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Michael Perry: Echoes of history in musical memories

January 30, 2018 GMT

Today I walked the halls of my old university on my way to a college radio station studio where I was interviewed about the local music “scene.” This implies I am a red-hot insider, but in truth I was being imported more as a dean of history, or — let’s cut to the chase — the very personification of a golden oldie.

The physical layout of the campus has changed dramatically since I attended. (Just now it occurs to me the same could be said regarding my own physical layout.) Still, the familiar bones of the surroundings triggered the usual blend of nostalgia, recognition and head-shaking as I marveled at the manifest passage of time. I also had to suppress the urge to accost random students and yell things like “RIGHT HERE? THERE USED TO BE A PHONE BOOTH!” or “WHO MOVED THE LIBRARY?!?!” or simply, “MIMEOGRAPHS!”

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The student who faced me across microphones appeared to have been freshly excused from junior high. I don’t mean to be insulting, or to question his status as a scholar, I’m just saying there’s nothing like peering at youth over your reading glasses to make you feel immediately geriatric.

Early in the interview I mentioned that this self-same university radio station had been a real ear-opener for me back in the day. I arrived in the big city a country boy familiar with little more than poppy Top 40. Thus I still clearly recall the night I accidentally tuned down the dial and heard a tongue-tied communications major broadcasting a song by an obscure band out of Athens, Georgia, that went by the name R.E.M. It was also on these airwaves that I first heard a song called “Pride (In the Name of Love)” by some up-and-comers named U2. In both instances my definition of “good” music wandered off the centerline to tastes I still trace.

“Oh, I bet it was on this album,” the interviewer said, jumping up to retrieve a CD case from the shelf when I mentioned the R.E.M. tune. “It’s been here forever!” He was so eager to please; it was with heavy heart I informed him that the CD he held was released in 1991…seven albums after the one I had referenced, and four years after I had graduated from college. The expression on his face suggested he very badly wanted to ask me what it was like plowing with oxen.

Music or otherwise, I’m always skeptical of the concept of a “scene.” Seems to me once you’ve identified it, the deterioration has already set in.

That’s not as grumpy as it sounds. The cracks create space for new shoots. Some rise in the form of youthful disc jockeys in an age when “disc” has as much relevance as “wax cylinder.” Perhaps it is a product of our contemporary political slaw, but I for one welcome the infiltrations of youth, what with their energy and hope and general lack of poisonous fear.

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On the walk back to my car I passed through the oldest building on the grounds. When my father attended, that building was the university. One day on his way to class Dad got caught up in a human traffic jam when a campaigning John F. Kennedy entered the hallway. Pressed against the wall, Dad found himself at the end of an impromptu receiving line. Kennedy worked his way down the line, shaking every hand offered, only to peel off just before he reached my father. Dad always chuckled in the telling of it. It occurred to me as I drove away that history is a handful of echoes.