Music and Memory
To celebrate the launch of Granta 111: Going Back the magazine asked past contributors for short playlists of songs on the theme of memory. As you can see below, the responses have been generous and wide-ranging: some with commentary, and others preferring to let the music speak for itself. Many of the lists were played at the Walrus Social, Lambeth, at a July event hosted by Colin Grant. (Read our extract of Colin Grant’s group biography of the original Wailers, I&I: the Natural Mystics). Scroll down to see what different writers are listening to, or click on their names above.
1. Tom Waits: ‘Time’
You could submit just about any of Waits’s songs to one of those provincial museums that exhibit old farm equipment and surgical instruments and stuffed owls and they would fit in just fine. Among his influences Waits has sometimes mentioned the artist Joseph Cornell and his wonderful memory boxes full of ticky tacky. Many of Waits’s lyrics have exactly that quality of found objects, placed unexpectedly side by side, and sealed up like tomb relics. ‘Time’ with its disturbed and slightly surreal pattern of specific images is a perfect example. The telling lines are these: ‘And they all pretend they’re orphans and their memory’s like a train/ You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away/ and the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget/ that history puts a saint in every dream…’ The song sometimes seem to me to describe exactly the way the mind trawls its past, though I’d be struggling to explain precisely why.
2. Alex and Rory McEwen: ‘The Bonny Earl O’ Moray’
My friend Mick Imlah, the poet, sang almost as brilliantly as he wrote. One night nearly twenty years ago I was in a bar in London with Mick after hours and Bob Dylan came and sat in the corner with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, in whose studio he had been recording. As the night wore on, after some prompting, Mick was persuaded to sing and he silenced the bar with a spellbinding version of this ancient lament for the murder of the “braw gallant” earl. When Mick finished, the silence was broken by scattered applause; in my memory at least, Dylan raised a hand to his fedora in acknowledgement. When Mick died at the beginning of last year, aged 52, after a truly awful time with motor neurone disease that he endured with enormous spirit and good humour, the song was sung at his memorial service at Magdalen chapel in Oxford. Later, thinking about Mick, and remembering that evening, I looked into some of the history of the song. The singing duo, Alex and Rory McEwen, sons of the under-secretary for state for Scotland, had popularised ‘The Bonny Earl O’Moray’ in America when they travelled there and sang in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s. On one occasion, legend suggests, they were accompanied by their young friend, the folk singer Bob Dylan, playing harmonica under the stage name Blind Boy Grunt.
3. The Ramones: ‘Teenage Lobotomy’
There was a time when I discovered that the best way to remember things was with the accompaniment of very loud music. I did most of my exam revision as a teenager listening to The Ramones at top volume. If I’d stopped to think about it, I guess the reason was that each two minute intensive burst of noise was all about the absence of memory, created from a heroic desire to inhabit the present moment. My parents would sometimes characterise the music as mindless, (as in ‘how can you listen to that mindless noise when you are supposed to be concentrating?’) and of course that was exactly its attraction. As Teenage Lobotomy explains: ‘I just have to tell ‘em/ that I got no cerebellum.’
4. Elvis Costello: ‘Alison’
There is no shortage of songs about lost love, but nobody does it quite as sharply, or as believably as Costello. Songs are the places we stash our collective memory, and there is something incredibly rooted about this one – it’s exactly of its time, late 1970s, and of its place, urban Britain. Contained within it, it sometimes seems to me, are all the betrayals and infatuations and simple sadnesses of a generation of young men more introspective than their fathers. It also captures that ever-present desire to protect memory from the complications of how things turn out: ‘I think somebody better put out the big light/ because I can’t stand to see you this way…’
5. Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs: ‘Woolly Bully’
When Granta invited me to submit this list, this was the first song that came into my head. For a few years, I worked for the magazine, as deputy to the editor, Bill Buford. In those days, the magazine had something of a surplus of testosterone, mostly in the formidable shape of the bearded Buford and the extraordinary Bob Tashman, (now sadly departed) an inspired, and slightly crazed import from the New York Review of Books. Tensions around deadline time ran high, particularly among would-be alpha males in the spring, and release was sought in curious ways. Often our editorial meetings were preceded by impromptu push-up challenges or ferocious arm wrestling bouts. After these sessions, with the blood pumping, Bob and Bill would bond over a raucous a capella duet of the Sam the Sham hit. It reminded them, I guessed, of happier days in collegiate America, when men were men, and they weren’t surrounded by uptight Brits, reading proofs.
