Sunday Pages: "Memory"

A song by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Trevor Nunn, and T.S. Eliot

Dear Reader,

Another book by a former Trump insider, another insane revelation. This time, it’s Stephanie Grisham, the Former Guy’s press secretary who never held press conferences, providing an unforgettable detail of life in the White House: To soothe the president from his apoplectic rages, a staffer dubbed “The Music Man” would play songs from Trump’s favorite Broadway musicals, among them “Memory,” the torch song from Cats.

To be fair: that song is soothing. Once upon a time, I sang it almost every night, as a lullaby to my kids. I didn’t even attempt the key changes—I’m no Elaine Page—and there is this weird time signature thing going on that my chanteuse wife—a much closer approximation of Elaine Page—tried in vain to teach me. But when you shelve that tricky stuff, “Memory” is pretty easy to sing. The melody is simple, catchy, hauntingly gorgeous.

In terms of its impact on pop culture, I’d argue that “Memory” is the second most important showtune of all time. Only “Do-Re-Mi,” from The Sound of Music, can top it. And it is no less sublime for being popular. Not everything that sells well sucks. Sometimes, as with the Beatles and Charlie Chaplin and “Stairway to Heaven,” the most popular things really are the best. (I get that musical theater snobs prefer Sondheim, but Andrew Lloyd Webber is the Tom Brady of musicals: we may not root for him, but we have to grudgingly marvel at his greatness.)

“Memory” begins with descending notes that have an incantatory quality, immediately casting a spell. And Trevor Nunn, the alchemist-cum-lyricist, transforms the base metal of Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” into gold. I mean, “Midnight shakes the memory /As a madman shakes a dead geranium” is probably not going to stand the test of time. Nor is this. . .

The moon has lost her memory.
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face,
Her hand twists a paper rose,
That smells of dust and old Cologne,
She is alone

. . . quite as, ahem, memorable as “Has the moon lost her memory? She is smiling alone.”

The song has a setting: the hours between midnight and dawn, a chilly autumn night, a quiet part of the city (maybe it’s London, maybe it’s New York). The singer is awake, alert, contemplating death and age and failure and fading beauty. There is a nostalgic flavor to it, infused like citron in vodka with melancholy, and punctuated by all those ninth chords.

My favorite line in the song, best as I can tell, is Nunn’s own invention: “When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory, too.” On one hand, it’s an aphorism, an obvious one, that belongs in a fortune cookie. On the other, it is deeply profound and bittersweet. (What does Trump think, when he hears that line?)

“Burnt-out ends of smoky days,” meanwhile, echoes these lines, from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot’s magnum opus about coming to terms with middle age and mortality:

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

As LB tweeted out this week, “Memory” is also a favorite of Vladimir Putin. It’s disconcerting, isn’t it, how awful people can love beautiful pieces of music? How can this be? How are Michael Caputo and Tucker Carlson Deadheads? How was Osama bin Laden a Whitney Houston fanboy? How did love of music not make them better people? Or did it make them better?

In any event, I refuse to allow “Memory” to be tainted by Trump and his Russian owner. He’s taken enough away from us. If he wants to hear that song, let him watch the entire movie version of Cats on repeat.

I began writing this before dawn, Dear Reader, and now the sun is rising. Look, a new day has begun!

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Photo credit: Quadratestadt Mannheim. Cats in Mannheim, 2011.