In the grooves, part two

Instructions from vinyl exhibition, OCMA ©Joyce Millman
Instructions from vinyl exhibition, OCMA
©Joyce Millman

In part one of this post, a visit to “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” at the Oakland Museum of California got me thinking about the records that meant the most to me during my childhood in the ’60s up until I stopped buying vinyl in the early ’90s. This isn’t meant to be a “best-of” list, but rather, a personal history told through records. All albums pictured below are from my collection. Those who are fastidious about the condition of their vinyl might want to look away.

Pre-history: 1960 to 1964

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The copy of West Side Story, above, used to belong to my parents. I found it while going through the boxes of hundreds of albums I’ve relegated to a back closet. Inside the sleeve, I found, sans cover, the Julie Andrews-Rex Harrison Broadway soundtrack of My Fair Lady. How did it end up there?  Needless to say, both discs were scratched beyond playability. Clearly, I’m not a very good curator.

From as early as I can remember, I was listening to my parents’ show tunes albums on their blonde wood hi-fi. West Side Story, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Kiss Me Kate … you name it and I had a song-and-dance routine ready to perform for any captive audience. How I wasn’t stuffed in a sack and dropped in the river before my sixth birthday remains a mystery.

Childhood: 1964-1969

 

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And then came the Beatles, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones. I fell hard for all of them. But until I was old enough to buy my own records, I had to get my fix from a transistor radio and Ed Sullivan. The first record I bought with my own money (Chanukah gelt? Tooth fairy?) was the 45 of “Eleanor Rigby”/”Yellow Submarine” in 1966, when I was 9. I can’t remember where I got it;  there were so many places to buy records, from five-and-dimes like Newberry’s and Woolworth’s to discount stores like Bradlee’s and Zayre’s. My corner drugstore even had a rack of records in the back next to the pharmacist’s counter.

Usually, I could only afford to buy singles — the largesse of relatives and babysitting money only went so far. My favorite source of 45s was the record department annex (entered via weird subway-type turnstile) of the old Jordan Marsh department store in downtown Boston. To buy a single, you stood at a long counter and the clerk would fetch your choice from the 45s slotted alphabetically, their titles written in black marker on long white plastic place cards that stuck out above the rack. When I was around 11 or 12, I would take the subway into Boston with my girlfriends and  spend Saturdays buying love beads and penny candy before hitting the singles counter at Jordan’s. To pass through the enchanted turnstile only to find an empty rack beneath the place holder for “Love Child” by the Supremes was like … I still can’t talk about it.

My most-played album of this period was the 5th Dimension’s Age of Aquarius. The 5th Dimension were an elegant pop-soul quintet — two girls, three guys and all amazingly fashion-forward — who were a favorite of Ed Sullivan. They’re often lumped under “easy listening” now, but you have to admit, they had impeccable taste in songwriters; their long string of Top 40 hits included songs from Jimmy Webb (“Up, Up and Away”), Laura Nyro (“Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Wedding Bell Blues”) and Ashford and Simpson (“California Soul”). I played the Age of Aquarius album constantly;  as an 11-year-old in 1969, I was fascinated by the title medley of “The Age of Aquarius”/”Let the Sunshine In” from the hippie musical Hair, which I was too young to see. So I thank the 5th Dimension for allowing me to fly my freak flag in an age-appropriate way. Also, for turning me on to Laura Nyro and Jimmy Webb long before my critical sensibilities kicked in. The variety and quality of what was on the charts during this whole period of AM-radio-driven pop music history still blows my mind. (The “Age of Aquarius” video below is audio only, but this is what the record sounded like to my 11 year-old ears.)

