Albums. They were more than mere possessions. They were a projection of being. So much more than a name or an apartment.
They were who I was. They were an extension of me.
They were how I, in my own estimation, was seen and judged by others. They were how I impressed friends, the way I established my identity with girls I dated and invited to my apartment to listen to them. It was the way I established myself with the guys. As a cool one. As one to know, as one with the great albums.
Yet, they were more than that. They were what came to reflect my emotional depth, my searching psyche, my love for the beautiful. They were what I woke up to in the morning and what I went to sleep with at night. They were my entertainment as well as my guide. They were a path to follow, a garden to grow.
To me, they meant more than food, more than water, ranking up there with air as far as life goes. Possibly—and I’m not exaggerating—my record collection meant more to me than life itself.
I clearly remember my first record player and album. The album was West Side Story, the original cast sound track with Natalie Wood and whoever else there was (although she didn’t sing her part as I recall). I got the album at the same time I got that first record player, if record player is the right word for such a monstrosity. An eighty pound reject from someone’s (much happier for the loss of it) living room, ugly, huge and heavy. But, it was a record player, with radio, and it played.
It arrived late one afternoon in the early fall. Although the sky was overcast you could tell that the sun had just reached the horizon, and that evening was not far away. My dad pulled up through the pea gravel in our old Volvo PV wagon, and in the back, testing its fetters, fighting to get loose, this monster of a record player. My father opened the back of the car and there, eyeing me with obvious scorn, it was. Just like real-life rejects or the little-liked in the world, it held an inflated opinion of itself and it seemed to debate whether I was worthy of its exalted presence. I stared back, slightly, but not overly, intimidated. I am very, very worthy. I know that, and it’s up to you to find that out. It held its horses.
My room, which I shared with my sister, was on the second floor and the fight through narrow doorways and up narrow stairs was completely in keeping with the arrogance of the record player. Finally, though, it was installed under the western window. My monster. Mine. And with it West Side Story, also mine. My sound, my songs.
It was an almost religious experience to place the needle on that first track and hear the sound rush out and fill the room. I felt in control, I held the key to fantastic power, I could listen to it whenever I wanted, I could bathe in this music at will. It really was a personal treasure that soon grew to take on larger proportions.
I soon got a second album. It was a United Nations release featuring among others Ella Fitzgerald’s “All of Me” which just sent me. I remember playing these albums over and over, for the sheer pleasure of listening and becoming filled with the magic. But I also remember forming the first tenuous bonds with the power of possessing such magic. I owned these albums, they were mine, and by extension, so was the music they contained.
But they were more than simply mine, these albums, these tracks: they grew part of my being. A portion of me somehow seemed to seep out and into the tracks I liked, making them, as well, me in the process. And playing some of my favorite tracks for some friend or other, I felt as if I gave them a piece of me, and I felt as if, indeed, I was due some of the admiration they would express for the artist.
This feeling was embryonic at the time, but looking back I recognize it even from this distance.
Next fall we moved to another house (a brand new one, built by my father), the monstrosity in tow. I must admit I had grown to like it though. Although it had yet to make up its mind about me, it did play, even if today (so many years later) I would never allow a single one of my albums to be subjected to that five-pound tone arm (well, a pound, say). This player belonged to another era altogether. You could select 33 1/3, 45 or 78 rpm, you could stack 10 albums on top of each other, and it never even suspected that stereophonic sound had in fact been invented. All you could get out of the single speaker hiding behind the ornate grille (made from discarded curtain material no doubt) was its very own opinion of that particular piece of music, take it or leave it. But it did play, and with volume.
In this new house, I had my own room. Although the house was fairly large my room was minuscule, a large cupboard with heating and a window. Four pieces of furniture: a bed, a desk, a chair and the monster. Then came Christmas and with it the album to turn my life around—the true forefather of all future record collections, The Beatles’ “With The Beatles.” On the Odeon label (this did take place in Sweden mind you).
