Faber Social present: David Keenan on music and memory

Faber Social is the unerringly cool arm of London’s Faber & Faber publishing house. Over the coming months we will be featuring exclusive essays, extracts and articles from some of their finest authors.

Keenan’s novel, This Is Memorial Device, a love letter to small town heroes, follows the eponymous fictional band – the greatest Airdrie had ever seen – over three short summers in the late ‘70s before they crashed and burned. Encapsulating the highest dreams of a landlocked vortex, the mythic band epitomised the DIY post-punk culture of the times where anything seemed possible and everything was up for grabs.

Here Keenan distils the idea that music can preserve a moment in time for the listener – and the arresting power this imbues it with.

What Cannot Be Imitated, Perfect, Must Die: Music & Memory

My novel, This Is Memorial Device as the title suggests, deals with the workings of memory, as well as with music, and how the two relate. “Can music preserve a moment in time?” a character named Dominic Hunter asks. “Can it keep it young forever?” In time music becomes a ghost, the spirit of a time and place, always returning. Ghosts defend their territory. They scare off intruders and they preserve the moment as it once was forever. My record library is haunted.

Your identity as a music fan can often restrict the scale of the passage from here until then. So-called good taste can cut you off from the possibility of time travel. I think of some of the music that transports me or, more truly, transports a moment. Perry Como singing “It’s Impossible” is forever a carefree summer afternoon in an estate in the East End of Glasgow in the mid-1970s. Don Black and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tell Me On A Sunday is a dreary 1980s Sunday in Airdrie with an ironing board in the corner. “I Won’t Let You Down” by Ph.D. is a death in a hospital. We are sabotaged in our attempt to put together our own memories as we would have them. Music disrupts any easy chronology, we are as haunted by demons as we are angels.


Music’s power is invasive, it is magic, in its deepest manifestation. It invades the body, it sets up little vibratory vortexes that alter its make-up and, I fancy, establishes forlorn abeyances that forever hunger for its return. What else is that pang in your heart when a song, unbidden, removes you from your current situation with a little whimper or a rush of euphoric sadness? We could be overthrown at any moment. And who knows what songs, what music waits for us, eager to take up residence inside us. As we walk along the street, as we enter a bar, as we wait in an airport terminal, music conspires with the moment in ambush.


And then there’s consciously building associations, looking to music that would seem to decode the moment and not just possess it. Bob Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina”. I used that track to rationalise a break-up many years ago, to act as its philosophical accompaniment. Some of my favourite lines, especially this one: “what cannot be imitated/perfect/must die”. You can see how that would function as some kind of universal salve for the death of a romance. But it’s more enigmatic than that. Is Dylan saying that perfection leaves no progeny? That once perfection is reached there is a form of dissolution as in a solving of the puzzle which results in the reabsorption of the perfected back into the universe? Imperfect songs, then, give birth to endless restatements of themselves. Which explains the obsessive re-workings of generic pop music. But perfect songs, like perfect moments, cannot be replicated. They exist as ghosts, as echoes, or to put it another way, as spectral animations of something that the universe snatched and made its own as soon as it was birthed. And we recognise that. The greatest recordings are intimations of perfection. That’s why an album like Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes Complete sounds like an echo of an echo of an echo – music bridges the gap between feelings and memory, between the perfect moment and the realisation of its perfection.

This Is Memorial Device obsesses over moments. Do moments exist, can they be preserved? But more than that. Can we truly experience the moment when we are in it, can we occupy it completely? Or is it hindsight that makes it significant? Is it memory that bestows significance? Many of the characters in This Is Memorial Device are looking back, remembering, which means rebuilding the past in the light of the present. And they’re realising that there were moments, and that they were significant, and that truly, once, now, then, they stood at the centre of the world.


“And love, it isn’t love until it’s past” Prince sings on another record that haunts my memory, Prince And The Revolution’s 1986 album Parade. The song, “Sometimes It Snows In April”, is an early summer love. It’s her mother’s bedroom in a small village near Airdrie. It’s sneaking off school to have sex in the afternoon. And somehow it is both seeing it as it was and as it would be. The best music is simultaneously of the moment and of its recollection. Which is equally the definition of a ghost.

Our music collections are haunted. Out in the street, right now, there are songs lighting out, in search of hosts, ready to fix our movements in time and space, forever taking us back to here, to there, to gloomy Sundays long ago, to our young lovers, to holidays and to hospital beds, to Airdrie in the late 70s and early 1980s, when This Is Memorial Device is set, the post-punk years where the music made it feel like anything was possible. Even though really it felt like everything was impossible. This Is Memorial Device, then, is an attempt at necromancy, a spirited communing with the perfect dead and a monument to belief in the primacy of now, which was then, which is always.

This is Memorial Device is out now from Faber.

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