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Autobiography of My Ears is part instant recall, part history

April, 2011

Is it live or is it Memorex? Trick question. Turns out that when it comes to reminiscence of music – call it nostalgia, if you must – it’s both.

In a beautifully conceived and totally unique musical memoir, Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears (2004), Geoffrey O’Brien (editor-in-chief of the Library of America) ruminates every which way on “how lives are lived in the presence – and the memory of the presence – of music.” Part instant recall, part history, part reverie, the book attempts – in a highly idiosyncratic way – to make sense of what he hears, mainly through recordings, “perhaps merely to make it his own, since appropriate music (for purposes often far from musical) can at times be almost a matter of survival … (The book) considers different ways of describing how one listener (this listener, for convenient example) hears, or imagines he hears, and how he connects that listening to the rest of life.”

It’s the kind of book I didn’t want to end. It inspired me to recall the circumstances of random musical epiphanies that stick to this day …

Be My Baby and Walking in the Rain, by the Ronettes (1963-64). Every week, when I was in my mid-teens, I walked to a little record shop on Queen Mary which, uniquely in Montreal, stocked all the 45s from Philles Records, the indie company – with the distinctive yellow and red label – started by the great producer Phil Spector, who drenched his singers in a great “wall of sound” that I wallowed in. I played them over and over and over, happily getting lost in this pounding torrent of emotion and yearning (and the thunderclap that starts Rain). I hadn’t even heard of Richard Wagner – to whom Spector’s sound was compared – but I just knew this was “deep.” And when I listen to his productions I feel the same way today as I did then: filled with the wonder of dense sound.

Rubber Soul, by the Beatles; Soul Brothers, by Ray Charles & Milt Jackson: A rainy November rush hour in 1965, the downtown lights reflecting magically – like an abstract painting – off the wet glistening streets. I’m at the corner of Ste. Catherine and Peel, eager to get home to listen. I had never bought two albums at the same time before, and felt proud of my purchases – advanced rock’n’roll and coolly swinging jazz – and I just knew this music was going to be great. What I didn’t know was that I’d still be listening to them today.

Pet Sounds, by the Beach Boys; Collaboration, by the Modern Jazz Quartet with Laurindo Almeida. Spring, 1966: We were in love – first love – and we lay on the carpet with a cushion by our side in front of the hi-fi at low volume in the wee hours of the morning while her parents slept. Incredibly soft caresses as Brian Wilson sang, “God only knows what I’d be without you …” And we thrilled when the MJQ reached the climax of the Adagio from the Concerto de Aranguez as the sun came up. And then I’d walk home in a feathery daze, lighter than air, sweet sounds swirling in my head …

Like they say, we’ll always have Paris. Photo: Tristan Nitot

Marrakesh Express, by Crosby, Stills & Nash; Tommy, by the Who; Je t’aime (moi non plus), by Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin: I lived six months in London in 1969, often spending sunny afternoons reclining on the grass in Hyde Park, reading The Times (archly formal but strangely compelling) and snacking on Italian sandwiches I’d bought in Soho, my transistor radio tuned to Radio Caroline, the offshore pirate radio station with American-accented DJs spinning hits the fuddy-duddy BBC wouldn’t touch.

These were the songs you could hear drifting out of every boutique that summer: “All aboard that train …” “See me, feel me, touch me …” And when the serpentine organ and heavy breathing from Gainsbourg and his British paramour came on, it was like church meeting the boudoir. As the BBC banned it, there was an extra vicarious thrill hearing it waft through one of London’s signature spots. There’s been nothing like it since, and it brings me a smile when I listen to it today.

Top Hat, by Fred Astaire: A cold December in Paris, 1973, a night when I knew why they called it “the city of light.” We went to a shabby repertory cinema where the French, indulging in all things nostalgically American, held a festival of classic musicals. This 1935 offering dazzled with the lightness of being … elegant, carefree and gay (when the word suggested champagne fizz), reflecting an era long gone. But, like they say, we’ll always have Paris.

Dummy, by Portishead: I lived in Berkeley, California, from 1989 to 1996, where the sun shines 310 days a year. Seven weeks before I returned to Montreal, as fate would have it, I fell in love. Her name was Carina, born in Argentina. She was apple-cheeked, with a big smile, full of inquisitive coquettish talk, an irresistible blend of fun and philosophy. She swept me off my feet. She loved to drive, very fast. She drove me up twisting Diablo Range roads to the Lick Observatory, the second-largest telescope in the U.S., east of San Jose, where we gazed at the moon, up close and personal. On our way back, we stopped by the old mission at 4 a.m. (yeah, we each dropped a coin in the fountain), after descending the mountain at a snail’s pace – with the headlights off (!), listening to Portishead – trippy, ethereal, spooky, urgent – by the light of a full moon. I haven’t seen her since I left that splendorous Western frontier, wonder how she’s doing, and whenever I listen to this album it’s all I can do to keep myself from crying.

Recorded music makes me selfish enough to prefer listening in solitude. Like magic, past and present become one.



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