On our first date nearly three years ago, my husband, Coy, and I arranged to meet in a restaurant parking lot. I didn’t want him to pick me up; I hadn’t been asked out on a date in almost 20 years and forgot that’s how it went. I had recently moved to Roswell, NM, and didn’t know many people. He had been here a few years and gone through a difficult divorce. We had a drink at a restaurant, met some friends, then he invited me back to his place to listen to some vinyl. Really? I thought. Records?
I hadn’t listened to a record since cassettes became cool and the record player broke and the records were moved to storage. CDs had followed and then it was all gone. Music played in the background. Was this a romantic ploy? Get me to his house to listen to records? It was and wasn’t. He was serious about taking me out again and about vinyl. He’d recently set up a new turntable and begun assembling a vinyl collection. He asked me to sit, showed me the best place in the room to listen, and played Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter.”
In my earliest memories, even before I was aware that I was a small girl and that others in the world were adults, records play. I call my uncle Joe and tell him that he and my aunt Marsha are in these first memories. I recall being at their place in Los Angeles with records playing. I was probably three years old. He describes a house, but it isn’t the one with the music. “Arches,” I tell him. My uncle doesn’t pause: “That was Clarissa Avenue in Los Feliz. It had 17-foot ceilings and arches and arabesque tile. Of course you remember records. It was all about records for us.” Joe puts me on speakerphone with Marsha, too. “We waited in line for a release,” Joe says, and “we invited people over. We listened for hours.”
As the conversation continues, we’re not talking about records anymore. We’re talking about attention. What I noticed as a child might not only have been songs or arched ceilings. Not just lampshade light or arabesque tile. It might also have been the nearly voiceless room where a record spun.
In the 1960s, Kelly Green played bass in Smokestack Lightnin’, which he describes in an email to me as—downplaying it—“our little blues band.” Kelly, a longtime family friend, and Joe have been good friends for decades. When I ask Kelly about being in the band, he talks about his first records and spending hours at Wallach’s Music City on Sunset Boulevard, in Los Angeles, listening to records in little glass booths provided for pre-listening before one had to commit to purchase. His first date with Anne, his wife, was a trip to Tower Records on Sunset and Larrabee, a place “full of magic and wonder.”
I go looking online for a copy of a Smokestack Lightnin’ LP and order “Off the Wall,” produced by Bones Howe in 1969. Joe confirms what I suspected: Smokestack Lightnin’ wasn’t a little band. They played the Sunset Strip. Living in Los Angeles, they were at the center for making records. Joe tells me, “They could shake the walls and bring down the house, and I wish you could have seen them live.”
Growing up, I don’t recall a record player, but I see the wall heater, shag carpet, and the corduroy sofa. Cigarette smoke clouding the other side of the room. A dress my mother made me. And enough quiet to hear a song’s line. There were record covers and the vinyl itself. Hair. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. My parents probably had other records, but those come to mind. We never wandered around the small house while they played. We sat in the living room next to the turntable.
One of my first notions of relationships came through Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 record. On it, Paul Simon sings about Cecilia, who was breaking the singer’s heart and “shaking my confidence daily. He calls out for her, says he’s down on his knees and begging you please to come home. / Come on home.” He’s dejected about having lost his lover, taken to the ground by it, but the song jumps as if loss is all right.
Besides the Smokestack Lightnin’ record, Coy and I order “Seven Dreams” by Gordon Jenkins, a 1953 recording that my mother recalls as haunting. When they arrive, Coy hands me the covers so I can read the sleeve-notes while he cleans the vinyl.
Looking back to our first date, it was, ploy or not, romantic. We listened to both sides of the record without talking before Coy took me back to the parking lot where we’d met.
Records had been gone from my life and were, until that night, pure nostalgia, something recollected. Even more, until then—and I didn’t love Mozart yet—the experience of sitting still for anything had also been gone from my life. Records had disappeared when life got messy and I became a teenager. And here they were again. In between I’d grown up, been married and divorced, and I was 45 in a world where it seemed there was generally far less patience for the single-pointed focus required to do one thing at a time.
These days, the sound system in our small house is, as my husband would say, “very nice.”
Neither Coy nor I remember a good sound system in our houses growing up. When I asked, Kelly confirmed that this is what’s interesting about a vinyl renaissance and the “quality vinyl that we’re all missing now” discussion. In the 1950s and 1960s, he said, “Nobody I knew had a decent stereo that sounded like much. We listened to mediocre turntables with mediocre cartridges that were often powered by a guitar amp or a loudspeaker that was possibly homemade or deconstructed from something else.” Though he knew solid sound systems existed, they didn’t in his world until the ’70s.
