Smell doesn’t work for me. Not when it comes to memory. If I make a list of odors in my life I discover that they are all too common to attach to any particular incident or gestalt. Coffee, bacon, scrambled eggs, gasoline, cleansers, perfumes, shampoos, fish, waterfronts, forests, drugstores, hospitals, Laundromats, delicatessens or barns are all too general and prevalent and arbitrary to attach to anything specific. For me, what triggers memory is music. Usually a specific song. “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Paint It Black,” “She’s Not There,” “Go Now,” “Paperback Writer.” Songs, quite generally, of the mid to late sixties, when my brain was young and boiling over with hormonal Sturm and Drang.
The 70s would prove a very different time and my response to the music would be accordingly different. This was a time characterized by a great deal of personal frustration, intellectual growth, romantic confusion and broadening of the emotional spectrum.
There are a lot of songs I remember from the 70s that attach to very specific feelings and incidents, most being very unpleasant. Every time I hear “Black Water” by the Doobie Brothers, a song I came to positively loathe, I remember the months I spent looking for a job in Seattle after moving back to Washington State from California. They played the shit out of that song in the mid-70s, although I pretty much hated it the first time I heard it. I don’t know why. It’s not a bad song. Maybe it’s because they were singing about having no worries and I was stuffed with worries. I was choking with worries.
Any song I heard in the 70s was either going to grab me or piss me off. Most likely piss me off. I did not like the change in Zeitgeist. I did not like the altered direction . I did not like boogie this and boogie that. I did not like the sudden trend toward career and money and social status. The songs remembered from that era are remnants of incongruity and pain.
Another was “I’m Not In Love” by Ten CC. That song I really liked. It was so moving and dreamy. I really liked the feeling of it, the way it moved like a slow wave on a foggy sea full of mood and sweetness. I was lying on a mattress when I first heard it. It was late and I couldn’t sleep. The mattress was on the floor because I couldn’t afford to buy a bed. The radio was right by my head. I had just moved into a studio apartment on Capitol Hill after finding a job folding towels and gowns in the laundry at University Hospital. I had been divorced three years but was still obsessing about my marriage and feeling profoundly lonely and dejected. Romance seemed like light years away. I was in my mid-twenties, a poet whose job prospects would probably never amount to much, and the Zeitgeist had changed from a celebration of life’s sacred principles to one of unabashed materialism. I liked the feeling behind that song, someone evidently falling in love while simultaneously trying to deny it, and succumbing to it, dissolving into its bittersweet recognition. It was a great song to listen to if you were feeling isolated and lonely.
Songs get muddled with videos in the 80s. I remember Simply Red’s beautiful song “Holding Back the Years” and how much Mick Hucknall reminded me of Dylan Thomas as he wandered what appeared to be a rural town on Britain’s northern or western coast.
Bob Dylan all but disappeared. There is nothing by him that I remember with any degree of intensity or charged feeling throughout the 70s and 80s. Then, in 1997, he put out Time Out Of Mind, which had several songs on it that would come to mingle with the events of my father’s death. “Not Dark Yet,” which is one of the most beautiful and meaningful songs I’ve ever heard filled a big part of my emotional life in 2001 as my father withered away from cancer, and the long rambling “Highlands,” because it reminded me of my wife’s mother, who passed away in 2004. She was from Methilhill, Scotland, and Dylan borrowed his imagery from Robert Burns.
There are songs that relate to specific times and places for reasons too elusive for me to figure out. Why should I remember so vividly the temperature and smell and details of the basement room in my father’s house circa age 16 (ostensibly my room, though it never felt like my room, I had three other siblings and we were always trading rooms) when I heard “She’s Not There” one afternoon? Or “House of the Rising Sun” one summer afternoon at a beach on Lake Washington? Or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” one evening as I was leaving work and stopped to hear the song even though I was risking missing my bus it was so captivating and powerful?
When I say remember, I mean really remember: the sound of the Pitney –Bowes machines, the chatter and laughter of my co-workers as they were rushing to take care of loose ends and close things down for the night, the darkness because it was winter, my eagerness to get the hell out of the mailroom, and then that sound, the ambiguous, dislocated chord progression and syncopated sixteenth notes, dit dah, dit dah, dit dah, ominous and rueful and hypnotic, the savage punctuations of Cobain’s Fender Mustang roaring its distortion like a mortally wounded leviathan , and Cobain’s anguished cry, I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now; entertain us / A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido / Yeah, hey, it was haunting, and powerful, and I stopped in my tracks, as they say, to listen. What is this? I wondered. It was the first rock song I’d heard in years that really grabbed my attention.
There are some songs that connect deeply with me and when I first hear them the moment, however banal the actual circumstances, become vivid and strangely enduring.
But then, why should I remember Paul McCartney’s stupid “Admiral Halsey” and the afternoon in San José, California circa 1971 that I was driving a used Volvo to work in my ex-mother-in-law’s modeling agency as a janitor? I hated that song. What I remember was thinking how perplexing it was that the same man that wrote “Yesterday” and “Penny Lane” and “Eleanor Rigby” and co-wrote so many unbelievably great songs with John Lennon like “A Day in the Life” could write something so vapid, so monotonous, and so inane as to want me to have a car accident just to stop it. And the change that occurred. Every time I go online and google up the hit songs from the early 70s I am amazed at how shitty the music became. How shallow and infantile and imbecilic all those songs were. “The Candy Man,” “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree,” “Tubular Bells.” “You’re Having My Baby.” What the fuck happened?
“Admiral Halsey” played almost exclusively on AM. AM was totally, aggressively, shamelessly commercial.
