Scheherazade – VIII — The Family Songbook
The destruction of my record collection in a religious purge, a childhood in a musical brothel, girls spinning rose and lavender moons, Bob Dylan's harmonica rampart, and a twelve-foot Hawaiian wave.
I truck my father’s Heathkit hi-tech, hi-fi tuner and power amp downstairs from the attic along with a plastic, bubble-domed, multi-stack-record-changing, cassette playing, AM/FM receiving, 8-track playing, primary colored, mood-detecting light show face plate marvel of do-it-all late seventies sound technology.
I also lug two ancient but durable speakers downstairs, their wires clattering and trailing twenty or thirty feet behind me like dragon tails as they wind down behind me in the tight attic stairway, through my mom’s library, around the upstairs stairwell banister, and into my bedroom where I draw their tails in like deep-sea anchor chain.
These twenty-pound speakers have suffered through thirty Maine attic winters and may no longer work, but they have seniority and deserve first crack at the stereo team.
It turns out the Old Mastiffs have life in them. They are throaty and hoarse. Their tired woofers have lost much of their growl, but they wail out in their fashion, can still wake the neighbors, and above all they know the family songbook.
There are about ten milk crates of family records in the attic, and I head there to raid them, looking for a soundtrack to help me sort the pictures and letters. I am not looking for favorites from a vast teenage collection – a vintage that, in places anyway, has been replaced on CD, but even if it hadn’t and I was still looking for Some Girls or American Beauty or Blow Your Face Out or The Last Waltz there is actually nothing left to play. My old records are physically here, stored separately off to the side in moving boxes, but they are segmented from the milk crates for another reason entirely: they’re literally unplayable.
There was a religious purge my Junior year in high school, and only a lily-pure handful survived an overcast record-scratching Sunday afternoon. With the various carving, cutting and decapitation instruments available on a Swiss army knife, I destroyed nearly every record I owned, ripping horrible radial scars against their grain to render them unplayable.
A few times over the years I’ve come across the boxes in the attic that still hold the destroyed collection, and I’ve thought with a rising hope that maybe this box contains records that I might have bought after the Purge, but then I open a record, roll it out from its inner sleeve and see that, no, these are the same ones and the whole business comes back to me, even at me.
Religious unrest had been brewing for some time.
I had read a story weeks earlier in Rolling Stone about a Baptist minister that had his entire youth congregation set fire to their rock and roll collections in a photo-op, church-front conflagration. Everybody at Rolling Stone right on up to Jan Wenner’s office was beside themselves, aghast at the sacrilege, but the crystal-eyed teenage faithful reportedly feeling cleaner and closer to God.
Back in Central New Jersey, their superior Southern conviction unsettled me, and I was not easily to be outdone in spiritual rigor. By their fruit – and mine – you will know them! So, in a grisly Kasey Kasem Sunday countdown, one hit record at a time, I considered the fruits of my collection and made terrible judgments with my swift little sword. I sat alone in the house, knife out, dispatching the congregation, easing larger tensions for a season.
Not surprisingly there were very few sheep and many, many goats. At a monthly bible study later on, there was a sympathetic, but disapproving consensus among evangelical fellow-travelers. It concluded with solemn, head nodding and lip-pursing solicitude (not to mention a prayer circle that ran well into overtime.)
A brother had gotten carried away. He should have spoken with somebody or other first. We all felt sorry for each other, but I didn’t take the bait, knowing they were either kidding themselves or secretly suffered the same fundamental discomfort.
In any event they lacked my true apostolic nature.
“And sex and sex and sex and sex and look at me! I’m in tatters!” Mick brayed.
Well, of course you’re in tatters! Cut, slash, gouge. Bad, evil lyrics. Cut, cut, scrape all the way to the edge. Don’t let any songs on that album get away. Bad, bad people. Bad Mick Jagger. Even looks like the Devil. “Day in New York and Back in LA.” No, he isn’t saying that at all, a friend had explained; he’s saying “Gay in New York and Fag in L.A.” Jesus Christ! And “I would suck a duck!” What???!!!? Cut. Slash. Cut. A mockery of everything I would truly love in my fleecy white Christian heart if I could just get that heart to open, but I can’t because I’m still friends with These People. I had no mammon, but I knew that I could not serve God and Rock and Roll. The Holy Spirit can’t get in. When the whip comes down! When the shit hits the fan, sitting on the can! Cut, cut, slash, cut! Heads up, everybody! Whip coming down!
