when the music saves us
On Jeff Beck and Macaroni & Cheese
I once read somewhere that given the rarity of its diagnosis, the synesthetic memory is common among memoirists and artists. Last night, teaching my masterclass, I talked about memory, trauma, and the conflation of sound and color, texture and smell, flavor and name. When I smell Aqua-Net, I automatically hear the voice of New York City Mayor (1974-1977) Abe Beame. When I taste an orange, my fingers feel the worn velvet of a stuffed Flipper-the-Dolphin, given to me in 1970 by my father’s best friend and my mother’s paramour on a trip to Fort Lauderdale, which marked the start of my own relationship with this man, a local schoolteacher; I was seven. When I order a slice of pizza — not any slice; a single, Queens-style, greasy slice of the sort with the flaccid tip that drips hot orange oil onto your jeans, and is so hot you wind up with that little piece of skin dangling from the roof of your mouth — I don’t smell hot tomato sauce and cheese; I smell burning shoe leather and I hear the sound of the screeching electric polisher coming from the shoemaker across the street from my apartment, who shared a wall with our local pizzeria. And when I hear Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow — an album he released in 1975 when I was twelve — I feel, under my nails, the faux-stucco walls of the hallway in our apartment building in Forest Hills, and I taste macaroni and cheese, specifically Stouffer’s, in the little aluminum tin.
I found out about Jeff Beck’s death at 78 last night via Patti Smith’s daughter, Jesse, who told a story on Instagram about celebrating her 18th birthday during a 2005 concert her mother was playing, at a festival in London. I’ll let you hop over to her post about it, but suffice it to say: Beck saw Jesse during a complicated night of music and loneliness. I had been teaching for almost three hours, and so I hadn’t heard the news of his death, and when I did, via Jesse, my memory kicked in: Jeff Beck = Blow By Blow = industrial carpet cleaner = Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese.
These are the vagaries and weirdnesses of synesthesia.
I knew nothing of Beck growing up; I started playing guitar seriously at age four, but listened primarily to the music my parents thought I should as a burgeoning musician: Andres Segovia, Doc Watson, Joan Baez, Joe Pass, Al DiMeola, The Beatles, Bert Jansch, Paul Simon (whose brother, Ed, became my guitar teacher in 1976). Any other music — The Partridge Family, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Crosby Stills Nash & Young — came to me by osmosis, wafting out from beneath the doors of our neighbors’ apartments during cocktail hour and dinner parties which, during the 60s and 70s, were beginning to shift in tone. Madmen-style get-togethers were morphing into key parties and partner-swapping, which in turn morphed into drug-addled orgies (there was truth to Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm), which left me very much counting the days until I could get the hell out of Dodge.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Poor Man's Feast to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.