The harvest moon was last Thursday night, September 19th. I’m not a farmer and I don’t know how far you’d have to go back in my family history to find a farmer, so I did not note its passing.
I did, however, recently have a chance to talk to someone about the song which derives its name from the event, which led to me to consider the temporary nature of memory.
“Do you remember,” she asked, “the first song you ever played for me?” I could remember the situation very well. She was in the middle of a very stressful situation with her ex-boyfriend and she was sobbing on the couch in my living room. I’m not a people person and I had no idea what I should be doing at that point — listen without speaking? offer an opinion? Leave the room and let someone else deal with it? — so I grabbed my Godin 5th Avenue archtop and played the first song I could pull from memory.
The song was “Harvest Moon”. I knew it pretty well because at that time I was playing a local sandwich shop from 11:30-1:30 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Thanks to an odd confluence of circumstances, I had an entire year of my life where I would wake up around ten AM, play some music to a couple of hundred people who would have cheerfully slit my throat to move up five spots in a very long lunch line, then write a bit before calling it a day. Below photo somewhat relevant:
Yes, I sometimes had a guest singer, too. Back then John didn’t know any words to sing but he could match pitch pretty well.
Anyway, I knew the song so I played it off the cuff for my disconsolate friend. In my memory of the event, it cheered her up, but that might not be entirely correct. I remember thinking she was very beautiful when she was crying, which is not normally the case with boys or girls. It’s certainly not the case with me. Not that you asked, but I’m primarily a media-based crier. I’ve cried in movies as diverse as August Rush and, um, maybe I shouldn’t admit this, Tokyo Drift. I cried while I was reading War and Peace. I cried while I read the starving-dog scene in The Art Of Racing In The Rain. There are at least fifty songs out of the 16,878 songs on my iPod that could make me cry in the right conditions.
In the interest of balance and to reclaim what’s left of my self-respect, I feel compelled to note that I have not cried from physical pain since I was about ten, and that includes when I nosed the doubles on the Christmas Classic track in 1987 or thereabouts and put my braces all the way through my upper lip. I’ve also received most of the worst news in my life with either equanimity or laughter. So, yeah, I’m probably a psychopath. Where was I?
Oh yes, I was playing “Harvest Moon”. Here’s the (sort of) interesting part. I’ve played that song perhaps 150 times since hearing it last. Over the course of those 150 repetitions, I’ve become quite dogmatic about the way it should be performed. A few months ago I sat on a beach in Florida with my pal Bill and played it, and halfway through I stopped the song to correct his interpretation. I’ve played “Harvest Moon” so many times I know it backwards and forwards. In my head, I can hear Neil Young singing it and playing it and I play at his tempo, using his notes.
Except, apparently, I don’t. Tonight I listened to the original Neil Young version of the song for the first time since, possibly, 2008.
Neil doesn’t play it the way I thought he played it. He doesn’t sing the same vocal line. He doesn’t use the same tempo. It’s noticeably different from what I “hear” in my head when I play the song.
In other words, I’ve been covering a performance variation that never existed.
How does that happen? It’s never happened to me with any other song. I’ve never, for example, thought that I was playing Robert Cray’s “Chicken In The Kitchen” note-for-note. I set out to do that one differently and I do, in fact, perform it in a manner that is pretty far away from Mr. Cray. There are plenty of other songs that, as a solo guitarist, I rethought for that environment — for instance, I used to play “Rock With You” as a solo sing-along acoustic piece. I never told myself that I was bang-on with that one.
But “Harvest Moon” isn’t the way I remembered it, and it isn’t the way I play it. Something happened there while I was learning to play the song, I suppose. Some odd concept, some original vocal line, something just snuck in and I ended up with a “Harvest Moon” that is noticeably wrong. But if I listen I can hear Neil Young singing my vocal line in my head. Did I hear a live performance on the radio? An outtake?
The reality is that memory is a plastic thing. Robin Pecknold, oddly enough, devotes most of the liner notes from the Fleet Foxes’ first record to talking about how all his “childhood memories” turned out to have been derived from photographs of his childhood. Time and again, the accounts of eyewitnesses are proven to be false. Famous people completely misremember the events that made them famous.
