The Musical Battlefield
The record player in one of my childhood homes (there were several), the one in the country, was the battlefield scene for my parents to attempt dominance in the household, at least in an auditory sense. I believe that my wide-ranging and completely eclectic tastes in music are derived somewhat from observing and listening to those aural conquests. Some children might have closed their eyes and their ears, or gone outside to venture into the barn’s hayloft which had become filled with homing pigeons in hand-made cages. I intently and intensely watched and listened as the Writer Self kicked into full gear within this six-year-old child.
Each general would wait until the vinyl record had spun out its musical magic before launching the attack: the phonograph needle was the primary weapon. In the case of my father, the needle was slowly, gently, and delicately removed from the disk. My mother would rip the needle with the diamond chip off of the pathetic vinyl circle. Scrraaaatch!
Each general would in turn take their turn on the turntable. You’ve heard dueling banjos; I heard dueling records.
I don’t recall any rules of engagement being established, but the lines of attack were quite severely drawn as follows:
Rachmaninoff (played by Vladimir Horowitz)
Tchaikovsky (played by Leonard Pennario)
Chopin (Pennario again)
Mantovani & His Orchestra
Nat King Cole
Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs
Sons of the Pioneers
Alvin & The Chipmunks
Les Paul & Mary Ford
As you can see, my mother was more limited in her rounds of aural artillery fire. My father, however, was always discovering a new bluegrass “sound,” or cutting-edge instrumental (“Telstar” by The Tornados fascinated him), or a country singer who really could sing (no Ernest Tubb or Kitty Wells for him). Both agreed on Marian Anderson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, George Beverly Shea, and anything and everything by George Shearing, Guy Lombardo, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Arthur Fiedler and his Boston Pops.
Also concurred to were Roger Williams, he of the cascading piano leaves, and not the founder of Providence Plantation; and anything by Van Cliburn. (An aside: it was only within the past few years that I learned that Van was the first name of this musical genius, and Cliburn the second. Growing up in a little Dutch town, I took the name to be a Dutch surname, Van Cliburn.)
My mother would mispronounce “Fiedler” as “Fiddler,” an error that may have been intentional. A musical highbrow raised amidst finger bowls, she derided the “hillbilly music” that her husband preferred, even though the moniker was not correct. Coming from a family of farmers, and a northeasterner to boot, my father was definitely in the league of country & western.
While my mother thrilled to the trills of Joe Feeney on “The Lawrence Welk Show,” my father was designing and constructing a stereo system with the latest technology: reel-to-reel 3M magnetic sound tape. This process of sound recording was first pioneered with the vehemence of practicality and profit by Bing Crosby who, for some reason, never made the household cut in terms of a record purchase. Bob Hope was vastly preferred, even though he really couldn’t sing.
Opera, classical music, and country music were bred into me, and I like each equally, although not in the same way. When I informed my university voice professor that I wanted to study opera so that I could sing like Patsy Cline, he looked at me as if I were crazy. It made perfect sense to me!
During musical cease-fires between the generals, the corporals, my much older siblings, added their two shots, or notes: Steve Lawrence; Eydie Gormé (Steve or Eydie, as in separately, not together); the soundtracks of “West Side Story” and “Oklahoma!”; no Elvis, but lots of Paul Anka, Eddie Fisher, Bobby Darin, and, for a brief time, Edd Byrnes. Yes, Kookie and his Comb were Kings for a spell, and “77 Sunset Strip” made me aware that I can only snap my fingers on my left hand.
I think it was one of those muscle-use-by-a-certain-age phenomena wherein my snapping fell through the cracks. (I never did watch “The Fonz,” but when I learned about him from a youngin’ who concluded that I was really out of it, I explained to him that before he was even born I’d already seen this character on black-and-white tv.)
The term “high fidelity” was in constant promotional use for vinyl record albums that would truly sound in faithful accordance with the real sound. It was a concept that obsessed my father (no “mid-fi” for him). Nowadays only phobics value and demand high fidelity of any kind, but especially of the ear. Since the music recording industry has progressed beyond vinyl for a listening medium, I find it funny that there are people who now purchase at astronomical prices selected, revered but scratched-up disks, and then they buy record players (whose prices are also inflated) on which to play them.
Those purchases are perhaps made in a forlorn attempt to relive the old days or to capture a superior sound. The auditory quality on a CD is indeed different than the “warmer” tone that vinyl captured, but the scratches on the surface of any record completely ruin any listening pleasure.
