Make Me Smile

Steve Harley died today, but you probably don't know who he is.

CW: discussions of death, parent death, and the inherent unknowability of other people, I guess

Today, Steve Harley died.

Many of you won’t know who Steve Harley is, assuming that my Substack audience is probably composed of people under the age of 40. I do, because my dad was a huge fan of Steve Harley. My dad died two years ago. Steve was 7 or 8 years older than my dad, which is the perfect amount of age gap for someone to become obsessed.

Like most things in my dad’s life, though, everything about his love of Steve Harley gets buried in mythology, an inability to be vulnerable, and the haze of youth. Although Steve Harley was a man with his own life, his own dreams, successes, failures, loves and losses, I can only see Steve Harley’s death as an echo of my dad’s death.

Tumbling Down

At the tail end of 2020, in the small gap between lockdowns two and three, my dad came to pick me up. I wanted to spend Christmas with my family, feeling a rare pang of missing them (or maybe guilt) after not seeing them in almost a year. So I thought to avoid any potential problems, the second lockdown two lifted, I’d head to Kent. I had planned to get the train, but with trains feeling like a war zone in those days, my dad insisted that he’d drive the length of the country to come get me. That was pretty typical for him. A man who didn’t know how to say I love you, but did know how to drive a 600 mile round trip. A man who didn’t know how to say I’m proud of you, but did know how to tell me to do everything, chase it all, the sky’s the limit.

The drive itself wasn’t remarkable, except for the fact that by then I had already started pre-emptively mourning my dad. He wasn’t dying—I just had become so acutely aware of his age. In the years prior, I could feel his skin growing more sallow, his driving becoming slightly clumsier, things slipping away from him. In his 20s, he’d developed Crohn’s colitis in a pretty bad way and had almost died several times. Here’s where the mythology seeps in. In my head, he was in hospital for seven years, but where did that number come from? Does that match up with his life as it actually was? He eventually lived until 64, more than double the age he should have lived to, given how ill he had been. So maybe I had sniffed the scent of death on him, maybe a year of virus season had made me wary, or maybe I was just scared.

My pre-emptive mourning had given the drive a nostalgic haze well before it was worth it. Whilst we drove the 300-odd miles south, I made sure to quiz him on all of the important-yet-unasked things. You used to be one of the best people in the country at creating colours for automotive paints: how did you do it? Why was it that you didn’t go to art school, in the end? How long were you in hospital? How do we make sure your eye for colour outlives you? That Steve Harley gig you went to in an airplane hangar, where was that? When was that? All of the answers have faded to nothing despite my asking. Maybe the airplane hangar was Belgium, maybe it was the Netherlands, maybe it was Germany. Does it matter? Who is left of those days to tell those stories? My dad is gone, and so many of the people he hung out with were chronically ill.

Towards the end of the drive, going clockwise round the M25, the sun was setting over Essex. I suppose I was trying to force a memory, make a moment worth writing about. Everything was flooded by a gold-orange haze. The City of London in the distance, just before Dartford, just before we landed back on ancestral soil. This was around the time that I had used a trial of Ancestry to find my familial line going back to Harwich in Essex, so Essex felt like home in a way that it never had done before. From one homeland to another to another. Steve Harley has this live album, The Best Years of our Lives (Live). I had started playing it in a hope of connecting with my dad about one of his loves, and in a callback to an earlier moment I hadn’t appreciated at all.

When I was 15 or 16, we went to see Steve Harley live in Tunbridge Wells. I could think of nothing less cool than seeing this musician that no-one had ever heard of live. It was my first concert. It was a sit-down acoustic gig. I desperately wanted to be anywhere other than there.

