Music absorbs memories. You already know this. That songs can soak up long weekends, cross-country train trips, whole summers, even entire relationships, and keep them perfectly intact.
Whenever I hear anything from Augie March’s soothing, perfect Moo You Bloody Choir I’m back on a rickety Communist era train travelling between Poznan and Prague. It’s one of only three albums I managed to squeeze onto a borrowed MP3 player before leaving that morning and it’s easily my favourite of the bunch so over the course of nine hours it gets a thorough workout. Fields of golden canola and the occasional medieval church hurtle past dusty train windows, and by the time the train reaches the entry point to the Czech Republic I’m so caught up in my reverie that when a camouflage-clad border guard shouldering an AK47 bursts into my carriage and demands my passport I just stare blankly at him.
Shakira always reminds me of the European summer of ‘06. ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ followed me relentlessly around the continent that summer. It began in Poland, where I was unwittingly taking advantage of the boundless hospitality of two good friends, dallying on their couch for longer than I probably should, waking each morning to the synchronised footsteps of drills at the military college next door as I tried to figure out what I was doing and what my next move should be. Under those still grey skies when Shakira crackled through car speakers or salsa-d down silent supermarket aisles she sounded hollow and out of place, like I felt.
Months later I found myself working as an English tutor at a resort in Italy’s heel. By then a summer anthem, Shakira’s lusty ballad was on high rotation. It might have made more sense there, providing the soundtrack to holiday hook ups while resort staff patrolled the grounds flashing gleaming white smiles at everyone, and bronzed salvataggios blew their whistles whenever there was a breach of pool rules, but for a while nothing else about that place made sense to me. Eventually, though, something shifted and I began to embrace resort life. Some of my fellow indentured tutors and I befriended a group of long term guests and allowed ourselves to be taken out for nights of boozy Italian lessons in a nearby town. One night, when the kids were safely in bed, we scaled the resort fence and joined our new friends in a tiny cove at the base of the cliffs for a sangria-soaked beach party that ended with a sunrise swim in the Adriatic. I fell madly in lust with one of the resident actors who performed in the amphitheatre each night and joined the other tutors and our kids during the nightly dance-offs after the show. Having finally embraced the heat and hedonism, I began to suspect there might be a kind of truth in Shakira’s squawking…
Even the mere idea of a tune can latch itself to a memory. Towards the end of that trip I hopped a bus from Pompeii halfway up Vesuvius and went the rest of the way on foot. It was mid afternoon, oppressively hot, and as I picked my way up the dusty path I thought of everything that had happened over the past few months and wished it wasn’t all about to end. I walked the last stretch alone, fresh from a conversation with a Dutchman I’d met on the way about Dutch coaching prowess and Australia’s performance in the World Cup, when out of the blue a line from an Emiliana Torrini song began to repeat in my mind: “And I hope again to live this life/ Just to see you again before I die.” I couldn’t say when I’d last heard that song, or why it came into my head at that moment, but I think it had something to do with wanting more time to take everything in. And every time I’ve heard it since it’s put me in mind of sweeping hazy vistas and volcanoes, red dust-coated trainers, strange conversations in unlikely places and the melancholy feeling of nearing the end of something.
With the right song you can travel through time, but what happens when new memories eclipse old? I grew up on Oasis and What’s The Story Morning Glory? was one of the many soundtracks to my tortured youth. But somewhere along the line the scales tipped. I’ve now sung ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ as the lights come on in karaoke bars from Bourke Street to Shinjuku more times in the past few years than I heard it played in all of the 1990s, so now instead of reminding me of adolescence and the glorious baggy-panted, shoe-gazing/Britpop era, it puts me in mind of closing time, and rows of Korean beer with my name on it (literally). Of swaying gently and leaning on my singing partner (partly out of affection, partly for balance) as we valiantly try to get out one last song. The torch has been passed.
Change can be for the better, as it was with Oasis, but what if you need to time travel at will? What if, say, you’re struggling to come up with enough authentic detail for a piece of fiction set in Japan?
My trip to Japan feels like a lifetime ago instead of a little over a year, but I’m positive I can still summon the steamy Tokyo summer in a flash just by listening to a compilation CD I was given at a memorable live house gig in Koenji. The gig was one of the highlights of my time in Tokyo and some of the vibe I am looking for is beginning to emerge just thinking about it: the sticky July heat, the novelty of carrying open beers through the streets on our way to Penguin House, the sneaky basement entrance, standing elbow to elbow with other punters as cigarette smoke snaked towards the ceiling and guitars trembled into tune. In musical time travel terms this stuff is 100% pure. There’s been no radio saturation or raucous karaoke numbers since to dilute the memory.
My trusty sampler has played through three times when I realise something’s wrong. I’m tapping away at the keyboard but my sentences ring hollow and the music is giving me nothing, no clear memories or vivid detail. I can’t figure it out. These tunes are totally unique – minimalist instrumentation with vocals that are sometimes sweet, sometimes haunting. It’s so unlike anything else in my collection it should bring memories swimming to the surface. And suddenly it does. I’m parked on my couch on Sunday afternoons last winter assessing manuscripts. I wanted background noise but was afraid that lyrics I could understand would distract me from the words I am reading. I’m going through my meditation phase earlier this year, lighting candles and incense before bed and sitting in lotus listening to melancholic Japanese pop because it’s the closest thing to a meditation CD I own. I’m walking home from a party in the wee hours, strolling down the middle of tram tracks like they’re the yellow brick road because it’s late and I can, thinking psych-folk from Japan is surely the perfect soundtrack for the surreal experience of being alone before dawn on the busiest road in the country.
That’s it? Weekends working from home, failed attempts at meditation and a gleefully drunken walk home? Not a single memory of Japan spikes through that I can use on the page. I realise what I’ve done and how complete the damage is. The magic is gone, and it’s my fault.
It’s almost like discovering I’ve taped over my parents’ wedding video.