Nostalgia – Memory and Music

12 Jan

For Proust, small cakes. For me The Stone Roses or New Model Army

Sensations can be a powerful trigger of memory. Just as Proust was famously transported back to his childhood upon biting into his tea-dipped madeleine, certain records when dusted off and played after a long hiatus can – quite unexpectedly – hurl me back in time.

It’s an unnerving and emotional experience that leaves me feeling disoriented and out of step with the world around me.

The latest Proustian episode happened just this week. After reading a glowing review of a new New Model Army anthology, I had the urge to fire up an old album of theirs – Impurity – that I used to sometimes listen to as a young, occasionally misguided grebo in the early 90s.

It was all rather ho-hum until the plucked acoustic guitar strains of Marrakech tickled my eardrums. All of a sudden, I was blind to the world around me with raised hairs on my neck and goosebumps on my arms.

Suddenly, I’m 15 years old again. It is Saturday afternoon and I’ve ditched my mates in the town centre to lie in bed with my first girlfriend. We are listening to her crusty brother’s New Model Army CDs, having a smoke and a “cuddle”. My present-day self actually physically experiences the emotions I felt that afternoon – a jumbled mixture of happiness, young love and an untainted sense of possibility and excitement about my nascent adulthood.

I choke up with emotion when I hear the following (really rather mawkish) lines that I remember thinking at the time were really profound: “Beneath this lonely junction on the northbound M6, we spray our words of signature on a concrete bridge. And between the words of wisdom and the slogans of despair, someone’s just gone and written ‘I’m sorry’ there.”

Not because I miss her – we’re both happily married with kids – but for the permanent loss of my teenage years and all those cherished experiences. At the time I could never have conceived that those times would one day be just one layer in the deepening sediment of years upon years of fragmented memories.

Of course, I had another listen while writing this post and the power is all but gone. It’s just a shit song again.

I had a similar experience a year or so ago when I bought the 20th Anniversary Edition of the Stone Roses debut album. I hadn’t listened to it for years. Despite it being my favourite Stone Roses album, I only ever had it on a tape that eventually got chewed up.

Listening to those songs again after many years’ break on my morning walk to work was a visceral experience. That record is so firmly rooted in my early years at university that I was literally yanked back to the poky little bedrooms in which we used gather and listen to music after nights spent caning it in the local clubs.

I lost touch with a lot of those old friends as I spent almost a decade on the other side of the world after graduation. I felt such a keen sense of regret at those lost friendships and such sadness that I hadn’t even thought of many of them for so long as She Bangs the Drums swirled around my headphones. It was all I could do not to weep as the London crowds swarmed obliviously around me.

It might seem strange but I don’t want to disconnect that record from that very happy time in my life. I’ve barely listened to it since. I want to preserve that magic. I don’t want to it to remind me of dirty puddles on the Holloway Road.

I do wonder if the latest generation of music fans will get to experience this due our hyper-accelerated consumption of music. I know that I have access to so much more music than I did 20 years ago when I took my first steps of my lifelong obsession. If you only listen to an album a few times before moving on or download random tracks from iTunes, how can you ever develop an emotional connection with your favourite music?

Sorry to link to yet another The Quietus article but Jamie Thompson tackles the subject very well. Substitute the extreme metal references with The Smiths, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, The Clash or whoever and it’s pretty much universal.

Have you ever had a Proustian moment listening to old records?

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