By the time I was born in 1966, my mother had lived with records for a long time. When we talked a few weeks ago about which records she and my father owned when I was growing up, I asked which records we owned, and she gave me, instead, a list that spanned three decades. She listed many but returned to her Uncle Joe’s record, Gordon Jenkins’s “Seven Dreams. “ Her uncle played it Saturdays when they visited their grandmother in Hawthorne, Calif. My mother was enchanted by it, but also—it’s clear—by the uncle who owned the recording.
And later, at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Los Angeles as an undergraduate, my mother remembers that she asked the librarian to recommend classical music. The librarian directed her to a “sound room.” It was a cubicle with a turntable and earphones. She was given Mozart and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” There was a physicality to it we might not always have now with listening to recorded music. Pulling out a chair and sitting down. Or listening to a record on the best turntable among those you knew. Going to the house of someone for a new release. Taking a drive across town. Putting gas in the car to get to a music store. If memory or recollection is in anything, it’s in movement. Get up. Flip the record. Pause to hear the next record drop. Wait for the start. Sit next to your lover. Listen. Stand in line. Watch the arm cross the record. Watch your arm cross to the person next to you.
Coy and I were married six months after we met. We now live in house that we rent in Roswell. We’ve lived in bigger cities and know Roswell can’t offer what those places did. But we don’t sit around sulking about how little there is to do. I write and read. He teaches math and builds things. He rides a bike and I walk the dogs. Playing records is something we do when the books are read and the new shelves are built. When the classes are taught and dinner will be ready soon. Paul Simon sings, “Come on home.”
We meet up in the living room at a set time. “What do you feel like?” Something we haven’t heard before. Something we haven’t heard lately. Or something that takes us back to the warmth of an early memory. For Coy, this might be Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights. For me, it could be Linda Ronstadt’s version of Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita.” Or the transition from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to “With a Little Help From My Friends.” I don’t care how much attention the second song gets, it isn’t at its best unless it’s preceded by the first song. There’s a gorgeous narrative in the short pause joining the two. The record is part of that story.
We meet up in the living room. “What do you feel like?” Something we haven’t heard lately. Something that takes us back to the warmth of an early memory.
The sound system in our small house is, as my husband would say, “very nice,” but I think that might be like calling Smokestack Lightnin’ “our little blues band.” It consists of a Rega RP3 turntable with an Ortofon needle. The amplifier is a Yamaha DSP AZ1. Tall Yamaha speakers with spruce cones. The last important piece that finishes the sound we have now is a phono preamp, a Bottlehead DIY tube phono stage amp. It took time to build the amp, and it took a few years to bring these pieces together.
Tonight we’ll sit in the room where Coy first invited me to hear Mozart’s “Jupiter.” We’ll put on Gordon Jenkins’s Seven Dreams. The cover describes the recording as “a musical fantasy.” We let it play without talking to one another. We get to the last song, “The Girl on the Rock.” The back cover says that “the girl on the rock” or the “the seventh dream” is a dream of love: “Walking through an unknown landscape, the dreamer sees an unknown girl—who somehow, he has always known.” And dream girl sings: “I’ll teach you songs you have never sung.”
Though each of the record’s songs or dreams culminates with an alarm clock going off and shifting to the next dream, “The Girl on the Rock” is last. The alarm rings but no one wakes. The continuation of the dream means that the dreamer and the girl might be together: “We will lead our love down a lasting lane. / We will warm our hearts by a magic fire.”
At some point, listening to “Seven Dreams,” I am reminded that records give me the rare opportunity to listen and do nothing else. I don’t think I’m particular in this. With most of what I do during the day—read, write, or work—music plays in the background on my phone or computer from a digital library. I don’t know half of what’s in that vast library. It’s not in my hands; I never hold it and I don’t have a visual connection to it. If I really want to read about the recording or artist, I could read a digital booklet, but I don’t. Records obligate a different kind of attention. There’s nothing random about them. They wear out. They’re too fragile to be played without listeners.
“Seven Dreams” is no romance, but is so in places. Kind of like listening to records on a first date. Kind of like being married for a second time and feeling that you’ve been married, in a good way, to that person for a very long time. Records landed back in my life at the beginning of my marriage and took me back to the kind of quiet attention I’d lost along the way of growing up and into this world. What would it take to survive as two people together? The fragility of needle, the tone arm, the vinyl itself. Skips and scratches. Warp. Dust.
It’s a long play. Sit here. I’ll clean the record. You read the lyrics. What do you want to hear next?