Plastic Guitars, Volleyball, & Break Ups
he human body is truly a strange thing.
With this I do not refer to any mention of personality or individual traits that one single person may or may not possess. I speak to the more basic structure of the physical body, the thing that creates our own sense of physical self. It is the vehicle by which we command and control our most primal needs and most selfish endeavors. It gives us the ability to create reactions and skills, through an insanely complex system of synaptic responses and learned pathways. Through these means, our body gives us the illusion of control, but it never fully hands the keys over to us. It still puts some bodily functions beyond our control. The age-old reflex test doctors are famous for using (you know, where they hit your kneecap with a mallet) is as classic an example as can be found. Some reactions happen without thinking about it; synaptic pathways fire out commands to our body every millisecond while we are none the wiser.
This is the basis for which autobiographical experiences can be proved. Just as our body can do things we are unaware of, it can also link together strongly felt occurrences that happen to coincide with each other (again, with almost no awareness on our part). We need look no further than Pavlov and his hungry salivating dogs for hard evidence of that. Though it may go unnoticed some, hearing a married couple talk about “their song” adheres to the same principles as Pavlovian theory. Auditory sensations strongly attaching themselves to emotions, events, physical feelings, and moments in time are what autobiographical experiences are all about.
Which is precisely why I always find myself bobbing my head up and down anytime the opening riff from The Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” is played within my earshot. Around my pre-school years I had a small plastic guitar with faux-nylon strings that I received from Santa Claus. I toted that guitar around all the time with me, despite the fact that I hadn’t the first clue how to even operate a guitar. Though I would not go so far as to call mine a musical family, we definitely listen to plenty of music and are never shy about a good old fashioned off-key sing-along. My parents had a good collection of vinyl that they still played quite frequently around this time, but I can recall none more clearly than that Doobie Brothers record. It had a light wheat color to it, with I believe some small black figures of men on horseback riding through some kind of tunnel-like structure. My father loved “Chine Grove” (as did I, being very young and impressionable) and would play it frequently on the turntable in our living room. I would always run and grab my little guitar from downstairs, run back upstairs with it, and jump up and down on the sofa while I pretended to rock out. The song is fixated in my mind with those moments, as they would happen whenever I heard the song echoing from our speakers. It will forever be with me as a nostalgic reminder of the innocence of being a carefree child, and even though I’ve never owned a guitar other than that one, my head still moves in that familiar bouncing motion.
But it’s interesting how time and circumstance can change things. Different experiences can put different meaning into these things. I had long regarded Elastica’s “Connection” with it’s quickly, flashy, and loud music video that I would crank the volume for every time it appeared across the television. It gave me memories of numbed eardrums from sitting next to the speakers during the video, smiling the whole way through. Fast forward about 6 years or so, to my tenure on my high school volleyball team. About to go to the biggest game our team had ever had to date, I elected for my Discman’s headphones to keep my mind clear and focused on the task at hand. It was going to be a difficult struggle to pull out a win, and I made sure that my focus was as intense as it needed to be. “Connection” came through the burned cd’s tracklist, and I immediately cranked the volume to eleven. Though I’d heard the song loud before, it had never sounded like this before. The distorted amps crushed the notes that were played, the bass drum echoed thunder to usher in each riff, and the ending handclaps might have well have been the applause of a thousand rabid spectators. I pressed repeat as we walked through the gym doors and onto the court and all through our warm-up. I reverberated the song in my head to accompany my focus throughout the game. Though we came out on the losing end of a phenomenal match, I can’t recall ever being more focused on the task at hand. I have since revisited “Connection” in similar moments, and I do not think of loud televisions anymore. It’s all focus now.
Sometimes the music gives you what you need to be successful, sometimes it reminds you of the wonders and joys of life, but other times…well, other times it can knock you back down to Earth. In my most recent example, the music actually became the means by which the emotions were channeled through. About one year ago, I was in the middle of dealing with the second of two breakups in the span of 15 months. Though the first had been easier to recover from (a so-so relationship that ended surprisingly easily), the more recent breakup was turning into a wretched lumbering ugly beast of a mess that would not go away. It was really mentally taxing, but it was all shelved in my psyche due to the fact that midterms were just around the corner. For my own sanity and fear of having another phone conversation with the ex, I sought refuge at my wonderful local music shop. I strolled up and down the masses of albums, looking for something to knock me out of the present situation. I decide on something that was playing over the house stereo that caught my ear, some little album called Set Yourself On Fire by Stars.
I had no idea what I was in for when I pressed play and slinked into recline mode on the sofa. I got sad, haunting cellos on “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead.” I found wearily desperate vocals of battle lovers on “The Big Fight.” I discovered exposed and vulnerable lyrics that knowingly told their imminent heartbreak for all to hear. Everything I had been discarding to the depths of my conscience started to rush upon me. The music shook me to the core; like a good councilor it spoke sweetly to my softer side (“Live through this / And you won’t look back”) while it screamed “DEAL WITH YOUR BULLSHIT!!!” to my tougher side at the same time. It became my therapy, my safe place, my means by which I dug myself out of the hole of relationship cynicism. Though I would discover later that, musically, the album is utterly fantastic, I can still revisit it with a purpose of self-exploration.
And maybe the most heartening thing about that episode is that I first started to fully realize how immense my connection between autobiographical experience and music really is. I may not be able to tell you everything I did yesterday in exact detail, yet the most minute aspects of a moment in the past can be conjured up in a moments notice when the right song plays. This passive association is a truly remarkable feature of our human bodies. It is really too fantastic a thing to be taken for granted. There are complicated scientific explanations for these types of phenomenon, but I wouldn’t want to spoil something so special with critical analysis. I’ll leave that to Pavlov.
By: Matt Sheardown
Published on: 2006-01-24