The Musical Box

Sometimes my friends think I’m a sideshow freak or a savant.  I’m not sure which.  Inevitably when we play cards, once sports has ended, the host turns on a nondescript music channel on the TV.  I’m not allowed to look and I have to name the song and artist as quick as possible.  It’s no secret I love music.  Our house is decorated with vintage Fillmore posters – The Grateful Dead, The Who, The Doors — and some not so vintage ones like REM and Liz Phair. (Isn’t it time you listened to Whip-Smart again?) 

Last night the second song was Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You,” straight out of 1988.  No one cared when I said “this one’s for you.”  Most of them didn’t remember the song.  Nor did they know that Neil Young’s trademark sideburns are his disguise.  He hides on stage, not in public.  They tend toward classic rock or older pop.  To them, what I know is deep and mysterious.  Sadly, that stuff is easy.  They’d be shocked if they were adventurous to put on some Motown or Memphis Soul.  We never go  where my memories are broken and sad, like Detroit.

I rarely have to try hard.  They don’t have stations that play copious amounts Steeleye SpamJim Carroll,  Gentle Giant or Can.  Jethro Tull’s “Hymn 43” is not obscure in my world.  Most of the time it is a banal stream of Journey, Bob Seger, Foghat and Aerosmith.  Often some garbage like “We Built This City” comes on.  Songs everyone has heard over and over till our synapses collapse in despair. My friends wouldn’t know Annie Haslam and Renaissance if she walked in with SchererazadeThey don’t understand.  Shouldn’t they know that a Steely Dan was sex toy in William S. Bourough’s Naked Lunch? Or that at the time “Light My Fire” by the Doors was the longest song ever to be number one?  “Stairway to Heaven” was never released as a single?  Before CDs, “Hey Hey What Can I do?” could only be found as the b-side to “The Immigrant Song?”  Was I the only one that watched “Rock and Roll Jeopardy” on VH1?  Hosted by Survivor’s Jeff Probst, of course.

 I have absolutely no musical talent except to hear a few notes and have the disk drive that is my mind pull the title from the catalog with its related trivia.  Today when one barista told another, “you have hair like Tina Turner,”  I corrected her that Tina Tuner wore wigs from all the abuse her hair took earlier in her career.    She stared at me, like I was nuts.  Then gave me props for knowing that.  All in a day’s work for Encyclopedia Greenberg.

I often catalog songs in my head.  Roasting me the other night around the pool, Lambchop referred to “Hair of the Dog” by Nazareth and “So. Central Rain” by REM.  These are near the end of the aisle in the “Title not in the Lyrics” section of My mind.  Of course so is Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot” and “The Wanton Song.”   Tool’s “Aenima.”  Another popular aisle is “the Call Out” where the singer either calls out a band mate or himself.  Robert Cray’s “Right Next Door” and The Blues Brothers’ “Soul Man” are prime examples.  Another section is genealogy.  Of course you knew Michael Schenker was UFO before (and during) his time in The Scorpions, right?  The incestuous nature of musicians, their band hopping and their influences on their band  always interests me.  Why couldn’t Paul Carrack keep a job?  And no, he’s not dead.

After a while Thin Lizzy rumbled through the room, adding darker shades to the poker game.  Jailbreak is a great album.  “The Boys are Back in Town” always gets a ton of airplay and I began to preach the virtues of the rest of the album.  One of the guys said something to the effect how perfect it was in THE movie.  THE movie? Oh shit, I think I’ve been outed.  “What movie”, I asked?  Five sets of eyes glared at me.  As if of one hive mind they said, “48 hours!”  Clearly, I’ve never associated that song with that movie.

I have a dirty secret. Lambchop knows. Most other don’t.  I’m not a movie guy.  I enjoy them.  I don’t commit them to memory.   48 Hours? Eddie Murphy’s ex-con on leave to Nick Nolte’s straight cop.  Hijinks ensue.  Nope, no other details.  What’s my favorite movie?  I don’t know either.  I know notes of songs, texture changes and key shifts, but I don’t remember movie plots.  Sure,  I know” Goodfellas,” “The Godfather,” “Star Wars,”  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (etc.)  and “The Lord of the Rings.”  I do have my man card.  I know the secret of “The Crying Game”.  But I don’t recall the basic plot.  I know enjoyed the Bourne and Mission Impossible Movies.  Mystery, fighting, chase, secret organizations  and corruption. Kaboom. Hooray for the good guys.  Plot? I dunno.  Look I remember Short Round, do I need to recall more?

I realize I’m wired a bit different from most people — they memorize movies. I study sounds.  When ever anybody asks me “what’s your favorite movie” I panic.  I don’t have a favorite.  I like them. I often love them. But for me they are ephemera, they fade quickly.  Maybe its an undiagnosed type of dementia.  I know it’s a different world now.  Movies on demand, television shows on DVD s and Netflix streaming.  When I was a child (I am resisting quoting Roger Waters) I listened to music and read.  I knew I loved music at about 9 or 10 when i got my first clock radio.  I now know it was Top 40, but I listened every night as the timer clicked of an hour before shutting down the sound.  My kids?  They watched Thomas the Tank Engine and Disney movies over and over and over.  I don’t think I can watch Disney’s “Robin Hood” ever again.  But I’ll always have The Hampster Dance. I get re-watching a movie after the details fade.  I re-watched “The Maltese Falcon” a few months ago and loved it again.  I never wanted it burned into my being.

Music is engrained in my DNA, but I am not a bullshit three-ring sideshow of freaks.  I can’t play a note.  I barely have rhythm; after about 2 minutes, I lose the beat.  Luckily, I have Elvis Costello help me re-find it. If only you’d help me to convince Lambchop to add “The Immigrant Song” to her repertoire, I think she could wail on that opening and convey the final joy of a trip to Valhalla, well-earned.

Leave a comment


  1. Ann

     /  May 23, 2012

    You sound a lot like that guy I’m married to: zero memory for movie plots (“why bother? only so much room in brain, and I’ll just be happily surprised watching something again after I forget the details”) but when it comes to music, all details and nuances (can’t believe I used that word in a non-work related sentence) is right there. 🙂

  2. Jo Beck

     /  May 25, 2012

    I understand Renaissance… been obsessively playing “Turn of the Cards” for decades. I remain dumb as a stump on most other stuff tho. Never too late for an education, right?


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