What piece of art would you want to memorize in order to pass it on to the members of a future generation?
I’m not really a sentimental person, but I have a soft spot in my heart for The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” It’s not the greatest song ever written, I don’t think, but the message—“take these broken wings and learn to fly”—is pretty solid, and the melody and lyrics are so deeply ingrained in my brain that I could probably manage to remember them even after the collapse of civilization or, at the very least, a long, long time from now.
So you’ve been blasted back to the Stone Age—the ultimate back-to-basics scenario. You’re going to need the drum intro to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Hal Blaine’s distinctive “kick-kick-kick snare” isn’t just the propulsive entry point to the 20th century’s most perfect distillation of adolescent yearning—it’s a musical Rosetta stone, the preservation of which unlocks a trove of pop masterpieces that’ll be a welcome distraction from fending off wild animals (and keeping your own feral impulses at bay). Driving the openings of “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Just Like Honey,” and more Bruce Springsteen songs than Max Weinberg would like to admit, the “Be My Baby” beat is an essential building block of the last 50 years of music, indelible upon first listen and insanely easy to pass on to your fellow survivors. And just imagine its usefulness outside a cultural context, where it could be employed to call rowdy tribal meetings to order or sounded to intimidate those who wish to do you harm. Now, can I please have volunteers take up the more complicated task of memorizing and performing the “Apache” and “Funky Drummer” breaks?
I’m not much for poetry, and as much as I love music, I have to believe there’ll be plenty of other people who’ll pass along their favorite songs, so I’m going to go with the oral tradition of storytelling… specifically, the story of the original Star Wars trilogy. Somehow or other, I managed to raise a daughter who’s addicted to The Simpsons but has precious little tolerance for science fiction. Still, I was able to hold her attention by reeling off the plot of the first movie as if it were a fairy tale, regaling her with the story of a princess whose kingdom is destroyed by a villain who’s holding her captive and how she’s saved from his evil clutches by a young hero and his friends. Admittedly, I might’ve skimmed over some of the details in the version I gave her, so I’d want to make sure I nailed all the key elements if I was passing it along to future generations. But edited or not, the story itself is one that’ll hold up well for many years to come.
I assumed everybody was going to get fairly serious with this one, so I was going to say the Bible, but then I realized that that answer was already taken by Denzel Washington in The Book Of Eli. So I’m going to go with a one-man recitation of Caddyshack because I believe that future generations could learn a lot about our civilization via our sense of humor. And clearly Caddyshack offers various shades of funny, from Rodney Dangerfield’s hacky and hilarious routines to Bill Murray inventing an entirely new kind of weird/funny, which would serve him well forever and ever. New civilizations probably won’t have much chance to laugh, as they’ll be rebuilding the infrastructure and trying to repopulate the planet, so the man who can take their minds off the day-to-day grind might be treated like a king. (Or a useless leech who would be eaten—but who wants to live in some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland anyway?)
Well, if civilization as we know it ended on my watch, I’d want to try to explain how we got into this mess. There would be a lot to say, presumably—the exact mechanics of the inevitable robot apocalypse are as of yet unknown to me, but I imagine even children will know the story of how the machines turned against us and culture as we know it ceased to exist. But they might not know what that culture was made up of, and perhaps, most importantly, they might want to know how we ended up there. What kind of humanity, they might wonder, would so thoroughly set itself up for failure? In response I would recite (or sing, though I’d have to be pretty drunk) R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” a cheerful song that’s half history lesson, half existential poetry. This is who we were, I would tell citizens of the post-apocalypse—disillusioned, overwhelmed, and dysfunctional young people. It would be an extra bonus if I could remember all the verses to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which to my mind expresses that same existential malaise but for an earlier era. Maybe either or both would go some way toward explaining what it felt like to be on the brink of extinction. “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”
Being a comedy and satire nerd since I was just a zygote, I’m tempted to throw a lot of things into the proverbial nuclear blast-proof vault that I feel would be culturally relevant for future generations to study: George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” recording, Jon Stewart’s “Worst Responders” takedown of Congress’ stunning inability to pass the 9/11 responders’ Zadroga bill, and a DVD of Bill Hicks’ “What are you reading for?” routine, with a personal letter of apology and explanation for our acceptance of the mullet haircut. All of my loves and loathings for comedy and pop culture, however, point back to a single source: Mad Magazine.
