When I was a kid we used to go visit our grandparents in St. Louis about every two years, always during the summer. We’d stay for a couple of weeks in their modest home, located in what was then probably considered a middle/working-class urban neighborhood. It was not far from a big park and the St. Louis Zoo.
Those were special trips in my memory, partly because the home and neighborhood were so different from the cookie cutter suburban neighborhood we lived in back in North Carolina. Our grandparents’ house was a 1920s-era craftsman style home, with a distinct vibe and smell, very welcoming, featuring a finished basement where our uncle worked and a pet turtle roamed, and grape vines in the back yard.
Later in life, two things would always remind me of our grandparents’ home. One is the smell of Filipino saifun cooking on the stove, with its fragrant mix of ginger and celery seed. The other is the piano standard “Heart and Soul,” which our father would play on our grandparents’ living room piano.
Of all the senses, smell and sound do the best job of conjuring up specific memories of specific places. The scent of an ocean breeze, a mountain rainfall, or a big pot of Saifun simmering on the stove can send you right back into a particular time and place with great clarity. Same thing with a piece of music.
In the spirit of this theme – and because I’m too lazy to crank out a real blog – this blog is devoted to songs that conjure up specific scenes in my mind. These are not songs that stir up nostalgia, the way a weepy love ballad might remind you of your first heartbreak. What these songs do is evoke a particular scene or locale. It could be something as mundane as a worksite or commuter train.
It’s not a list of my favorite songs of all time, though some would make that list. They’re just 13 of the songs most likely to conjure up a specific place and mood in my mind.
These are in chronological order of when I first heard them, not when they were released. Each are linked to YouTube videos.
The Girl from Ipanema, Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto, Stan Getz: This Brazilian bossa nova standard was a big hit in 1964, when I was a wee lad. Every time I hear it now, it reminds me of 60s-era shopping malls, hotel lounges, or cocktail parties. I can only assume this song was piped in through the speakers in the first two places. As for the cocktail parties: Our parents would host them every so often downstairs, while we kids were upstairs. “The Girl From Impanema” probably made an appearance at some of them.
Hang on Sloopy, McCoys: A classic mid-60s garage band hit, also from my childhood. When I hear it, my mind goes swimming – literally. We belonged to a community swim club when I was a kid, and this song seemed to play constantly on that club’s Top 40 radio station. I always thought they were saying “Snoopy” instead of “Sloopy.” Either way, Sloopy lived in a very bad part of town that probably didn’t have a community swimming pool.
I’ll Be There, Jackson Five: This puts me in a 6th grade school bus on a long crosstown ride to a new elementary school, where suburban (mostly white) kids like me were sent to school in the (mostly black) inner city. It was the first year of crosstown busing to achieve more racial balance in schools, and “I’ll Be There” was a huge hit that year (1970-71). For me, it was a memorable and valuable cultural experience because it exposed me to places and people I might not have come into contact with otherwise.
Dreams, Fleetwood Mac: A 1977 mega-hit from that year’s mega-album and mega-group, with words and vocals by Stevie Nicks. What setting does it put me in? The stock room at a women’s clothing store I worked in during high school. We kept a radio in the stock room, and “Dreams” seemed to come on every 13 minutes while I was checking in orders, updating inventory, and doing my best to avoid wandering into the store itself, where a manager might spot me and tell me to go scrape bubble gum off the floor or somesuch.
Birdland, Weather Report: A late-70s fusion-jazz classic that came out during an era of major improvements in high fidelity. Music enthusiasts like myself would often head to audio equipment stores just to look at the high-end turntables, receivers, amps and speakers we couldn’t afford. Invariably, they’d be playing fusion jazz because of the sonic qualify. Whenever I hear “Birdland,” I think of audio equipment stores, high-end stereos, and apartments with kick-ass stereo systems. One guy I knew glued egg cartons to the walls of his apartment to improve the acoustics. Audiophiles are a different breed.
Desolation Row, Bob Dylan: An acoustic masterpiece from The Bard’s classic 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited. I didn’t actually buy the album until 1979, when I was in college and had a tendency to sit in my bedroom in an off-campus apartment with the lights off and headphones on and listen to this song over and over. It was a dark song in a dark room during a dark period of my life, but the acoustic guitar playing usually lifted me up. When I hear it now, I’m back in that apartment.
