Back in the 1990s while doing a consulting job in Albuquerque I was invited to dinner at the house of a friendly co-worker. I had turned him down several times prior but eventually ran out of feeble polite excuses. Although appreciated, I usually said no to dinner offers after an ugly experience years earlier where ‘just a simple nice home cooked meal’ invitation in Oklahoma City turned out to be a thinly veiled cover for a painfully long evening’s heavy-handed attempt to save the filthy Jew’s perverted soul by non-stop pressuring him into converting. Oh, that made work the next day fun.
Prior to dinner in New Mexico I asked enough leading questions that I figured the night would not end like that other one, with being presented a customized leather bound New Testament embossed with my name on the cover in shiny gold letters. What did surprise me was walking into a house with wall after wall after wall filled with mounted shelves containing hundreds of what my co-worker’s wife called her “Little N(word) Dolls”. With as much ease and frequency she also used the term “Jemima Dolls”.
Now to be fair, they did not try to get me to join the Klan or carry a cheesy Luau style Tiki torch to an alt-right rally. As a matter of fact, after the initial tour of the house, the massive quantities of black apron-wearing dolls were barely mentioned. None the less, I still found it hard to eat dinner and chat calmly in the living room afterwards with this all-encompassing collection staring at me. Not to mention my forever changed opinion of my coworker for so nonchalantly having such a collection and being so comfortable with the rather abhorrent name.
Yes, what goes on under your own roof is your own business but if you invite me into your den of extremism, I have a right to my opinion. This all makes me wonder though, what conclusions people have made about me after walking into my home. Although definitely not overly religious or overtly racist, my wife and I do certainly have a non-traditional decorating style. With my wife’s feeling that no wall space should remain open and my leaning towards the wacky, our place has often been compared to Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse.
One of our rooms is dominated by my record collection. Yes records. Mind you, I can bark a command across the room and our Googly Alexia will play most any song I want to hear. With a couple of quick clicks my computer, tablet or smart-ass phone can each can play tunes from my Spotify and iTunes library. Not to mention my Sirius account is linked to just about everything but my toaster, although I’m working on that because I think the wait for toast could be vastly improved if accompanied by a rousing rendition of the Star Wars Theme or possibly the Ride Of The Valkyries.
So why do I keep all those records? Every one of my friends, who over the years has helped me carry sections of my hulking heavy collection during my many moves, must certainly wonder that. When people walk into my house do they look at all those records and draw conclusions about me, like I did with the creepy racist doll couple?
Collections do say something about the collector. Stamps, coins, cars, clocks… my Dad used to restore antique toasters to mint working condition and had dozens of them in his office. He not only could tell the story of where he personally found each one but also knew the history of the model and manufacturer. His toasters said something about him. I assume the creepy doll lady’s collection started innocently enough and to her was much more than just an overwhelming tribute to negative stereotyping.
So yes, I can enjoy listening to the music on my records but so many of them also have a history and story to me. I can hold a record in my hand and not only recall the backstory of the band and song but also be transported back to the first time I held that particular copy of it. What store I was in, who was with me, what stage of my life I was dealing with, what was my world like other times that I had taken it out and played it? Is it connected to a relationship, was it a hand me down from a family member or a gift from a now lost friend. The music itself is important but that is only one aspect of why I hold onto them.
My record collection really started as a series of inherited 45s from my siblings I received as they grew up and moved out. My oldest brother tastes leaned heavily on the Beatles, Beach Boys, Four Seasons and I assume since he played the trumpet, Herb Alpert. My other two brother’s mostly had instrumentals and goofy novelty songs like Pepino The Italian Mouse.
My sister’s 45’s fell into two categories: pop hits she liked as a young teen and slower songs she was trying to master on the guitar. I’m not sure why the hell she had McArthur’s Park; I still tease her about leaving the cake out in the rain. As a little kid I gravitated towards her peppy popular stuff but as I grew older I revisited the complex intricacies of the ones she bought to learn how to play. It was not till decades later that I grew to appreciate the detailed beauty of gorgeously crafted records she had like Wichita Lineman.
A few years ago, when I heard Glen Campbell had Alzheimers I got very hooked on that song again. And now too, after his recent passing, I again find myself drawn to that record. Even though more often than not, I listen to it on a digital platform through my computer, I’m glad that old 45 rpm is still sitting alphabetized with the others on my shelf.
Even now I can close my eyes and imagine what that record label and sleeve look like. I can imagine the opening strains of the song and the beautifully layered instruments under the sad lyrics about the hard-working lonely mid-westerner. And if I keep my eyes tightly closed my head can transport me to one of those small towns that, just like the Wichita Lineman, I also passed through alone when I was traveling for work. I see a single hanging traffic light swaying in the breeze over the dusty sidewalk in front of the local Salvation Army. Inside that old re-sale shop I see a rickety bookcase against the back wall holding a stack of scratched up old 45 records that look like an unloved neglected version of my collection and next them sits a pile of musty books containing a long ago donated leather-bound bible with my name embossed in gold letters on the cover.