Theresa wore a wedding dress to nightclubs. Her face deathly pale, her lips black, she was an expert at the classic goth tree dance. With her feet planted wide on the dancefloor she would wave her branch arms dramatically, admiring herself in the small hand mirror she held high with pentagram-ringed fingers.
We scoffed into our Midoris, but secretly wished we’d got to the bridal veil at the Ringwood op shop first.
Zuzu’s was in the heart of Melbourne, quite appropriately on Exhibition Street. As the ‘80s drew to a close this nightclub became our Saturday sanctuary, filled with a ragtag bunch of punks, goths and ‘alternatives.’ None of us could really look down on Theresa; I wore my clothes backwards and dyed my hair blue. I must have seemed like a bedraggled Smurf. Many of us were underage and most of us unsure, trying on identities and images gleaned from video clips and vintage movies. The dancefloor was quite a sight.
It would flood for the Violent Femmes and The Smiths, Blondie and The Cult. Too inhibited to dance wildly, I guarded the bags. I had my sister’s ‘borrowed’ I.D., the black dog nipping at my heels, and an escape plan: make it through to my seventeenth birthday and an exchange year in Europe. Head down, fists clenched…Just. Make. It. Through.
I would nurse my drink, wary of the utter abandonment I saw on the dancefloor. In my heart, though, I longed for it. There was only a handful of tunes that could tempt me, and I knew every intro.
Whenever I heard this classic Clash anthem of insecurity and identity, the bags were forgotten, and my reserve with them.
This indecision’s bugging me
If you don’t want me, set me free
Exactly who am I supposed to be?
Don’t you know which clothes even fit me?
Come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
I played the song as I took down my Sid and Nancy posters in my teenage bedroom, surrounded by goodbye cards and Belgian francs. My escape plan entailed moving to a country where I didn’t speak the language and knew no-one. Should I stay or should I go now? Suitcase full, heart pounding, I went.
My year in Brussels was monumental, both euphoric and brutal in parts. I learned how to bask in the bliss of solitude, but that depression can refuse to be outrun. My exchange year spat me into adulthood with an addiction to Gitane cigarettes and a love of languages and Serge Gainsbourg. I wasn’t ready to go home – I wasn’t even sure if Melbourne was home anymore. A year to the day after I’d arrived I found myself pulling out my suitcase again, and with it, my Clash record.
The song’s theme of leaving a relationship wasn’t what struck me. I responded instead to the indecision of standing at a crossroads, unsure whether to trust convention (should I stay?) or courage (should I go now?). Some might read tarot cards or coffee grounds clinging to the lip of a cup. Me, well…I listened to the Clash.
I played the song at the end of my ten year relationship, when guilt formed the chains that bound me. I played it when I graduated from a linguistic degree and traded the comfort of my long-term job at a pub for the challenge of teaching. I played it when I moved back to Brussels in my thirties, leaving behind my family, my 18-year-old cat and the first man to write songs about me, beautiful words behind slide guitar that I cried to as the plane took off.
I didn’t have a record player in hospital. No sharp objects allowed. Nineteen years old, I sat alone on my white bed; visitors banned, shoelaces confiscated, windows barred. When the black dog bit, it was always savage. I grappled for this song through the stupor of my medication, trying to remember the lyrics. What I was really grasping for, I know now, was one reason, one single reason, to stay alive.
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
At the crossroads of my life, music is always present. It plays when I separate my lover’s books from my own into moving boxes, when I explore a new city or embrace a beloved old one, celebrate a milestone or shake off bittersweet nostalgia. I’m not alone in reading deeply into lyrics: every song can reflect your life story back to you, if you need it to. This Clash song has coaxed me many times to take a deep breath and leap over the line, from child to adult, danger to safety, from barely staying afloat to thriving.
If you can mark your steps in the grooves of your favourite records – and we can, of course – then there will always be those songs that guide you in your leaps of faith until you land, safe and sure footed, on the other side.