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It's Nelly's World

Nostalgia Trip

alec vanderboom

Music is a component of the DNA that makes us who we are. It is uploaded into our cells during the most intensive period of growth, young adulthood. It comes and finds us, but we are pre-set to receive certain types. It tells us who we are, and we use it to tell others who we wish to be.

Oh, it's so neat.

Consider its importance as personal code: There is a point in a courtship when the CDs are exchanged. This is usually quite early, and it is the simplest, purest way of saying, This is who I am; can you love this as I do? It functions both as warning --"Speed metal speaks to me!"--and as hope--"Here is an aural nude portrait of me, to show you just how much I trust."

It is, really, a visit to the Mudd Club in the first year of the eighties, a dark and galvanizing (and filthy) night at CBGB when the Talking Heads took the stage. Most especially, it is the small back room of Maxwell's in Hoboken, when you did not yet know you were where history was being made (What? In this tiny adjunct of my tiny living room?). You also did not know it would be made by these kids you saw every day at the bodega or waiting (waiting, and waiting) for the PATH train--looking very much like you, in fact, in thrift-shop sweaters (which they would write a longing song about, "Autumn Sweater") and Danish book bags--but who would form a band called Yo La Tengo that, unlike the others who would have their moment and then break apart, would stay together and keep blooming, like the peony. Twenty years on they would still be making music that could break your heart, set your teeth on edge, express pure yearning, be depressing as all get-out, or exemplify ironic wittiness. Sometimes in the same song.

The music that I would offer as having made me did so in the two decades starting in 1978. That was the year my college station played a song called "Psycho Killer," and I can still remember where I was standing when I heard it. Actually, I was lying. On the floor of my bedroom. David Byrne's cool and controlled aggression reached out from the air and put its trembling hands around my neck. I had never heard anything like this, but I knew it was made for me. Six months later I spent a cold January alone in the communal house at school while everyone else was home, and every day I struggled with the outline of an aesthetics to explain how genius in art announces itself. The soundtrack to these intellectual gymnastics was my recently purchased Talking Heads: 77 record, played repetitively and at great volume (it was outlawed when the roommate from San Francisco was in residence, as was her Linda Ronstadt when I was home; we agreed only upon Joni Mitchell). The thesis got a barely passing grade, but Talking Heads got the zeitgeist.

The next time music got hold of the weird stuff that was floating around in my brain and gave it external form and voice so I finally knew what I was thinking was after graduation, and this is when I was created by what I heard. There are two tiers of it, the music that's fun to dance to and the music that freezes you where you stand when you hear it. What is it about being young, soft clay that wants to be hard as obsidian, and only music can make its indentations on you? It is perhaps the only form that can reach you then and in that way: from your mind, to your heart, via the pulse of your blood. It moves you. Then later, when you find it again after a remove of many years in which you thought you had changed, you put it on the stereo, just a little test, and there it is. There you are. The past, present. Pounding through the floorboards, and you--singing. Formed again.

{Connect the dots of the music. A picture will take shape: you. Below, my dots. And yours?}