Human Parts
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Human Parts

PAST IS PROLOGUE

My Accidental Britpop Mum

After mum’s sudden death I fell into a hermetically sealed ’90s music bubble. And now it’s time to leave.

Photography: Eileen O’Brien digital archives

Early in 2020 I went to see a Liam Gallagher concert with some friends in Amsterdam. It was one of the last gigs in the city before we went into lockdown. The muckraking Mancunian brought his special brand of British bedlam to the Dutch city, with thousands of his fans piling onto trains from Central Station and swaggering into the Ziggo Dome in beach hats, trench coats, and Man City tops. It was a Britpop siege.

And ever since that night I’ve been trapped inside a hermetically sealed ’90s music bubble.

Because I was also grieving the loss of my mum who had died a few weeks earlier. Among my siblings we had a running joke about who would pick up the caring duties in her twilight years. We thought we had longer. Then, all of a sudden, we were standing over her grave in a cold cemetery in the Western Isles of Scotland. The convergence of this life event with the visit of Gallagher to Amsterdam was the trigger. For the ’90s to become the official soundtrack of my grief.

Which makes perfect sense. I grew up in London during the ’90s, so it was logical that the music of that decade — my teenage years — would act as a reference point for my loss. It was a happy time, too. So, I started by doing something I haven’t done for years: I listened to full albums. (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis, Different Class by Pulp, Automatic for the People by R.E.M. I played them every day. I would binge listen and wallow obsessively in ’90s nostalgia.

These were the halcyon days of British rock and pop. Mum was in her prime too. A mother of five, she had created a quasi-halfway home in central London with an open-door policy that welcomed a steady flow of school kids, students, surgeons, and Australian relatives. And the odd priest. She liked having people around her. By the mid-’90s she had coined the phrase “organized chaos” to describe her brand of household management and parenting. Perfection was achieved through imperfection.

I remember as a 15-year-old schoolboy trying to persuade her to come to a parent-teacher meeting. She refused. “Why should I?” she said. Imagine that today? “Don’t you want to know how I’m getting on?” I shot back. “Not really. They all say the same things,” she replied. That takes a special kind of mum. Looking back, I can’t believe she passed up these easy opportunities for confrontation. Because she loved conversations where she could open people up like tins of sardines. Or shock them. She once told a friend of mine about her deep regret for not having tried cocaine in her youth. I was in the toilet. When I returned, he said to me: “I think your mum wants some coke.”

In those painful weeks after her death, I wandered aimlessly around ’90s musicscapes. I introduced the songs of my adolescence to my children with messianic verve. Family trips anywhere in the Netherlands had one soundtrack, The Bends by Radiohead, which I got burned onto a CD in 1998. And my kids hated it.

I lost myself in the last analog decade, where I thought mum was, because it felt loyal and right to me.

It wasn’t enough just to fill the void in my heart with ’90s hits. I had to school my children in the ’90s. I told them about the cultural impact of “Wonderwall.” After all. I explained the rich social commentary behind “Common People” by Pulp. I went to art school as well; didn’t daddy tell you that? I floated around the house on my ’90s island, noise-cancelling headphones on, marooning myself away from the rest of my family.

Falling back into your teenage years is quite normal in a crisis or when facing a personal trauma. “Nostalgia is a hell of a drug and, arguably, music is its purest form,” journalist Kate Solomon wrote earlier this year. You find your safe place — that time in your life when you felt most happy — and then you bury yourself in it.

“Trauma takes away our gray areas. It divides our timeline into a before and an after,” Dr. Valentina Stoycheva, a clinical psychologist specializing in traumatic stress, told the New York Times. “And while it has the danger of creating this longing for the before, when things were maybe safer, and when we were unaware of all of this and protected by our naïveté, there’s also something about nostalgic behaviors — fashion, clothes, movies, music — that serve as a transitional object.”

If nostalgia was my chosen drug, my music high wasn’t of the purest kind.

