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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

It's not about love, darling

By Norman Lebrecht / March 3, 2004

The first piano chord tells me exactly where and when. It is six-fifty on a working morning in 1973 and I am fumbling for a usable teacup in a bachelor sink of unwashed crockery with Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly on Capital Radio. I know this without having to consult a personal diary or an old pop chart. I know, just by naming the song, the lamentable things I was wearing – green knitted tanktop, round-collared checked shirt, flared cords, matching leather watchstrap – and the tea that I was fashionably brewing in a purple Liberty’s pot: half English Breakfast, half Earl Grey. I know exactly what I was thinking, what I was feeling and how much it cost (£2.60) to get from Baker St to White City by taxi if I was (as usual) late for work.

I know all this instantaneously from the flash of a late-night TV ad for Killing Me Softly, a recent Valentine’s Day promotion. The music has nothing to do with romance. It is about memory and the curious workings of our minds.

Certain tunes fix us to a point in time, like a butterfly to the lepidopterist’s page. Pop music does it best because its shelf-life is finite: for a few weeks a hit song is everywhere, then it is gone to oldie FM and sold-on-TV compilations.

A pop song puts you right there, as you were. Mention Mary Hopkins and I’m riding in a sun-haze through a freshly cleared minefield with ‘Those Were the Days, My Friend’ coming off the jeep dashboard and incipient hepatitis yellowing my skin. Such associations are as unblockable as computer bugs. Much as I’d like to squelch Mary's smooch out of my overloaded memory, I cannot. It is, inextricably, a part of me.

There is no empirical explanation for such retentions. No published thesis on my groaning shelf of neuro- and psycho-musicology tells me why melody triggers memory with a precision unequalled by any sense except, perhaps, smell. What boyhood biscuits did for Marcel Proust in A la recherche du temps perdus, a slushy tune does with deadly accuracy to each and every one of us. ‘Music connects us to the world,’ suggests the cognitive scientist William Benzon in Beethoven’s Anvil (Oxford, 2001). ‘Not so much to the external world that was problematic for Descartes … but to the social world - groups of two, five, 25, five hundred even billions of people - that comes into being through music.’ Through music, in other words, we become society.

The music biz, owner of this weapon of mass distraction, pulls the trigger on calculated occasions. Atlantic Records’ Valentine's ad for its best-of Roberta Flack sent me scurrying for the disc as helplessly as one of Dr Pavlov’s salivating dogs. What's more, I’m grateful to the label and its backlist for bringing back a moment in my life that I can never hope to relive.

We need such mementos - religious festivals like Easter or Eid to remind us where we come from, commercialised artifices like Valentines Day and Father's Day to remember why we cherish the ones we love, or once loved. They arouse complex emotions, more regret than affection, and the stimulus is more than a prayer or a rose or a restaurant meal: it’s a melody, a tone bank of memories. It may be a simple hymn or a monodic dirge; it may be a silly ditty or a Bruckner symphony. The effect is the same. Music connects us to ourselves and one another like nothing else in this lonely world.

It need not be pop or canned. One of my stronger friendships is with the stranger who sat beside me at a Klaus Tennstedt concert of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Edinburgh, August 1983, a night when, wracked by a child’s illness, I needed Das Lied more than anything on earth.

Everyone owns such fixities in time. An elderly artist tells me that the ppp opening of Beethoven’s G-major piano concerto transports her to a wartime moment in Oxford when, hearing the introductory phrase in a college stairwell, she fainted from the unbearable intensity. A young lawyer, hearing Beautiful South’s ‘Song for Whoever’, is whisked back to the lifting of a Cambridge depression. Bon Jovi’s ‘Living on A Prayer’ reminds a maths undergraduate of her first mature sense, aged 12, of ‘being my own person.’

Each of us is defined by a few pieces of music, just as we are by DNA. It's never the obvious pieces. Only a very dull person would let his or her life hinge on Sinatra singing My Way or McCartney’s Yesterday. Most of us are hooked instead to the ephemeral, the unrepeatable.

My adhesive is Roberta Flack. A music teacher from North Carolina, Roberta had struck two gold albums in 1972 when she heard Killing Me Softly on the armrest of a flight from Los Angeles to New York and, in her own recollection, ‘freaked’. The song reported an impression of seeing folk rocker Don McLean in concert: ‘strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words…’

Roberta’s version of Killing Me Softly shot to number one in the month the Vietnam peace treaty was signed and Britain joined the European Community. Backed by three girls in an echo chamber and a ghastly synthesizer, she captured my generation's sense of alienation. Thereafter she drifted in and out of vogue. In January 1979 her close collaborator and college friend Donny Hathaway was found dead on the sidewalk, 15 floors down from the window of his room at New York’s Essex Hotel. For Roberta, there was to be no comeback. Frozen in time, she must be all of 65 this year.

Relistening to her song, I feel a profound thanks for the memory – for the vivid glimpse of my fad-driven self (I see the very stall on Camden Lock where I bought that inch-wide watchstrap) and for the gift of music which fleetingly makes us, in the title of another song, the way we were. Whenever you buy a CD for a loved one on Valentine's Day, what you are giving is not so much a token of personal affection as an ache for connection, an echo of John Donne's 'No man is an island, entire of itself.' Killing Me Softly is my connective mechanism. What’s yours?

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001