A word about equipment

I can’t remember exactly when, but I seem to have acquired my own record player in the mid-’60s. I have vivid memories of playing my 5th Dimension album on a rectangular red and white portable plastic phonograph; it had a carrying handle and a turntable that was the size of a 45, so when you played an album, it would hang off the sides.  There was also an AM radio in it. This record player was my most beloved possession. I don’t remember the brand or what became of it when I got a real stereo with a turntable and speakers for my 13th birthday. But I can close my eyes and picture The Age of Aquarius and my Monkees records wobbling on that tiny turntable. I can almost hear the tinny scritch of “I’m a Believer” coming out of its speaker. I tried Googling portable record players of the era to find a picture of mine, but the closest I got is this Columbia model made for the Japanese market, which has become quite a collectors’ item, I guess. I’m sure my record player was a knock-off of a knock-off; it definitely didn’t play upside down (and, believe me, I would have tried). But it looked very much like this. Can anyone help identify my record player?

 

Hormones: 1970-1971

It happened overnight. Puppy-eyed Davy Jones was no longer man enough for 13-year-old me. In his place ambled a more grown-up type of heart-throb, a sensitive singer-songwriter dude, with patched jeans and hippie hair, singing of broken hearts and wild worlds, hinting of darker pain. At pajama parties with my girlfriends, we’d play James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Deja Vu and rank the guys in order of cuteness. Usually, James Taylor won. But a young girl’s heart is fickle. Yes, that is a mustache drawn on Sweet Baby James.

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But not even James Taylor singing “Fire and Rain” could top the saddest, most sensitive hippie-hunk of them all. Behold, the greatest rock-opera ever recorded. My Broadway geekiness reawakened, I spent many hours in my room singing my heart out (quietly) to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and wishing I was Mary Magdalene. For a Jewish girl, this felt very daring.

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1970 was a big year for big albums. Jesus Christ Superstar was a double record set. But the soundtrack to the movie Woodstock was a triple. Just as I had been too young for Hair in 1969, I was too young to actually go to Woodstock. This was a source of much frustration as I plunged deeper into my wannabe-hippie adolescence. I received the Woodstock album for Chanukah, 1970;  I was so eager to open the shrink wrap to get at the live Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tracks inside that I sliced three fingertips on the side of the sleeve, resulting in wicked paper cuts. In hindsight, I’m not sure it was worth it.

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Back to the hormones … Looking through my albums, I realize that 1971 was a pivotal year. My musical tastes, driven by maturing sexual curiosity, were changing. The tender singer-songwriters had given way to full-on, howling golden gods, testosterone-dripping guitar-rock, whammer-jammer dirty blues. These are a few of my best-loved records from that year.

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I was also listening to Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, the Faces’ A Nod Is as Good as a Wink to a Blind Horse and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (of course). This music was dangerous and sexy — not that I knew all that much about sex. In the ’80s, when Tipper Gore went on her nutty campaign to put warning stickers on albums, I thought about myself at age 14, swooning over Robert Plant and Mick Jagger, thrilling to the dirty mysteries of black dogs and midnight ramblers. I’m grateful that I was permitted a Tipper-free puberty.

Who Am I?: 1971-75

I was listening to a lot of albums made by men. Sometimes, there were female backup singers, but more often, women existed on these records only in the lyrics, as gin-soaked barroom queens or ethereal muses with love in their eyes and flowers in their hair. I was boy-crazy, for sure, but deep down, I knew the women those boys sang about were not me. Where did I fit in? Was there a place for me in the rock and roll paradise of my imagination?

It’s hard to convey exactly what Carole King’s Tapestry meant to me when it came out in early 1971. Here was a woman who didn’t look like a rock star — no make-up, unruly hair, imperfect features, perched on a window seat with a cat in sun-dappled serenity. She (co-)wrote the songs, she played the piano, she sang in a white-girl soul voice that made up in immediacy and longing what it lacked in polish. Though King was singing about subjects that were years beyond my experience (marriage, breakups, balancing career and family), the female-ness of Tapestry spoke to me. I understood that King was working out her place in the world, just as I was, even if she was further up the road. I was looking for a possibility of the woman I wanted to be, and Tapestry (and later in 1971, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and the following year, Bonnie Raitt’s Give It Up), were my guides. I played the hell out of Tapestry, so much so that when I pulled it out of the box a few years ago, the scratched disc fell through the disintegrating cover. I replaced it with the CD, which is why there’s no photo.

