Tag Archives: memoir

record love, part 1: hamburger lady

There’s a subculture out there.  You know there must be, there are so many others.  I knew them even before the days of the internet, back when suggestions were swapped at Appletree counters, trades made in the dusty, dark upstairs of the parents’ used furniture store.  Then, the collectors kept them in pristine in sleeves, lined in rows like shiny machines, perfectly alphabetized.  They filled basement shelves, praying for the absence of rain.  Quality maintained by dehumidifiers.  By the care you’d give to rare plants.  Who else would guard them?


And when played, the sound was crisp, clean, real, as if you were there– better than live, this wall of sound.  Mulvee had ’em in the basement. The ones who would never come to our town, the ones from Britian and L.A., NYC, even France, accented Japan, they announced themselves through Mulvee’s singularly placed speakers and if you closed your eyes and breathed in everyone else’s smoke you might think that yes, even someone as concrete as you would understand the frightening strains of Throbbing Gristle or the angular architectural triumphs of Pere Ubu as they built a whole new City.  What a relief  when Elvis Costello came on, Get Happy!, how familiar and warm that voice, someone you could really argue with in the middle of the night, that he would enter the room of plastic and plants.  And then Mulvee got that beer brewing thing and a new era was launched.  It was just us in there, you know–no one was running in and out, this was the world of the quiet, this was a place where musicians rarely visited in the flesh (except, well, Charlie Daniels over and over again & occasionally Buddy Guy on the route between St. Louis and Chicago), this was a place where the information was known only to the select and the not necessarily “hip,” and we weren’t even posing because nobody knew.  We didn’t even have a freaking college that you would call a real college, there was no gathering spot no Clark Street or Belmont, sometimes the local new wavers or that rare party when Adrien Belew the guitarist who played with Bowie would come in and there’s be flashing lights and the whole thing–Adrian Belew is the nicest guy ever, practically a doofus so nice–I can’t remember why he was in our city, he lived around there, he was as close as we’d ever get to a celebrity–.  Look, there was nobody to know.  There was no internet, right, so it wasn’t even up on Facebook, that we were so underground, there was just this obsession.  And it wasn’t even shared by all of us.  We all were in love with different sounds.  I thought Throbbing Gristle  too droney, and Kraftwerk, while appreciated, did not move me.  (Throbbing Gristle: “Hamburger Lady” played with its incessant hamburger lady repetition, electronically altered, like entering an empty vat with slick metal and no way out, played when our friend burned over 70% of her body popped over and the ex and Mulvee laughing their asses off until she said: “You know, that happened to me.”  We didn’t know.  “A kerosene lamp exploded.  I spent months in the hospital.  I spent a year with my mother.  I hate my mother.  My husband left me.  He didn’t even visit me.  See?”  And she pulled up her long skirt to reveal an intricate web of pink and white tissue.)


How abstract it all seemed in the day, how taken for granted now.


We all of us loved Mulvee’s collection. 


We were in awe of the plastic sleeves (even while we ridiculed the anal-retentiveness, snicker snicker what a nerdball, amazed by the way the record was carefully cleaned before going onto the turntable, the way it was handled always on the edges, not a fingerprint to distort the clarity.  We were afraid to touch anything too much, especially since Mulvee would huddle around like a worried parent, but we did it anyway.  A deliberate smack in the groove when he wasn’t looking but not enough to cause permanent damage just enough to fuck with the plan a little because that level of order is terrifying….  Fifteen, twenty minutes passed looking at the artwork on Devo’s, reading the liner notes that came with the Robert Johnson.  Voice like David Byrne’s chanting not him though way way out there thumpathump beatbeatbeat wwwwwwooooooooooguitar………………… . . . . . . . . . . . Struuuummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmeeeee……… . . .. . . .. . . … . . . . . . . . . . . . . Call me a drunk be a final solution……..(is that what he said?  Mulvee, do you have the liner notes?)…thumpa…nuclear destruction……natural selection……no, not a drunk…..need a final solution…….bassssswoooooooo


Money from the government job went into the sound system.  The subwoofer, the eternally crisp speaker, the needle–a needle alone could cost hundreds, for it was this that touched the groove so lightly, took black plastic and turned it into light and night–.  So much for that tiny room.  Too much for the neighbors, windows closed.  Nearly rattling the frame, but not quite.  This would create distortion.  No on distortion.  Unless intentional.  It was not.  Thirty seconds over Tokyo.  Solution?  Finance.  Columns.  Checking the data against the log?  Call up the captain.  It’s a government town.  A government town.  Don’t you worry about me….


