For Tom and John Gill, and Henry Hopkins.
A bit over ten years ago, I bought my first record, the English Beat’s “I Just Can’t Stop It,” at Street Light Records, Pacific Avenue and Elm, Santa Cruz, because ska never dies in California.
Fresh to Two-Tone sounds, without racial or political contexts, having no idea who they were talking about when they asked Margaret to stand down, please, stand down Margaret. I almost squealed with joy when the cashier said I got a good find here, a classic. He was more than likely a beautifully rough-faced man with greasy hair and band buttons on his thermal shirt. This would become my type, from this point on.
I had just liberated a turntable from its dust in the house we had just moved in to. Previous occupants had left it intact with a massive sound system. I traced the wires and connections to stereo sources, carried it up to my room, linking it all to my own smaller speakers, bypassing my tape-deck/CD structure. I was set for a new life, a new sound, a new level of teenage pretension. I was prepared to start telling people “Yeah, but nothing sounds as good as vinyl.” And really, really, say it like I meant it.
On an unremarkable summer day (which means it could have been any day outside of January or February in my home climate), my Uncle John dropped by with a yellowing box of thin and colorful squares. This was his record collection, his and my father’s record collection. I was excited, I had just found this record player, how did he know? I had forgotten in my sonic fervor that my father and uncle could communicate through telephones. He let the box go into my arms, it made me buckle like a knock kneed cartoon under its weight. He smiled through his cigar-singed mustache like he always did, like he was waiting for me to get the joke he didn’t tell.
I was delightfully afraid by what I found. Who is Steely Dan? And did Santana really make music before 1999’s “Supernatural?” I was raised among culturally sensitive and inquisitive white people, everyone owned Santana’s “Supernatural.” (We all wished we were as Smooth as Rob Thomas.) Standing out amongst the names I knew and didn’t were the white-boarders impressionist landscapes and Romantic (capital R) portraits that made the Funk & Wagnall’s Library of Great Family Music.
My father started this collection when he was in high school. At the time he was an excellent trombonist. He used to buy records to conduct along with alone in his room; he studied sheet music in his spare time. Some people would call him a band geek, I call him a talented young man.
His taste peeled off and melded with the times; Lennon, Clapton, Buffet and Young, the sonic sages for our current middle-aged Caucasian man. I could get in to it a little; The Ventures, some of the surfier 60s sounds; I wanted to be Grace Slick, mystical and sharp voiced, raven straight hair, drunk on stage. This before the ska, then punk, then metal took hold.
But for all that I loved, I never understood how he heard much of that music, especially Brahms, Mozart, Handel. I knew he felt it in a wholly different way. That’s why I got the beat, realizing my potential contribution.
When the needle finally broke on the old turntable, I couldn’t find one at the Radio Shack. I had yet to figure out that the internet could be used to buy things, not just for Myspace-ing or clandestine porn watching. I was crushed. With determination and all my birthday money, I went to MetaRecords on Cedar and Maple. I bought a sleek contemporary model that touted its portability and allowed you to record that ultracool crackling vinyl sound to your computer. It advertised two neo-hippies laying in what a photography class taught me was “THE GOLDEN HOUR” in the middle of a field with a crate full of records and this turntable between them. I was enthralled.
I have done neither of those things. I believe “the scloud” is what took Mike TV away from us in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, thus I fear what is digital, and I will break my records while absentmindedly swatting at the THOUSANDS OF INSECTS YOU ENCOUNTER IN A FIELD AT DUSK. From day one, I plugged it in or filled it with a forearm’s length of D batteries, and played records like a normal person, A to B, maybe skipping ahead if you really just wanted to get to your jam. It’s not my only means of listening to music, but it’s the most trustworthy, and it has been so for some time.
In an early episode of drinking, at fourteen-and-a-half – before the Straight Edge years – I woke up with the lights on and my pants off with Carly Simon skip skip skipping, begging to be turned off or at least turned over.
