Long Playing Stereophonic Mom and Pop Rock
You hate it, you love it, you hate it, you love it: the dysfunctional soundtrack of your childhood. You were forced to hear it then, but you've found it in your CDNow shopping cart of late. What happened? Let us know.
When my childhood home was recently sold, I dove into the stacks of records my mother was going to throw away and salvaged some things worth saving. All the original Beatles records, most of the early Stones catalog, the Creedence, the Wilson Pickett and the Otis Redding once belonged to my mother. So did the Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Simon and Garfunkel, the Dylan. The Herb Albert, the Getz and Gilberto, the piles and piles of early Sinatra, the Kingston Trio, the Everly Brothers, and the Elvis were my father's. The five years that separated them in age is significant as hell.
But, I never once saw my mother or my father put a record on the turntable, save at Christmas, when my mother favored a John Denver album and my father a sing along with Mitch Miller. I sided with my mother because I believed John Denver was actually a Muppet well into my late teens, and I loved the Muppets, but the point is we were an 8-Trac sort of family. There was an 8-Trac player in the Buick in 1978 and there was one in the family room when I left for college in 1990. It still got used.
My father drove on all long trips, and thus controlled when we stopped to eat, how far we drove each day, and when we stopped to pee (and he could not be moved by pathetic whining from the back seat--if he had a rest stop in mind thirty miles ahead, then by Good-God that's where we stopped, never mind that one or all of his children had to go so bad it hurt). But most of all, he controlled the radio. Until the invention of the Walkman, we were at his mercy for miles and miles at a stretch. Sometimes he'd scan the dial, looking for an oldies station broadcasting on some magnificently powerful AM band, and we'd have hours and hours of Buddy Holly and The King when all the kids in the back wanted was a block of Journey and REO Speedwagon.
But sometimes, he'd dig in the black box of 8-Trac tapes stowed down by mother's feet. Usually it was something else awful. The Star Wars soundtrack or Captain and Tenile's "Muskrat Love." But sometimes, sometimes he'd reach down and come up with a crowd pleaser, Jim Croce's "Photographs and Memories: His Greatest Hits."
I still love that damn album. From start to finish, I--and each one of my sisters--knows every word. When we were younger, it was about transgression in the way that all great music is about transgression. We could say "damn" when Croce was playing, because "damn" was integral to "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown" and we couldn't say "damn" anyplace else without inciting parental wrath.
As kids, we tended to like the "character songs" more, "Leroy Brown," "Working at the Car Wash Blues," "You Don't Mess Around with Jim." Especially "Jim," full of pop culture references we knew--Superman! The Lone Ranger!--and, in an odd tick of the 8-Trac world, an abrupt fade out mid song as the tape switched from track 3 to track 4 and then a fade back up, just where our narrator left us.
Sometimes during those formative years, that Buick died an inglorious death on the side of the Garden State Parkway, it's convertible top leaking rain water, it's 8-Trac player ruined. When my parents came home with a new Plymouth Horizon a few weeks later, that ugly, gold, compact car, completely lacking in the Buick's legroom and stature, also lacked an 8-Trac. The tapes sat near my parent's dusty stereo in the living room.
Then I hit puberty, discovered the joys of plopping big headphones over my head and zoning out amongst my own family. At first it was my own records, those early albums of REM, U2, the Alarm, Big Country, and the Violent Femmes that I played while my parents sat mesmerized by The Cosby Show and the other jewels in NBC's first must see Thursday night line-up. But gradually, I drifted into the pre-marriage albums of my mother's and finally, back to that Jim Croce 8-Trac tape.
When Heather Dunn broke up with me for the third time, I discovered the solace to be found in "Lover's Cross." When I first became all fluttery over Dana Kaye, Jim was speaking to me with "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song." When Stephanie Young left me at the Junior Prom to go home with my friend Dan, I knew the pain in Jim's voice when he sang, "She's living in L.A./With me best, old, ex-friend Ray," in "Operator." When no one seemed to understand me, "I Got a Name" and "New York's Not My Home" were private anthems.
