Obsessions don’t always start with an epiphany. Perhaps some of them don’t even start – they just are and always have been.
Step back to the big picture – Western astrophysics continues to struggle with the origin of the universe. The Big Bang provides a good theory for how things came to look like they do, but what came before the Big Bang? How did something come from nothing? This question and answer is particularly vexing to one of my sons. “It makes no sense,” he stresses, “Something can’t come from nothing.” When I suggest that other cosmologies are not bothered with the questions of origins because they believe the universe simply has always been, he balks. “No, everything has a start.” Maybe not.
Back down to the tiny, little meaningless picture – yes, I am going to conflate my interest in music and record collecting with the ontology of the universe.
When I read the stories of other music and record collectors, they often seem to be able to identify exactly when they got the bug. They point to a particular song or album cover that sparked the epiphany that led to a life spent digging through used records bins and scouring the internet (nowadays) for things like a rare pirated pressing of a demo from this band that only existed for one week before the members murdered each other in the recording studio. I don’t have any of those moments. Instead, I have memories around music fandom that are so early in my life that it suggests I can’t remember a time I wasn’t looking for something new to listen to.
When I was a child in the 70s I heard music from the radio in my parent’s car (AM I am sure), from communal radios played loudly while my family and others spent time at a lake in Carver (Massachusetts), and from a small transistor radio that I had for myself. I had a few friends, enough to get by, but from an early age a pattern was set. I would spend a lot of time by myself listening to music. By the fourth grade, whenever I had a few dollars I would ride my bicycle to downtown Quincy by myself (a bit of a haul, actually) to buy 45 rpm singles. I never bought albums. I don’t think this was simple a matter of logistics, although I’ll admit it would have been easier to handle a bag of 45s while on bike. I think it was really about having the single of whatever song I was digging.
For a while it was all about the Beatles and Paul McCartney. I loved the Beatles. Loved them. It was always the highlight of my year when “Help!” would randomly show up on the Saturday afternoon movie on TV. Before cable and VHS, you were really at the mercy of the station programmers in terms of seeing movies, and I would walk away from pick-up baseball or basketball games in progress if “Help!” was starting. Sightings of “A Hard Day’s Night” were rarer then, though now the situation seems to be reversed. I was so besotted with the Beatles, and so congenitally prone to wasting money, that I used to buy these ridiculous magazines that had stories about how the Beatles were going to get back together. There was no pretense that it was actual reporting – they were basically magazine length fan-fictions that you could buy at the 7-11. I had nearly a half-dozen of these things, and in each they would spin some scenario that would lead to the band getting back together. These magazines had actual photos of the band and were full of imaginary quotes about imaginary post-reunion albums and tours. I remember one issue included a bit in which the Beatles and the Who joined forces, en toto, to become the most super super-group of all time. I held onto these for years, both because as a record collector the archival urge is generally strong, and also because I was convinced that somehow they would be worth something later. As if when that wonderful day actually occurred and the Beatles got back together, these pieces of junk would have some importance. Perhaps one of them would have been on the money and could be mined for more details!
Not surprisingly, I still have the Beatles and Paul McCartney and Wings singles I bought.
Here is Live and Let Die, the theme song from the Bond movie. The song has not aged very well. Note that it is credited to Wings, and not Paul McCartney and Wings. I read recently that after the Beatles broke up, McCartney wanted the experience of being in a struggling band again, or at least of being in a band that was working as team to get to the top. I guess I can understand where he was coming from, but it was always doomed to failure.
Note also that I thought it was a good idea to write my name on the single. The number was part of an indexing system. I had a small box with a lid and handle, on the inside cover was an index that you could fill out as your collection grew. I don’t have all of the 42 45s that came before Live and Let Die entered the collection at #43, but I have a fair amount. Of course, now I would blanch at marring a record in any way, although I am often interested in buying used records that have been written on by previous owners.