1. Billy Holiday: ‘Don’t talk about my when I’m gone’
Pre-figuring how one is remembered maybe an obsession of the powerful that even had Chinese Tang emperors commissioning their own obituaries, but for the ordinary person, fretting about how one is remembered can start as early as the end of a relationship with a lover … if you can’t say anything real nice/Just don’t talk at all … is an injunction that the heart-broken rarely obey, though few would not feel compelled to make an exception for the persona that Billy Holliday invokes here.
2. Compay Segundo/Buena Vista Social Club: ‘¿Y Tú Qué Has Hecho?’
To be forgotten by the person who left the deepest scar on one’s heart is a kind of death that few would happily face. Long after the years have tumbled by, often come the wistful moments when one mulls over the possibility of complete erasure from memory. That is usually when that time-honoured question asserts itself: does she/he still remember me? In this charming song a tree that drops a flower to a girl who carved out a name on its trunk wonders what she did with its flower. Few, man or plant, can match Compay Segundo’s beautifully plaintive baritones.
3. The Drive ‘Way Back Fifties’
Just as song preserves shared memory it is also offers a way of revisiting or reimagining the past. The 50s and 60s, the golden years of township jazz in Southern Africa, are redefined in this sprawling 70s yearn that in other versions stretches over 13 minutes. While the earlier township jazz numbers were barely longer than three minutes, The Drive sometimes went for the lengthy sun-dappled tune that nurtures entrancement, nostalgia and a redemptive reconnection with the past.
4. Bhundu Boys: ‘Tsvimbo dzemoto’
Civil conflict is not the easiest of times to find headspace for reflection, but the after years often usher in a period of stock taking, remembering the way things were and grieving for ways of life lost in a blaze gunfire. Such rumination can stir painful memories, but in this bubbly tune the Bhundu Boys found a way that enabled people to dance the pain out of their minds though not the memories. Remarkable emotional detox for hearts that can still dance.
5. The Temptations: ‘Papa was a rolling stone’
To be a complete human being may not necessarily be the same as filling up the gaps in one’s knowledge of family’s shared memory, yet it can be hard not to feel that way. While its common to live with that ache for completeness there are few people who more keenly feel such sense of incompleteness than one who seeks to know about a biological parent they never met. If your dad was a debt-dealing, store front preacher and leech, stealing in the name of the Lord and it’s impossible to untangle fact from fiction, one at least has the fortune of feeling proud of their colourful pedigree.
Brian Chikwava’s essay ‘The Fig Tree and the Wasp’, which looked at the iskokotsha dance and sexual liberation in 1970s Zimbabwe, was published in Granta 110: Sex, in print and online.
Adam Mars Jones
1. Illegal download: ‘Allegri Miserere’ (1630)
Extremely famous piece for unaccompanied choir, part of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, which the Pope wanted to be his personal property, so manuscripts were carefully monitored and anyone attempting to copy them would be excommunicated. Then in 1770 along comes the piece of music software known as Mozart, fourteen years old, hears the piece (twice, admittedly) and writes it down faithfully from memory. It's published in London the next year. The first illegal download, two centuries before the internet.
2. Body memory: Josef Suk, ‘About Mother's Heart’ for piano, from the suite ‘About Mother’ (1907)
Suk married Dvorak's daughter Otilie, who died soon after giving birth to their son. The boy would never know his mother, but this piece is based on the memory of the sound he heard before he even had ears, the rhythm of her heartbeat.
3. Impossible memory: Heiner Goebbels, ‘Surrogate Cities’ part 1
Gradually through the orchestral texture, rising to dominance, come the elaborate vocal lines of the Jewish cantors of Berlin, destroyed by the Nazis but here restored to the memory of the city.
Adam Mars-Jones wrote about sight-reading abd biking leathers for our Music Season
Bonus track (not a song): ‘I'm So Perplexed Without You, Baby’
From a compilation of old ‘Recordio-grams’ – one-off discs made in the audio equivalent of a photo booth, as souvenirs or gifts. Some time in the 1940s, a young guy in New York sends a Christmas message to his girlfriend. He seems to think she needs reminding of his existence.
