Jun 03, 2024, 06:27AM

Music and Memory

My music-obsessed brothers and me, negotiating the 1970s, and my music-obsessed mother now, negotiating dementia.

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[l to r: Adam Sartwell, Crispin Sartwell, Bob Abell, and Jim Abell.]

My three brothers were born in 1953, 1956, and 1960, respectively; I came along in '58. (The two oldest were my step-brothers, but we had a meeting when our parents got together in 1970 and decided that we’d all count as real brothers). If you'd known us around the neighborhood (Chevy Chase, DC), you’d have known us as druggies and delinquents, though perhaps unusually intellectual druggies and delinquents. And what you would really have known about us is that we were all obsessed by music. We cared about girls. We cared about sports. We even cared about politics. But not really. Music was to us the only real thing; it was most of what we talked about, argued about, or came to blows over.

My bother Adam ('60) was eventually a club DJ in DC, spinning post-punk and New Wave at a Georgetown club called Poseurs. I was gearing up for a mini-career in music criticism, pitching The Washington Star and Unicorn Times. (Eventually, the Rolling Stone combine let me go for hating Springsteen's Bored in the USA. But this was an expression of family loyalty; there wasn't much that my brothers agreed on, but we agreed that the Boss was a bucket of warm piss.) Bob (’56) and I worked in record stores, and by the time he got his drivers' license, he'd already been stealing my parents' car and driving to bluegrass concerts all around the DMV. In the parking lot, he'd play the spoons or washboard and kiss up on both girls and boys. Pretty soon Jimbo was in detention facilities, for he was a junkie, and only cared about that next fix. Well that, and what was and what was not authentic blues (he said Butterfield was bullshit, which is so fucked up).

Now and then, I’ve casually tried to think about why this should have been the case. None of our parents were musicians, and none of us had any conspicuous talent, though we all tried. There was an upright piano in the house, never played. (I did end up a pretty good blues harmonica player, though.) The music around the house as we grew up was banal: Broadway soundtracks from Pajama Game to Hair, light classics from Bach to Bernstein, light rock from Simon and Garfunkel to the Mamas and the Papas. Just what you'd expect. So how did we end up—I don't know—trying to meet the ships at the port of Baltimore so we could get the first copies of obscure import records? (Well, not really, except Adam, but we all awaited trucks at the record stores.)

Part of it was generational and maybe genderish: lots of boomer boys were music freaks in that annoying specialist way that says “geek.’ Those who weren't might have been geeks for other things: sci-fi and fantasy lit or gaming (such as it was in '74). But we were notably intense.

For the past couple of years, I've been living on and off in Northern Virginia, caring for my mother, who turned 99 on May 20. She’s suffering from memory loss and retains less and less. She might ask you, for example, what day of the week it is. A few seconds after you tell her, she might ask you again, as though it's never come up before. It's gotten bad. But one thing she retains with remarkable intactness is music. I might not have been particularly impressed by her versions of such items as "Tea for Two"; but she hummed and sang and whistled to herself all the time when I was a kid: a whole repertoire. In her quietish way, maybe she was as into music as we were.

These days, she’s never so mentally and physically engaged as when music she knows is playing. We listen together by smart speaker, and she can make requests, or at least ask me to, even if she can't remember the names of the artists or the songs. But somehow I usually know what she means. "Hey Google, play Simon and Garfunkel" or "Hey Google, play Lotte Lenya" might bring an hour or two of swaying, dancing, smiling, singing. She still putters around the house humming "Tea for Two," though she no longer remembers what song she's singing.

The link of music and memory is fundamental, as I believe scientists will confirm (I'm not in the mood right at the moment to try fact-check that). One speculates that the connection is involved in music's origin: perhaps its practical function is as a memory aid. The music of the Odyssey, for example—its rhythms, alliterations, repetitions—made it possible for the blind bard Homer to memorize it. It functions this way for me as well: the other day Madonna's "Lucky Star" came on in a store where I was shopping; I got the vivid image of the intersection in College Park where I was driving when I first heard it in 1983. Dozens of songs affect me like that.

And so many songs, from the Grateful Dead to the Beastie Boys, The The to hyper-obscure techno from Italy, remind me of my brothers, all of whom died long ago due to drugs and other questionable decisions. Songs that we listened to together, or that they loved and I hated, or the other way around, fill my head with images and my body with a kinaesthetic sense of the presence of the past, of the Dead and of the dead. Adam the punk club DJ hated the Dead, even as Bob worshipped them and all their spin-offs. This is what I have left of my brothers: a bunch of old records and a bunch of questionable attitudes.

If the last item left in my mother's mental inventory is "I'd Do Anything" from Oliver or Simon and Garfunkel's “Mrs. Robinson,” none of her remaining family will be surprised. Maybe I thought her tastes banal, but she has turned out to be fully committed for life to the music she loves.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @crispinsartwell

  • Hey Crispin. Found this site from your tendentious thoughts on Lou Reed (not saying that I completely disagree (honestly, are there really any [sober] MMM defenders? And has anyone ever said to themselves, "Songs For Drella was such a poignant and vital listen the only two times I played through that tape in 1990, why did I ever hock it for that migraine-inducing Gynecologists 7-inch?") nor am I expecting that you care, just feeling inspired to ramble). Stayed for your thoughts here on family and the memetic qualities of melody and lyrics. The missus lost her mom a couple of years back. Their last conscious shared sentiment, singing Doris Day's A Bushel and A Peck together. And why do I listen to Europe '72 so often these days? When I've spent so much of my life speaking ill of The Dead? (ahem, sorry) And DSotM too, though arguing in favor of that one is a very low hill to plant my flag on. I'm certain that those two albums were the first two cohesive works that found their way through my ears into my soul. My 20-years-older brother spun them constantly when I was a toddler, moved to another state before I was old enough to learn more, and I spent the next few years marooned with the CSN&Y and Beatles singles that my sisters left stacked in the console stereo until dad developed an objectively unhealthy Streisand obsession, but that's another story. Recently traveled to help resurrect bro's turntable that had died some years back. Soldered in a SPDT switch from a 90's PC tower, calibrated everything, and the first record he pulled out, Europe '72. Music is memory, memory flows like song. I am so sorry that your brothers checked out early, and that your mother is slipping away. Thank you for sharing a beautiful story.

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