For some time thereafter the entire universe consisted of me, the monster, and “With The Beatles.” And we spent a lot of time together, several times a day tracking the whole album from “It won’t be long” through to “Money”. This was now the album of my life, it was the only thing in my life, soul sustenance that it was. I played it to distraction, and eventually started yearning for more. The problem was, however, I just could not afford more albums; in Sweden, they were 5 dollars an album even then—a huge sum almost 45 years ago, especially if you had no income—and my album collection remained, primarily, “With the Beatles,” “West Side Story,” and the UN Album.
But it seems I could afford singles, and they started, if not exactly to roll, at least to trickle in. More Beatles, “From Me To You,” “Twist And Shout.”
The Zombies, “She’s Not There.” The Hollies, “Just One Look” and “Here I Go Again.” “I Believe” by the Bachelors (that’s a great one for you, how I loved that song). By now the collection, incipient though it was, began to take on its own life, an emerging presence which I readily adopted as a potentially valuable ally.
As I had sensed from the very beginning: there was survival value in this stuff: I would choose and play a record for someone and that would make a difference in how they then thought of or viewed me. It was a sure way to show and communicate who I was (for the music I knew about, liked, and played said much about me) and a way to impress. All I had to do was to discover the best sounding and potentially most popular records (which discovery had to be made before the man—or boy or girl—in the street made the same discovery), somehow obtain these finds, share them with others, and behold: it reflected well on me and it grew my “hip” reputation.
I had found my mission.
One such discovery—marginally before it became a hit—was “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks. I remember it as if it was yesterday, ushering my soon-to-be girlfriend into the record store to see if they in fact did have it. And, low and behold, they did.
In those days, you could sample records before you bought them (I sampled a lot). Just ask the sales clerk, then pick up a set of earphones, actually, two single earphones, one in each hand, and “sample” away. We sampled “You Really Got Me,” her and I, several times, and for me it was ever after our signature song. And as we listened the record said what I wanted to say. Not by implying or explicitly meaning what the lyrics said, but by meaning and imparting the great impression that the record as a record, as a song, regardless of its lyrics, conveyed to her.
And it was me communicating through the record (responsible, as I was, for her now hearing it) this great, great feeling of a wonderful song, and she listen and smiled and laughed and confirmed that the great feeling did indeed come from me, my gift to her.
In that record store that day, I shared my discovery, and by extension I shared myself, with her, and we became, if not lovers (we were, or at least I was, too young), at least steady-ish dates.
I was becoming the music I discovered.
Some singles went on the road with me. I would bring my new-found treasures with me to parties—if you could call them that—and I’d be the DJ of the one or two singles I brought. Power, here was power. Unimagined, hitherto un-conceived power.
But what parties. We were puppies barely catching the scent of puberty, while completely lost in whatever it was life was supposedly about, stumbling about and tripping over our own ears in a comedy of tentative emotions and feeble explorations. And I remember, at the pinnacle of my valiant foray into the mystic realm of sexual promise, how I actually sat in one sofa for one hour holding girl’s one hand gazing at one spot on one wall without one single word passing my lips or a single glance at the girl. Sexual abandon, but we were puppies, and puppies grow up eventually, as did this one. But this one was sure to bring his two singles, or was it one, with him back home.
The Beatles soon gave way to the full onslaught of the British invasion. The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun” was huge. The Nashville Teens, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Merceybeats, Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders (which eventually spawned 10cc), the Moody Blues, P. J. Proby (anybody ever heard of him?), Heinz (“Just Like Eddie”), Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, Dave Clarke Five, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clarke (“Downtown”—what a great song), barefoot Sandie Shaw (“Girl Don’t Come”), Lulu with her cover version of “Shout,” the Searchers, of course, “Needles and Pins-a,” the Rolling Stones goes without saying, and more and more Beatles, the list goes on, seemingly endlessly. It was a musical cutting edge and I stayed on it.
