In 1966, my brother Art had a red Alfa Romeo. I’m told it was kind of a crappy car, really, and I remember its ignominious final days in his possession: a scarlet husk parked, prone, lying in state beyond the shed at the end of our back yard. Collecting dust, collecting rust. A tow truck ultimately came to whisk this luckless red Alfa Romeo to the promised land.
But my prevailing principle memory of this doomed vehicle is a happy one. I believe the memory involves the consumption of Royal Crown Cola, or possible a root beer at the nearby A & W Drive-In. The memory absolutely involves the car’s one true immortal virtue: its radio.
That radio? When I was six years old, I may have thought that radio was magic.
I mean, it must have been magic. There were songs I heard on that car’s radio that I never seemed to hear anywhere else. I should ask Art if he listened to Syracuse’s 1260 WNDR in ’66, or if it was WOLF instead, or even the less-fabled WFBL. Whatever it was, it played “I Like It Like That” by The Dave Clark Five, a record that–to me–only existed on the AM dial of Art’s doomed Alpha Romeo. Even better, it played–often!–another irresistible exclusive: “I Fought The Law” by The Bobby Fuller Four. To this day, more than five decades later, my visceral memory of that terrific song is inextricably linked to those moments in my brother’s Alpha Romeo, of drums, guitars, and a singer bemoaning his fate of Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun, all pouring forth from the little car’s speakers as my big brother cruised suburban streets with his pesky kid brother on board. It’s indelible, and I embrace and cherish its vivid image.
Involuntary Memory #4 by Nicole
In the early months of 2014, I had an internship at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. When I applied, I didn’t think I’d be accepted, but I was, so off I went. Like a lot of people that spring, I was astounded by a clip of the band Future Islands performing on David Letterman’s show. That gravel-voiced singer with the slick dance moves and wild eyes, so recklessly earnest… It seemed a direct rebuke to the ruthless cynicism that often dominates online pop-culture ‘discourse’. I knew I had to investigate them further.
“Tin Man”, from their 2010 album In Evening Air, pulled me in immediately. It starts off with bouncy synth notes that sparkle like sunshine on the water, but the lyrics are jagged with grief. It mirrored the push and pull of that spring—the weather that went from blue and balmy to sideways sleet and back again, the way my “job” made me feel like a child playing dress-up in adult clothes, the yearning to go back to New York (where I’d gone to college) and the terror of not knowing what I would do once I got there.
But there was a certain freedom to that time, too, especially once spring arrived for good. The apartment I was staying in had a balcony, and I used to sit outside in the humid air, overlooking the maze of hotels and highways near Reagan National Airport. In the chorus of “Tin Man”, Samuel T. Herring sings, “And time goes by/and you’ve got a lot to learn, in your life…” Those words became a kind of mantra for me. I have a diary entry from that period that reads, in part, “I’m ready start my own life—my real life.” I decided to move back to New York, feeling like if I didn’t do it then, I never would. I knew it would be hard, but I also knew it would be worth it.
Per Hermann Ebbinghaus: “Often, even after years, mental states once present in consciousness return to it with apparent spontaneity and without any act of the will; that is, they are reproduced involuntarily. Here, also, in the majority of cases we at once recognize the returned mental state as one that has already been experienced; that is, we remember it. Under certain conditions, however, this accompanying consciousness is lacking, and we know only indirectly that the “now” must be identical with the “then”; yet we receive in this way a no less valid proof for its existence during the intervening time. As more exact observation teaches us, the occurrence of these involuntary reproductions is not an entirely random and accidental one. On the contrary they are brought about through the instrumentality of other immediately present mental images. Moreover, they occur in certain regular ways that, in general terms, are described under the so-called laws of association.”
Involuntary Memory #1 by April
In the spring of 2012 I found myself traveling down Highway 101 towards San Francisco whilst this song played on the radio. The day was bright, my rental car was clean (and had a yellow exterior, or am I making that up?), and I was simultaneously anxious and excited. I had come to California as part of a (fairly) big leap of faith. I wasn’t escaping a dust bowl. I wasn’t trying to make it “big” in Hollywood. I wasn’t aspiring to become a championship surfer. And yet, I was evolving. I was becoming the director of a summer camp.
For the past 2ish years I had been working as a counselor for a large medical giant that probably secretly owns the city of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. If they don’t own the city then they are probably building an entire system of underground tunnels so that they can build a city under the city where they can rule supreme after the apocalypse.
The pay was good, the co-workers were smart and fun, the clients were my cup of tea. The system however, was soul sucking. You were expected to see no less than 6 clients in an 8 hour day. There was a perpetual motion machine of paperwork. My office was windowless. There were constant conversations about chart reviews, treatment plans needing to be signed, and always the threat of visits from the state during which we would be required to present “good charts.” Good charts had nothing to do with the quality of therapy provided. Good charts meant that all of the paperwork was present and accounted for, signed legibly, and all treatment reviews fit into specific timelines. You could be a terrible therapist and have “good charts.” You could be a mediocre therapist and have “good charts.” I didn’t give a shit about “good charts.” I wanted to HELP PEOPLE.
