Saturday, July 18, 2020

Music and Memories: Where Do They Take You?

Recently, I started the New York Times 30-Day Challenge, and this past week, one of the non-exercise day challenges was this:
Choose a song you love that you want to share with another person and ask them to do the same. Tell them why you are sharing it — does it make you think of them? Does it explain how you feel? Or does it bring back a great memory? Don’t just listen and forget it. Take time to talk about it. This is a great challenge to help you connect with children, but you also can share it with a romantic partner or best friend.
My first thought was this Facebook post from March of 2019:
The power of music: This morning Hall and Oates' "Kiss on My List" was playing in Dunkin Donuts while I waited on line. Without missing a beat, I was back at Lafayette College, it was 1983...a Saturday night and Zete was spinning disks. My shoes were sticking to the dance floor, friends were nearby, and all was right with the world.
Then yesterday, during the weekly pre-Shabbat Zoom gathering of the JCC Association team, one of my colleagues, a former song leader, chose “Blowin’ in the Wind” as this week’s song. He described how he first heard it at home as a third-grader in 1989 and rightly noted that the sentiment and the lyrics are as apt today as they were when they were written back in 1963. While he sang, accompanying himself on the guitar, I refrained from typing into the chat that the song and I are the same age!

In fact, there are many songs whose opening notes magically whoosh me back to places and people from my past.

Play Billy Joel’s “My Life” and I’m immediately in Mrs. Ritter’s brown, two-door Plymouth Volare. Susie, my friend Amy’s sister, is driving, and a bunch of us are squished together in the back seat, heading home from the annual Franklin-Piscataway homecoming game. The radio’s blasting, and it’s as though Billy Joel is talking directly to us, high schoolers just starting to find our voices and try out our wings:
I don't need you to worry for me 'cause I'm alright
I don't want you to tell me it's time to come home
I don't care what you say anymore this is my life
Go ahead with your own life leave me alone
The same thing happens with “Evergreen,” but instead of in a car, I’m in Bound Brook, one town over from home, at my high school’s yearbook signing dinner, slow dancing with Ross Ignall. (Ironically, that year, the yearbooks weren’t back from the printer in time for the event, so we all signed staple bound booklets, specially assembled for the occasion.)

The opening bars of “You Are” by Lionel Richie are from the same era, and those notes whisk me to Easton, Pennsylvania. It’s freshman year and I’m in Ruef Hall, Room 307, with its matching comforters, curtains and rug—the most coordinated room on our floor and maybe in the entire dorm. It’s Saturday night, the music’s mellow, and my roommate Terry and I are chilling, waiting for the clock to strike 11 so we can head out for the evening—to Zete first, then maybe a stop at another fraternity house, or, to my favorite spot, the basement of Marquis Hall, to sit in an oversized faux leather booth at “The Leopard’s Lair,” for French fries and diet Pepsi. 

Two musical pieces, though, predate Lionel, Billy, Daryl, John, and Barbra.

Thanks to WQXR, this one came blasting into the living room at 12 Webster Road when there was still a stereo and speakers along the wall where a piano later sat. All four of us were in the room at the time, and as if on a whim, my mother said to the elementary school-aged Amy and me: “Does this song remind you of another one?” A few minutes of quiet listening, and… “Hatikvah!” I shouted, surprised at having made the connection to a song from an album of Israeli songs that played often on our stereo.

Naomi Shemer’s classic, “Jerusalem of Gold,” was another of those Israeli songs. It quickly became such a favorite that I chose it as the closing song for my bat mitzvah service. For many years, hearing its soulful refrain took me back to that night more than four decades ago. More recently, it’s brought me to the back patio of the King David Hotel from whence I caught a first glimpse of the walls of the Old City in 2004—on the first night of my first-ever visit to Jerusalem. A longtime URJ board member, Arthur Heyman, z”l, had accompanied me to the spot, creating what was then, and especially is now, a sweet memory indeed.