Amy Key’s memoir Arrangements in Blue is lyrical, moving, and profound.
While my book Arrangements in Blue is infused by the music of Joni Mitchell, and specifically her album Blue, many other songs feature. I suppose this is because I am highly susceptible to dramatising my life – set dressing and soundtracking the big and small moments of it. I wouldn’t group these songs together on a playlist I intended to listen to, and of these songs there’s one – Wonderwall – that I don’t listen to by choice at all these days, but I think – in words – they can sit together.
Oasis – Wonderwall / The Cranberries – Ode to my family
I was a teenager in the 90s, living in the northeast of England in the dying days of the brutal Tory government. Oasis were irresistible to me. They had such swagger, such defiance of the low expectations the ruling class had of working-class northern people. Wonderwall was their breakthrough hit, an indie ballad people could drunkenly sing to, could attach romantic feelings to and make their own. In the opening chapter of Arrangements in Blue I write about how when I was 17, I was in love with a slightly older boy, who wouldn’t commit to me. He was worried about me losing my virginity to him, because I would ‘always remember it’, but it was all I wanted, and I wasn’t interested in his warnings about potential regret – he knew he didn’t love me. But one night he took me home with him to his student house in Newcastle and we went to bed together for the first and penultimate time. The dominant memory of that night is how I tried and failed to lose my virginity while Wonderwall played on repeat. I have indeed always remembered it, despite failing my objective. But I’ve lately remembered there was another song he played in his bedroom that night, The Cranberries ‘Ode to my family’. When I hear Wonderwall now, I am flooded with a kind of embarrassed nostalgia. It’s a song that’s hard to escape from. But ‘Ode to my family’ I encounter less often. When I hear it it’s a portal to vulnerability, longing and a facing up to all the time that has passed since then. Beautiful Dolores O’Riordan gone; girlhood gone too.
Mary Margaret O’Hara – To Cry About
Like Joni Mitchell’s music I inherited Mary Margaret O’Hara’s from my sister Rebecca. O’Hara’s music has a woozy quality to it, which is intensified in this song by a lap steel guitar. It’s all shimmer and haze, and her vocal with its sleepy phrasing – barely finishing some words – gives the song a deeply sexy dreaminess. In Arrangements in Blue, I write about how when my friend Roddy was dying, I listened to this song a lot, projecting my situation into the lyrics, ‘there will be a timed disaster, there’s no you in my hereafter’. I listened to it in a chokehold of pre-emptive grief, my throat clotted with anguish. When we got to the editing stage of the book, I had to tackle permissions and filled in a form on what I hoped was Mary Margaret O’Hara’s website. A little while later Mary Margaret wrote back to me, asking if I would be up for speaking to her on the phone. We arranged a call. When we spoke, she’d read some of my poems online and read up on Roddy too (I’d explained the context for quoting her lyrics in my initial message). It was disorientating – this person I considered a genius, a beloved star in the constellations of my taste – had read me? She told me the story of the song, how she wrote it in the bath, how it was a premonition of her lover dying. Knowing this, the way that I’d co-opted her song, this particular one, into my grief for Roddy made even more sense. I’ve been listening to it again and it’s slipped free from the painful past I once located it in. O’Hara’s startlingly beautiful voice is like a bird soaring, and I am held by the scruff of my neck like a kitten, in her claws. By which I mean, I am given over to her completely, and trust in a safe landing.
California, like London, New York, and Paris, could fill several themed playlists, which is good news to people wanting to make a special mixtape for a trip. Rihanna, Lorde, The Mamas and the Papas, Lana Del Rey, The Beach Boys, Childish Gambino, Marlena Shaw, Joni Mitchell, Joanna Newsom. That’s just starting with some artists who have songs with ‘California’ in the title. When I visited California in February 2020, I made a playlist but perhaps self-consciously – as though writing my diary for an imagined reader – I avoided anything obvious. (Actually, I just checked and on my playlist is ‘California Shake’ by Margo Guryan. Not obvious necessarily, but still.) In my book I write about how I avoided listening to Joni Mitchell’s album Blue because it was too freighted with intention and I was worried my timing might be off, but on the Coast Starlight train from LA to Oakland, I listened to some proxies for it, Joanna Newsom’s ‘In California’ being the most memorable song of that journey. She sings ‘I don’t belong to anyone/ My heart is heavy as an oil drum / And I don’t want to be alone / My heart is yellow as an ear of corn’. I was a bit drunk and afraid because those words felt like my own. On that journey I began to come to terms with how much romantic love’s absence from my life was causing me to feel not only pain, but shame and humiliation. My heart was ‘a drunken runt’ and I let all my feelings surface.
