listening to.
He got drunk, got a pen out and wrote it all down on a beer mat he peeled open. Then he screwed it up and said, no, fuck it, come over to mine. Then he said, no, I’ll make a mixtape: Swans and Glenn Branca, the Sonics and Can, Neu and The Normal, Cabaret Voltaire and Big Black and Rachel’s and Einsturzende Neubaten and Hrvatski and Boredoms and Fugazi and DJ Scud and Merzbow and Labradford and Keijo Heino and Company Flow.
A week later, I got my tape and I listened and fell in love. My flatmate, Laura, came into my room and said, what the fuck is this shit, but I didn’t care. I had new bands to listen to, new sounds to discover. I went out and began going through all of their back catalogues.
At the next newspaper meeting I gushed about this band and that artist. Brendan said, I knew you’d like them, and we went out again, and he educated me some more, stories about all the bands, some apocryphal, some true, some I later learned were made up from snatches of rumours heard at parties, on drugs and in dreams.
He told me about new bands to get excited about, and who were nothing but hype. I wrote about some, reviewed others, acts we liked, acts we hated. We went to gigs and got wasted and went back to the newspaper office and wrote half-pissed mocking descriptions of well-loved bands, Radiohead, the Strokes, Oasis.
Eventually, at the end of the year, he told me to go for the editor job. I’m stepping down. You can only do it for a year. It’ll be a shoe-in for you. He would be doing the interview. No one else was going for it apart from Jane – I can’t remember her last name – and she couldn’t write for shit. You can write. And you like the right bands.
I told him I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know whether I could take on all that extra work going into my third year. And wouldn’t it look like nepotism or something. Preferential treatment at least. I was his friend. He already said yes to too many of my pieces. What about Kevin or Alice? They were good.
He said, don’t be stupid. It’s only a student newspaper. I print your stuff because you can write. You don’t know how many reviews I get that start with, I really like so-and-so, they’re super great.
In the end, I gave in and put my name forward, and a week or so after my end-of-year exams, Brendan and the editor interviewed me. They asked me why I wanted to do it – I said editing was the next step after writing – and then how I would change the current format or content. What was wrong with the paper now? I hadn’t prepared anything. I knew how to write an article, not how to edit or design a page. That was Brendan’s job. And, anyway, how could I criticise what I was a part of?
Two days later, Brendan called me up and told me they’d given the job to Alice. He said, you were shit. He was right. I’d talked about bringing in classical music and jazz, a range of genres I knew nothing about just to make it sound like I didn’t want to write about Jackie O’Motherfucker every other week.
He said, what was all that shit about jazz. You don’t know anything about it. Go on, name someone good. I said, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.
He said, obvious. Anyone else?
I went for Louie Armstrong. He put the phone down.
The following year I hardly saw him. We went out a few times and bumped into each other at gigs and clubs, but there were no more mixtapes, no more late night, drunken writing. We both still wrote the odd review, but we had our studies, our friends. I’d gotten into Swans and Gang of Four, but didn’t know a thing about Ornette Coleman, Charlie Mingus and Sun Ra. He might as well have never made me a mixtape.
At the end of the year I left and so did he. We emailed a couple of times, but he went to London to be a journalist and, unsure what to do next, I went to Japan to teach. I still listened to Labradford and got excited when Earth and Wire got back together. I saw the Bordeoms do a shit gig in the shadow of Mount Fuji, and then went to work the following week wearing a clown’s wig to help the kids understand curly hair.
One day, two years or so into my contract, I was coming out of an izakaya in Osaka with a couple of friends when I saw Brendan standing in the street on his own eating takoyaki from a hand-sized cardboard box. I went up to him immediately and said, hey, what are you doing here?
He said my name, smiled and asked why I was in Osaka. I told him I was there for the weekend with some friends, seeing the castle, dotombori, this huge onsen world place a colleague had told me about. You?
He said he was there to see Nobukazu Takemura. An electronic artist. He’s a genius. You should really get hold of his stuff. He did this album with Tortoise that was just about perfect. You should come to the gig.
I said I’d love to, but I had work tomorrow, a train to catch. You should’ve told me you were coming. I could’ve put you up, shown you round.
He said, it was a last minute thing. He barely had chance to pack himself. Come. Call in sick. No one would care. And you’d get to see Nobukazu Takemura. When have I ever been wrong?
I smiled at the memory, and said: but I don’t write reviews anymore.
He popped a dumpling in his mouth, chewed it, and said: that was your problem. It was more about the review than the music.
I looked at my friends and said, yeah, you’re probably right. I’ve gotta go. Maybe next time.
The following week I went to Tower Records and picked up a copy of the Nobukazu Takemura he’d mentioned, the collaboration with Tortoise. I took it home and listened to it for five minutes before turning it off.
It was utter shit.