Music and Memory

The last couple of days have been musically-eclectic. From Handel’s Messiah, through Christmas hymns to my current choice of Nine Inch Nails’ epic soundscape that is The Downward Spiral, all these melodies have been serving to transport me back to other places, other times.

Some are good. Some really aren’t. The question is, why do I still choose to listen to those songs that unsettle my soul? It seems counter-intuitive to stir up those old emotions, especially when I’m already picking my way over the rocky ground I call the present. What is it that makes me revisit those darker days? What makes me want to experience the ghosts of emotion that fleet through my mind when I navigate the past through music?

The big red-flag for me is any inkling of religion. And yet I’ve been listening to hymns that I still remember all the words to from all those years ago. There’s something soothing about them, even though the actual lyrics cause me some considerable discomfort. It is a mismatch of my childhood haven – sitting in the back pew of the church with my granddad and cuddling up to him in his wax coat (I can still bring the smell of that coat to mind at will) – and the subsequent hell I went through when I became unwell and experience that most typical of psychotic features; the religious grandiosity that typified the early months of my breakdown.

Those religious songs are beautiful pieces of music and yet the proclamation of a one true God just doesn’t sit right with me. Part of my attraction back to them lies with Eve – she has no doubts in her faith and loves to listen to the music I rarely allow indulgence of. The things that make me feel so uneasy give her spiritual food and I can feel and hear how happy she is when I decide to pop on a few traditional hymns, and that’s enough for me to be able to bear listening to them.

But it’s not just those sounds from my early years that provoke discomfort for me. As I found my identity in my early teens, I began to gravitate towards the heavier, darker musical themes; and that’s where NIN, Evanescence, Korn and Slipknot come into the picture. Throughout my horridly angst-filled teenage years I listened to those few bands over and over, hearing my internal turmoil reflected in the words and sounds that someone else had written. Yes, it helped me to feel less alone but it also hurt me in a way I find hard to describe.

All these years later, listening to those bands that first gave me a sense of identity in the world of confusion I’d found myself living in means opening old wounds. It reminds me of some of my darkest times, of being bullied at school and of struggling through a year or so of college as an outsider in a group of outsiders. In the same note I can feel both the sense of inner pain and the sense of belonging to a group of people who understood.

Somewhere in the midst of all the formative confusion, punk found me and gave me a fresh way to look at the world; suddenly politics made more sense, the monarchy made less sense and I began to feel that I could direct those unsettling feelings into something constructive. I realised I had a voice to add to the countless voices that have been making musical statements for going on 45 years. Even in my own small world I wasn’t alone any longer; my best friend had also taken up the tattered flag of social justice and together we listened to the words, felt the anger, wrote poems and talked for hours about the future – the future that I wasn’t able to see until punk made me look at it for real.

Whether it makes me feel happy, sad, distressed, uncomfortable, passionate, nostalgic or energised; all this music is the soundtrack to my life.

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Music and Memory

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