Discipline.  Berlin.  That’s what it takes, right.  Industrial.  Mulvee’s open heart surgery.  You could die.  They thought he’d die.  He wasn’t supposed to make it to 21.  Twenty one’s the number.  He liked to sleep in a coffin.  Or so they said.  I doubt it, seriously.  Mumbles beneath the throbbing drone, the spirits, demons, muttering the way they did.  Gothic, it is….medical advances…..a fan…..the saw…..the light, the way they talk around you on the table before and after….and the nightmares, the nightmares…..it’s okay….burn unit burn unit….(Hell, you always know it’s German.  Sorry, British.  Stupid.)


Pere Ubu: Cleveland, Ohio.  Devo: Akron.  Is there hope? 


The lights kept the plants alive.  They curled and strained beneath the fluorescents.


It’s boring if you don’t smoke.

And then there was the flood.  Was that before or after we began to drift away?  The sleeves saved some.  Not all.  The insurance payment was substantial.  Photographs documented their existence, documented the loss.  Creeping mold.  The mold inhabited, never went away, no matter the fluids you never shake the smell really.  It took something out of it.  You get tired, when you acquire and protect, create an archive as it were, and then.  No matter what precautions.  Somewhere in it all, Mulvee took up photography. 


That flood.  And the new wave band broke up, they all went here and there.  Mostly they stayed in town.  People got married, had babies, broke up, people kept jobs.  Scandals, regrets, the bars closing up replaced by those government worker pickup places, the hippies going out of business left no performance space, even we knew it would not improve.  The record store closed.  It happens that way, there’s no holding on once it goes.

Mulvee got married.  Everyone was so surprised.  He’d never had a girlfriend.  Our friend left her husband and son to marry Mulvee.  By then we never saw him much.  It was strange.  I don’t know if they listen, what they listen to, if they are still together, even if Mulvee is still alive.  Pere Ubu–mostly a guy with a synthesizer, David Thomas–Pere Ubu still makes electronic symphonies.  Throbbing Gristle…who cares.  And hamburger lady?–she got on her bike and rode off, never ashamed to show the scar flowers, the real tattoos on her bare legs.




the spin of the platter (music memoir one)

My brother turned into a radio patter rock jockey whenever he was talking into a Hot Wheels car.  Later, once we got the microphone to the tape player, he laid it all down even better.  My voice overs weren’t nearly to par–though, being older, I started it all.  I became the spinner, the one who pulled the scratched 45s onto the turntable and cued up the beginning of that tune pulled off the radio and taped onto the tan casette deck.  As kids in the middle of the cornfields in the sixties, we didn’t exactly have the equipment.  We didn’t really need it, though surely I wanted it.

In the beginning, my brother mostly sat there while I took those scratched up discs and popped them onto the old 45 kids’ turntable.  I didn’t need tapes then–it was all a live broadcast, straight from the breezeway to nobody’s homes nationwide.  Old singles my mom had held onto, good stuff, too, the Little Richard and Elvis and, hell, even that crappy Pat Boone, they all had their moments as spinning discs.  Singles I’d eaked out allowance money to buy, the Carpenters, the Doors, the Monkees, Aretha, Sly & the Family Stone, as I got older more added to the spindle of possibilities.  Playing DJ, it didn’t matter what was on there, because  it wasn’t the music then, it was the words, the game being the voice that led the oblivious listener down the pathway of song.

You always assumed whoever was out there was paying no attention.  My brother knew that to do it right, you had to be loud, you had to be full of insanity and in their face, you had to drop and raise that tone til it sounded like a racecar going around a track.  You had to have a low voice, a guy voice (I’d never heard a female DJ, not once, as a kid), and you had to turn it into a production. 

So as he got older and I did, too, and as I fell out of the game, he kept it going.  He got a setup, he got two friends who’d get in it with him.  They made a studio in the basement with microphones and decks and albums now, not 45s, and they played the hard driving stuff, no pussy music for them, but heavy metal, man, and they cranked up the volume.  His friends were geeky, one with his horn rimmed glasses and lonely life and vaguely threatening eyes, rejected by family and my brother his only friend, and the other guy an in your face used car salesman bullshitter who never stopped talking, ever.  They spun platters, they did slices and cuts, fades and volumes, they put together new music from the old, and, you know, I missed most of that.  I hated their music.  I was pretty out of the house, in a new life, while they spread equipment across that dank basement.  Turned out street kids across America were doing the same stuff, with different music, swapping it with friends, no marketing deals, they did it for fun, while here were these kids in the basement in a place where nobody but they would ever hear it, nobody would be breakdancing to their beats. But none of that mattered because it was the creating it, the moment, and then that playing it back, hearing just how good they sounded over those thumping beats and guitar screams.  Oh well.