But as much of a rock and roller as I was, old habits die hard. The inextinguishable Broadway trooper in me was just a teeny bit obsessed with Liza Minnelli, who was at the height of her career after starring in the movie version of Cabaret. I was very into the soundtrack album to Liza with a “Z”, a (still awesome) TV special from 1972. I used to hang out on the front porch with the boy next door — who was as big a Liza fan as me — and we would reenact the show, song for song, in all its Bob Fosse-sway-backed, jazz-handed glory. Every lyric, Liza-ism and audience interaction on this record is burned into my brain. If you ever need a Liza impersonator on short notice, I’m your girl.

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Throughout high school and continuing into my first two years of college,  I listened to music constantly, and I read the record and concert reviews in Rolling Stone, Creem and the two local alternative newspapers, the Phoenix and Boston After Dark. I was picking up the vocabulary that would later allow me to write about music for a living. And that was my nascent ambition — to be a rock critic. But as many records as I bought, I didn’t really have an absolute favorite artist. I wanted to feel passion and inspiration but, instead, I was strangely adrift.

Until I heard this album.

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More to come …

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

Breaking up with my celebrity crush

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In the beginning, when there is only blind infatuation, you never think of the detritus. You never think that someday, all of this will end and you will be overcome with revulsion over your folly.  And then you will sit on the floor with your head in your hands and wonder what the hell you were thinking. And how the hell are you going to dispose of the evidence of your 10+ year-long celebrity crush, an obsession catalogued by a pile of crap for which you once paid top dollar on eBay, but is now so worthless on the open market, you can’t even give it away.

If I were to walk outside right now and get hit by a bus, this is what my loved ones would discover when they sift through my belongings:

A four-drawer filing cabinet, one-and-a-half drawers of which is devoted to the aforementioned celebrity crush, crammed full of newspaper clippings, magazines, foreign newspapers and magazines, stacks of 8X10 glossy press photos and I don’t even know what else.

A bookshelf filled with choice finds pertaining to the career of celebrity crush, including script books, unauthorized bio, weird random memoirs by other celebrities in which crush is mentioned and movie tie-in novelizations.

Two shelves of movies on DVD and (woe is me) VHS, and another of bootleg tapes and DVDs from European sources and homemade stuff taped off the TV.

A book-on-tape, read by celebrity crush. I don’t even have a machine to play it on anymore.

An autographed photo that someone obtained for me, that isn’t even autographed to my correct name.

Three movie posters, rolled up in the closet.

Four action figure likenesses of celebrity crush, one of which remains sealed in its original package (the only items in this absurd collection that I actually wouldn’t mind keeping).

I deleted all the fan fiction in a pre-surgery panic. So, that’s something.

I know you’re probably wondering why I let this happen. The truth is, I don’t know. I wasn’t unhappily married, sex-starved or a hoarder. Maybe it was menopausal hormone wackiness. Maybe I needed a hobby. Look, the “why” of it is not important. Neither is the “who,” so don’t ask.  My problem right now is “how”. How do I get rid of this stuff?

Most of it can’t just be dumped in the trash. Have you tried to get rid of a video tape lately?  They are among the least recyclable objects on the planet. Even my local library has a stern “ABSOLUTELY NO TAPES” sign next to its donation bin. I’d burn them, but it would probably destroy what’s left of the ozone layer. I suppose I could make it all Goodwill’s problem, but that seems like the coward’s way out. Yard sale? I would rather die than identify myself as the owner of nine cassette tapes of obscure BBC radio plays from the 1980s and a borderline gay-porn indie film that the former object of my admiration not surprisingly leaves off his resume. Why does a spring cleaning of the soul have to be so embarrassing?

When you’re in the throes of celebrity crushdom, you feel giddy every time you gaze upon your temple of spoils. It’s your obsession made tangible. But when you finally snap out of it, you see that it’s just a big, stupid pile of shame. And it’s not even cool shame! I once owned every issue of 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat from back when I was a kid in love with Davy Jones. Could I not have had the foresight to save those?  At least that bundle of vintage pop artifacts would have been an adorable reminder of my youthful innocence, unlike this albatross of midlife insanity I’m now saddled with.

