In 1993, Country superstar Trisha Yearwood released her third LP The Song Remembers When.
Though the album was not as critically well-received as her previous two, the successful, memorable, and absolutely spine-tingling title track is the very definition of evocative.
Not really a country music fan until the late `90s, I did not know Trisha, nor the song until I first heard its songwriter Hugh Prestwood play it live in 2004 at a songwriters-in-the-round in Nashville. I was blessed to get an inside look at his writing process, and further appreciate how Trisha made the song shine – it had peaked at #2 on the Country charts ten years earlier. (As an aside – along with many other folks, at a songwriting conference I was lucky enough to join Hugh for lunch and listen to his many stories, including writing songs for James Taylor, including “The Suit.”)
“But that’s just a lot of water underneath a bridge I burned/And there’s no use in backtrackin’ around corners I have turned/Still I guess some things we bury are just bound to rise again/For even if the whole world has forgotten the song remembers when.”
I am reminded of poetry and grace, inciting me to ask a quintessential question about the artistry of songs and their effect on their audience: Do we embrace and hold with such ardor a beloved song from the past because of the song itself, or because of the context in which it was first heard?
Close your eyes, and try to remember the first time you heard James Taylor’s version of Carole King’s masterpiece, “You’ve Got a Friend.” Where were you? My first memory of this song was walking barefoot at Walking G Boys & Girls Camp on a sultry summer afternoon and hearing it playing on the turntable in the Mess Hall. Songs had a way of wafting out into the air among the tall pines and taking on a majestic stature of their own. Do I resonate so deeply with this song because Carole wrote something other-worldly and James’ interpretation ascended to #1? Or do I cherish it because the notes and grace squarely remind me of camp and community, where I spent the happiest years of my youth?
James and Carole remember when.
At home in the summer of 1973 in our relatively new house along Coldwater Canyon, I only had my (untrustworthy) Labrador Retriever, Linus (he escaped often and was hit by cars three times, including a police officer’s!) for company because most of my childhood friends were over the hill, in Sherman Oaks, where I grew up. When you’re thirteen and that driver’s license is nowhere in sight, that’s like living in another state. As a result, we slowly drifted apart. My new neighborhood consisted of no kids nearby except for one pal over the canyon hill; otherwise, the tree-lined streets were entertainment industry semi-ghost towns, and the homes of such movie stars and celebrities Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith (next door), Darren McGavin (across the street), Bette Midler (around the corner), and Rock Hudson, George Peppard, and Vincent Price (all close by). I tried to borrow sugar from Jaclyn, but her dad answered the door and scooted me away. Bummer.
This absolutely hip-beyond-hip Top 20 groove from Tower of Power brings me right back to my older brother and his visits from college, playing Badminton Baseball in the backyard, and time just standing as still as a hunting egret. “So Very Hard to Go” is not only perhaps the band’s most heartfelt tune, its message was referential for a relatively lonely boy who had left his 1960s’ neighborhood of joy. It was so very hard (for me) to go over the to the other side of Mulholland. However, I eventually made new friends even as, sad to say, Linus met his demise with automobile #3. He had wandered off following George Peppard’s dog and his life came to a sorrowful end on the side of Coldwater Canyon. I cried for days, and I still am unable to listen to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” for I was singing that to myself that afternoon while returning from visiting a friend.
Tower of Power helps me remember when.
Ah, the summer of 1974, and “Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation. A #1 smash hit on the charts from May to September, and the soundtrack for bbqs, family gatherings and dances across the country: I’d like to know where you got the notion! Hearing it for the first time on a transistor radio along the shores of Whiskeytown Lake, we summer campers would sing this catchy tune over and over. Though the song is ear candy and rolls into your brain like a rollicking wave, it remains my contention that its context made it more memorable, meaningful, and mesmerizing. Rope swing dives into the lake, swimming under the raft, skiing on the lake (we did not rock the boat), and the camp romances that permeated the scene around the nighttime campfires or the blistering heat on sand between our barefoot toes. If I had first heard it on the radio in smoggy L.A., there is no possible way this masterpiece of Soul would it have hit me at all.
The Hues Corporation remembers when.
In 1975, I visited my rock n’ roll expert friend in northern California, who constantly was schooling me in her knowledge of band members, songs, concerts, record labels, Billboard charts, and not to mention her massive collection of Birkenstocks. She played many records for me that day, some artists I knew, some I didn’t, including Dan Fogelberg. From his 1974 Souvenirs LP, “Part of the Plan” spoke to me:
Love when you can
Cry when you have to…
Be who you must
That’s a part of the plan
Await your arrival
With simple survival
And one day we’ll all understand…
Featuring backing vocals from Graham Nash and guitar work from Joe Walsh, it was an anthem of simplicity to counteract my angst-filled teenage years. Thanks to Dan, I was learning about what it really meant to love someone. The first time I heard it – far from the L.A. vibe – was the best time I heard it. Thanks to her generosity of spirit (I think of you a lot, T), that brief stretch of time together, all of the answers you seek were found – as much as a fourteen-year-old could glean.
