Listener's Arc - Memory Units | Varyer

Listener’s Arc
Memory Units

The intersection between music and memory

In nursing homes, a common name for the area of the facility dedicated to residents with dementia is the “memory unit.” “Memory care facility” is used more frequently, which sounds a little warmer and softer, but the intention remains the same: They are designed to house people whose cognitive function is diminished to such a degree that they become a danger to themselves and others.

Memory units are kept locked, because people with dementia are liable to open a door and keep walking. When visiting one, you need to be buzzed in, as if you’re at a prison.

My father spent the last 20 months of his life in a memory unit while in the late stages of Parkinson’s disease. The front door opened onto the common area, a large open space with a kitchen, dining area, and a lounge that functioned like a living room. At one end was a large-screen TV, where the residents might watch a movie or a football game in the fall. But usually when I walked in, the staff tuned the TV to one of those channels in the upper reaches of a cable package that streamed music. On these stations, the sound plays and the screen shows a press image from the artist, taken during their heyday, along with their name and the title of the song.

That was the sound that greeted you as they buzzed you in: coming out of a poor-quality, big-screen television’s speaker, the blare of oldies. What comes to mind is the Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun,” which I heard in the memory unit on more than one occasion. As the song played, there would be old women arranged in a half-circle, slumped over in wheelchairs, and they didn’t seem to notice or comprehend the surrounding music.

I thought of the chain of decisions that led to “Fun Fun Fun” cranking in that lounge, how someone trained in geriatric care had been told that residents who couldn’t recall the present liked to reminisce about the past, and how an oldies station might remind them of happier days. I thought of how the music playing in the memory unit was kept at a steady distance from history—between 50 or 60 years old was the sweet spot, being familiar to residents who ranged from about age 75 to 90. The music tried to reach that imprint on their memory of the first songs that really mattered to them—their songs, and not the ones that would have been handed down by their parents. For many people, the music they loved between the ages of, say, 12 and 25, serves as the foundation for how they experience music for the rest of their days.

My father would rarely be in the lounge area. I’d take a right, and walk a little more than halfway down the hallway, and there he would be, in his room. Usually in his chair. The TV only worked intermittently, but he had an MP3 player I’d bought him. After he broke several CD players and his fingers could no longer navigate the small buttons, I found him a simple device that had only two controls: you raised the arm on the top of the box to start the music, and lowered it to stop it. And there was a single large button to skip to the next song. It had some kind of hard-wired memory, and I plugged the box into my computer and dragged over MP3s, which it would play on shuffle.

I selected songs my dad liked, because I had always paid close attention to the music that moved him. He was never a big music consumer, or even a small one. If he bought two non-Christmas CDs in a year, that was a lot. But I paid attention to the ones he purchased and to the music I noticed he sang along to. He was a hard person to know, and these tidbits of music that mattered to him seemed like a viable path to some kind of understanding.

Dwight File, my wife Julie’s uncle, used to keep an apartment in Staunton, Virginia. He alternated living at his apartment and the home of his girlfriend Nancy, who resided up in the mountains near the border of West Virginia. Dwight’s place was on the top floor of an old two-story house that had been converted to a duplex, and it was big, with a couple of bedrooms and a living room and a study, and every room was lined ceiling to floor with books. Many of the books had to do with Dwight’s other great passion: music, particularly bluegrass, jazz, blues, country, and early rock ’n’ roll.

Though Dwight’s collection of music books stretched room to room, he didn’t have all that many records, maybe a few hundred CDs and some LPs and 78s that he didn’t have a turntable to play. Perhaps he knew what his favorites were and stuck with those, or maybe he still listened to the radio. But the CDs he had showed the mix of his interests—the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams. In a box next to a CD rack were a few large boxes filled with music magazines; I noted one in particular that was about bluegrass, a monthly, called Bluegrass Unlimited. I remember seeing it and being amazed that enough was going on in the bluegrass world—about which I, a professional music writer, knew almost nothing—to warrant a magazine of this size coming out every 30 days.

