The Power Of Music-Associated Memories (And Nirvana)

Dave and I listened to a lot of Nirvana.

We listened to Nirvana in the basement of his parent’s house and we listened to Nirvana in the basement of my parents’ house. We listened to Nirvana while getting ready for band practice, while wondering what to do next, and while concocting plots to get alcohol. Eventually, we also started listening to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Primus, Soundgarden, Foo Fighters, and other bands, but it really all started with Nirvana. Kurt Cobain may have been dead by the time Dave and I met but that didn’t matter. Nirvana was the glue.

Like a lot of teenagers in the 90s, Nirvana made sense and spoke a language we understood. Their music resonated and stirred something in our souls. The music was loud when we wanted it to be and soft when we needed it. The lyrics called to us even if their meaning was lost on us or in some cases, not really there at all but projecting is a hell of a game best played by those in search of clarity and longing. Pearl Jam was for the daytime hours, Nirvana for when the sun went down. Combined, they created the perfect soundtrack for teenagers across the country, Dave and I included.

Thirty years ago Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind was released, one of several notable releases celebrating that milestone in 2021 (Pearl Jam’s Ten came out on August 27.) In the three decades since Nevermind was released, I’ve definitely listened to more Pearl Jam than Nirvana, but Nirvana is always there, capable of both lighting a fire in my belly and stirring memories when engaged. Beyond involving Dave, most of the memories aren’t super-specific; more atmospheric than anything. But still, they’re very much there and to this day, all of these years later, it’s impossible for me to listen to Nirvana and not think of Dave. Nirvana creates music-associated memories for me. You know music-associated memories of course, where certain artists or songs trigger memories associated with them. If a band or song comes on, memories tag along. They’re timeless and seemingly only get stronger as the years go on.

These music-associated memories can be dialed in to one particular memory or more general. When I hear “Blackbird” by the Beatles things get incredibly specific for me. I think back to playing a show on July 5, 1997, on one of the islands off of Portland. We were set up on the dock with our backs to the bay and at one point, the singer/guitarist went solo for a bit. One of the songs he played was a beautiful version of “Blackbird.” I stood at the other end of the dock, fishing a beer out of the dingy full of them, and watched as the sun continued to set behind him, the muted colors of the sunset fading into the darkness that swallowed up the bay as the far off lights from neighboring islands started to emerge. Since that night, without fail, if I hear “Blackbird” I’m transported back to the dock.

Yet I think that for the most part, general music-associated memories are more common. They remind you of a time in your life or a place in your travels. It’s the association that’s key. They’re not related to a memory per se, but associated and that gives them something of a wider berth.

There’s a good chance that the bulk of the music you listen to likely triggers some sort of memory but these music-associated memories are different because of how they become constants throughout your life and that they stick with you and will always stick with you. I’ll be 60 years old and when I hear Nirvana, I’ll think of Dave and yeah, I’m going to still listen to Nirvana when I’m 60. Don’t worry about it. Kings of Leon can sometimes make me think of taking a shot of hot sauce in a Boston Chinese restaurant but that doesn’t quite match the degree to which Nirvana tugs at the old memory strings even though I can attest to the fact that for some reason when you drink hot sauce it makes your ears tingle. I’ll always listen to Kings of Leon, but I won’t always think of hot sauce shots whereas the Nirvana/Dave connection is rock solid. If anything, there are tiers of music-associated memories and that top tier is reserved for the ones that really mean the most to you. With all due respect to hot sauce, Chinese restaurants, and Kings of Leon, they’re not in the top tier or even the second or third tier.

See with Nirvana, it really was the soundtrack of Dave and I’s friendship when we were in high school. Sometimes it feels like the music you listened to during your high school years was the most important music in the world. Those pesky formative years, when you’re in a sponge, soaking up as much music as you can in an attempt to figure out what exactly you like or didn’t like. Looking back, I feel like Dave and I were musical explorers, teamed up together to search the far reaches of the music-verse to discover bands and unearth songs that spoke to us. Hours were spent at the local record store in town, combing through the used section especially, where the financial risk wasn’t nearly as high as it was when looking through the new section. The used section offered up the opportunity to take more chances and chances were something we were game for. We would venture off down our own paths at times but for those four years, it seemed like we always came back to the music of Nirvana.

Dave and I didn’t just learn how to listen to music together, we learned how to play music together. Dave on guitar and me on drums. Oddly enough though, I don’t remember us ever playing any Nirvana songs. I don’t really know why that was. I actually don’t remember playing many covers at all and for better or worse, I think we spent the bulk of our time writing and playing our own music, although there was definitely a song or two that bore a striking resemblance to Nirvana or Primus (who our bass player was obsessed with.) About a decade later, Dave and I were again in a band together and one night we played a house party but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate because while there was a house party happening and it was happening in the house we were playing in, we were posted up in a small room at the back of the garage, not all that close to the party in question. So we were there but on the margins and we were also mostly playing for ourselves. You know, because of the small room at the back of the garage and its unfortunate proximity to the rest of the party. We started out playing songs but once we realized we were just three dudes jamming in a small room at the back of the garage, the gloves came off and shit got weird, which was when Dave was always at his best. He thrived in situations when the guard rails were removed and chaos was gleefully introduced. Sure enough at one point, he started playing the bass line to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the guitarist and I happily followed along. We must have thrashed away like that for over a half-hour if not more and had a hell of a time doing so in the small room at the back of the garage.

Music-associated memories, man. They’re beautiful things, especially when situations change and life takes unexpected turns.

Dave passed away in 2017 following an eight-month battle with leukemia. When he died, it had been a few years since we had seen each other. I remember the last thing he said to me, “good to see you, Roc,” as we each threw down a shot following our buddy’s wedding. We kept in touch through the years and when I learned he died, I turned to the only thing that made sense at that moment, Nirvana. I listened to them loud and continuously for the rest of the day, tears welling in my eyes as I thought back to those fun-loving, good-time having high school days where Nirvana was our north star.

I don’t listen to Nirvana a lot these days and once the nostalgia-influenced push of listening to them right now in light of Nevermind turning 30 starts to recede, I’m sure they’ll fade in the rearview again, emerging every so often when the mood strikes me. But when they do find a way to work back into my listening pattern, whether it’s Nevermind or Unplugged or the truly blistering and cathartic Live at Reading albumI’ll listen to it loud. I’ll again be in amazement at how raw and real Nirvana was and I’ll think of my good friend Dave and the fun times we had all those years ago.

Music is a beautiful thing because while it’s great for keeping you company and keeping you entertained, it also keeps you connected to your past in a truly unique and wonderful way. Thinking about memories with music associated brings you back there, transports you in a way looking at pictures can’t do. You hear the music now but can also hear it in the way you did back in the day, making it all that more of a real, tangible experience.

So here’s to Dave, a true champion of the world, and here’s to Nirvana, whose music brings him back to life whenever they’re on.





Categories: Music

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4 replies

  1. Beautiful tribute to music and to friendship.

  2. A great tribute and I can relate to those types of musical connections on my life as well. Keep up the great work, Ryan. I will always be a fan. 😉

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