Answering the Question, Fourteen Months Late (On toe and My Favourite Song)

I don’t know how other to start this post than with the line: I went for a drink with a woman once. It wasn’t by definition a date, and I’m not entirely sure that we knew each other well enough at the time to even qualify as friends, but we went for a drink and, context aside, we attempted to get to know each other – as you do. Across two hours or so we went through the motions – age, ambitions, education, work etc., first date/hang-out conversations, until we got to the topic of music. When it comes to music, I like to think that I know my stuff (as this blog may or may not attest), was ready for whatever questions she might throw my way. Straight off the bat though, she threw me a curveball, skipping right past the typical “so what do you normally listen to” and going straight for the musical jugular instead. She asked: “what are your five favourite songs?” How about that? I was left at a loss. As far as questions go, that was a hard one, and I dealt with it badly, saying I’d think about it. Thankfully, being the decent and likable person that she was and is, she didn’t press it. I also didn’t return the question, even though she probably would have had an answer (I think that, if you’re asking a question like that, then you should be able to answer it). Anyway, I told her I would think about it.

That was fourteen months ago; I am still thinking about it. It was an innocent question, if not necessarily a fair one, a weighty ice-breaker over an expensive cocktail in hopes of getting to the core of my taste. Presumably, if I had listed off five songs which had aligned with hers then we would have been married the next morning, or I would have at least secured the second date/hangout I never did. I don’t expect that this is because of my hesitation in regards to music, I am a man of many hesitations. But I am still thinking about it. I did send her five songs five days later, but I rushed out my choices, partly because of pressure, but also partly because I hadn’t spoken to her in two days and wanted to recapture her attention. I think it worked at the time, though she didn’t say anything about my choices. I sent YouTube links; I doubt she listened to them. For the sake of this post, those five songs were:

Box of RainNow, that’s not a bad list (?), but it’s not accurate. I think it’s okay, it gives an idea of my taste, and if any of those songs came up on my iTunes I certainly wouldn’t skip them. I’ll always play Transatlanticism, for example, in all of its eight-minute entirety and I’ll likely have goosebumps from the opening piano keys. Similarly, Cemetery Gates will always improve my mood tenfold regardless of circumstance, while Son The Father will always get my blood pumping like no other song is able to. Box of Rain will always remind me of America and the joyous nostalgia that conjures, while Threads will always play out gorgeously cinematic and emotionally emphatic as it did when I broke down on a beach in Brooklyn. It’s a list containing five strong songs, but fourteen months with them lingering in the space of that long-since abandoned WhatsApp discourse has left me reconsidering. I suppose that I was reconsidering as soon as I copy and pasted their YouTube links in the hopes a woman out of my league would fall for me on the spot because my favourite Smiths song is not How Soon Is Now?

TransatlanticismI have decided that I shall never ask somebody a question similar to the one she asked me. I think it’s okay to ask somebody about the band they listen to the most, or about their favourite album from a particular band. I think if I were to be asked those questions I wouldn’t need fourteen months to adequately answer them (R.E.M, Out of Time). I could do it on the spot even if my answer was to change following the asking. Fourteen months have suggested to me that I don’t have a top five, or a top hundred, or anything along those lines. I don’t have a favourite band or a favourite album, but I do have a favourite song; a song I prefer over any other song I own. This song, seven-hundred words in, is the entire point of this post. There are songs I like, songs I love, and then there is one song which I value higher than any other. There are numerous reasons as to why that is the case, but before I get down to it I should highlight what I imagine one to look for in  a “favourite song.” I think what constitutes such an absurdity differs from person to person. It took me a while to work it out – if not necessarily fourteen months.

ThreadsWhat I ultimately want a song to do for me is to move me. I want to listen to a piece of music and feel emotion; I want something to resonate; I want something to stir within me starting small and then growing into something I no longer have any kind of control over. I want to be pulled out of my body and carried along. I want to feel something almost painfully sublime. I want to be reminded that I am alive and that all is well and there is an almost profound amount of beauty to be found in the world around me. I want to hear something in a song. I want to be stirred in a way that no mountain is capable of being stirred. I want to feel almost inconsequential, shrunken in the face of something bigger than myself. I want elation or emotion so extreme I shall not be able to contain it. I want to feel like I could cry the way my grandmother told me I should never cry. I want everything to recede and then rush back. I want an experience, I want to be transported, I want to be diminished and made all so large while both vulnerable and hardened. I want a thousand Christmases rolled into one. I want passion, and I want to be witness to it. I want to feel the love of one’s craft communicated in all its blistering intensity. I want a song to move me.

