Arcade Fire, Summer School, and Falling Off of Bikes

Have you ever had an experience so closely linked to music that hearing the familiar chords of a song is like pressing “play” on a memory?

I know that hearing the happy birthday song probably reminds you of celebrating birthdays and I imagine things like the first dance at your wedding would stick with you, but I’ve found it also happens with more mundane recollections.

For example, whenever I hear The Avett Brothers’ “Tear Down the House” I remember a very specific time I was listening to it while eating a croissant. Man, what a great song. Man, what a great croissant.

Anyway, I don’t know why my brain decided that that particular moment was so crucial to record in my long term, musically-prompted memory, but there you go. The mind is ~a mystery~

Similarly, Arcade Fire’s 2007 album, Neon Bible immediately triggers memories of the summer after my freshman year in high school. When I hear the rhythmic, pounding bass of “No Cars Go,” it’s like I’m there.

I went to summer school for freshman English after having lived in Sweden for a year. It turns out English class in Sweden means learning English as a second language, not reading To Kill a Mockingbird or learning the form of a sonnet. Which is to say, I killed it at English class. Watch me conjugate these irregular verbs like a pro, suckers! But when I got back, I was very behind. So every morning I would bike to the nearest Max station (Portland’s equivalent of a subway), hop on a train, cross the city, and go to class.

The stop was some 250 feet underground (the deepest in North America as it happens), buried into one of Portland’s hillsides and accessible only by high-speed elevator. Claustrophobes beware. The tunnels were eerie and silent except for cave-like echoes emanating from somewhere deep and dark and the occasional crescendoeing roar as trains arrived.

I was usually alone. It was dull, dark, and slightly creepy. This proved to be the perfect environment to listen to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible.

In fact, the first track, “Black Mirror” begins with an amplified noise floor that sounds extraordinarily similar the ambient sound of the tunnels. The noise builds and grows, like the rumbling approach of a train, but instead of the screeching, metal-on-metal arrival of a subway comes a triumphant burst of piano and drums. Phenomenal.

Plus, the album delivered a hearty dose of angst, which paired well with my general lack of enthusiasm about having to go to summer school.

Amidst a dramatic organ, Win Butler sings on “My Body is a Cage”: My body is a cage that keeps me//From dancing with the one I love.

So is summer school, Win, so is summer school.

When the train eventually surfaced and glided through downtown Portland, Arcade Fire’s music, rife with a beautiful sorrow and a grungy, urban sound, paralleled the increasingly downtrodden neighborhoods the train passed by.

The hip, gentrified parts of downtown gave way to vacant buildings of the saddest Chinatown you’ll ever see. These are the parts of Portland that won’t be graced with any airtime on the hit TV show, “Portlandia.” The homeless population intensified. I thought about the growing gap between the haves and have-nots of this city. Of this country. I thought about social injustices and environmental degradation and the innate unfairness of life, the world, and high school.

As I looked out the window, Win crooned:

Their names are never spoken
The curse is never broken, the curse is never broken
Un, deux, trois, dit miroir noir!

The torment! The shame! The French! It was perfect. The music just fit in a way that cemented those melodies with that commute.

With three days remaining in my six-week class, I was biking home from the train stop after a long day of worrying about the state of humanity and composing couplets when the strap of my bag broke. In a deeply unfortunate piece of serendipity, the bag fell down my shoulder and lodged itself into the spokes of my front wheel.

I came to a very, very sudden halt. Or rather, my bike did. I kept going. Newton’s stupid law of inertia and all that.

I’ve heard that sometimes when something bad happens, everything seems to move in slow motion. For me, it was a rapid and disjointed succession of three moments:

  1. I was on my bike
  2. I was suddenly not on my bike
  3. I was picking myself up off the pavement, wondering exactly what I was doing down there in the first place and why the right side of my face was so wet.

When I realized that my helmet had cracked in two and the substance pouring down the side of my head was, in fact, blood, the situation became much more concerning, but in a strangely objective sense, like I was watching a movie of someone else.

One short hitchhike to the nearby Oregon Zoo’s first aid station, a couple bandages, a visit to urgent care, the repeated expelling of my stomach’s contents, and one sleepless night later, it became clear that I was very concussed.

To be honest, though, I was pretty happy about not having to attend the last few days of summer school.

I didn’t go to that train station for a long time after that. More because of circumstance than ambivalence. Summer school had ended, I took a bus when school started up in the fall, and pretty soon I was off to college and my family had moved away from Portland anyway.

So, why am I telling you all this? Because just yesterday, with a click of the “shuffle” button, the familiar strummed octaves of Neon Bible’s “Windowsill” began to float like a melodious cloud of nostalgia from my speakers. This produced an immediate and potent recollection of getting a concussion, summer school, the most decrepit parts of downtown Portland, and standing alone in a dark tunnel.

These are not nice things.

And yet…I listened to the rest of the album and proceeded to fall in love with it all over again. Which tells me that Neon Bible must be a pretty gosh darn great record.

So that’s my music review. Go listen to Arcade Fire. And wear a helmet.