Dan Fogelberg remembers when.
I have listened to thousands of albums and songs on the radio, turntables, 8-track decks, CD players, Walk Mans, Disc Mans, and in my various homes over the years. In the `70s, one raced home from Tower or Warehouse with one’s LP, ripped off the shrink wrap (stupid!), slid the platter of perfect vinyl out of its sleeve and gently placed it on the turntable. The needle would slide over the grooves like a sensuous dance, and the analog sound of the era played warm music as if it were a baked peach pie fresh from the oven.
Conversely, as I grew older, lured in to the negative risk-taking of the mid-decade, the parties got gnarlier, and when it was all a haze, who knew where you were? When Boston debuted “More Than a Feeling,” peaking at #5, I was all in. Killer sound. Brad Delp’s soaring vocals. Crisp, clean guitar wizardry. I just don’t remember the first time. Was it at a party? In the Baja Bug while we were talking on the CB radio? On The Midnight Special? Does it matter? No. But for me this song has (slightly) less impact for me because I don’t have an indelible association tied to it – a moment, a person, a place.
Sorry, Boston, this song did not remember when. And besides, I’m a Laker fan.
Now for a laugh: When I finally got my driver’s license (freedom!), the cool (and only) place to be was Wednesday night cruising Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley where I had called home until I was twelve. Totally trippy, a bunch of us would pile into someone’s car or pick-up truck and return to the 1950s. There were girls to holler at, greasers, diners, Wolfman Jack on the radio. No sign of Richie Cunningham.
And then there was this song, War’s “Low Rider” that remembered when. While cruising Van Nuys, I rammed my mother’s very expensive Mercedes-Benz convertible into the rear of another car! I may have known every street and been the one to meet, but I made a fateful and poorly negotiated U-ey smashing fender first into the rear bumper of another vehicle. (Hey, I was sixteen, OK?) When we pulled over, my buddies deserted me like rats from a sinking ship, hopping into another guy’s truck. (Some friends, huh?) The car I hit had no damage, and the driver was unhurt. Phew I thought. She handed me her business card. She was an attorney. Argh.
The Mercedes had a crushed front fender and one of the headlights was dangling like a metallic optic nerve detached from its socket. I pictured my allowance vanishing in smoke and working at the Avco Theater directing traffic for the rest of my life. Then, a classic wall-to-wall carpeted Chevy Van, filled with stoners under a moon roof, pulled over next to me. Its driver taunted me with: “Daddy’s gonna be pissed when someone gets home.” It had a similar mocking tone as that na na na na na na from the childhood playground.
Thanks, War, for helping me to, unfortunately, remember when.
Okay, crew, the next time you fall in love with a song, ask yourself: Is it the lyrics? Is it the melody? Is it because it makes you want to boogie? Does it touch you in an emotional way? Do you like it because your friend likes it? Or did it light you up with joy it because of what was happening at the moment you first heard it? Were you dancing with someone you love? Did it grace the radio airwaves when you were in just the exact mood reflected in the lyric? Did it remind you of another artist in a way that honors those who came before? (For example, John Legend for Stevie Wonder, Sarah Bareilles for Laura Nyro, Jason Mraz for Kenny Loggins?)
Life it rarely an “either/or” proposition. A phenomenal song can stand on its own within a vacuum. The only debatable point here is if context for a song holds more sway in your life; that the song has more staying power; that it resembles the “Game Changers” I’ve previously referenced.
As a postscript, this past weekend I had a fascinating metaphysical conversation with the sixteen-year-old daughter of a dear friend. Is our existence as simple as one’s experience of what is intuited by the optic nerve, into one’s axons and neurons, and transmitted into meaning? Do the people in your life and random others exist only to you, and when your soul passes, do they also become what Kansas described as “Dust in the Wind?” Karl Jung proposed that all characters in one’s dreams are you. Can that be extrapolated to mean that each and every interaction with a human being is a machination of one’s complex organ between the ears? Therefore, the only actual context is one’s own. In the end, we really are what Boz Scaggs sang: “We’re All Alone?” And all that remains, to quote from the television series 24 is “background noise?”
Still, I remember when.
Context. Content. What say you?