My goal as a kid was to get my hands on as much music as possible. I recorded The King Biscuit Flower Hour whenever I found it on the FM dial. When we finally got a VCR I taped Saturday Night Live musical guests, Friday Night Videos, whatever I could; and what I couldn’t record because we didn’t have cable I asked my buddy Matt to record for me. He would bring me VHS tapes filled with six hours of MTV; Zappa, Ozzy, and Rainbow concerts; music movies like The Clash’s Rude Boy.
But the big score for a kid with no cash could be found in the middle of TV Guide and every other popular magazine: the record club. For the cost of a single record RCA would send you six albums. Not to be outdone the good people at Columbia House would send you eleven records for a penny. A penny! My father was notoriously frugal — surely he couldn’t let me pass up such a deal.
“Shipping and handling, that’s where they get you.”
“I’ll pay for it.”
“My lawn mowing money.”
“That’s what you say now, but wait until the bill comes.”
“I’ll give you the money right now.”
“Because you aren’t old enough to enter into a legally binding contract and you won’t meet your responsibilities which will ruin my credit and we’ll lose the house.”
“My ass you are.”
Eleven records for the low-cost of a penny and a house. For years while my father watched the news I amused myself by scanning the lists of titles in the Columbia House flier, putting together the list of eleven that I would order if not for the risk of foreclosure.
Meanwhile deep in the heart of Timberlake — down Ricky Brent’s driveway, up the big hill by the Germans’ house, and through the kudzu tangled woods — Lee G’s family revered music. When they built their Timberlake home they included a room specifically for Mr. G’s grand piano. When I first visited Lee G back in the fifth grade in their previous home, that same piano took up the majority of the living room. “My Dad’s famous all over Spartanburg,” he told me. “He’s played at the Kennedy Center.” For years I thought that the Kennedy Center was in Spartanburg.
Now the piano was the center of a beautiful music room deep in the woods. The only other objects I remember in the room were an abstract painting of stacked cubes and a very high-end stereo system. The closet was packed with albums, mostly jazz but not exclusively.
Lee had a little stereo in his room and a portable cassette player, the infamous boom box which begat the Walkman, which begat the Discman, which begat the iPod. Amen. We played a mix of the house’s music — Spyro Gyra, Return To Forever, Chuck Mangione, Shadowfax — and Lee’s eclectic taste. He gravitated toward more popular fare at that age, and once he got his hooks into a cut he was relentless. In seventh grade he went on a “Pop Muzik” tear that lasted weeks. I wasn’t any less myopic. That same year I gave him a KISS necklace for Christmas because hey, who wouldn’t enjoy a KISS pendant? Answer: the “Pop Muzik” kid.
Anyway, my point is this: Lee G had a boom box, a musical family, and a broad aural palette. He was the ideal candidate for a record club, so I wasn’t surprised when I showed up at his house one day to find a bunch of new tapes.
“Isn’t your dad mad at you?”
“He doesn’t care. What do you want to listen to?” I went straight for the Heavy Metal soundtrack. “Hold on, don’t start it yet,” he said and ran out of the room. He came back holding a pair of audiophile headphones. “Put these on. Listen to this.”
He pressed play and Cheap Trick’s “I Must Be Dreamin’ ” started swirling through the headphones. What a mind blower. The intro shifts from one channel to the other, swirling from ear to ear along with that cool phase effect that was so popular in the ’80s (think of the drums on Billy Squier’s “The Stroke,” for example).
Checking out music at Lee G’s wasn’t just about the songs, but the fidelity. My stereo was a $59 Emerson from K-Mart; my family’s hi-fi only slightly better. But everything sounds better on good gear. Promise me this: One weekend you will leave the mp3 player at home and visit the audiophile room of your local electronics retailer. Don’t like classical, for example? You will when you are standing in the middle of it, that bottom end shaking your internal organs and those tweeters willing the hairs on your arms to attention.
Well, almost everything sounds better. No headphones could get me to listen to ABBA’sVoulez-Vous, so we skipped that Lee G purchase. Next up was Eagles Live. I didn’t have much love for The Eagles but Joe Walsh was cool and his “hey man I’m freaking out” intro to “Life’s Been Good” was funny. The big moment on that record, though, was the five-part harmony on “Seven Bridges Road.” Even a dumb guy in a black tee could hear the beautiful interplay of those five voices.
