Music and Memory: Nostalgic Recollections

Music taps in to a part of the human psyche that is so primitive as to be pre-linguistic.  Rooted in our emotional drives, we can listen to a song that’s in a language we’ve never heard before, and still make an emotional connection to it.  We find and make music pretty much everywhere — people hum, whistle, tap their fingers, get songs stuck in their heads, or (in a more modern world) simply live with their ipods constantly attached to their heads.  We hear rhythms and tunes in rain, traffic, the ocean, the wind.  It’s one of the things that makes us human in the first place, separating us from the “lower” animals.  Every human culture has a musical history, an ethnomusicology, that defines it — and this continues even into modern cultural movements.  We can’t think about Rasta culture without hearing Bob Marley, punk without The Sex Pistols, Goth without The Cure, Emo without Dashboard Confessional.  Never mind that not every goth kid thinks Robert Smith is a god (I don’t actually own any Cure albums, myself), but it’s a part of what defines the genre, the fashion, the entire tone of what being goth is all about, and it would be ignorant to deny the influence that the music has had over me.

To get back to my original point, though.  I was talking to someone today about the reasons why I got into theatre in the first place, and why I chose it as a path of study and a career over potentially more lucrative, stable fields like zoology or anthropology.  We covered the usual commonplaces that occur in such discussions:  following your passions, youthful idealism and the hope that you can change the world, doing something that makes you happy even if it never makes you a dime, all the things that people usually say when you tell them that you’re a professional artist and yes, you’re comfortable with that.

What’s harder to define, especially in polite discussion, is what pushed me to make the fateful choice — to select a university and throw myself whole-heartedly along the path to lifelong poverty.  The emotions involved in a very turbulent part of my life, the things that made perfect sense at the time but are now hard to qualify in any meaningful way: how does one describe such things?  “It felt right”, is what I’ll always tell people, but that doesn’t even come close to capturing the reality.

And so, as I often do when thinking about such things, I came home and put on some music.  A particular album (or, rather, two albums) that define for me that particular part of my childhood (teenhood?  young adulthood?).  In this case, Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman’s “Bat Out of Hell”, and the sequel, “Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell”.  Nevermind about the third part of the trilogy; as of 2002-2003 it had yet to be released, and is a separate entity in my mind because of that.  It holds no part in this emotional journey of mine (although it is, I suppose, noteworthy that the third album takes so much inspiration from nu-metal, which was a definite staple of my high school listening).

Now, it’s really not the albums in particular — the songs, the lyrics, the musical style — that hold so much emotional meaning for me.  I’ll readily admit that while the albums are extremely theatrical in their own right (they’re basically rock operas, not dissimilar at all to cult classics like Rocky Horror in their over-the-top dramatic-ness), it’s no more than a strange coincidence that they are so linked to my choosing of theatre as a career path.  In point of fact, what they make me think of most is one of the least theatrical and artistic elements in my life: my father.

My dad is not a very musically-inclined person.  I’ve never in my life heard him sing.  He rarely whistles or hums.  He has no sense of rhythm, can’t dance to save his life, and disdains poetry and “artsy-fartsy crap”.  And yet for some reason, “Bat Out of Hell” is one of his favourite albums of all time.  I suppose it’s a testament to its universal popularity (as of 2010 it’s the fifth highest selling album of all time, anywhere).  But “Bat” and “Bat II” were albums that I heard so often, growing up, that I could quote every lyric even before I knew what most of the double-entendre meant.

Needless to say, my non-artsy dad never wanted his first-born child (or any of his children, for that matter) to pursue a career in the arts.  Telling him “this is what I want to do with my life” was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, because it meant disappointing the person who’d always been my biggest supporter and fan.

And listening to “Bat” takes me right back to that.  Sitting in the car, listening to that album, talking about my plans, while we drove to Windsor for my first university audition.  The sense of calm, accepting, happy, belonging-ness that came over me when I finally came to realize that it didn’t matter at all if my dad understood this or not, he’d still support me and be there for me all the way through it.  Shaking his head in disbelief at my craziness, he’d still stand behind me to the end of time and defend me from all other comers.  Never mind that its been years; I can go right back to being 17 in an instant, just from hearing the opening chords.

When summer came that year, I was still full of intense self-doubts.  With my bipolar disorder not yet properly diagnosed or managed, I was swinging wildly between excitement and elation at being on my way to school, and crushing, horrible fears that I’d made the worst mistake of my entire life.  Mix into that an unhealthy dose of teenaged hormones (the devastating rejection when my first love got herself a serious boyfriend and started talking marriage and future and babies with this guy, followed by an ill-advised rebound/revenge relationship on my part that left me questioning a lot of things about my life and sexuality), various issues with my mother, and a prescription for Prozac that inhibited by ability to see the negative sides to suicide, and it was beginning to look more and more unlikely that I would ever make it to university or my 18th birthday.  I read my journals from that year and look over the many drafts of suicide notes, and it can still bring me to tears.

It was my dad’s acceptance, even though he couldn’t understand my choices, that held my head above the water in the darkest of those days.  He was working for most of the summer; picking up overtime shifts to help cover the cost of my tuition and residence fees.  And I avoided being at home, trying to keep distance from my mother.  But when I was driving in the car, alone, between Port Elgin and Owen Sound and Tobermory, I’d listen to “Bat Out of Hell” and feel all right.

When I did go away to school, one of my very first purchases was my own copies of those CDs.  And when school was hard, or when I felt lonely, or when I felt dad-sick (never home-sick, but I did miss my dad), I’d put them on.

There are other albums, other songs, that hold deep emotional significance for me.  I’ll never be able to listen to Poison the Well’s “Tear from the Red”, and especially not the song “Parks and What You Meant to Me”, without thinking of a particular relationship.  Rammstein’s album “Herzeleid” is inexorably linked to my university design classes.  The Chili Peppers’ “Californication” will always bring back memories of a particular high school friend and a musical production that we worked on together.  And, of course, like many people who were young in the 90s, Nine Inch Nails holds a special place in defining many of my coming-of-age moments.  Some of the connections are more powerful than others — “Parks and What You Meant to Me” will almost always bring me to tears, while Coldplay’s “The Scientist” makes me sad and nostalgic, but not to quite the same degree.

Events.  People.  Places.  Emotions.  Beyond the literal meanings of songs, beyond the words and the images and the poetry, there’s a power.  Something visceral, that touches us in a way that’s almost undefinable.  It’s deep, it’s personal, and it’s completely, inescapably human.  Music is special.

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