Liam knows how to operate a turntable. He received a vintage Fisher Price portable record player for Christmas from his Aunt Manda and Uncle Jeff. Manda has been sending him read-a-long books and records since before he could walk. It made sense to get him a system to put those records to use.
I listened to several of the records with Liam, but had not let him try to operate the system. Without really processing what I was doing until after the moment, I started showing him what to do.
“Look at the record. You want to play the side with the 1 on it first.”
I showed him how to gently place the record on the turntable and moved the power switch to the 33 mark.
“Now carefully lift the needle and put it right on the edge of the record. You have to be really careful. You don’t want the needle to scratch the record.”
That was the moment it hit me. I was passing on something of importance, important to me anyway. I have been collecting vinyl for more than a decade, and I just showed my firstborn how to play a record. I’m sitting here contemplating how to express how profound this experience was for me, but I can’t come up with the words. Suffice to say, moments like those are the reasons you become a parent.
I sat down to listen to the record with him, which incidently was “Cinderella”- the same Cinderella I listened to over and over as a kid. Then it kind of dawned on me. His record player didn’t only have to be used for read-a-long books. I could buy him actual music to play! My heart starting pounding just thinking of him jumping up and down on his bed, air-guitaring along to Joan Jett, his favorite singer. I sought out my hubby, who was bumping around on the internet.
“Do you want to make Liam’s whole life? Find a 45 of ‘I Love Rock and Roll’.” Ben went to work.
I started thinking back, way back, to the earliest songs that had an effect on me. Walking to school as a tiny first grader, carrying my back pack and singing “Our Lips are Sealed.” Around the same time, my brother Chris and I discovered you could call radio stations and request songs. We called repeatedly to hear “Rapture” and “Your Kiss is on my List.” Each time we called, we disguised our voices with a new accent so the DJ’s would believe there was a lot of demand for our song. No sooner would they play it and we’d start the whole process over again. I’m pretty sure we were responsible for a good number of DJ’s vacating their jobs, shaking their fists and proclaiming “Fuck! Just play Blondie and make those kids stop calling me!”
There are really two incidents that shaped my vinyl collection, and I can attribute both to my sister, Lisa.
Lisa and I shared a room, which was probably her worst nightmare since I am seven years younger than she is. If you grew up in the mid-eighties, you recall rock bands being linked to Satanism. KISS of course stood for Kings In Satan Sin, or Knights In Satan’s Service. AC/DC, After Christ Devil Comes. I sat frozen in front of the TV as Barbara Walters expounded on the dangers of cults and rock music on more than one episode of “20/20.”
My sister hid her records in the closet, lest our parents get hold of them and ban her from listening. When she was out cruising with her boyfriend, Chris and I would sneak in and listen to them. Those moments were the first time I knew doing something bad could feel pretty good. I was terrified of being caught, yet powerless to stop myself from leaving.
Chris put April Wine on the turntable. I looked at the cover and read some of the lyrics, but I wasn’t feeling the gravity of the situation. Then Chris pointed out the lyrics for a song titled “If You See Kay.” He explained how it sounded very similar to “F-U-C-K.” Fuck! The song was saying FUCK! Oh man, we really were listening to the Devil’s music. My ears couldn’t unhear it.
I tried to atone for my musical sins by mending my ways. I changed the words to popular songs to make them more Christian friendly. “R-O-C-K in the USA” became “G-O-D in the USA”, nevermind that the syllables don’t match up. “We Built This City on Rock and Roll” was modified to “We Built This City on God’s Word.” Yes, yes I was that strange little kid anointing my dolls with oil and holding revival under the swing set. I even wrote an editorial in my third grade newspaper about the dangers of Rock and Roll, describing how Huey Lewis and the News “I Want a New Drug” sent a bad message to kids. Perhaps it was an attempt to salvage my cool cred, but as an adult, I rebuilt my sister’s music collection and savored every purchase.
The single most influential piece of vinyl I have ever owned in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It has changed my life not once, but twice.
My sister received “Thriller” as a gift from her boyfriend. She never really listened to it- maybe it wasn’t demonic enough, or maybe she never got the opportunity because I laid claim to it too fast. This was a record I didn’t have to hide in the closet, I could listen to it on my parent’s turntable- the big console unit where you could stack record to play one after the other. But I never stacked- there was only one record for me. I listened to “Thriller” endlessly. I danced to it, sang to it. I even gave myself the goal of memorizing ever lyric by the end of the summer.
My room became plastered with MJ posters, my folders for school covered with Michael stickers. I had the jacket, the glove. I even had the doll, which my boys now play with- they insist that Michael can never have clothes on, and must always be swimming with our Ken doll, also naked. No wonder Ken and Barbie broke up.
As an adult, “Thriller” would be the impetus for starting my vinyl collection. My boyfriend of the time, Blake, wanted to get me a parting gift. He lived in Atlanta and I, in Colorado. He found a copy of “Pac-Man Fever” and knowing my love of camp, decided to grab it for me. Blake was friends with my best friend, Bob, who knew me better and had a more thorough understanding of my makeup. He said “Don’t get her that. Get her that copy of ‘Thriller’.” Blake doubted Bob and decided to purchase both. Bob was right.
Once I had that copy of “Thriller” in my hands, I had to listen to it. I rummaged in my parents’ garage and found an old turntable. I took it home and set it up in the upper level of my miniscule apartment, a room I dubbed “The Smoking Lounge.” It was a place for twenty-somethings with nothing to do. We smoked, got drunk, drew on the walls, and listened to music. After “Thriller,” the rule became that we only listened to vinyl.
As a thrift store junkie, vinyl collecting was the perfect pastime for me. I could spend hours sifting through dusty bins, only to find that one record that felt like a treasure. Memories of those purchases linger in my mind, like being introduced to friends for the first time. I can still see the table of the garage sale where I found Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Gratitude” for fifty cents. My favorite thrift store of all time had a copy of “Black Sabbath” for a dollar.
I became a destination collector. One trip to Portland, I came home with a stack of jazz records I could never find in Colorado. Maceo Parker, Dizzy, Coltrane. Every time I go to Colorado, my brother has a stack of records of bands that have came through his clubs.
Those records don’t just tell the lives of the musicians who recorded them. They tell the story of my life. Where I bought them, how I found them, what happened when I listened to them. They are the only possessions I truly value and the one thing I hope to pass on to my sons. Teaching Liam how to play them was just one step in the process of hoping to teach him to love music the way I do. Not as something fleeting and interchangeable. Not something to serve to pass the time. But an integral part of his life and window to his soul.
Man, I can’t wait for that Joan Jett record to arrive. To give him the record of the first song he ever loved will be like telling him I love him in a way he can hear whenever he wants.