I went to college, I graduated, I got a job. Then I got another job. And another. Somewhere along the line, I picked up a bargain bin CD copy of that 8-Trac. It drives my girlfriend crazy, but I still think it's brilliant. And he never would have made it in today's video driven market. Check the cover, the man is the ugliest human being ever to put out a record, but he knew something about love and pain, and he could tell a story that might be lifted from Raymond Carver in under four minutes, with a damn nice melody line.
In an effort to find an interesting Christmas gift for my mom, I bumped into the Burt Bacharach box collection. She loves his music, and I spent a lot of time dancing to this in my little girlhood. However, at $44, I didn't think she loved him that much to blow a chunk of the Christmas budget. So I looked around some more and found a Greatest Hits CD, sung by contemporary artists (like Cheryl Crow and Bare-Naked Ladies). At only $17, this satisfied my desire to buy others things, PLUS make sure my mom was kept up-to-date with music trends. I'm too lazy to get the exact name of this CD, but any Amazon.com music search on Burt Bacharach would find it.
As an adult, I don't think I could really listen to ol' Burt. But I sure liked this other album with the newer singers. Maybe it's because my child-hood seems light-years away now. Maybe it's because I'm a mother, and I don't want to feel like I'm turning into my mom by listening to the exact same music she did (it's bad enough I'm using the same phrases she does!).
"What the world needs now, is love, sweet love!"
My phonograph staples as a pre-seven consisted mostly of Mr. Rogers, Disney Storytellers and The Partridge Family... that is until the day I began to peruse my parents' record collection of easy listening musak and country-western. Last year my parents put their collection up on the sibling divvy-block. Over five of them, a skirmish ensued. I gave up my designs on all the Bill Cosbys I loved for one beaten-up, fire-crackling, obscure lp. And because I am the spoiled youngest and only girl and because I have perfected a pretty dern mean whine, I snared it - the cherished Johnny Cash, Mean As Hell!
The cover was dusty, sweaty and blue and I could never much determine whether the big bad hombre on the front fingering a trigger was in fact J.C. The picture, according to the dust jacket, was shot on some mysteriously hidden Indian burial ground, which means it is, as we speak, probably under some housing development, sucking innocent towheaded kids down into the poltergeist void.
I played this record over and over on my parents' furniturial phonograph thing. I would lift up the heavy wooden lid, holding it up with my little head as I positioned the lp on the bed, then carefully lay down the lid or it would slam down on my little fingers. I tell you, that piece of furniture was as mean as hell.
The record was full of that westernly romantic lingo that I still love...especially on "The Shifting Whispering Sands, Part 1" with it's speech echoing bass. It was full of desert prospecting, silent windmills, crumbling backboards and water tanks, bones of cattle picked clean by buzzards bleached in the desert sun. The wind was quiet but the sand would not be still! I ate it up.
Some songs were boring. Needle up. Needle down. This was a Zen exercise in calmness. A nervous person would scratch the record with a little zip when grabbing the arm's tiny hand, (the auto arm was busted, probably due to one of my older brothers' many duels...a tornado of fighting 24-7), and lifting the needle off the whirling vinyl...who had time to wait for the disc to stop?
"Mister Garfield" was another good song that unwittingly fooled me into thinking US President James Garfield was a bigger figure historically than he actually was. A minor President? Pshaw! He has a song written about him! Mr. Garfield's been shot down, shot down. Mr. Garfield's been shot down low. The ditty was all about how President Garfield got himself kilt by Charlie Guiteau and the dramatic deathbed scene between Garfield and his wife Lucretia. Garfield tells her that when he kicks-off she should get herself a good, good man. And she says, "I won't a-hear to that, now!" (You gotta hear it...it's just so cool)..."I won't a-hear to that now. I love you too much." But Garfield replies (and the Carter family sings): "Don't pull a single harness all your life, good gal. Don't pull a single harness all your liiiiife."
"Mean as Hell" was an intoxicating spoken-word piece...a story about how God deeded Texas to the Devil but the Devil didn't want it because it was too dry for Hell. Thorns on the trees, fleas in the sand, horns on toads, scorpions, rattlesnakes, ants, cow punchers and a five a.m. wake-up call: all most hellish.
