The Cruelty of Envy: Stuart David's Belle and Sebastian Memoir In the All-Night Café

Books Features Belle and Sebastian
Share Tweet Submit Pin

“I told him I loved it. It seemed to me perfectly simple and perfectly alive, and I envied the ease with which he’d come by it, and the effortless way the words, melody and chord sequence all hung together. I had the feeling that if I could do anything, this was what I’d like to be able to do. Write as effortlessly and perfectly as that.

“It still needs another section,” he said, and put his guitar down. And it must have been that the other section didn’t arrive, because I never heard the song again.”

—Stuart David, on Stuart Murdoch

Stuart David’s “”In The All-Night Café” is nominally the story of Belle and Sebastian’s “formative year,” from the moment David met Stuart Murdoch to the recording of Tigermilk, the band’s first album, in 1996. And as a straightforward narrative, it’s a well-told story about the early days of one of Scotland’s greatest bands—early days that have, at times, been shrouded in mystery.

The title of the book is a winking reference to a block of text on the back cover of the original Tigermilk album, which noted that the band formed over three days in a café. The press later exaggerated the exaggeration, and the myth emerged that they’d come together over a single night. But David’s memory is strong, and he tells the true story of that all-night café—a grueling year full of triumphs and reversals, engineered by a genius with a rock-solid belief in his own talent. It’s always difficult to guess how interesting a book like this might be to a casual fan, but as a Belle and Sebastian obsessive, I found it to be an engrossing read.

Beneath that story, though, is a more fascinating one, and it’s a story of envy. Stuart David was an aspiring musician and writer from a small town outside Glasgow, and in his early twenties he enrolled in a music course called Beatbox that would allow him to remain on Scotland’s version of welfare. Through a mutual acquaintance, he met Stuart Murdoch—another aspiring musician in very similar circumstances who had just recovered from a long battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and was entering the height of his songwriting powers. They became friends, but almost from the start, there was a creative imbalance. Both Stuarts wanted the same thing, but only one of them was blessed with the tools to achieve it. Only Stuart Murdoch was a genius.

For the first half of the book, David only alludes to feelings of jealousy, and it seems at times like there’s an aspect of denial to his re-telling. Finally, though, he addresses it, and the quote above is the most poignant example of the pain that the contrast must have brought—the moment when someone creates a piece of art that represents your own highest aspiration, and then discards it because it’s not good enough.

“Stuart’s songs…were showing me how important melody was, and I realised I wanted to learn how to do that. I wanted to learn how to write those kind of melodies. One afternoon I asked Stuart if he would give me some lessons.

‘We could use the piano rooms in the Mitchell Library,’ I said, but he seemed reluctant.

‘I don’t know what I could show you,’ he said. ‘It’s not something I could teach.’

If you’re looking for intimate insights into Stuart Murdoch’s character, this book will let you down. For the most part, the lead singer exists behind a veil, and David only brings him to the flesh in moments like these, when the two interact in a way that relates to David’s own ambitions. I found David’s request about melody to be almost unbearably naive and heartbreaking. Melody is the foundation of songwriting, and to a large degree, a musician’s talent is determined by his natural facility with this all-important element. You can imagine Murdoch’s discomfort and reluctance when David approached him, seeking out the secrets of that gift—it would be like me cornering Usain Bolt and asking if he could teach me to run at his speed.

But David’s naiveté and honesty, though it surely brought him pain in those days, serves him well as a writer. The difficulty of reconciling their talent gap, and the feeling of inadequacy as he’s swept along in Murdoch’s success is where the book becomes poignant. It can’t have been easy to write about watching a friend attain the success he had dreamed for himself, and it can’t have been easy to live it—David’s book stops well before he leaves the band in 2000, but it doesn’t take much insight to realize that resentment must have played a big role in his departure. At times, David seems to shy away from confronting that feeling of envy—those moments are understandable—but on the whole, he faces it with courage.