It was a glorious wave, and I surfed it.
During the first recess of every Tuesday morning I ran down to the railway station’s newspaper kiosk to pick up the new copy of New Musical Express, or Melody Maker, or sometimes even Fab, the magazine—all imported from England. I read these avidly, picking up new groups, learning about new records being cut or released, immersing myself in the movement, rushing forward on this wave.
By now I associated myself almost entirely with music and had successfully managed to have others make the same connection.
I was music.
Fittingly, I also came to write a music column in a local paper, reviewing the English Top Twenty in each Monday’s paper, having barely managed to make the list out over Radio Luxembourg the previous midnight—a project and a sensation worthy of its own complete story. Yes, I was my music and I was the reigning guardian of hip.
And my hair grew. At first the attempt was to look like an original Beatle—lacking any real personal identity I garbed the most successful one around and wrapped it closely around me, hair and all, but it kept growing, and just when I was about to cut it to re-conform it to the Beatle model, I discovered that the Beatles had let their hair grow longer as well.
There was an odd metamorphosis of this boy from 9th grade to the 10th. 9th saw him exit with straight As, top of the class, albeit a music fanatic. The magnificent entrance to the 10th starred hair to the shoulders, head in the clouds and someone completely immersed in the success of being others, being albums and singles.
The monster (the old, gigantic record player, remember?) was more or less outgrown by now. It played my singles okay, but I don’t think I ever did get another real album for it to ruin. And it was time to move on. With insufficient cash to purchase a real stereo system, but with friends who had both the systems and the albums, the logical choice became a tape recorder. Reel to reel at that time, cassettes had not been invented yet. It was a Phillips, made in Holland. Mono.
My mother got it for me when I was around 16. 7½ inch reels, a fairly large thing, but it recorded well, at least by the standards of the day. I lugged it with me to friends’ houses and managed to record the entire Beatles catalog (at that time not so formidable) along with other semi deities. Other music still came off the radio, like Dave Berry’s “Little Things,” the Ivy League’s “Tossing and Turning,” and Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night.” I kept listening, and recording, and writing for the local paper, and I got myself a shirt with frills down the front buttons, like the Merceybeats, and claimed the center of attention, albeit due to notoriety rather than fame.
Life, at this point, all life, centered around music. School was fading fast, in fact I flunked my first math test, after having had the highest grade in the class going in. Will the real Mr. Hyde please step forward and take a bow?
Then, “in the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty,” Donovan arrived in Sweden, and on his heels, if not simultaneously, Dylan. Together they struck a deeper chord yet. Both personally—for they did touch me profoundly, although I was as yet not wholly aware of this—and opportunistically, because it seems the man on the street had just about caught up with the British Invasion by now, and here was new, unchartered as yet, territory where I could be very mysterious, hip and apart from (read, above) the street-man.
Before long I had Dylan’s complete recordings copied on tape, and that, for several months, was virtually all I would listen to, all through the much-too-light for sleep northern Swedish summer nights.
I don’t think I understood too much of what he said; Dylan spoke much too much and much too fast for my high school English, but he still spoke to me, or so I imagined. And, at that time, being “extremely into” Dylan, was cool beyond cool. I reigned supreme in my little 10,000 population one main street home town on the Baltic, again at least from where I saw things. I was into Dylan, and looking back, nothing else really took place at that time, that is what I was doing. The rest of the world was simply part of my involuntary anatomy, rubbing elbows with lungs and kidneys. I didn’t pay it too much attention.
And then, early one summer evening, I heard the Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” (one of the best songs I had heard up to that point), followed by more Dylan, and then by more Byrds, and then this kid left his little 10,000 population one main street home town on the Baltic for the much larger Swedish capital, still on Baltic, where I arrived as one of Stockholm’s first long-haired boys, turning heads wherever I went—is it a boy or a girl?—it’s a crying shame, and what is the world coming to trailing me like a taffrail log which in my view was just fine. I wanted to stand out, I wanted to be set apart, I reveled in it, me and my Dylan collection.
