One often sees the phrase "Proustian rush" in pop writing. Music, we are told, has an unrivalled power to summon memory, and the merest scent of a particular melody is enough to return us to the night we lost our virginity, or met our future spouse. That's true, of course. But the music that moves me most tends not to take me back to my own history: it summons memories I never had, makes me nostalgic for a past that was never mine.
REM's debut album, Murmur, has seldom been far from my CD player in recent weeks. I used to spend teenage nights lying in bed with the light off and headphones on, listening to John Peel, and then putting either Murmur or Fables of the Reconstruction into the tape deck when Peel finished. So, at one level, listening closely again to Murmur sends me back to lying in my suburban box room, wondering how I could make the girl I adored realise that she really ought to fall in love with me. But it also transports me much further, to a set of images that seem to be truer than my own prosaic adolescence. Murmur takes me to an imagined Deep South I might once have lived in, a place I constructed from a string of records I obsessed over as a youth.
Those two REM albums were the main building block of my imaginary South - I still can't hear Perfect Circle without hearing myself tell some Southern belle to "pull your dress on and stay real close", though the nearest I have ever come to those words is telling my daughter, "pull your uniform on and come to school" - but it was not the only one. A song called All for the Best by Miracle Legion - which would have fitted neatly on to one of those early REM albums - made me feel as if I had lived through long Georgia summers, when the days began hot and got hotter, when all one could do to pass the time would be to lie on the porch wondering when the heat would break, and when one would treasure the hint of freshness that newly cut grass would bring to the leaden air.
When I finally got to the Deep South in 1997, I discovered it wasn't the place I had imagined. It wasn't full of people like REM's Wendell Gee and Old Man Kensey. There appeared to be few train drivers desperately trying to reach their destination despite having been on their shift too long. It was not a place removed from the real world: it had bad TV, bad food and bad drivers, just like every other place I had been. Even the kudzu vines looked less otherworldly than they did on the cover of Murmur. I loved it, but which South was I to put my trust in? Was I going to believe what my records had told me, or my own lying eyes?
Other records bring vivid false memories of other places, other times. The windswept melancholia released by New Zealand's Flying Nun record label in the 1980s places me in a storm-tossed port town of wooden houses on streets built on steep hills. I am wearing the old overcoat I had at 19; daylight is fading and I am desperate to get inside, to where the lights promise dryness and warmth and a bowl of fish chowder. It doesn't matter which of the Flying Nun groups I'm listening to - the Chills, the Clean, the Bats - all take me on the same journey.
The power of great songs lies not in their having precise meaning. Most don't. Many great songs are arrant nonsense when their words are written down; little of Murmur makes any sense on the page. Their power springs from their having just enough meaning that a million people, in a million places, can find an interpretation that matters to them. And so Sam Cooke's You Send Me is not, to me, a love song. It's a lesson in the power of music to transport, as if Sam speaking not to his lover but to a thousand other songwriters. "You send me," he's telling them, "honest you do." But where will the songwriter send Sam, or me? To a swimming hole in a Georgia river? To Dunedin on an autumn evening? Or to another destination, one I can't yet imagine?
Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll - The Gaurdian 06/02
1 reply to this topic
Posted 09 February 2009 - 04:08 PM
Other records bring vivid false memories of other places, other times. The windswept melancholia released by New Zealand's Flying Nun record label in the 1980s places me in a storm-tossed port town of wooden houses on streets built on steep hills. I am wearing the old overcoat I had at 19; daylight is fading and I am desperate to get inside, to where the lights promise dryness and warmth and a bowl of fish chowder.
That's not far off what Dunedin felt like when I was growing up, except there's little warmth in many of those wooden houses because they're so poorly insulated, and I don't ever recall seeing fish chowder served by anyone. Fish and chips and beer would be more like it.
I didn't have a strong image of the US South before I moved there, and so REM's early albums never transported me to anywhere far away and mysterious. Now I can't separate the sound of the first three albums from my memory of my time in North Carolina. The South today may not be the one of the author's youthful imagination, but those albums still evoke feelings and images of what it is like to live there, even if it's as much about seeing a band in a sweltering suburban strip mall as it is kudzu and decaying rural buildings.
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