(The following essay, first in a series, originally appeared on the the old Pure Pop website. Five entries were written and published. I had a lot of fun writing these. It was a good way to take stock of music-related events in my life.)
My First Record Player and Other Stories | Alan Haber
Part One: The Road to Washington County
My first record player was one of those portable models that kids always seemed to have in the sixties, easily transportable to parties; to friends’ houses for intensive, all-afternoon spinfests of the latest Gilbert O’Sullivan and Association records; to the backyard to provide the soundtrack for a hazy, lazy summer afternoon on the sunny side of the above-ground pool my father blew up all by his lonesome.
On that white and light blue portable, I plopped the best tone arm hardly any appreciable money could buy on my first couple of slabs of vinyl: Soupy Sales sez Do the Mouse* (*and Other Hits), and Napoleon XIV’s They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!, which I played incessantly and managed to memorize, word for word, note for note, in the space of what seemed to be mere hours (I really found that album funny). My first album, a Captain Kangaroo funfest my mother ordered for me, arrived on a day that I happened to be home sick from school–by the time I got the portable, the Captain was pretty scratched up, and simply unfit for playing (and besides, the Captain was kid stuff).
I was able to bond with an uncle whom I wasn’t especially fond of—he seemed to always be on me about something or other, like when my elbows were resting on the table during dinner—over our shared interest in music. I remember that he had a top-of-the-line Fisher stereo system (we’re talking the 1960’s) with huge speakers that he was always happy to show off–not coincidentally, I was always happy to oblige him.
Uncle Murray wouldn’t let his kids, or me, touch that stereo—it was his baby, that system. He was particularly stingy on volume, because he didn’t want to blow the speakers. I’m always reminded of him when I see the movie Risky Business, particularly the scene in which Joel’s father sternly points out that someone has monkeyed with the settings on his amplifier.
Anyway, I remember hearing some clarinet music being played on that stereo, and marveling at the clarity of the sound. As I remember, Uncle Murray played the clarinet and used to practice with Music Minus One records (a series of albums that came with sheet music that you used to play the one instrument that was missing from the recordings. I used one when I practiced playing the drums, but that’s another story–remind me to tell it to you sometime).
At Uncle Murray’s house, I was introduced by my cousin Linda to two albums that are still very important to me—The Beatles’ Help and Arlo Guthrie’s Washington County. Help was an easy sale, of course; it was no problem convincing my father to get me my own copy. Washington County was another kettle of fish altogether—it was hardly the kind of thing I normally listened to (I mean, folk-country-kind-of-rock? C’mon!). It wasn’t until years later when I went to college, if I remember correctly, that I was able to snag this masterpiece for my collection.
Albums were very important to me when I was growing up. So were 45s, but albums more so, because 45s only offered two songs, and albums offered 10 or more, so I often went for the album when I could (I bought singles when their b-sides weren’t on the albums). Now, I was hardly rich (if I had a dollar or two in my pocket, I was wealthy, and don’t you forget it!), but I managed to get an album now and then.
Radio was a pleasure to listen to in my youth (growing up on Long Island, I had at my disposal the greatest radio station of all time, the mighty WABC, and, you’d better believe it, the greatest DJ’s of all time, from Cousin Brucie to Dan Ingram and beyond—but that is also another story). I loved just about everything WABC played, and wanted it all in my possession. That was never going to happen—who had that kind of money?—but I managed to collect my favorite songs of the day by taping them off the radio onto a small Craig reel-to-reel tape recorder (which they used a bunch of times on TV’s Mission Impossible to play the message to fearless leader Mr. Phelps). I simply placed the microphone right in front of the radio speaker and hit the record button, which I thought was pretty cool.
I generally had to wait until birthdays and holidays to satisfy my album jones, when my parents would cherry pick from my always-rapidly-growing wish list and deliver to me a pile of vinyl worth its weight in gold. Got Santana’s first album that way; ditto, the aforementioned Gilbert O’Sullivan’s first American long-player; Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen (my favorite live album of all time); and others that escape my recollection (but give me time, I’ll come up with them).
In between gift-giving occasions, I used my allowance (when I wasn’t using it to go to the movies) to buy cut-outs (three for five dollars at the Duane Reed drugstore across from my father’s office in lower Manhattan during holidays and summer vacations, and at Woolworth and local record stores the rest of the time). By the time I went away to college, I had amassed a fairly sizable collection, housed in peach crates I spray-painted blue (yes, blue; my mother wanted them to fit in with the color scheme in my bedroom as long as I lived there).
My collection, as it is today, was like a crème-filled donut, with popular, hit records in the center surrounded by the offbeat, the retro, and the just plain weird, or so it seemed to people looking in from the outside. I remember playing Showdown at the 33-1/3 Corral with my first college roommate: my Archies and O’Sullivan records versus his Zeppelin and who-remembers-what-else (at one point, everyone on my floor had the Zep album with “Stairway to Heaven”; I hated that song, and everyone knew it, so they locked me out of my room and made me listen to that awful song as it played from every other stereo within earshot).
Needless to say, I lost that showdown.
August 29, 2004