Washed up on the banks of a vinyl river, I listen back through what brought me here.
Right now it’s dark. All the instruments are still. The musicians are in bed or crashed out on the floor. I’m in the yard, under the sycamore. In the firelight it seems to flit and heave, waving its arms at the stars like it’s calling down guidance.
I’m contemplating murder. Genocide, really. I’ve dragged everyone out in their boxes, still taped up and labelled. The Blues wait to my left alongside Hip Hop and Rock. Afrobeat is near to my right hand, ahead of Electro and Breaks. Of these thirty tribes I’ve only opened Classics.
Inside I found the two records in my lap: Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and this old diary. Jimi’s face looks like it’s already on fire. But the book is still cool from all the long nights it’s spent open.
This is what it’s for: the do or die times. Should I stick with all these singers and songs or abandon them to the flames? Is it me I’ve packed up and dragged to the pyre? or a counterfeit?
If I arranged all this vinyl chronologically by date of purchase, lay it all out face up around the garden, I could trace the trajectory of my life: from Electric Ladyland to Apocalypse. From my teens I’ve only kept what matters, the first few precious acquisitions of Pink Floyd and Talking Heads, and all that remains of Dad in these four sides of psychedelic blues.
Measured in vinyl, I spent the longest span of my life at Wax Lyrical. The day I started there, time bloomed.
I’d just got back from a year going nowhere. I walked through its doors and felt like I did when I crossed into Turkey, after a very dry couple of months in Pakistan and Iran, to find the first stop after the border was a bottle shop. I nearly dropped to my knees to give thanks.
I grabbed the sign from the record store window and presented it without a word to the man behind the counter. Dave mistook my silence and burning eyes for confidence and said, “The job comes with a room if you want it.”
Within weeks I had bought so much Hip-Hop and Soul that, despite my staff discount, I had become Dave’s bondsman, paid in records, the bed sit upstairs and my name on the door at the parties his crew threw each week. I don’t know why I bothered paying for the records. I never intended to leave.
Within those walls I went to old and new Africas, Americas and British Isles. I could traverse the entire history and evolution of music. I had listened to flamenco wailed in the caves behind Granada. I’d heard live country, blues, rock, soul and hip hop in bars from Istanbul to LA. But I couldn’t take it with me. At Wax Lyrical it was all at my beck. Every week Dave got in rereleases of ‘rare and exotic extracts’ like Fela Kuti’s Gentleman, to spice up the ‘essential vitamins and minerals’ of Funkadelic. I learned more about music within the first few months than I had in my whole life. I had an instant extended family of musicians, DJs and aficionados to compare obsessions with. I was home.
And I gave it all up for a girl who promised to love me if I promised to get on with my life.
At Laura’s feet the river of wax that had wound around and through the episodes of my life - the regular sitcom of nights out drinking and dancing, the days in recovering under the covers with a girl in my arms or a speaker warmly humming - stopped, set and cracked. In the middle of the song my mother lifted the needle from the groove and told me that I’d never get another chance with a more beautiful, clever, and committed young lady. Duly frightened out of my wits, I decided that this girl who’d danced into my life and decided to crash there, who’d then woken to complain about the mess yet stayed on for dinner, and who had done so each night for a year, must be the one to clean it all up for.
So after all that vinyl time came a year crammed with lecture notes, print-offs of drafts of reflections upon education borrowed from books and photocopied hand-outs, graded by people who barely knew my name. (It’s all kindling now, no heat but bright enough to write this by.) Spat out the other side of that paper maelstrom, I stood swaying in the loungeroom of Laura and my empty flat under a shower of documentation from the union, the HTAV, VATE, ACU and the VIT. It all rained down on me the same conclusion: I was now what I thought she’d wanted – a teetotal teacher of English and History - but not her husband.
I stood outside myself.
I was too frightened to speak another word lest one more false step should shoot me through another black hole straight to a lonely and bitter old age. Friends came to console me. They came with wine. They came with music. They came with invitations from houses of friends of friends to come live in their spare rooms. But I would not budge. I stayed put in the shell of Laura and my aborted life. I had my vinyl and my stereo. I had booze again and baked beans and a thickening beard.
