Of all the senses, smell is supposed to be the one most closely tied to memory. It’s true, I can’t deny the power my olfactory senses have to transport me back in time. To this day a whiff of jasmine is enough to incur a wave of nostalgia for my childhood home, where it grew all over our veranda. However I believe that sounds also have the ability to return us to the past and in particular, music. There are songs and albums that hold weight, not only for their quality, but because they help us to recall a specific time and place. Where we were when we first heard a certain song, who we were with as we belted out the lyrics to a ballad. Music is interweaved throughout our experiences and is a part of who we are.
Now I’ll admit, growing up musical taste was never that cool. Encased in bright yellow plastic, my two Elton John tapes were played over and over in our ancient stereo that was probably new when my mother was young. Crocodile Rock, was my favourite, but I most likely had dance moves to Don’t Go Breaking my Heart and Bennie and the Jets. We also owned a record of Sleeping with the Past. I used to run my hands over the black and white cover, thinking Elton looked like an adult baby: bald and smooth, yet wrinkled. If an Elton John song ever comes on the radio I can still recall all the words, they have imprinted themselves permanently upon my memory.
Every few months as a kid we would make the drive to Auckland. Over the tummy bridges of Kawakawa where, if mum was willing to drive fast enough, you could imagine you were on a rollercoaster, just for a second, then on to Whangarei, two hours from home and the first time we encountered traffic lights and fast food restaurants. We would then make our way up and over the Brynderwyns, stopping at the same rest stop each time, where I would always order a steak and cheese pie, burning my tongue on the scorching cheese. The thrill of arriving in Auckland, such a huge city to this small town girl, is one I still experience. Driving over the harbour bridge, looking through the thousands of sailboats to the city, whose skyline in those days was not yet dominated by the Skytower. When I was nine we made this trip for a specific purpose, to see Les Miserables and Cats.
If I say I was transfixed by both it would be a lie, it was something more than that. I was transported, transplanted, and transformed, taken away to revolutionary Paris and the world of rogue cats. My mum bought both the tapes for me, as well as printing out the lyrics to all the songs so I could continue to listen long after the curtain fell. I would lie on my mum’s bed, with the tape in my Walkman and belt out the words to “On my own” or “Memory”, fancying myself a singer. (Let’s be glad New Zealand’s Got Talent never existed at that time or I may have tried to convince my mum to let me audition.)
I was the perfect age for pop. At 11 I was listening to Aqua, The Spice Girls, Hanson, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync and All Saints. We would roll up our uniform skirts and un-tuck our polo shirts, sit on the steps and watch the boys play basketball while making half-hearted attempts at writing songs. Our school had a lip-syncing competition and along with four other pop obsessed friends we choreographed a routine to Wannabe. Somehow it was decided that I would best represent Scary Spice. I have often been told I resemble Mel B….
At 15 my friend Nicky and I would sit in her room listening to Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Limp Bizkit and Nirvana and write stories in her red notebook she carried around full of poems and pictures and facts about her friends. Kurt Cobain had been dead for 7 years by then but I was only just discovering grunge. At 16 my first boyfriend introduced me to Rancid and NOFX and how to drink $8 Scrumpy’s cider straight from the bottle. At 17 we were the seniors of our school. We had our own common room with couches and a stereo. Fights would ensue over what we would play, rap or metal. It was the bogans versus the gangsters. We would drive around late at night blasting Sublime and Green Day through cheap speakers.
By University I was finally 18 and could go to shows in dingy, dark bars. We would drink cheap cask wine and sneak it in to the venues in plastic bottles. The music scene in Auckland was loud and brash and sweaty. Whether boys in long hair and tight jeans banging out tunes on guitars and Korgs and computers or a gypsy band with a red headed Tom Waits front man, we danced to them all. Each night before we went out we would play Seventeen Years by Ratatat and dance like robots in stockinged feet. When I cried, it was to Jeff Buckley or The Smiths.
I lived in Ireland when I was 21 and flew to Poland for one week. I met a girl from Australia and she convinced me to change my flights, blow off work and come to the 3-day Opener music festival in Gdansk. Best. Decision. Ever. It rained. A lot. My feet turned blue from the 3 Euro shoes I bought in the old town centre. At night under four layers of clothes I still froze to death and there was mud everywhere. But it was probably one of the highlights of my year in Europe. One day we jumped in a van of some Latvians we had met to escape the rain and drove to the city. As the elements raged outside we drank Zlatarog and sung along to Blind Melon. I can’t hear “No Rain” to this day without being transported back to that time.
Two weeks ago I sat with a group of friends as a guitar was passed around and we all sang along together. Music is powerful. And songs are part of all our collective memory. People can come from the other side of the world and yet we can both know every single word to the same songs. What songs hold memories for you? And why?