Memory and the Proustian power of bad music

Lately, for a book project about the neighborhood I grew up in, I've been trying to get back to the 1970s. Among the best time machines for that purpose are photographs (which are more effective than movies), archived copies of local newspapers, and reading the fantasy and noir and other pulp fiction I subsisted on in adolescence. But the best of all is music, especially whatever was on the radio back then.

It's not news that period music can carry you away to a particular place and time. But I've been surprised to discover that the songs that generate the most powerful and uncontrolled time-traveling momentum, the most evocative Proustian madeleines, are not the songs on which I grooved deeply back in the day, but the ones I thought I hated.

It's one thing to hear a song I loved in my impressionable years, like Heatwave's "Always and Forever," which raises bittersweet memories of fuzzy- sweater dances, or Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain," which recalls me to palsied flights of inexpressible Byronic inspiration. I would walk around for hours under a slate-gray sky musing on "I run in the rain 'til I'm breathless, when I'm breathless I run 'til I drop." The remembered pleasure of adolescent infatuation with the song comes layered with the fresh pleasure of finding that I still go for it now, and that I can not just forgive but enjoy all the drifting out of tune on "Always and Forever" or the fake-salsa break in the middle of "Fool in the Rain."

But the songs that take me back most powerfully are the ones that feel as if they left scars. Bob Welch's "Sentimental Lady," for instance. I can still feel the burning passage through my system of that sulphurous cocktail of bad juju—"'cause we live in a time when meaning falls in splinters from our lives." Or Paper Lace's "The Night Chicago Died." That one nearly killed me. Or Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." I can barely stand to recall how, sitting on my neighbors' stoop on an achingly slow Tuesday night with their radio playing, I would hear that song's tweedling intro resolve into its signature sax riff and wonder if I was going to make it all the way through it one more time without being annihilated by weapons-grade ennui.

There was never anything less going on than when "Baker Street" or the Little River Band's "Reminiscing" or Ambrosia's "How Much I Feel" was on the radio and nobody was around and there was nothing to do and there would never be anything to do, ever. I'm not saying they were bad songs; actually, they're pretty well-made songs, but they derive their charge as recall devices from the terror once and forever linked with their power to leave me adrift on an endless featureless plain of pre-adult entropy. They reek of gonging boredom and the forlorn hope that there was more to life than this.

These toxically dosed soft-rock madeleines have come at me by chance over the years, catching me by surprise in hotel lounges and foreign taxi cabs, but these days I seek them out. My rabbit-ears TV antenna picks up a station that runs half-hour infomercials at night for the music of the '70s. The soft-rock ad features Megan Gunning and David Pack, former lead singer of Ambrosia, who has filled out nicely since his glory days. Horrified but willing to risk further damage for the sake of the book I want to write, I do situps and pushups while they blithely talk about and play snippets of songs by Bread and Nicolette Larson and 10cc and Player: . . . Eight, nine, ten—Yaaahhh! The sinisterly trim-bearded Robbie Dupree in a tight-fitting sweater singing "Steal Away"! — eleven, twelve, thirteen . . .

My wife and kids have gone to bed and the house is still but for the morose glunk of the goldfish in its aquarium, the clatter of the gerbils on their wheel, the impassioned cries of Air Supply and Boz Scaggs from the TV, and the occasional low gasp of effort that escapes me as I train for my perilous descent into the past.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is "Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories."

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