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“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.” Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time.
The above quote is one of the most famous of twentieth century literature. Marcel Proust describes eating a madeleine, a French cookie usually taken with tea, and the journey back through time – experiencing all the sensations around the first time he ate a madeleine – that results from it. The ‘madeleine moment’ is a trigger for all the other journeys back in time that motivate Proust in each volume of the novel. The term ‘involuntary memory’ has even been coined to describe these moments of unexpected memory flushes, when our senses are activated with such intensity we are actually brought back to the original moment again, with all its bustling sensations.
Although I knew of its existence, I had purposefully avoided listening to OK Computer OKNOTOK (the 2017 anniversary edition of the original album) for a reason: I didn’t want to have a ‘madeleine moment.’ I didn’t want to journey, when listening to the album back to June 1997, when I first listened to the album. I didn’t want to go there unexpectedly, like when driving to work with the kids, or sitting at home in my study. I wanted it to happen when I was running in the woods with my dog, somewhere when I was alone: on my own. Why? Simply because I can’t listen to OK Computer without thinking of 1997. And 1997 left a huge a mark on me. I can’t listen to OK Computer without it sparking some affect. And I don’t know how I’ll respond. Maybe I’ll laugh or maybe I’ll cry. But I need to be alone when it happens.
I had just finished the second semester of an MA at Exeter University in June 1997, and was about to begin a thesis. Strangely, I was studying in the same English department as Thom Yorke had studied in a few years earlier, and would drink – on some occasions – in the Student Union where, apparently, he used to DJ. Fellow students would even point to toilets in the Bar as the ‘place’ Thom wrote ‘Creep.’ So the release of OK Computer was a big deal for the University and the department, in that Thom Yorke was alumni (as were a number of the band members along with the graphic designer Stanley Donwood). However, I was going through my own existential stuff at the time. I had arrived in Exeter having survived the excess of being a UCG arts student and had just come through a hellish time with a recurring knee injury.
My confidence was low and my mood had nosedived having finished my degree to the effect that I began to suffer from panic attacks. I had no idea where I was going. So when I came to Exeter I went to a GP and was redirected to a psychoanalyst who I attended free for a few months (on the NHS). This woman – who I bonded with instantaneously – gave me a new set of eyes. She helped me to understand my own journey through an Ireland speeding into the future while tied to the historical chains of the past. And she helped me see that panic, low mood, a general sense of despair, were not especially abnormal emotions for someone my age. She also gave me two pieces of advice that have stayed with me since. She said we have no event in the West to mark the transition from teenager into adult. Most mental health issues occur between the ages of 18-24, when, it’s no surprise, the demands of being an adult are foisted upon us.
They are also trying to find where their version of adulthood fits into the schema that the world has designated for them. The second piece of advice was historical and appealed to the historian in me: Ireland had only just experienced a cultural explosion akin to what Britain had experienced in the 1960’s. The 1990’s saw the first real expression of a counterculture like that of other nations; and the first sign of youth resistance to the axis of Church and State. Looking at things this way helped to position my feelings in relation to what was happening around me. I was grappling with trying to find where I slotted into this adult world. But this lady also revealed a link I was unaware of, between a Catholic upbringing where the cultivation of guilt is a long-established specialisation and my own relentless feelings of guilt. The advice, in this precise sense, gave context to the Ireland I had grown up in; where divorce was taboo, sex something married adults did in the dark, and bad mental health a sign of weakness.
Fast forward to 2017: I’m running along the Slieve Felim Way (between Murroe and the Silver Mines Mountains), finally plugged into OK Computer OKNOTOK. I expect the second song on the album ‘Paranoid Android’ to bring me back to the mix of paranoia and excitement that accompanied the cultural explosion of the 90’s. And this is precisely what happens. Yorke sings ‘when I am king you’ll be the first against the wall’ and directs a barb at the increasing influence corporations were having on music and other forms of cultural expression at the time. Although interpreted by many as a song that takes aim at the corporatization of the world in general, via multiple references to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the song captures – for me – that paranoia that took effect among those who had lived through the underground of the 90’s. Bonhomie and euphoria succumbed to darkness: there is no alternative. But I’m running in woods thinking about this song particularly when the ‘madeleine moment’ occurs, as the song changes from ‘Paranoid Android’ to ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien.’ Suddenly I’m on a muddy hill, surrounded by the Silvermines Mountains, but I’m not really there. I’m in a different place. I’m sitting on a bench outside the medical centre at the University of Exeter. It’s July 1997 and I’m plugging my headphones in, intent on walking home. Student life has all but evaporated, and the queue that usually forms outside the telephone boxes on the campus has gone. The sun has come out and there’s a haze everywhere. Birds are singing. I walk down towards the telephone box, pick up the phone and dial my mother, using the Irish prefix as I always do.