1. Pino Donaggio: ‘John’s Theme (Love Scene)’ from Don’t Look Now
Also not a song, but the key memory theme in a film dense with ideas on the subject. This version is used over the love scene, which famously cross-cuts Sutherland and Christie having sex with their separate toilets afterwards, binding intimacy to the solitary interiority that cannot but follow it.
2. Caetano Veloso: ‘London London’
A song about how safe, but also how strange and lonely, Veloso found London when in exile here: memories of Brazil are implicit. Are the flying saucers he keeps looking skywards for emblems of its unfamiliarity, or a means of escape?
3. Kanye West: ‘Coldest Winter’
From West's underrated album 808s and Heartbreak. The lyrics don't need much glossing.
4. Nina Simone: ‘Love's Been Good to Me’
The last two songs find loneliness in remembering. Here at least memory mitigates. Simone's version is preferable to Sinatra's and has the added advantage of flipping the gender. Michael Stipe should cover it.
5. Leonard Cohen: ‘Alexandra Leaving’
I have nothing to add to Cohen's lyrics here, which are adapted from Cavafy, and devastating.
1. Squeeze: ‘Black Coffee in Bed’
All those little physical triggers that evoke memory in a day-- how we can't get away from what we’ve experienced which seems to really be the theme of all five of these.
2. Stevie Wonder: ‘Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday’
Only Stevie Wonder could get away with a title like this. There’s the amazing joy and warmth always in his voice, around and up against the sadness of time and regret in the lyrics. I had a friend years ago who used Stevie Wonder as his example of genius. At that time, all I knew about Stevie Wonder was ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ and I didn't know what he was talking about; he immediately went and made a CD and set me right.
3. Leonard Cohen: ‘Chelsea Hotel #2
Such a great song, it should be on most lists. It’s kind of about a memory of a specific time, and maybe a specific person, but it’s also such a beautiful classic love and not-love song-- a song of ambivalence. Does he miss her? Did she use him? Did they love each other? Is memory helping any of this at all?
4. Jane Siberry: ‘In My Dream’
A ballad. Very direct and clear and beautiful. The way memory and longing collide-- how we remember, and then idealize, and then how the memory evaporates even as we think it. She used to play this for years at concerts and with every new CD I'd check to see if this song was on it and finally, on the most recent one, yes.
5. Kate Bush: ‘A Coral Room’
Well. I remembered this last night at one a.m, lying in bed, thinking of the assignment, going over CDs in my mind. It is the most profound song about memory and loss, and how memory works, and the way it sweeps over us, and how elusive it is, that I've ever heard. As with many of her songs, only after multiple listenings did it kick in for me. It’s an elegy to her mother, but with the first line – ‘there is a city, draped in net’ – it feels like she is trying to actually articulate the process of living at once in memory and the present, and how the two collide. It is really, really, not fun pub music at all! but it is a masterpiece of a song. The city, and the spider – they are first characters in a dream world, in the land of symbols, of myth, but then later they change, they become firm and strong, grounded with specific items, in a moment, in a life, and with that move, we are hammered down by the finality of loss. Kate Bush has many unbelievable songs, but this, one of her most recent, is as good as any that came before.
I noticed choosing these that I headed straight for what recalled commonplace or simple experience – what we reduce down to as we age and grow wiser. I have little time for histrionics or over-fancy. All of them are about kinds of love.
1. W.A. Mozart: ‘Dove Sono’, The Countess’s aria from Act 3 of The Marriage of Figaro
Even without the words it’s beautiful and with them, it’s a torch song par excellence. What the countess remembers about her ‘happy’ days with her husband are simple and touching in the extreme: her memory is full of loss and the dying fall and echo of Mozart’s melodic line stress not only this, but the countess’s loneliness and innocence.
2. Lou Reed: ‘Perfect Day’
What’s recalled here is in no way extraordinary, in no way singular. Its catch is in the recollection of very simple moments adding to a ‘perfect day’ in their very simplicity. Perfection is a matter of perspective, not striving or over-reaching. ‘You’re going to reap what you sow’ repeated by the black girl backing choir adds a touch of gospel beauty.