Interestingly, Jet is credited to Paul McCartney and Wings, though I think they were released in the same year. I still love this song, mostly because of the 70’s production on the guitar. The lyrics are amazingly dumb, never McCartney’s strong suit, but the song still rocks. I played it once in a while when I was on the radio in college in the mid-1980s, in the midst of sets filled with the likes of the Replacements, Husker Du, and Squirrelbait. It might have sounded like an ironic move at the time, but I was just digging it. I’ve never thought that irony and music is a good match, but that is a topic for a later newsletter.
I don’t know about their personal history of music fandom, but as long as I can remember both of my parents have liked music. In fact, when I look at some of the records in my collection, I have no idea if I went out and bought the single myself or if one of my parents did and I swiped it from them or was given it after they tired of it. Like the universe, perhaps these songs have just always been there for me. For example, I’m pretty sure that
I didn’t buy The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack for myself. The fact that I have no memory of buying it doesn’t mean I didn’t, but I would have been seven years old when this single came out, and the thought of a second grader listening to this tune in their bedroom just seems absurd. However, it has a number on it, and quite a low one at that. This means I didn’t buy it at a much later date, and it was in my 45s box before the Wings records noted above.
I’m confused by the fact that it is part of Atlantic’s Oldies Series. Apparently she recorded her version in 1969, and then it was released again in 1972 (having been part of the Clint Eastwood movie Play Misty For Me). The song itself has kind of an interesting history that is worth looking into, filled with lots of drama, pining and infidelity.
I’m even more convinced that I didn’t pick up this Brook Benton version of Rainy Night in Georgia, but I can’t remember a time when it was not part of my record collection. Now when I hear this song on the radio, which is very, very infrequently, it reminds me of the single that I have, which in turn reminds me of my folks and being alive in the 1970’s. For a while it was listed in Rolling Stone’s top 500 songs of all time, but it might have fallen out of favor as of late. Great tune.
When I hear the Roberta Flack’s First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, I just think what a ridiculously amazing version of that song she produced. I think this gives evidence that some music can move from being your parents’ music to being your own, without nostalgia, and in some way, therefore, without parentage. It simply is – it came into your life out of nowhere. Perhaps that is only true of certain songs. When I hear Roberta Flack sing that song it doesn’t transport me back in time, but that is because her performance still feels so immediate that it becomes part of whatever present moment I am experiencing. Rather than taking me out of time, it helps define the time I am in. By contrast, if I hear Brook Benton I still enjoy it, but there may always be at least a bit of nostalgia as part of the listening experience. In some small way it takes me away from my present time. Or rather, it gives the moment (because we are always in the moment) a feeling of being at odds with itself. I can’t hear Live and Let Die without thinking about when it was released, but I can still get lost in Jet and feel mostly (if not fully) in the present.
On the other hand, I used to watch a lot of Soul Train, and so songs from that show that are in my collection reflect my own purchases. TSOP was the theme song from 1973 to 1975. As I turned to new wave and punk rock in my teens, I’m sure I joined many others in stating that I didn’t like disco music. I don’t remember any specific instances of saying it, but I’m pretty sure that is the kind of groupthink I would have gone along with. I’m not saying that people can’t honestly dislike disco, but a good case can be made for racial and sexual politics being behind some of the vehemence of the anti-disco sentiment. Yet in the early 80’s while I was in some pit getting bounced around to some hardcore band, this was still in my collection at home. This is perhaps one upside of being a record collector. If you are lucky, you might hang on to records that you would otherwise discard while going through some phase. Given time, you might come back around to those records again. I’m glad that I hung onto records like these so I can break them out on occasion.
Then again, there are songs that you never seem to grow out of, regardless of whatever phase you might be going through. I have always loved this song, and I probably always will.
It used to be that you could stack records on the turntable and they would drop down and play automatically. I’m sure this was horrible for the records but it was a great way to create a mix before tapes and computers. You could do it with LPs, but rather than listening to whole sides at a time, stacking 45s was like creating a radio show in your bedroom.
Little Willy was Number 42 in my box. If I were stacking up my 45s to play in numerical order, this would come on right after Jet and right before Live and Let Die. Nice.
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