My earliest birthday memories are no more than fragments: A Winnie the Pooh cake my aunt and my mother made for me; a two-layer cake with the Seven Dwarfs seated around its perimeter. I played elevator with Sneezy and his friends, shoving each down to the first floor, leaving seven divots in my birthday cake. One year my sister made me a cake decorated like a baseball.
I remember getting a Mego Batman action figure for my seventh birthday, and a model of Dr. Zaius that same year. Assembling Dr. Zaius made no sense to me — an ape shouldn’t have parts like an airplane or race car.
Food and stuff, those are my fragmentary memories. I remember records, too, probably not all of them but a few. For my eighth birthday I received two Barry Manilow albums, and for my ninth a 45 of “It’s a Miracle.” That same year someone gave me a copy of John Denver’s Spirit. These aren’t memories that will earn me any cool points, but they’re honest. Anyone who tells you that they don’t have some embarrassments in their musical woodpile is a dirty liar.
Age twelve my sister gave me a copy of Are You Experienced for my birthday. My mother made me a pizza from scratch, a gesture that was both so touching and delicious that many years later when I had children of my own I made it a weekend tradition. As I write this, tonight’s pizza dough rises in the kitchen. That birthday I also received a stack of Fawcett Dennis the Menace paperbacks. Childhood is a strange time.
That copy of Are You Experienced skipped through most of “Purple Haze,” which was the only Jimi Hendrix song I knew, but I refused to exchange it because it was a gift. That decision led me to the deep cuts: “I Don’t Live Today,” “Love or Confusion,” the epic title cut. I still own that same defective copy, and flood or fire notwithstanding I always will.
By the beginning of my teens I was a veteran Guy in Black Tee Shirt Who Jams, my hair carefully feathered, my jeans Levis and my shoes leather Nikes. I wore both kinds of shirts: black concert tees and baseball-style concert shirts. When my thirteenth birthday rolled around, Winnie the Pooh cakes and Dennis the Menace paperbacks were clearly not on the radar.
And there is the next fragmented memory: I sat at the butcher block table that my father crafted from salvaged oak. My sisters smiled from their seats across the table. One held a brightly wrapped tube, the other a flat, 12″ square: a poster and an album.
I haven’t lived in that house for 30 years, and I still remember every detail: the brown vinyl dining room chairs; the smoked glass light fixture dangling over the rustic table; the Curtis Mathes console television constantly blaring; the yellow kitchen counters and the big dials on the microwave, its mechanical bell announcing the arrival of another rubbery meal. The living room was carpeted in low-pile sculpted shag that was a medley of earth tones, the walls covered in dark brown paneling. Any errant light or joy that found its way through the carport door was immediately extinguished.
Birthday cake and brightly wrapped gifts offered stiff competition to the relentless darkness. I tore the paper from the tube and unrolled a 1980 calendar painted on the back of a nude woman. She was seated, so the photo was no more controversial than a visit from an unbelted plumber, but when you’re 13 you take what you can get.
I grabbed the album and tore off the wrapping paper. My sister looked quite pleased with herself.
“Thanks,” I said.
“They’re still cool, right?”
“Yeah, Queen jams.” I took my new record to my bedroom, carefully slit the shrink wrap and dropped the needle. Which Queen was I going to get: the “Bohemian Rhapsody” art rockers or the “Sheer Heart Attack” bad asses?
Ibrahim, Ibrahim, Ibrahim….
What the fuck was this? The opening track of an album sets the tone for the whole record. “Purple Haze” kicks off Are You Experienced; “Detroit Rock City” opens Destroyer. Queen’s previous album opened with a contract: “We Will Rock You,” but Jazz opened with some kind of middle eastern prayer set to music. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I knew I didn’t like it.
News of the World aside, Queen had never made a really accessible album. They always included accessible tracks, but as collections of songs listeners had to be ready to work. Maybe you’ll get light opera or ukulele, or heavy songs about car lust. The only thing you could do with a Queen album is turn it up, put on the headphones, and lie back and think of England.
Things picked up after “Mustapha.” “Fat Bottom Girls” was a junior high school favorite, so I was already into that cut. I stretched out on my bed, checked out the gatefold and inner sleeves. There was something else inside the jacket, a pink chunk of glossy paper the size of an album. I pulled it out and unfolded it. It was a poster — dozens of breasts, asses, and bicycles. My hormones and I agreed that this was the greatest album ever.
Jazz in some ways was the last “real” Queen album. Next up was The Game, which included the disco influenced “Another One Bites the Dust.” That was still a cool album, but Jazz included heavy rockers like “Dead on Time” and “Let Me Entertain You,” oddballs like “Mustapha” and “Bicycle Race,” and retro-flavored cuts like “Jealousy” and “Dreamers Ball.”
But the big money cut was “Don’t Stop Me Now,” a perfect companion to Queen classics like “You’re My Best Friend” and “Now I’m Here.” It was big, beautiful, and one couldn’t help but sing along to it.
Years later, much like pizza Sundays, “Don’t Stop Me Now” remains a tradition in my house, or more specifically my car. If my daughter has control of the music we’re going to have a singalong and I’m going to give it all I have, just like I did in my bedroom over 30 years ago.
My memory for birthdays hasn’t gotten much better except when it comes to my kids, but Jazz remains in my rotation. Thanks, big sister. They’re still cool.