3. Benjamin Britten: ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew’ (arr Britten from traditional folk song)
A song that would be a torch song if the singer was a man who took himself too seriously, but the straightforwardness of what he recalls about his lost love, the directness with which he reveals his subsequent son, her loss from their lives and his training of the boy to follow his footsteps as a weaver with the best of paternal advice is moving every time I hear it. The story is more or less something that could happen to any working man or woman, and does: the memory of the whole related without false sentiment or theatrics, just relating what was and what is. Britten makes the simplest of arrangements to keep the song’s words to the fore. I love this song and I love what Britten does with it. A life – three lives – in three verses. Peter Peers singing it is priceless.
4. Benjamin Britten: from Winter Words, Op 52, ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’
A memory within a memory, a remeniscence built on a related story from another person who himself is remembering the wishes of a long-dead choirmaster who merely wished a song to be sung over him at his funeral. The choirmaster both does not and does get his wish, and the memory of it, wrapped in sparkling, subtly meandering music, is just priceless. You can take the song at many levels – on one, it’s clearly untrue and a kind of fable of wish-fulfilment; at another, true by dint of natural (and heavenly) justice; at another, a myth. All choirmasters should be sung over. This song, related years after the true tale and most of its characters have faded, is a little English masterpiece and makes me weep every time.
5. Robert Burns: ‘John Anderson, my Jo’
To be at its best, this needs to be heard unaccompanied. It’s an old woman singing to her husband of many years who is still much loved. Her ‘Jo’ still – old Ayrshire for boyfriend or partner – he is still treasured and you feel he treasures her in return. The song comprises her memory of his face in youth and compares his face now. Then, they walked up the hill together, now they descend. ‘And hand in hand we’ll go/ And sleep thegither at the foot. John Anderson, my Jo’. Almost an opposite torch song – an enduring love of ordinary couple. The tune, refashioned by Burns from the traditional, is subtle and distinct, the range limited enough for a elderly person to easily sing.
Every time I hear ...
1. Miles Davis: ‘Pharoah’s Dance’
I am 16, on my bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking, this spooky, almost scary music makes everything in this little room seem so square and I don’t care – for music like this, I’ll betray my life.
2. Fred Astaire: ‘Pick Yourself Up’
Some people measure out their life in coffee spoons but with me it’s movie scenes. I can’t hear this song without seeing Fred Astaire posing as a neophyte at the dancing school and trying to seduce Ginger Rogers with this song and then saving her job by convincing her boss that she’s taught Fred the amazing dance they do while the song still plays, and in the middle of it all, they fall in love.
3. The theme song from High Noon
I hear a muzak version in a restaurant where, at 18, right before going to college, I’m visiting my father, who I haven’t seen much since he divorced my mother six years earlier, and who now asks, Do you know what that song is? And I say no, and he says, a little incredulously, ‘High Noon’, looking at me like I've failed a test and me staring back, thinking the same thing.
4. Jerry Lee Lewis: ‘Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On’
I see my then 2-year-old son, who’s never heard this song, react as though someone just stuck his finger in a light socket or hit him with the Holy Spirit and he goes rocketing around the room – dancing, running, grinning, laughing and literally bouncing off the walls and the furniture – as long as the song plays – he’s as transported by that music as any human can be.
5. Jo Stafford: ‘Scarlet Ribbons’
I am five again, riding in the backseat of my aunt’s car when this comes on the radio in the dark, sung by a woman, probably Jo Stafford, and it sounds almost like a lullaby but one with magic in it – and I remember struggling against sleep to hear the end of the song, to see if there was some explanation of what happened, and when it ended asking, Was that real magic? And my aunt leaning over the bench seat and saying, Go back to sleep.
1. Ella Fitzgerald: ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’
There’s that defiant sense of possession that vivid memories give you, despite actual separation – ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, as Fred Astaire first sang to Ginger Rogers in George and Ira Gershwin’s Shall We Dance.
Sung since by Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, Shirley Bassey, Diana Krall and countless others (even in a Rupert Everett and Robbie Williams duet), it’s Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong that I love the best (that ‘Will you repeat that again, dearie, please?’ interjection), with Billie Holiday coming up close.
