I rolled off the production line and was pushed out into the bright sunshine of a time period that could be called Early Modern America, the late ’60s, the 1970s. It has a parallel in Early Modern Europe, the 1600s, 1700s, before the Industrial Revolution, with nascent science, early market economics, all still loose, uncoordinated, unstructured. Mostly rural, on horseback, quill-pen letters, hangings and superstitions but rife with ideas, inventions, radical notions. Underclasses, demands of liberty. Slavery and Common Sense. Steam engines and oxen. The scientists alchemists, the scientists religious. Hand-made scientific instruments. Merchants and guilds, codes of dress. All transforming eventually into Early Modern America: a new preliminary, the unconsolidated rights and technologies, room-size computers and cabinet TVs, black and white with color on the way; culture popping and pop culture plopping into art. Spaceflight, racial discrimination, assassinations. Riots and free love. The draft. Nuclear cold warheads. Freedom and pollution, litter and conservation, superhighways up for adoption, superfunds and crying Indians, polio vaccination, and DDT. Muscle cars, Unsafe at Any Speed. The same feeling that it could all advance, or turn gothic.
To many, Early Modern America looms beside history like a gigantic roadside Paul Bunyan statue, lost in the self-awareness hall of mirrors that is kitsch, but the people then believed they were living in important times. It was the century of important times — how could anyone expect anything different in 1970? Lots of people could remember World War II, nearly all could remember the ’60s. Giant things were now afoot in the world. The 20th century certainly had a lot to say, much that was new, much that was shockingly primitive and incompatible with notions of progress. But it also held a great deal that validated those notions. It took tremendous boldness for the century to carry on having these ideas about itself when it got off to such a horrific start; but then again, the ideas were vindicated by the victory of 1945. The trophy of this notion was the moonshot in 1969. Now, the century said, you had to believe.
Just look at that Saturn V rocket on the launch pad at night, beaming in the spotlights, tapering into an arrow pointed straight upwards, shocking the darkness, calm, majestic, the physical manifestation of the idea that humans have a trick whereby they outdo their own possibilities. They tap into something beyond themselves. The humans, an alien looking at the sight of the Saturn V might have mentioned to a colleague, are having a symbolic dream. Or, the other might have responded, they are like a teenage boy unwittingly drawing phallic shapes in the margins of his school notebook. In any case, their creations are driven by forces of which they are only lightly aware.
I used to imagine that the moonshot helped me situate myself in time. But I learned that you never can situate yourself in time, it’s always too late. You are already being raised in an era different from the one into which you were born. At least one historian has posited that French people born after the Revolution were cut off entirely from their past, so great were the changes to society. They were adrift in a new world. At least they understood the reason for their discombobulation. Nowadays, we pretend things are carrying on, and there are indeed signs of the recent past all around us. But we’re not taught about that recent past, and whatever looks like the future is eagerly beckoned towards the present. We’re cut off, but we don’t know it. Your birth is your own personal French Revolution, bloody, radical, long in coming, potentially fatal, barely controlled, with a lot of shouting, and afterward, you are never the same and will forever have to look back and try to make sense out of what happened. Every year you ironically commemorate it by eating cake.
Sometime in 1979, I received a gift of ABBA’s Voulez-Vous on cassette (album fav: “Does Your Mother Know”) which I listened to on a flat black mono player with a handle, the kind a journalist would have used for interviews, with a single white wire earplug. The technology aside, nothing entrances like the female vocal qualities in ABBA: at once youthful and intense and yet calm, confident, mature. Kind of like the way they dressed on stage versus the way they danced.
And the music of ABBA has an extraordinary ability to induce feelings of nostalgia. With its very particular blend of crystalline harmonies, sprightly instrumentation, the interweaving of Old World folk music strains (“I Have a Dream,” “Fernando,” “Chiquitita”) into rock and disco stylings plus a kind of pan-European pop sensibility and a relentlessly upbeat approach to drama (“Knowing Me, Knowing You;” “S.O.S”) — it invokes a land where raw feelings can never be expressed as such, as if by the time of the chorus they’ve already been cleansed and it is not only possible but unavoidable to dance again. As if the protagonists of the lyrics are nostalgic as well, as if the songs themselves are nostalgic — and for themselves; if only they could go back to earlier moments in the song. Oftentimes, they do just that.
And did ABBA ever wear their divorces lightly, for a band made up of two married couples who split up? The closest thing to a reckoning is jaunty, strummy “The Winner Takes it All,” actually written by Björn Ulvaeus about the pain of divorce after his recent separation from Agnetha Fältskog, to whom he then gave the song to sing. The music has the band’s usual frictionless forward momentum, like a perpetual motion machine, the group’s characteristic natural unwinding so hard for other songwriters to achieve even once. And it was another mammoth hit. If I’m going to have sadness in my life, I want ABBA sadness. It will stir you, as when Agnetha hits the high notes of the chorus, but you can dance to it.
Compare this to the smoking wreckage of the break-up of the two couples in Fleetwood Mac, captured in the searing songs from 1977’s Rumours album such as “The Chain” and “Go Your Own Way.” These are spectacular rock exclamations and you can ride their wild emotions but you cannot dance to them, with their spookiness, burning guitar tones, throbbing tom drums, hissing high-hat, and tortured human and guitar caterwauls: “The Chain,” which actually begins with a breathily intoned “fffffuck” (listen with headphones then you’ll never not hear it), with its heavy drum heartbeat, its swirling verses, and thudding chorus; “Go Your Own Way” with its swirling chorus and thudding verses; both songs eventually fraying into thrashing releases of guitar and vocal fury. Like ABBA this band also stayed together afterward, but in this case by sorely confronting the world as if they’d opened their (too late) couples’ therapy session to the world, never seeming to put it all behind them.