The song we recorded was called ‘Pocket Book Angels’, something Stuart had written a few days earlier while he was busking on Ashton Lane…He didn’t have any overall vision for how he wanted the recording to turn out, and it was a haphazard collaboration.

One evening, I let my dad hear the finished recording, and he said, ‘You should stick with that band. I like that. They’ll go places.’

‘It’s not really a band,’ I told him. ‘It was just a one-off thing.’

‘They’ll go far,’ he said. ‘Stick with them.’

These moments of indignity populate the book. There are contests and shows and radio opportunities that Murdoch uses to propel his music forward, and David is there at each moment, attempting to seize the same chances for his own band, Raglin Street Rattle, only to be ignored and rejected. His own ambitions set him apart from someone like Stevie Jackson, an older musician who unabashedly admired Stuart Murdoch’s talent. Though initially reluctant to join another band, it didn’t take long before Jackson signed on for the ride. Unlike David, he was perfectly suited to be Murdoch’s whip—to use a political analogy—and to subordinate himself to another man’s ambition.

Which is not to say that the two have co-existed without tension. At times, Jackson has had to lead the band in the recording process when Murdoch’s energy waned, and like any band that has been together for two decades, their relationship is surely complicated. But Jackson could handle being a step outside the limelight in a way that David never could. It’s no coincidence that he’s still with the band.

The same could be said for Richard Colburn, an older flatmate of David’s who became the band’s drummer. Like Jackson, he recognized Murdoch’s genius and could accept him as a leader. Colburn, too, remains with the band 20 years later. In contrast, Isobel Campbell—a very lightly sketched and peripheral character, in this book—shows signs of discontent in the earliest days, and though her relationship with Murdoch may have been even more complex than David’s, the basic formula applies: She left the band in 2002.

I feel it’s important to note here that jealousy is an emotion that occurs naturally—it’s even present in animals. When I speak about David’s envy, I don’t mean it as a condemnation. We can’t control what we feel, only how we act on those feelings, and at least in this book, David has approached and achieved a rigorous sort of honesty. He was a talented musician who went on to make music with his wife Karn in a band called Looper, and he reckons well with the painful truth that these talents fall short of Murdoch’s.

There are some people who aren’t meant to be followers, and it can be agonizing to read about the constant reminders of his inadequacy in comparison to his friend, who must have seemed to David like the ultimate blessing and curse. I’ve used the word ‘courage’ already, but it bears repeating: This book is a courageous act for the simple reason that jealousy is looked on as a weakness, and most of us who experience it turn our heads and pretend we’re immune. David does not look away, and the confrontation feels, at least to me, quite brave.

However, it splits his perspective on Stuart Murdoch into two extremes. On one hand, Murdoch can be unconsciously cruel, as when he introduces David as a writer early in their collaboration, or wows him with displays of off-the-cuff songwriting that trump anything David could create even if he was given all the time in the world.

David recalls each of these moments, including a time when Murdoch dismissed someone who called David “mysterious” with a casual, “no he’s not.” Once, while repeating a guitar riff over and over in an attempt to inspire himself, David watched as Murdoch strode by, stopped, and wrote a verse for the song on the spot. David was blown away, and he worked on writing lyrics and adding a new section after the chorus. Days later, when he played it for Murdoch, his friend could only say that he “thought it was about to go somewhere special.” David asked for his help to make it go there, but Murdoch declined, and that was that. You never get the sense that Murdoch intended any malevolence in these encounters, but they resonated with David, and here again we see the critical imbalance in their relationship—the breach that finally drove them apart.

This almost thoughtless version of Murdoch, who appears only when he accidentally wounds David, contrasts with the genius who built Belle and Sebastian into a powerhouse. It’s truly one of the great, far-fetched origin stories in music history, and it came about because of the sheer self-assurance and willpower Murdoch demonstrated even in the most unfavorable conditions. In one of their first gigs—the band was initially called “Lisa Helps the Blind,” and then “Rhode Island”—Murdoch refused to play more than a few lines before walking off stage, and would only say that “it didn’t feel right.” Later, at a house show in front of an audience very much outside of Murdoch’s aesthetic—instead of hipsters, he played for “hairy rockers” and “S&M enthusiasts”—he had the audacity to ask them for silence before he began:

After a quick tune-up we started to play our delicate songs, about schoolkids and disenchanted ponies.

