August 15, 2013

The Magic of Alchemy

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 8

Download The Loop Magazine on the App Store.

By Matt Gemmell

I did a back-of-an-envelope calculation recently, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard the album Alchemy Live by Dire Straits more often than anyone else on the planet. I’m reasonably sure I’ve even heard the songs more often than Mark Knopfler has, regardless of version.

My brother and I are what you’d certainly call Dire Straits fanatics. Not a week goes by (and in my case, never a day) without hearing at least a few tracks. We listen and re-listen, and endlessly watch the live gigs on DVD, VHS and YouTube. My iTunes play counts are frightening.

I actually remember the day it all started. I was about 9 years old, and my father came home from another long day at work, selling cars. He brought in some cassette tapes with him from the car and sat them on the table while he got changed. Curious, I asked to listen to them. He saw no harm in that and set one of them up, leaving me alone with the music.

The tape in question was the first half of Alchemy, beginning with “Once Upon a Time in the West.” It took me about two hours to even put the second tape into the hi-fi. I’d discovered what music was going to be for me for the rest of my life.

I insisted on getting copies, and I jealously guarded them from my younger brother—not just for safekeeping, but to preserve the uniqueness of this new thing that my father and I shared. Eventually, of course, I couldn’t help but let my brother listen.

As it turns out, my father (like most people) was only into Dire Straits in passing, and had no idea what he’d accidentally set in motion. Music is like that. It’s of a time, but it’s also of a context. The songs of our youth can explode into our lives with an undreamed-of resonance and remain elevated above other music forever, even if you can’t fully articulate the reasons why.

Those songs are also cursed, as all great-to-you songs are—but none more so than the first. They exist in two forms in our minds. There’s the perfect, overwhelming, as-yet-unlearned virgin experience of them, which is more of an idea than a memory. Then there’s the daily reality, which is never less than comfortable, but which does decay like an overplayed cassette.

Those few songs, those particular songs strike us and immediately begin to condensate—to crystallize. We remember being struck, and we remember a little of what it felt like, but that original high can’t ever quite be recaptured. We play them to remember what it felt like the first time, not to actually re-experience it.

Read the rest of this article by subscribing to The Loop magazine on the App Store from your iPhone or iPad.