I don’t smoke or worship roast dinners – but if I got a tattoo, it would say “Nicotine & Gravy”

In fact, my brother and I would get matching ones.

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If I were to get a tattoo, it would say “Nicotine & Gravy”. My brother and I would get matching ones.  I’m not sure even my dad,  who thinks tattoos are the worst thing since Maggie Thatcher (when my brother got his first, aged 17, he was so scared he confessed by email), could object. 

It’s not that we’re smokers (well, I’m not) or particularly zealous fans of a roast dinner, but that the Beck song “Nicotine & Gravy” embodies some of the rarest and most precious days of childhood, when our dad still lived with us. We danced around the living room, my brother on my dad’s shoulders, to Midnite Vultures until we could no longer dance for laughing – or at least that’s how I remember it. It’s an indulgent and likely distorted memory, but still, “Nicotine & Gravy” feels like sound-home. (The Stranglers’ “Peaches” and Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha” have a similar effect, but would make wholly inappropriate tattoos. With hindsight, I’m not sure what my dad was thinking.)

I bring this up because an unlikely thing caught my eye on Twitter earlier this week. Bright Eyes, the indie rock band that often graced my CD player in the early 2000s, were trending, having announced a 2020 world tour following a nine-year hiatus. Oh, sweet nostalgia. Bright Eyes’ “First Day of my Life” taught teenage me everything she knew about love. Or, more realistically, it gave me a glimpse of what love could be. “I’d rather be working for a pay cheque/Than waiting to win the lottery” was a world away from sticky fumblings at house parties. 

These are not my only Proustian madeleines. Many such associations were sculpted in the hands of boys whose touch I can no longer recall. Listen to Paolo Nutini’s “Last Request” (“Grant my last request/And just let me hold you”) and I’m clutching a rucksack on my lap and looking out of the bus window on the way to school, after a late night spent MSN-chatting with a boy I’d been pining for since we met at a gig months earlier. It wasn’t raining, but the memory is so melodramatic it’s easy to imagine fat drops on the pane.

I listened to Dashboard Confessional’s “So Long, So Long” (very literal) while walking around Richmond Park on New Year’s Day, having broken up with someone for Paolo Nutini Boy. Kodaline’s “All I Want” – “But if you loved me/Why’d you leave me” – provided the soundtrack when Paolo Nutini Boy moved to the US. (Again, very literal.) 

My best friend and I sang Blink 182’s “I Miss You” across the road at each other while idling through the suburbs on our bikes. And you don’t need to know about the things that went down in the dark between me, Evanescence and the Kurt Cobain poster on my bedroom ceiling. 

Melody conjures up things from the deep. Scientists tell us that babies can recognise music when they’re in the womb, that listening to it lights up the visual cortex, but that feels too clinical. Songs don’t simply draw up clear memory from the well, or bring the comfort of familiarity. They are vehicles for the stories we tell ourselves, snapshots of a life composed rather than lived: the idyllic childhood, the pain of longing that now seems sweet in the knowledge that it was eventually satisfied. Today I listen to my teenage soundtrack fondly; even heartbreak can be tragicomic when enough time has passed. 

Which songs, I wonder, will make me nostalgic for my twenties? What stories will I tell myself to make sense of it all? I hope they will be less boy-focused, that they will be the songs that make me feel like I own the streets I walk on: “I.5.C.A” by Little Barrie, or Courtney Barnett’s “Pedestrian at Best”. When I asked my boyfriend (not Paolo Nutini Boy) if we have “a song”, he replied first with Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” (an in-joke, not an indictment of our relationship), and then “probably something from Hamilton” and “your music taste is shit” – so the less boy-focused part at least is looking positive.

For now, “Nicotine & Gravy” remains the only thing I’m sure enough about that I’d want to have it indelibly marked on my body. The memory it holds may not be entirely true, but I cling to its story.

Next week: Tracey Thorn

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Pippa Bailey is the New Statesmans chief sub-editor. 

This article appears in the 28 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy