They say that of all of your senses, smell is the one most connected to memories. Something about the olfactory part of the brain being a neighbor of where the memories hang out…in case you wanted the technical reason (I’m such a wealth of information).
I can’t disagree with whoever ‘they’ are. There are certain smells that evoke very strong feelings in me and bring up past events more clearly than merely thinking about them ever could. The smell of baby powder will always remind me of my mom. The aroma of cigarettes and coffee are also sharp elbows to the ribs of my sentiment that it’s time to think about her too. But, those two have been diluted some due to the frequency in which I encounter them. Instead of just reminding me of her, there are many other memories scratching to get to the surface of my consciousness when I get a whiff of the coffee and cigarette combination.
My 17-year-old son, who last met his grandma when he was nine says the cigarette and coffee combination still reminds him of her kisses and hugs.
I like that.
I also like the idea that he hasn’t had many other memories associated with the two. I’d worry if he said the smell of cigarettes and coffee reminded him of junior high school.
So I’m not going to argue with ‘them’ about smell evoking the strongest memories. You know how ‘they’ get when you disagree with what ‘they’ say. But despite all the time I just spent on it, this post isn’t about odor-induced memories.
It’s about one specific memory I was just clubbed over the head with after hearing a song I swear I hadn’t heard since I was 12 years old. The place in the brain where we store music might not live as close to the memory center as the smell area of your brain does, but it is definitely in the same neighborhood. A song is another great way to send your heart back in time and, not only remember a certain event, but also to remember and actually experience the same emotions you went through during the event.
Like those special smells that are capable of bringing up a vivid picture of past events in my mind, there are many songs that also take me back and make me remember certain times in my life:
-The Beatles’ “Elenor Rigby” reminds me of being 7 or 8 playing with my green army men on the floor of our living room. That’s a weird one.
-Carly Simon’s “Nobody does it better” reminds me of a highlight reel I saw about Walter Peyton on CBS Sports. He was pretty damn good.
-John Cougar Melencamp’s “Jack and Diane” reminds me of being 16, in Grace’s driveway telling her she had just made a big mistake by getting older and turning 17. The song clearly states to hold on to 16 as long as you can. I was still 16 at the time, but have since made the same mistake she did…repeatedly.
-Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” reminds me huddling down in the cellar of my grandma’s farmhouse in Indiana with my cousins waiting for one huge and two smaller tornadoes to pass above us. Actually, a whole host of songs remind me of the great summers I spent with my cousins in Indiana.
-And of course, there are the thousands of songs that remind me of the numerous crushes I had on various girls through out my life and of all the girls I actually had relationships with.
Did you see what I did there? “…ALL the girls I had relationships with,” like I was some kind of player back in the day. I like the sound of that. I think it’s even better if you stretch out the word when you say it, “Aaaaall the girls I had relationships with.” Yeah. I like it. Let’s keep that in there.
The thing with all of those songs is that, like the smell of cigarettes and coffee, the memories have lost some of their intensity due to following me and being part of the soundtrack of my life. Take for instance Steely Dan’s song, “Hey, Nineteen.”
I was still in elementary school when it came out and I loved it. I loved it so much that I got the 45.
-Do young readers know what I’m referring to when I say, “45?”
I listened to that record a lot.
-It’s a record. A 45 is a record with one song on each side of it.
Then when I finally got one, I recorded it onto a cassette so I could hear it on my brand-spanking new Walkman as I walked around the lakes of my hometown. I listened to it throughout junior high and high school. And, in college I bought one of those new-fangled CD players all the kids were raving about and Steely Dan was one of the first CDs I bought. Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” was the actual first CD I ever bought. Anyway, now I could finally listen to the song without that annoying scratch and skip that was in the middle of my 45 (record). I had gotten so used to the little skip in the song, that I’d forgotten it was even there. Boy, was it weird to hear the song for the first time without it. It was like someone just turned off a vacuum cleaner that had been running in the background for the past three hours. You notice the sudden absence of something you forgot was even there. I assume there’s a psychology term for that, but I have never heard it. I just assume it’s such a common occurrence that it warrants its own word. It actually took me awhile to be able to listen to a clean version of “Hey, Nineteen” without expecting the words to jump over one part. All these years later though I can’t even remember where that skip was.
