There was a good trilogy on ITV over the last three evenings. It was all about Major Charles Ingham who may or may not have cheated his way to a million pounds on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. Helen McCrory played the defence lawyer and at one point, whilst asking the jury to consider that the memory of the prosecution witnesses may be flawed, she makes the point that when we remember an event, we are not remembering the actual event but we are remembering the last time we remembered the event. All other memories are replaced by the last time we remembered the event.
That made me think about the posts I have been making on this blog. Most of them start with a memory, often from a long time ago. I like to think that my memories are accurate (as we all do) but who knows whether they are true or not? The post about “Shooting At The Moon” (when Raymond Boutelle brought his friends round and one of them called me “straight”) was mainly true (as far as I remember) but I certainly fleshed out some of the details. Some memories of that hour of my life have become irretrievable. How many of our experiences are stored in our long term memory? In Star Trek, Lt. Commander Data remembers everything because he is an android. Do we retain memories of every single event of our lives? When we say “I haven’t thought of that in years”, does that show that all events are stored somewhere and just need accessing?
The terrible disease of Alzheimer’s, whereby people cannot remember recent events, causes people’s personalities to disappear. Our memories inform our thinking, actions, and interactions and give us the characteristics that make us who we are.
There’s a great book called “Algorithms To Live By” by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. In one chapter they talk about the best way to file pieces of paper. There’s one very interesting conjecture by Daniel Sleator and Robert Tarjan which states that the most efficient way to file a piece of paper is to put it at the top of the one and only pile of paper that you have. This is because when searching for something, the most recently accessed thing is the one most likely to be needed. (John once showed me the filing system of a colleague of his who had taken this to extremes. Literally, I’m not exaggerating (although my memory may be at fault!), the single pile of paper that he had was six feet high.) Nevertheless, I agree that the events I can recall most clearly are the events that I have most recently thought about.
Last night when I was thinking about what record to write about today, I saw my Loudon Wainwright albums (he has made 27 and I have them all) and considered “Album II”. I then had some flashes of memory and I also realised that I had some huge gaps in my memory. I have no recollection of buying the record and cannot remember why I bought it. I don’t have the record any more – just the CD. I can’t imagine why I would have sold it along with my records by Van Der Graaf Generator, Yes, The Moody Blues and Colosseum but I must have done. On the other hand I can very clearly remember playing cricket for Tunbridge Wells YMCA and singing one of the songs to myself all afternoon. (Most of the team weren’t Young (although I was 16), they were all Men, none were Christian and I suppose a team is an Association). Now, I can clearly picture the ground; I was fielding at cover most of the afternoon; I was very shy and hardly spoke to anyone but I was singing (internally!) one of the songs from this record. The ground was enclosed with hedges around the outside. There was a pavilion on the opposite side of the ground to where I was fielding. The ground was on a slight slope and I was fielding slightly above where the batsmen were. I can see it now. But what am I remembering? The event or the little flash of memory I had yesterday? But I am confident that I had not associated Loudon Wainwright with the YMCA for nearly 50 years.
Even more interesting (although the “interesting” bar is probably not set very high), this morning I remembered what the song was I was singing to myself all afternoon. It was the third track on side one: “Be Careful There’s A Baby In The House”. How accurate is that memory? Who knows?
Finally, before I get on to this fantastic record, last night as I was trying to get to sleep I started singing the words to “Samson And The Warden” to myself. I could remember all of them. How come? I guess that I haven’t played the song in 10 years but I could remember all the words.
Loudon Wainwright records and gigs are always excellent. Most of the time, about 80% of what he does is really entertaining. This album, though, is flawless. Even the weakest songs are memorable. Loudon Wainwright songs are a mixture of humour, sadness, self-deprecation, boasts and regret. I have been to loads of Loudon Wainwright gigs, mainly with David and Gay and it can be irritating if the people around us don’t understand that there is normally more sadness than humour. He can deliver a starkly emotional and bleak line only for a few people to burst out laughing. On the other hand, he can be very very funny. His best songs are performed with just him and a guitar although over the years all sorts of extraneous instrumentation has been used on records, mainly at the behest of the record company in a vain attempt to bring him “Fame And Wealth” (which happens to be the name of another of his records.)