‘Mam, it’s me.’
‘Is everything ok?’
‘Yea. It’s ok.’
‘I want to come home.’
‘What about your thesis?’
‘I’m not in that zone.’
‘Look I’m at work. I’ll call you later.’
I put down the phone and bury my head in my hands. But when I stand up I see someone is waiting outside to get in, staring at me for holding them up. Therefore, I start running again in 2017, and think about why I recall this moment, now? Why, when listening to ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ now, do I think of this moment in 1997?
‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ is a song that pays homage to probably the most iconic of 1960’s songs: Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’ Dylan’s song is a rallying cry to an emerging counterculture (‘you don’t need a weatherman, to know which way the wind blows’), lighting a torch for a new generation, or those no longer subservient to the old pillars of conformity. The video for the song has spurned countless imitations but the song itself, name checking Kerouac and Chuck Berry as influences, is a spitfire delivery of poetic and verbal dexterity. Dylan’s upbeat celebration of an ‘other’ America is a hymn to a subterranean world that has, by the time of Radiohead’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien,’ been sucked up by the machine of commerce. Radiohead’s song captures this abiding ennui. But it’s also a song that celebrates. It suggests the issues that have always defined life, the big questions such as ‘what is life all about?’ will persist, even when drowned out by power hungry corporations.
I’m running to ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ on my headphones when the ‘madeleine moment’ occurs and I’m brought back to a time when I was 23, unclear as to whether to jack in a thesis I couldn’t seem to write or to go home, to see my friends, and hope that my mood would lighten up and I’d return to Exeter with energy and zest. The bit in the song that hits a nerve, almost throwing me off track, comes just after Yorke dreams of being captured by aliens and taken away onto their ship, to see the earth as he likes to see it. He then sings ‘I tell all my friends, but they never believe me,’ before lamenting, ‘they think that I’ve finally, lost it completely.’ Every time I listen to the rhyme of ‘finally’ and ‘completely’ I feel an emotional gut punch. But it wouldn’t affect me so viscerally if Yorke – with rare optimism – didn’t go on to sing that he’s ‘alright,’ but that he’s actually ‘just uptight.’ It’s difficult to put into words the solace that I took from this back then, without really knowing why perhaps until now. I can only imagine, with a hazy memory as my guide, that I walked back from campus that day in Exeter listening to OK Computer as I had done a lot that summer, feeling less like the alien that I often felt like when I was 23 yrs old. ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ captures that yearning to know who we are, where we are going, when we have no real guide. It captures that journey from teenager to adult we travel without a map, and without knowing when we’ve reached where we’re supposed to be going. But it’s also a pop song that distills into three succinct minutes our existential predicament.
OK Computer, as a whole album (and an album that many hold up as the quintessential rock album), is an existential album first and foremost, dealing with the burden of maintaining an authentic sense of self in a world which commodifies authenticity. The machine seeks out authentic forms of being to wrap it up and sell it back to us. As I came running down the Slieve Felim way, I became conscious of why I resisted listening to the 2017 version of the album until now: I didn’t want to be reminded of the painful transition from teenager to adult, the struggle to authenticate myself on my terms. I didn’t want to be that subterranean homesick alien again. But then I thought about those words of advice I was given back then, that concerned the lack of a ritual or an event to mark our journey into adulthood, and how it helped me see things differently. The words were an oar I could hold to stop me drowning in the sea.
I stop running and pull out the headphones as I reach the car. I grab a towel, open the back door and allow the dog jump in. Having backed out to begin the drive home, I then start thinking how to work the whole ‘madeleine moment’ into an Art Encounters article. Maybe I can write about vivid memories when out running on trails, memories that spurn words of advice. I then imagine these words of advice might be a solution, a mid-life solution to some younger self’s crisis. And then I’ll end up writing about it all on a Saturday evening, when sitting in front of the fire playing ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ to my nine-year-old son, Karl. I’ll say ‘d’ya like that Karl?’ while looking down from a computer screen as he scribbles into a copybook. He’ll look up and smile in my direction, before saying ‘yeah, Dad, I like it. Is he on a spaceship?’ ‘No, he was on a spaceship, but now he’s going home.’ ‘Good, I thought he might be lost.’