Simply Red, “Holding Back the Years,” Listen #15,012


Mick Hucknall‘s interrupted my lunch, and not for the first time. He roams the overhead speakers, just another on-call element in fast food’s endless ambience. Poor dude trotted off the hit parade, where one actually listened to and savored his words, a hundred years ago. These days he’s the equivalent of a piano-bar belter, someone to help the steaks go down.

I remember hearing “Holding Back the Years” for the first time: late summer/early fall, 1986. Freshman year of high school. I was 13, with an abundance of memories from which to wistfully draw. With his head of rooster red, young Mr. Hucknall was the closest I came to getting juiced on fresh heartbreak. With no beer in the fridge or even yet a budding palate, I settled for Simply Red. They were a paternal clap on the shoulder articulating the pain of snuffed puppy love. Oh, if I could only reclaim those lost and wounded weeks!

I knew nothing of blue-eyed soul back then. Simply Red were simply a musical presence in an ongoing soundtrack. That other single, “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention),” didn’t grab me as much. Too much working-class outrage, not enough wine-brained melancholy. I didn’t hear from them again until they exhumed “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” a few years later for covert games of grope ‘n’ grabass in the fumbling dark. By then I was over those dudes. Besides, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” seemed like one of those songs responsible for the kind of heavyhearted yearning summoned by “Years.”

With clutters of mushy impulses scattered about my attic, I’m at a ripe age now for “Holding Back the Years.” Yet the teenage me might be disappointed by my less-than-dramatic response this afternoon. I didn’t stop mid-nosh and fling myself into yellowed heartache. Instead I chuckled softly and resumed reading my book. I don’t really associate the song with a particular event or person anymore — it’s a barely acknowledged shadow.

He’d be disappointed in a lot of adulthood, like how rarely those scenarios in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” actually play out in real life. You know the one — where you encounter an old flame or whoever at a bar and call a few more rounds to whet a long night o’ catch-up. For one, you’re not likely to find me at a bar; I can barely buy the occasional six-pack of Guinness at the neighborhood Safeway without feeling like I’ve disappointed someone somewhere. Second, if you do run into someone like that at the local hops trough, you couldn’t hear them over the clamor of chatter and jukebox anthems anyway.

Songs like that, at least to a teenager, presented adulthood as a novel paradise where you could finally land the cheerleader who snubbed you and drink without diving into a closet the second someone tore through a living room braying, “Cops!” Oh, Bruce did spice the lyrics with warnings about wallowing in the past, but who hears those when you’re a horndog yearling? Adulthood sounded like a sweet X-rated democracy. All I envisioned was some far-off saloon where my buds and I threw back the cold gold and a certain faun, unscathed by time, was receptive to my touch.

Like “Glory Days,” “Holding Back the Years” was a memory song in reverse. I imagined myself in the future, fondly pondering the now. Sometimes I sat in a palace constructed by my toil and fortune,  caressing a wine-glass stem as Hucknall’s comfy ruminations paced my hardwood floors. Other times I was splayed out in bed with my wife, watching the lights of fellow skyscrapers swim and dance from our vantage point 40 stories high. Or I was driving the kids to soccer, absently tapping the steering wheel. Always with a memory to coax the softest smile.

Instead I hear him hit the points I know are coming. The instrumentalists land as planned, as they always have. Then they all fade quietly into that pile of time. No quiver, no shiver — just another Sunday in a life to be continued. I finish my burger and punch my last period right about here.

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2 comments

  1. Sharon · September 14, 2009

    Too bad. You missed the entire meaning of the song. It is about love lost. It so happens that Mick’s mother left him when he was only 3 years old. He said that is what inspired this song…the absence of his mother. You totally missed it.

    Now, go back to your hamburger or whatever you were doing.

  2. coryfrye · September 14, 2009

    Well, first of all, thank you for commenting, even if it was to take me to task. I hadn’t read this entry in a while, and, from an appropriate distance, its tone does seem more callous than I’d intended. For that, I apologize.

    Although I wasn’t aware of the song’s inspiration, I don’t think I missed that “Holding Back the Years” chronicles love lost. That’s fairly evident from its reflective melancholy — one that most listeners, including myself, can only apply to personal experience.

    What struck me most about the song that afternoon was that it somehow had more resonance for me when I was younger and had fewer years upon which to reflect. I think that happens to songs a lot: the more you’re exposed to it, the less impact it has. (The same is true of something like, say, Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now,” which deftly captured a very real moment of early-’90s global optimism. But who talks about THAT aspect of the song anymore?) Then, the ultimate cruelty: it’s softened to background noise or, as in the case of one of the “featured links” below (over which I have no control), trivialized as a “guilty pleasure.”

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