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Southbound on the Highway of Memories

November 21, 2017

Popular music takes hold of you. It provides the accompaniment to all the occasions of your life – the special and the mundane, the memorable and the forgettable, those of import, and the everyday routines – and it never really goes away.

At least, that’s how it seems to those of my generation, for whom music in the sixties was a wrap around experience – enjoyed with friends via radios and stereos, concerts and discos, or in your room as a background to thought and reflection – and the occasional shout from down the stairs to “turn it down”.

Eventually it was possible to listen through headphones – maybe to that special tune at a special time, or to appreciate some amazing new stereophonic development, but, most of the time, it was – really – why would you want to listen alone, when you could sit in a darkened room with your best pals, listen together, join in, work out the chords, and discuss the album’s merits or otherwise?

Or you could put a stack of 45s on the Dansette and dance and sing along to them, – pausing for breath as each liquorice coloured disc dropped on to  the turntable.

Music was just THERE. Life was inconceivable without it. And, as a result, it earwormed its way into our brains and memories. Give me a month and a year and I’ll give you a song – and I’ll probably be able to tell you what label it was on, who the band members were, and who produced it. Give me an important moment in my life and there will be a soundtrack – a holiday, passing exams, meeting a girl, going round to a friend’s house, leaving school, starting university, graduating, getting a job, and so on, year after year, decade after decade.

As adulthood took over, with added responsibilities, family, and career, perhaps the knowledge became a little less encyclopaedic, but there were still albums to be bought, concerts to seek out, musical memories to share with those who had known us longest.

Eventually, we accepted that our music would be forever there, an audio reminder system, a route to recapture emotions and memories, the sentiment in our souls. Part of who we were, really, an aural identification – a reality acknowledged in Sally Magnusson’s excellent  “Playlist for Life” initiative for dementia sufferers.

Some songs, heard live in concert, have the ability to bring tears, to me, at any rate: – Paul Simon singing “Homeward Bound” or “Sounds of Silence”, Glen Campbell with “Wichita Lineman” or “Galveston”, James Taylor with “Sweet Baby James”, and, less obviously, Thin Lizzy and “The Boys are Back in town”, The Stones with “Paint it Black”, Mary Chapin Carpenter with “This shirt”, Fleetwood Mac with “Go your own way”, Fairport Convention with “Meet on the Ledge”,  and many others.

It’s often something to do with the quality of the song, but more often it is the link to its personal associations, a sudden realisation that you are hearing, live, a song and an artist which you have heard on record so many, many times, in so very many different situations – and which you have carried through  life, often as an emotional support, for good times and bad.

And often – and perhaps this is the real beauty of it – it catches you unaware.

Last Sunday night we were driving down the A9 from Aviemore to Edinburgh. It’s a journey of around  two and a half hours, made less scary now by the average speed cameras. The selected playlist was Paul Simon’s “Graceland” followed by “Simon and Garfunkel’s “Live in Central Park” – an album I’d not listened to for a few years, freshly added to the car’s  iPod system.

The music made the trip feel like about an hour’s worth of driving – but the remarkable element was provided by that being “caught unawares” moment.

The Tom and Jerry of American folk music launched into Paul Simon’s  “American Tune”:

And I don’t have a friend who’s not been battered,

I don’t have  a friend who feels at ease;

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

Or driven to its knees.

But it’s all right, it’s all right,

For we’ve lived so well so long-

Still, when I think of the road we’re travelling on

I wonder what’s gone wrong,

I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong.”
The relevance of this lyric from the early 70s hit me with an almost  physical strength

I have a great love for America. Three  of my grandparents spent time there, later generations emigrated there,  and their children and grandchildren remain. I’ve never been to the USA – the mid West, New England, New York, or DC,  without hooking into that feeling of excitement and energy that permeated the country.

I’ve always been well aware of its many faults, and we’ve been uneasy political bedfellows since 1968 and the death of Bobby Kennedy, but there was always an optimism about the place. As a young country, one always felt that it aspired to be better, to espouse democracy, to challenge its inequalities and iniquities. Though the “American Dream” may have been based on a palpably false capitalist assumption, the very suggestion of equality in their constitution spoke of an awareness that there was a better way.

Under Obama, for all the diminished delivery of his vision, for all the drones, and the stuttering foreign policy, there was a sense of a nation seeking to put its own house in order, rather than trying to prioritise imposing its will on others. There was a hope that a new modern age was coming, where smart politics and genuine understanding might at last start to outweigh the pork belly and the bellicose immaturity.

Until now, when the incumbent of the White House seems hell bent on encouraging the worst of the nation to do their worst.

I find myself struggling with the idea that I could even visit the country during the present presidential term.

And Simon’s hymnal lyrics seemed to illustrate the awfulness of America’s current situation:

“And I dreamed I was flying

And high up above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea.”

 It became difficult, driving through that dark night, with these forty year old lyrics ringing so true, as a kind of prediction of how the great could fall so low, of how material prosperity can instigate a social poverty that wipes out spiritual compassion.

I don’t know what will become of the USA. Once you unlock greed, and manipulate fear, it can be difficult to steer back to a more civilized route. Appealing to the worst in people’s nature inevitably encourages the lowest dregs of society, and they are unlikely to willingly forego their new found attention.

Attitudes that all decent folk hoped were buried in history, or had at least become  unacceptable to the point of invisibility, are freely and openly espoused, with the encouragement of a wealthy elite who seek only to utilise the poor and dispossessed for their own advancement.

The final miles to Edinburgh on Sunday night were driven in a sombre frame of mind. Sometimes you don’t really want to hear what the music is telling you:

“We come on the ship they called the Mayflower,

We come on the ship that sailed the Moon;

We come on the age’s most uncertain hour-

And sing an American Tune.

But it’s all right, it’s all right,

You can’t be forever blessed.

Still tomorrow’s going to be another working day,

And I’m trying to get some rest,

That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.”


Lyrics Copyright Paul Simon. Universal Music Publishing.



One Comment leave one →
  1. Ross Mack permalink
    November 23, 2017 4:54 pm

    Well written again. As an immigrant in the US for the last 35 years and someone who has seen the political landscape change your thoughts are well placed and understood.

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