I thought they might get us killed…

But the most impressive thing about it all was that Stuart stood and played his songs without making any compromises, or making any allowances for the obvious differences between the audience’s tastes and what we were doing. It was the beginning of an education for me. I was aware that if I’d found myself playing my own sings in front of that audience, in that setting, I wouldn’t even have expected them to listen, much less take anything from it. I would certainly have been self-deprecating between songs, making it clear that I knew they didn’t like what I was doing. But Stuart didn’t do any of that. He just remained himself, allowing the audience and band to exist in stark contrast to each other. He presented his vision to them undiluted, and it didn’t seem to matter to him whether they liked it or not. And I was slightly amazed to find you could get away with that.”

Two passages stuck out to me in this book as incredibly powerful, and this was the first. (The second comes with the last paragraph of the book—a truly stunning conclusion that I won’t spoil.) David may not see Murdoch the person with clear eyes, but his depictions of Murdoch the visionary are brilliant. While discussing “String Bean Jean,” for instance, he offered the best description I’ve heard of the way Murdoch employs the mundane in his song lyrics, and somehow transforms these ordinary details into something raw and powerful:

“But more than anything I loved the way Stuart had managed to illuminate his everyday life in the lyrics, with everyday language, and make it all seem quite magical by floating it up above everything on a pretty tune…[it] was a level of ordinariness I hadn’t heard in a pop song before. I’d come across it in poetry before, but even the most determinedly realistic pop lyricists…still reached towards elsewhere and escape, still invoked a sense of longing for an alternative life. ‘String Bean Jean’ just lit up an ordinary day, in ordinary language, with a tale of ordinary people doing ordinary things, dispensing with even the brief moment of epiphany that most realist writers rely upon.”

This unyielding approach, and the stubborn adherence to a specific vision, carried through when the head of their record label said the name “Belle and Sebastian” was “too gay.” It carried through when a potential drummer stood them up, and Murdoch wrote him off for good. It also defined the most important of the band’s career. A Stow College music class, taught by Richard Colburn, had decided that they wanted to produce a single by Murdoch and his band for their class project. Murdoch had plans to go to San Francisco, where he thought his music might finally take wing, but David and Colburn convinced him to at least hear the class out. After he heard their pitch, he made an audacious demand: He’d oblige, but only if he could make a full album.

“I was used to Stuart’s ability to get what he wanted where his songs were concerned,” David writes, “but this seemed like a bridge too far.”

It wasn’t—to David’s amazement and chagrin, the rules are bent for genius, and finally everyone agreed to give him a shot. The album they made, in five days at an old church, was Tigermilk.

When they played their release party, they handed out hundreds of copies of the vinyl, and some of the concert-goers threw them like frisbees on the streets after the show. Before a year had passed, those original copies that didn’t crack on the pavement were selling for more than a thousand dollars each.

“Somehow, I was no longer writing songs, no l no longer had a band, and was quite aware watching Stuart arranging and mixing his songs with conviction that I didn’t have the singularity of vision to pull that off for myself there and then. It was a long way from the future I’d dreamt for myself as a teenager…”

The quality that makes In the All-Night Café great is the sophisticated way David treats his lingering feelings toward his former bandmate. We don’t quite get to see how it corrupts his relationship with Murdoch for good, but we see the foundations—the beginning of the end. Still, within this downward trajectory, there is room for love. David never makes it explicit, but it’s there in the clarity of his memories. Like a good Belle and Sebastian song, there’s power between the lines. Murdoch represents David’s failure, and that obstacle proved to be insurmountable in the end, but he keeps room in his heart for the kinship and the awe—the kind of painful love we can feel, but never understand.

More from Belle and Sebastian