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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

Monday, February 18, 2013

In the Garage

On some level, each of us feels that our childhood is unique. At least, that is, while we are children. Even though we ultimately venture out into the world beyond our front lawn, enter the homes of our friends, and discover strange and wonderful worlds via our televisions (and even stranger and more wonderful worlds through our radios and i-pads), during our early years we are necessarily self-centered. This leads to a persistent feeling that the particulars of our upbringing are a one-of-a-kind combination.

Periodically, though, we are jarred out of this illusion when we encounter someone else's experience that mirrors our own with chilling precision. Recently, I was reading Josh Wilker's terrific memoir, Cardboard Gods, and came across this description of the author's room:

"As I write this, decades later, almost all the things that made that room my room are long gone...The poster of Ace Frehley, his silver-painted eyes clamped shut, using his guitar as a .... conduit for the infinite wonder of the cosmos. The magazine cutout of Cheryl Tiegs... All the various lint-covered objects made of Nerf.  All the piles of hand-scrawled solitaire Strat-O-Matic scorecards. The only thing that remains is the heart of the room, the box containing all the baseball cards I ever brought home. The box I've carried with me through my life."
This hit so close to memories of my own childhood bedroom that I almost felt as if I had been "found out," as if someone had been spying on me as I, too, created my own secret Strat-O-Matic baseball world with only KISS and Farrah Fawcett looking on. But this sudden rush of vulnerability is also the thrill of shared connection, of realizing that I was not alone in my most treasured memories and "geeky" interests.
Somehow, I'm always surprised by these moments, and how excited I get about them, but I shouldn't be. After all, isn't that the true allure of literature and pop culture - the sense of being part of something bigger?

Sometimes, this goes beyond mere connection - and becomes vindication -  when famous people admit to engaging in some of the more embarrassing pastimes of my childhood. When I was in 7th grade, there wasn't anything less "cool" than Dungeons and Dragons.  My brother and I would play for hours on end. I loved being the dungeon master, because it was my first real chance to let my imagination run free in the process of creating something that felt real, that was real when we played the game. Sometimes, other kids in the neighborhood would come over and play, and we'd have a great time. Yet, there was almost this unspoken code: "Ixnay on the Agonsdray" - we'd never, ever refer to our gaming outside the confines of my basement.

That's why one of my all-time favorite songs from the grunge era is Weezer's "In the Garage." This one also speaks directly to my childhood experience, and in the chorus even gives a nod to the underground nature of the fun we had:

"I've got the Dungeon Master's Guide
I've got a 12-sided die
I've got Kitty Pryde
And Nightcrawler too
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do

I've got posters on the wall,
My favorite rock group Kiss,
I've got Ace Frehley
and I've got Peter Criss,
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do

In the garage
I feel safe
No one cares about my ways
In the garage where I belong
No one hears me sing this song

Notice, also, the Kiss poster connection. Posters like this one were as ubiquitous as I-pods back in the late 70's and early 80's,  and a huge banner like this one hung on the cinder block walls of the basement where my brother and I spent some of our greatest times as kids. It was only a dank, musty, 10X10 cellar, but with a little imagination it became a hockey rink, a bowling alley, and even a WWF ring, as we converted the arms of a moth-eaten couch into head-rammable turnbuckles. We'd labor for days on model cars and ships, the dizzying aroma of Testors plastic cement hanging in the humid summer air as we listened to the limited rotation in our slowly growing record collection. Alive, Alive II, Billy Joel's Glass Houses and Chipmunk Punk spun endlessly on our Mickey Mouse turntable, each scratch and hiccup becoming permanently recorded in our mental soundtracks.

It was amazing, innocent, all-encompassing joy. And sure, we were geeky. But it's nice to know that Rivers Cuomo was, too.