As my father got further into his 70s, one of his favorite, slightly cryptic, remarks was “I’m not going to tell you how much I forgot.” He had an average getting-elderly person’s problem with everyday memory retention, but I knew he was much more concerned that he was losing large swatches of the more distant past. He would come across a photo of somebody he knew in college around 1910 and say he would need to read the name off the back and couldn’t remember anything else about the guy. I knew Dad was a popular figure on campus and a football ace (nicknamed “The General” because of the A.W. Miles connection) and so I assumed he had a lot of casual acquaintances with little reason to stay in his memory.
But these days, I wonder.
The cyberdigital transformation of media has given us a lot of fresh ways to play with what we think we know. The good gets talked up, the bad gets whistled past, and the strange sits there in the corner, staring at us. I recently watched an episode of “Your Bleeped Up Brain” on H2 (don’t roll your eyes — standards are down all over when you have science “documentaries” feeding people hooey abut mermaids and Megalodons, but these are roughly Psychology Today level) about the limits of memory. In Central Park, a bunch of people were shown a blown-up photo and asked “Do you remember what this is?” It was the celebrated image of the guy with the flag standing in front of the row of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Except that digital trickery had inserted huge crowds cheering him on from the sidelines. I immediately recognized that the image had been diddled with since what had struck me most forcefully about the original event was the courage of going it alone. The mobs of demonstrators had been cleared from the square.
Amazing how at least some people (I mean, they didn’t show anybody who recognized the trick) automatically thought the doctored image was accurate, “remembered” the huge crowds cheering the lone man with the flag. It seemed plausible. Most of the image was correct. I was feeling smug about my memory retention and acuity.
But recently, I’ve gotten a couple jolts to my grasp of the past and both involve a prime concern of mine, popular music. The first one is minor, but telling.
When I was doing the blog post below about DFX2 and Hot Chocolate, I relied on the fine Boxed Selection for the Hot Chocolate recollection. It includes all releases from Mickey Mosts’s RAK label in the UK form. The enduring hit-for-several-bands tune “Brother Louie” was not included on the debut RAK LP Cicero Park and I immediately remembered I had a beef about that album and that song. I incorrectly recalled that it was that the tune was not included, as it was not in the UK version. It was pointed out to me, and I confirmed by (duh) actually looking at my old LP, that the American version on Big Tree included “Brother Louie” at the end. So I really scratched around in the old brain banks and finally dredged up my true original objection: the last cut of the Cicero Park sessions on Big Tree was “Funky Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a killer statement of purpose; I knew “Brother Louie,” also strong as hell, was an earlier single, tacked-on; so instead of ending with a satisfying snap of “Funky Rock ‘n’ Roll” we were stuck with two vibrant tracks clanging into each other. But there was No. Way. I would have retrieved that without being called on my initial mis-remembrance.
The second instance has slightly wider repercussions, involves the interwebs, and is more disturbing to me.
Either in the fall of 1977 or the spring of 1978 (sometime during my first year living out East, anyway) I was paging through used LPs in my home away from home, the noted Cheapo Records in Central Square, Cambridge. For the first, last and only time, I came across an album that I vividly remembered reading about in Robert Christgau’s Any Old Way You Choose It, a Penguin paperback from 1973. It was one of the stone classic one-line reviews (page 132):
“Bull, This Is Bull (Paramount), Speak for yourself, Ferdinand. D”
When I did a piece for the Christgau festschrift Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough (2002) called “Consumer Guide to Consumer Guides” I of course had to include Bull and wrote the following:
“The readymade, auto-review classic. A CG entry that has consumed the record it judges. The review was all I thought of the one time I came across the cutout: heavy bearded dude posing on his souped -up chopper. Wow, it’s a fat Bull on a big hog, yuk yuk, but there’s his perfect slice of unaware goofiness preserved for ages past his shelf life. An understaffed and overheated adolescent music industry throwing stuff against the wall faster than anyone could keep track of. Nobody would make this marketing mistake today. Or was it intended to be provocative? The silent “shit”? He can’t be too lonely a Bull–limbo is so crowded–but this affectionate demolition is his legacy. A+”
For whatever reason, because I hadn’t seen the cover in so many years I guess, I recently looked for Bull, This Is Bull in Google “images”. What came up was this:
WTF (as they say)??!! This was NOT the cover I remembered seeing. That was a hefty dude laying back on a huge motorcycle in the middle of a grassy field. I’m not making this up. I can still see it. (I do not, however, remember any liner notes by B.B. King on the back.) Here’s the eerie part — the hair, the face, the build: it’s that same guy! But in a totally different picture. The only thing that makes a whiff of sense is that Paramount decided the old cover was too, too dated and did a quickie, short-run reissue with a different jacket. But I can find no hint that this happened. If I had a chance to correct the Don’t Stop entry, I would simply remove the reference to seeing the cover, nothing else has changed.
I was utterly broke back in ’77 and promised myself I would not buy bad LPs for any reason. For the first time in 35 years, I’m sorry I didn’t pen this Bull. Because I’m plagued with Memory Mysteries:
Did I see something similar and mistake it for the original This Is Bull LP?
Did I look at the true This Is Bull and somehow substitute a bogus image in my memory that eclipsed all trace of what I saw in reality?
Did I indeed come across some super-rare reissued version that’s all but vanished from history?
May never know.