09 December 2005

The thrill of the hunt

This evening, I saw a splash ad for Napster that said, "Download a decade," and it completely sent me back to 1987. That's the year that Peter and I decided that we had to own the 1970s: a decade that formed us, with some of the oddest, most exhuberant, cheesiest, most excessive music ever. In 1987, we were really poor, and that dovetailed with something fortuitous: the rise of the compact disc.

Yup, I'm one of those people who can actually say I remember the first time I ever heard a CD. I think it was Bryan Adams, and it really sounded funny. I can't explain that now—years later, with hundreds of CDs on my shelf—but back then, music on CDs sounded tinnier, more distant and clinical. But that may well have been due to the lack of 1) a large paperboard cover and 2) dust. We looked at CD covers, those click-y clear plastic inventions, and they seemed so micro, so literally square, and just a tad obsessive. What do you think's gonna happen to the thing, you know? Aren't those freaky rainbow mirror circles supposedly indestructible?! (That was one of the media selling points, actually.)

And thenceforth, the rise of CDs led to a flood of vinyl. Some of it was actually still shrink-wrapped in the familiar large, alphabetical bins of a record store: marked down. Way to get my blood flowing. (We used to call all chain record stores "Record Orgasm," in homage to all the "Sound Explosion," "Record World," "Music City" kind of names.) At any rate, given our fiscal challenges, most of the vinyl that Peter and I set out to acquire was humble, used, and greyish with dust. In 1987 we began haunting Goodwills, Salvation Armys, yard sales, and anywhere else that vinyl was being shunted by the uncaring listening public. We became aces at cleaning layers of dust, excavating jewels from everyday filth. A little popping and scratchiness just enhanced the audio joy, we convinced ourselves.

I can still remember the palpable thrill one afternoon at the Goodwill in Bath, Maine. They had a bin crammed with outcast records. Stuck in amongst the LPs was a homemade spindle, some kind of long broomstick attached to a wooden disc as a base. That day, the spindle was stacked unbelievably high with 45s. I'm sure we let out some girly utterance in our excitement, like "Aaaaah!" or "Ooooh!" Then we commenced to pulling a handful off the stack and flipping through the coverless 45s—carefully; why scratch them any worse than they were—and setting aside all the ones we wanted. "Walking in Rhythm," by the Blackbyrds. "Back Off Boogaloo" by Ringo Starr. "Get Up and Boogie" by Silver Convention. "Clair" by Gilbert O'Sullivan. (You know, I could rave on, but that's the gist. Semi-obscurities that sent us back in time as soon as the first chords sounded through the needle.)

So what we were doing, really? We were reconstructing our childhoods and teen years, that's what. Because when we were kids, our parents weren't doling out sufficient dough to feed our music heads. I literally used to have to sneak LPs into my house underneath my coat, whenever I'd gathered/scammed enough money for records. I was skinnier then; it was tough to get my arms to fall naturally around a big squared-off chest as I rushed into the house past my stepfather. My mother was a musician, and yet if I asked her, "Can I have money to buy an album?" she'd retort, "You already have enough records, Nessa." Like what was that supposed to mean?! (She said the same thing about books when I came home forlornly clutching the Scholastic Book Club form. "I've read all those books!" I'd say. "Read them again," she'd intone with a profound lack of logic.)

Peter's parents, by contrast, were frugal Quakers. Not musicians, but not rock appreciators either. So his only album holdings, when he got to college, were from the Columbia House "Pick 20 albums for 1 cent" deal. That ran in every magazine any kid ever touched back then. I never could have gotten that box into the house under my coat.

What was the grail, you might wonder, the serious catch that Peter and I pursued so diligently in the musty Goodwill, under the buzzing fluorescent lights? That would be: K-Tels. We worshipped them, those splashy collections of every single that mattered in a five-month time period. They used to jam some 30 songs on one of those K-Tels! The sound quality suffered from the narrower grooves on the vinyl, but who cared? Now we had "You and Me," by Alice Cooper, and "Do You Wanna Make Love" by Peter McCann, and "Flash Light" by Parliament. (Reinsert raving comment here.)

1987 is a generation ago. Peter and I, still together, still fanatics, own thousands of LPs—most of them used. We own hundreds of K-Tels, fetish objects that they are. We love singles, too, and have more than 1000 of them. In many cases, we had to fashion sleeves out of flat paper bags from a bookstore. Their numbers increased significantly when jukeboxes switched over to digital; we ended up buying scores of cast-off singles from a local antiques shop. Those 45s had played in restaurants, bars, and bowling alleys all over Maine--we know, because the sleeves on the records had a handwritten note as to where they had been.

Download a decade? Nah. Search it out like a quest, clutch it to your chest (under your coat, if you must), share it with a beloved, and cherish it always.

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