My friend, writer Jamie Blaine, is interested in nostalgia — the things we remember and how we selectively remember them. We’ve had many discussions about memory and our memories. Jamie and I grew up in central Louisiana and have been good friends since our teenage years, so there are a lot of recollections we share. He’s much better at remembering the details than I am.
I wouldn’t say I’m distrustful of nostalgia, but I do try to be aware of how it shapes our attitudes and feelings in the present. I’ve had arguments with the ‘music was so much better then’ crowd — what you listened to when you were young and actively discovering music for the first time is always going to sound like the best music ever. I’m certain that present-day teenagers will be saying today’s music was the best thirty years from now.
I like Andrew Weatherall’s attitude. In an interview with The Guardian, he was asked to name his favorite period of music. Weatherall said, “Last week. I’m not a golden age kind of person.”
But there is something about those special songs, heard for the first time under magical circumstances. They aren’t ‘the best,’ but they’re the best for us. These songs are intertwined with our memories and, when listened to, cause spine chills. Is there another art form that imprints on us in this way? Can a painting be locked with a memory?
Jamie loves this story of my most affecting song moment:
I craved new music as a teenager in Pineville, Louisiana, but it wasn’t easy to find. I ended up learning about new music from far away college radio stations, all static-y and fading in and out. Baton Rouge’s KLSU would come through under certain weather conditions, as would Houston’s KTRU. But the most reliable signal came from Lafayette and the college station KRVS. The format was mostly NPR and regional music (Cajun) programming, but from midnight to 6 AM the students took over and played ‘alternative music’ (what we used to call it in the mid-80s).
I couldn’t exactly stay up all night listening to the radio. My solution was to buy a pack of 120-minute cassette tapes (60 minutes per side, the longest you could get) and record the station nightly. I’d put a boombox next to my pillow and start recording at midnight and fall asleep. Once the tape ran out the ‘record’ key on the boombox would make a loud click. This sound woke me up for a second so I could groggily change the tape.
The next day at high school I would listen to the radio show from earlier — on my commute, in between classes, on lunch break, whenever I could. That’s how I kept up on all the cool music that was coming out.
That’s the set-up. The actual story is this:
One night I’m sleeping while the radio is recording and I’m suddenly semi-awake. I’m in that halfway state between asleep and cognizant, not fully conscious. And I hear this music playing, the weirdest, strangest music (or so it seemed at the time). I’m in bed, partly dreaming, and this magical sound is all around me, and I can’t quite believe it. I feel euphoric. Then I fall back asleep.
The next day I’m up and trying to remember. I’m not sure what happened. Was that music real? Was it all a dream?
So I’m at school trying to steal any chance I can get to listen to my tapes of the radio, to see if this strange song exists and if I’d even recognize it. And then — and I remember being in the middle of the hall on the way to class — the tune suddenly comes on. It’s this:
I’m frozen and get chills. It’s not so much that the song is so amazing (though it kinda is), it’s that weird connection with how I heard it for the first time — and how I heard Cocteau Twins for the first time — that moved me. I still get chills when I hear the song, and it brings me back to the time when I was just starting to get excited about discovering music, discovering my music. It transports me to that boombox next to my pillow, and to that high school hallway where I stopped in my tracks with a big grin on my face – “This is that song!” It brings me back to the best music ever.
Update: After reading this post, Jamie wrote to me to say, “Nostalgia is just history with feelings.”