Prose from Poetry Magazine

What the F*ck Was I Thinking

A musician tunes into poetry.

I began to write my memoirs before I had anything to remember. Before 
I knew how to put into words how it feels, that longing for something other than all of the incredible things going on around you and happening to you. Before I could describe the bulldozed swath where the factories used to be, whilst writing thousands of songs that illustrated my point of view exactly. I have box files full of false starts and finishes. From idle days to days overloaded, I failed to accurately interpret them all. I wrote on though, ripped, ropey, dopey, depressed, helpless, and heedless. Fortunately all unpublished, I put the brakes on minutes after seeing it advertised online. But now there’s no reason not to let it all out. If anyone can be bothered to read it. I’ve called it What the Fuck Was I Thinking, a title to guarantee a warm welcome at most churches and schools. As an aid to completing this endeavor I’ve sorted notebooks, lyrics, press clippings, and publicity pictures into an order, and among it all I found a letter to my manager from a publisher expressing interest and encouragement for my poetry and wondering what I wanted from them. I don’t think Pete Townshend, Eel Pie, or Faber & Faber were too concerned by my failure to reply. But that, before hit singles, may have been a more cultivating path than the electronic music I was so uncomfortable with. What the fuck was I thinking?

I went to a large comprehensive school in Birmingham. It was built in 1967 but when I got there in 1971 they decided to make it bigger and we got sent to what they called the annex, consisting of two old schools that Washwood Heath Comprehensive had been built to replace. One on Sladefield Road and the other on Leigh Road near the Metro Cammell factory. In one of these old Victorian red brick buildings, in one of their ancient classrooms, below a distant ceiling and gray sky seen through high windows, our English teacher put a vinyl LP onto a large portable record player that had been wheeled in on its gurney.

In the middle of the night I woke from a dream full of whips and lariats as long as serpents, and runaway coaches on mountain passes, and wide, windy gallops over cactus fields, and I heard the old man in the next room crying, “Gee-up!” and “Whoa!” and trotting his tongue on the roof of his mouth.

A Visit to Grandpa’s by Dylan Thomas, read by Dylan Thomas in his preposterously posh voice. We had a few paperback poetry books at home and I’d been encouraged to write at primary school in between learning Beatles lyrics in the toilets and looking through the Encyclopædia Britannica by the front door. My memories of education in the sixties are of wild xylophone improvisation and the carol service, and later of this booming, visceral vocal, virtually materializing before me in Leigh Road in 1972. I saved up and bought the album. Dylan Thomas reading Quite Early One Morning and Other Memories. Copyright the year of my birth, 1960, seven years after his death.

Early one Sunday evening in the early eighties the four television channels dictated that we must suffer through some religious broadcasting, before the deadly comedies or nature programs prepared us for what Louis MacNeice called, “the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.” As 
I clicked manually between them, I saw Kenneth Williams and sat down. Did he say untouch that touch, unkiss that kiss? I turned off the TV and wrote “Unkiss That Kiss,” which became the first single from my second album, then called Cocksure but eventually released as Because We Love You. Before it came out I wrote to Ken via BBC Radio at Portland Place. On the 4th of July, 1985, I received a reply.

Dear Stephen.
You got the quote wrong. It is
the last verse of a poem by Francis
Meynell & runs—

So this is the sum of it, this:
Say not: it is not much
You cannot unkiss that kiss
You cannot untouch that touch

The entire piece is called
& is a superb evocation
of everything being linked.

The single stalled just outside the seventy-five. Which was a letdown as I’d got to number three earlier in the year with the “Song of Solomon.” Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine.

In 1986, and on another Sunday, I was walking home along Ken High Street. In those pre-internet search engine times, some uncertainty prompted me to drop into a bookshop and buy a Pan Introduction to Fifty Modern British Poets. It was £2.95 and so modern it included Hardy, Houseman, and Kipling. I walked up Campden Hill Road and looked at the derelict house in Observatory Gardens. I had The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse in my duffle bag and I was wandering home to write a song like “[Your body is stars]” by Stephen Spender.

Your body is stars whose million glitter here:
I am lost amongst the branches of this sky
Here near my breast, here in my nostrils, here
Where our vast arms like streams of fire lie.

I wanted to finish the first The Lilac Time album and needed three more songs. No longer with Virgin Records, free to make my way acoustically and independently, I carried on walking up Ladbroke Grove to Harvist Road Queens Park. And on the top floor of 139, overlooking the brickyard and the railway lines and down past Trellick Tower and beyond Observatory Gardens and the late night that had preceded it all, I wrote, “you came to me in ecstasy, happy, on the road to happiness.” And thinking back to days before I wrote “the night spent crawling like a snail on black velvet” about Birmingham and youthful, drunken coquetterie. Then, thinking ahead I wrote, “if you get married you’ll find out that it’s true, love becomes a savage.” But what did I know, apart from the sparks that came from poems?


Note: Click here to listen to The Lilac Time’s song “The Simple Things” before it is publicly released.
Originally Published: January 1st, 2019

Stephen Duffy’s band, The Lilac Time, is attempting to release their tenth album, thirty-three years after the first. With nine other albums along the way, Duffy hopes to finish writing his memoirs soon.

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