This is around 2004. Julie and I were living in Richmond, and we used to drive to Staunton and stay at Dwight’s place while he was away. For us, it was a mini vacation and felt a little like a trip to a distant land, since Staunton is a town steeped in the past. There was a shop on the main drag that was purportedly a hardware store, but it was more like a museum of old treasures. You could buy a hammer in there from 1870, or Confederate money for face value (a $10 Confederate bill cost $10), or road maps from the days when the Model T was the most common car one might encounter. We’d prowl through this shop and look at all the old stuff and think about people we might buy it for.

The times we saw Dwight, he always wanted to talk to me about music, because he didn't know what was happening in the contemporary music sphere. And I always wanted to talk to him about music because he’d experienced so much of it for so long.

When he was a kid, he used to listen to a radio program called the Old Dominion Barn Dance, a variety show held in downtown Richmond every Saturday that was beamed via a 50,000-watt transmitter to country music listeners in 37 states and Canada. Dwight’s father died young and he wound up attending a boarding school in Richmond, and I imagined him there, perhaps a strange and lonely kid, listening to the country stars of the day each Saturday night on the radio and knowing that they were actually singing live in that very moment at a theater less than seven miles away. It was the *big* stars, too, legends like Hank Snow and Flatt & Scruggs, who were then at the prime of their careers.

When Julie and I started visiting Dwight’s place in Staunton, unbeknown to him or us, he already had cells in his body that were cancerous, beginning in his kidney. After three or four years, he had to move out of the apartment because he was ill, and he had a yard sale and we helped him pack up everything and put it in storage. He was by then in rough shape, very thin with a rickety gait, though he still had his cranky humor. A few months after he moved out, we visited him in the hospital. Everyone knew this was it, including him. We walked in the room and it was the usual array of blinking machines, tubes, the humiliating smock, the adjustable bed. Though he was definitely afraid, he was still cracking jokes. “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing Jesus pretty soon,” he, a nonbeliever, said sarcastically.

Another of Dwight’s obsessions was contract bridge. Besides music books, he had shelves of books on the card game; I remember volumes with many hundreds of pages that were devoted to a single phase of the game. At one time, Dwight was a nationally ranked bridge player, and he sometimes traveled to tournaments, always staying in hostels or whatever the cheapest accommodations might be. After he passed away, his memorial service was held at the Richmond Bridge Club, and we gathered in the room with a few of his family members and a lot more of his bridge-playing friends, and a number of people spoke about him.

Memorial services are strange events, because you are getting to know someone after they’re gone. I’d met none of these people, but as they told stories, different aspects of Dwight’s life would emerge, and I was getting some new insight into what he was about. Toward the end of the sharing, I asked to speak, and I talked briefly about Dwight’s place in Staunton, how much we enjoyed visiting him there, and how I had a feeling that Dwight enjoyed lending us his apartment because, by allowing others to immerse themselves in his stuff, he was letting us know him better. For Dwight, those shelves and boxes and the posters on the wall showing all the New Orleans Jazz Festivals he’d attended were memories, but they were also a kind of language, communicating to us things he’d never quite been able to say.

Around 1956, the year before the Old Dominion Barn Dance was about to go off the air, another boy, a little younger, around 13, was listening to WJJD in Chicago. His name was Rick Richardson, and he was my father. He lived in a large house in River Forest, a western suburb just outside the city. It was a wealthy neighborhood, and his family was wealthy, though they were growing a little less wealthy with each passing day. Three generations earlier, another Richardson with my father’s name had moved his family from Tolland County, Connecticut, to Illinois in order to start a tin business. In the late 1800s, Chicago was booming, and it was a good way to make a fortune.