And it kills me that the dregs of an inexplicable passing fancy live on, while my collection of Springsteen tee shirts … oh, now here’s a sad story. I safely carted my precious E Street Band tour tees (going back to 1978!) on a cross country move, but 16 years later, when we moved three streets over, I somehow left them in a big green garbage bag in the garage and moved a big green garbage bag full of car-washing rags instead. I didn’t discover the mistake for months, and by then it was too late.

I still mourn the loss of my Born in the USA tour sweatshirt. Come to think of it, there was a Clash Sandinista shirt in that bag, too. And one that the producers of My So-Called Life distributed to TV critics after the show was cancelled, with the logo on the front and handwritten messages from the cast and crew on the back. Claire Danes! Jared Leto! Gone, all gone. And yet, my big, smoking pile of shame remains, mocking me, eternal as nuclear waste.

Breaking up with a celebrity crush is not like breaking up in real life; when the spell is broken and crush leaves you feeling nothing but queasiness, you can’t just tell him to pack up all of his lousy possessions and go. So, to anyone having a dreamy little thing with a celebrity, I advise this: Keep it dreamy, like, entirely in your head, because once you start accumulating actual, physical memorabilia, you are so screwed.

Oh, and if you can guess the celebrity who inspired my pile of shame, you’re welcome to (almost) anything  from it. But I’m keeping the action figures, and you’re paying the postage.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

The Queen and I

Queen Victoria statue in Kensington Palace garden ©Joyce Millman, 2013
Queen Victoria statue in Kensington Palace garden
©Joyce Millman, 2013

Few people understand my Royal Family thing.  Oh, I can always count on my sister and my mother-in-law for in-depth conversations about the Windsors.  But my husband doesn’t get it.  A lot of my friends don’t get it, and the ones who never knew this about me probably won’t get it, either.  I have to admit, sometimes I don’t even get it.

But I keep calm and carry on, monitoring What Kate Wore  (surely the greatest, most useful blog in the history of the Internet), and hunkering down on Sunday nights to watch dusty PBS documentaries — or as I like to call them, “royal crack” — about Queen Elizabeth II and her family and forebears.  Last Sunday night, for instance, I watched “Royal Memories: Prince Charles’ Tribute to the Queen”, in which the marble-mouthed, pink-cheeked heir to the throne (heh, good luck with that, Chuckles) showed heretofore private home movies from his childhood. (The Prince and I both teared up.)  I followed that with a cruise around BBC America’s On Demand menu, which yielded more gems from the vaults — a greatest hits reel marking Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee , followed by a William and Kate wedding special that I’d seen parts of elsewhere, but watched anyway.  I can’t get enough of that wedding. Kate’s poised elegance,  William’s happiness,  Pippa’s magnificent ass swaying like a pendulum as she carried her sister’s train up the steps — ah, memories.

So now you know that I’m one of those people.  And I wear it proudly. I refuse to call this a “guilty pleasure”. It’s more like a hobby. Well, fetish, maybe.  But I make no apologies for staring at the live stream of the front door of St. Mary’s Hospital for two hours last week waiting for the first glimpse of Wills, Kate and their newborn prince.  Some people knit, some people play Fantasy Football,  I fangirl over the British Royals. Is that so wrong?

There was a time when I hid my secret passion. In 1981, when everyone in my office was swooning over Charles and Diana’s wedding, I put on a sneer of boredom and berated them for supporting a superfluous monarchy while  London was boiling over with economic inequality and racial tensions. But later, in private,  I watched the wedding highlights and devoured photos of Diana in her cream-puff dress and glittering tiara. Forgive me Joe Strummer, for I have sinned.

