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Memories are made of, er, what was it again?

October 2, 2012

…oh yes, this.

I can remember the German words to Sarastro’s aria O Isis und Osiris from the Magic Flute. I really don’t know what they mean, which almost certainly means that I pronounce them like a twerp. (I’m not sure that Martti Talvela’s pronunciation in the linked performance is much better, but he has a voice with an edge sufficient to slice through any such petty objection.)

Conversely, I can’t remember the words to American Pie. Oh I recognise them ok, and always sing along; but really I’m only secure when it gets to the bit about the chevvy and the levee. There are too many verses, to be frank, and apart from knowing, anecdotally, that “The Music” is Buddy Holly, and the song was about his death, it’s not always clear what’s going on in them there lyrics. So recalling them in the correct order doesn’t seem too important.

More structured are the words to Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire. It’s just a catalogue of events and cultural references in recentish history, each represented by no more than 5 words (and on this link by a fantastic visual montage). Thus the opening line:

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray…

Yes, of course I had to look it up.

There are 35+ such lines, and about 120 items. How the Sam Hill (good ol’ Sam) does he remember them all?

Probably it helps that he wrote them, though from personal knowledge I can promise you that that guarantees nothing. In the lyrics sheet to the album (which I owned on cassette, so I couldn’t possibly read the print now, anyway; has that happened to Billy?), the words are separated by headings giving the years or decades. I guess that may help too.

Perhaps he manages to use a cumulative memory technique like “My Grandmother went to market and in her basket she had…”. There’s a logical order to the words which might also assist.

Maybe he has them written out for performance.  I noticed last week that John Lydon, in Public Image Limited’s first TV performance for 20 years, seemed to be referring to notes… Then, he did have a Rotten cold.

Compare that, however, to Tom Lehrer’s song The Elements. Except for the genius closing couplet, in which Lehrer rhymes “Harvard” with “discovered”, it is nothing but a list of all the elements in the periodic table (even including the Lanthanides and the Actinides) to the tune of Modern Major General. Simply brilliant – how much work did it take to fit them all in? And how much more to repeat them in the right order, given that they are not in any sequence that makes sense to chemistry.

Well, it can be done – and it’s a wizard party trick.


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  1. Never underestimate the powers of la la las to buffer the gaps between long forgotten words. Simon and Garfunkel do it a lot.

  2. Fiona permalink

    NORTH KOREA SOUTH KOREA MARILYN MONROE (i remember that bit by heart oooo)

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