Posts Tagged ‘presence’

Memory, Presence and the Present

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Janis Joplin performing in San Jose in 1968. (Photo by Jim Marshall)

History changes with time. Views of the past are said to be products of the era in which they are examined, and  I think this is also true on a much smaller scale: how we, as individuals, understand the world at any given moment.

From time to time, I will revisit something—a recording, an artist, a piece of literature—to see if I still dislike it. Occasionally I change my mind. Why? Just as our understanding of historical events changes because of where we sit, so, too, does our take on specific examples of culture because of the time in which we live or the experiences we’ve accumulated over the years.

Last night I decided to do the opposite of my usual exercise—rather than wanting to check on whether something was as “bad,” as I remembered it, I wanted to verify that I was holding onto a memory that still resonated with who I am now. When I was in 9th grade, Janis Joplin returned to Austin, Texas after a long absence to give a concert. My remembered experience places the performance among the best I’ve ever seen. That is saying a lot—I see live music as often as I can, though it feels more and more like “I’ve heard that already.”

A music blog I was reading recently included a link to two clips of Joplin performing during the last years of her life on the Dick Cavett show. She goes from being interviewed (about 2 minutes in) to a stage with her band and inhabiting the songs in a way that most musicians can only dream of. Her official recordings—mostly done in a studio—do not reflect the amazing transformation that took place on those television studio stages. As I had only these albums as touchstones, I began to doubt the validity of my experience. I am happy to report that the videos I saw eliminated any doubt about my memory of the concert I attended.

It occurs to me I was also confirming something about myself. We accumulate a wealth of core experiences throughout our lifetime, and these things contribute to defining who we are. There was something about the honesty and directness of Joplin’s performance that made me realize how important it is to remember what is possible in a world defined by the status-quo. It takes courage and commitment to get to magic. Maybe we should reprise the slogan “Be Here Now.”

Excuse me, I have to sign off now. I’ve got to watch that video again.


Check out the book Trust: The Photographs of Jim Marshall.