These early days in Stockholm saw me without my records or tape recorder though. I moved around a bit too much to carry them around, so my physical appearance had to take up the slack, which it did.
It and a guitar I had recently acquired and learnt how to play “House of the Rising Sun” and “Catch the Wind” on.
This, by the way, was how I found somewhere to live after having been thrown out of my mother’s cousin’s apartment for drinking his wine and not cleaning the apartment completely up to their antiseptic standards after the parties I invited the neighborhood to in their absence. He and his wife complained to my mother about wine stains on the carpets and floors, and did not want me there anymore. They gave me one week to vacate. The first six days passed in unconcerned Dylanesque bliss, on the seventh day I played “Catch the Wind” for the girl in the army like parka and told her, quite truthfully as it happened, that I had nowhere to live, which is just about as romantic as things could get those days, and the next day I moved into her parents’ attic room in a southern suburb (cold as hell, that winter, but I did had somewhere to live).
Then there was Sonny and Cher, and the Righteous Brothers, and I used to play Sonny and Cher 45 rpm singles at 33 1/3 rpm and they sounded exactly like the Righteous Brothers, and I imagine they still do at that speed. And there was the Who and “My Generation,” and the following summer, Jimi Hendrix with “Hey Joe,” and I moved back into town, accompanied by Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” and Joan Baez.
I held down jobs of some sort, and I guess I spent some time at these places of employment, but what I did was more Dylan, more Byrds, and more Donovan.
I managed to get thrown out of another—sublet—apartment for a wild party, but soon found myself in my own one room apartment on the ground floor in the center of town, with the greatest phone number you’ll ever run across, 444-223 (it made me and my apartment the logical, if not the only choice, for late parties when my friends were roaming the streets, looking for things to do and places to go while stoned beyond remembering anything much—except 444-223); a single bed, and a portable mono record player. My record collection started again, from scratch.
My new first record was “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the album.
Picture this: There was me, the bed, the empty, empty room, the high ceiling, the two windows, the Byrds and the light Swedish summer night again. I’m not sure how anything else got done those days.
The rent was $15 a month. I could have scraped by on money my mother used to send me, but I did have a job. I must have, because my portable record player became a stereo (so I must have shown up regularly at work), and my album collection grew. Loving Spoonful, Bee Gees (the original, pre-disco Bee Gees), Cream, more Byrds, Percy Sledge (“When a Man Love a Woman”), Jim Hendrix, and my first taste of the classical, Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” Karl Richter on Deutsche Gramophone along with an album featuring Handel’s Water Music arranged for strings, weird actually, but it reached me.
My little apartment became a regular hangout for music appreciation. Not so much a novelty and expert and an outcast by this time, the world had caught up in those respects, but music had now become food in its own right, I listened to it like you would breathe. I osmosed my albums.
Especially the Doors’ first two albums, and, still my favorite sixties band, Country Joe & the Fish. Over and over again, they spoke to me. Then there was Pink Floyd, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”—recently released in its 40th anniversary edition.
As an aside, me and a friend set out one night to see Pink Floyd live at the Golden Circle Café in Stockholm, but (even though we set out quite early) we just never made it all the way there before the show was over. Talk about side-tracked. What nights!
And there was Sgt. Pepper, and Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” (still, in my mind, the best song ever recorded) and “Regent Walpurgis,” the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, the Touch (anybody remember them?), the Fugs, and West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (anyone remember them?), and Van Morrison’s Blowing your Mind on Bang Records and the first Mothers of Invention Freak Out album.
They all found a loving and very sympathetic home in this one small and very cold in the winter with no central heating inside and 20 below outside apartment.
