Do you ever hear a song that takes you back to a particular moment in time? Opening notes or chords so deeply ingrained in your subconscious that you can almost ‘become’ a past version of yourself in an instant? I can think of a few songs that have that effect on me and most are seasonal. This time of year, December specifically, there’s a song that’s been playing in my head since I was 15. That song is ‘Thirty-Three’ by The Smashing Pumpkins (Spotify/ Rdio / YouTube).
So I’m 15 again. Christmas 1996 is approaching. On my Christmas list is ‘Melon Collie and The Infinite Sadness’, the Pumpkins’ epic landmark two-disc album. ‘Thirty-Three’ is a song on disc two, but at this point I’ve yet to hear it — I have to wait until Christmas Day for that. But here I am on a cold Saturday morning, thumbing through CDs in a small independent (and ultimately doomed) record store in my hometown of Orpington, Kent, about to hear the song for the first time. In the ‘singles’ section, ‘Thirty-Three’ is a new release. There are two versions available, each with different b-sides. I buy the version that includes ‘The Last Song’ — an absolutely beautiful track that features a guitar solo from Billy Corgan’s father — ‘The Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right)’, and ‘Transformer’.
Of the days that followed that purchase, I have no specific memory. I assume I played the single a lot — especially the first two songs — in the run-up to Christmas, and I know that I did indeed receive the full album on Christmas Day. But the specifics are irrelevant: the residual feeling is what mattered (to me, at least).
At that time in my life, I’d recently broken up with my first girlfriend and, being a rather emotional and — let’s face it — somewhat pathetic fifteen year-old (long before the term ‘emo’ was coined, of course), life was filled with a sense of bittersweet melancholy, fueled by the discovery of music that remains poignant to this day. Life also had an air of innocence: I lived at home with my parents, I was mid-way through high school, and I’d yet to start my first job. The web had just started to turn into ‘a thing’, but I wasn’t aware of it.
This little bout of reminiscing has no point. There’s no deeper meaning hidden behind the story of me buying ‘Thirty-Three’ just over half my life ago. The number is not even relevant to my age (I won’t be thirty-three for another couple of years yet). It’s simply that I’ve been asked to provide a thought for December, and this is what’s in my head. ‘Thirty-Three’ is playing on perpetual internal repeat because it’s cold and it’s December and Christmas is approaching. And all of those factors combined offer me a gateway back to 1996.
That’s been the case every year since I first heard that song. I wonder if that’ll always be the case?