Sultans of Swing, Dire Straits: A classic rock standard from the late ‘70s. It puts me behind the wheel of a craptastic car I had in college, a used Pontiac Ventura (or were these the Plymouth Duster years?). In any case, it was the vehicle a couple buddies and I drove on a road trip down to sunny South Florida during Spring Break of ’79. The car only had an AM radio, and “Sultans of Swing” came on frequently (a Godsend, because it was one of the few goods songs on AM radio back in those days).
Red, Red Wine, UB40: I spent much of the 1980s and 90s hanging out with a rotating collection of friends who rarely came into contact with one another. This usually involved meeting up at somebody’s apartment, getting wasted for a couple hours, and then hitting the bar/club scene afterward, until the wee hours. UB40’s ska version of “Red, Red Wine” (written by Neil Diamond) seemed to follow me to these various outings for 15 years or so. It was originally released in 1983, then had a couple of follow-up releases over the next decade or so. It would always pop up on someone’s stereo system over many years, at many apartments, in many different states of mind alteration. I still can’t hear it without landing back in one of those apartments, way back when.
Sing It Again, Beck: On my 40th birthday (1998), some friends threw me a little party at a local tavern and gifted me a CD player. It was the era of CDs, and I had never bought a player for myself. I was still playing all my music on 70s-era vinyl albums and cassette tapes. One of the first CDs I bought was Beck’s Mutations, released just a couple days before my birthday. This countryish little ditty off that album puts me in my tired old 1BR apartment in downtown Charlotte. The apartment building would be razed a year or so later, after I’d already split for parts north (Connecticut) and then west (Los Angeles). A couple years after that, CDs were replaced by iPods. Now vinyl albums have made a big comeback, CDs are all but extinct, but I still buy CDs.
Take Five, Dave Brubeck Quartet: I can’t remember the exact date, but it was around March 1, 2000. I hopped the Metro North commuter train from New Haven, Connecticut, to Grand Central Terminal in New York City, ready to start my first day of work at a newspaper in the Big Apple. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream – to one day write for a newspaper in New York City. I bought a Sony Walkman cassette player for the hour-and-a-half commute, and put in the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, which featured this classic, the biggest selling jazz single of all time. Every time I hear this song, I’m back on that Metro North train, remembering the feeling of excitement I didn’t think possible for a man in his early 40s.
They Say I Must Be Crazy, Indigo Swing: Speaking of 2000…later that year I moved to Los Angeles when the newspaper I worked for promoted me to section editor. This was during the final few years of the swing music revival taking place in much of the country, especially L.A. My future wife was a swing dancer and would invite me out to some of the swing clubs when we were still only workmates. My mind always lands in L.A. whenever I hear this song.
Evidently Chickentown, John Cooper Clarke: A 1980 song by an English performance/punk poet that was given a new life two decades later when it was featured in an episode of “The Sopranos.” Like “Take Five,” this song reminds me of my long train rides into NYC when I was still commuting, before we’d moved to Manhattan. The song has a locomotive rhythm and a bleakness that align perfectly with those commutes into and out of the city on dark winter mornings and evenings, long after the thrill of riding a train into Gotham had lost its luster. And the linked video reminds me exactly of those train rides, even though it was shot in England instead of New York.
Beg, Steal or Borrow, Ray LaMontagne: A song by a New Hampshire folkie/Americana singer that reminds me of…Hawaii – about as far away from New Hampshire as you can get in the United States. Let me explain. In 2010 our young family (we just had the one daughter then) were invited by our in-laws to join them for a vacation in Hawaii. It was my first time there. We rented a car, and I kept hearing this song on the radio, just little bits and pieces of it. It was a very catchy tune with throaty, phlegmy vocals. But I never could catch the name of it, or the artist. But I did remember a few lyrics, mostly about a young man making big plans. When we returned home from vacation, I tried googling some of the lyrics. Eventually I found it – “Beg, Steal or Borrow” by Ray LaMontagne. So, I downloaded it. Whenever I hear it now, up pops lush and beautiful Hawaii.
Caravan, Duke Ellington: Here’s a standard you hear in just about every jazz club, nearly 90 years after it was composed. When we lived in New York I was a regular at the Kitano Jazz Club, and every few weeks one of the featured groups or artists would play some variation of “Caravan.” When we moved back to Charlotte, I was a regular at the Blue Restaurant’s Thursday night jazz show, and the house trio would play it. Here in London I am a regular at the Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs jazz club, and the house band plays it. When I hear it, it puts me right inside a jazz club, and there are few places on earth I’d rather be.
Note: I finally learned how to make a collage using Google photos, which opens up all kinds of visual possibilities for this blog, especially during those weeks when words fail me and images can do a better job expressing thoughts, anyway.