Memory and the Music of U2

September 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

[We now return to regular programming here, after a busy summer spent finishing a book manuscript]

So U2 have a new album out, they kind of snuck up on us and dropped “Songs of Innocence” into our inboxes without us paying much attention. Responses to the new album have ranged from ecstatic to boredom, but I’ve been particularly interested in how the album got distributed: Apple paid U2 some king’s ransom to give it to us for free. Pitchfork says that we were subjected to the album without consent, a lame attempt to appropriate the words of the ant-rape movement to an album.

As for me, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of “Songs of Innocence.” I think it’ll ultimately be disposable for me, though it’s certainly better than their output last decade, but not as good as the surprising “No Line on the Horizon” which, obviously was not up to the standard of their heyday in the 80s and 90s. And I’m not sure about Bono’s Vox as he ages, it’s starting to sound too high pitched and thin for my tastes, whereas it used to be so warm and rich.

u2_unforgettable_fire_castle_Moydrum_CastleAnyway. iTunes is now offering U2’s back catalogue on the cheap.  I lost most of my U2 cd’s in a basement flood a few years ago, so I took a look.  But looking at the album covers, I was struck by the flood of memories that came to me.  For a long time, U2 were one of my favourite bands, and “The Joshua Tree” has long been in the Top 3 of my Top 5.  But, just how deeply U2’s music is embedded in my memories was surprising.  For example, looking at the cover of “The Unforgettable Fire,” I am immediately transported back in time, to two places.  First, I’m 11 or 12, in suburban Vancouver, listening to “Pride (In the Name Of Love)” for the first time, on C-FOX, 99.3 in Vancouver.  Secondly, I’m on a train to Montreal, from Ottawa, in the fall of 1991, listening to “A Sort of Homecoming” as I head back to my hometown for the first time in a long time.

Zooropa_albumThe cover of “Zooropa” takes me back to the summer of 1993, riding around Vancouver in the MikeMobile, the ubiquitous automobile of my best friend, Mike.  That summer, “Zooropa” alternated with the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Twins” in the cd player, which was a discman plugged into the tape deck of the 1982 Mercury Lynx.  US and the Pumpkins were occasionally swapped out for everything from Soundgarden and Fugazi to the Doughboys and Mazzy Star, but those two albums were the core.

U2_Boy_America“Boy” takes me back to being a teenager, too, my younger sister, Valerie, was also a big U2 fan back in the day, and she really liked this album, so we’re listening to it on her pink cassette player (why we’re not next door, in my room, listening on my much more powerful stereo, I don’t kn0w).  She went on to become obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys’ horrid, evil, and wrong cover of “Where the Streets Have No Name” (and the PSB were generally so brilliant!), to the point where she once played the song 56 times in a row on her pink cassette player, playing, rewinding, and playing the cassette single over and over.

Obviously the soundtrack of our lives (or The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, a brilliant Swedish rock band last decade) is deeply embedded in our memories, much the same way that scents can transport us back in place and time.  But I was more than a little surprised how deep U2 is in my mind, how just seeing an album cover can take me back in time across decades, and in place, across thousands upon thousands of kilometres.

The Out-Sourcing of Memory

May 27, 2014 § 2 Comments

Four or five years ago, we saw Josh Ritter at La Sala Rossa in Montreal.  Sala is one of my favourite places in the world to see a gig.  In fact, I’d rank it just below the legendary Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, with its bouncing dance floor.  Anyway.  We made our way up to the front which, frankly, wasn’t that difficult, Josh Ritter fans aren’t exactly scary people.  But after Ritter took the stage with his excellent Royal City Band, something strange happened.  The crowd around us became younger.  A lot of early 20-somethings.  And very female.  They were cooing over Ritter himself, and his bassist, Zack Hickman.  This had happened to me once before, at a Grapes of Wrath gig in c. 1992.  The teeney-boppers at this all ages gig in Ottawa went nuts when the Grapes hit the stage and nearly mauled my companion to death.  She required first aid.