It’s been suggested that memories are literally in competition within your consciousness, being reinforced at the neuron level when you “call them up” and disappearing eventually if you don’t think about them. An example that my male readers will, perhaps, find relevant is the so-called “spank bank” that was the favored aid to self-stimulation in the era before the Internet. You would make out with a girl and then remember it when the time, ah, came up. In my youth I saw my friends go to absurd lengths to catch someone topless or nude just so they could remember it in a private moment later. I can, to this day, remember the precise pattern and shape of a pair of Umbro shorts my second freshman-year girlfriend wore the first night she stayed in my dorm room, because I had cause in the years afterwards to consider those shorts and the events that transpired in their vicinity many a time.
However, I can only remember three of the eleven or twelve courses I took my freshman year. The brain remembers an eighteen-year-old girl’s shorts and forgets everything else but ARC 111, ENG 112, and the General Math class I mostly skipped. Seriously. That year cost my father something like sixty grand in today’s money and I can’t remember the classes. I can, however, remember a line of ants marching along the windowsill in my room (108 Dodds Hall) and I can remember what time the dining hall opened (4:30 for dinner) and I could, right now, walk blindfolded to the American fiction section of King Library from the science fiction stacks in Brill Science Library. So there’s that. What your brain needs, it remembers well.
Apparently I didn’t need Neil Young’s performance of Harvest Moon. And when I responded to the taste-of-madeline question that started all of this — “Do you remember the first song you ever played for me?” the answer I actually gave was “Um, I think it was ‘Dog Days’ by Florence and the Machine.”
Wrong answer. Why did I remember everything about that night but the song I played? I think it was because I was busy observing what other people were doing, not what I was doing. I played the song, I put the Godin away, she stopped crying, she left, I didn’t see her again for months. And now we will move to the present day, without hesitation, to find out what happened to all the principals in this story.
The Godin 5th Avenue was traded in, by me, on a Heritage Super Eagle, which I then in turn sold to my guitar teacher.
My crying friend was able to at least partially transcend her most recent relationship, which was with a self-involved and extremely emotionally damaged writer-slash-auto-racer. She now lives far away with a very handsome if utterly accomplishment-free man and enjoys a life that she told me was “sweet, really, wonderful, most of the time.”
Her ex-boyfriend who caused her all the trouble at the time is pursuing his dream of being a wedding photographer. My sole memory of him is of the fellow grinning in rather moronic fashion while staring off into space. This memory is not based on my single meeting with him but rather on the Facebook profile photo he was using a few years ago. I have forgotten his last name and therefore cannot tell you what else he’s up to.
My son no longer sings at the sandwich shop with me.
Robin Pecknold fired his drummer amidst speculation that the Fleet Foxes might not deliver a fourth album.
The manager at the sandwich shop now runs the Polaris Parkway location.
Robert Cray is touring with Frampton’s Guitar Circus, along with Steve Cropper and, at times, Larry Carlton.
Miami University’s King Library now closes at 6pm on weekends in tacit recognition of the dominating nature of Greek-based social life there.
Neil Young recorded two well-regarded albums for Nonesuch which were accidentally shipped to me, at no charge and without appearing on the invoice, along with a Sara Watkins album that I did order from their rather incompetent fulfillment center near Nashville, TN. I have yet to unwrap them, although it’s been more than a year.
My second freshman-year college girlfriend was able to at least partially transcend an extremely poor 2009 decision to revive a relationship with a college boyfriend who had a remarkable amount of free time. She then managed to save her marriage and return to her career as a social worker and mother of two. Her last known words to this writer were “I can never speak to you again.”
Umbro is now a subsidiary of Iconix Brand Group.
Jack Baruth sold his bright-green Audi then returned to the world of full-time employment in September of 2010 and has not left it since. He continues to cry at movies and sob his way through books while remaining strangely unavailable emotionally to people who, given a chance, would love him. He is currently working on an album of wildly sentimental and maudlin original music that might, however, include a cover of “Harvest Moon”.