The first track on side 1 is “Me And My Friend The Cat”. It’s about his great companion, his cat. “If only you’d been there/You’d know what I mean.” It’s a song about loneliness and neither the first or last such song he would write.
“Motel Blues” is an absolute classic. Loudon is on tour, staying in a motel and sleeps with a stranger. “Chronologically I know you’re young but when you kissed me in the club you bit my tongue”. It’s desperately sad and lonely.
“Nice Jewish Girls”. The title explains it all really. “Pearlstein, Bernstein, Levitt and Fink ain’t Nordic names I know. But the problem is those girls, gee whiz, make my juices flow.”
“Be Careful There’s A Baby In The House” is very perceptive (not that I would know about babies in a house). It lays out very clearly what effect a baby will have on a relationship. Seeing as it was written two years before his wife Kate McGarrigle gave birth to Rufus, the observations are prescient. “A baby can spot your shtick. All the koochie koochie koo is a lot of poo-poo when you spread it on that thick.” Brilliant.
Next comes a trilogy. “I Know I’m Unhappy/Suicide Song/Glenville Reel”. The titles make it clear I guess. Singer songwriters didn’t normally tackle the topic of suicide. “When you get hung up, hang yourself up by your neck. What the hell. What the hell. What the heck.” If you ever see him perform these songs, don’t laugh – it’s not funny. (Loudon Wainwright appeared in a few episodes of M*A*S*H a few years later. The theme song is an instrumental version of a song called “Suicide Is Painless” but this song was not written by Loudon.)
“Saw Your Name In The Paper” is addressed to Liza Minelli who he was at school with. It’s a warning about the seductive nature of fame. “Maybe you’ll get famous. Maybe you’ll get rich. It’s all right don’t be afraid. Lots of us got that itch. Lots of us really need it. We really need it bad. Lots of us are desperate. Lots of us are sad.” A pretty bleak end to side one. Side two is a little more upbeat.
“Samson And The Warden” is a true account of Loudon being thrown into jail for carrying some dope. The warden is about to cut Loudon’s hair and Loudon is desperate for this not to happen. It’s very funny. “Don’t shave off my beard. Don’t cut off my hair. It took me two years to grow it and it just isn’t fair.”
“Plane Too” is a popular song. Not one of my favourites but still pretty sharp eyed. It’s one of Loudon’s list songs (like “The Swimming Song” on a later record which I really don’t like). The song simply consists of things Loudon can see on a plane, e.g. airplane food, tea, reclining seats, seat belts, a no smoking sign, vomit bag, a flushing toilet etc etc. It’s better than it sounds.
“Cook That Dinner Dora” is not very politically correct so it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. “Set that table, Dora. Set that place for me. Arm me with utensils. I will use them, wait and see.”
“Old Friend” is simply beautiful. It’s sung to an old friend, believe it or not. I always think that this is not an old girlfriend but simply a mate he has grown apart from. I can think of so many people for whom this song is appropriate. When you no longer want to maintain contact with someone, it’s very difficult. I’ve felt that way about some people and some people have felt that way about me. It’s painful. “Memory Lane’s a dead end street” puts it all so wonderfully.
“Old Paint” is Paddy’s favourite song on the record. It’s the only song on the record not written by Loudon. It was collected by Carl Sandburg when travelling through the American South West who wrote that “there is rich poetry in the image of the rider so loving a horse he begs that when he dies his bones shall be tied to his horse and the two of them sent wandering with their faces turned West.”
Finally and sadly this amazing record comes to the last song. It’s a corker too. “Winter Song” Each season is taken in turn – “One day this weary Winter will be gone”, Spring is “the season of the short sleeve”, Summer “is a whore”, “every bird’s nest loses camouflage” in the Fall and then we are back to Winter in a never ending circle of doom and depression. Sound familiar?