Cover image via


52 thoughts on “Arcade Fire, Summer School, and Falling Off of Bikes

  1. The mind music connection is very interesting to me, not only because of the ability it has to trigger memories but also because that connection is very strong in my case especially …
    I had piano lessens as a child up to grade two. I stopped at grade two because that’s when my teacher realized that instead of practicing the piece from the sheet music, I would practice it from memory.
    I still can’t play from sheet music, there just isn’t any connection between the ink blots and the keys for me. What I hear in my head flows down my arms, into my fingers and they react. I instinctively know which key to press. In part, I wish I was able to carry on longer with the lessons as I now only have a rudimentary left hand with a shy bit of chords thrown in.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. I think your teacher was pretty lame to give up on you because you could play by ear. I am guessing they felt inadequate. A good teacher would have found a way to nurture that gift and still teach what they needed to teach. What a shame. My grandfather played by ear, my brother and I both can tell when a note is off, but we play by the written note. Both ways of playing have limitations. A young man I know plays by ear, and he is limited by memory, he works it out how to play something, but then when he works on something new he can’t always call to mind the older stuff. For me, I have to have sheet music, or I cannot play, but if I have the sheet music then I can work it out and once done, can replay it any time…the sheet music makes it easier to learn more songs, but impossible to learn them without it. I think both methods are valuable.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. As I recall, my teacher was pretty much a ‘purist’ in terms of theory being the only way. If it wasn’t for the fact that you can’t read sheet music if your watching your fingers, I’m sure she would have skipped the blindfold note identification exercises. That she was a great theory teacher can’t be denied as my sister advanced six times higher than me. Then again in everything I do, I learn through practical example much easier than theory and my sister is the complete opposite.

        For the most part, the melodies are complete in my head, which means I can do a pretty good rendition of most any songs with a ‘proper’ melody. Once I have a melody down, I don’t forget … ever. And like the actor from the t.v. series ‘Monk’ used to say, ‘It’s a blessing … and a curse’. Melodies has a way of injecting them selves at the crossover point where they are similar and I start out playing one melody and end up with the ending to another. In composing it becomes a fear that I may inadvertently be lending from other songs and that it is not purely my own creation.

        As for the remainder of songs where I have to actively learn it, I get what your friend struggles with in terms of memory. Take for example Bach’s Prelude 1 in C Major, which I stumbled upon the other day and decided it would be fun to try and learn it. Due to the amount of transitions, my mind just can’t keep up in trying to memorize it off the cuff so I have to put a little more effort into it. Until I have the melody down, it’s in ‘RAM’ so to speak and not persistent yet. It was pretty simple at first, until I got to the point where it suddenly transitions on the left hand to D, F#, one octave down and I lost the plot. It is like there is a barrier in my mind that I can not cross and having forced it at one point I found myself starting to hesitate on the earlier parts.

        Another risk with this method is that you ‘learn’ your mistakes and at times it can be pretty annoying trying to unlearn them … though sometimes hilarious to me for some reason.

        Liked by 4 people

  2. I loved this part “….began to float like a melodious cloud of nostalgia from my speakers. This produced an immediate and potent recollection of getting a concussion, summer school, the most decrepit parts of downtown Portland, and standing alone in a dark tunnel.” Well done! I wish I had read this last week, I would have quoted you.

    Liked by 7 people

  3. Reblogged this on BLUE SUN and commented:
    I love music although I have never been one who knew who sang or played what, but this post reminds us how much our musical memories influence us. When they ask “what year was this song…” i immediately go back to what I was doing or who I was with and I can be right pretty often. And I have found throughout my lifetime that for unknown reasons, not for any shared experience or because I have an affinity for the song, bring certain friends and family who have passed. I interpret that to mean they are floating through. It amazes me everytime it happens.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Great post! I find our subconscious connection to music pretty amazing. Your recollections were beautifully and so visually well described that I was there with you. I love that! Thanks

    Liked by 6 people

  5. “The noise builds and grows, like the rumbling approach of a train, but instead of the screeching, metal-on-metal arrival of a subway comes a triumphant burst of piano and drums. Phenomenal.” That, for me, sold it.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Good read! I live in the city where Win and his brother grew up, which also inspired The Suburbs, so I connect to that particular album the most. But there are definitely lyrics from Neon Bible that resonate with me too.

    Liked by 6 people

  7. “Cotton-eye Joe” always reminds me of my sister rolling up her jeans on her long legs,standing with her feet pointing out and crazily bringing one knee to her chest at a time. I can’t hear that song without laughing to tears 😂

    Liked by 6 people

  8. this s definitely what i have in mind all along. i mean how my brain is connected to music or specifically a song to a certain exact memory. beautiful writing. thanks for posting! :))))

    Liked by 5 people

  9. Neon Bible was monolithic! The mind and memory are fantastic yet untangible. I often cannot recall what I did yesterday but I played Spiders by Space last week and could remember all the lyrics. I hadn’t heard the album since 2000 probably.

    Liked by 5 people

  10. I love this. Neon Bible, for me, is a summer of driving through California wine country to random substitute teaching jobs and wondering where the hell I was going. It actually fit that situation quite nicely, but it does seem a better fit for Portland tunnels 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  11. This reminds me of boarding school. We had a bell in the middle of the school that you can hear from every corner of the campus. Each activity has a unique bell sound/tune. Eating, nap time, worship etc. I remember the food tune the most. haha. But then, I love food.

    Liked by 4 people

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