My favorite song was called "25 Minutes To Go" which taught me to count backwards.
These are fast minutes.
Now here's where I start to feel pitiful for the guy. Let 'em go, the poor galloot! Hey, maybe he'll slither on outa the noose.
It looks grim.
Visit the cool Cash page at http://maninblack.net
My parents' albums always astonished me: the fire-engine red of Benny Goodman Live at Carnegie Hall 1938, where my father Al and his brother hung onto the stage as kids; my mother's Frank Sinatra album, Frank winking in a way that made me question his appeal as well as the title, "Come Fly With Me;" and my father's classical records, always deep blue or green, like their foreboding bottom notes.
In the 60s, these records played on stereo equipment far different from today's neat black or shiny bookshelf boxes: It was furniture. Our stereo, a polished maple, was six feet long. Four tiny legs held this massive box with its brocade-covered speakers. A middle panel opened to the turntable and made a pleasant "whamp" sound on closing.
My parent's favorite record was the Stan Getz-Joao Gilberto's 1964 bossa-nova collaboration. Buried on this album was the mega-hit, "The Girl From Ipanema," sung by Gilberto's then-wife, Astrud. Why did every household have this album, along with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's "Whipped Cream and Other Delights" or the whispery "La-la, la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la" of the "A Man and A Woman" soundtrack?
"People in the States wanted to turn to something other than their troubles," Gilberto explains in the "Getz/Gilberto" CD liner notes. "There was a feeling of dissatisfaction, possibly the hint of the war to come--and people needed some romance, something dreamy, for distraction."
In this happy pop world, my mother, nicknamed Mac, embraced Burt Bacharach. One Christmas, Al, my brother and I went on our own to Discount Records, a bowling alley turned CBS-record franchise. Without knowing it, we each bought her the same album, "Mel Torme Sings Burt Bacharach." Mac loved Torme's jazzy phrasing and Bacharach's sappy lyrics.
Christmas morning, as the three squares unraveled, Mac looked--what can I say?--Torme-dazed. We realized at that moment it was possible for a person to have too much Torme. The next day, Al and I dared to return to Discount Records and claim one of the discs had a scratch. The manager, a squat man with plenty of time on his hands, said, "Fine. Let's find the scratch."
As Mel's melodious voice rang out the saccharine tunes, Al and I began to look anywhere but at each other. I panicked. Just then, Al threw in the towel. "Look," he said. "Forget it. We'll keep it." Satisfied, the manager put Torme back in the paper sleeve and cardboard cover. From then on, we didn't hear Torme as much as see him at home: Oh God, not you again!
Mac's affection for Bacharach grew. She got the same dreamy look, embarrassed and pleased, watching Burt on TV as she did gazing at Sinatra. Life was a mystery. I didn't understand my brother's music, shouts about no satisfaction, or Al's classics booming after-hours in a darkened living room. Why all the heaviness? The more my mother listened to Bacharach, the more I understood. I closed my bedroom door and put on the Monkees.
I was lying on the living room rug, mooning over the White Album portraits of John Paul George and Ringo as usual, about ten years old and finally convinced that the song went "everyone's got something to hide, except for me and my monkey," instead of "everyone's got something to hide except for me and I'm okay," when my dad came home with a grin as wide as my favorite faux-leather belt with the horse buckle.
"This is going to be it," he said, holding up "Saturday Night Fever."
I was loathe to let him take over the record player but he didn't ask, he just spun the album, and started dancing, imitating the poofy-haired guy on the jacket, pointing his finger in the air, then at the rug.
Dad usually listened to Brahms requiem, way too loud. "This," he said, "is the next great thing. It's DISCO."
We were a Kingston Trio and Limeliters family, when my dad got tired of opera. I got pretty interested in opera when he told me that in RIGOLETTO a man puts a girl inside a bag and hauls her around like that. "He puts her in a bag ?!" I kept asking. He did. And then came murder. I listened, but with all that Italian wailing, I couldn't hear when the bag and murder moments actually happened.