Those were the FM years. If you wanted to hear something decent you had to find a radio with FM. But even there, the DJs would play a song I really liked, “Cowgirl in the Sand” or “Light My Fire” or “Stairway to Heaven” or “Free Bird” and play it and play it and play it until I either had no feeling for it anymore or I just began to hate it.
It wasn’t just the 70s. Songs have had an impact on highly specific moments of my life since Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” when, at age nine in the summer of 1956, I sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor of a friend’s bedroom in Golden Valley, Minnesota. We played the 45 over and over on a tiny record player, shouting Day-O at the top of our lungs, daylight come and we want to go home. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered why these workmen were going home at daybreak instead of nighttime like most people.
That same year, Presley’s “Hound Dog” knocked me out. It was wild. It was my first big connection to the thrill of rock. But then it was followed by “Love Me Tender” and I felt betrayed and turned all my allegiance to Fess Parker’s Daniel Boone.
“Everybody Wants To Rule The World” reminds me of a sunny Colorado morning in early October, 1984, a trip I made to Denver with my brother to help our schizophrenic mother move out of her mother’s posh condo apartment to far more modest digs in another apartment building. A sad occasion. I remember how the song, which was coming out of a bedside clock radio in our motel room, made me momentarily happy. I still really like that song.
“Lies,” by the Knickerbockers, is forever ingrained in my mind as the song that came out of George’s ’55 Plymouth sedan radio the night I got beat up at a New Year’s Eve party in 1965. It’s the first thing I heard when George started the engine to his car and the radio came on. I remember how strange it felt to be so collapsed in pain and humiliation while such an energetic rock song was filling the interior of the car. The song continued to get some airplay into 1966, but hardly at all after that. It didn’t even get much play on the oldies stations. I didn’t hear it again until a few years ago, on YouTube. How strange to hear it again. It all came back. My missing teeth, the blood in my mouth, the black eye, the feelings of confusion and shame, the acute betrayal of friends.
In December, 1966, at the house of some people I did not really know but who were all dropping acid together I heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” come out of a radio atop a refrigerator just as the acid was kicking in and I had begun getting that ineffable feeling of cosmic giddiness, an ecstatic feeling of unreality and ultimate ontological silliness, the universe with a clownish aspect, but also a little ominous. Events that night turned horrific and ugly and my body atomized into ghostly incorporeality and I ended up spending the night in the hospital along with several others of that group that had dropped the same powerful shit, one of whom, an Asian man in a pea jacket, had been dragged in by the police, unable to walk apparently. So that years later, whenever I hear the opening refrain of that song, let me take you down, cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields, nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about, I get excited and nervous.
I wonder what song would serve me in the same way Proust’s madeleine triggered À la recherché du temps perdu? Is there one particular song that could so transport my mind and imagination to a time and place fraught with so many sensations and charged with so much significance I could write volumes of prose out of it? I would not choose, for instance, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” because that was event in which I had stood outside of my life, and it would not serve as an inspiration for an extended work, unless I wanted to represent my life as a phantasmal dispersion of atoms adrift in a tumult of tinsel and AM radio.
I could choose “Like A Rolling Stone,” a seminal song for me in many ways, but my feeling for that song has changed over the years. The same emotion isn’t there. The excitement is gone. Now when I hear it, I concentrate on its lyrics , which have never ceased to enthrall and fascinate me, but time has dimmed their luster. I percolate their tincture and dye, squeezing them for every last drop of residual stimulation, or steep my reflections in curious details about the song’s genesis, such as Al Kooper’s organ playing, a parable of serendipity. Kooper, who had initially been enlisted to play guitar but deferred to Michael Bloomfield’s matchless wizardry, was just using the organ as ruse to continue to be a part of the song’s making, so that he could remain in the studio and contribute something, anything, and even though Kooper’s unrehearsed and awkward switch to the organ had put him an eight note behind the rest of the band, and the recording engineer was surprised to find him sitting there, but too late to yank him out of there, he stayed, and it ended up adding a key element to the character of the song.
I used to be enthralled by the song’s anthemic jubilation, the exhilaration of homelessness and raw impulsive freedom, the vertigo of its dazzling surreal images as it itemized the weirdness of modern urban life, the tumultuous excitement of its headlong dereliction shouted poignantly in the refrain how does it feel, and although many years later I can still hear these things, they’re initial propulsive thrill has gelled into granite. The song is a monument. “Like A Rolling Stone” has become a kind of Mount Rushmore. It feels public and open and belongs to everyone, like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” or Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Excitement remains for a few other songs I haven’t played to death on YouTube. But they’re recent. I really like Adelle, for instance, and her magnificent “Rolling in the Deep.”
Songs are like smells in that regard. I love the smell of bacon, but after a while it becomes just that: the smell of bacon. Nothing more, nothing less. It is what it is.
If I could smell a song, what would Dylan’s “Lonesome Day Blues” smell like? Alfalfa? Diesel? Dirt?
I know what greasy spoon restaurant kitchens smell like. That would be the smell of the Dylan and Robert Hunter collaboration “It’s All Good,” in which politics is mingled with bad hygiene: “Big politician telling lies; Restaurant kitchen all full of flies.”
Edith Piaf’s haunting “La Vie en rose” has always made me feel nostalgic for a time and place I never actually experienced but intensely imagined as my true reality. I place the song not when it was first released as a single (1947, the year of my birth), but the Belle Epoque, the 1890s of Paris, when figures like Mallarmé and Proust and Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant and Eric Satie were around. That’s the time and place in which I should have lived. That’s where If find my deepest rapport. It’s weird having memories for a time and place in which you did not exist. I might be persuaded to think it’s all just fantasy, an illusory bit of time travel, but when I hear “La Vie en rose,” it feels quite real.
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