Back in those days, I was wanting to be anywhere other than most places, particularly if they were with my parents. That was little fault of my parents: I was a teenager and my world was online, and being cut off from the people I cared about in a darkened theatre was not top of the list of things I wanted to be doing. At the same time, I was pretty obsessed with theatres generally. I was writing a first draft of a terrible book called Fresh Dawn which was an attempt to understand and process my own pain. It morphed into something else called Maison des Reves, because I was a pretentious 15 year old studying French. I was obsessed with the Royal Insignia in every theatre, DIEU ET MON DROIT written everywhere.

I was really trying not to have a good time. I was probably in the midst of an argument with my parents at the time, too, amidst one of the times that I was grounded forever because they’d found some weed that I’d been “holding for a friend” (that very common activity that people do). I sat through the concert with a thick glug of shame in my belly, feeling somehow disgusting that this was my first gig. I’d feel the same way when I had lost my virginity. Oh good, the thing I wanted to happen happened, but not in the way that I wanted. Steve Harley played a good gig, and I tried so hard not to enjoy myself. He closed the set that night with a performance of Tumbling Down, the final track on The Best Years of Our Lives. Acoustic with some violins. My soul stirred in ways that it hadn’t before. Some echo of my dad’s love for Steve Harley too, I guess. Mythology again: did he cry that night, or is that just my attempt to make a neat story of this all?

I played The Best Years of Our Lives (Live) in the car on that day in Essex in an unspoken callback to that moment, hoping my dad would meet and recognise my bid for connection. When Tumbling Down came on, I explained how much I loved it and how much I appreciated it at the time, aged 15. He didn’t remember that Steve had even played it that night. For a moment, he’d forgotten we even went to that gig. At the time I’d thought it was his favourite song, but I noticed in that moment that it was actually special to me because it was a moment that I had felt connected to my dad. A year or two later, my therapist asked whether I had connected with my dad over music, or whether I had started to like the music he liked in order to imagine that we were closer than we actually were. I think both things were true.

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The Best Years of Our Lives

My dad was a wonderful man with a deep capacity for love and an inability to express that love most of the time. I see many of his struggles inside myself, though I try to wear my heart a little more on my sleeve than he could. Sometimes I even manage to. Here’s where the mythology creeps back in: how do you know a person who could never show himself? How do you know a person in their absences, or their failed attempts?

In the myth of my father, in the story that I tell myself, he is a bright young thing full of promise and ambition and fear. He lives on an island (sort of), then goes to the Big Smart School on the mainland and can’t keep up and falls behind and falls in with a Bad Crowd and blows up a chemistry lab and gets expelled from school. First brick in the wall. I can only assume that he fell into a life of petty crime, the sort of crime that gets you a good reputation in a small town. Charming. Handsome. Constantly trying it on. Odd jobs. Eventually he tries to go to art school, because his first love are his drawings. He gets rejected. Second brick in the wall. He starts training to be a mechanic and going to dance halls and starting fights. In my imagination he is somewhat of a Lothario in this period of his life, flirting with every girl who will show him love, regardless of whether they have a boyfriend or not. He gets punched in the face a lot. Once he stops taking pride in it, it’s the third brick. He gets ill, fourth brick. I tell myself that slowly, he starts to build the mythology of himself: I am the man that could but then I couldn’t. I am the man that went too far. I am the man who deserves nothing.

In the title track of The Best Years of Our Lives, Harley sings: “Fresh-faced imbeciles laughing at me/I’ve been laughing myself, is that so hard to see?/Do I have to spell each letter out, honestly/If there’s no room for laughter, there’s no room for me”. I start to imagine this as my dad. The man who must be a joker, who must be useful, in order to be loved. Always looking for someone laughing at him. When he can’t see it, he has to make it. Just a verse later, Harley’s speaker gets more tender: “Since the last time we met I’ve been through/About seven hundred changes and that’s just a few/And the changes all tend to be something to do/But you’ve got to believe they’re all done for you”. I might look like a joker, but I’m desperately trying, and each of these tries is for you.