Along with his radio, my father had some 45s. He had an ear for novelty records, and one caught his fancy around this time: Nervous Norvus. A song called “Transfusion” was a particular favorite. The backing music is shockingly crude, ladled with reverb to convey more space, and there are a lot of sound effects. The story, told in Norvus’s proto-rap sing-song cadence, is about a guy who is trying to quit driving too fast but can’t help himself because he feels the need for speed. It came out in 1956, a time when automobiles were basically designed to injure people. Lap belts and lots of sharp, jutting steel on the dashboard. Every time Norvus drives too fast, which is all the time, he gets into a terrible wreck (illustrated by sound effects like screeching tires and an explosion of glass), and he needs to go to the hospital and get a large blood transfusion. He asks for the life-giving fluid in 50s hepcat patter that would become famous a couple of decades later when Paul Simon used it for his hit song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (“slip out the back, Jack,” and so on). Norvus gets especially creative with his hipsterisms: “Slip me some crimson, Simpson.”

This song made a big impression on my father, so big that he was still quoting it to his children two decades after listening to that 45. It was never a hit and was almost completely forgotten, outside of novelty-record fanatics (Dr. Demento had played Nervous Norvus on his novelty-focused show). My father remembered it well enough to quote it to his children a few times a year, usually with a smirk, often when asking about the music we might listen to. “Where’s Nervous Norvus?” he might ask and then sing a few lines of the chorus.

Let’s say my father last heard “Transfusion” in the mid-1960s, a reasonable estimate of the time when his youthful 45s disappeared. Years later he had a few old LPs in the closet, some of which dated to his college days, but there were no singles found within the moldy cardboard box. After the last play of the 45, whenever that might have been, the song existed only in his memory, brought from that place to entertain his children. So imagine his joy when I pulled it up on YouTube and played it for him over a Bluetooth speaker in 2016, which let’s say is 50 years since he’d last heard it. He was, by this point, severely afflicted by Parkinson’s disease. He still lived with my mother, but wouldn’t be doing so for much longer, as he now required a level of care that he could only get in assisted living. He smiled at first and sang along for a moment, and then his face went blank. It seemed as if he were pulling away from the present, letting the sound bypass his consciousness and arrive at some far reach of his brain, a place where it had been printed a half-century ago and then left alone.

Producer Leyland Kirby began his career as a kind of noise prankster, releasing new music and remixes, both official and not, under the name V/VM. Among other things, his project the Caretaker, which began in 1999, explored music and memory, how once-indelible sounds gradually break apart and fade away.

In 2016, Kirby began to issue the final Caretaker project, Everywhere at the End of Time, which portrayed—or captured, or suggested, or mimicked, or aestheticized—a mind’s descent into dementia. Across four years and six releases (three of which were double albums), he created music of a very peculiar kind—a kind of psychogeography of the brain, lingering in the space between the metaphorical and the empirical.

The arc across the albums is relatively straightforward. In the early volume, we mostly hear the lightly processed “haunted ballroom” sounds that Kirby has been sampling for the Caretaker since the project’s inception. He named the project in homage to Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining (scenes in the film reference Jack Nicholson’s character as “the caretaker”) and early Caretaker releases alluded to the ghostly music one might hear at the movie’s Overlook Hotel. Sourced from English big band and music hall favorites he found on 78 RPM discs, these tunes are light and sentimental in their original conception, but when presented on a Caretaker release with bits of echo, reverb, and edited disruptions, they are disquieting.

As Everywhere at the End of Time progresses across its six stages, the original tunes become progressively mangled and harder to place. The background noise of the 78s, always a presence, grows, and the hiss and static overwhelm the music, like a flooding basement slowly filling with water. Kirby’s titles reflect the changes the music undergoes—“I Still Feel as Though I Am Me” and “The Way Ahead Feels Lonely” both come from stage two. By stage four the pieces have grown lengthy—20-plus minutes—and one of the titles, “Post Awareness Confusions,” captures the disjointed nature of the sound. We can still hear fragments of the earlier melodies, but now they’re choppy and shuffled. By stage five, “Advanced Plaque Entanglements,” the music is downright menacing, a dark churn of sound with only the briefest pieces of the sweetly nostalgic early songs surfacing, and stage six takes the harsh and foreboding isolationist sound even further.

