The Stairway to the Past

“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered· the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory” -Marcel Proust “The Remembrance of Things Past”(1)

In his classic memoir “The Remembrance of Things Past,” Marcel Proust exalts the human sense of smell as the most powerful conveyor of memory. According to Proust, smelling your grandma’s biscuits or your ex-girlfriend’s perfume is the most visceral way of reliving yesterday.

I’ll admit: You get a whiff of your grandma’s kitchen and suddenly it’s Christmas morning again. You’re eight, it’s nine in the morning, and you’ve got a brand new stormtrooper in your hand. There’s a plate in front of you with grits, smoked sausage, scrambled eggs and those magical biscuits. You can see the rest of the day as well: grandpa shuffling around the house looking for his paper, bickering at Uncle Ricky about messing the paper up and losing the sports section, and generally acting senile and starting an early morning ruckus because he hasn’t yet read his Bible and had his first cup of coffee. I can hear Kim in the other room, refusing to leave her gifts for one second. And I can taste grandma’s homemade apple jelly. All from a simple whiff, a few molecules taking me back in time.

But for me, music is just as powerful, if not more so. When I hear a song, I have so many emotions. And if I love a song, I have even more memories. Here’s a small list of the memories that come roaring through me when I hear Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven:

  • A summer day. The windows down. A soccer ball rolls across the seat. We’re on a way to a party. And we know all the girls will have great big smiles.

  • Brian Lindsay’s drunken laugh, his right hand clutching a Camel cigarette, his left holding a Miller Genuine Draft. Someone calls out Brian’s nickname–BEERMAN!!–and Brian bows before the drunken crowd, the King of All Things Drunk.

  • There is an island in the Rock River. We go there with a small radio and a cassette of Led Zepplin IV. Build a fire. About 18 of us. Girls and guys. Having a good time. I don’t care about anything. People smoke pot, tell stories around a bonfire. But I stay on the boat where it’s quiet. As usual, I’m not drinking. I’m in the back holding Amy Tilly’s hand. And that’s heaven enough for me.

Another song, different memories. BBD’s “When Will I See You Smile Again?”

And the movie behind my eyelids, the flickering rush of memories:

  • The closing minutes in the basement. My house. A few couples are spinning, bumping, grinding and kissing. The song comes on. And it doesn’t matter where you are. You grab a girl’s hand and head for the floor.

  • Prom senior year. The song is loud, wafting out the window of limo. Inside, drunk folks are kissing. Whisper, shout and sing. The car takes a turn. Someone spills a beer all over my tuxedo. My date, Lisa Elisenbach, laughs. Oh well.

  • It’s late night. I’m driving home. I’ve dropped Amy off. And I’m shaking my head because I can feel the feet of our breakup approaching…coming like a train, and it makes me cry…it’s been a great, winding summer together…but we leave for college in two weeks…and everything will change…deep inside i know it will all be over soon…

So many songs, so many memories….



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