The Song Remembers When

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They say that the sense of smell is the one most closely linked to memory.  Duly noted.  We’ve all experienced that sensation where we’ve caught a whiff of a (hopefully pleasant) scent and were immediately transported to another time and place.  The slightest trace of Calvin Klein’s Obsession fragrance, for example, takes me right back to 1985 London and a Benetton-clad girl named Alison with whom I spent a semester there.

But, for me, songs seems to trigger more memories than smells do, so I’d have to credit my sense of hearing with being most closely linked to memory.  My memory, anyway.

My recollections associated with specific songs are usually tied to their peak in popularity.  “Dancing Machine” by The Jackson 5 makes me think of my fourth grade birthday party at Coachlight roller skating rink.  I ate an entire carton of malted milk balls and got so sick that I haven’t touched one since.  “Hold My Hand” by Hootie and the Blowfish reminds me of a ski trip to Telluride with a bunch of Chicago chums, while “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia transports me back to my first day of work at Entertainment Weekly.  In each of these examples the songs were in heavy rotation on the radio at the time (and the latter two got lots of video play on VH1.)

But sometimes a song transcends the era of its release date and becomes — in my mind, anyway –tied  to an event that happened years later.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” was released in 1975, but I have no specific associations with the song at that time.  Instead, hearing “Born To Run” makes me think of two completely different occasions.  1.) A paper I wrote for my American Social Experience class during my sophomore year in college.  In the paper I contrasted the optimistic outlook on the American dream reflected in the folk songs of the early U.S. pioneers vs. the pessimism found in American pop music of the late 20th century.  “Born to Run” was one of my examples, natch..  2.  The back room at the Dublin House Irish pub in New York City circa 1998.  “Born to Run” came on the jukebox and the entire crowd — friends and strangers alike — belted out the song in unison, each of us knowing every single word (if not every note.)  It was one of those simple but wonderful moments that sticks with you forever.

The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” was released when I was a fetus; I have no embryonic memory of it.  Thanks to a wedding I attended a few years ago in Ojai, California, however, I now  have a very specific association with the tune.  The rehearsal dinner featured a live band who played only Beatles songs and they encouraged the crowd to come up and sing in a live karaoke way. Having no interest in this level of participation (nor vocal talent), four friends and I decided to do our well-rehearsed toast/skit for the bride and groom while the band was on a much-deserved break.  Unbeknownst to us, as we lined up to begin our tribute in front of the five microphones that had been placed on the stage, the band returned to their instruments behind us and started up on the famous opening chords of “A Hard Day’s Night.”  It would have been in bad form to storm off the stage, so we all just started singing, “It’s been a hard day’s night and I’ve been working like a dog…”  all the way through the end of the song.  Let’s just say our toast that followed was much better than our butchered Beatles rendition.  Still, I now have that association whenever I hear the song.  And it makes me chuckle.

Speaking of The Beatles — and on a much sadder note —  for me Elton John’s “Empty Garden” is no longer the tribute to John Lennon that he intended when he released the song in 1982.  (Lennon was fatally shot in 1980.)  Whenever I hear it I think about my friend John Loiacono who lost his battle to cancer in 2000.  He was a huge Beatles fan (a huge John Lennon fan, in particular) and Elton’s tribute is just as fitting for him.  I tear up every time I hear the chorus:

And I’ve been knocking, but no one answers

And I’ve been knocking most all the day

Oh and I’ve been calling, “Oh hey hey Johnny

Can’t you come out to play in your empty garden?

Thank you, dear music, for constantly flooding me with silly memories (roller skating in 4th grade) and poignant ones (a friend who died way too soon.)

Trisha Yearwood said it best: “Even when the whole world has forgotten, the song remembers when.”

Today’s (unrelated) poll:  Iron Man 3 hits movie theaters today.  Who’s your favorite cast member?

Don Cheadle

Robert Downey, Jr.

Ben Kingsley

Gwyneth Paltrow

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