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Monday, November 30, 2009
Updated: December 1, 2:42 PM ET
Smell the memory with music

By Paul Shirley
Special to ESPN.com

It's been said that smell is the strongest sense tied to memory. Of course, the person doing that saying was the voice-over on a commercial for a certain brand of hygienic body spray, in ads meant to convince a television audience that they should want, collectively, to buy a chemical made by Old Spice.

Despite my suspicions that Old Spice Inc. might have been trying to pull a fast one on us, there is evidence to back up the claims of our olfactory prowess. Even if such theoretical evidence didn't exist, most of us have filed away empirical experience that would lead one to believe that our noses have a hotline to our brains. For me, that Bat phone is engaged whenever I smell a particular perfume, the name of which remains unknown to me. I am immediately taken back to a very brief fling I had with a girl in college. I don't know why that perfume makes my brain think so quickly of that girl, but it does, and it happens every time I get a whiff of it.

This column is about music. And for better or for worse, we do not consume music with our senses of smell. Although it might be fun if we did. Imagine if CDs came with scratch-and-sniff stickers. We could be transported to whatever smellscape an artist wanted. Cornershop albums would smell like curry. Jimmy Buffett, like sour mix. The Strokes, like leather, sweat and indeterminate bodily fluids.

Potential value-adds aside, while our senses of smell might get credit for being most effectively hooked into our brains, our senses of hearing hold their proverbial own, especially when exposed to music.

But everyone knows this. Each of us has experienced a memory tied to a piece of music. My statement is hardly a revelation. What I find interesting is when it works the other way around: when something in my life reminds me of a work of music.

I should note that I realize it's possible that this reversal happens only to me. When I searched "things that remind us of songs" on Google, I found very few matches. Switch the causation, and one gets more hits than Rod Carew. (I stole that from the Beastie Boys.) I'm left to wonder, then, if I'm the only one.

Before I begin worrying about yet another personal idiosyncrasy, I should explain what I mean. For me, the phenomenon is often tied to the calendar. At certain times of the year, I have the overwhelming but inexplicable urge to listen to particular albums or songs. For example, around Thanksgiving, on cold, late November days, I need to hear the Counting Crows' album "Recovering the Satellites." It took me a few years to figure out why. At first, I thought I was making a simple lyrics match: the dreary "A Long December" with the upcoming month. But then I remembered the circumstances that surrounded my purchase of "Recovering the Satellites." I was a freshman in college, it was Thanksgiving break, and I was stuck in Ames, Iowa, while my friends and family were all in their respective homes. My insides looked like Helena Bonham Carter in every movie she's done -- hopeless and miserable. As a pick-me-up, I allowed myself to buy a CD. That purchase, obviously, was the Counting Crows' mostly forgettable sophomore release.

There are other examples. Early fall makes me think of "Monster" by R.E.M., because early fall makes me think of drives home from high school that were accompanied by that album. Christmas does not often inspire a desire to hear Yuletide favorites. Instead, it's "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" by the Smashing Pumpkins, because the girlfriend I had when I was 18 made that album my Christmas present.

Jeff Buckley
Hearing Jeff Buckley's "Grace" brings back memories of Barcelona.

Summertime has many links. But perhaps my favorite is the oft-mentioned (but still not fully columned) "The Bliss Album?" by PM Dawn. Whenever June hits and lawn-mowing season is in full swing, I think of the Dawn boys and their song "So On and So On."

The astute reader might say, "Great, Paul. But why do I care?" He or she would be right to ask such a question. I've been known to veer off course. That same reader might also have noticed -- if he wasn't too busy looking at his watch and internally screaming "Get to the point, Shirley!" -- that the reverse memories I have, tying times of year to music, all link back to albums I bought or was given during a fairly brief time in my life: between my sophomore year of high school and my freshman year of college.

The amateur scientist might then draw the conclusion that this time-of-year/album hookup works only for music consumed by an underdeveloped brain. But that's why that scientist would remain broke and unpublished. The expert scientist -- I'm talking Bill Nye-level here -- would dig deeper. He would discover that the important aspect of this memory hookup is not my cranial development, but my limited music collection at the time those albums came into my life.

When I bought "Monster," I may have had eight CDs. When I was given "Mellon Collie" by my high school sweetheart, I probably had 15. When I was a freshman in college, and was depressedly eating Thanksgiving dinner with Iowa State teammates instead of with my grandmother, the count was at 25.

Because I had so few CDs, each new one went immediately into heavy rotation. And because it had often been a very long time since the last new addition, I was tired of all the music I had. So the new arrival stayed in heavy rotation, even if its quality didn't necessarily warrant that longevity. (See: "Recovering the Satellites.")

As my collection grew, it was difficult to maintain such focus on individual albums, meaning that, as I've gotten older, I've had fewer and fewer linkable times and locations. Some important ones have still been frozen into my brain. Whenever I'm in Barcelona, I can't help but want to listen to Jeff Buckley because my brother and I discovered "Grace" when we lived in that city.

But I'm laying down those hookups less often all the time.

My temptation is to write that this news makes me sad. But it doesn't, really. Like everyone, I sometimes long for my more innocent, less fettered days. But that I had fewer albums, and so spent more time with each of them, only meant that I was consuming less music and, therefore, doing very little to find out what I really liked.

That's not to say that I regret the emotional bond I had with some of those albums, or that those albums were necessarily inferior to others of their day. But given the choice, I'll take the hyper-consumption and the ready access of the present over the concentration and hit-or-miss picks of the past.

Deer Tick
Maybe listening to Deer Tick will remind you of a column you read sometime around Dec. 1.

I might have fewer reverse references, but maybe that's the way it should be. Maybe our ability to sound-associate is supposed to be a one-way street; I was able to reverse the field only because my teenaged sense of hearing wasn't as developed as it would one day be.

Think about this: Our genius-level noses have been exposed to smells since birth. Overwhelmed by them, even. By the time we're adults, or even as elder children, our noses are acclimated, making them good judges of smells we like (apple pie, grass clippings) and smells we don't (vomit, The Strokes album of 2031). As such, we aren't given to the impulse to smell something based on the time of year. We never think, "Oh, it's March. I'd really like to smell cinnamon now." Our neuro-nasal skills are too advanced for that.

So, while I might be tempted to think I'd like to go back to a time when I had fewer albums and so gave each of them a more thorough going-over, to do so would be like returning my sense of smell to that of a newborn baby. Sure, the smells are powerful and engaging, but that's because the only ones it knows are placenta and latex.

When it comes to music, I, for one, am glad I've gotten to "smell" as much as I have. Sure, that's meant a few instances of fish guts on a hot summer day (Porno For Pyros' self-titled release, with the exception of "Pets"). But because my senses are open to the bouquet of a wide array of music -- because my collection of music is vast, at least when compared with the one I had when I was 17 -- it has also meant that my hearing is attuned enough that I can recognize the musical equivalent of the smell of high-priced lotion on the skin of a beautiful woman.

Or the raw and effortless "Born On Flag Day" by Deer Tick.

(I don't mean to gloat, but you had no idea I'd be able to bring that around to an album recommendation, did you?)

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.