As prophesied! You have said so!
The Grateful Dead! The Dead! Better believe it. And Cheap Trick! Turning tricks. Prostitution right in the name. In their name like a taunt at God! Who was I fooling? How could I imagine I could hear God with ears that could hear this? “I want You to want Me.” How they screamed! They should want God like that. Listen to the idolatry! You can’t make this up! In a movie you wouldn’t believe it. They know not what they do, but God will not be mocked! Galatians 6:7. The only verse in the entire Bible that ends in an exclamation point.
Look at this record liner photo! That guitar player probably doesn’t even like girls. Look how he dresses. And the little boy hat? What’s that about? But you can bet that old drummer likes girls, little ones probably, and not in a righteous, God-fearing, only-when-you’re-married, try-not-to-enjoy-your-orgasm way. Death to Budokan! Death to J. Geils! More! More! More! Onward Christian Soldier! Give me the yoke! I know what God wants. He wants oxygen… I need the mask… oxygen…Dennis Hopper… hyperventilating... Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.
Meanwhile over in Bo-Peep Meadow: the sad choral bleat of “Godspell” with the Original Broadway Cast, all by their lonesome, singing Day by Day at the top of their lungs, hoping I wouldn’t recall the second act Mary Magdalene nudity scene and knife out their vocal cords. To follow thee more nearly, know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly.
Oh, what a slippery pile of carnage and conviction spread out before me! The records were sprayed out at all angles ten feet wide on the killing floor. My cat sat on a far edge of the pile, looking offstage sleepily, away from the Inquisitor – like Charlie Watts, casually bored, even contemptuous of the front man, keeping the beat but not wanting anything more to do with it.
Oh, somewhere the devil must have laughed hysterically that afternoon, blood spraying out of his nose onto his cocaine mirror, his ashtray of cigarette butts and his trembling red hands.
As for Jesus, predictably he said nothing, but that’s just the kind of heavenly father he was. I always needed too much attention. It was just one scene after another, and he was bored of it. Sometimes it was like we weren’t even related.
My mother came home and was white with fury.
“I didn’t cut your records, “ I said. “I cut my records. I paid for them and I can cut them if I want. They’re mine to do what I want with,” I yelled in a righteous, temple-clearing rage, italicizing all the pronouns, yelling at the Pharisee who needed to hear the Truth for once, just once, spoken like it was, that nobody ever dared to do but me. Me!
“You are not allowed to throw those records out. You will keep those records forever. Forever!” my mom yelled, getting dangerously close to tears, signaling the end of the exchange.
There are plenty of artists in my mom’s collection to whom I’m indifferent. I certainly didn’t like all her friends.
I flick, flick, flick past Leadbelly and Bessie Smith and Joan Sutherland and Bennie Goodman and gloomy Wagner. I’m flat on Bel Canto, 45’s that need swirly plastic inserts, anything in mono even if it is good, Liza Minnelli bugging out, off-label flute and recorder music played by her personal friends, half-hour adagio crucifixions by Brahms, Helen Reddy roaring, repetitive minor third Philip Glass A-E-I-O-U Guantanamo tortures. But my mom had friends – and a lot of them – that I grew to know and love, artists I took for granted at the time, thinking they were a foretaste of the sprawling musical feast of my life, when, in fact, they were the feast.
Mine was a childhood in a musical brothel, in the company of sad romantics, drunks and easy women. My mother brought home anybody that moved her with a song. They’d show up in the living room on weekend evenings or in the car suddenly as we half-slept in the backseat: loud and wild, over-the-top, self-absorbed and self-pitying, vain and weak, always needing your full attention. Sometimes you’d wake up from an afternoon nap, and they’d be right there in the house, in the next room, singing along with my mother like old friends.
Sometimes the girls would find you on their own when my mom wasn’t around. They’d pull you aside and teach you a song or two. They’d smell of booze. They’d share their cigarettes if you asked a second time. They’d let a little tit flash or let their leg touch your leg, telling you about their shitty boyfriends and their personal crap, dressing it all up in pretty words, showing you a new chord on the guitar, leaning in, laughing at you, teasing, telling you how handsome you’d be when you grew up and all their “if only’s” and “maybe somedays.”
