Detail of the album cover for "Gala" by Lush showing an abstract, flame-like swirl of colors.

What Do Memories Sound Like?

On a business trip to Japan in 1991 I was to meet an American in the lobby of an office building in Tokyo. I arrived about 15 minutes before the scheduled time, 8 am,  because. . .well because it seemed like a good idea that if you’re going to travel to the other side of the world and have an appointment, you don’t want to miss it. Oddly, it was me and a guy working a floor buffer in the lobby until the top of the hour, when suddenly (OK, I was still somewhat jet-lagged) there were people everywhere and the person I was meeting introduced himself to me. He was in his mid-20s and his genuineness and demeanor brought to mind an adult Opie from the “Andy Griffith Show,” and this characterization is not to be perceived as in anyway reductive; he was optimistic, engaging and there was the whiff of apple pie about him.

He negotiated us through Tokyo Station, which was a churning ocean of gray-suited businessmen rushing somewhere. Somehow he slipped through without delay with me trying to stay in his wake.

We sat on a train talking about this and that; he was interested in what was going on back home mainly. We had to change trains in Hamamatsu, where he took me to an Indian restaurant, which seemed odd to me until I realized that the distance from Tokyo to Mumbai is a hell of a lot shorter than that from Detroit than either of those locales. Ordering in the restaurant was a matter of simply pointing at models of food and while the models may have been dimensionally accurate, there was something slightly off about the coloring, as there always seemed, regardless of the type of food served in a restaurant, to have a certain whisper of fluorescence about it.

When we arrived in Nagoya and walked from the train station to our destination, we entered the lobby of an office building and went to the desk where there was a man whose job it was to check people in. Opie started speaking Japanese to him which was shocking to me because I’d only heard him talk in a voice with a slight Virginian accent and there it was, full-on, a language that has something of an insistence about it coming from him.

On the train back to Tokyo he explained to me that after getting a degree in history from William and Mary he decided that he wanted to go to Japan, despite not knowing the language. He moved into the home of a family who knew no English. By living with them he learned the language with a proficiency such that he was hired by one of the leading Japanese companies.

During that train ride we started talking about music. At one point he said that he’d just gotten a CD from a comparatively new band that he thought was great who he caught on tour there in Japan. The album is Gala by Lush.

I had never heard of the band. When I got back home I thought that he had an exceptional ear—after all, anyone who could pick up a language like that had something special about him—and so bought a copy of the disc.

I listened to it. I enjoyed it. I forgot about it.

So where is this going?

Back to Japan some 30 years ago.

Last night while scrolling through my NW-A45 I saw Gala. And I tapped the screen. The relentless guitar and whispery vocals of “Sweetness and Light” seemed absolutely familiar, as though it was something that I’d heard last week, not decades ago.

And as the music played I thought back to that train trip, something that was presumably forgotten over the years, but evidently wasn’t. Sure, there may be some incorrect aspects—maybe there was no one buffing the floor in the lobby; perhaps we ate okonomiyaki and not a curry—but the meeting came back to mind.

It occurs to me that one of the things that probably gets less attention than it truly deserves is the extent to which music has a formative influence on us. To be sure, there are individual songs or entire albums from our past that have a central meaning for us: something we were listening to when we met someone or lost someone or did something significant.

But what about those random or fugitive bits of music? This is not background music, or a variant of Muzak. Rather, this is something that once held our interest but was then covered by other things that caught our ear. In some regards, it is like the way that a sedimentary rock is built up: layer upon layer, song upon song, with the top layer being the one that seems most important or relevant to us now. But that layer is just one of many, and those below it serve as support. If you go to some place like Arches National Park in Utah and see those massive sedimentary rocks that emerge from the ground, it is clear the thickness of the layers change.

And this is like the music we’ve listened to. Gala is a thin slice. Fresh Cream, Truth, Something /Anything, My Aim Is True and others have a larger part of the cross section that are my memories.

We relentlessly listen. We build layers. Not everything gets formed; some are rejected and wholly forgotten, and when heard again have little effect.

This is not about nostalgia. This is about what we are. This is about our ontology. This is something that, when you hear it years later, it makes you think about how you got here.

Which can be a good feeling.

Video: Lush – “Sweetness and Light”

From Gala (4AD, 1990).

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