And then there was Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant which I learned by heart. Actually, I learned this almost purely by sound, for I only knew the meaning of half the words, if that. Then I would go down to the pub Sturehof and mingle with the Americans on extended visits to a draft dodging friendly Sweden and recite the whole thing for a couple of beers. Yes, the whole 20 minutes of it, I actually could do it, and they would laugh, and laugh, mostly at places where I had no idea about the meaning or the joke, I mean I didn’t know what Thanksgiving was, to start with, and it only got worse from there.
So, they would buy me another beer and plead with me to do it over again, and drunk on draft and all this attention I would gladly oblige and I put the needle on the outside track, got the record up to speed again, and off I went. Until they closed the pub for the night, to return next evening for more.
A bit of classical did leak through the rock and roll universe. One winter night I listened to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and for some reason I was completely enraptured by it. The images evoked by this incredible piece of music in the freezing cold of this winter’s night found their way into a long prose poem, touching me deeply all the way. I felt that Bach wrote for me, and maybe only for me, as my cold and inky fingers scrawled as the images grew. I felt I understood. I went to sleep that night knowing that I had discovered something, albeit uncertain of precisely what.
The months flew by at this point. Country Joe & the Fish was a mainstay, Sgt. Pepper a lot, and more Byrds, “Fifth Dimension,” “Younger than Yesterday” and “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” still three of my favorite albums of all-time, were with me continually.
I left Stockholm that winter for a town further south, bringing only some of my albums (I kept my Stockholm apartment and the rest of my albums in it). Joining me were Country Joe’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die” and the three Byrds albums. That was it.
I grew to love Country Joe through that winter and spring, along with her.
Yes, I had found a girlfriend and was incredibly, incredibly in love, a feeling intertwined with writing poetry, reading Baudelaire and listening to Country Joe to form a fantastic world of emotion, sounds and images. I was truly crazy then and very, very happy.
It lasted a few months, for although we were actually engaged to marry, she had to take a previously arranged trip to England with a friend of hers, and I was left stranded, and lonelier than I have ever been in my life. I hung around this town for two months that seemed an eternity, then hit the road hitch hiking further south. Finally got just about as far south as you can get in Sweden without running into Denmark, and settled there for the summer.
Sans records again, I used to listen to classical music in the library, and I was also introduced to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos by a newly divorced city clerk who took me under his wing. I am grateful to him for that, there are still few pieces of music that bring so much pleasure for me, and I always recall that little house by the water where I first heard them.
Had to get a job though, out of money and nowhere to live, and found one as a summer nurse at a resting home. Sedate, but it provided living quarters and food, and a friend who introduced me to the Incredible String Band, a Scottish duo that were aptly named and, in a word, incredible.
I brought Donovan’s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” and he played the String Band’s “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” on his great stereo system. And here I ran smack into incredible lyrics along with what I deemed fantastic music.
I had taken lyrics to heart before, and learned them and sang them and, quite often meant them, having them reflect my feelings and hopes, but here, these lyrics addressed so much more than being in love, or being lonely, or being lonely in love, etc., they reached for and found the spirit in me and struck chords that I didn’t know I could play. The rest of that summer I lived for and with the Incredible String Band. Fall came, and with it the return of my wayward girlfriend. We were reunited and moved up north. I brought my String Band records, and not much more.
As it happened we did not marry, and I eventually moved away, into the world, finding Sweden too much of a small town on welfare for my liking, leaving my records behind. Much have happened since.
I eventually settled in Southern California for a quarter of a century, before I moved up to northern Idaho (it’s very Swedish up there) for three years, then back to LA for two, and finally up to the northern California Pacific coast (just a stone’s throw south of the Oregon border), and I have rebuilt my album collections many times over, first on cassettes, then on albums, then on CDs, and now as mp3s.
I have found all my old records and I’ve fallen deeply in love with classical, especially Bach, Handel and, lately, Haydn. But I still listen to Country Joe and the Byrds, and the others. And it is still with my music where I live the most and the fullest.
Music touched me early, stole my heart, and never gave it back.