On Valentine’s Day this year I didn’t get roses, I got a bike. A handsome, shiny black upright. You might think that a bike isn’t a particularly romantic gift, but I disagree.
Exhibit A: If bicycles aren’t romantic, why do they keep turning up in songs?
I could quote four right now, but my favourite has always been Back To The Old House: When you cycled by, here began all my dreams. Even as I write that line, an entire scene unfolds in my head: Suburban street. Pretty girl on a bike, hair flying. Shy lad, doomed to watch her pedal by. Will he ever be able to tell her how much he really likes her?
Absolutely not. This is a Smiths’ song, after all. He never talks to her, and her family moves away and all is lost, except the memory of the vision of her sailing past him in the street. There is a world of bunched-up adolescent URST* in that line. Anyone who has ever been a teenager could relate. And although things get a tad morose after that, you get my drift: the vision on a bike lingers. Bikes have their own romance.
Exhibit B: It is possible to fall in love with pretty much anyone on a bike ride.
I used to go for rides with a friend who was a fellow Smiths fan. He had a bad stammer and couldn’t pronounce his Rs, but his politics were sound and his taste in music exemplary. On our first ride he verbally unpacked the lyrics of an obscure B-side single by The Smiths as we explored Chiswick, a pretty district of west London which occupies a meander of the River Thames.
The song was Jeane: three minutes of hollow-eyed desperation and kitchen- sink drama so raw and full of urgency, it could easily be mistaken for a live track. I remember him saying, “This song categorically means business”. And he was bang on. From the stomping force of the opening bars to the closing gasp of her name, someone is clearly getting something off their chest: Jeane, the low-life has lost its appeal and I’m tired of walking these streets to a room with a cupboard bare …
Lyrically it is a deft word sketch; the final demand on a relationship that has exhausted its line of credit. Musically it is as stripped-back bare as the cupboard in the room shared by the downtrodden lovers. The solid, workmanlike rhythm could be someone demolishing a house, or hammering the final nail into a coffin: There’s ice on the sink where we bathe, so how can you call this a home, when you know it’s a grave?
My cycling colleague said he loved the way it swept you into a black and white film of heartbreak, squalor and the promise of something better. He said it had a fierce purity and a determination which made you love it all the more for trying. I remember thinking how perfect the romance between ideas and music could sometimes be.
We stopped at a riverside pub called The Old Ship to order drinks and compare favourite lines and I fell momentarily in love with him. Even now, by association, there is something inextricably romantic to me about stammering and bike riding. Especially when combined.
© Maria Majsa