The Limeliters had a song about cleavage. The band leader quipped between tunes, and before the cleavage song he described Vicki Dougan, an actress he'd seen at an L.A. party wearing "a gown cut so low in back-that it revealed a new cleavage!" The chorus of the song went
This record now has an honored place in my collection.
My dad had an old '78 by a Scottish singer named Harry Lauder which also got occasional air play at our house. In a song called "Have Some Madeira, M'dear," Harry seduced a girl by inviting her up to see his etchings and then sousing her with drink. When, years later, I visited Edinburgh, I knew it was Harry, who, kilted on his album cover and grinning on the Scottish moors, had braced me for those bagpipers in skirts.
In Syracuse, N.Y., when we lived in a two-bedroom upstairs apartment, everything we owned was small and portable. We sat on a love seat rather than a full-length sofa. We never owned one of those sideboard-sized console hi-fis which dominated the living rooms of my kindergarten classmates; instead, we played our records on a turntable built into a small, square carrying case with a handle sticking out of its side. I’d flip open its brass catches and plug in its cord, then watch the turntable spin; sometimes I'd put things on it, like a Barbie doll, to see them wobble around. Then, quickly tiring of that, I'd flip through the big glossy cardboard squares of the LPs, staring at the pictures, the covers helping me choose what records to play.
I could read then, but just barely, and I regarded these albums as another variety of picture book. The song lyrics brought pictures into my mind, animated versions of the scenes on their covers. I liked only music with words; I did not like instrumentals, so I never played many of the records in my parents' collection. Looking through the albums was also exciting because it felt slightly dangerous, like studying an R-rated movie poster in the Westhill Theatre lobby, or like riffling through my uncle's bathroom stack of Playboys. I had learned that to be caught looking at these things made adults agitated and angry; they therefore exerted a powerful allure for me. I knew early that there was something very sexy about music, about the album covers, about the trance you fell into while listening to them and looking at them.
By six, I knew what the world most liked to look at was beautiful women. They were on so many of the album covers, with their thick eyelashes, powder-blue eyelids and teased-out hairdos. One of my favorites showed the British singer Petula Clark dashing across a London street in a trim little suit, her hair pinned up in a French twist like my mother's, her mouth laughing. She looked antic, energetic, and fun -- I wanted to be like her when I grew up. I sang to "Downtown" along with her sweet, piping voice. At six, having no sense of the world's scale, I thought that Petula Clark's song referred to downtown Syracuse - which, to be fair, in that pre-urban blight, pre-suburban mall era, did at that time resemble the busy, happy playground which the song lyrics described: "The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares." These lyrics must have embedded themselves deeply in my mind, for nearly twenty years later, when I attended a poetry reading, a performance-artist chanted the refrain of "Downtown," my lips moved along with his, and I felt myself suddenly and inexplicably both thrilled and close to tears over the contrast between what "downtown" means now compared with what it meant to me years ago.
The most magical album in my parents' collection, however, had no woman pictured on it at all. I found it quite by accident, because of its boring cover: no champagne glasses, no long-stemmed roses, just a handsome, smiling "colored" man in a skinny tie: Johnny Mathis. (I wish I could offer a more distinguished name here, like Sinatra or Nat King Cole, but we cannot choose the musical taste of the family we are born into, and my heart was stirred before my aesthetic tastes were fully formed.) I think I was alone in the room when I first put Johnny Mathis on the turntable. I don't know which song began to play, probably: "It's Not For Me to Say." Just a few bars into the song, my parents both came as if I'd called them, and stood just inside the doorway, listening, not saying anything. They didn't sing any of the lyrics; they didn't even hum together. Nevertheless, they seemed moved. I felt something stir between them. I looked up from my listening to watch them. My father held out his arms, my mother went to him, and they began slow-dancing. I felt the room fill up with something so big that it pushed me past the edge of my parents' consciousness. I knew they'd forgotten me. And yet I did not feel abandoned--quite the opposite. As I watched them dance, I felt safe, enclosed. My school-friends had taught me about divorce and its dangers, but I knew when my parents clung together like this, nothing could happen to us; nothing could pull our family apart.