The ChemistryThat isn’t to say that, in order to do these things, a song has to perfectly crafted or meticulously executed. It doesn’t need lavish production or highly-skilled musicianship. It just needs heart and enough that I am able to feel it in abundance. There are a thousand songs that do this for me, but there is only one that does it for me to a greater extent than any other. If we’re talking favourite in terms of preference then it’s more than likely the case that a song should have some kind of real-world tether, an experience, or series of experiences to which it is linked. In this way it’s emotional impact is greater on listening. I have countless songs which are tethered as such, but my favourite song isn’t one of them, which is perhaps odd. When I think of Transatlanticism I think of a long car journey with my family, or when I think of Box of Rain I think of the season finale of Freaks And Geeks, or, when I think of Son The Father I think of my first real introduction to punk. Threads reminds me of breaking down on a beach in Brooklyn and Cemetery Gates reminds me that I got into The Smiths way too late. I am a nostalgic creature; I am always existing in both the past and present. I am my own tether and the songs I like twist the threads.

toe - For Long TomorrowGoodbye / グッドバイ by the Japanese band toe, and taken from their 2009 LP For Long Tomorrow is my favourite song, by a distance probably comparable to the distance between myself at the present moment and Japan at the present moment (some 5,800 miles). It is a sad but beautiful truth that no other song does to me what this song does. Ah, if only they could I may exist in a state of perpetual bliss. Goodbye / グッドバイ makes the world a better place. It brings everything into focus and sets the landscape rolling into kaleidoscopic motion. It is a majestic piece of songwriting, sparse with vocals, with an instrumental focus, layered and gorgeously put together. Simple acoustic riffs blend into frenetic drumming and the track weaves its way like the Shinano River, casting out ripples of sound in seconds which each complement each other. Goodbye / グッドバイ is a patient track, in that it builds steadily, and when it reaches its fuller moments it is absolutely sublime. There is, for example, a second of pause, then two seconds of vocals from Toki Asako, and then everything blooms in colour almost incomprehensible. It is a sudden shift, and it is absolutely majestic. And then things change shape, gain a new clarity, everything is stitched back together in a fashion slightly rearranged. The song has a spine, but what surrounds it is in constant flux, fluid motion. There are moments of calm, of subsidence,  and then it all comes flooding back even bigger and my god, does it move me.

Goodbye / グッドバイ culminates in a final minute which has brought me more than once to tears. I cannot use hyperbole when discussing it; I think that this is indeed a perfect song. Across it, toe do everything right without even trying that hard. Things are not overly complicated (or they are but do not seem so), nor do toe seem to go above and beyond to affect an audience – they simply does so by the dynamism of their compositions. Goodbye / グッドバイ  is thoughtful, is concentrated. It is nothing special, but it the most special seven minutes. It is everything at once. It is the drumming of rain on Kyoto cobblestones; it is the whistle of wind in the lilac trees; it is the time I burnt my tongue when I was seven years old and couldn’t taste anything for a week; it is the smell of my grandmother’s house before she died; it is Niagara Falls spittle on my shoes; it is the best poem I shall never write; it is waking up to sunrise through the window; it is the sensation of lift-off and the sensation of landing; it is my head slowly splintering and then reconfiguring the fractures; it is my heart beating twice as fast in my chest and my eyes wide open. It is everything all at once.toe press

It’s more complex than I used to think
but already I know
the start is the end
everyone is mania in general.

I have no real memories associated with Goodbye グッドバイ; the song is more of a constant accompaniment. I could tie memories to it purely by emotional association because Goodbye / グッドバイ likely captures their essence. The entire song is a feeling. Even when I have gone a week or two without listening to it, it is still with me, and every time I revisit it is like the first time all over again – I am left floored and vulnerable. I have been shown something. I have experienced something, and it has crippled me but left me profoundly glad to have been weakened as I have been. Maybe exposing myself in such a way on a first date/hangout would have been a turn-off, maybe it wouldn’t have been. I would have had plenty to say.

I have no real objective in writing this piece, which began with a dating analogy and has warped into something else entirely. Obviously, I would like that people listen to Goodbye / グッドバイ, though I won’t push this on a reader. I just wanted to sit down and write, to try and arrange my thoughts. I hope though, that my words have at least sparked a curiosity. If it is a song you’d like to listen to, I recommend the live recording I’ve linked below. For me, this is the superior version, partly because it is so wonderfully recreated, but also because you can see the emotion with which toe play, and not just hear it. You have the imperfect English at the beginning which isn’t on the LP version; you have Toki Asako guesting, and you have Kashikura Takashi demonstrating just why he is the best drummer I’ve ever come across – the man defies belief. You have toe at their incomparable best, and you have my favourite song.

I’ll stop there.

Thank you for reading.

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