Music the trigger of emotional memory

(About memory and my life, not much about language. Some oblique references to (fondly recalled) mansex, but nothing graphic.)

The context is the Enhance Fitness classes at the Palo Alto Family Y, for which the instructors use playlists of (dance) music as background for our exertions. Last Tuesday, we sweated to a series of British Invasion hits (from the 1960s), among them “Bang a Gong (Get It On)”, which produced in me a powerful wave of pleasurable recollection — of  a time in the Queens Club, an after-hours gay dance club below the Queens Hotel in Brighton, Sussex. Oh my, oh my, oh my. Forty years ago, but oh so sweet.

I understand that you want the music and, yeah, as much of the raunch as I’m willing to put out, and I’ll give you those, But first, some teasing delaying academic moments. (Hey, I’m a Fellow of the Associastion for Psychological Science; I have a duty to uphold.)

Many things involuntarily trigger memories. Famously, smells and tastes (have a madeleine, Marcel), but also scenes and sounds — especially music, which can call up powerful memories of specific events and of the emotions associated with them. In the case of “Bang a Gong”, a wave of emotional heat, only connected to dancing at the Queens Club after some moments.

(In an analysis of long-term memories due mostly to Endel Tulving, memory for events is episodic memory, along with semantic memory as types of declarative memory, counterposed to implicit memory, unconsciously acquired and accessed memories — especially procedural memory, for how to do things, but also emotional memory.)

The event, as described in my AZBlogX story “Seaside Resort” (a somewhat fictionalized sexual memoir about Brighton in 1977), edited here:

“Come over here, dear boy, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

I’ve been studying Stefan’s man, my man, as he moves around the club, kissing friends and making small talk; admired his abandonment in dancing, the openness of his gaze, his wild energy; been caught by his eyes, now blue now green in the light of the disco.

Stefan confides that James is “sexually amiable”, meaning that if he isn’t otherwise engaged, he’ll spend an evening, or a night, with a friend who’s needy, and do his best to fill the need. “Even with me, dear boy, and I’m not at all the sort of man he fancies.” A sigh. “You are exactly the sort of man he fancies.”

James fancies me very, very much. We shake hands at Stefan’s introduction, he embraces me, takes my hand. “Let’s dance!”
Music so loud, so insistent it enters our bodies, blocks out everything else but the sight of the other man, the exultant mirror image. We wave our arms, flashing the tangled brown hair of our armpits, sweet with sweat, to one another. We make grave monkey-faces at each other and grind our hips to the back beat. For three minutes we are out of ourselves, in the music, in each other, in every other man on the dance floor.

Suddenly it’s over. I draw him to me with my left arm, we step down off the dance floor and onto the narrow verge that surrounds it, and he cups my ass with his right hand — we reserve our free hands for our beers (mine a bitter, his a lager) — while we talk, each into the other’s left ear, smelling the-other’s wet hair (his is dense, curly, and I see myself getting a firm handhold on it), sheltering our coupleness from the roomful of men around us, letting our half hard-ons kiss grazily through our jeans. We talk for half an hour, instant autobiographies, as if understanding the other man’s history was the most important thing in the world. First the stories, then the fucking.

When the digest versions of The Life of Arnold and The Life of James are out on the table, he simply walks towards the door, and I follow. We recover our jackets, shout goodbyes to the bouncer (“Leaving early tonight, lads?”), and push our way through a queue of blokes impatient to get in, out into the salty October night, and through wet streets to James’s flat.

(Details, both carnal and affectionate, follow in the AZBlogX piece. We were young and vigorous then, and we fit each other sexually to a T. John Hart Gould — James in the story — is the only one of my boyfriends I’ve lost track of. A great shame: he was a great friend, someone who lit rooms up by his presence, a restless artist who introduced me to collage-making and to all sorts of books I didn’t know about — he worked at a used and rare bookstore — smart, funny, empathetic, on top of the sexual good stuff.)

The text we danced to:

Well you’re dirty and sweet, clad in black
Don’t look back and I love you
You’re dirty and sweet, oh yeah
Well you’re slim and you’re weak
You’ve got the teeth of a hydra upon you
You’re dirty sweet and you’re my girl.

Get it on, bang the gong, get it on
Get it on, bang the gong, get it on

(Of course, we sang “and you’re my guy”.)

From Wikipedia:

“Get It On” is a song by the British glam rock group T. Rex, featured on their 1971 album Electric Warrior. Written by frontman Marc Bolan, “Get It On” was the second chart-topper for T. Rex on the UK Singles Chart. In the United States, it was retitled “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” to avoid confusion with a song of the same name by the group Chase.

You can listen to the full song here.

And about the group:

T. Rex were an English rock band, formed in 1967 by singer-songwriter and guitarist Marc Bolan. The band was initially called Tyrannosaurus Rex, and released four psychedelic folk albums under this name. In 1969, Bolan began to shift from the band’s early acoustic sound to an electric one. The following year, he shortened their name to T. Rex. The 1970 release of the single “Ride a White Swan” marked the culmination of this development, and the group soon became a commercial success as part of the emerging glam rock scene.

From 1970 until 1973, T. Rex encountered a popularity in the UK comparable to that of the Beatles, with a run of eleven singles in the UK top ten. One of the most prominent acts in British popular culture, they scored four UK number one hits, “Hot Love”, “Get It On”, “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru”. The band’s 1971 album Electric Warrior received critical acclaim as a pioneering glam rock album. (Wikipedia link)

While I’m on the 60s, music, and sex, two more personal triggers of emotional memories (I’ll omit the carnal details):

“See Me, Feel Me / Listening to You” – The Who, Tommy (the album, 1969) — which you can listen to here

See me, feel me, touch me, heal me

Listening to you, I get the music
Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you, I climb the mountain
I get excitement at your feet

“Medley: Jumpin’ Jack Flash / Young Blood” – Leon Russell, The Concert for Bangladesh (1971) — which you can listen to here

But it’s alright now ’n fact it’s a gas
And it’s alright, hey
I’m Jumping Jack Flash it’s a gas gas gas

Look at there, look at there
You’re the one, look at there
Youngblood, youngblood, youngblood
Woo, I can’t get you out of my mind

One oceanic, one hard-driving.

One Response to “Music the trigger of emotional memory”

  1. [BLOG] Some Thursday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky considers music as a trigger of emotional memory, generally and in his own […]

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