Let the Music Play
“Some kids like watching Saturday cartoons/Some girls listen to records all day in their rooms…” are lyrics from a Rickie Lee Jones song, “Skeletons”, which stirs up resonance for my childhood and adolescent years. Actually, aside from living in an apartment which, on pre-cleaning days, looks like some disaster from “The Bizzaro World”, or occasionally viewing episodes of “South Park” and the like, and aside from the daily inanity of reality, the cartoon world is one I don’t visit much anymore whereas music, even records, retains its tidal pull. It’s odd to even write the word “records” without sounding out-dated. I wonder how many of todays generation would hear Rickie Lee’s lyrics and know what she is singing about. I imagine however that kids somewhere, either on their own or with others, must hole up in rooms and still listen to music, whether on CDs or MP3s, just as their ancestors did. Like me, they are living for those songs which speak to them or for them, even if they are also texting and playing on computer social networks simultaneously.
I think of the lines: “Telling my whole life with his words killing me softly, with his song” or, to a more sardonic degree, “Burn down the disco, hang the bloody D.J., for the music that he constantly plays says nothing to me about my life.” I think of my relationship with music and know that Roberta Flack’s former and Morrissey’s latter have equal validity in describing feelings I’ve had. In fact there are any number of instrumental pieces which do the same. I’m not sure why I got to be eclectic in musical tastes. When I was growing up the music played around the house was of the crooner, female vocalist or Broadway show sort from my mother, and Country & Western from my father. Most of this came from AM radio or television instead of records, from programs such as Lawrence Welk, Ed Sullivan, Hee Haw even, as well as Perry Como, Bing Crosby and Andy Williams holiday specials, though some of my earliest, fondest memories are of my mother singing along to Dinah Shore or Doris Day on the radio. My mother’s voice was a soothing soprano too.
Are parents singing along with Punk and Heavy Metal today and creating some fond memories for their kids? Let’s hope so. The wide variety of musical genres we have today, influenced culturally by what has gone before and what is being made by a culture not necessarily one’s own, give my cynical nature a certain hope for the world when it comes to global awareness and perhaps commonalities. It reminds me of a science article I read which said infants all around the planet share the same sounds before learning the lessons of speech. Internationally I can picture the zeitgeist flux of the world as occurring on a personal level too, that while I was listening to 45s on a suitcase-shaped record player someone else a hundred years prior was listening to music through phonograph cylinders. Before that I guess everyone just went to music halls, listened to street singers or made their own kind of music while banging on kitchen pots. Why not? There’s an element of humanity’s perseverance too in the fact that early musical instruments such as violins and organs, even fiddles and spoons, are still used today as centuries-old compositions by the likes of Mozart or Hildegard von Bingen also go on being performed despite how other jealous composers or murderous political/religious fascists of the time plotted to snuff that music out.
Currently, mixed in with tapes and CDS, I have roughly 250 records in my apartment, all of them stored in black, red, white or robin’s egg blue milk crates. The geometric patterns these colorful rectangles and squares form strikes me as musical too, the way abstract art can be. I’m afraid though that the albums contained within these crates may have more of a sentimental than aesthetic value. My sense for their nostalgic merit is not without snobbism for surely record album covers make for better art than CDs etc. simply due to size. I mean a person can actually see the cover art, actually read both lyric sheets and liner notes without a magnifying glass or becoming cross-eyed. It was this sort of boon which captured my imagination too when going through my parents and grandparents collections of old 78s . The albums were packaged like books, often had paintings or photos of the recording artists, and sometimes the bindings were written in gold or silver on leather. To a kid growing up in the country fairly isolated from others his own age, it was that sort of detail which was ripe for games of “let’s pretend”. Stereos and other music players at that time were set up with at least four speeds: 16, 78, 45, and 33 depending on the type of record to be played. It was fun to mix up the speeds and slow up or accelerate the voices on the albums to that of Minnie Mouse on helium. This was a time before Karaoke too, (Shocking, no?), and having been raised watching old musicals, my siblings and I would put up a curtain between the wide expanse between the living and dining room, and create shows. I believe we mainly mouthed the words to records though sometimes I think not, but in any case it seems the allure of latent infanticide never occurred to our parents and we all managed to survive each performance.
Is it simply memory and art which has me holding onto records, and why do I feel as if there must be some justification anyway? Who or what am I defending them from and, in a sense, defending myself?
