Music and memories are innately connected.
Listening to a song can take you back to a moment in time – a moment that is crystallized and epitomized by the song that was stuck in your head, that related lyrically – directly to that time and place. In retrospect, the song makes the foliage seem just a little greener and the smiles just a little brighter, but rose-tinted nostalgia or not, there is definitely a connection with song – the lyrics, the melody, the beat, or simply the era in which that song was popular, connect brilliantly with all those memories that come back with vengeance, whenever you put the needle on the record.
There are special times when the music is the memory; when you listen to a song that’s been in your life as long as your favourite now-faded and torn pair of skinny jeans and you recall, clearly as if it were happening again, the very moment you first heard that song and the world stopped spinning for its duration and everything fell deathly quiet, save for you and that song.
The first time I heard “Hotel Chelsea Nights” by Ryan Adams was one of those moments.
I was in University and it was the dead of winter; it wasn’t brutally cold, but an abundance of snow was falling insistently and it was in the evening and no one had shoveled the sidewalks. I was trudging to an evening class and the world was dark and blanketed in thick white, but the streetlights beamed down and sat warmly atop the fresh snow.
That period of time just after Christmas is an odd time for new students; you go from growing accustomed to living without your family and eating like garbage all the time, to going home for 2-3 weeks and having home-cooked meals and sleeping in your old bed and seeing your parents every day, and seeing your old friends for the first time in months. When you return to your new world, that world that seemed comfortable for you prior to that sickly feeling of missing home, there’s all kinds of feelings of dull sorrow, displacement and nervousness. You’re also approaching the end of your first year of school. You’ve almost made it, but there’s still so much farther to go.
I’m not the type of person who gets desperately “homesick”, but I was feeling this weight in the air with all of my friends, which is alienating in itself. It was around this time that I purchased Ryan Adams’ “Love is Hell” – a funny place to start, in terms of Ryan Adams records, but this was my first full album of his nonetheless. I bought it at HMV at a mall south of the University. My friends and I shook and shivered and huddled desperately whilst waiting for our bus home. It was miserable outside and I was fumbling to get the plastic wrap off the jewel case so I could pop it into my Discman. I put it on and offered one earphone to my friend Erin, while gingerly placing the other in my ear. It kept my eardrum warm it seemed, but only for a minute or two. We listened to the first few songs of the album on the bus; amidst our chit-chat,an abundance of bus strangers, and the noise of the large vehicle pounding, sputtering and struggling its way through the snow-covered roads, the songs sounded odd, warbled, and unmelodic. It was a struggle to enter into them; they were not inviting.
It wasn’t until a week or two later when I had my revelatory moment; displaced, cold, by myself, and walking to of all courses, my Religion course on witchcraft and the Occult. I pressed play and listened to the parts of the album with which I knew already. And then “Hotel Chelsea Nights” came on.
The echoing, haunting Wurlitzer starts off the blues-y song and you can almost hear and feel pacing across creaky floors for its duration. The break in the song features a chorus of ghostly gospel-y wails that only seek to explore the song’s bleak, defeatist atmosphere with severity and purpose. Adams sings, “I feel like getting rid of all my things/Maybe just disappear into the fog” – a line with too many syllables for the melody, making it feel desperate and impromptu. The repetition of the line “Strung out like some Christmas lights/Out there in the Chelsea nights” closes the song in what is a palpable descent into lonely, solitary defeat. A song this well-crafted is the only kind of song that can ever close an album.
The song’s logistics aside however, that feeling of displacement – of the sudden distaste for a place that felt like home, of the feeling of not ‘knowing’ love and wondering if/when you’ll ever get the chance, that sensation of a void that you can feel but somehow cannot disappear into, regardless of how badly you want to, and that uncertainty about the future of yourself, your love life, your life in general, of being mistaken and essentially wanting to ‘quit’ was something that had never quite been expressed to me this way before. I fell in love; with myself, in a way – with that I was able to find something – a musical treasure – this magnificent. I fell in love with music again; not in the superficial pop radio way I did when I was in late high school and in my first term of university; I fell in love with Ryan Adams. It was this day that cemented my unconditional love for his quirkiness and his breathtaking output, which I still feel strongly to this very day. And my life sort of ‘hit me’ then; I knew I was away, where I was, and why I was there. Through the moisture roughening my face, through the snow falling from the black oblivion, through the drifts collecting by my feet, traipsed across by my lone footprints – I felt that what I was hearing, and what I was seeing, and what I was feeling, were all exactly identical.
What astounds me about this particular memory in the first place is this: It’s amazing that a song which highlights your own sadnesses, insecurities and displacement, a song that is desperately depressing, a song so candid and painful it makes your insides want to curdle and die, can make you feel this somehow uplifting, clear-eyed epiphany about your own little tiny life.