Saturday, April 05, 2008

Distant Early Warning

This is the hard part. Some people I know maintain that they can remember the sides of their cribs looming above them at bedtime, but my earliest memories certainly don’t go back that far. If anything, my earliest memories of childhood are a series of indistinct, foggy half-recollections of places and people without any clear time reference: certainly nothing as far back as infancy and nothing that has any kind of musical soundtrack to it.

Moving out of the haze, the earliest touchstone to the present that I can recall is a portable record player my younger brother and I shared for years: one of those plastic "miniature suitcase" models with a carrying handle on top and a single tinny monophonic speaker for sound. Said record player was nowhere near as nice looking as the model you see just below. This was a clunkier, more primitive design, (and probably far more durable if it was intended to be used by a couple of post-toddlers), and sported a kind of desultory scrub-green and white color scheme.

This was not my old record playerWhile Brett and I had never personally accumulated any records as children (barring the odd Sesame Street-themed LP or Peter Pan-label 45 from my parents), we did have a rather grand old time occasionally sneaking singles from our parents' collection and then playing them at the wrong speeds to our endless amusement. Slow day at Matchbox City? Easy remedy: just grab a few unfamiliar pop 45s and play them back at either Barry White-on-Quaaludes 33 1/3, or the far more popular option: the Almighty Hilarious 78 speed (which made every song played at that setting, no matter the genre, into The Greatest Song Ever).

Now, don't take the above to mean that I reviled pop music as a kid: nearly everyone heavily into music retains a bit of fondness for at least some of the music their parents played on the family stereo (or on the car radio while driving around town running errands while we bounced about blithely in the back seat). It's just that at my tender age, actively listening music was only a mildly interesting way to kill a few minutes of time and nothing more. Goat knows I hadn't the patience (or attention span) back then to tolerate an entire album's worth of songs. Booo-ring!

Aside from perhaps "Mah-na Mah-na" or "It's Not Easy Being Green," I think that the first record that my brother and I ever liked on its own merits was yet another of my parents' 45s that we'd subjected to the usual chipmunk-speed playback treatment. This one, though, was different: for whatever reason, we must have spun it enough times at regular speed to develop a kind of happy infatuation with the melody, so we'd actually play it back at 45 speed, dance about like happy monkeys on mescaline for a couple of minutes, and then break out the next brightly-colored plastic distraction in that day's rotation. That record, by the way, was a forgotten Manfred Mann single from the summer of 1968 called "My Name Is Jack."

Having just listened to it again for the first time in decades, "My Name Is Jack" sounds hopelessly twee and precious to these slightly-jaded ears, but there is a whimsical, innocent quality to the song that almost certainly endeared it to us in those carefree times. Lyrically, I still can't get a handle on exactly what this song is about ("I live in the back of the Greta Garbo home for wayward boys and girls" ... what the hell?), though I'm quite sure the second-verse lyrics "It's a lot of fun / And I love to run up and down the stairs / I make as much noise as I want / And no one ever cares!" were a huge part of this song's appeal for us.

While my parents always had a decent-sized record collection, it's pretty obvious from going through it that their peak listening years came well before my siblings and I arrived on the scene. It's nearly impossible for me to remember my dad pulling out a vinyl album or two and playing it barring some special occasion, which was usually a holiday or company coming over that particular evening. Most of the music they heard (and possibly enjoyed) was exprienced passively: they were both big AM pop listeners (gradually shifting over to FM as the rest of the population did in the middle/late 1970s), and it seems that they only purchased newer music by not bothering to return the cassette tapes that showed up at our house every month courtesy of the RCA Record Club.

While Dad would once in a blue moon drag out Creedence Clearwater Revival's Creedence Gold, a selection from his startlingly large collection of drag race sound effect records, or The Ventures' Christmas Album, most of the music that was played in the house during my childhood was thrown on by my mother. Sadly, my mother is cursed to this day with typical "mom" taste in pop music: sure, I came to eventually cope with some of America, The Carpenters and even post-Grease Olivia Newton-John, but Helen Reddy? The Stone Poneys? Maureen McGovern? Jesus Christ Superstar? The Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together"? Ugh...

That said, it was my mother who owned the first record I can remember developing a powerful attachment to, and that was Elton John's early 1973 #1 smash "Crocodile Rock."

With the near-cartoonishly pitched voices in the chorus and a weirdly compressed, propulsive arrangement, "Crocodile Rock" had me from "hello" and quickly became my first "favorite song ever" (listening to it again, there is a strong harbinger of my future musical tastes in the form of those buzzy old-school synthesizers brightening up the high end). I used to drive my parents to distraction asking them repeatedly to cue this song up for me so that I could listen once again at high volume through my dad's stereo headphones set -- the kind of airport issue-looking heavy duty cans that seemed to weigh about ten pounds, had a silver volume knob on the headset itself, speakers that covered your entire ear area (in fact, they lay flat against it) and those curly black-plastic phone-cord styled cables that could stretch across an entire living room.

Elton John, not looking extremely pleased to be back in the plumagePerhaps in order to keep me off of their backs, my parents eventually allowed me to repossess their "Crocodile Rock" 45 (the far less manic b-side was "Elderberry Wine," if memory serves) so that I could play it to my heart's content on the portable player upstairs. This wasn't much of a sacrifice on their part, really: Mom also owned a cassette tape copy of John's Greatest Hits (which was probably to every parent's record collection what Michael Jackson's Thriller would be to my age group in the early 1980s), and she seemed to be far more into "Your Song," "Daniel" and "Rocket Man" anyway.

It was maybe a couple of years after this early brush with rabid fanboyism that I was watching The Muppet Show early one Saturday evening when lo and behold, there was Elton John himself in a typically outlandish getup performing "Crocodile Rock" with Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem (along with a chorus of singing crocs).

They say you never forget your first time. They're right.

NP David Gilmour Intronise Le Rex (3/15/06)

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