You’d think I’d remember, wouldn’t you? That I’d have some distinct memory of saving up my pocket change to buy a certain album with my own money. But, y’know… nope.
My parents were members of the Columbia Record Club, or BMG, or one of those mail-order deals, and in order to not get an excessive bill – and to avoid getting sent some “free album” nobody in our house would even use as a coaster – there was some minimum monthly order. Which meant that, once a month or so, we’d get the flimsy, tabloid-style catalog in the mail, printed on paper that was a little better than the supermarket circulars in the Sunday paper, but a little worse than Parade. I’d curl up on the living room couch and pore through it, squinting at the tiny font, and circling my hopeful choices with a pen that jabbed straight through the paper half the time. I got a fair few of my earliest CDs that way: “Heigh-Ho! Mozart,” “Bugs & Friends Sing The Beatles,” “Songs in the Key of X.”
Still, I wasn’t the one who purchased those. And I’d had albums even earlier that my parents had bought me – generally at the local K-Mart. We didn’t have a proper music store in town, and I don’t even remember there having been one at the mall until the FYI opened up when I was, oh, in middle school or so.
Still, that place was a revelation. An entire huge store full of music, aisle after aisle packed with the slim, shiny cases of CDs, and a forlorn section off to the left, at the very back of the store, where the cassettes and records gathered dust. All along the walls, there were little standing areas with listening domes, designed so you could scan and preview an album before you bought it – though most of the more obscure albums had no song samples at all.
I rarely bought anything, but I loved – and still love – window-shopping as an entertainment in its own right. It isn’t even an aspirational thing, going around and looking at all the stuff I want but can’t have. It’s more objective than that: a simple thought process of “This exists. Humans made it. Humans made the songs, somebody made this cover art, people made a bunch of decisions, money changed hands, a factory churned this out, all under the expectation that enough people will buy this thing to make it worth the effort. And there it is: Michael Bolton.” Between being a chronic outsider from everything “popular,” and living in a town where there was practically nothing to do for entertainment besides going shopping, I cultivated an almost anthropological perspective.
Not to say that I didn’t pine for that sense of inclusion, of awareness. We seemed to define each other and form our subgroups based more on musical tastes than anything else, so the music store felt almost like a living history museum. Artifacts of dozens of subcultures, carefully catalogued, but available for anyone to view and interact with and learn from. But I always had that dim and hollow hope that, if I were somehow to listen to enough music, become versed enough in the archetypal bands for the musical subcultures around me, I’d be able to fit in. Music wasn’t how I defined myself, because I didn’t have much sense of self, at that point, to define. Still, I knew its power, individually and socially, and I wished I could grasp it. Music was not my armor and heraldry; it didn’t protect me or define me. I was the polisher of the armor, inspecting it and – if not seeing myself truly housed within it – seeing myself reflected in it. I couldn’t be a standard bearer, or even count myself among the ranks, but I could think about how the music became iconic, how and why people might choose to form beneath its banner. So I rankled a bit as the Parental Advisory stickers began to pepper all the album covers, black-and-white castigation that, I knew, would only become its own banner: The Music THEY Don’t Think You Should Hear. So I snuck albums by Rammstein and Marilyn Manson to the listening domes, so I might get the barest glimpse of what people were talking about at school. So I looked at almost all the music, hoping to at least be familiar with artists, if not with the music itself. But, on the days I went home with anything at all, it was probably a Beatles album.
So I don’t have a clear memory of the first album I personally purchased, at that music store, at Kmart, or from anywhere else. But I could certainly tell you the first CD my family purchased, shortly after we got our CD player: Paul Simon’s “The Rhythm of the Saints.”
To say that my parents are reluctant adopters of technology may be a bit of an understatement. It’s understandable, to some degree: when you’ve lived your entire life without some certain high-tech gizmo, whatever you have is good enough. So I was amazed when we got our first CD player. I’d feel the same sort of cusp-of-the-future amazement when we later got a cordless phone, when we got our first computer, when we first got email, when we finally got the Internet. If these bleeding-edge Future Tools were mainstream enough that my father was buying them, it really must not be a fad! (My grandfather, meanwhile, had cable TV, surround sound, and a laserdisc player. Go figure!)
Our stereo system must have been from the 70s. Two-foot-tall speakers in the living room, a glass-fronted cabinet that held a record player, an equalizer, a dual cassette deck, a stereo, and, suddenly, a CD player. I’d remembered listening to the radio, certainly, and cassette tapes as well. No real memories of records, though. But when it all got hooked up, after I’d had my first look at the rainbow colors of a CD – and heard the first of many refrains of “DON’T touch the bottom! DON’T put it face-down!” – in it went.
And on came the drums.
It really did sound clearer than any music I’d heard in my admittedly-few years of life. Cassettes always had that faint hiss. Radio usually came through a little tinny and staticky. But this was clear as life. I sat there, watching the “sticks” of the equalizer dance to the beat, jumping up and down to a rhythm like nothing I’d never heard before. I didn’t know how any of it worked – not the CD, not the speakers, not the equalizer, nothing. It was unfathomable, but wonderful.
The album would become a fixture of my childhood. If we were going on a long road trip and needed albums with as few clunkers as possible, that was always on the roster. Somehow – perhaps because we were sick to the gills of traditional music by that time – it even became the album we’d play while putting up the Christmas tree (along with The Best Of The Ventures.)
I still don’t grok much about the magical stack of stereo stuff – how to tweak the equalizer for the best sound for a song, etc. I was never supposed to touch those settings, and I didn’t want to mess something up and not know how to get it right again. (Another common thread throughout my life.) I’m sure it’s just that I grew adapted to CD-quality sound – and why wouldn’t I? But something of that first magical listening was lost, or taken for granted, in time. And I always felt like, if I understood things enough, I’d be able to tweak those knobs and shift those sliders, and somehow zero in on That Sound again – that world-infusing, clarion clear, present and stunning sound, like I’d never heard it before. I’d be able to bring back that same amazement of sitting on the fuzzy green living room carpet, watching the bright green sticks.
But it’s funny. It had been such a singular moment on my first listen, a moment I wished I could replicate with it or some other music ever since. And yet, now, I’m okay with it being a bit of background radiation. Not analyzed, not thought over, just a soothing wash of sound. What was once revolutionary is now comfortable; what that was once innovative is now familiar. So much so that it’s difficult to even write about the music as music; all I can do is dispense anecdotes and experiences with no clear point or purpose.
And, intellectually devoid as it may seem… I like it that way. Easy access to music has dulled so much of my nostalgia; the songs that I’d once heard only in my childhood and never again, I can now call up on a whim. They no longer code exclusively for childhood. The more I listen to them, the more I think about them, the more I think about them as the person I am now, the less power they have to remind me, so immersively, of my past. That’s something I can’t get back. I can’t critically analyze something into reminding me of when I was six years old. I can’t rationally interpret a song and make it remind me of perpetually grass-stained knees and a perpetually Red #5-stained tongue.
Even if it means locking a song away in a mental time capsule, vaulting it away from rational thought, barring me from genuine appreciation… I think, sometimes, it’s worth it.