As every self-effacing male instinctively knows, the quickest route to a woman’s heart is through a mixtape. Music transferred from vinyl to audio cassette is truly the food of love…
Assuming my wife doesn’t come to her senses between the completion of this column and its publication, this Valentine’s Day will also mark 25 years since we decided to go steady as a couple. I’d like to be able to say that I won her over by the sheer force of my personality, but if you’ve met me and you’ve met her, you’ll know better. She was clever, funny, kind, beautiful and successful; I was reasonably tidy, moderately punctual, could do a fair Neil Kinnock impersonation and, um, that’s about it. We were best friends. But getting from the friend zone to the next stage is like getting from the IKEA showroom to the home furnishings section. It has been done, but it takes forever and you might lose the will to live and settle for someone far less exciting along the way, if only because they might actually know the way out of there.
Sometimes though, a sliver of opportunity might present itself and, if the thought of being with that person makes you giddy with excitement, fatalism swiftly gives way to hope. That’s how it was on the evening of Friday February 10th 1995 at Cate’s flat, waiting for our takeaways to arrive. She asked me if I was attending a Boo Radleys playback the following week. I told her I’d be away – I was owed two weeks’ holiday leave which I had to take before the end of February. I’d decided to rent a car, drive north and just see where I ended up.
“Wow!” she replied, “Sounds like my dream holiday. If I could drive, that’s what I’d do.”
Before I realised what I was about to say – “You can come with me if you like!” – I’d already said it. “Really?!” she said, “Do you mean it?” I nodded. She screamed with delight. And we hugged. In the way that best mates do.
It could have stayed like that and it would have been fine. And yet, some underlying imperative propelled me into a state of emergency. Our curries arrived and once we ate them, I got the bus home and immediately starting pulling records off my shelves, not stopping until I had 25 piles, each corresponding to the mixtape I would make out of them. One pile for moody night driving; one full of life-affirming power pop for sunny coastal drives; a stack of ethereal post-punk classics in case we got as far as the panoramic mountainous vistas of the Scottish highlands. And so on.
Though I didn’t articulate it to myself at this point, it seems clear to me now what I was doing. In the animal kingdom, peacocks use their outrageously patterned plumage to attract the opposite sex; lions deploy their regal manes to impress the lady-lions. After a weekend of non-stop taping, shuttling between the music centre in the front room and the one in the kitchen, all I had to call upon was a rental car and a glove compartment full of tapes.
Thirty-six hours later, between Scarborough and Edinburgh, after a thrillingly hairy stretch of road listening to a four-track sampler of Radiohead’s yet-to-be-released The Bends, the nature of our friendship had somewhat altered. Perhaps she would have fallen in love with me in spite rather than because of all this.
Maybe I’m giving just a bit too much credit to the admittedly terrific sequencing decision which saw Slowdive’s Catch The Breeze go into Curve’s I Speak Your Every Word and then into Ride’s Unfamiliar as the Forth Bridge reared up over the skyline at dusk. I would like to think so. Because if the music really was the decisive factor, the catalyst to which the existence of our two daughters can be attributed, that suggests that I used music to trigger a slightly less creepy Stockholm Syndrome, like a sort of non-murderous Charles Manson with the physique and interpersonal skills of The Great Soprendo.
On the second week, having made it up as far as Ullapool, we took a circuitous route back via Wales. We had phoned ahead and booked a seafront room in Aberystwyth. We were still on the road at 1am, driving towards a silver moon silhouetting the trees over the undulating twists and turns of West Wales. Exactly 45 minutes to go. I asked Cate if she could look in the glove compartment and pull out one of the few pre-recorded tapes in there, This Is The Sea by The Waterboys.
Sometimes, you play the right album at the right time in the right place and suddenly you’re too scared look in the rear view mirror in case you see God sitting in the back. It started with Don’t Bang The Drum, thundering out of the speakers as we tore through the glistening country lanes of Dyfed – the elemental synergy of scenery and song. And it ended as we reached our destination, the serene seafront of Aberystwyth twinkling invitingly after the breathtaking scenery that preceded it. The final song, the title track, dissipated from a hurricane to a sea breeze with Mike Scott singing, “Behold… the… sea.”
She still mentions that evening from time to time. I have to stop myself from reminding her that it wasn’t me who actually made the record. But then why would I tempt fate? That night, music was the Cyrano de Bergerac to my Christian de Neuvillette. Perhaps it still is. And that’s why, 25 years later, I don’t dare turn it off.