My grandfather participated in the liberation of Mauthausen concentration camp. I don’t know much more about this than what I’ve gleaned from a briefcase full of faded photographs that surfaced after he died, and the lone comment he made one evening. “The smoke from the chimneys was so sweet it made you sick,” he said.
He came home from the war and restarted his life. A year later, his brother and his brother’s family were killed in a fire. I don’t know much more about this, either, except for the newspaper clippings found in the same briefcase. But I do know that it was my grandfather who was sent to the morgue to identify the charred bodies.
How people overcome these sorts of things is beyond me, and in retrospect maybe it was beyond him, too. He drank a lot, and he threw into the fireplace anything that wasn’t nailed down. The man could not stand clutter. My father’s comic books and baseball cards went up the chimney as soon as the old man moved out, for example. Visits to my grandfather’s house consisted of watching him drink Coors while he stared at this and that curling up in the flames. Whatever he saw there occupied him.
But not everything fits into a fireplace, and that’s where grandchildren come in. Many visits to my grandparents’ little house in the mountains resulted in piles of castoff junk in the back of our Bel-Air wagon. If it was taking up space, not combustible, and not garbage it came home with us. My aunt made the mistake of leaving her childhood belongings behind when she ran off with her Air Force husband, and thus her portable hi-fi and her record collection were handed down to my sisters and me.
“Portable hi-fi” deserves a bit of explanation in an iPod world. This beast was the size of a hard shell suitcase and must have weighed 485 pounds. Okay, it probably weighed 30 pounds, but what’s the difference? Hardly portable for a preschooler. One would set the suitcase on its side and then open it like some sort of elaborate steamer trunk. The hinged top swung open to reveal the turntable, and the sides of the case swung outward to expose the two stereo speakers. Considering my only experience with stereo equipment was the kiddie record player in my bedroom, this was quite a step up.
Because my sisters shared a room it was decided that the stereo would live there; after all, they represented 66% of the ownership. We set it up in a corner, across from the bunk beds and just right of the E-Z Bake Oven, and there it stayed until we moved a few years later.
Now, since the stereo was in their room, it only made sense that my aunt’s records would live there, too, so when my sisters left for school I would sneak into their room and spend my pre-nap hours rifling through the albums. Sonny and Cher were there. I recognized them from television, but Sonny was dressed up like a hippy. Very strange. And Elvis – I knew who Elvis was. He was the guy on TV on Saturdays, so this must be the music from those movies. He’s an Army guy in this picture, so this must be G.I. Blues; there’s a carnival tent on this album, so this must be Roustabout. He was old and he looked funny. I didn’t like Elvis, but I liked that I knew who he was.
She had other records, too. These people weren’t on television, so I had no idea who they were. They were all hippies, and my father and grandfather spoke often about what worthless, filthy, deadbeats hippies were. One album cover showed four fully-clothed hippies in a bathtub – two men and two women. They seemed to be having a good time. The blond woman was beautiful. She looked like she belonged on TV. Why were they all in a bathtub? It didn’t make sense. Bathtubs were a place to be alone and naked. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to stare at the blond lady in the picture.
Some of the other hippy records were simply too terrifying. Angular men in pegged pants and wraparound sunglasses, smoking. They had long hair and moustaches. Grandpa had a flat top. He was one of the good guys in the War. I didn’t like looking at the scary hippy records.
And right in the middle between the TV people and the dirty hippies were the crown jewels of my aunt’s record collection: Meet The Beatles; Beatles ’65; Songs, Pictures and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles (on the Vee Jay label); and Rubber Soul. I knew who The Beatles were. I don’t know how I knew, I just did. I think everybody did. It wasn’t because my parents were caught up in the throes of Beatlemania. I’d never seen my father intentionally listen to music, and my mother listened to showtunes. The Beatles may have been as close to a universal pop culture reference that spanned generations and geography as was possible when I was a kid.
I couldn’t read the titles of the albums, but I knew the faces. On most of the records they looked like they were having fun. They wore suits and smiled and goofed around for the camera. Their hair was funny but not scary. They looked like the kind of grown-ups who wouldn’t ignore me.
At least that’s how they looked on all but one of the albums. Rubber Soul was different. On the front cover they loomed over the camera like menacing giants. That’s not quite right. The experience was more like I woke up to find four strangers watching me sleep. It was a bit dizzying and unsettling. The back cover was a collection of black and white photos that I’m sure were quite tame, but to my little brain they were pure dissonance. No more suits, and that one is wearing sunglasses like the scary hippies wear on their album covers. The worst offense? They were smoking cigarettes. The nice guys in suits had turned into cigarette smoking hippies.
This was obviously dangerous cargo, this album. If the nice guys in suits could turn to the dark side then anybody could. Could I? Maybe I was already there. Maybe I was a bad kid. Maybe that’s why I liked looking at the blond lady in the bathtub so much.
My son and I describe certain songs as “goosebump music.” These are the songs that are so deeply tucked beneath your skin that they literally make you tingle. Just thinking about putting Rubber Soul on that hand me down hi-fi gets me there. Pure goosebumps.
Honestly, I’m a bit stumped right now. This is the part of the narrative where I’m supposed to describe the turn “Wonder Years” style: “At that moment I knew…” And that to some degree is true. Even now when I hear “I’ve Just Seen A Face” I get an inexplicable feeling of hope and change. It’s not there in the lyrics, it’s not really even in the music. What it comes down to, I think, is this: The sheer, absolute beauty coming from those speakers exposed the world I knew as a lie; well, if not a lie then as a much more complicated place than “heroes have flat tops and hippies are bad.” I couldn’t fathom that bad people could make such perfect music.
“Michelle” was equally mind altering. If hippies were losers and deadbeats they must be stupid, right? And yet that guy is singing in something other than English. My little brain couldn’t imagine the complexity of speaking two languages. For that matter, I’m not entirely sure I knew there were languages other than English.
On and on. I treated that record like a manifesto. “Think For Yourself.” “Run For Your Life.” “I’m Looking Through You.” “In My Life.” There was a world out there. That’s why those four guys were looming over me on the album cover. I was asleep, and they wanted to wake me up.
So I guess that “Wonder Years” moment, hackneyed as it is, is true. That album changed me. Even as young as I was, it opened my eyes to worlds that I had no idea even existed. It was the moment that I began to see the world for myself versus through the lens of the adults in my life.
And from there we were off to the races.
Related “Why It Matters” pieces: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/37-loneliness-will-haunt-you-will-you-sacrifice/