The Song Was You


A Meditation on the Welding of Music to Memory — And Memory to Pain

The Song Was You

Guy Maddin
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Music operates in occult ways. Not even Alfred Hitchcock and his composer Bernard Herrmann could have known exactly what they were doing during their mystical collaboration on Vertigo, their most perfervidly incantatorial shadowplay. When the great channeler Herrmann looked up Wagner on his Ouija board, he never could have known he’d end up pumping so much unleaded Liebestod into Jimmy Stewart’s gas tank, nor what queer mileage would be unspooled in Hitch’s rear-screen projections as a result.

The first score for 1928’s Un Chien Andalou was supplied by Luis Buñuel himself, who deejayed his favorite 78s from behind the curtains of the Cinema des Ursulines in Paris. He sloppily synchronized Beethoven, Wagner, and various scratched-out tangos in obedience to the surrealistic belief that randomness offered access to the subconscious. Whatever penetration he made into our irrational spheres was aided immensely by the powerful thrusts of those recordings, some of them classical chestnuts half-buried in the opiating murk of wine spilt in the grooves, and some of them of vague Spanish origin, as oneiric as the womb.

Music draws us into film, and then it draws us someplace still further away. Corridors traversing our movie-viewing experience will yawn open of a sudden and detour us toward the deathly source of all that is lyrical. Down these resounding hallways we trudge, perhaps toward a seashore, until from a distant Muscle Beach Party we hear some surf—or surf music—and we conclude that what Dick Dale and his Del-tones have always played is just klezmer on Stratocasters. Onward we move into this invisible architecture, through space and across centuries if necessary, pursuing we know not what, until we find it.


Driven by morbid fears remembered from childhood, I hear ahead of me the Mills Brothers singing “Cab Driver.” Doo-doo-da-doo. Doo-doot-doo-da-doo… A few more steps down the breezeway and I cross the threshold into the darkened living room where my father lies on the Chesterfield listening to the record player.A few embers are visible in the blackness—those of my dad’s cigarette and the amp overheating in its console. I know he wears an eye patch and a wristwatch. His face is a smudge of shadow, and there’s no way it’s happy. This room is the scene of great dread, where my father will die, I bet.

As I stand here, I can’t even recall how many years I’ve been ruled by panic, by superstitions as unrepealable as the Commandments. I know my father is going to die and only I can prevent it. The prevention of his death is a full-time job. I’m on duty now, bent on correctly reading all the fatal portents offered up in every routine event of the day. The passing of an auto, the ringing of a doorbell, the cutting of a potato, the tossing of a newspaper—all are cryptically inscribed with my father’s death date, a place on the calendar waiting to be decoded and braced for. The world cannot help but reveal this unbearable information to me in every sound, sight, and smell. I dread the hieroglyphic obit-in-advance carved in the very air before me.

I keep my father alive—even though he is not helping matters with his constant listening to the Mills Brothers—by carefully and desperately sorting through all the data pertaining to other men, all the necrological pronouncements cruelly hurled down at me by chirping birds, bending boughs, etc., until I recognize my own dad’s death sentence among these harbingers. (All are perfectly visible to anyone else who cares to see them, if they’re worried about their own fathers!) Then willfully must I somehow contrive not to see this one especial decree, freshly discerned. If in the sight of a leaping cat or a delivered lawn mower I chance upon the truth, I must cross my eyes inwardly,mentally,to blur what I have just seen, to refuse to open the little tomb-heavy telegrams continually sent my way.

By blurring the truth, in this dangerous room dominated by the ever-ailing Mills Brothers—meet Herbert, Donald, Harry, and John—I cannot only repel the delivery of bad news but temporarily delay the actual news-generating fatality, the heart attack that will take the Jasper I love. I’ve been doing it for years. But I must be vigilant to keep my music-listening, smoking, eye-patched father alive. No matter how good I’ve become at maneuvering through this booby-trapped world, I know it will only take one slip-up (an orgasm at the wrong time, say) and he’ll be gone.


I fell in love once.The music I listened to out in that love-world became welded to my new cherished sweet young thing, and the musical time I spent with her and not with my father in the Mills Brothers room sent me into free fall, an unforgivably irresponsible plummet. When I finally recrossed the inky paternal threshold, heartsick with rejection, and passed into the incessantly fatal honeys of the Brothers’ “Paper Doll,” smoke clogged the music room, as if my presence had been needed to ventilate the place. The ashtray was over-mounded, aglow with embers as well.

Why is “Lemon Tree” so resistant to my delaying tactics? Perhaps because my inner sight organs, my mind’s eyes, don’t obscure their messages. Sweetly sing the Mills Brothers, audio auguries as deadly as lethal injection. Smoking upon his upholstered catafalque, Father mocks his fate by listening to this cardiopulmonarily plagued quartet as they die on the installment plan. One Mills Brother passed on before the group was really famous, while another was said to have dropped suddenly—oh, how I hate “suddenly”!—in more recent years. (Did they all smoke as much as my father does?) Yet another is under doctor’s orders not to travel, or not to sing, or not to sing while standing. Still, what’s left of them soldier on, harmonizing excessively, morbidly sweet, all the soul scared out of them by death, all the art boiled out by nostalgia catching up with them at the ends of their lives.They are wheelchair-bound, stricken, gangrenously maimed—so my father tells me. I’m not even sure how many brothers you would have if you consolidated what’s left of them into whole brothers. They are ragged musical taxidermy, and their songs are as the lowering of a casket. It is in this hi-fidelity chamber that they mean to kill my father.

Yes: My father is dead. I just remembered. Died years ago. The Mills Brothers caught up with him at the lake. No surf tunes there. Some waking misery made the death-embrace of his favorite music preferable to the love his family could offer.And I was drawn not only to witness the unthinkable event, but forced—by the memory of its too-sweet score—to restage it over and over. Finally all dead, the Brothers now limp and roll through the insoluble labyrinths of melody. Please let me stay lost in here, among the irrational, the impalpable, and the intuitive, where hearing is everything. ✯

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