All By My Shelf

“Just take those old records off the shelf. I sit and listen to them by myself.”

Old time rock ‘n’ roll by Bob Segar. It’s a song about being by yourself. Solitude. This poor bloke, just wanting to listen to his nostalgic music collection. It’s uncanny that this song is one of my standout memories from primary school. As juniors we would sit in a circle as our music teacher put it on.

“Now, just listen to it as an example of recorded music. What can you hear?”

Some funky low-end. That breakbeat drop out bit. A curmudgeonly old rocker that seems to have stayed the same age as I caught up. Thirty years later and I’d be the one taking old records (and old CDs) off the shelf. I’d also be in fair agreement that today’s music ‘ain’t got the same soul’ – caught in the double-bind that simply admitting that is some kind of cultural own goal – basically advertising your own irrelevance to the younger, hipper generations. But then, who needs words to do that when I have my colourless hair?

(Bob Seger is considered the godfather of belligerence. He was the first Boomer to slag off the generation after him, a sentiment now carried in alarming numbers across every second youtube comment on any song released before 1980. Is it fitting that the music he’s dissing is probably the very early 80s soft-rock that I now commandeer?)

There aren’t enough cool, tough songs that casually mention being by yourself. (“Maybe he’s born with it….maybe it’s Radiohead.”) 90% of songs are about love and 90% of those are propaganda for couples, basically saying ‘being alone is the price you pay for fucking up love. So… love…don’t fuck it up!’

I remember feeling haunted by music in the wake of my relationship strike in 2009. Music became a surveillance ghost as tunes trailed me onto the bus.

“I can’t live if living is without you.”

“I know I’ll never find another you.”

“How am I supposed to live without you?”

I fought back with my first purchase of over-ear headphones and a predilection towards ambient electronic music. Boards of Canada, Four Tet, early Caribou – they had no words. I didn’t have any songwriters’ agenda being pushed onto me – like a liquified diary spray-painted on my garden wall.

Now, I’m sort of enamoured by mid 80s ballads that so brazenly and eloquently declare a stoically melancholic mood.

“Look at me standing / here on my own again / up straight in the sunshine
No need to run and hide, it’s a wonderful, wonderful life
No need to laugh or cry, it’s a wonderful, wonderful life.”

Black, Wonderful Life (1987)

From the inappropriately boppy cover by Ace Of Base at my high school social*, to truly comforting black velvet cloud of nostalgia and ambience in my ballads playlist – this song has had a journey. I love that it’s by an artist known simply as Black.

* no wait, I’m thinking of the Ace Of Base song Beautiful Life – but then they did do a cover of Wonderful Life but not until 2002, when I heard it somewhere other than a high school social – you’d hope.

As a member of the solitude community, I deeply respect its acknowledgement of the simple truth that human life can be played out in relationship exile, through no particular design or fault of anyone. It’s a slight change from the default whitewash of families and couples that the large proportion of recorded advertising media is concerned with.

It has been suggested recently that there is still an obvious bias against single people. For example, theatre tickets are usually sold as pairs and sometimes single seats can’t be bought towards the end. (See: victory for spinster theatregoers)

Single people are assumed in deficit.

I’ve often thought, if you are by yourself and your main impression of this position is a sense of being incomplete, then how problematic is that?

(See: my 20s)

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal (in the 1600s)

When there’s nothing to lose and there’s nothing to prove
Well, I’m dancing with myself

British philosopher Billy Idol (in the 1980s)

‘All By Myself’ ruined Christmas. It’s such a crass take on the quiet, moving, wryly sophisticated juxtaposition of ‘Wonderful Life.’ Lately I’ve thought that Cat Stevens’ ‘Another Saturday Night’ also does justice. It humanises the lonely characters’ plight.

Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody
I got some money ’cause i just got paid
How I wish I had someone to talk to
I’m in an awful way.

SAM COOKE, another saturday night (1964)

As an aside, I don’t think I ever knew this was a cover.

A hit that was largely background to me now plays as a doom-pop appraisal of a sometimes weekly predicament. For most of my 20s and early 30s, Sunday afternoons were the hardest part of the week to trawl through. Something changed in my mid 30s. As I began to make peace with my childhood blues, I realised that a social deadzone for making plans with pals was Saturday night. And so, a sense of foreboding and pressure built up, so that each Saturday afternoon felt like a mini New Year’s Eve without the parties or fireworks.

It was as if I had a weekly reminder that I was single. ‘Just think Justin,’ the cruel checklist insisted, ‘all those lovely young things out there on dates, together. All those long-term couples, meeting up with the other couples. And you, buddy, here, in this room, by yourself –  as proof you exist.’

Ah, but see, I was never alone. How can I be truly lonely when I have music?
Music is magic. Straight up.

It’s a message
in a bottle
full of oxygen
I can dream.

And if music outstays its welcome then there’s always some kind of movie. And if that isn’t what the doctor ordered then surely beer rounds everyone up and wraps them in a team huddle and gives them enough of a pep talk to convince all the moving parts of the generous, loving, hope-drenched, melancholic_ambient person to crack on and forget about the flim-flam of the dickheads outside, that yabbering on is overrated and we have all the low-lighting and controlled-volume environment we could ever want right here.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful life with old time rock ‘n’ roll.

JJ Cale, he’s my man. The guy isn’t even alive anymore. What’s the point of meeting anyone, if I can’t even tell him how in awe I am of his music?

Related reading: i is the loneliest letter (2022)
Thanks: Will Hindmarsh for suggesting 'Dancing With Myself.'