I came out as a Royals-watcher during the course of Charles and Diana’s marriage. Diana was an irresistible cyclone of high fashion, maternal perfection, spousal betrayal and dangerous neuroticism.  I gave in and got caught up in the greatest reality show of all.  Yup, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The story of the Windsors — actually, the story of the whole British monarchy throughout history — has all the drama, sex, tragedy and triumph you could ask for, and it’s all unscripted. Even Shakespeare couldn’t make this stuff up, he had to borrow it from them.

My obsession with the British monarchy has many facets, some of them even scholarly. (Almost.) I will never forget feeling disoriented with surprise when I first saw Buckingham Palace, for real. It was exactly as it looks in pictures, yet somehow much smaller and unassuming against the stuff you don’t see on TV:  the tourists, the traffic, the sounds of construction and modern life.  And it’s a humbling thing to be standing in Queen Victoria’s childhood bedroom in Kensington Palace, looking at her old dolls and crib. The Royals are the past and the present (and the future) converging, preserving the chain of British history even as they’re forging new links.  I know there’s a compelling argument to be made that the Royals are obsolete freeloaders. But it seems to me that there is value and substance to what they bring to England and the world. The best of them,  the Queen and, by all indications, Prince William, take their responsibilities as caretakers of their country’s past seriously, and they perform their duties, largely symbolic as they are, with humility.

I’m not saying that the Royals’ personal behavior has always been up to snuff.  In the past century alone, the Windsors have given us abdication, infidelity, politically incorrect gaffes, divorce, toe-sucking, topless sunbathing and strip poker, to name but a few.  But look at what we Americans have in comparison: Politicians sexting pictures of their penises. You can’t tell me that “Carlos Danger” is more absurdly entertaining than Prince Charles caught on tape telling then-mistress Camilla that he wished he could be her tampon.

But I’m not really in it for the scandal.  My particular weakness is the fashion iconography. At Kensington Palace a few years ago, I lingered at an exhibit of Diana’s evening gowns, moist-eyed and trembling, like a religious pilgrim before a shrine. It was one of the most intensely wondrous experiences of my life. What can I say?  Yes,  I am that shallow.

What hooks me the most, though, is the thing that drives Royal-haters the craziest:  I love the the pomp, the pageantry, the etiquette, the arcane rules.  And the hats.  Can’t forget the hats. “Preserving the old ways from being abused/ Protecting the new ways for me and for you,” sang the Kinks, only half sarcastically, on “The Village Green Preservation Society,” their ode to an England of  “little shops, china cups and virginity.”  OK, clearly that England doesn’t exist anymore, but those peculiarly English ways of doing things, the manners, the protocol, all of that hangs on in Royalworld.  And I think that’s what makes it so fascinating to onlookers, especially Americans. There is a correct way to address the Queen, there is a correct way of setting a banquet table at Windsor Castle, there are only a few suitable names for a newborn heir to the throne (“North West” is not one of them).  Far from being a colossal waste of time and money, I see all of this as a comforting example of order and civility in a mad world that otherwise seems governed by the rule that there are no rules.

And Queen Elizabeth II has been the exemplary embodiment of constancy, decorum and tradition.  Yes, Diana humanized the Royals, but she almost destroyed them, too. And the Queen picked up the pieces.  She accepted that she, as head of the Royal Family, needed to change with the times, become more emotionally open and relevant, if the monarchy itself was to survive.  And she did change, in large ways (it’s widely believed that she pushed for the recent rewrite of the law of British succession, to end discrimination against girls in inheriting the throne) and small (but no less exciting) ways — she poked fun at her image by parachuting out of a helicopter (via stunt person) with Daniel Craig as James Bond to open London’s 2012 Olympics.

Will the British monarchy endure?  I hope so. But I realize that there are natives of the U.K. who feel strongly otherwise, and it is their opinions and votes that matter, not those of some American Anglophile. But, may I make a modest proposal?  If the monarchy is dissolved in my lifetime, could PBS please just take the logical step of turning the Royals into a reality show?  And if Lord Grantham from “Downton Abbey” could narrate it, I’d be ever so grateful. Cheers, and God Save the Queen.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2013