As a metaphor, one could see the project as insensitive—conditions like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are mental illnesses, after all, and it’s always a touchy thing to portray such things in art. The risk is turning a horrifying condition into entertainment, wielding human suffering as ambient music. Kirby initially said that he was “giving the project dementia,” which added a layer of confusion and, for some, ire.

Late in 2020, the album became part of a meme on TikTok. Beginning in August, some of the platform’s users engaged in the “Caretaker challenge,” whereby they listened to the mammoth work in one sitting and catalogued their responses, moving from creepy to terrifying to a state of oblivion. If you google the Caretaker now, one of the auto-fill options asks if the music can actually cause dementia—that’s because of the success of the TikTok meme. As I write this now, the six-hour YouTube page with all the Everywhere at the End of Time music is closing in on 7 million plays. I’ve seen the suggestion that it’s the most listened-to piece of avant-garde sound since the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.”

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about music with geriatric folks, some of whom have some kind of dementia. Besides my father and my wife’s stepfather, another person close to me has Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve spent hours in a room with this person trying to entertain her by playing old songs to see what she thinks. Sometimes it leads somewhere wonderful, when a particular tune hits and a flood of associations returns. And there’s also a lot of puzzlement.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a wonderful book called Musicophilia about music and the brain. He relays stories about traumatic injuries and aphasia and amnesia and dementia and how people locked inside the prison of their affliction can, with music, escape it momentarily. Most of the stories in his book have to do with playing or singing music, rather than listening to recordings, and some case studies involve accomplished musicians, even professionals. Reading it, I wish Sacks had written more about how music lodges in our brains, how it interacts with memory, how fragments of listening return and how they can comfort us, and also, how they can deceive us.

I think about such things because the intersection of music and memory is something I’ve built my life around, and it’s also the place where I earn a living. When I can no longer remember sounds, where they come from and how they fit together, or how the story of a song or sound descends from other songs and sound, I’ll have to find another way to make money. I think about Ernest Hemingway’s line after he received electroconvulsive therapy, a procedure known for interfering with how memory is stored. “Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business?”

One morning in 2017, I was walking from the C train to One World Trade Center, on my way into the Condé Nast office, where I worked at Pitchfork. It was early. Maybe I was on my way in to write before the workday started, which I did sometimes. But the passage from the subway to the street was almost empty. In the distance I could hear an alto saxophone, played by a musician who frequently performed at this stop. I recognized the tune and realized it was something sampled by the Caretaker. So I was hearing a live rendition of a piece I remembered from a sample placed on a record about memory. It was that hall-of-mirrors feeling, as his horn playing triggered my own dusty recall, crackly and imprecise. I grabbed my phone and filmed him for a few seconds, both to remember this moment, and also because I thought I might write about it someday.

A little over three years later, here I am, doing just that. But now the connection between this saxophone solo and the Caretaker is gone. I can no longer find the piece where I’d first heard the melody, even as I’m listening to the project’s entire catalog. I spend a few hours clicking through tracks to jog my memory, thinking of pieces it might have been—a Johnny Hodges tune, maybe?—but no luck. Eventually I ask some friends, and they’re not sure either. I figure if I can identify the tune this busking saxophonist is playing, I can figure out where it was sampled.

Finally, I get a hit: It’s “Fascination,” which has a decent-sized Wikipedia page showing places it’s been used. But I cannot connect this to the Caretaker. I even email Leyland Kirby to see if he might place it for me, using an old address from when I ordered some of his records. He replies, and says it’s possible that the Mantovani version of the piece appeared somewhere in the garbled assemblage of the 72-track, four-hour 2005 release Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia. I’ve listened to the record, but I know that’s not what I’m remembering. The samples in it are buried under buzz and hiss, and the sound I’m thinking of was pure and easily recognizable. So I have to conclude that a neuron misfired, or some brainwave transmission had scrambled, and my recall, which I’d pegged as dead certain in 2017, had no basis in reality. My brain is getting older. If I listen again in 10 years, perhaps I won’t remember recording the video, as the sound of the horn slips beneath the noise threshold and is subsumed into a churn of crackle and drone.