Anyway.  This Josh Ritter gig happened just after cellphones began to be equipped with decent phones.  There was still some novelty in them.  But all these 2o-somethings watched the gig through the lens of their phones, snapping picture after picture of Ritter and Hickman.  It got incredibly frustrating, especially when they stepped on us to get a better shot.  But I just felt sorry for them, their entire experience of Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band was mediated through their cellphone camera lens.  They wouldn’t take any memories away from the show.  Not that I really did, either.  I remember getting stepped on and all the 20-somethings with their camera phones.

But photos aren’t memories.  I recently went through some old photos for some reason I no longer recall.  Included in these files (all photos are on the hard drive of my MacBook now, of course) were pictures of a trip to Tanglewood in the summer of 2006 with my then-girlfriend, now wife.  I have very distinct memories of that day.  It was the July 4 weekend, we went with her sister and her parents, to see Garrison Keilor and a live performance of A Prairie Home Companion.  I had no idea what any of this meant, frankly, I’m Canadian and lived in Canada then.  And avoided NPR and PBS like the plague (I’ve modified my stance somewhat since).  But in looking at these photos, I found they didn’t necessarily match up with my memories. In fact, I think I’ve conflated two or three trips to Tanglewood in my memories of that day.  I think this because I remember the night time stars and sitting with Margo by ourselves looking up at them hearing classical music.  But that couldn’t have happened in 2006, it was the time we saw Yo-Yo Ma with the Boston Pops in 2008 or 2009, after we got married.  But such is memory, it’s dynamic and our memories evolve over time.

Indeed, this is the point made in this article on (so clearly I’ve modified my views of public radio in the US) today by a psychologist, Linda Henkel.  She notes exactly that,

It’s also a mistake to think of photographs as memories. The photo will remain the same each time to you look at it, but memories change over time. Henkel likens it relying on photos to remember your high school graduation.

“Each time I remember what my high school graduation was like, I might be coloring and changing that memory because of my current perspective — because of new ideas that I have or things that I learned afterwards,” she says. “Human memory is much more dynamic than photographs are capable of.”

The larger context of the article is our addiction to taking photos on our cameras, due to its simplicity.  No kidding.  I have over 1,000 photographs on my iPhone.  And I’ve probably deleted another 1,000, some because they’re bad, some because they’re not all that remarkable in the long-term.  And this from a guy who probably took a grand total of 50 photographs from 1989-2006.  We’re hyper-memorialising everything.  I presume I’m not all that different than anyone else in how often I look at old photographs, which is close to never, unless I’m looking for something.  And yet, every time I see an old photo, my memory of the events doesn’t entirely jive with the photographic record.

Henkel did an interesting experiment with her students.  She sent her students to the university art museum and instructed them to view some items and photograph others.  Then she gave them a sort of test when they got back on their memories:

[She] found what she called a “photo-taking impairment effect.”

“The objects that they had taken photos of — they actually remembered fewer of them, and remembered fewer details about those objects. Like, how was this statue’s hands positioned, or what was this statue wearing on its head. They remembered fewer of the details if they took photos of them, rather than if they had just looked at them,” she says.

Henkel says her students’ memories were impaired because relying on an external memory aid means you subconsciously count on the camera to remember the details for you.

“As soon as you hit ‘click’ on that camera, it’s as if you’ve outsourced your memory,” she says. “Any time we … count on these external memory devices, we’re taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own.”

And so I come back to those early 20-something girls at the Josh Ritter gig in Montreal on a cold, snowy February night four or so years ago.  What do they remember from that night? Probably next to nothing, they outsourced it all to their phones.  But, of course, the phones we had in 2010 compared to the phones in 2014.  The camera in my two year old iPhone 4s is infinitely better than the camera that was in my then-state-of-the-art Motorola Razr.  So, chances are, their photos are long lost.  And they just have a vague recollection of a gig.

Compare that with an old friend of mine who, whilst bored and sick this week, attempted to reconstruct her entire concert-going life over the past 25 years.  Relying largely on her memory, and aided by the internet and some photos, she did manage to reconstruct most of her concert-going life.  Why? Because she didn’t outsource her memory to her phone.  Largely because we didn’t have phones to take pictures on (or even digital cameras, for that matter) in 1992.

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