If I smelled Nivea sunscreen right now, I would melt, and separate, dribble like the oil in sunscreen when it’s been sitting out in the sun too long. Listening to Tom Demac’s track with Real Lies, “White Flowers,” I’m vacuumed back into the early aughts, to Mike Skinner aka The Streets’ “It’s Too Late.” The production of that song sounds quaint now compared to Demac’s nighttime dip in a warm ocean. In the older song, something of a forebear to Demac’s, I can almost see what it looks like inside the studio where Skinner recorded. A small, sparse room where the decision was made to turn the vocals way up, press up against the isolation filter and spit the rhymes out. These are both songs about London, but they make me think about hot places stuffed with dancing bodies where the songs are just as appreciated—Ibiza, Cyprus, Mikonos.
An algorithm pointed me to Tom Demac, and it hurts to think how we dozily pass through new songs while walking around a city or working, half-listening, at our desks. How we might not even stop to learn about an artist, much less find a way to support them financially beyond the paltry monthly fees we pay to Spotify or Apple, while we’re being gifted with their talents. I don’t know how I discovered The Streets, back in 2002, but it was probably on Pitchfork. The only hit on Pitchfork for Tom Demac is a remix he did of Glimpse’s “L Plate.” Pitchfork is sometimes more of a grumpy old dad now (so am I), and music isn’t so much discovered as served to us niftily, like takeout or ads or rides home. Our imperial first-world lives are soundtracked at every stage without us having to lift, or tap, a finger.
I look up where Tom Demac is performing next. Germany, of course. If he came here, which I suspect will never happen outside of the festival circuit, I’d probably go by myself, stand with limp arms and bob my head, trying to recreate the life highlight of seeing Mount Kimbie and Jamie xx’s DJ sets at SXSW in 2011. I remember a corrugated plastic cup of gin & tonic as small as the water cups at race aid stations. You walk into rooms like that knowing something momentous is about to happen. You can just tell, from the shy but smiling faces of boys (it was mostly boys) leaned against the back wall of the venue’s basement, ready to be cleansed. This for some reason makes me think of Vanessa Hudgens, describing the controversial celebrity church Hillsong with the ringing endorsement, “It’s like Arcade Fire,” as if God, in the end, is still just about musicianship displayed gorgeously in a venue with great acoustics. There was some kind of small-g god in the room the night Mount Kimbie made their US debut.
When I walk into rooms like this now, a pocket of mischief behind an unassuming door at, say, a London Soho House on a Saturday night, I’m glad there are things more sacred to me and the people I’m with than mischief: relationships, jobs, and other commitments intrinsically tied to both those things. I can’t dance now, without gin in hand, but I still do. It’s like trying to drive a car without any gas in it. I get out of the car and push myself from behind. Sipping on soda water, there is still, of course, a place in my head where trouble gathers and imagines what it might create out of nothing, or out of very little—a feeling, an inkling. But all that trouble ties back to just one thing: an urge to be seen. No, seen differently. It was only three days ago that I had some brief, lighthearted exchange with a superior that I will probably never forget, even though it was, in the grand scheme of things, totally unremarkable. Possibly for the first time, I realized how much I was appreciated by this person. That they’ve probably just been waiting for me to let go my fierce grip on everything and just see things as they really are. Nothing happened, as they say. Oh, things happened, let me tell you!—is what I always want to answer back. I was never seen right. The mirror lied. Thankfully, I had the pool and the ocean, where I was only looked at by friends assessing my diving skills. I could adorn myself with grungy ’90s jewelry and wait for my skin to turn brown and my hair white. Too young to bounce around to proto-dubstep in Nicosia nightclubs, but old enough to know I was becoming something other than my lot.
Nostalgia fueled by music is just this imprecise, like trying to describe a perfume’s scent beyond what it feels like, what room of your personal history it invites you into. I’ll keep “White Flowers” running all night on repeat so that Tom Demac makes something approaching three figures off my fandom. Because of him, I get to be in London this morning—the city, alongside Nicosia, that raised me. London is my body’s home, if not my brain’s. But when I’m actually there, I feel a peculiar fatigue, as if all the memories I made there are talking to me at once. London is no more gray and damp than New York, but I like to blame the mood it puts me in on the weather, so I can continue to hold the city in as high regard as Demac does in his music.
I probably disappoint my friends on Instagram by only posting songs lyrics to my stories, like a teenager crying out to the world through away messages on AIM (I used to do that, too). I found the slightly unintelligible lyrics to “White Flowers” posted by a generous YouTube commenter (such people should be compensated, too) on the song’s official video. I realized then that “White Flowers” is much more than a reverie about a night out. It’s an homage to the British journalist Gavin Hills, who drowned at the age of 31 while fishing in Cornwall. His collected writings were released as the book Bliss to Be Alive, which is the central lyrical refrain of “White Flowers,” in 2001. Hills wrote a lot about music, and other things that mattered deeply to British youth, like football, nightlife and shoes. When I first heard Real Lies’ vocalist recite the lyric, Got any more of those Gavin Hills? I thought he was talking about a British brand of cigarette. I should have read more of The Face when I was a teenager. The next lyric is the vocalist answering back to himself: There are no more Gavin Hills.
“White Flowers” ends with a muffled promise, tinged with fear, to a girl: Do me right and I’ll make sure that heaven holds you. We’re bound for life and I was always dreaming of you. These are the mixed tenses and blurred emotions of drinks and downers at the end of a long night, standing on the street waiting for the Uber. The words take me somewhere other than London. The you in the song is who it always is, my partner, a muse of sorts for decades, who until a few years ago never knew me outside the context of summer. As teenagers, we seemed to always choose the hottest part of the day to run together, down the dirt road, since paved over, and past the dairy farm to a point overlooking the water. For many years after that, I ran down there by myself and always paused at the point to curse myself and whatever I was holding on to too tightly then—pride, fear of rejection, fear of the mirror. A few times, I’d be thinking of him and he would appear as if by magic, running past me in the opposite direction. He’d always be coming from far off, carrying water and wearing a heart rate monitor, sensible and left-brained to my sensitive and right-brained. He never listened to music while he ran. I never didn’t, except the times we’d run together years before, when I was happy just to hear him panting by my side.
The yous over those years were sung by artists like Florence and the Machine, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Hey Rosetta, Matthew Good and, yes, The Streets. It was all so forlorn. There seemed to be no triumph, no clarity—which would need to come first—in sight for me. I chased easier triumphs like race times and professional accolades. When I was covering SXSW for Paper in 2011, lolling about in an astroturfed outdoor lounge with Michael Cera, Blake Lively and a half-dozen of my freelance writer brethren, it was hard for me to articulate through the hangovers how exactly these musical performances were moving me, even though they were, deeply. I was in my mid-20s, and remember thinking I was already too old to achieve any of the things I wanted to. By things I meant, at the time, the easy things. The empirical things. Clips and followers and personal bests and pageviews. At the end of the festival, my peers handed me their pretty business cards. I wanted my own, but had no idea what I would put on them.
—Brooklyn, NY, March 2, 2019
photo by Tito Nicolau