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And if he said “yes,” or “most of the time,” I’d ask Solti to describe the music. A tricky passage from the coming weekend’s program? Or maybe a cheap tune he remembered from his high school days in Budapest?
Did Solti always have the upper hand on the music that no one heard but himself? Could he always control what it was? Or was he like the rest of us? Were there triggers he was powerless to control that shooed away the masters in favor of some inane Hungarian novelty from his childhood? Did he sometimes wonder if he was crazy?
I'm fully loaded with these tunes, and it amazes me that they're all back again on YouTube, a double-edged godsend I can no more afford to abuse than hydrocodone. Every time I've looked for one it's been there, some random jingle I hadn't heard in years except when some memory, some name, some mood, made it go off inside me. Topsy II is as exciting as it ever was. When Cozy Cole pounds the drums I'm back in high school in the autumn of my senior year, hanging out at the teen town in the cafeteria. I remember not only what everyone looked like but almost where everyone stood! I know who danced with me. I can name names.
But most are just silly mementos of bygone days that won't get lost. Like this bouncy number, which embedded itself in my life in grade school. I’m not sure why, but it's linked forever with the concourse that circled the hockey arena in Sudbury, Ontario, which is where I worked one winter, selling peanuts and popcorn for a dime and earning a penny a bag. One kid who needed the pennies more than I did outsold me three to one, and he was always assigned the central sections where the big spenders sat. I had an adjacent section one night, and someone on his side of the common aisle wanted peanuts. He was under the stands refilling. So I made the sale, and he emerged just in time to spot me. You can’t do that, he said quietly, and when I signed out after the game and went out the door of the concession office, he was waiting. He hit me once as hard as he could and then we were friends. And whenever I think of that little parable, I hear “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane.” I bet I haven’t heard it on the radio in 50 years.
What's the word for the hold these old tunes have on us—is it nostalgia? Are we longing for a simpler, better time? Speaking for myself, I don’t think so; because that time wasn't better, or even simpler; desire, when it came, was hopelessly infused with dread. But I want from my life what everyone wants, narrative coherence. And to get it, we manipulate the pieces of our lives until they tell an edifying little story. The music is our handle on the pieces and that's all it is, but that's plenty.
The parable that best says what I'm trying to say is one I heard from Studs Terkel. I shared it here when Studs died four years ago, and I’ll repeat it now.
Studs said he'd run into an old buddy, Eddie, on the street. Eddie was glowing, and Studs asked about his good fortune.
"Ahh, Studs," he said. "I met this amazing woman. She's half my age, but she likes me, God knows why, and she's got me going places and doing things I haven't done in years. She's beautiful, she's smart, she's passionate, she laughs at my jokes, and I'm just the luckiest guy in the world."
"Eddie, you got it comin'. Enjoy every minute, my friend," said Studs, who knew Eddie's life hadn't been easy. They parted, and several months went by before Studs ran into him again. This time Eddie didn't look so good.
"How's that romance?" asked Studs, and Eddie shook his head. "It's over, Studs," he said. "I had to let her go."
"Aw, hell, that's a shame," said Studs. "So she wasn't what she cracked up to be?"
"It isn't that," Eddie said. "She's sweet, she's affectionate, she's the best thing that ever happened to me. But Studs— "
"What was it, Eddie?"
And Eddie continued, sadly, "She doesn't know the songs."
Every conductor of every age knows Strauss and Mahler. Did Solti also have his songs, the cheap, potent music he had no way to forget and could no more deny than himself?