One ritual that I recall in high definition and with high fidelity is the cleaning of the records by my father. Dust was the bane of the vinyl record album. The kitchen sink, counter, and table were all commandeered by the man for this operation. First the records would be carefully taken out of their sleeves, and the sleeves would be protectively placed at one end of the table. There was a metal drying rack set up on the counter so that the wet records could drain, and a towel placed beneath the rack to absorb the water. (At precise intervals of time, the towel would be cautiously removed from beneath the rack, the water wrung out of it, and the towel then conscientiously flattened and slowly slid back beneath the rack.)
The cleaning of the vinyl records was somewhat akin to a baptism, although without the total immersion. Very gently, very carefully, each black music plate would be dipped partially, about one-third of the way, into the water, up to the edge of the center paper circle. The area would then be delicately rubbed with a soft sponge, and then the disk rotated for a complete cleaning on both sides.
The black music plate was then rinsed with slowly-running tap water. I’m not sure if the water was warm or cold. Knowing my father’s frugality, I believe the water was probably cold. The disk then would be held into the air. The water was allowed to drip off of the musical darling and then darling was placed into its slot on the rack. Twenty or so repetitions of this loving procedure occurred and the rack was then filled.
The records had to air-dry. No touching was permitted, although I did occasionally sneak a feel of the disks on the outer edges of the rack. Humidity in the summer lengthened the drying process, but my father was a patient man. His patience was exceeded only by his methodical streak; put the two together, and time ceased to exist!
The records in the rack had to be put back into their “sleeves” by dinnertime, or they would probably be ripped out of their places, much in the same way that the needle was yanked off of the vinyl record. The rough handling by my mother of these items adored by my father ensured a growl from him and the retrieval of the magnifying glass from the middle drawer of his blond-wood furniture chest. This drawer was the one organized with all sorts of office and technical supplies. I knew the contents of that wondrously fragrant drawer very well because it was my favorite place to inspect during the temporary absences of my father.
The magnifying glass detected the depth of the scratch and produced proof positive of the irretrievable loss of sound (audio quality) at that section in the record. A trip to Sam Goody’s in New York City would be necessary, and I looked forward to each one.
As the years passed, the record player was replaced by the “stereo credenza.” Motown, Andy Williams, Dionne Warwick, the soundtracks of “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” (but none of Julie in her own character), as well as various other professional singers, were added to my musical training. I spent a long time with Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass (TJB); a fair amount of time with Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66; less time with the Baja Marimba Band; and no time with the current rock music.
Nowadays, I hear stories about the younger generation listening to many of these expired or aging musicians and to so many other recording artists from the days when music was music and singing was singing, as well as a natural talent. The singer sang for the love of song, not merely for ego or even much money. The stories are legend of just how little any recording artist made unless he or she composed the material. That basic fact of the music business remains unchanged today. The shriekers and young yellers “perform” for their own pleasure, not for that of the audience.
I occasionally read comments (the non-profane and non-attack ones) online and I realize that the music has died, but not in the way that Don McLean and his infernally long American pie claimed that it had. (I swear that on the radio I could not escape the song. I ignored so much of the lyrics that when, a decade later, I participated in the inspection of levees, the sight was an epiphany to me: so this is a levee!)
The music has died because the heartless record executives buried it with their slicing and dicing of the demographics into such small bandwidths that even the bandwidth of presumed consumers won’t buy very much of the digital dreck. The Big Three Networks BROADCAST; satellite and cable stations NARROWCAST. This development has been worsened by the fact that the executives, the “suits,” in charge of programming entertainment are absolutely awful in their decisions.
From Wall Street to wall-to-wall news & entertainment, the “experts” are idiots. The suits who ran CBS, NBC, and ABC had to produce shows that brought in advertising dollars from a broad appeal to a wide range of viewers. Those days are gone. Those good ole days of “This will never get on tv” have become “This is tv.” The results are a re-allocation of the electromagnetic spectrum analogous to the “re-allocation of living space” in the aristocratic family house of the Gromekos in Moscow, as deftly depicted in the film, Doctor Zhivago. The free market is not really free: it is bound by real-world economics. If you have ever spoken with a certain breed of deluded economist, you would understand the mess we are all in!
I do believe nonetheless that the music which has died can be revived and experience life after death. Keep listening to those oldies but goodies online and on the satellite radio stations.
