Music is to break ups what hammers are to teeth: you combine them at your peril.
Last November, after six of the happiest years of my life, I broke up
with my long-term boyfriend. Actually, he wasn’t my boyfriend. I didn’t
call him that. I called him my ‘partner’ so everyone thought he was a
6’4” lesbian. He called me his ‘wing man’. We were one of those couples.
But, this is a man who measures his record collection not in discs,
but in metres. He plays music like other men breathe. He knows more
about many albums than the people who made them and shared his taste
just like he shared affection – constantly and with utter kindness.
This is all brilliant when you’re a 22-year-old spinster with just 24
charity shop vinyls and an analogue radio to your name. It’s less good
when you’re a love-lorn 28-year-old desperately struggling to find
something – anything – to listen to that doesn’t make you weep like a
goose caught in barbed wire.
You see, music is a strange alchemy. It can transport you so
entirely, colour your mood so completely, define your identity so
thoroughly, that at times of high emotional intensity you might struggle
to find anything that doesn’t feel a bit, well, emosh, for want of a
When I broke up with my first boyfriend I found myself, unaccountably
and hilariously, crying in the middle of a New Look because Will
Young’s Think I Better Leave Right Now came on. I don’t think I ever
even listened to that song with my first boyfriend. It certainly holds
no great significance to me now. But, on that thin-skinned and
wobbly-lipped day, it basically ruined me. It left me, sobbing and
baffled, in a sea of cheap lycra and ill-fitting denim.
Now, when you’ve shared the greater part of your adult life with a man who owns most of the seminal records of the 20th and 21st
centuries, it can leave your options pretty narrow. LCD Soundsystem
made me want to swallow my own tongue. The Strokes made me bawl like a
baby. The Beatles made me think my heart was burning out through my
body, via my womb. Brian Eno made me ache and David Bowie made snot pour
out of my face like waves through a rockpool.
Male-dominated guitar music was, in short, off the menu (although he
did listen to other stuff too). So, instead, I started looking
backwards. Looking back to an old Nell. A single Nell. A Nell who walked
through life with nothing but 24 charity shop vinyls and an analogue
radio to her name. And it was there that I rediscovered the female
musicians of my youth, adolescence and early twenties. The women whose
voices, faces, lyrics and attitudes helped to form me, as surely as any
of my friends, my hometown or my own body.
Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Nico, Aretha Franklin, Nina
Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Grace Jones, Marcia Griffiths,
Tina Turner, Annie Lennox, Billie Holiday, Mary J Blige, Sandy Denny,
Dusty Springfield. Not only could I listen to these voices; on those
dark and salty nights I actually heard them. It felt like they were
singing to me, directly to my heart, of love and sorrow. Of pain and
regret, of resilience and joy, of hope and honour, of suffering and a
sense of humour. When Joan Baez started doing her impression of Bob
Dylan three minutes and fifty seconds into her cover of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall I was filled with hope. It was hilarious – she was brilliant.
She wasn’t broken by heartache, she was made stronger, more
inspirational. Here she was, mocking one of the world’s most important
musicians, not in bitterness, but with the affection of someone who once
stood beside their fire.
When Carole King screamed out the challenge to take another little
piece of her heart, it rung like a clarion call of
When Marcia Griffiths sang about a land across the sea, of being
beautiful, of being a mother, I could feel myself, almost literally,
filling out into the shape of my old self.
These women were familiar to me. As familiar as a childhood bedroom,
the smell of Body Shop dewberry soap or the taste of Hooch lemon. They
sang to me from across the intervening decade, reminding me of how I
once imagined my adult self. They made me remember. But without pain.
So, if you’re trying to battle your way through the waves of
heartache, buffeted by painful memories, poignant voices and devastating
lyrics, swallowing mouthfuls of your own salty tears and awash with
snot, then I have a suggestion: go to your women.
Let them hold you, humour you, even, dare I say it, heal you with
their songs of love and loss. Be angry, be sad, be guilty, be
remorseful, be vengeful, be desperate if that’s what happens. But don’t
think you have to do that in silence or alone.
Of course rebuilding your sense of self after a significant break up is like trying to climb snow.
But, fuck it, at least you can choose the soundtrack.