Conversation recall

Conversation Recall: “Astral Weeks”

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who know what “Astral Weeks” is, and those who don’t. For those in second category, it’s an album by Van Morrison, a legendary singer and songwriter whose career now spans over 50 years.

For those who know what “Astral Weeks” is there are at least three kinds of people in the world: those who haven’t heard it yet, those who have heard it and love it and those who have heard it and don’t love it. Until 2002 I was in the first of these categories. Then three things converged to make me buy it on CD and listen to it: I was given a copy of “Rock: 100 Essential CDs / The Rough Guide” (which recommends it), the chap who gave me that book recommended it, and another woman I know told me I really had to listen to it. They were firmly in the second category (they loved it).

So, for about a fiver, I bought it, and played it on my drive to and from work. (I had a 45-60 minute commute in those days.) I managed to get through it twice but couldn’t give it a third listen. It felt like Van was telling me to say goodbye to Madame George for about a fortnight before the song ended. Spotify tells me that this song has a running time of 9:45 (9 minutes and 45 seconds) but it felt so much longer. So I am in that third category: I have heard “Astral Weeks” and don’t like it.

That autumn “Astral Weeks” came up in conversations with two people who, like me, sing and play a bit. The first was the keyboard player for a legendary 60s pop singer (although he joined the band in the 1970s, after his one big hit). The second person was my brother, who has the voice of an angel and the finger-picking finesse of a guitar god.

In both conversations we agreed about how much we didn’t like the album. My brother and I don’t always agree on music. I like Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, he doesn’t. As teenagers, when we shared a bedroom, I gave up trying to play any repetitive post-punk thrash like The Fall. I had been asked the question “How can you listen this crap?” often enough. So, over two decades later, it was refreshing for me to have a conversation with him about music during which we were in complete agreement.

And the years went by, until in 2010, during some other discussion about music, when we weren’t in complete agreement, he responded to whatever I had said with “Well there’s no point in talking to you about music. You like “Astral Weeks” for God’s sake.” I was speechless. I did that thing that Niles in “Frasier” does, opened and closed my mouth silently, verbally flapping until I could force a few words out. “Like “Astral Weeks”? LIKE “Astral Weeks”? We had a conversation about this. We AGREED on how much we don’t like it. And now you’ve turned that … around … 180 degrees, accused me of the opposite, the complete opposite …”

This was an important conversation for me. I have always been good at conversation recall. I generally remember more from conversations than the other people involved. (I have written elsewhere that Oscar Moore is the only person I have met who had the same level of recall.) I am used to people not remembering what I say (or what they said) during a conversation. It happens. But this was a shock: my brother remembered the complete opposite of what I had said.

The following year we were having a chat about conversations and whether people are listening, about his wife and the “conversations” they might have when she is in the kitchen and he’s coming and going, putting the rubbish out, doing stuff. A week later she’ll ask (for example), “Did you pick up that package we talked about?” “What package?” “That package. You said you’d pick it up.” “When did I say that I’d pick up a package?” “Last week, we were talking about it.” “Did I say that I’d pick up a package?” “Well, no, but I asked you and you didn’t say no.” “But I didn’t say yes.” And so on. It happens all the time, everywhere.

The point of all this was how two participants in a conversation can experience it so differently, as it’s happening, not just in recollection. Sometimes you think that you’re having a conversation, and the other person is listening and will remember what you’ve said. But all the stuff that comes out of their mouth (“Yeah … uh-huh … hmm … right … oh?”) doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re listening.

So I thought that I’d remind him of our earlier discussions.

“Jim. That Van Morrison album, “Astral Weeks”. We’ve had two conversations about it. Tell me, do I like it or do I hate it?” He hesitated. “Uh, you … like it, right?” “Nope. Hate it. We agreed on this, years ago, and then, last year you accused me of liking it.” It has opened up the possibility that in any conversation we ever have he could remember the complete opposite of what I said. And this isn’t just anyone, this is my brother.So, for the record, no, I really don’t like “Astral Weeks”.



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