Curiously, there is in the mix of “Go Your Own Way” a very bright and lively 12-string guitar strummed vigorously throughout in a pattern that Björn Ulvaeus would have turned into a dreamily stirring pop drama megahit for ABBA and which also would have been called “Go Your Own Way.”
Perhaps people do not debate it the same way they argue over the nature of the solidity Cézanne achieved with space and color, but the ABBA effect is genuinely mysterious. Even today when I unexpectedly encounter a song by ABBA on the radio — on the outdoor speakers of the wooden terrace of a bar high in the Swiss alps not long ago, for instance — I am taken by a feeling of strangely fresh nostalgia. In a way, it’s the ultimate nostalgia, because it is for a place and time you may never have known, a dream time never clearly defined but which hums below the surface of your other life wishes. I can easily imagine the Sirens luring sailors towards the rocks by breaking into the ahhhhh-ah-ahhhhh backing vocals of Dancing Queen.
As far as I can tell there is no term for a song that immerses you in the feelings of a past era when you hear it, in a Proustian way, recreating the almost complete, sensible, emotional space of that time – how you felt about yourself, the future, the day, and those around you as, for instance, you listened to the radio in the white Volvo with blue upholstery with your dad and stepmom as you drove across the giant Braga Bridge in Fall River, Massachusetts with its peeling lime green paint in 1981. You return precisely to that all-encompassing feeling regardless of how many years later you hear the song. Such songs, which I call mours, partake of the powers of deep memory-triggering usually associated with smell. I have two, and one is on the aforementioned Rumours album. The effect of “You Make Loving Fun” from that album and The Motels’ 1982 hit “Only the Lonely” are so great that I avoid listening to them, wanting to preserve their strength. If I hold out long enough and play them in my last minutes alive I will go out a nine- or a 13-year-old boy, depending on which song is played last.
But there’s another truth in all of this about the code of music itself, pointing to one great source of its power, touching on the things it makes us think, daydream, and fantasize: All music is about the past.
When I was three my parents separated and my father took what must have been an unbearably long and strange drive north from Texas, eventually stopping in Massachusetts where he had landed a new job as close as possible to the rest of us, in Pennsylvania. He moved into an apartment, and shortly afterward, the moving truck arrived from Texas with all of the things he and my mom had had in our home in Houston. Now he arranged it so that when that truck arrived, he directed the movers piece by piece so they carried what was his into his apartment, and the rest, my mom’s things and the washer and dryer, they loaded in a separate truck he had rented. Then he drove that truck to where we were in Pennsylvania and installed the washer and dryer for us.
One of the songs very frequently on the radio at that time was Roberta Flack’s crushingly beautiful “Killing Me Softly,” which came out in August 1973. And it is still one of Dad’s strongest mours, taking him right back to the arrival of that moving truck, painfully dividing up the things he and Mom owned.
A recurrent theme you can detect in the songs of Paul McCartney, the 20th century’s most popular songwriter, is “getting back.” This of course features in the song “Get Back,” which was also the working title of the album/concert/film project which became Let It Be, itself meant to be an opportunity for the band to get back to its purest roots. Getting back is hard, and though the recently released footage of the sessions showed them to do some full-on getting back, horsing around together and spontaneously breaking into favorite old tunes, the result was so messy that they decided to just let it be. They then tried again to get back on the next album, made with their longtime producer George Martin, who insisted on recording it the old way. They named that album Abbey Road, a shorthand reference to the old days and ways of doing things. On that album getting back, or the difficulty of trying to, is mentioned, as in “Golden Slumbers:”
Once there was a way
To get back homeward
Once there was a way
To get back home
Sleep pretty darling
Do not cry
And I will sing
There’s some loss that comes with being born, some intangible thing missing we feel must have been left behind somewhere, at home, in childhood, in infancy, before. French author and playwright Jules Renard said, “One can well believe that the eyes of the newborn, those eyes that do not see and into which one finds it difficult to look, contain a little of the abyss from which they come.” Perhaps not an abyss, but a vast something. Perhaps, too, this longing for something irretrievable we feel from the moment of birth helps acclimate us to the idea of not-life, of death; the preparation begins immediately in life. All of this accords with our great myths and religions explaining death as a return, an idea which we have held in various forms from time out of mind.
Perhaps we should pay more attention to that first sense of loss in life, as it may be intended to familiarize us with the feeling and help us deal with the losses to come. It’s quite a system that has been worked out for us here on earth. The gods, the Stoics said, have given us everything we need to deal with whatever befalls us. Your identity lies in the time just before you were born. And all music is about getting back. It’s there, just before you were born, the thing you need, and always you know it, where else could it be? That’s all that made you. From then on, no mystery, no hidden powers, just more strange time to think, to consider something you already achieved: existence.
That past, right before you came into the world: You imagine, subconsciously, that you are going to get that past, the good parts of it plus the knowledge gained from its mistakes. But it slips further and further away. It says, “This is how the world is. You’ll see. We’ll come together.” But that world never arrives, and subconsciously you keep looking back over your shoulder, waiting.
That’s it: The Then is complete. The Now is fragmentary. We long for the Then-Complete.
When things were whole — you don’t realize that the reason they seem whole is that they are now done.
It is the basis of the deepest nostalgia. Thinking back on when the whole, complete time, the time just before you, was still so near, almost touchable.
You recover a dream you’ve had since you were small — to be there in that complete world with your parents, your parents in their times, the times just before you came along. So you could really know them, in the full world. That was the finished world. Not like the one you got, still a-building, ever ongoing, never done. •