I’m by no means old, but I’ve lived long enough that I can mark the passage of time by the lives of others: I can remember the events around every presidential election since Bush/Dukakis, the players who were rookies when I started paying attention to basketball are in the process of retiring, and the actresses I have crushes on are starting to play moms.
But there’s nothing quite like following a band over the course of a lifetime.
I had the great fortune of discovering my favorite band, Yo La Tengo, when I was in college and the Internet opened up the entire musical world to anyone who had the fast Ethernet connection to find it. YLT were already well into their musical careers in the late ’90s, and since then they’ve not only remained together, they’ve remained really good, releasing a strong album every three years like clockwork.
When I listen to their albums now they evoke a pastiche of memories and images of where I was and what my life was like and what device I was using to listen to the album.
I went to a now-defunct record store to eagerly pick up And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out in 2000, very deep into the college experience, writing papers, with a sense that the future was in front of me. (CD player)
Summer Sun from 2003 evokes my early adult life in San Francisco, climbing hills and taking long walks home as the afternoon fog rolled in. (iPod)
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass from 2006 conjures BART stations and hikes up a different hill – I had just moved back to San Francisco after a couple of years in New York and this was the soundtrack of my new commute and my return to California. (iPod with Video)
Popular Songs from 2009 is bittersweet, perched on the transition between being newly married and things falling apart. The song “Avalon or Someone Very Similar” was the soundtrack for a happy end-of-year recap video, “All Your Secrets” encapsulated that sense of hanging on, “And the Glitter is Gone” was a fitting coda. (iPhone 3G)
Now Yo La Tengo just released a fantastic new album, Fade, and I’m in a new place with a new life, and I’m sure in the future it will make me remember this time of transition into whatever is ahead of me. (iPhone 5)
I’ve seen YLT countless times in concerts too, but strangely, even as the audiences age with the rockers themselves, those concerts feel like points of continuity rather than marking the passage of time. Instead of bringing us back to the past, concerts blur into timelessness and remove everything but the now. It’s those quiet moments listening to albums on our own that take us back in time.
Music has such a strange power. It certainly doesn’t feel at all momentous when you’re listening to a new song, but that song places an anchor in your brain and it takes nothing but a repeat listen years later to bring memories rushing back to a time you might never have remembered without it.
Here’s “Ohm” from Fade, with its reminder that nothing ever stays the same:
Looks good. Gonna check it out later in iTunes.
Danette Haworth says
Nathan, so true! Although it depends on the bands debut age sometimes. I'm not ashamed to admit that I LOVED Hansen when they first came out–MmmBop is on my iPod–and I laughed when I saw them interviewed during promotion for their second album. (The interviewer asked them about competing with other boy bands, and one Hansen replied "We don't dance," and they all snickered.) Now they're men with wives and kids.
Rising stars are easily dismissed when labeled as teen idols, but I hold a great deal of respect for people who write songs and music and play instruments (and sales do not depend on revealing costumes or sexual/drug escapades reported in the tabloids).
Yo La Tengo was one of the first concerts my now husband and I attended when we were in the early stages of our relationship back in the mid 90s. Gabes, Iowa City, IA. I loved that place. I saw Wilco there. Archers of Loaf. Jonathan Richman! Music and memories go hand in hand. I remember editing my student short film while listening to Electr-O-Pura. The world was wide open then.
The New Englander says
I love the early reference here to life milestones. As a sports fan, I'm shocked now to hear an announcer call the name of a player that I remember following as a kid (say, Tony Gonzalez), and soon I'll be surprised just to see any major sport athlete who's older than me (I guess we still have another decade for that though).
Someone once told me you'll first feel old when you go to see the doctor and it's someone younger than you. I'm pretty sure that's already happened to me, so I'm going to just glom on to my favorite definition of old: "Current age + 10."
D.G. Hudson says
We've heard that group on CBC in Vancouver. A similar group, per hubs, is Zapato Negro, if you're interested.
Music does bring back memories – I can remember certain things attached to certain songs. (What was on the charts when I came to Canada and songs I liked or that helped me get through a divorce – blues did it for me, then)
Great post about how we connect music or other things to our memories. Enjoyed this.
Robena Grant says
I adore this post, and the music. Will definitely search out these albums. I'm a lot older than you so for me the milestones in my life are measured through The Rolling Stones. Yay! Mick! : )
Sarah Romano Diehl says
Yup. Love Yo La Tengo and this is a great post. As I get older I get worse and worse in my nostalgia over songs and bands. So bittersweet.
This is soooo true!!! There is a cheesy country song – The Song Remembers When – but it is 100% the way it is – you can think you forgot all about something – hear a song and wham you remember every detail!!!
Nathan, what a nice blast from the past. Yo La Tengo was on the radio during a particularly memorable romantic encounter of mine, and the music always brings back the memories.
Aha. Think of this. I first heard "Heartbreak Hotel" by elvis a ways back in time and I was cauterized. Then "Man with the golden arm" the same night at a movie, and jeez. Days later "Drink some mash, talk some trash" by Stick McGhee and His Buddies. Had them all on 45rpm.
Pamala Knight says
Excellent post Nathan. It's good to be able to track your life's timeline with the music you've listened to and enjoyed. I too, am a big fan of Yo La Tengo from way back (much further than you, youngling ;-)) and experience a flood of memories of the milestones of my life based upon the songs in my iTunes playlists.
If you like YLT, you also might like Calexico, Ramirez, Ladytron, the Kills, Bat for Lashes, Arctic Monkeys…I could go on but I'm sure you're already musically astute. Thanks again and I also love FADE.
Sheila Cull says
"Bush/Dukakis" laugh out loud. You're, um, young.
Joel Mayer says
I'm surprised. I would expect a New York City literary type to heart the Flobots, Mindless Self Indulgence, The Mountain Goats or The Weakerthans. You learn something new every day!
Love this post! I have so many bands that I've been listening to for years and feel like I've grown up with. I remember listening to the Backstreet Boys in elementary school, and nearly 15 years later they're still around and I still listen to them.
Yes, that's so true, Nathan. Music does anchor certain moments from our past. Sometimes I wish it didn't. But I must say you and I don't share similiar musical tastes. *g* At the moment I'm cruising on I Knew You Were Trouble by Taylor Swift which is synchronicity because I was, until recently, friends with someone who I thought might be trouble, and he certainly was – bless his cotton socks. So whenever I hear that song in the future I'll think of him.
Joe Moody says
Thanks for reminding me about YLT, a very cool band.
As a writer I like musicians whose lyrics challenge me and take me to new worlds. Two artist came out with amazing albums in 2012, they are both double albums. Bob Dylan's "Tempest" and Xavier Rudd's "Spirit Bird."
I find the best music doesn't sound sugary sweet the first time, it may not even sound that great but it challenges, breaks new ground, and upon further listens it gets better and better.
These are both powerful albums packed with great stories, melodies and writing that is second to none. Life's too short not to explore good music.
Great post, Nathan! It's so true that music is connected to our memories, and hearing a song can bring us back to that time in a rush.
I recently found a radio station that plays music from when I was teen, and every song brings me back there, which can be alittle bittersweet.
Speaking of bittersweet, not to get TOO personal, but your acknowledgement of being young is not going to derail me from giving you a hard time. 😉
Be as nostalgic as you wish, it's still not going to stop the fact that your best years are ahead of you, Mr. early 30s.
AJM Mousseau says
It happens to me while listening to the radio — flashback Fridays to 80's songs. Haha. Some I like, some I turn the dial, all bring me back to another place and time.