Dusty Boxes of Time Machines
By E. Adam Porter
Editor, News of Sun City Center
Composer John Cage once said, “music is means of rapid transportation,” and I agree. Drop the needle, or, in this digital age, punch the button, or ask Alexa, to play a record you haven’t heard in a while, and those first few bars instantly take you back. Listen a little longer, and you can almost reach out and touch what it felt like to hear it for the first time. If the music really connects, sometimes you can even smell or taste that moment, so many years ago. The best thing about music, though, is how elastic it is, how pliable those lyrics and scores can be.
For every “classic” song we grew up on, someone else is hearing it for the first time, entranced by the magic.
I had the benefit of a tremendous and eclectic musical immersion growing up. My family listened to everything, from classical, standards, jazz and big band, to contemporary pop, rock, R&B and country, as well as spirituals, hymns and folk songs.
At any given moment, I might have walked into the room and heard Duke, Benny or Count Basie, any member of the Rat Pack, or maybe The Beatles, John Denver, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Horton, Kathy Mattea, or Joni Mitchell. Elvis, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash, or maybe the Stones, Herman’s Hermits, and any of the Brothers — Righteous, Everly, or Doobie — might be spinning as well. Studying music growing up, I learned piano and saxophone, picked around on the guitar, and explored the greats in classical and jazz, as well as contemporary piano men like Elton John and Billy Joel.
At some point in my childhood, I discovered my mom’s Big Box of Records. She had stuff that had belonged to her parents, as well as records by artists that invented rock ‘n roll or redefined American popular music. The soundtrack of her youth. Some of the artists, I didn’t recognize, but, when I dropped the needle on the vinyl, I remembered the tunes. Those songs had been the soundtrack of my earliest years too, many of them sung acapella on the porch swing or around a bonfire on the beach.
Later, I gravitated toward my own style of music, and my parents tolerated the noise that would punctuate and motivate my adolescence. Today, when some of those songs come on, if I stop a moment, I feel that quick tug that takes me back to a sunny summer day, or a cool, clear winter evening, that tingle of adolescent attraction and the electric spark of a good first kiss. Other tracks remind me of cruising with the windows down, or afternoons in the gym, pumping iron in anticipation of the coming football season, or getting the guys together to listen to driving metal tracks right before a game, feeding off the intensity.
Today, as I look back over a lifetime defined and enhanced in every possible way by music, I am once again reminded of that other aspect of John Cage’s insight. Music not only takes us back. The same music that is “old” for us can be “brand new” for someone else.
This morning, as I write this, the neighborhood up the street was having one of those “Everybody on the Block Get Rid of Your Stuff” sales that my bride can’t resist. When there’s that many people with that much interesting stuff, it doesn’t take too much effort to get me and the boys in the truck either. Especially when she’s scoped out the “stuff” the day before, and she knows some of the people have records to sell. Those dusty boxes of vinyl with their faded covers are magnetic for me, possessing an attraction that may as well be the gravitational pull of the sun. I can’t resist. Not that I’d want to. Because their magic shaped me, and hearing them again instantly takes me back.
Today was a good day. We found five that we wanted, though we had to put two back, because they were too scratched to play. Come home, drop the needle — yes, while I have all the new digital gadgets with the ten thousand songs on the iPod, and the surround sound system, I still love my record player. So, drop the needle and wait. My family, all in other rooms, slowly trickle into the den as the Righteous Brothers croon Unchained Melody. Listening to this near-perfect rendition, it’s amazing to think Bobby Hatfield almost didn’t get a shot to cover this tune.
When that record stops spinning, Earth, Wind & Fire drops. September, then Shining Star, and, suddenly, the kids are dancing across the carpet. “What’s this, Daddy? I love it!” As they keep groovin’. They are experiencing this music for the very first time, just like I did so many decades ago. Without preamble, and without anyone trying to sell them something. They are untethered and immersed, free to experience the richness and the joy. I watch them, and, just for a moment, I’m eight years old again… Rapid transportation…