For example, I kept playing “Spaceman” by Babylon Zoo. I don’t even like the song. It just happened to be playing on a ’90s mix album mum had in her kitchen. I played “Inside” by Stiltskin repeatedly for the same reason. By the way, you can’t find that single on Spotify. Then came Up, the breakout 1992 album by Right Said Fred which I remember sitting in the CD rack in our home. A bright red and yellow cover. These are songs I never played before. It felt like I was pumping coins into a jukebox and grief was choosing the songs.

Then came “Riverdance,” which I haven’t stopped playing for three years now. “Riverdance” was a half-time dance performance at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest held in Dublin. I found the performance from April 30, 1994, on YouTube. I played it over and over again and started crying at my desk. Wave after wave of emotion came flooding back. Why? We used to play it at dinner parties, and I remember watching mum attempt the Irish jig and laughing at her.

The funny thing is that mum wasn’t really a ’90s woman at all. She was a woman of all genres. Her spirit had collided violently with my teenage-filtered grief; she was accidentally ’90s, accidentally Britpop. And the journey into the weird underbelly of that decade brought home an uncomfortable truth for me: I didn’t really know her music taste at all. She liked music the same way she liked people.

In my mind, she was one-third folk, one-third ’70s, and probably one-third Trainspotting soundtrack.

Everyone handles grief differently. And how you fare in this dance depends on how hard you fall down the nostalgic manhole. My personal loss was channeled through memories of love and the music that played when I felt loved. I didn’t get to choose the songs that go on that soundtrack; grief did. Sometimes the songs came faster than the tears. Grief was swinging me around our ’90s living room, smashing my head into mum’s furniture to the sound of “Sorted for E’s & Wizz” by Pulp. It rained Chinese porcelain to “Strange Glue” by Catatonia. I smiled as the blood poured down my forehead. And then grief turned the volume up.

The thing is: I don’t want the ’90s to own my mum’s memory. Or my memories of her. She has to roam as freely around my musicscape as she did around the world when she was alive. Honour the woman who belongs to all genres, not just the ’90s.

Grief, music, and nostalgia had dropped me into this hole. Maybe a similar cocktail could get me out. I started a playlist. My chosen filter: one-word songs. “Yesterday,” “Moonshadow,” “Graceland,” “Layla.” A playlist for the genre-less. I put Dusty Springfield in the same room as Prodigy, Nat King Cole, and Iggy Pop. I called it “From Help! to Rehab” and amassed 55 hours of listening over three years.

I didn’t want a total purge of the ’90s, just harmony with other genres. So, it wasn’t some loud, obnoxious teenager occupying the real estate in my mind. No more Britpop etc. No more tearful binges. And maybe there’s a lesson in that: Maybe I should have broken out of my bubble sooner. And forced myself to embrace songs I had carefully ignored or avoided through my life.

“Manhattan” by Dinah Washington, “Atmosphere” by Joy Division, “Panic” by The Smiths, “Unbelievable” by EMF, “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan, “Hummingbird” by B.B. King, “Cupid” by Sam Cooke, “Heroes” by David Bowie, “Lola” by The Kinks, “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin, “Roxanne” by The Police, “Lithium” by Nirvana, “Fever,” “Roam,” “Maybelline,” “Fidelity,” “Royals,” “Angie,” “Summertime,” “Everywhere,” “Hurt,” “1979,” “Baltimore,” “Downtown,” “Kokomo,” “Candy,” “Blackbird,” “Respect,” “Deanna,” “Lullaby,” “Easy,” “Gigantic,” “Runaway,” “Songbird,” “Linger,” “Hideaway,” “Imagine,” “Crash,” “Help!,” “Rehab.”

Maybe they can be the ones that save me.

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Rob O’Brien

Rob O’Brien

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Writer & producer based in Amsterdam. Stories for NYT, Independent & Penthouse. I write about people, life experiences, the everyday. Twitter: @robwriting