As an academic, I have long been fascinated by two competing approaches to the past: history and memory. While much has changed about these approaches in recent years, traditionally history has marked a “fixed” description of the past while memory has tended to emphasize the idea that we are choosing our past to represent ourselves in the present. While I found the argument for public memory compelling, I have always thought about it in terms “public.” However, recently I had a very private encounter with my own past in public that made me reconsider how I depict my own past for me.
So, “what does have to do with Counting Crows?” you say. Well, Counting Crows and Matchbox 20 recently finished up a tour with guests Rivers and Rust. As part of our Ticketmaster settlement vouchers, Alix and I had the opportunity to go sit on the grass at the Klipsch Music Center outside of Indianapolis for a night of ‘90s nostalgia, or at least that was what I was expecting.
To take a step back, I have always considered myself a Counting Crows fan. Over the years, Counting Crows, and especially lead singer Adam Duritz, have often been the focus of controversy and ire. For more about it, I suggest Corey Levitan’s great profile in Men’s Health. My Counting Crows fandom is not nearly as central to my identity as my Pearl Jam fandom, but I can still see the CD player in my first car as I cruised to August and Everything After. I don’t know if 16-year-old me knew the person I would grow up to be, but much of the melancholy storytelling of that album was over my head at that time. I just knew that there was something special about that album and it stuck with me.
Throughout the years, Counting Crows have always found their way to me when I needed them. As a December birthday, there have been lonely times when the song “Long December” acted as a theme: “maybe next year will be better than the last.” It was music that I could return to as a space for reflection and scrutiny.
So, I was really excited for my nostalgia-filled evening when something amazing happened. Counting Crows walked onto the stage and the familiar chords of “Round Here” began to play, but it is was not the song I remembered. It had changed. There were lyrics I did not recognize. Music I had not heard. Maybe I was the last person to have this experience (these songs had been changing quite a bit over the past decade), but it was beautiful.
As I stood there in the grass, I could feel that the music and melodies had new emphases that made it difficult to sing along. It is not unusual for a live performance of a song to differ from the track on the album, but those familiar opening notes of “Round Here” eventually gave way to entirely new verses, character reversals, and a new story. It was both unsettling and transfixing.
It really hit me at the line:
Shhh… it’s only in my head.
In the original incarnation, the implication is that Maria, a character in the song, is talking about her own head. However, now it seems as if the illusions and pain are in Adam’s head. The loneliness and isolation are owned by Adam, as he longs for a phone call, a raincoat, a big love, a new car – and more, with pain, anxiety, and angst ringing through the air all around me. When he returns to the girl on the car in the parking lot, it turns out she is desperately reaching out to him. It was him that was the obstacle all along. Instead of ending on the lyric “I can’t see nothing, nothing, round here,” the new version concludes with “Why can’t anybody see me? Why?” I was stunned for a moment and then turned to Alix, “that was awesome.”
Back on my heels, I spent the rest of the concert trying to follow along with the new stories, characters, and melodies that unfolded before me. It was wonderful to hear how the songs I had grown up to were growing up as well. They were more complex and had made different choices than ones that played on that car stereo. Instantaneously, my past was changing in my present and I loved it. I thought about all the times I sang along to these songs, all the times we had shared. Then, I marveled at how different we were and how far we had come with a smile.
Thank you Counting Crows for reminding me that memories change and it is ok that they do. The past is not fixed. It evolves and so do we. Most importantly, we can change it. We can make into something new. We can learn to understand it differently. Sixteen-year-old me is different to me now.