On Musical Detritus And Memory

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It was still winter and the room was cold so I walked over to the radiator, opened the valve, and returned to my desk. A few minutes later the room warmed up and, just to confirm what I could already feel, I walked back over to touch the radiator—blazing hot. Involuntarily, I began singing:

The heat is on!.. The heat is on!..It’s on the streets!…The heat is…

Then I forgot the rest of the words and sat back down again.

What was this song floating in my head, this tune just waiting for the perfect moment to resurrect itself after years of dormancy? Tell me it wasn’t the 1984 Top 10 hit “The Heat Is On” by Keith Forsey and Harold Faltermeyer, with vocals by Glen Frey? It was. “The Heat Is On” was on the soundtrack for the film, Beverly Hills Cop, and according my brief Wikipedia consult, Frey was apparently paid some $15,000 for a day’s work, which included not only singing, but also playing a guitar solo (1:34-1:48). How many musicians these days double up like that?—“Can you come by the studio and record a vocal and a guitar solo?”

Anyway, as I was singing to the radiator I thought about the archive of terrible music that floats around the edges of my consciousness. We could call this terrible music musical detritus—material left by erosion or decomposition (from the French détritus and the Latin deterere which means “wear away”). It’s as if all the bad music in our heads is the gradually eroding traces of what we’ve listened to and thought we forgot but no, we haven’t. When I was a young teen I listened to a lot of bad music. I had no taste, except for jazz drumming (which introduced me to Quality Sounds). In the 1980s, I watched Beverly Hills Cop probably a few too many times and loved its synth music, especially the “Axel F” instrumental theme which was composed by Faltermeyer, a German composer and keyboardist. My bad taste also led me to record dozens of hours of New Age music off FM radio onto dangerously long (120 min) and unreliable Radio Shack cassette tapes, along with excerpts of the Rocky IV soundtrack off the TV speaker. I also may or may not have recorded audio from golf tournaments and Bob Ross’s painting show on public television. (“Let’s put a little pine in the foreground, snow-tinged with titanium white…”) Maybe this personal history explains the music I make now?

Panning out a bit further around the theme of musical detritus, we don’t ever know which of the countless sounds and songs we’re listening to today will get into our minds and remain there, only to be resurrected decades down the line for one reason or another. Nevertheless, we constantly add to our personal archives, those strange ecumenical places where jazz drumming, New Age music, Rocky soundtracks, and Bach’s c minor prelude and fugue somehow share bandwidth with “The Heat Is On” and other bits of half-remembered music. If my singing to a radiator is any indication, I’m over any residual embarrassment I might have once had about remembering random songs. Now I wonder if accepting the juxtapositions within the musical archives in our minds is a step towards a more substantial investigation of self: What can a mapping of our personal experiences with musics in our lives teach us? Is our musical remembering a thread linking sounds with important moments? Why do we remember terrible music and was it–is it still–really that terrible in the first place?

One thought on “On Musical Detritus And Memory

  1. I consider the ear worms that run through my head the same way I look at dreams: it’s frequently trying to tell me something about my current circumstances that I haven’t been paying enough attention to. Sometimes it’s just based on recent events, like the case with your radiator, but other times it’s coming from deeper in the mind and holds important clues about myself or my life. It’s fascinating how it all happens.

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