Regrets, in a minor chord

The worst thing about Christmas is that it’s always the same, which automatically makes you dredge up unwanted memories. Worse, the gloomy nights and fin-de-siècle ambience ensure they’re imbued with melancholy and disappointment.

Regrets? I’ve had a few. We all have. More than this: I think everyone has one truly great regret. That single thing where you really feel, on some elemental level, that your life took a wrong turn.

Not necessarily for the bad – you might be much happier now than if this other future had manifested – but it’s there nonetheless, a gnawing thought, a vague discontent, a spiritual pebble in your shoe. Your life feels a bit off, somehow.

For me, it’s the fact I never learned the guitar and formed a rock band as a kid. For so many reasons, I regret this – and the regret gets stronger the further I move from that time.

It was always an ambition, from when I first listened to music. Playing guitar is a relatively easy skill to master. There was an acoustic in the house growing up, chord books, lots of old records as inspiration. I did Arts in college so had loads of free time.

It gets sharper, the point of this regret: I even house-shared with a singer in a band, whose guitarist was forever offering to teach me. It would have been fun and exciting, a creative outlet…not to mention the girls.

The thought of it electrifies me still: standing on a stage, cigarette dangling insouciantly, the other members of my visceral-cerebral grunge band behind me (we might have been called Visceral/Cerebral). A squall of feedback, a thundering dirge of minor chords, studiously off-tempo drumming, sarcastic-but-sincere Gen X lyrics about alienation or rebellion or annihilation…

Why didn’t I do it? Who the hell knows – laziness, probably. Some counterintuitively unhelpful surfeit of free time. Heroic levels of procrastination, drinking, napping and TV-watching.

Anyway, I never bothered, and now regret it. The feeling wasn’t always very strong: it used to be a sort of wry lament. The older you get, though…

These days, the regret is almost physically felt at times. I’ve woken up from dreaming about it, convinced for a moment that the dream was real and it had happened after all. I’ve imagined another self, existing in some parallel universe, the same me but with this radically different past.

I’ve sketched out thousands of words in notes for a novel about exactly that: a man dreams a whole other life of rock music and fame and tragedy and greatness, then wakes into his own life of normality and soft regrets, then wakes again to realise that was the dream and he really is a rock-star and now is unsure if he wouldn’t prefer the other existence after all…

I should have done it; I didn’t do it. As reducible and monolithically impassable as that.

This isn’t about celebrity or money; in all likelihood the band would have bombed (a suitably rock ‘n’ roll demise, anyway). Playing music would have been its own reward. The camaraderie, the satisfaction, the bloody thrills. The memories.

Even just for something to show your kids: daft videos, ridiculous pictures in music magazines, caustic reviews of your dreadful debut album. To point and say, “That was me, with the kohl eyeliner and guitar slung around my knees, screaming at the audience. Yes, fat middle-aged me was kind of cool once!”

I have a theory that we feel nostalgia for the past, not because those days were so great of themselves, but because of the potential future they held – which didn’t turn out quite as hoped, or expected. We miss the time when it was possible we’d form a band. We miss possibility, full-stop.

We all have other regrets, of course: not sleeping more before you had kids, not sleeping around more when young and single, not taking acid when offered it, or whatever. Silly stuff, mostly.

The band, though, the one that never existed and now never will: that’s a chord which will always strike deeply.


  • First published in the Sunday Times, December 15

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