I shouldn't be writing a blog post right now. I should be working, which is what I was doing about 14 minutes ago. But as I was doing some DNA sequence analysis from home (I know, you're jealous), I was listening to random songs from my iTunes and Television's "Marquee Moon" came up. I had to stop. I closed my eyes. I wasn't sitting at my desk in suburban Boston anymore. I was 23-years-old and I was in Hell.
Let me back up a bit. Hell was the name of a private club in Chapel Hill, N.C., where I went to graduate school. Any bar that served booze and not food had to be considered a "private club" due to North Carolina's blue laws. At that stage of my life, I was as close to being a hipster as I would ever be, so it was a given that I would be a card-carrying member of Hell. It was the dive bar of dive bars. It was in the basement of a building off Rosemary St., and it was too scary for most undergrads. If you went after a heavy rain, there was often an inch deep puddle of water in one corner over by the decrepit pool tables. In the men's room, the "urinal" was a trough in which there were usually a number of rubber ducks one could use for target practice. The beer was often skunked, but it was cheap. There was also Ms. Pac-Man, and a jukebox.
The jukebox was what set Hell apart from other bars in town. It had local bands and it had the best music from several decades. But I was a poor graduate student, so I had to get the most bang for my buck. That meant playing "Marquee Moon" nearly every time I visited Hell, because at 10 minutes and 40 seconds, I got a lot of song for my quarter. Oh, and it's good. A song better be good if it's going to clock in at over 10 minutes. The album cover of these emaciated 70s rockers is burned into my memory. When I hear those first simple chords at the beginning, a smile automatically comes to my face. The lyrics don't make much sense, but you don't listen to this song for the lyrics. You listen--or at least I listen--to get audibly immersed in the sound of the guitar, to get your heart moving into a double-beat rhythm with that bass line. And then there's that wonderfully long 4-5 second pause at about the 9:15 mark. If you can't appreciate a good pause in a song, read the Power Point chapter in Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. A well placed pause can make a song. In "Marquee Moon", just when you think the song is over after 9 minutes - and what kind of self-respecting song wouldn't be over after 9 minutes? - the drum kicks back in, and you get another minute or so, and it's perfect.
For those 10 minutes and 40 seconds, I can smell the musty smells of Hell - the stale cigarette smoke, the dank spilled beer on the cement floor, and probably plenty of mold from all that dampness. I can hear the vintage video games and clack of pool balls in the background. I can see the pierced goth girls and coiffed gay boys and drunk hipster nerds (oh, that one was me). 35-year-old me would probably be horrified and/or disappointed if I set foot in Hell again, assuming it still exists - I couldn't bring myself to check the last time I was in Chapel Hill. But I don't need to go back, because I have this song that triggers all the right memories.
Songs can do that. It's part of their power. So I'm just wondering what songs other people have that take them back to a very specific time or place in their lives. I hope everyone has a "Marquee Moon."
Eric J. Perkins is a molecular biologist and father of two. He lives in the Boston 'burbs, and what little free time he has is spent listening to music, reading, and writing about music and reading.
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