On music, memories, selling out and falling in love for the first time

Note: If this reads as dated, it’s because it is. This is an unpublished story from 2002 that I recently rediscovered and decided to post.

British rock invaders Coldplay reportedly turned down $85 million for the use of their memorable melodies in advertisements. As much as I disdain sell-out bands, were I in their place, I’d shake loose of my scruples, do a duet with Britney Spears and plead with Carson Daly to autograph my forearm, promising to never wash it again. Whether you like Coldplay’s music or not, the band should be commended for their decision. As opposed to artists like Moby, whose music was featured last year in countless car commercials and movie trailers, Coldplay chose to be remembered by selective listeners rather than an advertiser’s target market.

For those of us with attention spans longer than Christina Aguilera’s skirt, many of our memories — good, bad and romantic — are triggered by music. Whether we are “driving around this town, letting the cops chase us around,” “dancin’ in the dark,” or “gettin’ it on ’til the break of dawn,” it is music that can make us more comfortable in the moment and the moment more real in the nostalgia.

One of my treasured musical memories is a Cary Pierce concert at Chapel Hill’s Cats Cradle.

All concerts at the Cradle were special because of the intimacy afforded the venue by virtue of its small size. That it was my first date with the illustrious Elise, however, is why the memory remains so vivid. After a semester spent sneaking glances across the room of our Shakespeare lecture, followed by two more months of the same in our Beatniks seminar, I finally gathered my nerve and offered to lend her a book on Buddhism I thought she’d enjoy. A few weeks later, when she gratefully returned the book, I asked her out.

The date began with a romantic Cracker Barrel dinner, where I asserted my masculinity by crushing her in a game of over-sized checkers and showcased my intellect by solving the interconnected horseshoe puzzle. Over chicken fried steak and gravy, we both shyly acknowledged that we were six months into the recovery phase from our previous breakups. As our two spoons dodged each other in the apple custard á-la- mode, we delighted in the coincidence of the evening being the first real foray back into the dating scene for either of us.

We arrived at the Cradle as the opening act was finishing their set. Through the sparse crowd of early birds mingling about the stage, I spied two prime spots for us on the loft in the back of the room. With Elise’s hand in mine, I started toward the seats but was intercepted by none other than my ex, Nicole. There I was, still trying to get over Nic, on a date with my dream girl, and halfway into the night I have to introduce the two of them. Great.

“Hello, evil ruthless blonde, who toyed with my glass menagerie heart and broke it, making sure to stick around just long enough to stain each shattered shard into a new shade of hurt, I’d like you to meet the petite and intelligent long-haired brunette I’m hoping will mend my heart and put me back together again.”

It must have delighted her to no end, the awkward silence, my discomfiture. Proving to have a few drops of warm blood slithering through her veins, however, Nicole eventually tired of my suffering and let us continue to our seats. Trying to act GQ-suave, I wondered if Elise had felt the intensity of the encounter. My armpits dripped the answer.

The show started without fanfare. The lights softened and Cary, thoughtfully strumming his guitar, stepped to the mike: “This song is about being all wrapped up in somebody, thinking she’s the best and life can’t get better, and then one day, she drops the ‘f’ word on you and says she wants to be ‘friends.’” He knew. My rivulets of insecurity evaporated. “A month goes by, then several months, and you think the ache just can’t get any worse. But then you meet somebody new and magical and realize how lucky you are that things turned out this way.” A final strum set the mood. “It’s called ‘The Greatest Thing in the World.’”

The darkened, smoky club seemed to dim an extra pitch and a warm ringing inside my head agreed with the truth of what he’d said. I don’t know if Elise knew what I was feeling or if she was feeling the same way, but when Cary started to play the song, she pulled my arm around her waist and leaned into me. I never wanted the song to end. When we stood to leave the club, we were a couple at the beginning of a relationship that ultimately embraced me with my first experience in love, that timeless emotion which inspires poets, painters, musicians and young men to declare it “the greatest thing in the world.”

Musical memories like this one are why we record mix tapes of beloved songs and buy every album of our favorite artists. Researchers, who recently discovered the part of the brain that links music with memories, are exploring this connection. Although it is not surprising that the brain has its own place for associating memories with sounds, it is an interesting revelation about our biology: In an evolutionary sense, the brain’s ability to relate a sound to a memory and a corresponding emotion offers little to the survival of hunters and gatherers.

This paradox reminds us of Coldplay’s decision not to tamper with our memory associations. In an age in which everyone has a price and money has more to do with human survival than does hunting prowess, this band’s choice to pass up the millions makes about as much sense as the brain’s ability to connect sound and memory. Whether or not Coldplay survives the microwave allegiance of MTV viewers, the band’s music will continue to exist, permanently residing in the rostromedial prefrontal cortex of many an appreciative fan.


Post Script

I wrote this essay in December of 2002 as part of my application to an MFA program for which I was ultimately wait-listed, though not admitted. At the time, I was devastated and tried to convince myself that everything happens for a reason. I’m not sure whether my mother was scraping her inbox for a long-lost email or in the midst of a nostalgic moment, but for whatever reason, she stumbled across this 15 years later and sent it to me. At the time, it never saw the light of day beyond my immediate family and the grad school admissions department so I decided to give it new life here on Medium.

In fairness to Nicole, I was an emotionally immature 22 year-old who deserved to get dumped and she was likely unaware of my suffering. I hope she never sees this. Today, we are Facebook friends and it brings me joy to see her lovely family and professional successes.

Elise and I are connected on Facebook as well and it makes me happy to see her living her dream as a professional artist with a handsome husband and family. Her adamant shooting down of my Goodwill Hunting star to follow her to Florida after college is what led me to move to the Dominican Republic and enter the teaching profession. At the time, I was pained but I quickly accepted it was for the best and am forever grateful to her for being a strong woman and preventing us both from making a mistake that would have held us back from becoming the better selves that we are today.

I should also add that I no longer disdain artists for acting like professionals and getting paid as such. I now respect Christina Aguilera, would pay for front row seats to see Britney Spears in Vegas and think Moby is a special human being. That said, if I paid enough attention to pop culture to know what Carson Daly is up to today, it’s very possible that I would still make fun of him.