A young bass student I was teaching a song from 2010 said, “This brings back so many memories for me.”
I told the student that the most effective time-travel mechanism after scent is song, and to get used to it. You will think years have passed, decades eventually, and a song will transport you across the time-space continuum, for good and for ill, smack-dab back to where and when you first heard that song. Ghosts will hover.
My very next student was assigned “A Day in the Life,” the groundbreaking final cut on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My mom played that particular Beatles album quite a lot when I was a child, and I too spun it incessantly for decades, buying it on CD some time in the Nineties. (I re-bought it not too long ago.)
Shepherding my charge through the chords, I recalled how “A Day in the Life” frightened me, and how that memory flutters every time I hear it, or play it. It still kind of frightens me, maybe even more so now. I am back on the rug at 120 Terrace Drive, Atlanta, Georgia, circa early Seventies, staring at the mustachioed Fab Four on the gatefold sleeve, re-reading the liner notes. I can even smell the humidity-dampened cardboard.
Quite a few Beatles songs evoked dark feelings in my young self, feelings I could not name, but which moved me. I actually have a hard time naming them now. Some amalgam of fear, wonder, and sadness; surely there’s a single word for that emotional stew in some Eastern European tongue.
Other Beatles songs that conjured that duskiness: “Sun King,” “Helter Skelter,” “Within You, Without You,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Come Together,” “Glass Onion,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “She’s Leaving Home,” to name a few.
I believe listening to these songs on albums ultimately made me more patient. Because if a song upset me, as the aforementioned did, it was labor-intensive to get up, walk to the turntable, lift up the needle (also potentially damaging, that), move it to the song you wanted, and place it there. Rather than undertake those steps, best to just sit and let the spookiness wash over until “Hello, Goodbye,” or “Here Comes the Sun,” or “Paperback Writer,” or something equally peppy and sunny made me smile again, inside and out.
Eventually, those heavier tunes found little nooks and crannies inside me to settle, and I ended up wanting those places filled again and again, even as the feelings evoked were uncomfortable. I was an adventurer at heart (still am) and the darker songs opened a broader terrain akin to dream space, and in these songs, I could dwell there at will.
When I began to play, I would learn about minor chords, different scales and modes, and various tricks for evoking melodies that tap into the bluer end of the feeling spectrum, the mechanics of the tunes that haunted me as a child.
The mathematics came from Africa, via slave ships, and from Scotch-Irish who’d concocted songs in poverty, deprivation. Both of these groups discovered the best way to make music that would nurture and sustain was to infuse it with dark clusters of notes, conjuring slippery magic that illuminated, or made tactile, things we cannot intellectually know, or consume, but which can nevertheless strengthen us. Questions like: Where do we go? Where did we come from? Who, if anyone, waits for us? What to do with this pain, this misfortune?
We cannot know these things scientifically. But if we exercise patience, as I did sitting on the rug as the scary songs played, we catch a glimpse, sing along low, and mournful, and feel seen, and stronger inside the shadows of song.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.