Monday, February 25, 2013

A Writer's Life In Told in Album Covers

One of the first record covers I remember. It was in my father’s collection. 1955.

Remember that scene in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous when the little kid pulls his big sister’s vinyl collection out from under the bed? As he flips through the record jackets, you experience a series of tiny epiphanies as each cover triggers a memory. You don’t even have to hear the music, the images are enough to send the viewer into his or her own personal reverie. Like an arcane language, each cover has a secret meaning specific to the one who perceives it. No two meanings alike. That brief scene was a movie in and of itself, capturing more of the glory of rock ‘n’ roll than all of the drama that followed.
Here are a few record covers that tell some of my story. And yes not all are album covers. Like most kids in the early Sixties, 45rpm records were mostly what I bought. They were the first offerings available from a new band. It was rare for a band to debut with an album. After 1965, my record collecting shifted almost solely to LPs. You knew what you were getting with an album by The Beatles, The Who, The Byrds or The Rolling Stones: a dozen mostly great songs. I didn’t start buying 45s again until punk came along.

Chuck Berry Is on Top, a compilation of Berry’s hits from the mid-to-late 50s, was released in 1959 on the Chess label. I was around nine or ten when my babysitter brought it to the house and slipped it onto the turntable of my red and white, portable record player. “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybelline” “Memphis” and Johnny B. Goode” were a crash course in the fundamentals of rock ‘n’ roll. As a kid who was interested in poetry, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Berry’s lyrical gifts. Chuck Berry, the Walt Whitman of rock.
The day following my initiation into Berryism, I walked to a nearby department store and bought my own copy. It was amazing how much magic $1.99 could buy.

In 1963, I was 12 years old and living in France. I had smoked my first cigarette, a Gauloises, and jerked-off for the first time (under an overturned row boat on the Riviera). I was cool and continental. A beach bum in the making. Unfortunately, the Mediterranean was not California’s west coast and I was a posse of one in my baggies and wrap-around shades. While the kids in the States were fingerbangin’ to the Beach Boys, I was pulling my pud to the melancholic epicness of Jack Nitzsche’s“The Lonely Surfer.” The kids in L.A. had Redondo, I had Belmondo.
Nitzsche created the soundtrack for my own imaginary Godardian beach blanket flick where hodaddys drank espresso while contemplating the inevitable wipeout and its aftermath.

Aren’t you supposed to grow out of a teenage crush? When it comes to the extraordinary Francoise Hardy, I never did. She always seemed hip and still does. Francoise wore leather, had beatnik hair and sang songs that evoked languid afternoons when teenage boys and girls stared mournfully into each others eyes as whole universes crashed and burned around them. Her voice rustled the air like the sound of a skirt being lifted by the hands of a country priest. In the quietude of her sweet laments, there was a hint of things best left unspoken. She is a beautiful melancholic mystery.
I had a deeply empathetic French mother who bought me a ticket to see Francoise Hardy perform at a concert hall in Cannes. This was to be my birthday present. I was turning 13. I looked forward to that concert like an astronaut waiting for lift-off. When the glorious day arrived, I ascended the steep marble steps of the concert hall and arrived at the ticket booth only to be greeted by my worse nightmare: a sign declaring that the show had been canceled! I was crushed. I felt as though I’d been stood up on my first date, shunned, abandoned. I suddenly understood the electric yearning in the twang of Nitzsche’s lonely guitars. I was the solitary surfer, crashing against waves of youthful despair. Oh, Francoise, why, why? That night I smoked enough Gauloises to make me puke.

By early 1964 the seeds of my discontent had been sown and were starting to take root. I was back in the States and had already been thrown out of school on several occasions. My mother was good at convincing my teachers that my rebellion was the result of having a father in the Navy who was always on duty somewhere else. I guess they felt it would be unpatriotic to throw me out for good.
My hair got longer, I got surlier. I had a rock ‘n’ roll attitude and it was attracting some of the cooler kids in school. I decided to make a mark for myself by throwing a party in the rec room of my parents’ home. There was one chick in particular that I knew this would impress, Lolly. I had the hots for Lolly.
I bought some records for the big event and encouraged my friends to bring some of their own favorite platters. I overestimated my classmates taste in music. Man, the shit they played. I tried to be a gracious host but the onslaught of top forty crap was killing me. Bobby Vinton, The Four Seasons, Lesley Gore, Trini Lopez, Tommy Roe, it all came together in a roiling shitstorm of absolute blandness.The thing is, everybody loved it. They were frugging like frogs on a hot plate. I stood by sullenly, taking it all in. Even Lolly was in the throws of top 40 fever. I finally couldn’t take it any longer. I grabbed a record from the stack I’d bought, a brand new release that I was sure no one had heard yet. I was gonna to be the first one to lay it on them. They’d get in line to thank me. Lolly would be bursting with pride. My reputation as a rock God would be sealed. 
I walked over to the stereo, dropped the needle into the groove and the voodoo beat of The Rolling Stones playing “Not Fade Away” filled the room. What followed was like a movie scene shot in slow motion. The dancing throng disassembled into dozens of individual fragments. Skirts swirled and wobbled like tops spinning to a stop. Arms went rigid. Legs went slack. Smiles fell from faces like limbs from lepers. I had hurled a turd squarely at the center of the punch bowl and landed a bullseye. Of course it wasn’t my intent to bring my first teen party to an awful thudding halt. I had misjudged the crowd. They wanted pablum. I gave them The Rolling Stones.
Had I known the effect this choice would render, would I have done it again?  Of course I would. And did! I played “Not Fade Away” until the only people left in the room were me and Lolly. I fucking kid you not. The Rolling Stones’ swampy mojo had chased my suburban school chums into the night where they flitted away like the nervous little fireflies they were. It was then that I realized the almighty power of real rock ‘n’ roll. This shit could scare people. It had the magic ability to separate the people I wanted to be around from the ones I did not. And it has worked that way all my life. I may love you, but if you don’t love my music, I love you a little less. And vice versa. Even today, one of the first questions I ask someone I’m meeting for the first time is “what music do you listen to?” It’s the “Not Fade Away” test. It has rarely failed me.

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