2. Willie Nelson: ‘Always on My Mind’
From Elvis Presley in the early seventies, to the Pet Shop Boys’ version on the tenth anniversary of the King’s death (the peppy tune I first came to know and love), through many more elevator pan-pipe manglings and beyond . . . But now it’s old desert lizard Willie Nelson’s rendition that has my heart. That parched and wind-whipped voice, the resonant perfection of his delivery.
3. Neil Young: ‘Ambulance Blues’
Maybe those dry, parched voices do the thirst of memory best. Low-key evergreen genius Neil Young hits every chord of longing for ‘the old folky days’ in his unforgettable ‘Ambulance Blues’ from On the Beach.
With unhurried strumming, mouth-organ wail and Rusty Kershaw’s fiddle, he conjures up strains of lost music, images of liars and losers – waitresses crying in the rain, the ‘burn-outs’ on the Navajo Trail and a man – possibly Richard Nixon – seemingly incapable of telling the truth. But in the end, only a true friend tells it like it really is.
4. Pink Floyd: ‘Comfortably Numb’
‘The things which I have seen I now can see no more,’ writes Wordsworth in his Ode and fleeting intimations. The birth that ‘is but a sleep and a forgetting’ is a sense that glimmers through Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’. Infallible spine-tingler, the song’s thrill belies the title.
5. Randy Newman: ‘I Miss You’
And more rough-and-rusty-voiced longing from Randy Newman: the beautiful simplicity of ‘I Miss You’ is worth a thousand sad love songs.
We also received playlists from Janine di Giovanni, Jeffrey Eugenides, Elizabeth McCracken, Hal Crowther, Wells Tower, Lorrie Moore and Claire Vaye Watkins.
Janine di Giovanni
1. Edith Piaf: ‘La Vie en Rose’ (but I have to say I love the Grace Jones cover)
2. Chet Baker: ‘Time After Time’
3. Billie Holliday: ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’
4. Bob Dylan: ‘If You See Her Say Hello’ (this song never fails to make me cry – love gone lost)
5. Seal: ‘Crazy’ (this is nostalgic for me and a generation of reporters who covered the siege of Sarajevo – it was our theme song)
1. Ella Fitzgerald: ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’
2. The Rolling Stones: ‘Memory Motel’
3. Emmy Lou Harris: ‘Wayfaring Stranger’
4. Bob Dylan: ‘Tangled up in Blue’
5. Eminem: ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’
1. The Flying Burrito Brothers: ‘Hot Burrito #1’
2. Judy Garland: ‘The Man That Got Away’
3. Johnny Cash: ‘I Still Miss Someone’
4. Frank Sinatra: ‘The Way You Look Tonight’
5. Kathy Mattea: ‘Where Have You Been’
In the second Granta podcast, Elizabeth McCracken discusses her life as a writer and reads from her story ‘Property’, which appears in Granta 111: Going Back.
1. Gram Parsons: ‘Hickory Wind’
2. Willie Nelson: ‘Remember Me’ (NOT Eminem's vile rant of the same
3. John Prine: ‘Muhlenberg County’
4. Old Crow Medicine Show: ‘James River Blues’
5. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (of Savannah, GA): ‘Blues in the Night’
Read also...‘The Ribbon of Valour’, Hal Crowther’s farewell to typewriters.
1. Minor Threat: ‘Salad Days’
2. Jens Lekman: ‘A Sweet Summer's Night on Hammer Hill’
3. Bob Dylan: ‘Tangled Up in Blue’
4. Vic Chestnutt: ‘Panic Pure’
5. Bill Evans: ‘Young and Foolish’
1. Fred Astaire: ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’
2. The Who/Richie Havens: ‘Won’t Be Fooled Again’
3. Diana Krall/Elvis Costello: ‘Almost Blue’
4. Tony Bennett: ‘Days of Wine and Roses’
5. Nat King Cole: ‘Unforgettable’
Claire Vaye Watkins
1. Willie Nelson: ‘Georgia On My Mind’
2. Neutral Milk Hotel: ‘Holland, 1945’
3. Jolie Holland: ‘Old Fashioned Morphine’
4. The Mountain Goats: ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’
5. Jay-Z: ‘My 1st Song’ (Dude! All the best hip hop is about memory and nostalgia!)
Tom Waits photograph © Anna Wittenberg 2008
Ella Fitzgerald photograph courtesy the Fraser MacPherson estate c/o Guy MacPherson