Life Without Buildings – The Leanover
In 2000 when I was probably listening to a lot of Coldplay, some Glasgow School of Art students formed a band and wrote and recorded a song called ‘The Leanover’. I heard it for the first time in 2012 or so, at Roddy’s flat, the same night I heard Grimes’s ‘Oblivion’ for the first time. Roddy liked to host evenings where he gave every guest a set of categories to pick songs from (song from the year you were born, song to be played at your funeral, song with a colour in it etc). I think the category both ‘The Leanover’ and ‘Oblivion’ were selected for was ‘song you think more people should know’. I could be wrong. But they are the two songs I wrote in my iPhone notes that night, songs I adopted from the friends who chose them. ‘The Leanover’ is a song now known among young people for being ‘big on Tik Tok’. Writing of it for the Guardian, to mark the 20th anniversary of its release, critic Jennifer Hodgson described singer Sue Tompkins’ vocal performance as ‘A stuttering, sung-spoken incantation of wired and insensible longing, it sounds improvised, as if it fell out of her mouth fully formed, though it wasn’t.’ I can’t improve on that. It is the sound of exhilarating derangement.
You and Me – Penny & The Quarters
‘You and Me’ was apparently in the film Blue Valentine, which I’ve seen but found so incredibly stressful and sad to watch I don’t remember it from there. I must have picked it up a bit later, stolen it from a pal’s playlist. Every now and then I listen to it and think, my god I should get married to this song. That’s how powerful the hopeful romance of the song is. It feels so pure, it has never even heard of let alone met cynicism! I’m holding out hope that one day I get to sing ‘Nobody baby but you and me’ to a human rather than one of my cats, but until then the sentiment fits my uncomplicated love for the cats just fine.
When I was writing I occasionally found myself wanting to quote other Joni songs because they were so relevant to the story I was telling. I could have strayed far from the tracks on Blue. ‘Let The Wind Carry Me’ was the most tempting, it paralleled a quote I’d tacked to my wall from Jean Rhys, about wanting to be loved and wanting to be alone. Joni sang ‘Sometimes I get that feeling
/ And I wanna settle / And raise a child up with somebody / But it passes like the summer / I’m a wild seed again / Let the wind carry me’. While writing my book the possibility of pregnancy, of biological motherhood began to evaporate. Coming to terms with the understanding that motherhood can be both desired and rejected in the same instant, that the desire will come and go and cannot be neatly, definitively resolved was something I took from writing. This Joni song gave me a way to sing it.
Miami Memory – Self Esteem / Miami Memory – Alex Cameron
There have been times I’ve felt alienated from love songs, especially ones that express intense sexual desire. I’ve found it easier to be on the heartbreak side of things, able to connect to loss, regret, longing. During the pandemic I listened to Self Esteem’s EP ‘Cuddles Please’ a lot. It was released early in that hot summer of 2020. I was working wild hours because my job is in health and care and even though I wasn’t on the front line of things, every day felt like an emergency. When I wasn’t working, I’d sit in my little patio garden, listening to music. ‘Miami Memory’ is the fourth track on Cuddles Please, and I’d often play it on repeat, singing at the top of my lungs. I was alone and unselfconscious as I sang ‘eating your ass like an oyster, the way you came like a tsunami’. Later that summer, when my grandad died and I went to my mum’s flat in the northeast, playing music in her kitchen from my laptop, I was suddenly confronted with the lyrics, my sister’s eyes popping out of her face, us laughing. It took me a while to look into who Self Esteem had covered on the song, and when I discovered it was a male musician, I assumed that I wouldn’t like the original as much. But I fell for it hard. It is grubby, where Self Esteem’s version is glossy. They co-exist in gorgeous contrast. While I was writing the book, I listened to both versions so many times, made all my friends take the song into their lives. Last summer, on a perfect weekend trip to stay with pals just after I’d handed in my second edit, me and my friends Becky, Bryony, Tash, and Joe, sang it as we prepared for a BBQ. We’d been playing ‘shithead’ (a card game) all afternoon, we were drunk and happy and so at ease. We were singing the OST to a triumphant moment – ‘I swear no one does this city right but me and you’ – a few memorable minutes of gratitude, connection, and collective tribute to the flawless horniness of the song.
This is the song that closes Blue and so it is also closes Arrangements in Blue. We leave Joni in her ‘cocoon’ waiting for the emergence of her gorgeous wings which will liberate her from ‘dark café days’. She’s in the process of transformation and I love that she’s in this in-between state as the album finishes. It leaves our relationship with her, with the album, unresolved – an open question. I wanted the same kind of effect with my book. It was important to me that I didn’t arrive at some kind of answer about romantic love that would shut out other possibilities. I wanted the reader to leave me still in the act of figuring things out, or at least at the point where the things I’d figured out still needed to be enacted. Tried and failed at, learned from. Just as it is unrealistic to expect a perfect romantic love, it is unreasonable to expect a perfectly satisfying life if you want romantic love and don’t have it. Just as romantic love needs to be intentionally created and held and renewed, my friendship to myself has to be. I’ve not cured myself of sadness or shame at feeling like romantic love has rejected me, but I am committed to the practice of challenging those thoughts, questioning, and noticing the harm that heteronormative culture and traditions have dumped on me. And never losing faith that ‘love can be so sweet’. It could be for me.