Twenty-nine years ago today I got married. Looking back to that year—1985—I wanted to pick a song that would’ve been current in my world. Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising was released in January of that year, and I feel pretty certain I knew it by March. I admired much of the previous year’s Zen Arcade, a double album with a number of tracks that revealed a great melodic sense and a cranked-up, distorted sound. New Day Rising likewise included songs that are raucous, with an energy and oddity that are their best features. But there are also songs that are lively and bouncy. It’s a great jolt of an album, particularly the first side.
“Perfect Example” ends that side and is the one I chose to commemorate today because it’s the song that stuck in my craw at the start of my acquaintance with the album. This was the period of getting to know the first two R.E.M. albums where quasi-mumbled words were often the norm. That quality may be what recommended this song to me so much. But the key factor was the way Bob Mould delivers the lines: “A perfect example is / All the things it’s done to me / I think I may lose my mind, / But not my memory”—which gets twisted around a bit—then “it means a lot to me,” as a kind of sotto voce self-reflection. That’s the kind of sentiment I could easily get behind and the delivery, barely what you would call sung, made the feeling all that more effective.
The song is a kind of enigma, if you like. What is “it” and if it is the “perfect example,” what is it a perfect example of? “I never look back at it / But it’s always in front of me / It’s always worth the hurt / But I know it’s hurting me / I’ll never let go of it / Because it’s all that’s going for me / I’ll put it in the past / When the past is history.”
I said at the outset that I’m posting about this song because it was contemporary with my wedding day. Already, as I’ve said before, the theme of time (and memory as an aspect of time) was becoming a certain burden of consciousness, as I lived it at the time. My wife and I already had almost six years together by March of 1985, so part of what I thought of as the memory I wouldn’t lose was the experiences of that time. Losing one’s mind, in the sense Mould might mean it, may not have been in the offing, but I might say that the point is that you can lose your mind—the very sense of consciousness I’m talking about—but not the memory. I doubt Mould had a philosophical point in mind, but to me the idea, which I’ll hold to, is that memory is what makes identity. You remain yourself because you remember who you were. Even madness may not take that away. In fact, remembering may drive you mad.
|Grant Hart, Greg Norton, Bob Mould|
Which is why it’s interesting that he says “I never look back at it, but it’s always in front of me.” It’s a state that, once begun, continues indefinitely—into the uncertain future, always still ahead. “Worth the hurt,” we might say everyone says about love, but to admit that it continues to hurt, or do harm, is not too typical, and I could apply “I’ll never let go of it, because it’s all that’s going for me” to a number of things—which kind of gives the lie to the idea of “it’s all I’ve got going,” so maybe that right there is the kind of delusion that indicates a loss of mind? Anyway, “when the past is history” is a cool swerve on the saying that something is “history” (as in, no longer current) because what he has going for him is the past (or memory), and the point at which that past—all that’s going for him—is gone, is history, is the point at which you can let go or at least say it’s done.
There’s a marker of time as this song means it when the song hits a point where it seems to be no longer progressing, stuck in a repetitive passage that is marked by unintelligible muttering from Mould as though he’s in some kind of hebephrenic funk, trying to figure out what he was talking about. Losing his mind, but not his memory.
Twenty-nine years, and six before that. “A perfect example is.” Do you remember?