It is with a barely perceptible guilt that I confess to using the lunch money my father gave me for school to purchase records rather than food (I don’t want to incriminate anyone but my grandmother may or may not have been an accomplice by making me lunches on the sly). When school got out I rode the bus to Rockpile or The Sound Factory (two of the local independent record shops) and, once there, made a bee line to the Import section. Even remembering this quickens my heartbeat and calls the hair on my arms to attention.
I loved the smell of these shops. There was no one thing that smelled especially pleasant. Rather it was the alchemic combination of plastic wrap, laminated cardboard, musty well-trodden carpet and vinyl that created a scent that was almost unbearably exciting to me. (Rockpile Records added to this mystical formula the scent of the owner’s cheap cologne, fast-food and stale beer).
Once I was at the racks I began my adventure by using my right index and middle fingers to slowly flip my way through the upright stacks. When a record caught my fancy I would gently pull it out with my right hand and reverently look at both sides. It was a sacred and sensual process wherein I held these objects (nay, these living organisms!) with excitement and tenderness. It was love. And it was passion. And it was the way the combination of these two things informed the way I touched these divine bearers of emotion and, at times, transformation.
The sneakily appropriated–but not stolen!–$15-20 I had in my pocket was everything I had. It was risky to buy a record I had never heard based on its cover. But the thrill was contingent on the risk! On the ride home I clutched the bag that held my record in eager anticipation: would it open new doors or leave me flat and disappointed?
I turn my attention to some of the records that invited themselves into my life. The record covers that made my heart flutter or filled my mind with wonder.
Dark. Romantic. Beautiful. Gloomy. A figure trapped within delicately patterned lace bowing its head. Something ancient. Certainly something far removed from my everyday existence. How do you pronounce “Cocteau”? Mystery is what drew me in. The need to unravel the mystery.
Monochromatic orange. I’m strangely drawn to her. She looks like she has lived. Like she knows something I don’t. She doesn’t look like anyone from school. Like anyone from the movies. She’s pretty but in a way that’s…different. Is that the artist? The singer? No, no, no–it can’t be, because here’s another thing from them..
A half-naked man. Will my family ask questions if I buy this? They won’t care. They never pay attention. But last year my grandpa “accused” me of being gay. Will he bring that up again? Nah, he won’t see it. The Smiths? Why would you choose that as the name for your band? It’s so fucking plain and boring. But these photographs…I can’t stop looking at them. Moody. I think I have felt the things these people are feeling. (I bought the latter on this occasion.)
What is the name of the band? Is that the song title or the band name? It must be the song. Why wouldn’t you put the name of the band on the cover? This is so beautiful but it makes me feel sad. I feel a bit frightened. What if this hurts? “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. I’m not sure what it means but I can feel that it means something to me. Why? It’s a 12″ single and not an album. $10 for two songs. I can’t stop looking. [The band’s name is Joy Division]
The Cocteau Twins record transported me into a new world. I’d never heard a singing voice like Liz Fraser’s: ethereal and angelic. The music was singular as well: a gentle beautiful noise; more abstract soundscapes than songs. To this day I can’t articulate why their music makes me feel loved, but it does. In retrospect, this music helped me connect to the parts of me that were imaginative, romantic and mysterious.
The Smiths were so direct and poetic. The songs were these sad (and sometimes funny) tales about a person (Morrissey) who seemed to be fumbling his way through life. Perpetually lonely. Constantly heartbroken. I was excited and intrigued that the songs were addressed to men and, very often, a generic “they”. Somehow it made me feel more understood. It felt…expansive. And the music! Though Johnny Marr’s music could be melancholy at times, it was always beautiful and often jubilant and bright. There was a sparkle and shine to it that contrasted perfectly with the sometimes morose operatic sound of Morrissey’s voice. They became the most important band of my life. I felt understood. They gave me permission to find my own version of “cool”: a sensitive and lonely outsider who didn’t have to be ashamed of being different.
The relationship I had to Joy Division was more complicated. I loved the music–the melodic and heavy bass lines and the exciting drumming. The sound was spacious and stark. But the voice, it sounded…like a person choking on their own pain: slightly out-of-tune, dramatic and dark. The words were painful to hear. I would enter into their world and then need to back away from it in order to survive. It was a special place that required a certain headspace. (This is no longer true for me. As I got older I began to hear the music as something more akin to…a very unique form of rock n’ roll.)
The trip to the record shop was a search for love, companionship, understanding and transformation. Music was my best friend, lover and mentor. For better and worse it held me in its arms and carried me to places I could not have otherwise visited. It gave me something to love (and be loved by) until I could learn to cultivate love with people. I will forever be grateful to the music and to the sacred record shops that gave me access to it.
[P.S. I told my father this afternoon that I used the lunch money he gave me in high school to buy records. He looked at me, smiled sincerely and shrugged his shoulders. My guess is that the thirty plus years that have passed have softened him up some. Either that or he knows something about the statute of limitations on these sorts of crimes.]