I’ve used Beirut to fall in love and heal my heart after I left it. I’ve used Thelma Huston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” as the impetus for every deep cleaning of any apartment I’ve lived in. I have impressed an elderly British woman by knowing the Mama’s and the Papa’s because of that collection, and there is no better feeling than impressing elderly women. Martha texts me when she puts on records at the wrong speed, she’s now convinced that Mary Martin’s Peter Pan was a demonic message. Last Thanksgiving our parents had Zepplin IV and Harry Belefonte on as background music as they waited for the turkey to finish roasting and us to mash the potatoes. For the last two Christmas mornings, spent by myself between absorbing into the ever beneficent Jessica’s family for Christmas Eve and Night, I bed down on the couch to wake up early, I listen to the McGarrigigle sister’s “Love Over and Over” while opening presents my family ships to me and waiting for snow to fall in my front windows.
These are my records, these are my dad’s records, they share a space with my roommate’s records, they take the wide space of an Ikea Unpronounceable bookshelf, a wine box, the top of a steamer truck we use as a side table, and more mental space than can be quantified.
About five years ago, five damn years, I moved all my records out to Chicago. After two years in the city and in the middle of my year lease in my first real apartment, I felt some beginner’s luck. I took Tom Waits, Cat Stevens, Nina Simone, Blondie, the Ramones, the Beatles, my two copies of an Eurhythmics album, (which became three after two years when my records mingled with Martha’s after moving in together) all into boxes or bags, travelling either with me or by mail. It’s actually not such a large task, in a physical sense. This was a signifier of home, beyond upbringing, beyond location itself, this is the place my heart felt settled.
Maybe in five years, when I’m (clap, jazz hands) thirty and stability hits, fingers crossed, I’ll start collecting seriously. Remember I’m twenty-five, I don’t know any better. When I’m older, I’ll have posterity in mind, like an adult, or something. I’ll be thinking of James Henry Hopkins.
Henry, as he’s called, is my sister’s son, the first of my family’s next generation. He is born on the coast, with the rest of my family; this is a fact I have become accustomed to, but is no less difficult. It’s a pity that the people and the things that you love can be so far apart from each other. Let’s leave it at that, I knew an effort was what it takes to have a home and a family when I moved here.
I have no idea what Henry will be like, what he will like. It’s this and their soft skulls that make babies so terrifying. But to paraphrase my sister, when she and her husband Aaron discussed him potentially being a jackass when he grows up “He could be a bro, but he’ll be our bro.” Fingers crossed he lives to never know AXE Body spray. God help me if he becomes a hackneyed rapper; which can happen, he is a white kid living in Oakland. I would support him if he was a good rapper though.
I’ve thought about sending him the collection in ten years, or if I’m rich enough, again fingers crossed, give him a new yellowing box filled with thin colorful squares on a trip out there. It’s looking like Henry will get it now, but with straight people there’s no telling when the next child will come.
He will not understand why Three Dog Night is not an ironic recording of puppy noises, rather a genre dubbed great grandpa rock by his time. There will be no explanation of The Vandals, pop punk made by what will be Southern California’s granddads – who are just as immature as their children’s children.
He’ll ask if the Germs were musicians or sonic assassins or worse – a joke, or why this Beethoven wrote so many songs for movies. Hopefully, his parents and the California education system will provide him with better context. I’m banking on his parents because they are doctors, but who knows California Public Education System produced all of this, (ehh ehh), and several Nobel Laureates from a diversity of fields.
About ten years ago, I bought the English Beat’s “I Just Can’t Stop It” and skanked in my room by myself until the whole house shook. About five years ago I moved the rest of my records to Chicago. I consider my vinyl a living inheritance. To be passed on jovially with room for the recipient to imagine what kind of people they were raised by. They won’t know that Martha used to say it didn’t matter if we had three of the same record, because what if the other two break down. They won’t know that Jessica and I would drop into Lauries on Lincoln after a movie or a work date at Le Café or the Grind or just because we were hunting for something to do. In this lack of understanding they will reach out like an infant, grasping at their addition to the Library of Great Family Music. Until then, all of them here, all of them home, until some unremarkable summer day.
Patrick Gill is a writer and performer in Chicago, originally hailing from the West Coast. He is a co-founder of the site In Our Words: an Online Salon for Queers & Co., as well as the reading nights All The Writers I Know and Word Is Out. His work has been published in and on 580 Split Vol. 14, Boys, An Anthology, Huffington Post, and HeaveMedia; he has read at Homolatte, Write Club, That’s All She Wrote, Guts and Glory, and of course Story Club. Gill’s recent piece “The Wait” was a part of the performance art event Queer, Ill, and Okay. You can find more of his work in the near future on The Eldritch Collection.