It had been thirteen months since my incredibly happy year in Glasgow ended, giving-way to the not-so-happy times between summer of last year and last spring. I now refer to this era as my “post-Glasgow bereavement period.” With the expiration of my student visa looming, and with my inability to find work in Scotland, I unwillingly left Glasgow to return to New York City, losing my student lifestyle and academic identity, a city in which I felt comfortable and stimulated, and various circles of friends in the process; I began life in Brooklyn unemployed, isolated and directionless. The transition made me feel more gutted than a wildcat in a taxidermy warehouse.
And yet, although I spent months thinking of nothing else but returning to Glasgow, finally walking down Otago Lane, Sauchiehall Street and Paisley Road West again did not make me feel as though tremendous wrongs had been righted. A lot had changed. For instance, many of my friends had left Glasgow. I had known this, but it nevertheless jarred me to experience their absence firsthand.
Remembering the cynical refrain of a few Glasgow residents, I asked Stuart – my flatmate during my wonderful postgraduate year – if the saying “Glasgow is a place that people leave” actually held water.
“Eh, you’re surprised that your uni friends who graduated aren’t here anymore?” he said, definitely smiling and probably smoking a cigarette.
Sloth Metropolis performing "Wee Fib" at The 13th Note.
Glasgow welcomes myriad music scenes, from "shambling" indie pop to hardcore punk. At a harvest festival in the north of the city, for instance, I watched members of the Glasgow-based band Sloth Metropolis stomp down distortion peddles and launch an electric fiddle freak-out while children played tag, parents sold home-made chutney, a woman gave away clay-oven baked pizza, and a few young men were asking attendees to sample treats made from their proposed, sustainable protein source: mealworms.
By happy happenstance, a Glaswegian band called Close Lobsters – one of the greatest bands to jangle-pop out of the C86 scene – were performing at Stereo during my visit. I discovered them less than a year ago and have recommended their catchy, cerebral masterpiece Foxheads Stalk this Land to just about everyone. Tickets to their gig were a bargain at £10.
Close Lobsters performing "I Kiss the Flower in Bloom" at Stereo last year.
I met a young woman from Hong Kong there. She was a fresher and happened to be staying in the dorm I lived in as an exchange student. When she mentioned that she was vegan, I told her nothing of my temporary devolution into ovo-lacto vegetarianism; egg-and-cress sandwiches, and the yokes of guilt that follow every convenient carton, are part and parcel of my life in Glasgow.
The first song that Close Lobsters played had the refrain “the heat this time of year is ridiculous.” I chanted along, clogged-up by a cold brought on by the chllly dampness this time of year. From Foxheads, they performed “Prophecy” and “I Kiss the Flower in Bloom,” which received the greatest share of the crowd's enthusiasm. After a second encore, and after the DJ signaled the end of the set with Orange Juice’s “Rip It Up” (the Glaswegians in the room recited the lyrics as we left), I walked outside feeling as though I had just been to one of the greatest gigs I had ever seen. I'll provide two reasons in support of this claim:
- First, local performances by local bands are always best, and Close Lobsters were playing to an audience that knew their city's musical history. Most of those in the room were old enough to have remembered Close Lobsters when C86 first hit Glasgow, and most probably had fond recollections of how the band affected them in their youth. This leant itself to an emotional intensity to the room.
- Second, Close Lobsters play a kind of music that I find myself listening to frequently these days: a jangly, cerebral, catchy indie pop with a punk lineage. What could be better than sharing my love of this unusual genre with scores of others?
In addition to Close Lobsters, Glasgow is home to musical legends aplenty, and given the amount of times I have randomly walked past Stuart Murdoch during my previous visits, I'm inclined to write that these musicians are remarkably accessible. I had heard that a certain record shop had some sort of connection with The Pastels: another legendary Glaswegian C86 band, and during this visit, I decided to buy something there. One of the people behind the counter looked familiar. Just to confirm my suspicion, I asked a different person at the cash register about their supposed connection with the band. “That’s the lead singer,” she said, pointing to Stephen McRobbie. He rang me up when I bought his new album and we had a brief conversation about Helen Love.
On my final night in Glasgow, while briefly separating from a subcrawl (wherein revelers must order a drink from a bar at every stop along the city’s circular subway line), Stuart took me to his favorite pub: an unassuming southside joint beneath a bridge. He described it as walking through a timewarp to the city in the 1970’s. The mementoes from Glasgow’s past, nailed to margarine-colored walls, validated his assessment.
A man had randomly brought in a guitar and was belting out Radiohead’s “Creep.” Stuart and I sang along. A plump woman with short gray hair sang folk, country-western and protest songs next, including a recent song about the Bedroom Tax imposed by the current coalition government.
The anti-Bedroom Tax song covered by the woman in the pub.
Stuart got into a conversation with a middle-aged woman who, after making fun of him for hailing from Aberdeen, somehow got the entire pub to sing the Aberdonian anthem “Northern Lights.” Stuart beamed.
She then asked me where I was from. When I answered, the response I usually get from Glaswegians followed: “You’re from New York City?” she said, expressing genuine confusion, “why are ya over here for? Why would anyone from New York come to this place?”
I immediately thought of everything that's wrong with New York City today: about how suburban kids flock to New York in search of the extinct countercultures of yesteryear, pretending to recreate those countercultures by buying things; I thought about my coworker, who rode the Ramones/Patti Smith wave of punk, only to get pushed out of Bedford-Stuyvesant by hipster gentrification thirty-five years later; I thought about the nihilism that pervades New York City at the present time, and how much privilege a person must possess to have the luxury of not caring.
And then I looked around at this Glasgow pub that had not changed its décor in forty years, at people singing together and buying each other drinks, and how all were welcome to join in – even outsiders like me.
“Because this is real,” I said.
She accepted my answer. I reckon the Englishman who bade us all sing Hamish Imlach’s “Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice” at closing time probably felt similarly.