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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Make Your Own Kind of Music...

A few months ago, I became a late convert to the great show, Lost, which recently finished its run. One of the show's many themes is that of time travel. In one particularly moving episode from season 3, "Flashes Before Your Eyes," Desmond travels back to 1996, where he attempts in vain to salvage his relationship with Penny Widmore. The episode is incredibly haunting, as Desmond is tantalized by the surreal sense that he can change his own destiny, and the cruel realization he must live with his past mistakes.

Time travel makes for great romance, and also serves as a solid premise for contemplating a character's "what ifs." It's an alluring concept that has provided the background for some fantastic novels and movies: "Slaughterhouse Five," "The Watchmen," "Somewhere in Time," just to name a few. But when it comes down to it, most people brush aside time travel as a science fiction plot device - a fun gimmick that has little to do with reality.

The older I get, however, the more I start to think that maybe there's more to this time travel business than we may think. Most of us are so firmly entrenched in what we believe to be true about the world around us that we stop paying attention to our senses. 

As I sit here now, typing, I'm listening to Bruce Springsteen live on New Year's Eve, 1980, at the Nassau Coliseum. The piano rings with a remarkable clarity; Bruce's voice sounds young, energetic, hungry. As the band launches into Hungry Heart, I'm suddenly back in sixth grade. I'm listening to Bruce on the transistor that I carried around next to my ear all through the late 70's and early 80's, battling static and the whims of the AM radio deejays to get whatever auditory glimpses I could of "the Boss"...

The I-Tunes shuffle function serves up its next offering: Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." It's the summer of 1978, and I can just about taste the orange soda. My brother and I are playing in the Fishers' yard, right behind our house. We've been playing baseball and tag all day, and we stop to rest on the front stoop that overlooks the huge expanse of grass, flanked by three great pine trees, that is our childhood playground. The bristly carpet on the brick steps needles the backs of my calves, and I enjoy the feeling of sweat trickling down my back. My mom calls out from the kitchen window, and I hear her through the trees - it's dinner time...

In the movie, "High Fidelity," Rob (played by John Cusack) arranges his record correction not alphabetically, not chronologically by release, but autobiographically - the order in which he experienced the music. Next up on my iTunes is Tom Petty's "Here Comes My Girl." This one was recorded in 1979, but the tension in this song's opening chords sends me, personally,  back to late 1994. I'm in my third year as a teacher, and am living at home with my parents for a few months to save up for my wedding. It's a cold October night, and my high school buddies, Ted and Shawn, have invited me over to "jam." I haven't picked up my guitar in a few years, as my new status as an English teacher and responsible adult has taken priority; I've forgotten the thrill of rocking out in the basement, and when we launch into the song, it's magic...

The striking thing about these "time travels" is that they are more than just memories. I can feel the sensations, smell the smells, see the sights. These sudden "unstickings in time" are so unexpected and powerful that they might as well be accompanied by the violent flashes of white light that transported Sawyer, Juliet, and Jin on their wild journey through the ages.

What's even more remarkable, though, is that music can conjure memories that didn't actually happen.  Last fall,  I finally realized a lifelong dream of seeing Bruce Springsteen live. Near the end of the evening, the band surprised the crowd by playing "Sandy," a song whose tempo and feel differed from the overall feel of the show up to that point. As the haunting accordion strains danced around Bruce's tale of love, loss, change, and acceptance, I closed my eyes. The gentle October breeze felt as if it was carrying a light ocean spray, and the smell of hotdogs and beer contributed to the illusion that I was on the beach. I felt the pain of the song's protagonist as if it were my own; I saw the cops busting Madame Marie, and and experienced the story as if it were the story of my own life. And as if I had lived it hundreds of times before.

When I thought about it later, I felt kind of silly, getting all emotional over Sandy and the 4th of July at Asbury Park. After all, I didn't even know anyone named Sandy. And I'd never been on the beach at Asbury Park. But what happened to me (and I'm sure many others) that night at Giants Stadium is what author Stephen Dobyns refers to as "the authenticating act of memory": the idea that you can "remember" anything you've ever imagined, since your unconscious mind doesn't make a distinction between reality and imagination. The more times you hear a song, then, the more real its story seems, and the stronger the memory of having experienced it. And, because your unconscious mind, which deals in imagery rather than words, doesn't know the difference between what is real and what is imagined, a musical flashback is, for all intents and purposes, real time travel.

Music also feels timeless because of its ability to give the artist eternal life. Shakespeare's sonnets focus on the idea that, by creating some form of art - writing, painting, music, or even life itself through childbirth - you gain a measure of immortality. And this is true - we speak of Shakespeare in the present tense, and when we listen to recordings of Jimi Hendrix, he is alive enough to move us - physically and spiritually. Unless you were a personal friend or family member of Hendrix, he is as alive to you today as he ever was.

My wife always says, and I agree, that time, and time travel, are just a matter of perception. Maybe it's just a matter of closing your eyes, opening up your ears, and letting the music take you where (and when) it will...

* Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns. Palgrave Macmillian, New York, 1996. Probably my favorite theoretical writing book.

Great videos on the 4th dimension (time):
Carl Sagan Explains the 4th Dimension
Imagining the 10th Dimension


  1. Great post, Sluggo. Very moving imagery you use here... There's an old advertising adage - "Perception Drives Reality" - and I think you make a good case for that here.

  2. The points that you make here are extremely true to me because not only do I absolutely enjoy listening to music, I write music too. Being a piano player, I know exactly how it feels to feel "The gentle October breeze..." and all the emotions behind it. Maybe time travel isn't so far fetched after all...