Music is Memories

I stabbed Lisa Penfold to life some time in the pre-dawn hours of December 19, 2015. It happened with startling speed but without premeditation or remorse. Afterward my hand returned to the steering wheel and my eyes stared through the windshield at a dark, empty, otherwise forgettable stretch of highway. My mind, however, remained frozen on the vivid image of Lisa’s soft, pastel face, and her slight, vulnerable frame.

I know what triggered the attack. My index finger was stabbing quickly at the radio’s seek button when "Islands In the Stream" penetrated my ears, triggering Lisa to awaken from her 30-year dormancy in my mind. As with the smallpox virus, I believed the last remaining copy of “Islands In The Stream” had been sequestered. I believed debates were ongoing for its incineration so nothing would remain of it but horrific stories of personal suffering, and painful memories of tragic dates. I believed future generations were spared the same suffering my generation experienced when that song spread across America, in the summer of 1983, like a total eclipse of the heart.

I believed wrong.

"Islands In The Stream" has not been eradicated and it is transmitted through contact with the lower frequencies of the FM band. It is still infecting and inflicting memories. When it penetrated the cold shell of my Jeep and contaminated the warm air within, it struck me like a fever dream and placed me—with hi-fidelity detail—on Lisa’s bed. There we lay, innocently, doing her algebra. Or was it just I doing her algebra while she got ready for a date?

Lisa and I met in Minot, North Dakota. The Air Force brought us together. I wore the chevrons of an Airman First Class, she was the daughter of a career Air Force enlistee. I was a steady friend to Lisa through the spring, summer, and fall of 1983 while she stuttered through a series of bad relationships. My goal was to become the boyfriend I felt she deserved. My role was to entertain her between relationships and help her with algebra. If cleverly blending words into nicknames had been popular in 1983 I would have been labeled her alge-bro. If we kissed, it was as friends. If we kissed, I would remember.

Lisa was 5’ 5” tall and model-thin. When she laid on the sun-warmed concrete at the pool the elastic waistband of her bikini spanned her pelvic bones without contacting skin. She was neither sickly nor toned. She maintained her form on a diet of bummed cigarettes and Mountain Dew. Lisa’s frosted hair rolled back from her face as if she were forever facing a gentle breeze. Her high cheek bones were raised further with slashes of ruddy blush. Her lips were glossed pale rose. Her eyelids were dusted peacock blue blending to imperceptible pink. It was a soft, delicate look for a young woman I regarded as soft and delicate.


Until “Islands In The Stream” brought Lisa back into my consciousness she existed only—for me—as exposure number one on an old strip of 35mm film preserved in a pumpkin-colored binder, and as an entry in my pilot log that records the day I took her flying and took her picture. She crosses my mind more frequently now and other memories from that time tag along with each of her visits. It’s not that I pine for her—be careful trying to bring the past back to life—but I welcome my memories of her as well as the memories that accompany her.

”Islands In The Stream" caused Lisa to lunge forward in my mind to reintroduce herself but other—mostly forgotten—people from that time of my life presented themselves as well. They weren’t forgotten because they were forgettable; they were forgotten because for thirty years other people crowded in front of them. One other person with whom I was reacquainted is my roommate at that time, Glen (his last name escapes me now). Glen was 26 years old to my 19. He was from New York City (more accurately, Queens) and wore a perfectly tailored New York ego. He would leave a $20.00 tip at Pizza Hut to impress the waitress. He and I regularly campaigned our sports cars on the Broadway Street-Oak Park-Roosevelt Park cruising circuit but that ended when he noticed my red Triumph TR6 garnered more attention than his brown (brown!) MGB. He dated Lisa for a brief period and, like all the others, let her down. When he did I was there, her alge-bro, to see her through the few days or weeks she needed to attract the next hormone-driven bad boy. Lisa was a sweet, young woman with a taste for bold, young men.

"Music is memories," Stevie Wonder said, while recalling his friendship with singer/songwriter Prince, who passed away the day after I began writing these words. Stevie's comment reinforced what most of us already knew—even if we never gave it thought—and provided a title to this essay. Specific memories can be conjured and nurtured through the direct application of music. Sometimes the memories we’ve woven into the melody and lyrics of a song are unwelcome. Sometimes, as I found with “Islands In The Stream,” an unwanted song can surprise us with a wanted memory. I’ve also found that through the careful manipulation of time, place, and perspective a song can be assigned a new memory. I've repurposed a number of songs that are just too good to skip when they begin to play.

As do I, you possess an unwritten playlist titled “My Life’s Soundtrack.” It resides in part in your album collection, in your box of mixtapes, and in your iPod, but it is archived in full—with personalized liner notes and cover art—in your memory.

I shuffle the songs on my iPod more frequently now to coax memories from the dusty shelves of my mind. I stab hopefully at the radio’s seek button, unsure of—and excited about—who may push forward from the crowd of people in my mind. I’m more conscious of the songs I’m adding to the soundtrack of my life as I experience new people and new places. I feel no remorse for having stabbed Lisa to life.