I have long been enamoured of and inspired by the poignant, heart-wrenching version of “If You Go Away” by the young Glen Campbell. I recall during my girlhood watching him perform this song on his televised Goodtime Hour: tears rolled down his cheeks while his fingers continued to flawlessly play his guitar and his voice remained pitch-perfect and suffused with pathos. This simultaneous emotional and vocal control is NOT easy for any singer to achieve, but Glen had a rare gift that extended well beyond the sublime, tactile tenor and the art of exquisite guitar picking and playing.
I have never forgotten that moving television performance. By the way, this song is, in my not-so-humble-opinion, a song to be sung by a man; and the English version is far superior to the self-flagellating, masochistic French lyrics by Jacques Brel. But, if you prefer that sort of thing, by all means, indulge yourself. Just don’t expect me to listen! And there is a world of difference between “Ne Me Quitte Pas” -- Don’t Leave Me -- and “If You Go Away.”
When I recently watched a similar performance online, of the same vintage by Glen, I noticed how he fought his tears by smiling with his face up toward the lights. I believe that Glen now performs this same majestic artistry in real life as this pilgrim journeys toward the Light.
His technique during that performance was clever, very clever, and very effective. (This master guitarist learned a lot during his tenure as part of Hal Blaine’s Wrecking Crew in L.A.) Glen hung onto the performance and rendered it even more sincere, touching, and soulful.
I ponder today how many “performers” hang onto any notes, if they even sing them without the help of Autotune, with any degree of sincerity. How many of today’s “singers” were blessed with the opportunity of learning to sing in church? How many of the u-u-lators can do scales? How many even know what a diatonic scale is? Or a chromatic scale?
I’d venture to say these provocateurs believe either set of musical notes is some computerized form of weighing the self-worshipped body that is always on display. You see, it is the body, and not the vocal cords within it, that peddles the “music.”
The old-time songs of country, folk, rock’n’roll, and soul were based on the same chord progressions as old-time hymns. I recall reading a statement by Elton John that whenever he was stuck while composing a good new melody, he’d go back to the hymnal to get back to basics. I also recall attending, for a while, a United Methodist Church in the 1990s. I experienced the rather bizarre updating of the hymnal to exclude many of those old-time hymns.
The graying longish-haired hippie minister said he’d been informed that the elimination of “Onward Christian Soldiers” was going to take place over the dead bodies of the faithful old-timers, those moralists of the non-relative kind who eventually died anyway; and I do ponder the fate of that hymn in the United Methodist hymnal. My friends, the fix was in from there on in, in terms of music, mayhem, and morality.
The hi-jacking of religion in America for one’s selfish personal needs has always been a possibility. The precedent was set by King Henry the Eighth who even created a religion for his personal use! In the 1970s, the hippie Boomers paraded Christ as a sandaled hippie (just like them!) or clown (even more like them). It was a rather banal, narcissistic reversal of concept: instead of their being made in the image of God, God was re-created in their image!
By the 1990s, the use of a church to meet one’s outlandish ego needs became formalized and ritualized. Back then, when I said, “Give me that old-time religion,” I was merely requesting readings from the entire Bible; a humble, inspiring sermon about the amazing grace from the limitless love of God; hymns from “antiquity”; and the 10 Commandments -- not Friday night peace marches. (“Where’s the war?” I asked -- it was 1993, not 1968). I was also subjected to services of multi-culturalism and whacked-out environmentalism, all camouflaged by politically corrected, selective verses from the New Testament. Ah! Therein lies the huge divide, chasm, really, between religion (congregating with man and his man-made entity) and spirituality (communion with God).
Once, in all seriousness, an engineering colleague confided to me his belief that when the extra-terrestrials come to Earth, they will communicate with we earthlings through mathematics in binary code. Deftly setting aside my lack of belief in ET, I opined that the common language would be music. He smiled but did not agree. Tant pis, as the French would say. Too bad, at least for him.
I do not deny that the 6th sense of humans is mathematical in nature, but I posit that music is a sublime form of mathematics. And while I don’t believe in ETs, I do believe in angels, and their music is always celestial. The Irish brought the harp to Europe from Egypt, so they did not invent the instrument; but they certainly knew how to create heavenly music with it. I credit the angels with that invention; the Irish were simply the mediums through which the angels sang to the terrestrials.
Some things are eternal, even on this earth: real music is one of them. It’s in your heart, and in your soul, and maybe even in your head. One thing is certain: real music is not on any of those television singing contest shows whose names I honestly cannot provide because I have never watched them. I have instead been subjected to the “performances” of the winners at just about every sporting event televised. I hit the mute button fairly fast once the throaty bombast begins.