So you’d always want girls who could lean into your orbit like that and whirl you around like they did, women who could spin rose and lavender moons about you and then draw them back away again, eyes laughing. You felt their coy, centrifugal force, but you could feel the opposite, too: that they needed you back. They needed you because you felt their gravity all the way into your bones, and it made their whole thing work, while it worked.
Aaah! My mother’s friends! Janis. Joni. Aretha. Bette. Nina. Shirley. Dionne. Roberta. Joan from the West Indies. Judy of the blue eyes. Carly of the heart-breaking smile. My childhood women of wine and song. My ladies of the barrelhouse, beautiful and sad.
And the men she brought home were a whole other thing. One tall country dude came over in his cowboy fringes and his rattlesnake hat, and right in the middle of the living room announced that the only two things in life that make it worth livin’ are guitars tuned good and firm feelin’ women. And my mom laughed out loud! It was like having another woman hidden in your mother!
The guys were always scary talented but casual about it like they never practiced. They could cast a spell, make you laugh, make you cry, but still ignore you the whole time. Five steps ahead of you. No matter what else fucked up was going on in their lives, and something was always fucked up, they could flat out sing and play. Cocker. Cash. Jennings. Nelson. Brel. Presley. Waits. Stevens. Croce. Sinatra.
And Bob Dylan.
My mother heard Lay, Lady, Lay at a friend’s house and, completely smitten, bought two Greatest Hits albums for her boys, one for each of them. She might have held the sublimated hope that her handsome young sons would know someday how to love women with words the way he did, that they would be able to show women the colors in their minds, to let them have their cake and eat it too, to lead them down the winding stairwell of some A-C#-G-B bass line and unbutton them onto brass beds, their lovely bodies surrendering to language, to a skein of words unspooling, to diamond-hard, blue-eyed desire, to the promise of escalating seductions – to worlds beginning.
In the absence of any real-world romantic models, Bob Dylan became the gold standard for the poet lover with his easy flow of words: his wild, Semitic hair; his wary, sharp glare cast out at the world from behind his harmonica rampart. He was our Byron. That my mother gave this elusive vagabond such a clear nod of approval raised the stakes on what it would mean to become a man in full.
You would have to be a poet, too.
I start pulling records. Some of the ladies. Some of the men.
In another bin I spot and pluck out the music to Born Free sung by an uncelebrated English children’s choir. This forgotten LP can tear your heart in two, can wow and flutter you, winding warped vinyl magic carpet circles around the changer. On its record cover atop illustrations of rowed up cartoon lions it reads “Adam Nathan,” written in my mother’s hand.
It was my first record.
Yes, kind old lions that wouldn’t eat people, you’re coming downstairs, too.
And behind Born Free another record catches my eye.
Yes, this one.
Oh, absolutely this one.
Hey, everybody's talkin' about the good old days, right?
Everybody, the good old days, the good old days…
Well, let's talk about the good old days.
Come to think of it as, as bad as we think they are
these will become the good old days for our children...
No matter where I am in the world, I can find my way home on the A-side of Gladys Knight’s 1975 album I Feel a Song. In the seconds it takes the mechanical arm of a record changer to clatter and clack beneath a chock-a-block record platter, lock into a 33 1/3 orbit, and drop abruptly into its echoing vinyl canyon, I can bring you my mother.
She will come in from the kitchen, her reflection on the harbor windows, the dinner cleared, the dishes done. She’ll dance a little walk into the living room, safe and at peace in her body and her home, maybe holding a glass of wine. She will pick up the album cover from the glass coffee table, lean over to nudge the stereo volume higher, and she’ll sing out the lyrics on the record sleeve, the ones that she underlined in some earlier summer and starred in red and wrote “so so beautiful” in the margin. She will kiss the top of your head as you read your book without looking up, pausing just long enough to let you feel her taking your presence in. You’ll never truly know how happy she is that her son is visiting and home again.
(Well, you will, but later.)
I don’t know if you have ever closed your eyes during the finale of a fireworks show and just felt life explode in your chest, but that’s what can be done with an old-fashioned turntable and the five exquisite tracks on the A-Side of I Feel a Song. You give me that album with Gladys Knight at the height of her artistic powers and I will give you my mother in the prime of her life.
I will give you her romantic heart, her femininity, her laugh, her love of song, her open-hearted love of people and the curling twelve foot Hawaiian wave of spiritual energy that moved through her, that moves through her children and grandchildren, that moves through her friends, that moves out through this sentence and into any open heart that will receive her even now that she is Gone.
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Feel something. Twice a week.