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October 26, 2011

My ghost

I was recently stumped by a musical phrase, a short sequence of notes, a poorly (and perhaps inaccurately) remembered lyric from an old pop song. I suppose I might have heard it recently in the background of some situation, but I couldn’t place it.

 

I hummed the part (I thought) I knew, over and over, thinking that the line might stretch out into a more familiar segment of the song, or that a few more of the words would come to me and I would be able to remember the title, find a copy of the song and play it all the way through in order to get it out of my head, but weeks passed, and all I had was one line, and a Google search on the words I was remembering offered no help.

I felt confident that I would recognize the song if I heard it again, so I tried to put it out of my mind. I did my best to think about other things. I went about my work. I listened to other music. But that damned, fragmented phrase kept coming back. It haunted me for two months.

I noticed several years ago that I had lost my enthusiasm for new music. While I know there continues to be exciting new expressions in pop (and, to be honest, I have never abandoned my openness to new artists or new works by established acts), my ear was taking me back to the music of my youth, comfort music, the soundtrack of my mid-life. When people asked me if I had heard anything good lately, I’d say, “Yes, I was listening to a really great record last night. It was called Abbey Road.” As much as I loved the music of the ’90s, it seems persistently obvious to me that the greatest era of pop and rock occurred between 1965 and 1975; that period could be mined endlessly for undiscovered gems and undisputed masterpieces.

More recently, I have found solace in an odd activity: I load up one of my all-time favorite albums, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, for instance, on my iPod, and I wander through the aisles of the Walmart, late at night. I discovered this activity quite innocently; I had to buy some pickles or something, one night, after class, and I was listening to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass when I walked into the grocery. There was something so perfect about hearing those songs of spiritual acceptance and longing in the context of the fluorescent glare and brightly colored garbage stacked neatly on those endless shelves that brought me a sense of peace I had never felt before. It was like the entire material world was crumbling to dust around me and passing through me, and I was crumbling with it. How strangely reassuring it was! That “quick trip” stretched out to nearly two hours, and when I left, I felt like I’d run a gauntlet. The experience was so strange and moving that I’ve repeated it several times since. I’ve tried it at other stores, but the presentation at Walmart seems to be designed for this type of “journey.”

Meanwhile, George Harrison was selected as the subject of a two-part (nearly four-hour) documentary, directed by Martin Scorsese. It was shown on HBO earlier this month. Known as “The Quiet Beatle,” Harrison’s drive toward the spiritual seems to have been consistent throughout his life, but it was kicked into high gear after his acid experiences in the mid-’60s. The emotional upheaval associated with the break-up of the Beatles, meanwhile, fueled his muse and resulted in All Things Must Pass, his monumental triple-LP solo debut.

I saw the two parts of the documentary out of order. The second part began with George’s solo career, the benefit concert for famine relief in Bangladesh (the first such all-star effort), and included a segment on the death of John Lennon, and there, over images of the throngs gathered at the gates of the Dakota, was George’s lo-fi run-through of “Let It Be Me,” a classic tune by the Everly Brothers, the song that had been haunting me.

For further consideration: Will Oldham’s recent performance (as Bonnie Billy) at the Clifton Center was a stunning experience. “You Want That Picture,” a song from his album, Lie Down in the Light, was particularly moving. Wolfroy Goes to Town, his most recent release, is well worth your time as well.