Monday, July 14, 2008

In between the dark and the light: memory before time

While listening to Pandora radio recently, a lovely Heart song called “There’s the Girl” came up. It’s not on the greatest hits compilation I own; however, I subsequently recalled hearing it occasionally on the radio as a little girl. All of this brought to mind something I’m calling musical memory. Not memory of playing a piano piece learned per se (I guess, which is muscle memory too), but more one’s unconscious memory of a song – or set of songs.

Almost always, I can trace back the time or era of my life in which I was first aware of a musical artist I like. I remember listening to Michael Jackson when I was 3 or 4 years old (this, the Challenger disaster, and the time I saw through my bedroom window, a flock of hundreds of birds carpeting our lawn in Yonkers, New York in a migratory pit stop, make up some of my very first, if not truly first memories).

I remember first paying attention to The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and the Velvet Underground – all mostly off my radar until I was in my teens and going through my enjoyment of all classic rock. Those were the days when I wouldn’t turn off the radio when Led Zeppelin came on (sorry, I like them, I do- they just give me a headache a lot of the time.)

I never had this moment with the Eagles. It’s not that I especially love them. I don’t adore them unconditionally the way I do Fleetwood Mac, whose songs sometimes rip out of my heart, throw it on the floor, and then proceed to step on it. I don’t appreciate them the way I do the tunes of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – romantic and gritty at the same time. Nothing to hold par with the brilliance of the “oh, my my/oh hell, yes” refrain in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” I don’t connect with their lyrics or orchestration the way I do with the raw, elemental power of Kate Bush which makes me want to spin and spin until I collapse. I even like hip Japanese pop artist Namie Amuro much more.

Yet, every time I listen to an Eagles song, it’s like coming home. There’s never a conscious “Oh, I heard this first when I was 5 years old” or “I started liking them when I was 10.” It’s like there was never a time when these songs weren’t in my memory. I always knew of them. No, no, I do not go into a trance like Elaine’s date does in Seinfeld when listening to “Desperado.” It’s just a simple, yes I know this song and have always known this song – there is no time I was not familiar with the ritualistic, drum intro of “Witchy Woman,” the waltz beat of the country-laden “Take it to the Limit,” or the depressed bass-line underpinning the bluesy “One of These Nights.” These songs need no explanation – they are just there, part of my unconscious.

For many years, I vaguely wondered about this effect and suffered my dad playing their Greatest Hits compilation all the time and attempting to sing. Until one day, my mother said very blithely in Tamil, “Oh, not this again. Your dad played this record all the time in the house when I first came to the country.” It is to be noted in 1980, when my mother moved to New York, the Eagles had already split up. And suddenly, it made sense to me.

Though I know that the fetus can listen to music while in the womb, I don’t know if it’s even possible to have a memory of something experienced before you were born – but if that is possible, then this it. Sartre would say that essence does not precede existence, but for whatever it is worth, this is my memory before time.