November 1, 2015

That Crazy Music Inside


Back in 1997, I interviewed a medical researcher working out of an abandoned wing of Beth Israel Hospital here in Manhattan. It sounds like something that could have had some seriously sinister overtones, but he was just looking into a new treatment for Alzheimer’s patients known as Snoezelen therapy. Although it had been used extensively throughout northern Europe for the previous decade, it was still new to the States, where it was being greeted with suspicion and derision by the medical community. Basically the idea was that if you subject dementia patients to a controlled and pleasant sensory overload—twinkling lights, lava lamps, different textures and smells and familiar music, it could trigger memories and create new and viable neural pathways.

            To this end he had set up a side room with a couch, lots of Christmas lights, a couple of lava lamps, some tall bubble towers, assorted children’s toys with moving parts, koosh balls, carpet samples, incense and perfume and a stereo system.

            He told me a few stories about his mild successes, patients who came into his Snoezelen room and left an hour later slightly more alert and responsive. The effects, he admitted, were not permanent, and in fact tended to fade away pretty quickly after the patients left the room and returned to some gray and featureless nursing home, but you take what you can get.

            Of all the responses he described, the most remarkable ones always seemed to be in reaction to music. A familiar piece of music seemed to touch people much more deeply than the bubble tower or the Christmas lights did. He’d been told by family members that one patient who had virtually no memory and was almost completely catatonic had always loved big bands. One wall of the researcher’s office was filled with hundreds of CDs of every imaginable style of music, so he brought the man into his Snoezelen room and put on the Glen Miller Orchestra. Almost immediately, he said, the man brightened up, and suddenly this guy who barely spoke at all anymore told him a long, detailed, and quite coherent story about his first date with his future wife back in 1943, when they’d gone to hear Glen Miller play at a ballroom in Times Square.

            It seems that reaction was no cheap fluke, because when he took me into the Snoezelen room to show me the setup and put on a Ramones album, I found I could suddenly remember what I’d had for breakfast that morning (though I was a little curious as to how and why a Ramones album would make its way into a collection of music aimed at elderly dementia patients).

            It makes sense right? We’ve all recognized this—hear a piece of music you like, and you immediately connect it with some time or place or circumstance where you heard it before. More so than smells or visuals or any other sensation, music seems inextricably intertwined with memory.

            Okay, jump ahead now to last weekend. Morgan and I watched a 2014 documentary called “The Music Inside”, or “Alive Inside” or something along those lines (can’t remember now, ironically enough), which focused on a nursing home volunteer with no medical training whatsoever who had discovered the same thing about music and Alzheimer’s cases. Play them a piece of music they once loved, and almost miraculously they seemed to come alive again, people who’d barely moved or spoken in months becoming lucid and energetic.

            The argument behind the film was that providing nursing home residents with iPods was a cheaper and much more effective form of therapy than simply keeping them sedated and docile with mountains of anti-psychotic pills. It seems an easy and logical course of action, but it turns out the nursing home, medical, and pharmaceutical industries all had too much invested, too many economic interests at stake, to ever even consider veering away from the established set-up. There was too much money to be made, especially with the population getting older all the time.

            The core of the film, though, was the footage of patient after patient being presented with a piece of music that meant something to them at some point. A woman who said she could remember nothing about her childhood suddenly told a long story about the night she and her sister snuck off to see Louis Armstrong perform after her mother had warned them not to. Another woman clutching tightly to the handles of her walker casts it aside and starts dancing when she hears salsa music. A man who one minute can’t remember his own children becomes his old self again after hearing Cab Calloway.

            It got us thinking. In the event either one of us ended up all drooly and demented, it might be a good idea now to start putting a couple of personalized playlists together.

            “Oh, just play me a bunch of Mentors records and I’ll be fine,” I told her.

            But then something else occurred to me. Even if the music in question did trigger clear and detailed memories long thought gone forever, I’m not exactly sure what an outsider—the nursing home staff, for instance, would make of them.

            Here’s a trial run. Without citing the specific musical triggers in question, here are nevertheless the memories they might inspire. See if you can guess what song, album, or artist I’m talking about!


  1. “First time I saw him he was seven feet tall and wearing a crocodile eyeball pin. Then the next time he was a little elf with big ears. Moved like the wind, he did. Never knew when he was gonna show up, just all of a sudden there he was. He had five different skulls!”
  2. “It was about three a.m. on a summer’s night in 1987. I told him about the lesbian bar next door, but he just shook my hand and called me a real American. Then he walked off down the sidewalk with this six foot blond. Fat as he was, his Hawaiian shorts were still too big and kept falling down. There was this drunken crazy Indian woman there too, but everyone just drove off without her. Grinch and I still had to get that caboose chimney out of there. Yup, he was the greatest poet of our times.”
  3. “The box was silver and blue, and I really liked it. What box? None of your goddamn business!”
  4. “That night he carved some guy’s chest open with a broken whiskey bottle and caved in the back of some girl’s skull with a mic stand. He maced a roomful of people once, and used to eat his own shit. Stank to high heaven, that guy. He was quite possibly the greatest entertainer of the past century.”
  5. “I used to play this one on cold winter mornings and sit in front of the heat vents along the floor until my back was red and blistered.”
  6. “PUSH HER DOWN! SHE’S GONNA SPILL THE BEER! Ha ha ha ha ha! Why don’t you go out and get me some money?”
  7. “When I was a lad, nothing said Christmas quite like ‘Helter Skelter.’”
  8. “Now you have your peanuts, and now you’re happy.”
  9. “I remember listening to this late one night. Then the giant white wolf stuck his head through my window and the aliens landed in the back yard.”
  10. “The bedspread was thin and nubby. Later that night the kid in the bed next to me went into the bathroom and cut himself up with a broken mirror. They told me it didn’t concern me, and wouldn’t let me shave the next morning. Fifteen years later, Guy died. Why did you have to play this goddamn song? Get the hell out, you monster!”
  11. “She told me everyone there was laughing at me because I was wearing sneakers. Then she stuck my hand in the potatoes. She was a fucking pig’s ass.”
  12. “I was laying on the mattress on the floor, and there were giant black ants swarming all around me. That’s when the werewolf was living in the apartment next door. Later, though, it would always be Guy, y’know?”
  13. “We were carrying bright yellow blank placards, and we really meant it. The cops didn’t know why we were there, or why they were there, or who they were supposed to be protecting from us. Neither did we, but I guess that was kind of the point. The FORM of Protest! Without the CONTENT! The FORM of protest! Without the CONTENT!”

            Yeah, thinking about it now maybe it would be best for everyone just to keep me on those massive doses of anti-psychotics.


KEY: (1. Any Residents song 2. “Woman from Sodom” by The Mentors 3. Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” as conducted by Pierre Boulez 4. Any G.G. Allin song 5. Sinatra and Strings 6.The Beatles “White Album” 7. Any Swans song 8. “Pseudo Erotica” by David E. Williams 9. “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group 10. “On the Nickel,” by Tom Waits 11. “Moonlight Serenade” by the Glen Miller Orchestra 12. “Monster Walks the Winter Lake” by David Thomas 13. “Nothing” by the Fugs)


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