Then Dave stopped by. It was late January, three months since I’d left him and a month since she’d left me and I could barely look him in the eye. He had warned me not to leave his paradise. But he made no mention of this as we chatted over the coffee table I had improvised from a pile of New-Folk records, him cross-legged before the towers of Soul, me slumped within the Blues. And he did not, as I prayed he would, tell me that things had not worked out with Brent and he’d come to bring me home. Rather, he tried to describe the sound of the new band he’d been promoting – “... epileptic kids let loose in an exhibit of ancient Aztec armour...” - and told me to come to the next party. “You remember The Sentients? They’re playing. The Fabians, Back Up Or Die, Pied Piper. They’re all back on the scene. Some of these guys now have kids who are old enough to come and play the gig. Something’s going on, man. The saints are picking up their crosses again.”
On his way out he paused at the door and took a package from his pocket, a brown rectangular sheath bearing the red Wax Lyrical stamp: a halo of concentric grooves broadcast from a smiley face. He handed it to me with a grin I’d seen many times before, one that said he didn’t know what I’d think of a new record, but my reaction would amuse him. By the size and feel I knew it was a DVD and I thought I’d find some special import inside. Instead I found Singing In The Rain.
“Soul food,” he said, and left.
Singing In The Fucking Rain. What was he saying? That I’d become a sap? That maybe I should try being gay? I put it on in a rage, guzzling gin, intent to decode the insult from this pap.
By half way in I had forgotten why I was angry. I had seen excerpts of the eponymous scene so many times - Gene Kelly wrapped around a lamp post managing to sing smoothly to the heavens without getting a lung full of rain - but I’d never understood why it was so beloved. But when that scene started to play it all became clear to me. Here was a truth. Here was an experience transcendent of what the poets and priests prescribe. In those few minutes that angel disguised as a man reveals just how elevated life can be. He isn’t inspired by an idea or a belief. The romance his character’s supposed to be feeling is just a pretext. It is music itself. Music is the reason he swoops the puddles into arcs of light. Music is why the water does not weigh his shoes down, why he floats and skims and skips like a pebble. It shows a fallen world transfigured by music into joy and glory. And then, when the policeman strolls into view, and Gene must step off the street back onto the pavement, my eyes swelled at the injustice of it, that we must pretend to be less than what we are, and I pressed my hands to my lips and shook my head at the wisdom of it, that we are each our own jailer. But the tears that threatened to break subsided and in the silence that fell after the movie was over I felt like a man who has been woken by a tremor and now suspects that the hill he lives on is volcanic.
On the back of the bag Dave had written a name and a number. I picked up my phone and dialled.
“This is Adele.”
Unsure whether or not I was calling for a date and suddenly sure I was unprepared for one I stuttered that Dave had given me her number. “Are you Theo? Dave said you’d be calling. When do you want to come ‘round?” It was difficult to concentrate on what she was saying for all the music in her voice.
“Yeah, the room’s a bit of a mess, but it’s ready to move into.”
I was there in half an hour.
She was right. The house is a shambles, but not with the usual detritus ex-tenants leave behind. Every hall of this nine-bedroomed, three-bathroomed, two-storeyed maze in Thornbury is lined with shelves and cubbies full of phonographs, reel-to-reel recorders, libraries of sheet music of every style and era crammed together in no particular order, and instruments. Everywhere you turn apparatus lie ready to make sound: gazoos, pipes, maracas, bongos and synths, guitars, violins, trumpets, oboes and mandolins, of qualities and purposes that ranged from colourful plastic toy versions up to pieces crafted for artists to express their finest sentiments. And in one mammoth bookcase, as wide as my arms and tall as the ceiling, sits the mother load of movie musicals, all on VHS, catalogued chronologically from Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer to Elton John’s Lion King. “The DVDs Zach took with him,” Adele rued, “But he left us his player and all of this treasure for days when we’re feeling gloomy.”
Adele is the captain of the house. The lease is in her name, and the bills. She is the arbiter of disputes and an eager dispenser of advice on all matters. But for all her matriarchal tendencies she is also the baby of the family, the beloved, the centre of attention. She’s also a ridiculously talented singer.
