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Remembrance of tunes past

March 23, 2014

“People fight for the basic right to choose
To live a life we don’t intend to lose.
The time has come when we must all decide
To end our evil ways or let the whole world slide.”

–Jeff Beck Group, “Situation”

Thirty-three years ago, to the day, I opened our front door to see my parents’ close friends Yvonne and Gordon Hutton dressed in black, and in that instant I knew my dad had died.

Thirty-three years later, I finally listened to the whole Jeff Beck record.

Thirty-three years later, I finally listened to the whole Jeff Beck record.

My folks had been in Australia visiting one of my sisters, so the task of passing on the news back home fell to the Huttons. I don’t remember what Mrs. Hutton said, what happened after, or who came to visit. The only other thing I recall from that day was what I was doing right before the doorbell rang.

I’d been listening to a copy of the Jeff Beck Group’s album Rough and Ready, which belonged to the young couple looking after my sister Sheila and me. The song playing was called “Situation.” I went years, even decades without hearing the tune, almost afraid to buy my own copy of the album. (For the record, yesterday I bought a second-hand LP and am listening to it as I write.)

For me, music is associated with some of my strongest memories. I don’t want to reduce the impact that music like Bill Frisell or Sonic Youth had on me when I discovered it in my twenties, but the most vivid memories come from when I was young:

  • I remember hearing the Beatles’ White Album when I was four, maybe five, at some hippie farmhouse party one of my sisters took me to. This made me a fan of the Beatles, and so began my lifelong love affair with music.
  • At age seven I remember hearing the Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup, especially the Starfucker chorus at the end of “Star, Star.” This made me a lifelong Stones’ fan.
  • I remember being a childhood insomniac and finally falling asleep to Stevie Wonder in my parents’ bed, yet somehow was magically transported back to my own bed.
  • I remember my sister Cathy goofing around with friends while listening to Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.
  • I remember Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat album playing around the house, and I remember the acoustic folkies playing “Morning Has Broken” in the church at Cathy’s funeral. I still can’t listen to the song with a dry eye.
  • I vividly remember having my mind blown by the albums I discovered when I was 11 or 12 – Led Zep III, Who’s Next and so on.
  • In high school I remember Pink Floyd and Supertramp and the old Genesis, King Crimson and Yes albums I discovered. I remember jazz artists like Pat Metheny, Miles Davis, Weather Report, John Coltrane, John McLaughlin and Ornette Coleman. All of this was integral to learning how to play the drums. (It was probably a good thing I didn’t get into anything remotely punk until my twenties.)
  • I remember being 10 or 11 and hearing Steely Dan’s “Peg” for the first time on the car radio as my mom drove to Seattle to visit one of my sisters who was away at university. It still might be one of the happiest, sunniest moments of my life.

Often, people feel nostalgia for their high school years, including the music, though for me, my musical memories stretch back to my earliest years. There’s some neuroscience behind this. This was a topic on the CBC program Q when it had writer Jennifer Senior on to talk about her New York Times Magazine piece, “Why You Truly Never Leave High School.” Apparently, this is the time in one’s life when the most vividly retained memories are leaving their impact. Dopamine is coursing through the brain and young people feel things more intensely than at other times in life.

Personally, I have little nostalgia for much of the music released during my high school years. While I’ve been a little hard on the period, most of it still leaves me cold. The actual music I loved during my adolescence, however, has left its mark: classic rock, art rock, jazz. I hadn’t really considered any of the brain science though until I started repurchasing a lot of the old LPs I’d listened to back then. Some of the tunes I hadn’t heard in many years, yet I still could rattle off the choruses and anticipate musical passages, as if I’d been listening to nothing else for weeks. For me, it’s why I might have several records by Beck Hansen in my collection that I enjoy, but it’s the Jeff Beck I recall more strongly.

The strange thing about memory though is that even these most vivid moments can be selective. For years I recalled “Situation” as the last song on the Jeff Beck album, or at least the final cut on Side 1. In fact, it’s only the second song in, but for me, thirty-three years ago, Rough and Ready really did come to an abrupt end with that song – or at least that’s the way I remember it.

*I’ll dedicate this column to Clarence Joseph Chouinard, 1921-1981, even though he hated rock and roll like sin. After all, that’s what dads did back then.

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From → Essays, Recordings

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