There are too many memorable pieces and movie parodies to preserve them all, but Mad Magazine’s “43-Man Squamish,” a feature that detailed the ridiculous rules and regulations of the world's most pointless sport since lingerie football formed a league, should be on top of the to-memorize list. Besides being the ultimate memorization goal for any budding mentalist, artist George Woodbridge and writer Tom Koch’s feature is the perfect embodiment of the magazine’s mission statement. It appears to be pure slapstick on the surface; however, it delivers some stinging criticism of the pointlessness of “organized” sports with its stated goal that the winner must lose the game, and by showing the stranglehold that order can have on friendly competition and achievement by insisting that a Spanish peseta be used for the coin toss and that the only heckles that are allowed are those that involve imitations of Barry Goldwater. By being so fearlessly silly, it brilliantly points out just how much sillier the real world can sometimes be as it strives to be so serious.
Others may go profound in their replies. So let me go the opposite way, in order that the future might be as occasionally frivolous as the present, and submit the Konami cheat code for preservation. There’s a time and place for sonnets, song lyrics, chord progressions, and other such elements to elevate the spirits. But knowing “up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A” feels like something that should belong to every generation. It’s not even important that the origin of the code, first discovered inside 1980s video games for the Nintendo Entertainment System such as Gradius and Contra, stay in the annals of popular knowledge. But there’s something about this simple sequence that evokes a common love of pop culture itself, turning the code into a type of cipher through which strangers can recognize kin. In the end, it’s not a cheat code but a mechanism through which people can share common passions.
I suppose that I should say something about memorizing one of my favorite novels or plays or scripts, but when I ponder this question, all I can think about is what this theoretical future, post-apocalyptic world looks like, and all I want to do is insist that everybody in it is forced to live by the rules of insult sword fighting from The Secret Of Monkey Island. Now, sure, only I would know the entirety of the game’s daffy, brilliant script, but I would make sure that all my subjects in the post-apocalyptic tent city I would be emperor of would know that the proper response to “You fight like a dairy farmer!” is “How appropriate! You fight like a cow!” This would be immensely preferable to my real life, where nobody ever understands what I’m talking about when I say, “How appropriate! You fight like a cow!” in the middle of conversation.
If civilization should collapse tomorrow, I would not need to memorize the lyrics to Ice-T’s “Colors.” Like any diligent custodian of culture, I already know them. I first heard the song on 7-inch single, weirdly enough, in the late ’80s, just when I was seriously getting into rap. I had yet to actually see the eponymous movie for which “Colors” serves as the theme. But the song stood on its own then, and it still does: the eerie piano, the snaky funk beat, the ominous bass line. But it’s Ice-T’s knifelike, street-tough rhymes that I’d be reconstituting from memory and passing down to the children of a doomed tomorrow, like it was Homer or some shit. I’m not exactly sure how “Colors” would prove beneficial to these wastrels of the future, except to remind them that Ice-T was once a king of the jungle who ruled sternly yet justly, walking like a nightmare and stalking like a psychopath all the while.
If we were faced with a kind of intellectual disaster like the one in Fahrenheit 451, I feel assured that I could count on other people to memorize Shakespeare, the Bible, and the like. But, for myself, I’d want to keep hold of one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella cycle is arguably the greatest collection of love sonnets (aside from those by the Bard) in the English language. Sidney’s sonnets are heartbreakingly beautiful and deserve to be preserved alongside the other great works for future generations (here’s my favorite: number 31). There are a ton of poems in the cycle (around 120), so committing them to memory would be a daunting task. But, since they’re in verse, I feel a little confident I could learn them all if I tried.