Anyway after college, I came to Japan and brought the CD with me. And, now the song is on my iPod occasionally getting shuffled to the front of the cue and playing as I drive. I’m not saying “Hey Nineteen” is the best song ever; I don’t think it is even the best Steely Dan song. I only use it here because it illustrates my point so well.
My point is that when I hear that song now, I don’t think about the first time I heard it in elementary school and wondered, “What the heck are Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian?” I do however remember thinking how cool I was that I knew who Aretha Franklin was…although at the time, I wondered if Dan needed her permission to use her name in his song (I thought Steely Dan was the singer’s name then).
So the memory of when I had first heard “Hey, Nineteen” in my basement bedroom on the old clock radio my grandma had given me is still there. It just never pops into my mind when I hear it. When I hear it now, I don’t really think about any particular time or memory. If I feel like singing along, I do. If I don’t, my mind wonders onto something else. “Hey, Nineteen” like many other songs that have followed me throughout my life, has been watered down.
But the other day, when I heard a song I hadn’t heard since elementary school,
-in Muzak form
-at the restaurant
-while enjoying my sliced pineapple dessert
…I couldn’t believe the overwhelming rush of thoughts, memories, and the strength of the emotions that swept over me in such vivid technicolored detail. I had to put my pineapple down, cock my ear toward the speaker, block out the restaurant din and listen. The song dug deep down into an old treasure chest of memories long forgotten, brushed the dust off the lid, opened it up, and pulled out a little gem that had just been sitting there patiently waiting for its turn to be brought to mind again. I didn’t even know this memory still existed until that moment and that made it all the more beautiful.
I was in sixth grade on a Saturday afternoon at the Valley View roller skating arena…I think that was that the name of the place anyway…and yes, we did use to go rollerskating every Saturday. It was the big social event of the week. It was during a Snowball dance where the boys asked the girls to skate with them…or did the girls ask the boys during the Snowball dance? It doesn’t matter. Whoever asked whom, I was skating for the first time with my wife.
(cue the sound of a needle being scratched across a record as the reader pieces together what they’ve just read)
Your wife? Sixth grade?
I got married in sixth grade. We had a ceremony after school in the playground and everything. Beth S. was my lovely wife. Can I use her name without permission? I need to ask Mr. Steely Dan about that. Tom R. officiated it. He was the son of a minister or pastor or something like that; so you know it was all on the up and up.
That was something I couldn’t get my head around at the time. I was brought up catholic and knew priests couldn’t get married. So how did Tom’s dad have a kid? Why was Tom even here on earth, much less officiating Beth and my wedding? I didn’t want to ask anyone because I figured maybe I had stumbled onto some deep family secret and I didn’t want to get anyone into trouble.
Anyway, Tom performed the ceremony and Beth and I even kissed at the end. Bruno took a photo so there may be proof floating around in someone’s attic somewhere.
Ultimately, like many marriages between young people, it just didn’t work out between Beth and I. I can’t even remember it ending or how it ended. Did someone actually break up with someone? Or did a new season of Charlie’s Angels start thus occupying my time with more important things? For whatever reason it ended, I’m sorry, Beth. I hope you have found the strength to move on.
But, in that one brilliantly true-to-life moment captured so vividly in a single memory, brought to the surface by a muzak version of a song I hadn’t heard since childhood, Snowballing around that skating rink with Beth, I knew the two of us would be together forever. I remember holding her waist and thinking how soft she was. I remember her being soft. Is that weird? I guess it’s because, up to that point, the only bodies I had had contact with were the boys I wrestled and played football with…oh and my brothers, whose favorite hobby was beating up their little brother.
I find it pretty amazing that I could even think about how soft her waist felt at that moment because I was really a terrible skater and all of my focus should have been on not falling and bringing her down with me. During Snowball, the guy has to skate backwards so he can hold the girl’s (soft) waist and she can rest her arms on his shoulders. Why is skating backwards the guy’s job? Equal rights to women is what I say.
