We knew her when

I was poking through my CD collection tonight looking for a few specific tracks (three versions of “Solsbury Hill” — album, live, and cover by Sarah McLachlan) and wondering why it was that I own all these discs but don’t actually listen to them on nearly as regular a basis as I should. Possibly I need to sit down and systematically rip them all; I found albums I hadn’t heard in years, but loved fiercely at the time — familiar names, like Sue Medley, Annie Lennox, Faith No More, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Alice in Chains, Melanie Doane, frickin’ Enya.. but names that I’ve forgotten in recent years, much to my sorrow. Why does this happen? Last night I heard Jann Arden’s Happy? all the way through for the first time since 2001 or so — probably since I saw her play live in support of that album — and was reminded of how her stuff used to blow me away. And I wondered why it was I hadn’t pulled it out and listened to it in four or five years.

It’s always interesting to remember the most poignant moments of your relationship with music from certain artists — I was in San Antonio, for instance, when I discovered Shawn Colvin (in a duet with Bruce Hornsby), and I recall the “holy shit” moment with stark clarity, lying in the dark of my hotel room listening to the disc by myself. Many of these “holy shit” moments seem to involve travel and being away from home, which may magnify and heighten the feeling of discovery; I knew I liked Fumbling Towards Ecstasy from the pre-release tracks I’d heard on the radio ahead of its release, but I didn’t fall in love with it until I listened to “Wait” with my headphones partially plugged in, in a hotel room in Vancouver. These moments, and hundreds more like them, are seared into my memory — as I suspect they are for most people who love music and build soundtracks for their lives, one day and one track at a time. You almost never do it on purpose, but inevitably, it happens.

It was in Montreal that I bought Time For Mercy back in the late fall of 1993. I’d heard “Will You Remember Me?” on the radio a week or so earlier, and it happened that I was in Quebec on the day the disc was released, so I ambled over to the record store and bought a copy. And then I sat in bright October sunshine, in the concrete plaza in front of the IBM tower in downtown Montreal, and listened to the whole thing twice, trying to focus on reading something I don’t remember anymore but being thoroughly distracted, and thinking that it was the most amazing stuff I’d heard in years. I played that disc so much over the next few months that looking at it now, I’m amazed it still plays — a testament, I suppose, to the error-correcting power of the CD format, and the flexibility of new CD players. And then I moved on to other things. But I can’t shake the feeling that forgetting about these artists, discarding these albums, is somehow wrong, regardless of whether I can actually find them again and have the joy of re-discovering something so treasured once upon a time.

There’s an element of sadness associated with this rediscovery, especially if it turns out there were other memories associated with the music. It’s hard for me to listen to Paula Cole’s Harbriger, for instance, since it came into my life during a moment of great stress and sorrow. But when I do, I remember the misery and how much it hurt… and I remember that whatever I felt then, I don’t feel now. The hurt is gone now, and I’m better. It’s a good feeling. Happy? I dunno. But not sad. Not that at all.