I watched them dance for a while. Then, as Johnny Mathis sang, "...Or we may never meet again, but then, it's not for me to say," I tried to wake them up: "Mom? Dad?" They laughed self-consciously, then held their hands out to me. All three of us linked arms and danced in a circle. I was out of step; my father said he'd show me how. We let my mother go, and he and I became a couple. I put my stocking feet on the tops of my father's cordovan-colored loafers; I can still feel the leather underneath my toes as I write this. My father smelled like Old Spice. I shut my eyes and let him shuffle me across the floor. I was happy and brimming with love. And I was also becoming imprinted with the shadowy outline of a man, whom I would seek for the rest of my life. I would forget that visceral image, but it would come back sometimes to haunt me. I would grow up and judge men using terms like "emotional health" and "earning potential." Nevertheless, even now, when my car radio dial finds Johnny Mathis, I am suddenly so moved that it's hard to keep driving. I am still waiting for what the music in my parents' record collection seemed to promise me, so long ago: that mingling of love, sex, romance, safety, glamour, perfume, after shave, cordovan leather, all conjured up now for me by a tenor voice overlaid with violin strings and cocktail-lounge piano notes. My parents' record collection: my parents' marriage.
My parents' records never co-mingled. Dad's records were kept in the basement next to his stereo, and he would go down there and listen to them on Sunday afternoons or on evenings when my mom and I were watching something upstairs that he couldn't stand--like any award show or North and South. Mom's records were hidden in the storage compartment of the mahogany console stereo in our living room.
Dad's collection contained a lot of jazz and bossa nova stuff and comedy albums by Bob and Ray and Stan Freburg. As a kid, I found Dad's records totally boring, but today I have the classic Getz/Gilberto "Girl from Ipanema" album on CD. My dad must have been one of those swingin' bachelors who bought into the bossa nova craze the first time around. It's hard for me to picture, but the dusty records testify.
My mom liked to listen to K-EZK, the easy listening station, and the elevator music made me yearn for songs with words. I recall dancing around the room when the station would play "Love Will Keep Us Together" by Captain and Tenille, extending my hand, palm up, for the "Stop!" lines. They played the original, not a muzak version, and I thought it was the greatest thing.
My mom's console stereo was full of records with unwieldy titles like "Golden Strings Perform the Themes of James Bond" and "The Mantovani Orchestra Plays 'A Summer Place' and Other Pop Hits." Terrible stuff, and I recognized it even as a kid. When I asked her why she didn't buy the originals, she said she found music with lyrics nerve-wracking, but what could be more unsettling than a bassoon imitating Shirley Bassey crooning, "Goldfingahhhh"?
Mom had one album I liked to play: "Nine to Five" by Dolly Parton. I memorized the words to the title song, never thinking that I would someday "be just a step on the bossman's ladder." But I've got dreams they'll never take away. Mom had two albums I hated: a Pavarotti album that she would turn up full blast for "O Sole Mio" and Neil Diamond's "You Don’t Bring me Flowers" album. Mom loved Neil's titular duet with Barbra Streisand. She would turn it up, I would cover my ears, and my dad would continue reading The Wall Street Journal, oblivious. Today I own Neil's box set, which contains that song, so I guess we do become our mothers.
The most vivid memory of my parents listening to music is the Johnny Rivers "Realization" album. On this album, Johnny Rivers hopped on the psychedelic bandwagon because he realized he was being left behind. From what I can tell, it seems to be a lot of cover tunes with Johnny’s own little twists to make the songs his own. The cover of the album is pink and purple and shows Johnny with a mustache and a peace sign necklace. He covers Jimi Hendrix’s "Hey Joe," but he sings, "Hey Joe, where you going with your eyes closed?" instead of "Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?" My dad would sit on the floor with his huge Koss headphones and jam away. However, I can’t leave out Herb Alpert either. It was played now and again. The Lettermen were also favorites of my parents. Christmas music was a big one. We had a Mitch Miller album we liked. I listen to him now and think it is awful, but back then it sounded great.
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