I was asthmatic as a kid and also allergic to just about everything on the farm where I grew up. After enduring breathless wheezing bouts I remember my mother having me lie down with her small transistor and little plastic earphone while she put on an easy listening station and left me to rest. I remember also honestly believing that radio stations were like some gigantic palace where all these music stars actually lived. When one of their records was played it wasn’t a record at all but one of these musical acts being asked to come out of their suite and step up to the mike. My parents had a big laugh about that though they did not find it so funny when I pinched quarters from my dad’s loose change tin to go by an album at Woolworth’s. The albums I went for were marked-down to $2.99 or $3.99 and quite often released by a label called Pickwick. I felt a bit sad for these records, like they were the misfits others did not want to play with. They would be called” Music from Jesus Christ Superstar” or “Hits from Godspell” but they were not performed by those who starred in the Broadway successes. Looking back I feel a little sadness that five and dimes no longer exist either, being replaced by mega malls and super-sized marts that are an agoraphobic’s nightmare. Woolworth’s not only had a music section, but a pet section with such exotic things as turtles and parakeets. It also had either a dining counter with high swiveling stools or actual restaurants where a person could see the red, purple and yellow tanks of fountain drinks bubbling away like otherworldly potions.
It’s odd how collecting music became an obsession for me, how I went from singles with their small circular center inserts used to fit the bobbin of the stereo, and on to the bigger turf of 33 rpm, the double, triple and even quadruple record sets of rock operas. I don’t recall getting an allowance so perhaps it was money saved up from birthdays, (unless I covertly went back to my dad’s loose change tin once more), but I did get in trouble by joining the Columbia House Record Club when underage. I remember my mother grumbling about lack-of money and how I was just a kid, (much the way she did when I adopted an orphan through some save-a-child campaign), packing up my drooled-over 14-records-for-only-$1.99 and phoning the Columbia House Record Gods to ask for some proof of age before shipping out music to indigent households.
“Money sure burns a hole in your pocket,” was another thing she said to me on more than one occasion, especially in regards to records, but I know this was a lesson I never entirely took to heart. Records were one way of quietly rebelling and even when she said things like “Wait until you’re older and have to pay bills. You’ll see how buying music won’t be so important then”, I guess I only partially listened.
It is true; she grew up during WW II, and her parents, the Great Depression. All together they knew a great deal about rationing, about struggle and strife, yet in retrospect I noticed my parents did seem to find a way to pinch enough pennies to attend New Year’s Eve parties, even if my mom made her own outfits, and we also usually did have a new Mitch Miller Christmas album, complete with Leslie Uggams, somewhere around the house. I think music, like daydreaming, was just another way of trying to remain an individual while also trying to figure out my own identity and place in the world. Later on of course mom was semi-right, (Don’t you just hate that?), for when living on my own I did have to figure out how to pay the electric bill before splurging on some new CDs, but by then my oddball identity was already in place. Also, luckily when I was a kid, my dad’s passive-aggressive nature, was really helpful in forking over quarters so I could buy a record and have us both get on mom’s nerves.
My sister was another big influence when it came to shaping my musical tastes and also perhaps my identity. After my Pickwick record label phase, which also included Melanie with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, (Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert was being televised at 11 PM on Saturday nights by then), my budding teenage angst turned to darker themes and then on to Progressive Rock. T. Rex Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Yes, and Rick Wakeman. Cover art once more had something to do with the trend I was following, that and the fact that Warner Brothers was releasing two-record sampler music sets for two dollars. I would hear sample songs from a myriad of artists on a Warner’s Brothers release and then begin thirsting for the entire album by a particular artist or group.
Some of my earliest drawings were copies of album covers and inserts, from the homeless man depicted on Tull’s “Aqualung”, to Marc Bolan in his glamorous oversized bowler from “The Slider”. I suppose it was after I went through my phase of Rick Wakeman’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” & “King Arthur” complete with the London Symphony Orchestra, that some sort of celestial intervention occurred. I mean I didn’t think I was I on the verge of donning a cape and ice skates to join the Knights of the Round Table touring company, but you never know.
“I am on a lonely road and I am travelling, travelling, travelling”, are the opening words from Joni Mitchell’s album, “Blue”; the opening words from her song “All I Want”. I don’t know if I was rooted to my spot when I first heard Joni’s high clear voice coming from my sister’s bedroom, but I do believe something inside of me went still and quiet while simultaneously attuned as an antennae or a struck tuning fork. I wanted to be where this woman singing was travelling. I wanted to go along on the journey. I was immediately hooked. I didn’t know it at the time that this was the opening of a new world for me, and not just musically but personally, as if I’d been given the glimpse of an artist’s life, a life of creativity as a way to be. Consider it a travelogue as diary, as life blood, as a perfect blend of voice, vision and experience. Consider it a phenomenon so true and pure that words fail to express it.
How strange that this should happen to me when Joni Mitchell’s album had been released a good five or so years before I first heard it, and even stranger when I felt there’d been other singer songwriters whose works I believed I’d already related to on some pretty deep level. For example there had been Carole King’s “Tapestry” and Janis Ian singing “I Learned the Truth at Seventeen”. There’d been Cat Steven’s singing “sitting on my own off by myself”, and Don McLean’s “starry starry night, paint your palette blue and gray”. I must have had a real flair for the dramatic as a kid since before and during phases of listening to the Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin and other rock bands, it was lyricists writing of relationships, of adult personal situations and emotions I had no firsthand knowledge of, that had me memorizing lyrics and singing along emotionally like I would have a clue as to what I was really singing about!
