In S_____, California, an unincorporated town on the outskirts of M_____ County, my friend’s granddad owns a ranch extending several thousand acres. Back in the 70’s, this man used to be the biggest coke dealer in M_____, but by now has been settled for decades into a quiet life of renting his land out for others to use and maintain, and drinking cans of Budweiser, and smoking Marlboros. In his old age his face has wrinkled and pinched itself into a likeness of Robert Mitchum when he had already gone to seed, stayed in seed, and gotten comfortable with seed, his face a catacomb of half remembered pasts.
We drove up the hill to his property in my friend’s 1989 Volvo and were immediately investigated by a pack of rowdy ranch dogs, their paws covered in winter mud and their fur tangled with weeds and brambles. Two tanks of diesel stood next to where we parked, with the white stucco house in front and a garage/shed on the far left beside the fence leading into the massive cattle property.
The house was filled with smoke, the interior neither messy nor clean, a college football game on the big screen television. He walked tall and lanky through the house, gathering worn old jackets for us to wear while we drove the ATVs parked in his garage. “It’s fuckin’ cold out there, wear these and gloves, and you still might freeze your dicks off.” He gave us beer even though we were underage, and we drove on through the property, me holding onto the sides of the ATV while my friend steered in front of me, our other buddy manning his behind us.
The air was cold and bone-sharp, the frost-coated grass a dark blue in the late afternoon, passing cattle, passing bulls, we winded up the trail faster than we should have, up to a hill where the whole property could be seen. We opened our beers at the top and looked out on the land as if it were more than land, as if we were looking at a chapel or a golden mosque, or seeing through a fissure into a grotesquely beautiful heaven; the pine tops angels, the wet grass a blinding vision, the sun a benediction, each of us saints broken from the day we were born. I remember it well. It was a time that added up to swollen hearts, a moment imprisoned in memory’s distorting amber.
* * *
Music is the memory of what never happened.
Jack Gilbert wrote this in his poem collection Great Fires. It seems like an innocent, well oiled and absolutist epigram at first, something cute and coy. Epigrams are really little totalitarian states. And like all epigrams it cuts violently through reality and presents us with a severed fragment of it, asking that we take it, at least for the moment, as a whole. Epigram are, in this sense, pornographic.
But this statement struck me as more or less innocent of real meaning at first, one of those epigrams that shimmers with nothing but surface and disappears on examination. But I think what Gilbert means to say is that music puts the stopper on reality’s bottle; it’s not so much that music is the memory of what never happened, but what can never happen, what will never happen.
It makes sure that we pay no attention to the ‘man behind the curtain’, and all of the familiars and attendants swirling about him: awkward pauses in events later stored away, bad breath, deadening boredom, physical pain, the knowledge of eventual death (probably by cancer), the slow unwinding of the mind’s wool in a stuffy room. We take the raw, unarticulated skeletons of our experience and lay them on music’s altar, and it drapes them in a skin and straightens them out for us. Then it hands them back, and we marvel at them, forgetting that there was ever anything underneath which forced an instinctual shudder.
* * *
The first day I got into the town of C_____ I had a dream in the last, thin hours of the night. I was in a room, maybe octagonal, maybe spherical, maybe with no shape at all – where a party was taking place. Everyone stood around with little plastic strips on their foreheads as if they were electronic merchandise marked for purchase. The colors were either green or red. I milled around in the room, then looked in a mirror and saw that the strip across my head was black. I realized then, that I had come to the wrong party.
As I stood around regretting my decision or fate to come to that place, a woman I could swear I knew from college stepped out of the crowd of people and approached me from the far other side of the room. I saw that her color-strip was black too. I was going to say something in greeting, but she walked straight up to me, put her arms around me, and held me. I held her back.
At this point she began saying things into my ear, a long speech that was apparently filled with revelations and promises of some kind. I have no recollection of what they were. My immediate suspicion regarding this dream was that it was a purely narcissistic projection of romantic desires, that there is someone somewhere who is “meant for you,” somehow independent of any context.
This dream came after an evening where I felt homesickness for the first time I can remember. It also seems to have absorbed the language of advertising, as if it were shilling diamonds or wristwatches for that “special someone” who “deserves a little luxury,” because “we can’t all do things the standard way, but we can all buy products from Company YX.” It pivots on the arrogant depiction of oneself as different from others, in the typical way that advertising convinces us that in order to maximize our uniqueness we must barter part of it away. You can picture it cinematically, some blithely handsome man standing bewildered at a party until he sees his beloved across the room wearing the same designer brand.
Like memories, and the cold, advertising seeps into things. It might be the best verb for it. Rain pours, thunder crashes, rivers run, advertising seeps. What was this, then? The memory of a dream, which itself was the memory of a commercial, one that may have once been a dream of the person who wrote it?
Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred. – Walter Benjamin.