The sense of smell is able to evoke such vivid memories, there is even a name for it - the Proustian Phenomena. If I get even half a whiff of mothballs, I remember being in Nana Dogs' dark basement, rummaging through a barrel filled with my dad's old toys and sports equipment, looking for treasures (like the ventriloquist's dummy or the floppy rubber dog hand puppet).
I've been thinking lately that certain music has a nearly overwhelming turbo-charged memory effect. I'm not talking about remembering obscure things, like hearing Van Morrison's “Gloria”and remembering watching The Outsiders or hearing Bowie's “Rebel, Rebel”and expecting to hear Eamon Dunphy's gravelly voice giving a preview of the Newstalk's morning show. I'm also not talking about memories of general activities or incidents, like “Sister Christian” reminding me of dancing with the Gerbil Eater or “It's the End of the World as We Know It” reminding me of the hot summer night that my brother and I had a contest to see who could write down all the words first. (I won. And no, Shane, it's not because you're dumb. It's because I'm a freak.)
I'm talking about how a song can transport me to a specific time and place. It's as though I'd just been dropped into the middle of a photograph. The feeling is so vivid, I expect my surroundings to morph to match my memory.
Here are my best songs for this time-traveling trick. I hope my words do the memories justice.
Modest Mouse – "Ocean Breathes Salty"
I'm walking down Farnham Lane, a beautiful street in Wheaton. It's lined with trees, the canopy of branches meeting in the middle of the road. In the summer, you can walk the length of the road and never step into sunlight. It's winter and everything is blanketed with heavy snow that clings to the trees. The sun comes out and the whole street sparkles. This is a happy memory – I'm walking home from the horse barn, tired but contented after spending a morning working with the horses.
Interpol – "Evil"
I'm sitting on the top deck of the #7 Dublin Bus. It's a dark, damp, winter morning and condensation is forming on the bus window, blurring the view. I'm doing contract work and I'm dreading going in to struggle with obtuse software. I dread just walking into the building because its lobby holds three blotchy art photographs that make me feel like I am drowning. Just sitting on the bus, thinking about going into that building and seeing those photographs makes me feel like I am drowning. I went through this every morning, but Interpol songs, especially this one, makes me remember and relive it.
Simon and Garfunkel – "The Boxer"
When I used to run 5-K and 10-K races regularly, I had a ritual of making a mix tape to use for pacing during the race. The making of the mix tape was art and science – designed to get me through the race. For a 10-K, I needed Start songs (happy pop songs for the first three miles), Build-Up songs (longer and slower but still inspiring for miles four through five and a half), and Big Finish songs (the hardest, fastest, angriest songs I could find for the last mile).
"The Boxer" was one of my favourite Build-Up songs and it always lands me in the middle of my first 10-K – the Lincoln Park Run for the Zoo. It's an early morning in June and I've been having a tough race – I didn't know if I could do the distance and a cramp in the first two miles made me want to drop out. I kept going, putting one foot in front of the other, sweat pouring off me, the humidity like a damp wool blanket on my shoulders. "The Boxer" comes on and I perk up, knowing it's the last Build-Up song and it will prepare me for the Big Finish.
The song does not disappoint. My runner's high kicks in around my favourite part of the song:
In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him
til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains
The Arcade Fire – "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"
I'm unpacking the kitchen of our house in the Middle of Nowhere, West Cork. Peter is still up in Dublin and we don't have Toby yet. I listen to The Arcade Fire obsessively throughout this period because it perfectly suits my mood – alone but only slightly lonely, not exactly depressed but a bit unmoored. I'm excited about my new opportunities, but I'm uncertain about how to live in this new world. When I hear this song, I can feel the rough packing paper giving way to the smooth ceramic of our good dinner plates. My mood can best be described as pensive in the Merriam Webster's second definition sense.
Thin Lizzy – "Whiskey in the Jar"
When I was on my solo tour of Ireland in 1995, my big luxury purchase was a Walkman and two tapes – Thin Lizzy's “Dedication”and the soundtrack for In the Name of the Father. This song was on both tapes, so I heard it a lot for a month. The memory it evokes is standing on the beach on Inish Oirr, folding up my jeans and wading into the water. The tide is coming in and the sun is shining. It's unusually warm for Ireland. I haven't talked to anyone all day – it's that kind of place – and I feel like I'm on the edge of the world. I'm happy though – I feel free and unburdened and I enjoy the sun and the water. The Bob Marley song “Is This Love”has the same effect on me.
Led Zepplin – "D'Yer Maker"
When I was a junior and senior in high school, my first real boyfriend, the first boy I ever kissed, lived on the East Side (Capital-E, Capital-S) . He was super-cute, but annoyingly lazy, and wasn't pushed about getting a driver's license. My parents would only let me drive on the highway in the daylight, so we had a lot of Saturday or Sunday afternoon dates.
I had a mix tape I used to listen to when I was driving over to his house and it included "D'Yer Maker", a song my brother got me listening to. I couldn't tell you what else was on that tape. But when I hear this song, I think of being in the Pontiac Bonneville, a big old boat of a car that I called Clifford the Big Red car. I'm a little bit nervous about merging from I-480 onto I-271, but other than that, this ride is all about freedom. The song only reminds me of driving there. I don't have any recollections of driving home.