Twenty years ago to the day I went on a blind date.
It was a serendipitous moment. Not only did it transform my personal life, but it gave my musical appreciation a bit of a shot in the arm.
I was late to the date. Fifteen minutes late. But he waited.
The first thing I saw of Simon was his Converse-clad feet set at ten to two.
I apologised for my late arrival. He pointed to the closed White Swan pub behind him. “Shall we go to the Railway Inn next door?”
It was a shitty pub in which we drank shitty beer. But it was a safe location.
I wasn’t out to anyone. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing. What I knew was that Compton Street, contrary to perceived opinion, was not the place for closet case with a rural upbringing.
Simon and I had been introduced via a mutual ‘friend’, Sean.
Sean was someone I had met via a chat line soon after I’d moved to London.
He was in search of someone with a rugby player build. I was good at spinning a line.
When I arrived at Sean’s flat, he inevitably looked disappointed. “Well I’m here now,” I quipped. “Waste not want not.”
Such pragmatism didn’t carry through. I may not have had the build, but Sean showed little sign of great technique. Things ground to halt soon after I clambered onto the mattress.
“You should meet a friend of mine,” he said to me as I was tying my shoelaces. “He works in band management.”
This had been the line that hooked me. Two weeks in London, two weeks after leaving my job in orchestral management, and two weeks into my new job at a margarine factory in East London, arts administration still lingered like an ex unwilling to move on. And now, one complete stranger was introducing me to another complete stranger who also happened to work in arts administration. This was a lifeline. Or so it seemed.
“I work for a rock band,” explained Simon as he sipped his cider. “It’s not very glamorous,” he added, “it’s lots of running around getting people cigarettes and paying for taxis.”
Conversation between us was limited in a pub occupied by a handful of mid-week East end drinkers.
“Would you like to come back to my flat?” he Simon. This man was efficient.
“Why not? Where is it?”
On the face of it, agreeing to go back to someone’s flat 45 minutes after you’ve first met them may seem a little rash. But in some situations instinct gives a guiding hand.
Simon seemed interested, interesting, and inviting. And most importantly of all he had the portable radio on the back seat of his car tuned to Radio 4. “I love Radio 4,” he told me as he started up the car, “I love the Archers.” Another tick.
At his ground floor flat in Kings Avenue, Clapham I casually flicked through the considerable CD collection whilst Simon retrieved drinks from the kitchen. Jussi Bjorling, Vivaldi Four Seasons, a bit of Tchaikovksy, and quite a lot of Status Quo. This could be problematic.
“What do you want?” he shouted from the kitchen. “A beer. Cider. Or a cup of tea?”
I moved to the mantelpiece where a full range of framed pictures gave me a better impression of the man in the kitchen. In the middle, in a yellowy frame was Simon sat cross-legged next to someone who looked vaguely familiar. I looked in closely.
“I see you’ve got to the pictures then,” said Simon as he came into the room.
“Yes,” I replied. Suitably buoyed by the implicit permission given, I deployed my best attempt at my coolest humour. “I’ve also been through the CDs. There’s quite a lot of Status Quo. You’re quite the fan.”
Simon smiled nervously.
“And you’ve had your picture taken with the lead singer of Status Quo,” I said pointing at the mantelpiece. “Even for a fan, that’s quite sad you know.”
“That’s my Dad.”
We’ve been together ever since. Twenty-years today. I count myself very lucky indeed, every single day. I look at all the things that could have got in the way of us getting together and all the things that could have prevented us from staying together and count my blessings. It sounds corny, I know. But it is the truth. I cannot explain it. So it must surely be luck.
Maybe it was music
Simon and I appeared to bond over music. This in part because, like the ground floor Georgian flat conversion, I had never seen a music system quite so big.
Big JBL 4410s flanked a similarly over-sized television screen. On the table in front of me were a dizzying array of remote controls.
“You have to turn the amp up a bit to get the monitors performing well,” said Simon proudly, “that’s when you really hear the music.”
The room boomed and thundered. Top registers were bright and distinct. The music was all around us. I hadn’t heard music like this before.
On reflection I think we also bonded over music because a high quality music system gave each of us a reason to share in one another’s music.
For me that meant being introduced to the music of Stephen Sondheim, Fleetwood Mac, and Stevie Wonder.
And for him (because this was also the first opportunity I’d had to hear my collection played on a decent system) that meant Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, the first movement from Shostakovich’s Lennigrad, the second movement of Rachmaninov’s second symphony, and In Paradisum from Faure’s Requiem.
Our blind date wasn’t only about sharing in one another’s music choices. It was about engaging in a bit of ‘music tennis’, a process of acknowledging the marvel of what we’d just heard and responding to it with something equally awesome for new ears – the kind of thing Spotify does for you now with an algorithm.
But more importantly, meeting Simon set me on a path to listening differently.
First, I’d never listened to lyrics quite so intently. Up until then I’d approached pop and rock as music first often overlooking the words. When Simon focused my attention on the agonising lyrics in Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again. What had previously been a sweet sounding song was transformed into something exquisitely dark.
Similarly, the jaw-dropping efficiency of Stephen Sondheim’s lyric writing combined with the complex multi-layered orchestra score in some of the master musical theatre composer’s greatest works made the combination of drama and music a revelation. Benjamin Britten appeared static, unadventurous and other-worldly in comparison.
That Simon is an audiophile seems an obvious point to make today, but twenty years ago it hadn’t dawned on me. He sat and listened to music, in the same way that I sit and listen to an entire Mahler symphony without the blink of an eye now. But back then, such active engagement in musical appreciation was new to me.
Listen now; talk after. This music wasn’t wallpaper, but art to be appreciated.