It’s the evening for looking back.
Looking back over a month. Looking back over a year. Maybe even looking back over a lifetime.
An evening for memories.
Whenever I find myself in a nostalgic mood, my mind inevitably wanders to Van Morrison’s “Memories”, the closing song from his 1990 Enlightenment album.
When you read the lyrics for the song on the album sleeve, they seem simple and bare, especially compared to some of the wordfests that came earlier on the album. Lines such as “Oh happy times, those memories” wouldn’t detain the professors of literature for too long.
However, the song comes alive in performance. The beautiful melody and instrumentation provide the perfect setting for Morrison’s heartfelt vocals. And the lyrics, so repetitive and prosaic on paper, convey the sense of a singer getting lost in reverie:
All I have is memories,
All I have is memories,
Memories of you.
We’re given no details about these memories or any real indication of who “you” is. All we know is “now you’re gone”. It could be a lover, a parent, a friend, a child, a former self. The lyrics are vague and flexible enough to accommodate many stories.
But as you listen to the song, these details don’t matter. The song aims to convey a mood, rather than narrate a past experience. The singer contemplates the “people in the places that we used to know”, but only he knows what he’s referring to. And the listeners find themselves thinking about people in the places that they used to know.
In fact, in a way, it is the lack of details that makes the song so appealing. If the song were peppered with real or imagined details from Morrison’s own past, it would be harder to relate to it. The song makes us feel what it’s like to get lost in our memories, rather than trying to swamp us in minute biographical nuggets.
And the more we get lost in our memories, the harder it becomes to find our way out of them again:
How they linger in the twilight,
And in the wee small hours
Sometime just before the dawn.
Morrison’s singing also dramatises the effects of these memories. When he first sings of the memories lingering, his tone is sweet, caressing the memories. The second time he sings these lines, the sudden power in his yawp suggests that he’s getting overwhelmed by the memories, haunted in Frank Sinatra’s “wee small hours”. As a much younger Morrison once sang on “Brown Eyed Girl”:
Cast my memory back there, Lord,
Sometimes I’m overcome thinkin’ about
Laughin’ and a-runnin’.
Of course, the reason why memories linger is because they remind us of what has gone. They remind us of our youth. And they remind us of people who are no longer in our lives. We often think back to “summer days so long ago” and wish we could relive them.
And sometimes memories are not enough. As Neil Tennant put it in “The Way It Used To Be”:
I’d survive with only memories
If I could change the way I feel.
But I want more than only memories,
A human touch to make them real.
Memories like these haunt Jesse in Dimestore Avenue Blues. But memories are never real. Like dreams, the more we try to grab them, the more they disappear into the wispy smokes of time. And soon our focus has to shift to the present and the future again.
Happy New Year!