I was born in Chicago in 1949. I was a skinny feminine nerdy kid that couldn’t sit still. I didn’t talk. I was a ‘rocker’. I called it “bouncing”. Whenever I sat in a chair, I rocked back-and-forth. My parents were embarrassed and none of the kids wanted to be near me. I felt like an alien. That is the bad news.
The good news is; by the time I was ten, the simple singular processes of enjoying music, of buying and playing records, and talking to people about my musical discoveries had made it possible for me to have a few cool friends. Sort of like Ghost World. Playing LPs helped me go from nobody to play with to hanging with the Marko brothers to traveling all over the world.
I bought my first record in 1957. It was an LP by Elvis, entitled, “Loving You”. I would sit in the dark in my living room and bounce on the sofa, dreaming of going to school with a skinny white belt and my collar up. When the teacher told me to stop rocking; I’d jump up, pull out my guitar and shout, “I’ll show you rocking!” Then I’d be Elvis.
Fifty years and 12,000 LPs later I have still not found a more magical tender record to dream to. Right away I liked ‘sad and lonesome’ so I bought a couple of Hank Williams discs. I also bought a Jimmie Rogers record and Rolf Harris’ “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport”. Every night I sat in total darkness, bounced, and played those same few records over and over and over on my parent’s Columbia record console.
I believe 1961 was the best year in the history of American music. I got a weekend job working in my friend’s father’s store in the south side of Chicago. It was called Marko’s Surplus City and it was at 602 South State Street. Marko’s sold switchblades, fake ruby rings and lots of Chess, Atlantic, and Okeh Records.
1961 was the year people rediscovered Robert Johnson. “King of the Delta Blues Singer” was released by Columbia and a whole new generation of blues fans emerged and what we admiringly call “60s music” began. That was the same year white people began discovering Skip James, Junior Wells and Chuck Berry. That was the year Blue Grass stars Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers started playing some northern cities. Fats Domino became very cool and white people started going to Theresa’s Tavern and Pepper’s Lounge.
Rock and Roll replaced Doo-Wop at suburban high schools. That was also the year that folk music hit some bigger stages. Bobby Zimmerman was just starting up. Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand were essential. Black radio stations began competing with white ones for some of the youth market. Playboy magazine promoted (mostly) white jazz to college boys and made the word “ hifi” sound glamorous. Surfers ‘hanged ten’ and dropped out. Jerry Lee became the “killer”. Sock hops were over and civil rights was emerging. Black artists began entering the “world” via the Southside Chicago music scene. A part of the collective human psyche that had long been in the dark began moving into the light . . .and anyone with some “taste” for original truth and soulful humanity was invited to watch the show.
By 1961 I wasn’t bouncing alone in the dark anymore. Jimmy Cotton, Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop, and Ginger Baker came to Marko’s store to discover the man at the crossroads with the Hell Hound on his tail. Sometimes, Chuck Berry came in to sign autographs. Love of playing records started putting me in the right places at the right times.
Playing the right records became very hip. Venerable fellows, as much as ten years older than I, were now coming over to my house and the Marko’s house . . . to listen to records! I moved my room down to the basement. My scheme was to search out an endless parade of harmonica, drum and guitar solos (or spooky ethereal vocals) with which to impress these people. Every person I knew (under 30) was into records. Knowledge of the most edgy obscure “cuts” and discriminating taste became the primary membership requirements in this smoky underground culture. It was stressful and competitive; you had to dress right and talk right, but it was my own personal coming-of-age scene and I had never been happier.
Some guys liked the fast ripper-uppers, but I was most happy when I listened to a really sad song. Slow looping dreamscapes like Slim Harpo’s “Raining in My Heart” made me feel like I understood the world better than everyone else. Sad songs made me feel like it hurt me more than it hurt you. Sad songs made my feelings matter.
We never played a record all the way through; we just plunked the tonearm up and down and skipped from one ‘good part’ to another. Every cut we played was preceded by a scratching sound and the declaration; “This is the best #@$& ever!” There was always absolute silence when the producer turned on the reverb and the tunes got chilling and long black veil sounding.
We liked to hear artists air it out completely, set fire to the stage, knock it all loose, and make our chests cave in. Goosebumps, pumping, running fast, crashing into walls, squeezing, dancing, driving hard, zippers, black leather and paint, laughing, moaning and most of all – tears and prickly hairs standing up – that was what we were looking for. It was the 60s but the Beatles were nowhere (yet) in sight.
I left home for college in 1966. There was a walk-in closet in my off campus apartment which I converted into a combination performance stage and Wizard of Oz audio control room. It had a chair and a single red light bulb on the ceiling. Bob Hurley would sing “Suzanne” and “Its All Over Now Baby Blue” in the closet under that light. I played the Electric Flag album more than one thousand times. I scared people with E. Power Biggs. I met two hippy chicks who lived in a basement. They had straw-wrapped Chianti bottles covered with candle wax. They played Jim Kweskin and the Memphis Jug Band. A sexy drawing teacher invited me over and played Lord Buckley. My roommate turned me on to Fred Astaire and introduced me to Paul Robeson and Showboat. I turned him on to Chuck Willis and Otis Rush. We both put our records back in the cardboard sleeves after we played them. We both loved Oscar Wilde and hated Creedence Clearwater. We were snobs.
