There are no chills like the ones you get when certain songs come on unexpectedly. You maybe hear the strains of the notes in your car when you’re flipping through the stations or when you walk into a store and it takes a good minute before you recognize that there are words that are speaking directly to your soul over the din of the conversations that surround you and the ping of the registers in front of you and through the reminders that have been running through your head for days. But when those chords strike a fiber of recognition within you, the world stops for just a moment and there’s a transport that takes place.
Perhaps even more than movies, there are certain songs out there that bring my beating heart from a patter to a thud, that create a tingle up my spine, that cause me to revert back to a former version of myself. And sometimes that emotional time-travel leaves me spent.
It’s kind of funny that the music that flings me mentally from one chaotic time to another is not always an internal mix-tape of my favorite songs. But they are songs that speak to the shifting that took place during the changing times – they serve as a soundtrack of an evolution.
I’m sitting in the backseat of Tracey’s small red car and we are driving the back roads near the sleepaway camp where we are counselors. I am seventeen years old and I decided to be a counselor at the last minute in the final days of June because I wanted to get away from a guy at home who had broken my heart just as the days began to get longer. And there at camp I met someone new and I began to experience all those feelings associated with the early minutes of a different kind of love, and I felt happy. But in that car that day, REM came on the radio:
A simple prop to occupy my time
This one goes out to the one I love
I was singing along with the words quietly just then, kind of only mouthing them, and I guess there was an almost faraway look in my eyes that perhaps resembled pain or some kind of shadow and that’s when my best friend locked eyes with me in the rearview mirror and asked me if the song reminded me of the guy at home.
I was stunned for a moment – the words of the song were about love and about rebounds and props and the new guy I cared about was in the driver’s seat and so the question hung in the air like a dense fog and I sort of shook my head to break the spell of what was the truth. I did miss the guy from home, and in just a second, that song hauled me back into someone else’s arms. And I began to know something right then: no matter how much I found myself caring about this other person, a part of me would always associate first love and star-filled skies and the scent of suntan lotion and rolling green lawns with someone else.
The memories that songs bring are all around us all the time and there’s often no telling what can bring about a symbolic reunion. I hear Oh, What a Night and I’m eighteen years old and in a black dress at my first sorority Date Party, dancing closely with a guy I don’t know all that well, a guy I’ve already kissed while we sat together on the shuttle bus as we headed from the happy hour to the actual event. I can feel the haziness of the alcohol and I can feel the backdrop of the guilt and I can feel any and all inhibition slip away from me and rise quickly into the air of a cold February evening.
Another REM song comes on, and now I’m twenty-one years old and I’m living in the city for the summer and I’m barreling down the streets during the dawn with a friend I made who comes from England. I have never met anyone like her; she is unbelievably glamorous and sufficiently damaged for one so young and she has never met anyone like me, someone who always kept the darkness on the inside. We clasped hands on that first day that we met and we barely let go for even a moment that summer and we became close instantly. She’d sometimes ask if she could read the books that I loved and she wanted to listen to the music that scored my days and my nights, and I think that I knew – even then – that what she was searching for was a quiet hideaway and she saw me as something almost safe. I played her what was my favorite song that summer, one I hadn’t really known about until my friend Nicole put it on a cd for me after my graduation as part of a goodbye mix that I held on to for almost a decade until it began to scratch and warp.
Find the River spoke to her and it spoke to me during that odd summer where neither one of us really slept or ate all that much. And it was the words I’ve got to leave to find my way that we’d belt out more loudly than the rest of the song, and I think it was always something that we were both quietly aware of, that we were living in a transitional place and gripping tightly to a transitional friend and that the life that we had was temporary in so many ways and that we would have to leave again – this place, these people, this present moment – and there was a chance that where we had to go next could not possibly be better than where we stood together.
A few months after she returned to London, I received a phone call from my friend.
“I just heard Find the River on the radio here,” she exclaimed, and I laughed and so did she. But the connection that we had then had begun to evaporate already and there was not much more to do than briefly catch up and it felt somewhat sad and somewhat unavoidable that distance can alter things so suddenly, but when I hear the song now, I only think of the best times.
I hear The Sundays and I’m fifteen and in Annmarie’s bedroom and I’m learning how to put on blush correctly for the first time.
I hear the song Laid, and I’m twenty years old and dancing with my friends from college at a bar that’s now an apartment complex.
The first whispered words of Estranged are heard and I am in my late twenties and in a stranger’s house in Park City, Utah with my best friend in the entire world. It is twelve degrees and our hair reeks of cigarettes because you could smoke in bars back then and every person who lit up and then exhaled apparently blew nicotine right into our hair and I had to put mine into a bun so I didn’t have an asthma attack at two in the morning as we sat on some couch and drank some wine with a guy we had met at the bar while the guy’s friend had sex with some Mormon girl in the next room:
I’ll never find anyone to replace you
Guess I'll have to make it through, this time - oh this time
I knew the storm was getting closer
And all my friends said I was high
But everything we've ever known's here
I never wanted it to die
I hear Just Breathe by Pearl Jam and I am all of a sudden back in a bedroom in Buffalo and contemplating a life I would have snickered at just months before.
I hear Ani DiFranco and I am about to turn thirty years old and it is New Year’s Eve and I am in New Hampshire. I am in a rented house with about twenty other people and I have been flirting with one of the guys and trying to move beyond a roadblock that I allowed to get setup in my mind and all of a sudden it is midnight and the kisses happen and then I let myself get dragged outside by my friend and we stand on an icy terrace and use the first seconds of the New Year as an intention and we scream to the universe the changes that we will make – the allowances we will no longer offer – and I am shivering so badly that my ribs hurt, but I have also maybe ever felt more alive.
The plucking of the guitar strings on Here Comes the Sun and Going to California feel, when I hear them suddenly, like someone with nails is raking my scalp in the best possible way, and I experience a chill and every part of me feels aware. I hear Crush or Say Goodbye by Dave Matthews and I remember some wishes I had that didn’t end up coming true.
Then there are those songs that conjure up a mix of memories that have been tossed into the blender of the mind so the good has washed into the bad and the calm has been tainted with a little bit of hysteria. But the thing is, you have to fight not to lose something that once only made you smile. You have to refuse to relent. You have to literally shake your head like you are a human Etch a Sketch and wipe clean anything that you can’t smile widely at when The Pixies come on:
Outside there's a box car waiting
Outside the family stew
Out by the fire breathing
Outside we wait 'til face turns blue
I know the nervous walking
I know the dirty beard hangs
Out by the box car waiting
Take me away to nowhere plains
There is a wait so long
Here comes your man
You can train yourself to react or not to react to a bit of sudden music – this is something I’ve learned with a sense of certainty through the passage of the years. You can take yourself out of a moment by thinking hard about something else and the song will end eventually and you can forget that it ever came on in the first place if forgetting is what you require in that moment.
What you can never do is turn off a song completely. Sure, you can flip to another station, turn down the volume, or put your fingers in your ear like a toddler being told no, but that song will still exist. You will hear it again at some point. You will never be prepared when the opening notes strike you like a punch. You will never be able to fully turn away when the bridge is sung into your ear in what feels like a tragic whisper.
The song will replay on a loop in your mind.
You will accidentally begin to sing it in the shower before you tell yourself to stop.
The song will continue to rattle your very foundation.
The song will haunt you forever.