Gunther’s a classically-trained pianist. He used to make a living in Germany performing to packed concert halls everything from Schubert to Rachmaninov. He knocked back a job making scores for Hollywood movies because it would take him ‘away from what music really is’. I don’t know what that means. Three walls of his room are lined with different types of keyboard - Hammond organs, old Casios – and banks of computers, but I’ve not yet heard him play anything resembling a melody. He says he does not draw, he paints. ‘I am creating a new form of music, Epic Quantum Disco. Vast fields of sound in which all are free to dance in whatever way they want. Unbound by the physics of the mechanical universe. All energy, all joy, all feeling.’ All completely over my head.
Two rooms have been insulated and wired for the house’s floating population of bands and soloists to practice or record.
I was wary of all that noise but I had faith in the message I’d received from Dave: music will save you. I moved in the next day.
I’ve kept these last few days to myself. I’ve only left my room to go to the bottle shop for wine and our in-house video store for another dose of magic realism. I don’t want to go back to the world. I want to disappear into the alternate dimension those films create, wherein a stroll down the street to buy a loaf of bread is cause for celebration by merchants, street urchins and maids; and the woman serving you your dry white toast turns out to be a true soul diva. But I’ve come no closer to tears than I did that first time in the rain. And the harder I’ve tried to suspend my disbelief with wine, the more frustrated I’ve become with the vision on the screen. I started railing against the screen’s camp representations of racial gang clashes, the elevation of trite teenage sentiment to the status of true love and war in the Pacific portrayed as a tropical pleasure cruise. I can’t forget the reality beyond these confections, so I gave up on dreaming to concentrate on drinking.
Tonight, the third night of my debauch, the house asleep, I staggered, bottle in hand, into a room hidden in the farthest corner of the labyrinth.
Therein sleeps a beast. Its teeth glint pale, deep, pale, deep, pale, deep blue in the moonlight. I approached it with all the stealth my addled nerves could manage. My fingers wavered over it. I was afraid to break its perfect repose with imperfect play. I swayed for a moment. My digits mocked up and down above the surface of the keys, when by accident my ring finger struck. All the quick, red thoughts that for months have rushed through my body, so fast I could not pin them down to hear them, now slowed and tuned to middle C.
In the silence that followed I felt in my arms and stomach the warmth that had radiated from the wood. I sat down and put my finger back where it had been. I recalled images of pianists in musicals and how their fingers were always splayed, never side by side directly, so I rested the index finger of that hand two keys down and my thumb two further still, held my breath, and pressed.
Thung... The chord chimed in my bones and sounded outwards through my flesh into the moonlit room like I’d always imagined a soul would if I had one. Thung...I felt how exhausted my body was and how twisted up my mind was with so much drink and so little sleep. Thung... I thought of my father.
I saw him uncoiling and strutting and propping about our loungeroom. A glass of ice and whiskey in one hand. The other pointing out to me and illustrating the best lyrics of Voodoo Chile, track three of Electric Ladyland, and strumming Jimi’s growling chords out of the air. His moody features told me what the music told him. This was his time, between setting his briefcase down and being called to dinner, when Mum’s pat gang of Mathis, Streisand and Joel would hold sway until the blink between bedtime and work.
I looked up and down the keyboard at the breadth of feelings that lay dormant within, waiting for only the right combination of touches to waken them. At the thought of that infinitely deep and wide reservoir, I felt at once the heavy weight of all that I might sink into it, and bolted out the door.
Labouring all my crates of records out here has sobered me a little, but that epic supernatural brag Dad loved so dearly keeps looming up through me in wild blue waves, making me seasick. This is all I have left of him: this one record I saved from the holocaust Mum made of all his music and books and clothes. His closest ally, Jimi, I hid under the new size large suit she swore my twelve year old body would one day grow into. While I watched him burn, behind baggy black folds, roiled wave upon wave of wailing, bawling, yowling guitar. Through my legs, my balls, my guts, up through my lungs, my throat, my eyes: electric grief.
I once let the swell sweep me overseas in search of a shore to break on. But there is none. The ocean just goes on.
And no girl I know is as deep.
And no fire can drink it.
Cos I’m a voodoo child.
Lord knows I’m a voodoo child.
About the Creator
The images keep coming, scenes, snatches of song and dialogue, knocking on the door between my medulla and this waking life.
So here they are, the stories I have to tell.
Sometimes (mostly) Sci Fi, mostly (sometimes) musical.
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