I still played the radio while all that was going on, made tapes.  In my room now,  knowing better than to do any silly voice overs.  I had an elaborate taping system, each song carefully pulled from the airwaves and stored, to be pulled and played again.  To capture the song, you had to put up with that voice, that stupid DJ voice, the one that intruded on the beginnings of “Hot Fun in the Summer Time,” insisting that yes, it was HOT HOT HOT and it was SUMMER SUMMER as in FUN like the FUN you find at Joe Malone’s USED CARS.  Try as you might to cut it off the tape, the voice would still slip in, and the bastard would cut off the end, the fade,  so I could never find the ending. The songs truncated into the GUY again just when I desperately needed them to resolve.  My sixties, my high school seventies, were on the airwaves, every hippie party grasped by the scream of Grace Slick’s voice or the Grateful Dead’s guitar and I was so desperately trying to understand, but, you know, there was always the SHOPPING at KMART and the THAT WAS THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE!!!!!  And when my brother did it in the basement I had to smile because he was so good at it, so much better than JOE in the MORNING.  I was sure he’d be a DJ, if he could just get out.

But that’s the thing about basements.  They encourage the kind of growth done by mold on boxes.  It’s cozy down there in the dark, and it’s easy to forget about anything other than what’s in your head.  My brother had an ability to filter out whatever was around him.  He would look at the ground and sing to himself, would spin a toy in his hands, would take a coffee can lid and turn it into a jet wheel, and he could do this anytime, any place, and  did.  Not even as a tune-out mechanism–he just went there.  It was kind of cool, really, that nothing seemed to touch him, that he could make up entire comic scripts without a break unless someone punched him in the head, which did happen.  It was annoying to be around that all day.  That patter, he ran it without the music, without the tapes, he went to other countries that I’ve never visited, even today.  He used to get beat up at school until he got so big that he could slug people back.  Even I couldn’t tease him anymore.  His head was a land of absolute freedom.

The tapes got put away late.  His buddies and he worked on them past high school, putting together sophisticated cut and paste concept albums, for chrissake, during which time my brother and the vaguely scary friend got jobs at KMart and his motormouth salesman pal went to junior college and became, in reality, a DJ.  The tapes went on until my brother got himself married and almost immediately after was forced to join the service, having no other options.  (Someone with a constant stream of patter doesn’t make a very good stock shelver.  There are too many games to play with windshield wiper boxes and vinyl shoes.)  The equipment got left behind.  The albums, too,were stored in boxes which in time got hit by the river flood and the covers came off in your hands.  My cherished 45s had been decimated already by constant play until their skips became parts of the songs and were finally thrown away by my father in some moment of grand house cleaning.  

Even when my brother was in high school, I tried to get him to be a real DJ. I carried on the argument for  years. I tried to explain to my mother that there were ways of doing this, since he was not thinking at all about the world outside the house.  My dad believed all along he should join the service.  My brother himself had long been obsessed by planes, flying them accompanied by accurate whooshing noises and sonic booms.   I argued hard against the military, having been influenced by Warm San Francisco Nights, Stop Children Watch that Sound, and all those family war stories.  Be a DJ, why not, just do it, and he would look at me, and he would tell me there was no money in it.  You don’t make money now, I pointed out.  He would tell me that there was no way to start.  Your friend did it, I’d say, that Mark, you’re better than Mark.  I couldn’t really go in, he would say.  Go to college, get a degree.  I hate school, he would say.  There were all of those reasons.  Really, none of us knew how to begin, none of us knew that world out there, which was, my brother was right, not a world of cassette decks lovingly cued in otherwise silent rooms.  We knew nobody out there, we had no way of connecting, no language but the sounds themselves.  And  nothing is as pure as sound, be it everso overproduced, overpracticed and sold, we only knew it as what came in when nothing else could.

Once he got married, there was no reason to listen.  The single path presented itself as as a signature on a line.  Letting go was as inevitable as a baby.  Endings are created in a click.