The preppy guys next door taught me to love the first Pink Floyd album and the Yardbirds. We sat on the floor, smoked pot rolled in brown zig-zags, and life was a glowing bumping dream with girls with no hairspray and a soundtrack by Jimi, Janis and the Jefferson Airplane. Because of LPs my tribe didn’t wear any underwear.
I moved to New York City and the first guy I met was a music critic for the Village Voice. He took me up to this cavernous loft and played Bob Marley’s “Lively up Yourself” through a pair of six-foot-high JBLs. I went home shaking with my socks going up and down. That experience made me go out and find two discarded refrigerators, paint them up like Jamaican flags, and stuff them with 15″ JBL drivers. I discovered Jimmy Cliff and Yellowman. Because of LPs, I smoked pot rolled in brown bag paper – drank at CBGBs and became ‘cool runnin’.
I met these two railbirds in black cabrettas who forced me to listen to Professor Longhair, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. A guy with a well-trimmed mustache and engineer boots took me to see Bette Midler at the Continental baths. My first new best friend studied painting and the history of African-American music in college. He listened to WLIB; “The only station in the nation with a Caribbean education”.
That was 1975. Pretty soon my upstairs neighbor was playing Donna Summer’s, “Love to Love You Baby” over and over 24/7. The Sex Pistols and the Ramones appeared. And the Pogues. The dark was really coming out now.
And then; the first thing you noticed was Opera records – especially the big box sets with beautiful linen boxes and exotic cover art – were replaced in the stores by little silver discs in kimshee plastic cases. By 1988, used, mint condition EMI/Decca opera sets were $1.00/record. I only knew Atomic Dogs but Harry Pearson and “Mark’s Barks” turned me on to Shaded Dogs and Mercury Living Presence LPs. And Decca bluebacks, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and Water Lily Acoustics. I was audio tribe.
Suddenly, everybody wanted CDs and records were practically free. A heavy collectible LP was maybe $20.00. $50.00 would buy you any LP on the planet. I went crazy. I made friends with record store owners. I got into Led-Tull, Captain Beefheart, and Yello. I bought every solo piano and violin record. I worshipped Liszt and Schubert. I bought all the AC/DC LPs. I tried R.E.M. I went to Princeton Record Exchange every week.
By 1990 I was buying at least one record each day. I was having delirious fun buying up all the artists and music genres that I did not get into when they cost twenty bucks. Better yet, 78s were free. So I bought a nice cartridge and turntable to play 78s. I lived in a big firehouse and there were record shelves everywhere.
People were putting their cat-scratched records out by the street, and I was bringing them home. I carried yellow Tower record bags everywhere. I felt like I had somehow owned every record (and every turntable, tonearm and cartridge) ever made. Long-playing records made the history of music fill up my life. Then I moved to a regular house. Then I bought a CD player.
Then I needed some CDs to play. Then I always had to decide whether to buy a CD or a LP. I hated that. Then I left my wife and moved on to a boat. I only took about 2000 LPs and all of my CDs. The boat preferred the CD player. Then I needed more room and my wife wanted me to get my records out of the house. I listened to music less and less. I thought about other things. I painted pictures a lot. I soldered a few amps and I sold 10,000 LPs for $2500.00. The buyer complained that there were not enough European pressings. He wanted some money back. I gave the rest away to good homes. Maybe they sold them on eBay.
These days I have a fabulous CD player (a Flatfish) but I live like a monk and my studio is in the basement. I buy a couple of CDs per month and I listen to them very thoroughly. I have only fifty LPs. I play two or three a year as a sacred ritual. I am sad I don’t have all my black discs anymore. I’d love a big studio, an EMT turntable and cartridge. A pair of WE91As and Altec A2s. I’d be honored to walk over to the shelves and pull out a mint British Decca – Rolling Stones, Beggar’s Banquet; “Dear Doctor” – and slip back into a sad song (Votive music). I’d love to become reacquainted with the solemn theology of black discs.
Nowadays, I admire the creation of song and dance more than ever. Love of music still introduces me to people and binds me to my friends. Even more than when I came of age at Marko’s Surplus City, music helps me be mindfully in the world. I am grateful for the full breath of music’s expression and the limitless depth of its humanity. With the experience of music’s diverse forms I have crossed life’s “many rivers”. But now I need music more than ever — not because of 78s or 45s or LPs or CDs or MP3s, but because I now understand how the simple sacred ritual of playing discs over and over carries me back to my original dreams and makes me feel honored to be a member of the human clan. Amen.