Red House Painters, Down Colorful Hill

Undivided Attention: Red House Painters – ‘Michael’ / Remembering Tim Guest

Great songs about male friendship are few and far between. In fact, it’s a subject rarely discussed anywhere – though there have been some recent attempts to do so.

In my view, it’s hard to make generalisations about how men relate to each other given that there must be such a rich plurality of relationships between us. So I speak only for myself, and not without being conscious of the irony, when I say that one of male friendship’s great comforts – one of its unspoken rules – is to be freed from the responsibility of talking about friendship. I have passed many hours in pubs and clubs and restaurants and cafés, at football matches, on walks, on boat trips, on long car journeys in the company of men, and have hardly ever talked about what friendship means or heard mention of the expectations and obligations we have of each other. Male friendship has allowed me a respite from these things – which we benefit from hugely, but can also suffer from, in other relationships.

I wonder whether this is why Mark Kozelek has been known to denigrate the sentimentality of his track ‘Michael’ – the greatest song about male friendship I know – for it makes overt that which should be left unspoken.

Here it is, from Red House Painters’ 1992 debut album Down Colorful Hill, the lyrics transcribed in the footnote below (1):


Before I try to explain why this song is so important, I should say first that I cannot separate it from my feelings for my friend, Tim Guest, whom I met when we were studying for an MA many years ago.

From the start, ours was a singular and hermetic friendship. We were the youngest students on a creative writing course in a city that was new to both of us. We were lost, each in our own way and, for a while, had no one around to share that with but each other. And there was much we had in common. Music, books, an interest in psychoanalysis. A predilection for tinkering with words and fussing over them endlessly. As with most of the people whose friendship one craves, I found as much of myself in Tim as I could tolerate and a great deal more that I aspired to be. And soon our friendship became (and would remain) a strange island in my life: having become friends in isolation and often hanging out together alone, we knew each other’s friends but only at a distance.

Later, Tim and I were in touch frequently when we both lived in London and then, as is often the way when people move to far-flung places and things change in their lives, less and less. The gaps between us being in touch were random: sometimes months, sometimes a couple of weeks, then more than a year. But I always knew we would be in touch again and when we were it would be the same as ever.

So, when someone I met in late 2009 mentioned that they had read his first book, I proudly told them he was a dear friend and that it was about time I got back in touch with him.

But he’s dead, came the surprised reply.

Dead? What do you mean?

I read it in the paper. He died of an overdose.

But… – he was 34, just beginning his life and career – No. That can’t be right. No way.

The shock was too much. I remember having to sit down. I told myself that the person I was talking to had made a terrible mistake. They were getting Tim confused with some other young writer.

I refused to believe he was dead until the next day, when I tracked down his obituary. There it was, incontrovertible, the photo, the tribute. He had gone – three months earlier, without me knowing a thing about it. No one had told me – but then who would have thought to? There was no third party to link us together. Yes, his old friends would have remembered meeting me many times, but wouldn’t have known how to reach me. This is hard to imagine now but, Luddite that I was, I avoided all social media in those days. Today, not knowing about a close friend’s death is something that just can’t happen. Even back then, it was something that couldn’t have happened to me with any other friend.

The next day I gave my excuses at the work meeting I was attending and wandered around Newcastle – a town I didn’t know – on my own, in a daze, not knowing what to do with my grief. I had no one to talk to, no contact details for anyone who had known him too. The funeral, which I would have attended without hesitation, had been and gone long ago. In the afternoon, I sat down in a café and wrote a long letter to his widow ( – he had a widow, you see, a wife I’d never met. What happiness he must have had – I wanted to be able to celebrate it with him. That was one of my first and most useless thoughts).

I never sent the letter I wrote that day. In fact, this is the first time I have ever shared my thoughts about Tim – something that pains me, because I felt then, as I still do, that I was a guardian of a little part of his life that no one else knew. And that with him gone, part of my life had left too, become unreal, as no one else had witnessed or shared it. I wanted to make something from this, fashion something from it that was bigger than how small I now felt.

Later, I was angry. Angry at myself for being useless at keeping in touch and angry at the bad fortune he’d had, for I was sure the way he’d died was a matter of misadventure. Because what Tim was doing when he died doesn’t surprise me. There was a side of him that was always looking for something else. You could see it in his geekish interest in the latest technology and his relentless speculation about what futures might be waiting for us – something he wrote about so engagingly in his second book, Second Lives. He was a restless soul: experimenting was his way of being alive. Sometimes that was jovial and innocent; sometimes it came from a place of sadness and frustration.

Given this, you might think that the lines in ‘Michael’ that bring Tim to mind are:

the ghost on your side
Of the state borderline
Whispering:
“Take it. Take it…”

But that’s not it. No – not at all.

For what has always struck me most about ‘Michael’ – long before I knew Tim and even more so now – are the lines which probably embarrass Mark Kozelek the most:

Do you remember?
Our first subway ride,
Our first heavy metal haircuts,
Our last swim on the east coast,
And me with my ridiculous looking pierced nose.
I remember:
Your warm smile in the sun.
The daydreaming boy without a shirt on.
The Birmingham barfly father left the mother of three sons.
You’re the oldest juvenile delinquent bum.
My best friend.