So this slow song came on while I was discovering for the first time the excitement, the beauty, and the joy to be had by being this close to a girl who wasn’t your yucky, cootie-infested sister. The single moment that changed the course of my life and which almost every decision I’ve made since then has been based on the sudden realization that, “Hey. Girls aren’t gross.”
Years later I won a class Haiku contest at university with my submission:
I used to be free
Running like the wind with friends
But now I like girls
I’m pretty sure even by college the memory of rollerskating backwards with Beth had been placed in its treasure chest, locked away, doomed to wait another thirty years before seeing the light of day. But obviously the lesson I had learned that day wasn’t forgotten.
The song wasn’t very romantic at all in an “Oh, we love each other so much. I’ll never get you off my mind. lalala…” kind of way, anyway. It was more of a sad song than anything else. I guess the DJ’s only criteria for choosing songs for the Snowball portion of the afternoon was the tempo. The lyrics to the song didn’t matter to me though. For those three plus minutes I was in heaven. Just me and my wife slowly making our way around the floor, me trying not to make a fool of myself and her thinking I was the greatest guy in the world.
Ok. Ok. I don’t actually know what she was thinking, but she could have been thinking that. Shut up! You don’t know.
And until I heard that song at the Japanese Big Boy restaurant (Yes, they have them here too), I had forgotten all about that dance. And, probably because I hadn’t heard the song since that Snowball with Beth, it hadn’t lost any of its magic at all. It was a pure, unadulterated hit of childhood crack, still retaining 100% of its potent excitement, hope, dreams, and smiles that only a twelve year old could conger up.
And conger I did.
Physically, I was in the middle of a Japanese Big Boy, hovering over a plate of discarded pineapple rinds with my head cocked and my eyes glazed over, staring into a place only I could see. In my mind though, I was far, far away; transported to a different time and place where it was just Beth and I on the dark skating rink with only the light of the mirror ball showing me when to make feeble attempts to push out with my left foot and try to turn so we didn’t crash into and over a wall. I could even remember clearly the sounds of the pinball machines accompanying that old song I had not heard since my misguided marriage in the late 70’s.
If you’re under thirty, I doubt you’ve ever heard the song. I obviously haven’t heard it on the radio or anywhere else in the almost forty years since that day. But, if you’re from my generation, you probably know it. It might bring back many memories for you too or it might have followed you through life and become your own “Hey, Nineteen;” essentially wiping out any deep, intense feelings you once associated to it.
Alright already, Shane. Tell me what the damn song is.
Sorry about the delay. I tend to wax nostalgic on occasion and I didn’t want you leaving in the middle of my story to check out the song on YouTube. It’s there by the way. I listened to it when I got home that night. I didn’t remember who sang the song, but I certainly remembered how to sing the chorus. Not that you’d want me to. Trust me on that one.
Oh, and don’t worry. The song isn’t “The Pina Colada Song” either. I don’t know about you, but even the mere mention of that song will cause it to get stuck in my head all day. And, I wouldn’t want to do that to you. So I won’t bring that song up. You know the one that goes, “If you like pina colads and getting caught in the rain…” I do like the song. But after two or three hundred laps around my brain, it does tend to wear out its welcome.
No. The song was actually Michael Martin Murphey’s “Wildfire.” Do you know it? Do you remember it? Do you have any memories associated with it? It’s about a horse that dies in a blizzard and a girl running after him. “…She ran calling, ‘Wiiiiiiiiildfire.’ She ran calling ‘Wiiiiiiildfire. She ran calling ‘Wa-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ahld fa-iire.'”
Now after what we we call the “Big Boy muzak experience,” I’m wondering how many other deeply buried memories I have hiding away in the attic of my mind just waiting for the right trigger to bring them to the surface? And, what exactly are those triggers?
Another question that comes to mind, and the more obvious one that you’ve probably been asking yourself this whole time, is whose decision was it to make a muzak version of that song?