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Songs in the Key of Life: You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory

A brief programming note: This series was formerly known as The Essentials, but I never quite loved that name, probably because most of what I write about here consists of things I consider essential, so almost every post could fall under "The Essentials." So, cribbing the name of a killer Stevie Wonder album, I'm rechristening this series Songs in the Key of Life, which seems like an appropriate title for the songs I'm writing about here. They're life bringers, these songs.

Johnny Thunders was one of the more important figures in punk's formative years. His buzzsaw-like guitar sound was heavy, dangerous, and fast, plus a huge influence on the wave of punk rock guitarists that followed. What we call the "punk rock sound"—distorted, slashing guitars and sneering, nasally vocals combined with a rhythm section on the verge of falling apart at any minute—can be traced back to proto-punk bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the MC5, the Velvet Underground, and the New York Dolls, to name just a few. As the guitarist for the Dolls, Thunders helped crystallize the sound we would later call punk, and his guitar truly shines on his most enduring, and best, solo outing: the melancholy lament of hard-luck losers everywhere, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory." Not only does the song perfectly evoke the 1970s punk rock ethos, it also stands as a testament to how great Thunders really was when he was firing on all cylinders. Sadly, due to a protracted drug addiction, moments like these were few and far between during his post-Dolls years. The Thunders solo album that contains the song, So Alone, is a masterpiece though, and well worth seeking out.

"You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" unleashes a bracing blast of sound once the full band kicks in after opening with only guitar strumming. It's filled with Thunders' trademark slash and burn guitar work, with short explosive flourishes thrown in between verses. The drums explode out of the speakers (or earbuds) and Thunders shout-sings the chorus in his distinctive nasally tone. This sound, along with Thunders' hopeless lyrics about being alone, combine to create a signature punk rock song. And oh, those lyrics. They're heartbreaking in their matter of fact description of a life resigned to failure.
It doesn't pay to try,
All the smart boys know why,
It doesn't mean I didn't try,
I just never know why.
Feel so cold and all alone,
Cause baby, you're not at home.
And when I'm home
Big deal, I'm still alone.

Thunders' reinforces our perception of him—and 1970s punk rock—with this song. The music he and his peers were making back then was all about feeling outside of society, like losers, and usually about rebelling against that. With this song, Thunders seems to be shrugging his shoulders and giving up. The song was supposedly written for Thunders' friend Fabienne Shine, but it's hard not to see as at least part autobiographical. It certainly fits the public persona Thunders had cultivated during the 1970s, that of the disaffected screw-up who only truly blossomed with a guitar in his hands.

I'd heard the song a few times in the background before the first time I ever really heard it; in other words, the first time the song made me stop and notice. This happened in the theater watching Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. The film is rarely mentioned among the legendary director's best work, but I've always had a soft spot for it. It's easily one of his most bizarre and unforgettable films. I've always thought it would make a great double feature with another of Scorsese's smaller and often forgotten New York films, After Hours. Both movies are about the nighttime dreamscape of the city that famously never sleeps, when all manner of strange things are transpiring on its streets. As he's done for several films, Scorsese used music effectively in Bringing Out the Dead. Scoring the last portion of the trailer and a scene in the film, Thunders' song provides a link to New York's punk rock past in a film with a decidedly chaotic punk rock spirit. In the film, Nicolas Cage's burned-out paramedic working the graveyard shift shares a lot in common with the song's burned-out narrator. They've been beaten down by life and barely even care anymore.

In the song, the narrator's fate is left undecided, but it seems unlikely that he's on the road to salvation any time soon.
Feel so restless, I am,
Beat my head against a pole
Try to knock some sense,
Down in my bones.
And even though they don't show,
The scars aren't so old
And when they go,
They let you know
Those scars, while hidden, are still very real to their wearer. In the chorus, Thunders sounds equally defeated: "You can't put your arms around a memory / Don't try, don't try." Sometimes our memories aren't nearly as tangible as our scars. If Thunders' life hadn't ended in a sordid drug-related death, then maybe the song would be remembered differently. Instead, it's become emblematic of a musician who burned brightly during the New York Dolls' brief time as downtown New York darlings, enough so that he helped birth a genre of music, only to spend the ensuing fifteen-odd years struggling to live up to that early success (and "success" is relative here: the New York Dolls were not financially successful or popular outside of a very small circle of fans, but over time they've only grown in stature and are considered musically important now in a way they never were during their time). But outside of the context of Thunders' sad fate, you can still find some hope in "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory." For me it's always been an oddly comforting song—it acknowledges plainly how sometimes you simply feel unlucky and also saddened by the fading of important memories. The song reminds me that others feel this way too, somehow validating our own feelings and experiences. Maybe the comfort in knowing that will help us get past it. It never really happened for Thunders, but it can for the rest of us.


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