All posts by Sean Mulcahy

Music And Memory

“I wake up to the sound of music
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
let it be.” ~ Paul McCartney

As far back as I can remember, music has always been very important in my life. Which is saying something, because I have no discernible talent when it comes to the performing of music. When I try to play an instrument it sounds like I’ve got clubbed hands and my singing voice can be rightly described as a sort of dog whistle that, by right, ought to be banned by the American Humane Society. But who says you have to be a musician to love music? I not only believe that my life has a soundtrack, but one of my missions on this earth is to perfect that soundtrack so when it comes time for me to shuffle off to Buffalo,  people at my funeral can say, “I don’t know about him as a human being, but man he had a great taste in music.” People who know me know that I have a memory for weird and random things, and one of the more amazing things I have found is that there are certain pieces of music that bring back memories of a  very specific time and place. There are certain songs that, when they shuffle onto my i-Pod, I’m instantly transported to the past. Let me share a few of these with you so you can see what I mean.

Whenever I hear the song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills, & Nash I always think about summer trips down to Long Beach Island, New Jersey as a kid. We would leave early on a Saturday morning. My dad would tell everybody that everybody needed to be packed and ready by 7:00 a.m. What that really meant was if you were not ready to go by 6:45 a.m. you were going to get it in both ears. My eyes would still be filed with sleep as I rushed to the bathroom and then frantically threw things into my suitcase, naturally having neglected to pack the night before. I can still hear the clanking sound of the beach chairs against the driveway as my mother dragged two of them out from the garage. I would carry my own and usually end up whacking myself real good at least once in the shins.  My father meanwhile, perennially convinced that he could make anything fit into the car, packed my brother and I in the back seat like sardines. Somehow Patrick always seemed to have more comfortable seating arrangements back there… lousy son of a bitch. I tended to press my head against the seatbelt hanging down, take in the warm air rushing against my face and disappear into my own thoughts.

Anticipation built as I looked for the familiar, faded green signs of the Garden State Parkway as we made our way up Mount Prospect Ave and I-280. This would inevitably give way to sitting in that horrendous shore traffic, which seemed to stretch on for infinity and move approximately 9.5 MPH. There’s only so much of that rubbernecking one can take, the air in the car becomes stagnant, your spirits sink, your patience gets stretched like an overfilled water balloon and your brother farts just one too many times. Just when all hope seems lost, you cross the massive Perth Amboy Bridge and immediately the mood changes. It’s the first time you get that marvelous whiff of sea air in your nose, and for whatever reason “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” always seemed to be playing at that precise moment. It was like my parents had a supernatural ability to time it perfectly for when we crossed the bridge and the traffic started moving again. I think of that song fondly today because I remember all the anticipation I could feel in that backseat, of days spent rolling in the sand and surf, hanging over a pier crabbing with my brother and nights spent under the lights of Fantasy Island or a mini-golf course. Such unbridled enthusiasm I have never known before or since in my life, and I would give anything to feel it once more.

The fall semester of my freshman year at UVM was a culture shock like few I have ever known.  Change can be challenging to me, and I was struggling mightily to adjust both to my new course load and life in general. I was packed into a triple in the (at the time anyway) infamous Harris-Millis dorms. I got along great with one of my roommates but the other was a lousy, dirty drunk who was always bringing his sleazy, sometime drug-dealing friends around to our room. The loss of privacy was not an adjustment I made particularly well. Being an awkward and introverted soul, I also found it hard to socialize so I became a pretty serious loner, going for long walks around campus and Burlington just so I could avoid going back to my dorm room. The isolation I felt was getting pretty extreme and it didn’t help that classes weren’t going well either.

