This column originally ran February 2016. We’re reposting it in time for Valentine’s Day.
Music, Movies & Moods is a monthly free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet.
One of my favorite scenes in film history takes place in Rick’s Café Américain. Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa requests the saloon’s piano player, Sam, at her table. “It’s been a long time,” she tells him. “Yes, ma’am,” he says cautiously, trying to stare straight ahead at his sheet music. “A lot of water under the bridge.” After asking about Humphrey Bogart’s Rick and getting little response from his musical confidant, she eases into a coaxing smile: “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake … Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”
As a music writer, it’s difficult not to love the moment that follows. Sitting in a soft glow, Ilsa’s glance lowers in recognition of those first notes. Eyes moist and lips slowly parting, it’s clear that she’s suddenly someplace far away from inescapable Casablanca, a river of fond and painful memories from a lifetime ago flowing through her mind as Sam plinks and sings. Songs have that power to transport us – to unpack the heart’s forgotten or neglected cargo and, in doing so, take us back to places we thought ourselves unlikely to ever revisit. Rick may forbid Sam from playing “As Time Goes By” at the café, but he and Ilsa will always share that song, no matter how many gin joints they walk into or planes out of town they climb aboard. After all, it’s their song.
Last fall, after rewatching Casablanca, I took a walk with my fiancée through my Chicago neighborhood, a light fog fittingly lingering over the sidewalks after an evening rain. “What’s our ‘As Time Goes By’?” I asked, sinking into an over-the-top, nasally Bogey, like Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam. She looked at me confused; she’d never seen Casablanca. “Our song,” I clarified. “What’s our song?” We paused in front of a small family bakery for a moment before she said, “I think it’s that Alanis Morissette one, right?” She hummed it to me, just like Ilsa does for Sam – nothing. We had to look it up online when we got back to my apartment: “Head Over Feet.” “Why is that our song?” I asked. Neither of us knew.
Of course, if you have to ask what your song is, you don’t have one – not a real song anyway. Not an “As Time Goes By”. And it’s not as though you can agree upon one and apply it retroactively. Again, not if you want to be like Rick and Ilsa. It needs to be something you hear early on – maybe while on one of those first few dates – a song you played again and again and fell in love with as you fell in love. Not having a song of our own bothered me. More than a decade of memories together, but no melodic cue, no musical time capsule, no chance to ever whisper, “Listen, they’re playing our song” and whisk each other away to a dance floor we’d never be near anyway because neither of us dances. How does a music critic find his Ilsa but not his “As Time Goes By”?
The answer is depressingly simple. As alike as we are, as in love as we’ve been, we absolutely loathe each other’s music. We’re a pop-culture Oscar and Felix.
A decade ago, if you asked me to tell you about myself, you were liable to leave my company with your arms straining beneath a stack of books pinned under your chin, a few records tucked beneath each arm, and a list of films to check out in your pocket. Like so many men (and maybe women) my age, I spent a great deal of my dating days as an indirect disciple of Rob Gordon’s relationship philosophy from High Fidelity: “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter. Call me shallow; it’s the fucking truth.” And that made sense to me then. A relationship wasn’t just about two people coming together; it was about re-alphabetizing and merging complementary record collections, two like-minded movie libraries filling each other’s gaps, and finding someone else’s margin notes after reaching for a novel from a much larger bookcase. That’s how I pictured it — the Paris we’d always have.
Looking back, maybe Rob offers a useful motto for pop-culture junkies seeking compatibility. Then again, maybe it’s more a buffer — a way to put yourself out there without as much risk. She didn’t reject me; she rejected my record collection … bitch. Either way, early dates with me, including those with my fiancée, were all about informal vetting, especially on movie nights. She lacked the endurance for the Back to the Future trilogy date, gave me suspicious looks throughout The Rocky Horror Picture Show (fair enough), and I didn’t even bother making her cringe through Stop Making Sense. Crucial pop-culture boxes kept going unchecked, but a relationship began all the same. Still, it was clear early on that we liked none of the same things, especially when it comes to music.
We started from the same place — listened to and were spoon-fed the same alt-rock radio growing up — but diverged drastically from there. Me into an obsession with singer-songwriters and just about every ’80s DIY band titling the chapters of Our Band Could Be Your Life. She into a world of J-Rock, visual kei, and bands where all the males wear guyliner. I analyze lyrics; she tries to block them out altogether. I’m the guy who wears the band’s t-shirt to the show; I don’t think she even owns a t-shirt. A few weeks ago, we split an Uber late at night, and “Wonderwall” came on the radio. We both sang along to it — me doing my most obnoxious, drunken Liam sneer and her translating to Japanese on the fly. It was like two kids hearing “Jingle Bells” and singing two different dirty playground versions.
We’ve tried over the years to merge our disparate musical worlds. She politely sat through a Bob Dylan show. I sat in the parents’ balcony at an Escape the Fate concert, at least a decade older than any non-parent there. When traveling through Chicago on business several summers ago, I bought day passes to Lollapalooza, so she could see X Japan play one of their first US shows ever; we only stayed for that one set. And on more than one occasion, she’s endured a romantic gesture being undercut by the sensual sounds of Tom Waits growling like Cookie Monster in the background. I’m not proud of that one.
We bought tickets to see Muse at the United Center last month. It’s one of her favorite bands, and she had never seen them live before. She wore a dress, equal parts Gothic Lolita and Hot Topic school girl punk, and contacts that changed her eyes from darkest brown to sea green. I wore jeans, a plaid button-down, and a patchwork beard that made me look like a poor man’s lumberjack. The concert began: band members ran the length of the arena, seizure-inducing visuals burst non-stop, and even a drone (fashioned from one of those remote-control blimps you see at sporting events) floated overhead. By any measure, it’s the last type of concert I’d want to be stuck at.
But something happened early on in the set. I looked over at my usually reserved fiancée, mouthing every lyric, pumping her fist, and even breaking out the air drums during a couple of songs. She’s a woman run ragged by both the stresses of being a doctor and having a traditional Indian family who can’t understand why she’s marrying a man who is neither Indian nor a doctor — or at least a lawyer if she wanted to slum it. As I watched her escape into that music, I thought about our future. There would be more Muse shows like this one and many nights where she’d chase a Pixar movie with one of her cold-case murder programs. But, in fairness, there would also be more of those Back to the Future marathons and probably even a Stop Making Sense date. For some, love may be about sitting next to someone who loves the same music and movies; for us, it’s just about sitting next to each other, no matter what might be playing. Besides, as I’m learning, when you sit next to Ilsa, the music doesn’t matter all that much.
Maybe one day we’ll find ourselves in a café in 1940’s French Morocco — me in a white jacket and black bow tie, her with artificial green eyes and a punk rock dress — and the piano player will ask if we have a request. I’ll just say, “Play it, Sam.” And should he play an Alanis Morissette song that I don’t even remember, that will do well enough. It won’t be Rick and Ilsa’s Paris, but it’ll be all ours.
In other words, here’s looking at you, kid. She still hasn’t seen Casablanca, but I think she’ll understand.
Happy Valentine’s Day from Consequence of Sound.