I hope this is obvious, but it’s not the point of The Things I Love… to take popular positions on unpopular things. There was a time when, say, Kylie, was derided for being ‘fake’, whatever that means. Of course, now she’s loved like she’s made of ice cream, which, in a way, she is. It’s all done in that tedious, ironic way that the British do things, like cheering for the underdog or having Eurovision parties. It’s fun, people shriek, and, of course, shrieking is a sure sign of fun being had. We like them but not really, not like the serious things we like, like Bartok and Brutalism. I’m joking. I sometimes think the British don’t like anything more serious than a walk in the rain then moaning about it.
Well – I can feel you reaching for overripe fruit to throw at me – I love the sound of Rod Stewart singing sad songs. Has there ever been a performer more derided by the people who know or more enjoyed by the people who don’t? (No, is the answer, in case you were wondering, or, at least for the purposes of this post, I can’t think of anyone). I like him singing upbeat songs, too, but it’s the sad ones that get me.
When I was young I didn’t much care for sad songs. I wanted beats, I wanted rhythm, I wanted up up up. But now, in middle age, I love them. I love them so much I can’t bear to listen to them. They make me cry, they make me weep. I once broke down listening to Billie Holiday. How could she bear to sing those songs, with that saddest of voices and heaviest of hearts? I just heard Tom Waits singing a song called Martha on the radio and I’m in pieces. Lost love, regret, loneliness… the singer wants to reconnect with someone he loved in his youth.
I tried to do that a few years ago. I was returning to Amsterdam for the first time since I’d spent a glorious summer there when I was twenty, with Michael, in a beautiful, enormous house on the Kaisersgracht. It was the first time I’d been in love. After I returned to London he stayed in Holland, met someone else, blah blah. You know how that sad song goes. I wrote to Michael wanting to meet for coffee. Amsterdam that September was cool and grey. The Rijksmuseum was being refurbished and only had the bare bones of its collection on show. (Art is one of the reasons I visit other cities. Art and parks. We like what we like). Anway, we didn’t meet, I never heard from him, I never got the chance to hear how his life had been or tell him about mine. A few weeks after I came home the letter I’d written was returned, unopened. Michael didn’t want to meet me. That’s not the cruellest thing anyone has ever done to me, but it’s in the top five. I didn’t want to relight the fire. I felt no bitterness, I just wanted to say hello.
It seems obvious to me that life is not, and can never be, one long, gentle downhill glide on a Spring afternoon, with the sun and a light breeze on your face, birds singing in the trees, almond blossom floating down like the gentlest snow. In every life some rain must fall and sometimes there’s a storm. You must weather the weather. And you may as well have a decent playlist to see you through the downpour.
Rod Stewart does it at least as beautifully as anyone. Maggie May, Mandolin Wind, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, I was Only Joking and the Ballad of Georgie, definitely that. And an album track, too: Tomorrow is a Long Time. Let’s add In a Broken Dream and I have a perfect playlist for a wintry day, cold and wet outside, warm and melancholy inside. It’s the sad songs that make me happy, if that’s the right word. He doesn’t want to talk about his broken heart but I’m glad he wants to sing about it, with that rusty, ruined-sounding voice. It has never left me dry-eyed. I think I’d end with The First Cut is the Depest. It’s misery is complete, the abjectness of Rod’s broken heart is heart breaking. It’s the company that my misery needs. Your unhappiness is nothing next to Rod’s when he’s singing this sad song. He is miserable for me, I don’t have to be. And that, of course, is why I love Rod Stewart singing sad songs.