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“May Flowers” (or “Blerkins Buys a Record Player”)

This week we introduce a new thread here at Blerkins: a critical, if random, exploration of music from the mid-20th century as found on obscure vinyl LP’s. But first, a few words about what has motivated this additional line of inquiry.

Preface: As an early teen, I spent a considerable amount of my free time in my grandparent’s basement listening to LP’s (which were already old by then) on their Curtis-Mathis console record player. I realize this may call into question my “cool kid” status – though I also rode motorcycles, so I wasn’t completely out of the game. The album collection was eclectic and represented the diverse interests of a family of five; from classical to classic rock, from Burl Ives to Bill Cosby to the Beach Boys. I sometimes think my inclusive and eclectic musical tastes today were probably defined during those years. Regrettably, my youthful inexperience with record players and my something-less-than-gentle handling of the albums, and the generally poor condition of the stylus means that few of those albums have survived in serviceable condition. Yet their profound influence has remained.

The Ghost of New Year’s Past: My birthday falls just before New Year’s Eve on the Gregorian calendar. I turned 39 this year. Still relatively young as things go these days, what with 50 being the new 30, but old enough to begin to contemplate my life, what still needs to be done and accomplished, and how the clock is getting on. One also begins to think about what has been lost to the inexorability of time – three grandparents, my youth, too many of my son’s formative years, my dad. That last one seems somehow a greater loss today than it was even when he died; what with me now being at just the stage in life where, I suspect, his presence would have been most appreciated. His absence somehow seems to emphasize my own sense of aloneness and shortcoming as a father. Too many cats in the cradle and silver moons, or spoons, or whatever.

I think of those days listening to records in the basement – when it was someone else’s job to shoulder the burdens and responsibilities of life; a time where my most important job, I thought, was helping my grandmother organize holiday meals with name placards and stemware – and I wonder how to recapture that part of life. The part that we leave behind as spring gives way to summer, that part we are given to experience only in an April shower or in May flowers. Something of the exuberance of singing, loudly and out of tune, while driving a lawn tractor, with no mower, around in circles, in a field, without the least concern for the onlooker or the absurdity of the scene or the cost of the gas. I take some comfort that I was not entirely wrong – arranging holiday dinners with my grandmother might have been, in fact, the most important thing I could have done. Or, at least, it may have been my greatest success; and so brightly lit is that memory that the shadows of other failures are somehow rendered unseen, except during especially gloomy thundershowers.

The Ghost of New Year’s Present: New Year’s resolutions are a chance to reclaim something lost. We’ve all seen the lists: stop smoking, lose weight, spend more time with family, overcome addictions, find a new job. Health, status, well-being, belonging, youth – each of these attached to deep human needs and longings, many of which go unfulfilled or unsatisfied much of the time. Our fragmented, industrialized, compartmentalized economy demeans work and separates families. Each successive generation, now, it seems, must set out anew in search of suitable employment since, increasingly, it could not be found where you were. Even those without an adventuresome spirit must put a good face on it, because of being a man and all that. The collapse of American civic virtue, a product of the 20th century’s many hollow promises, have only further robbed families of rootedness and continuity and connectedness and home. A man truly of his time – with all the uprootedness and discontinuity and disconnectedness and homelessness that it suggests – my thoughts this new year have turned to family. It has stirred to mind my first time with Good Vibrations, with the Monkeys, with To Russel, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, and with a little white duck sittin’ on the water (who, as I recall, said, “Quack, quack, quack”).

My New Year’s resolutions have grown out of this, out of a desire for renewal and towards greater connectedness and home. This means returning to serious work on my long-delayed thesis and recommitting myself to Blerkins, both of which, sadly, had been in a prolonged state of hibernation. To increase the success of my carrying off these resolutions, and to guard against a return to the sort of fatigue that prompted my intellectual nap, I have been trolling about for a hobby or worthy diversion that would reintroduce into my life some fun, a greater sense of play, and perhaps even revive a little nostalgia.

Enter the record player.

Equipped with a super-cool MP3 conversion port, the player can convert albums digitally to an MP3 file without further need of computer editing. Thank you Best Buy Christmas sale. This new record player lacks the beauty or priority of place that my grandparent’s console player once occupied in their home decades ago, until the tyranny of the television drove it from power and imprisoned it in a basement dungeon. Yet even prisoners, perhaps especially prisoners, when unjustly confined, can have a profound, even revolutionary impact on those with whom they communicate. Revolutions, however, require bullets; and a gun with no bullets is of noticeably little value. So a quick trip to a local thrift store and we are locked and loaded with a small arms collection of eclectic LP vinyls, most of which have fallen into obscurity, but have perhaps retained their lethality. We plan to sample and write about these albums here in this space. Perhaps among them we shall discover a few Prison Epistles, forgotten or overlooked or both, but possessed of the sort of message that arms a man and sets him on his path.

The Ghost of New Year’s Future: I am not so vain as to think I can recapture youth or innocence or suddenly overcome my own insecurities as a father, or anything else so Utopian and banal. But the chance that I will meet up with some old and dear friends is welcomed. Perhaps even, maybe, my own children will one day remember dancing around the dining room table and connect the experience with dad’s record player and remember the happiness of their childhood, a memory so bright in their minds they forget how crotchety and critical and tired their dad was far too much of the time. Maybe they will attach themselves to music that predates the cultural destruction of our people, and escape the judgment that comes to all who immerse themselves in ugliness and squalor and filth.

Maybe the first joke they find really funny will be that they had never seen the belt, but they had heard about it. Maybe it steers them away from the crass and the crude and towards the engaging and the edifying. To his end, my record player knows full well it is fighting an uphill battle, a guerrilla war. It knows it is outgunned and its supporters are few. But it believes it is right, and that the battle is worth fighting, though it mean almost certain doom. Somewhere along the line it came to agree that the band should play on, but only with the right music; a judgment, as fate would have it, the record player was uniquely equipped to pronounce.

Life is, after all, a bit like a record spinning on the turntable. The closer you get to the end, the smaller the circles. There is less and less time on each spin. And if you are paying attention, you realize you better get a move-on because the arm does not move; the stylus is relentless. Eventually the circles will run out and all that will be left is static. The music, while it lasts, is God’s gift of grace. At its best, instilling truth, goodness, beauty, and virtue.

It may be true this record player can’t give me dad or Gram’s basement, but sitting here in the heat of life's summer, I sure wouldn’t mind hearing again a few recordings of April showers and May flowers.

Blerkins is an eclectic blog of scholarly reflection and cultural commentary for folks who still believe that Western civilization has merit; and that life is far too interesting to give up on, or waste on television.
Our audience tends to be people exasperated with the world but too idealistic to give up on cultural engagement; who swim in a world seemingly devoid of truth, yet are too ethical for hedonism.


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