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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More to come …
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014