Lee G’s boom box and Columbia House collection was our first portable soundtrack, a ten pound iPod running on eight D cells. (That’s not entirely true. Prior to that I owned a portable 8-track player with a fifteen minute battery life and the audio fidelity of a squirrel drowning in a storm drain). It was also the de facto sound system for my deathtrap of a car.
The teenaged deathtrap is a rite of passage, and I did it up right with a 1967 MGB that I picked up for four hundred bucks. A beautiful car and I loved it dearly, but that was the most abusive relationship I’ve ever experienced. The generator didn’t put out enough juice to power both the ignition system and the headlights, so once I got off the main roads I had to drive by moonlight. If I hit a puddle my feet were soaked. The windshield wipers only worked when they wanted to, which was rarely. The exhaust system, drive shaft, and even one of the wheels fell off while going down the road. No heater, seatbelts, roll bar, and most importantly no radio.
Sure, she was difficult and moody, but she was pretty. With the top down and all four wheels still attached I felt like Lord Chesterton McDerbysheffeldshire winding along the roads around Lake Bowen, and the lack of a radio wasn’t really too big of a deal. My buddy Matt and I would howl “New York New York” over the engine noise while we were tooling around, or muttered and grumbled the Sinatra standard while we were pushing the MG.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice that I can provide if you are in the market for a vintage English car is this: Never drive it farther than you are willing to push or tow it. Also, pick a song in your vocal range to wail over the assorted clunks, clonks, thuds, squeaks, and clacketa-clacketas you’ll hear as your purchase dismantles itself at forty miles per hour.
My pal Hal’s band got a Saturday afternoon gig in Clemson, one short hour from Boiling Springs. “We should go,” Lee G said. “That would be cool.”
“Think your parents will drive us?
“I’ll ask….Nope. Why don’t you drive?”
“Restricted license. Can’t drive after dark until I’m sixteen.”
“We’ll be back by then.”
“Yeah, they play at 2:00.”
Saturday came and the two of us piled into my MG. No need to butcher “New York New York” — Lee G brought the boom box. We rattled down I-85 while Van Halen’s Diver Down competed with the B’s whining engine. It had never dealt with interstate speeds but we made it, the orange paw prints on Highway 123 welcoming us to Tiger Country.
Hal’s band was outstanding. He was a shit-hot drummer, the lead singer/bassist was a tall, good-looking kid, and the guitarist was a twelve-year-old prodigy barely bigger than his Les Paul. The kid was great but he was stiff as a board, wailing on that Gibson from a state of rigor mortis. When they played the mandatory “Freebird” closer he didn’t fake the lead; rather, he played a pretty faithful interpretation and just to add a little showmanship even played some of it behind his head.
When they were done Lee G and I hung around while they packed their gear into the truck.
“How did we sound?” Hal asked.
“You guys rocked.”
“Yeah? Thanks. Hey, what are y’all doing now? We’re going to go get some pizza.”
“Oh, we have to be back before dark.”
“Hold up, I’ll ride back with you. Just let me tell Carrie.”
The three of us wedged ourselves into the MG, Lee G and his boom box stuffed into the little space behind the seats where the convertible top usually lived. We jammed and listened to Hal chatter as he came down from his post show buzz. We made it all the way to Greenville, thirty minutes outside of Boiling Springs, before the rain moved in and dusk settled, which of course was the MG’s signal to break down.
Just a flat tire, which normally isn’t a big deal but of course “normal” and “MG” rarely have anything in common. The wheel was frozen to the hub. We yanked and pounded and cussed but it would not budge.
“My Dad is going to kill me,” I said.
“For what? Having a flat?”
Eventually a National Guardsman/gay porn star/serial killer pulled over and helped us get the wheel off, all the while repeating, “This is a fine example of field expediency.” We finally got home well after dark with neither ticket nor further incident, other than the lecture about what an irresponsible kid I was. There was never any shipping and handling on that delivery, but it always came anyway. That’s where they get you.