I had a particularly challenging political science class where the ideas and theories the professor was espousing were sailing right over my head. I got a D on the first exam, one of only three I would be given so the stakes were incredibly high for the next one. I worked my ass off for almost two weeks, pulling all nighters and working through my roommate’s unfortunate experiment using a hot plate (grilled cheese isn’t supposed to smell like piss, right?) but still felt no more confident when I walked out of the second exam. The day the exam was handed back I was a total wreck. I had hardly slept the night before, my stomach was in knots and my nerves were at an end. When the blue book was placed before me I couldn’t bring myself to look for a good five minutes, afraid of what I might find. Finally, curiosity got the better of me and I opened the book to find a B. Silly as it may sound now I had rarely been so relieved in my life. I remember walking out onto the university green, it was warm for an afternoon in October. The fragrance of the leaves mingled with the food carts as I put on my headphones. By chance the first song that came on was “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison. It’s not my favorite song by any stretch but I was so happy listening to it that that I practically strutted around campus (sadly I do have a strut… and it’s not particularly becoming). There were many trials and tribulations to come but that afternoon, listening to George Harrison and his Hare Krishna chanters, was the first time I felt like I was going to make it through.

Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is a piece of music I first heard performed by my neighbor Tom Casella many years ago, but it wasn’t until February of 2013 that I truly came to appreciate it. I had come down with a fingernail infection in my right pinky. It was a throbbing pain that returned every four hours after the pain killers wore off, often waking me from a dead sleep. I felt like an idiot, practically writhing over my little finger but dammit it hurt! I recall a sunny, surprisingly mild Tuesday afternoon when I was leaving work around two. I had started taking antibiotics but they wouldn’t defeat the dastardly villain in my little finger for another 72 hours. The drive home that day was particularly painful because a man had politely but firmly shaken my hand, not knowing the immense pain that firm handshake had cost me.

I got home, immediately deployed some ibuprofen and an ice pack. Lying on the upstairs couch of my parent’s house, I put on a random classical music album geared toward weddings according to the cover anyway. I tried to close my eyes and rest but the pills hadn’t kicked in yet and the ice only masked the pain so long as I could stand the cold. I had gotten to the point you sometimes reach with an infection or virus when it’s hard to remember what it was like to feel healthy. Then, Ave Maria came on with its gentle opening bars and following angelic singing. I can honestly tell you, I still have no idea what that woman was singing about in German but it sounded like the most beautiful thing in the world. Maybe it was just the timing of its position on the CD and the anti-inflammatories finally kicking in, but the throbbing receded and I drifted off to sleep with music in my ears. It was the first peace I’d had in days and I will forever associate that miraculous piece with not only immaculate beauty but the alleviation of pain.

For those intrepid few who have read my first novel, you might remember that the protagonist is working on a poem throughout most of the book. I wrote that poem on scrap pieces of paper while working at a Sears in late 2009. My inspiration was drawn from the memory of a trip I had taken with my brother and our friend Tim Baker to Orlando Florida that March, a few months before my brother was going to ship out for his third combat tour in Iraq. A lot of wonderful music flowed over the speakers as we played the card/drinking game “Kings” into the wee small hours of the morning, but no one song stands out like “Us And Them” by Pink Floyd.

I had never played the game before, and on a Sunday evening before Tim arrived Patrick gave me a tutorial of sorts. Needless to say I was fairly drunk by the time he droves us to dinner at the now defunct steakhouse Key W Kool out on US-192. After some wood-fired steak and a few more beers in my belly I felt like I was in a dream as I stuck my head out the window of the Dodge Charger we rented. The air was warm and refreshing after the icy chill of a New England winter, the most wonderful neon lights seemed to be rushing past me and “Us And Them” came in over the car speakers. My brother and I didn’t say much during that drive, we didn’t need to. We had each other and were together in this paradise, what more could we want? I didn’t know if this would be one of the last memories I made with my brother on this earth, so I wrote my poem “Cool Honey” as a tribute to this special time we spent together. There is no song that I associate with that book or that time in my life more than “Us And Them.”

Bruce Springsteen once said that when time slips away it leaves you with nothing but boring stories of glory days. I think The Boss had his tongue firmly in his cheek for that one but he does bring up an interesting point. At the end of our lives a lot of what we’ve done boils down to the stories people remember about us. And as each year passes those stories start to fade away. I think that’s part of the reason why music has always been so important to me. I tend to remember things that most people would’ve forgotten about years ago. I see myself as almost a keeper of the forgotten stories, and music helps me keep those stories alive.