In my late teens and early twenties I tried to define this ignorance while writing the novel “Where Time Goes” via one of the main characters, Clarissa Griffin, a young woman who wants more than anything to be a singer. In one passage I wrote: “When Clarissa sang she entered the depths of a feeling so good, rich and profound, it seemed a touchstone for every impulse in search of a given location. The gestures which float like confetti between people, the space between thought and action, the pause between breaths…Clarissa wanted to be a devoted focal point for things as evocative and intangible.” In typical soap operatic fashion however, I had Clarissa sidetracked from her goals by an unexpected pregnancy just as I was sidetracked in reality by having to get a day job.
Still, by some subterranean route, it was by listening to Joni Mitchell that I fell in love with the idea of words, their ability to have power, their ability to be craft. Learning that Joni was a visual artist also unconsciously fed my underlying belief in the validity of the creative life, and that there was a rich wellspring historically to draw from. I’ve read articles about or interviews with recording stars where they mention their influences and, like Alice down the rabbit hole, I’m set off on whole new exploratory paths. There’s even a local music store which has listening booths like they had in the 1940s and 50s. I can put on headphones and, like Chet Baker would say, spend hours getting lost.
Time shifts and moves. Records become more crackly and scratched. Stereo needles wear out and parts for turntables even harder to find. In fact, the oil component which went into the process of making records became smaller due to the twentieth century’s energy crisis and I recall albums getting so warped a person could get seasick watching the stereo’s tone arm ride their grooves. This was despite the weight of a nickel taped to the tone arm itself. I remember turning more to tape cassettes and recording albums to them, even creating mixes for friends and loved ones as personalized gifts. I remember making these gifts often while working on a painting, switching between records, tapes, and eventually CDs, these gift tapes offering a variety of styles since by then I did not want any door to be shut musically. I could be just as moved by jazz and classical and new age as alternative and new wave and folk.
I still have the masters for some of these tapes; tapes which were given such titles as “Lush Hush” or “Some Neighborhood Girls”, as I also have a tape I recorded of a thunderstorm and a tape of voices leaving their messages on the answering machine. Every once in awhile I would put excerpts of these in the mixes made for friends. Some would enjoy them entirely but mostly there would be at least one cut that a friend would say must have come from “Difficult Listening Hour”.
Synesthesia is a neurological condition where a person may look at a flower and perhaps hear Brahms or, conversely, listen to Brahms and smell lilacs. Given my anxiety disorder and how surreal I often find reality, Synesthesia is a condition I’m happy not to have although I often wonder about it. Certainly much of what music I’ve listened to over the years has found its way into my artwork, either by reference to a specific lyric, or as a sort of soundscape tone poem that the paints, paper or canvass has collaged. I imagine it’s a bit like sonar or some frequency only dogs can detect, and I also imagine curved brush strokes are richer with melody and straight or jagged lines are either more percussive or are like trumpet blasts.
I can look at a painting and sort of tell time by it or, if not tell time then travel through time, aware that while I was doing a painting I was listening to Satyagraha by Phillip Glass and that my mother was ill, or that my ex was cheating on me, or that it was a rainy month of drear and the same month where a certain President decided to drop bombs on a particular country whether our own nation really wanted that or not.
I can look at one of my paintings and hear a cassette recording of a thunderstorm in my head, hear a thousand clear beautiful droplets falling amid rumbling claps. I can hear that cassette recording of rain and remember the early tape recorder my siblings and I had as kids, how it actually had reels looped together as if a for miniature movie house. I can remember its silvery microphone pressed against the cloth of a stereo speaker. I can remember the playback and my siblings laughter amid the scratchy sounds of the 78 that was playing; Dick Haymes maybe, or Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire…”We’re a Couple of Song and Dance Men/I’m the Song/I’m the Dance.”
I heard or read once that even when records became scratchy if the person who owned them is the one who played them over and over thus causing the scratchiness, then that person’s brain hears the music sometimes through the scratches almost as if the scratches were not there. I heard or read once that the same hypothesis can apply to memory.
In this essay I wrote that I have roughly 250 records in my apartment but I have no precise way of knowing what memories or feelings each might stir at any given time. I do know however what I have deliberately omitted in this essay in regards to memories, music, paintings and words. For the record consider this a composite for those circular grooves where scratches are.
A resident of NY, Stephen Mead is a published artist, writer, maker of short collage-films and poetry/music mp3s. Much can be learned of his multi-media work by placing his name in any search engine. His latest project-in-progress, a collaborative effort with composer Kevin MacLeod, is entitled "Whispers of Arias", a two volume download of narrative poems sung to music,http://stephenmead.amazingtunes.com/
His latest Amazon release, “Weightless”, a poetry-art hybrid, is a mediation on mortality and perseverance.