Memory Playlist

By Lavinia Greenlaw


For a long time I regularly found myself travelling towards and away from my father, who had Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. What I found of him when I arrived was always different. His disintegrating memory would turn up islands where he would rest for a while. He might be flying Spitfires (as he did during his National Service) or working as a doctor in Camden Town (the Sixties). As his illness progressed, he lost language, image and narrative. He was always pleased to see me but he was in another country. We both knew that I did not belong there and that he could not come back, which created an unbearable gulf between us.
The journey from East London to Oxford could take twice as long as it should. The music I listened to on those journeys was a strange mixture of things that might console him and things that might (in the most surprising ways) console me.

Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? – Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday
My father loved to sing and dance. He was in a church choir, a madrigal society, a barber-shop quartet. When a singer performed at his care home, he got eagerly and unstoppably to his feet to duet on Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’. He did this as confidently and casually as an old crooner in a hotel bar even though he didn’t know the song.
This is a recording of Louis Armstrong in performance. He sings a couple of verses to a ho-hum crowd who seem to be chatting and drinking and not paying attention. It’s all a bit slack and then we hear a smattering of applause as someone else takes to the stage. No one has recognised this woman but they all do as soon as she starts to sing. Her voice tells everyone who she is. The crowd go wild.

You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To – Helen Merrill
The frail but insistent hopefulness of her voice and the relaxed pace and crisp arrangement would have had my father dancing round the kitchen and probably making me dance too. Clifford Brown on trumpet. Produced by Quincy Jones when he was 21 years old.

Call The Doctor – JJ Cale
I was a punk so kept my liking for JJ Cale to myself. My hippy brother played him constantly and he became a late-night fixture in our home. If we put on a record that had something my father recognised about it – jazz, folk, blues – he would appear, tapping his foot and attempting to sing along.

Hurt in Your Heart – John Martyn
We liked to go for long walks in the rain. We didn’t talk but we were having a kind of melancholy conversation.

Cosmic Dancer – T.Rex
I used to visit my father at his surgery in Camden Town and glimpse my teenage future in the youths wafting around in glitter and feather boas. But we left the city, and glam went all pop and homely. All the same this is me aged ten, young enough to think I could metamorphose into anything and remembering how my father relished the variety of his world.

Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair – Alfred Deller
He often sat alone listening to music, just as I did upstairs in my room. I came to love much of what he loved. I’d never have thought I’d enjoy a classical take on the songs I learnt round the camp-fire but then I never thought I’d take up gardening either. Deller’s precision pares this song right back.

Rainy Night in Portland – Watty Burnett/Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
Those journeys in my father’s last years could be so painful that I needed big sounds. I played a lot of the dub I used to listen to in the early 80s when I lived near Dub Vendor in Clapham Junction but I’ve chosen this track because ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ is one of the songs with which I used to sing my daughter to sleep.

The Light Pours Out of Me – Magazine
Leaving my father got harder knowing that he wouldn’t remember I’d been there. I needed propulsion, abrasion, insistence. Here it all is.

My Life’s Alright Without You – No Age
Although this is not from the distant past of my adolescence, it is the exact sound of the surly, lassitudinous daughter I became for a while. It’s a small sound that can’t contain itself. Both he and my mother were annoyingly tolerant.

Need You Now – Hot Chip
There are songs I cannot resist however sad I feel and this is one of them. It came out in the last months of my father’s life and I played it often on those journeys. It has just the combination of joy and pain I needed to get me home.

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