The instant I hear the opening bars of “Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, I am transported back to 1974.
That’s the year Mitchell’s album Court and Spark came out, with its jazzy influences flavoring the singer’s usual folk-rock mix. “Help Me,” a love song, was a major hit for Mitchell.
I was living in California at the time. It was spring. And Patty Hearst had just been kidnapped.
Music is a useful tool for a writer, referencing time and place. Although your reaction on hearing “Help Me” may differ from mine.
In my upcoming book What You Wish For, I mention the song “Help Me” several times, leading the reader into flashbacks to 1974, a year that is significant for several of my characters. These four women – Lindsey, Annabel, Claire, Gretchen – are long-time friends, who shared a house near the UC Berkeley campus that spring.
As it happens, that house is just around the corner from the apartment where Patty Hearst lived, and was kidnapped, that night in February 1974. And one of my characters is nearby, a witness to the abduction.
Elsewhere in the book I use other anthems from the early 1970s. One is “You’ve Got A Friend,” by Carole King. It’s in a scene in the 1980s when the four friends gather, a decade after those college days. There’s a scene that mentions Carly Simon’s “The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” And another scene with “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf, the music blaring on a cab driver’s radio as the taxi speeds toward its destination.
The book I’m working on now, Death Rides The Zephyr, takes place in 1952. To help establish the feel for that time period, I’ve looked up what songs were popular at the time. So I’ve included a scene where my protagonist is sending a telegraph and the radio behind the counter in Western Union office is playing “Music! Music! Music!” That was a big hit that year, for singer Teresa Brewer. If you’re of a certain vintage, like me, you’ve heard those first lyrics, about putting another nickel in the nickelodeon. Some other time I’ll have to explain what a nickelodeon is to the younger set.
When I hear John Denver sing “Rocky Mountain High,” I see the sun setting on the Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver on a balmy summer night as the singer came onstage for his first set. I don’t even remember what year it was, but the image is burned in my memory.
Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing On My Mind” is a song about love and loss, recorded by dozens of musicians. For me, it’s a memory trigger.
It was May 1967, the year I graduated from high school. On Sunday I went to a reception for the graduating seniors. A woman played the guitar and sang that song, with its chorus: “Are you going away with no word of farewell? Will there be not a trace left behind?”
Early the next morning my grandmother died. I knew it was going to happen, because she was elderly, and ill. The reality was still a blow. Instead of going through that last week of school, I was in a car with my family, heading for a funeral.
And that song in my head, about going away with no word of farewell.
It was 45 years ago. The memory is so fresh it might as well be today. And it’s always triggered by that song.