Whenever I had a major life event—normally a graduation—my dad would express his pride to me. It was one of a few situations in which he let himself feel a fuller range of emotions. You could tell he was about to cry because of what we referred to as his “silly voice”: as he started to well up, his voice would go high-pitched, but he’d keep trying to speak regardless. I can’t remember what he’d say to me, but over the years it’s got translated in my head to “eat the world”. He definitely didn’t say this. But he was expressing how proud he was of me. How the sky was the limit for me, how I should take every opportunity. I’d be in New York, Chicago, Montreal, Cologne, and he’d tell me to eat the world. Take every opportunity for everything it’s worth. What was in brackets behind that was: “like I couldn’t”. “Like I’m not worthy of”. “Do it for me, not because I’m living vicariously through you, but because you deserve it where I didn’t”.

The song’s constant refrain is “Oh, you’ll think it’s tragic when that moment first arrives/Oh but it’s magic/It’s the best years of our lives”. When my dad died, these words came to my head unbidden. I can’t reconcile that meaning properly. The tragedy of my dad dying giving way to the magic of being able to celebrate his life, perhaps? Were the best years of our lives whilst he was alive? I hope not, given that I have the majority of my life ahead of me. It’s a nostalgic song, but it’s filled with instruction, too.

Again, mythology: I think we chose this song to play at his funeral, but we went back and forth on so many Steve Harley songs that I can’t remember. Let’s say I did. My dad speaking to us from beyond the grave, maybe a hint that the best years are still to come.

Make Me Smile

Steve Harley’s stand out single, the one that you will know, is Make Me Smile. It starts with that jumpy, bassy riff, and gives way to Harley’s chipper voice (50 years ago, now).“You’ve done it all/You’ve broken every code/And pulled the rebel to the floor”, before the refrain, which you will know: “Come up and see me, make me smile/Or do what you want, running wild”. It’s been plastered over so many adverts over the years. I remember it on an M&S advert, but Google tells me it’s also been on Furniture Village, Carlsberg and BMW ads.

It’s really popular. It’s also probably as poorly understood as Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. It sounds romantic, passionate. Come up and see me. Make me smile. It’s actually about the band splitting. Steve wasn’t a solo artist in his early days: he was actually the frontman of a band called Cockney Rebel. The original Cockney Rebel split, and then Steve reformed “Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel”. Make Me Smile is about his feelings about the band splitting up. He’s saying “go on, you go start your own band and then come back in a few years desperate to come back into the band, that’ll make me smile.

I have basically no stories about Make Me Smile. Like all good breakout successes, a true fan would never be caught dead listening to it. It was one of the first songs I learnt on my bass when I was 15, but that’s about it. In the days after my dad died, I was busy taking care of myself, dropping all of my work as much as I could, going for long walks, just… feeling, I guess. I was in Newcastle city centre, walking to a therapy appointment, and a car drove past blaring out Make Me Smile. You’d recognise the riff anywhere. I wanted desperately to make it a sign, some communication from beyond the grave, but if that was my dad it’d be something more eclectic: Mr Soft, or Psychomodo, or Sebastian. Or, honestly, David Bowie or Pink Floyd. It’s all mythology. Bricks in walls, songs that don’t mean things, or trying to read everything as a Blackstar-portent of death.

I wanted to see Steve Harley live once more. I knew he was in his 70s, so I’d have to be quick off the mark with it, but I didn’t take a chance when I had it and now the chance isn’t there. But we can make cathedrals of our grief, thinking that we need to construct grand ceremony to make it matter. That we need to know the person inside of the mythology, or that we need to go to a live show to hear the songs that mattered to the person that we loved. But it’s all still there. The marks they made, the way they touched the world, everything we did and didn’t know about them.

I didn’t know Steve Harley. I only knew him and his music through my dad, and I don’t know how much I can say that I knew him, either. Or how much any of us can say that we know each other. But I know the marks he left by the marks my dad left. And those definitely make me smile.