i used to be so good at entertaining myself – you have to be, as an only child, and if you’re a voracious reader and consumer of outdated media, like i was, a house full of old heirlooms, books and videotapes provided endless hours of entertainment. my favourite films were crowd-pleasers from the eighties, like Crocodile Dundee 2, and Condorman, both recorded from live television onto VHS tapes neatly labelled in my mother’s all-caps writing.
except she left Condorman to run over, or forgot to stop the recording, because at the end of the film, i feasted my eyes on adverts from the New Year of 1990, and a Bruce Forsyth-presented curation of the ‘greatest’ Royal Variety Show performances. there Bruce sat, on faded colour television, in his neat dickie bow and tux, in a squishy red velvet armchair, and began with Arthur Askey imitating a bumblebee. one of the last clips shown in black and white was a raucous rendition of She Loves You, featuring the four besuited and neatly bowlcut Beatles at their most palatable; and yet, the blissful, joyous harmonies were a shot of pure dopamine to my twelve-year-old ears.
i was already au fait with Nelly Furtado, Gorillaz and the Feeling, albeit with no perception of their cultural currency (or lack thereof, in certain hipster circles). the Beatles were new and thrilling to my ears in a way that was pure and beautiful, more so than any crisp, modern production could convince me. i tuned in to Radio Two every morning at half seven, just before heading to school, because Chris Evans had got into the habit of playing two Beatles songs to start the day. if i was unceremoniously dragged away and into the car before both songs were broadcast in full, i snuck off to the computer room at lunch to re-listen on the newly launched BBC iPlayer and make a note of what to search on youtube when i got home, so that i could rip the mp3 file in extremely shoddy quality and sync it to my ipod. this ritual was sacred, and i could have searched the entire discography in some other corner of the internet, but i liked microdosing the material in the two-per-day format.
one day our next door neighbour showed up at the door with every album on CD, and the trajectory of my obsession was swift and merciless. my pre-teen fixations on horses, cars and Alexander the Great became secondary to music. for christmas my aunt gifted me the ‘1’ compilation; i rifled through the liner notes and stared at the single art for Hey Jude. Paul was the most easily identifiable already, with his gentle, open face and wide eyes, with their arched, almost feminine brows. i was fascinated. for the first time in my young life, i knew what it was to have a crush.
Paul was an entirely safe crush to have, at that age. my peers were lusting after a shirtless Taylor Lautner in the Twilight movies, which i found disconcerting. nothing about a man’s bare pectorals was titillating to me in the slightest. i liked a pretty face, and a heart-rending voice, a talent and a personality that i wanted to be as close to as humanly possible. but fifty years and a multitude of other hopeless factors stood in my way, and as i listened to snippets of ‘funny moments’ on youtube, pored over interviews in grainy black and white, or picked up photo books in charity shops, i formed an imaginary Ideal Man. charming, gregarious, absolutely devoid of machismo or posturing, open-minded but also principled where it mattered, optimistic and practical. whether Paul was or is actually all of these things is of less significance. it was the freedom to theorise in this way that gave me a set of healthy standards.
i’ve recently started to question why i don’t obsess over women in the same way, feeling guilty that my fixations have always been bands of straight men that make my heart race with enthusiasm for their every word and action. but it’s not like women’s art and female artists don’t have an impact on me – i bawled like a baby at Caroline Polachek’s show, captivated and driven to emotions that other shows haven’t achieved. the answer, i think, is that women’s remarkability is no surprise to me. i’ve known how wonderful women are for a long time. when a man exhibits possibilities of being anywhere near as incredible (compounded by physical attraction), i’m beyond thrilled. at last, i think, i’ve found one! a rare Amazing Man! he ticks all the boxes!
i’ve presented Paul here as a first example. all the others that come after build on this concept, the Dream, the Ideal. i don’t want there to be a misconception that i put these men on a moral pedestal any longer, not now that i’m an adult; they were and are extremely fallible, and are capable of disappointing in much the same way. but for a brief, magical time, the idealisation itself helped me understand what i wanted, what i felt safe around, what i would and would not accept in a man. this series is entitled ‘music that changed me’, but it’s the musicians too. it’s not that the music itself didn’t play an enormous role – it’s that music does what words alone often fail to do.