In short, my soul was dying.
So, I left. I took a flying leap and decided that I would leave my full-time job with benefits so that I could work as a director of a therapeutic summer camp without really knowing what would happen when camp ended in August. Perhaps a few rousing games of capture the flag were all that were needed in order for my soul to climb out of the file cabinet where it was gasping for air underneath a pile of “good charts?”
“Somebody I Used to Know” appears repeatedly (and subconsciously) on playlists in my music library during various years and months. April 2016, there it is. March 2015, oh…hello! April 2018, you again? I am still not sick of it.
Each time I hear it I am immediately back there.
I am walking up and down hills to meet someone for breakfast who I didn’t know, but then immediately felt like I had always known as soon as I met them. I give them as much music as I possibly can because their ear holes might just be the same model as my ear holes, and I can’t believe that such a thing is even possible. Translation: We like the same types of music. Almost exactly. Why was this person not my neighbor growing up so that we could have shared a pair of tin can telephones and listened to oldies radio together?
I am meeting a woman who has also taken a leap of faith to become a camp director. She impresses me with her fierce and unwavering ability to enjoy food. Regardless of age, background, race, waist size, sexuality, or level of education I have known many women who live in fear of food. Fears of ordering too much, eating too much, eating in front of others….there are endless (and boring) combinations when it comes to the ways women have been conditioned to hate food (and themselves). We order dinner. We order dessert. We order a second dessert! She is fearless and unafraid of caloric intake and I love her immediately (even though I almost barf as we travel back to our hotel later that night on BART).
I am meeting up with a high school friend who has just come from her clog dancing lessons. I haven’t seen her in decades. She is changed and the same all at once. But most importantly, she is (just like Paul Simon says) “still crazy after all these years.” While we are meeting for a drink, a solar eclipse takes place and everyone rushes outside to see the slivers of light reflected onto the sidewalk. It is May 20th, 2012 (thank you Google Gods for allowing me to pin down the date) and I am alive!
That summer, my first summer running a camp, one of my campers (who is quite musically adept) “hates” “Somebody I Used to Know.” He sings songs constantly. He sings “Payphone” by Maroon 5 while we’re swimming in the pool. He drums on his chest to “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen while we eat lunch. He also brings in a photo-shopped picture of himself with a weed wacker, but that’s really neither here nor there, (although it is one of the highlights of the summer). But, whenever we hear “Somebody I Used to Know,” he says, “Ugh! I hate this song.” I ask and ask, but he can never explain why. Now, 6 years later I still don’t get it. It’s a really good song. Number 1 in fact, for the year 2012. It was a song that was playing the year my soul took Liz Phair’s advice and went “west (young man).” It was playing as my old therapy job became a job “that I used to know” and I moved into a more enjoyable phase of my working life. It keeps showing up on my playlists because it is a damn good song and I am still not tired of it. That’s when you know you’ve written a true pop hit. When it plays over, and over, and over, and people still love it just the same as the first time they heard it.
In short: Thank you Gotye!
P.S. How many takes were needed in order for you to sing “have your friends collect your records and then change your number” in such a rhythmically perfect way? Also, if people tell you that you’re just a Peter Gabriel or Sting ripoff don’t pay them any mind. They’re just jealous that you can shout-sing with such genuine emotion.
Involuntary Memory #2 by Jen
When my husband suddenly left me, I started obsessively listening to Sufjan Stevens’ “Come on Feel the Illinois.” I’m not sure why it resonated with me at that particular moment in time, but it hit the spot, musically. I particularly remember driving along the North Carolina coast, blaring “Chicago,” with my kids in car seats in the back with the windows down. They were too young to really see my tears for what they were, and I mumble-cry-sang the lyrics.
Two phrases from “Chicago” became mantras for me over the next two years, and I moved from “I made a lot of mistakes,” to the zen-koan-like “All things go,” as I navigated joint custody, a solo budget, and the infinite loneliness of losing my spouse.
Almost three years to the day after my husband left I took a solo trip to Denmark. It was my first time abroad and the longest I’d ever been away from my children. I stayed in a bunk in the hold of a shipping yacht on the harbor in Copenhagen. I crawled into the belly of the ship and found two nordic hipsters huddled around a wood stove. They were listening to “Come on Feel the Illinois.” It might have been the jet lag or the hash, but I felt like the credits were rolling on the story of my divorce and “Chicago” was the hopeful theme leading us to believe everything might just work out in the end for our fearless heroine.