Just like those first lines, I have my own special memories of Tim. Standing with him, disconsolate, beside his beloved Renault 5 the day it finally broke down for good. The scraps of paper he tore from the book he was writing pinned everywhere around his rented room in Norwich: fragments he made sense of in his memoir My Life in Orange.  An afternoon messing around with Photoshop, pasting the head of Arnold from Different Strokes onto the body of Mr. T for a flyer for a club night we hosted once in a Brixton bar and thereafter forgot.

But what Tim truly means to me is the line that follows. The line about the pierced nose – that’s the one that really touches me. For it’s just so beautifully and simply expressed. Not just the embarrassment, but the feeling behind it: that our true friends absolve us of our past idiocies because they were there and loved us despite our faults.

And then it’s followed by the line about ‘The Birmingham barfly father…’ which, in the moment you hear it, seems at first to refer to Michael himself. Has Michael’s life gone off the rails? we think. Is he an ‘old juvenile delinquent bum’ who has hurt people and let them down? For a moment we think less of him until that last resounding statement saves him – ‘My best friend’ – showing us that nothing Michael could have done would make a difference to what he is; that he too, warts and all, is unquestioningly accepted by his friend.

And in the very same way, you see, Tim Guest forgave me – not for a pierced nose or a heavy metal haircut, but for something I did, a small wrong, which does not bear repeating. I didn’t behave as a friend should – a failure Tim responded to not with anger or hurt but complete magnanimity. Back then, I didn’t fully understand what a rare and wonderful thing that was. And it pains me that, now that I do, I will never be able to thank him for it.

So what makes this song special – and what I love still about Tim – is this:

That they don’t speak to us about forgiveness, they enact it. They show us that in our closest friendships, whatever happens, whatever mistakes we make, we are always somehow, magically, redeemed.

*

It was only after I wrote the above words that I stumbled upon this radio interview where Mark Kozelek speaks about why ‘Michael’ embarrasses him. He relates that, after years of not seeing him, the real Michael turned up, out of the blue, to see a show. During the performance, someone in the audience yelled out “Michael!” and Kozelek sang the song in his old friend’s presence – a perfect moment for both Michael and for him.

It’s a moment that brings to mind that other great song about male friendship, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Bobby Jean‘  – where Springsteen imagines his friend hearing his song on the radio:

Now there ain’t nobody nowhere nohow
Gonna ever understand me the way you did.
Maybe you’ll be out there on that road somewhere,
In some bus or train travelling along,
In some motel room there’ll be a radio playing
And you’ll hear me sing this song.
Well if you do you’ll know I’m thinking of you,
And all the miles in between
,
And I’m just calling one last time,
Not to change your mind
But just to say I miss you baby,
Good luck goodbye, Bobby Jean.

Which brings me back to my opening thoughts about male friendship. When Kozelek played ‘Michael’ to Michael what was unspoken was finally said – but without speaking. And what was undone was finally done.

This is what Springsteen dreams of. And it is why I have written these words here and now for Tim.

Tim Guest, Photograph: Sophia Evans

Photograph: Sophia Evans

Tim Guest
16.7.75 – 31.7.09

                    

Notes:

(1)

Michael – where are you now?
Michael – where are you now?
Somehow in my excitement the last time you called,
It slipped again to ask your hidden whereabouts,
I got a lead from your old triple ex-girlfriend, she said:
“I heard he lost his mind again.”
“Again?” – I said I didn’t know that you ever did.

Michael – where are you now?
Michael – where are you now?
Sleeping through the mornings in the flannel impaired,
Getting high in the southern air,
Shoeless, sandy evenings down the unfamiliar,
Last whiff of salt water freedom,
Skipping the shadows in the dead zone.
With the ghost on your side
Of the state borderline
Whispering:
“Take it. Take it. Take it. Take it. Take it.”

Do you remember?
Our first subway ride,
Our first heavy metal haircuts,
Our last swim on the east coast,
And me with my ridiculous looking pierced nose.
I remember:
Your warm smile in the sun.
The daydreaming boy without a shirt on.
The Birmingham barfly father left the mother of three sons.
You’re the oldest juvenile delinquent bum.

My best friend.

 

 

4 Comments

  1. dave says:

    Really beautiful piece. Thanks

    • Praveen Herat says:

      I hesitated about posting it, it being such a personal story, so having such positive responses via email and here means a great deal. Above all, I’m just glad to play a part in keeping Tim’s writing alive. He was a great talent.

  2. Beautiful post which tackles the unspoken of male friendship through one of our favorite songs, “Michael”. I’m really glad I got to read this because it made me think of nice things (which is great) and feel emphatetic towards you. It’s incredible how I didn’t notice it explicitly before, but we male friends do not talk about us and what’s going on between us. That’s also why “Michael” is such an oddball.

    I remember your warm smile in the sun, and the daydreaming boy without its shirt on.

    Keep on with your writing, keep on with Kozelek’s work, and just keep on with everything.
    This Argentinean living in France sends you a big hug.

    • Praveen Herat says:

      Big thanks for your kind comments, thoughts and words of encouragement! It’s great to know that this piece is still reaching people out there. And yes, more writing will surely follow :-)

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