Perfect Sound Forever

Reminiscences of Record Release Rituals

Part II by Domenic Maltempi

One of the more poignant and moving stories I received when I began seeking out peoples' experiences, came from a guy named Mike (a high-school teacher, and former Skinny Puppy fanatic) living in Buffalo, NY. His account came complete with strong thoughts on when/how an album becomes an album, and related things.
Albums at their best become a part of us. They cease to become the creation of some self-important douche and they belong to the listener. Albums with ideas behind them are records. They record different phases and trajectories of our lives. These records, in order to become such, require work on the part of the listener; a commitment of time and to some degree intellect. From the dogmatically conceptual to the vaguely idea-driven, these records and the themes behind them become a part of us. They become intellectual and conversational shorthand for things like catharsis, sadness, or joy.

I don't think that I am particularly unique in remembering and recording periods of my life through albums. There are dead parent albums (Apologies to the Queen Mary, The Sunset Tree, and No Silver No Gold), addiction/recovery is impossible albums (We Shall All Be Healed and All Eternals Deck), and albums of exquisite heartbreak (Blood on the Tracks). Sometimes, and perhaps out of some pathological necessity, you find the perfect album for that one particular moment.

I was living in Pittsburgh, working as an office temp, and watching what was left of a seven year relationship crumble. It was a time of devastating, soul-deadening apathy. I looked forward to the upcoming release of Radiohead's Kid A. The day of its release, I brought a joint and discman to work. On my lunch break I went straight to the record store a block and a half from the faceless tower where I worked and smoked the marijuana cigarette behind an innocuous planter in midtown's grey insurance district. I planned my route out days ahead of time factoring in the surreptitious smoke.

Giddy upon purchase, I peeled the plastic off the "green" packaging of the disc. From the first bar of vocal freak-out that record became my record. This was the soundtrack to my brief time in the Iron City and the inexorable ruination of a significant relationship. As we crumbled, I left the apartment on nightly "errands." I drove (literally) through Mr. Roger's neighborhood screeching the increasingly meaningful lyrics of that record and was at peace. I don't know, nor do I care to, what that album was meant to be about, to me it was made as the soundtrack to the slow demise of a relationship that no longer made sense.

I memorized that record, things got worse, the record became increasingly meaningful as the dynamic between two people became less so. It was bleak and unhealthy. One of my last nights in that apartment I needed to go for a drive, to hear the record. My girlfriend had used the car that day, and I couldn't find it in the dark. I had to go back inside and speak the words, "Where'd you park the car?" As soon as the words left my lips I cracked a smile and began to laugh, some if not the only laughter in that joyless place. It was as if some cosmic joke were being played out. "Where'd you park the car?" is one of the key, mournful refrains on Kid A's ode to suffering and separation, "The Morning Bell."

The death of the album is truly that; a death and it should be mourned as such. The end of musical ideas that last at least 40 minutes and require analysis, the end of marking huge chunks of our lives through single albums is a sad occasion (especially for the self-important) and marks an important intellectual milestone.

Just think of all the odd, interesting, comical, intensely personal stories out there from the decades past that younger people--- just as intensely passionate about their personal or shared musical experiences---would love to know about. Even if it was a story told from a typical high-school kid in somewhere America circa 1976, as opposed to obsessing over what some famous post-rocker went gaga about before is star fermented in the heavens.

Somewhere in the universe waiting to be revealed might be a story of how two lovers nesting in the suburbs of Boston, would eagerly await an Ultimate Spinach album to appear at the local record shop so they could relive and renew a ritual that integrated them closer into the very fabric of this band's sound, and how it changed their world. The ritual started after they met in Gus's 45 Palace back in 1967, reeking of custard and patchouli, burnt suede, and sunny old denim, just a little high, perfectly bent and cornuted, buying the self-titled 1st album, and falling hard for each other. Like fucking big time.

When they heard from some other friend that the same band's Behold and See was coming out the following year, they burned with the need to hit the shop at the same time as they had done the year before. They would imitate the events that led to meeting at the shop. They would have no knowledge of what would be on record, or what its cover would look like, had read no reviews poo-pooing it or lauding it (such things were pretty difficult to come by unless the band was pretty damn famous back then), and it made them that much more ecstatic to possess it, and have it be a part of them.

Back on a bus to Brockton, they would read each other song lyrics from insert; make up stories explaining what might have been behind the album cover work. Reaching home, they would take out a bull made of blonde hash sold by a dude name Nasty Fountain, and do hot knives as they had done a year past. Dancing into her bedroom chamber, they would then delicately put the needle on the record---- undressing each other, enjoying each other carnally, spiritually, listening intensely, periodically stopping to flip the platter, make out, taking turns feeding her white bird Felix-- some rum soaked bird seeds, that made the perspicacious creature fly into the very moving sound of the tunes, and again take part in an integrating, baptismal experience.

Yes, totally intense and made up, but I know of a couple of stories that topped the latter narrative for zaniness, and you might too. Author Jesse Gordon recounts a Metallica purchase, a cool story to share that until now has been quietly living under a peculiar floating nimbus of cosmic tartar sauce.

On the southern side of Northern Boulevard in Little Neck, Queens, across from an inexplicably nautical-themed McDonald's and a writhing mass of cokeheads and Asian gangsters called Corner Pocket Billiards, in the mid-to-late 1980's, sat Prime Cuts. Prime Cuts was an amazing little shithole of a record store that carried everything I, as mulletted, denim jacket festooned, metal-obsessed eleven year old needed.

Armed with my Sanyo Walkman, my lawn mowing money and some fresh double-A's (dying batteries in your cassette player would make James Hetfield slow down and sound like Iggy Pop, not that I knew who Iggy Pop was at that age), I would ride my bike to Prime Cuts at least once a week. Once there, I'd go straight to the plexi-glass vault of cassettes mounted on the wall across from the counter. When I had located the desired tape, I'd rouse the heavyset ponytailed guy behind the counter (come to think of it… he looked a lot like Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons) from his stupor so he would come get it out for me. I would hold my finger to the glass, pointing to the tape as one points out the lobster they've chosen from the tank at a restaurant, with a frothy mix of pride and anticipation, tempered by a strong dose of ceremony. He would open the case with his tiny key, sliding out the long, flat, notched silver bar that held it closed, and pull out my prize, carrying it to the counter himself to thwart any no doubt previously attempted grab-the-tape-and-run schemes.

After paying, I'd usually pick out a pin for the denim jacket (on a particularly flush week it might be one of the sweet-ass die-cast metal ones – maybe they were pewter, like the Civil War chess set, but with Iron Maiden's skeletal "Eddie" mascot in place of a Union soldier). I'd be sure to leave myself four bucks for a Big Mac meal across the street, where, in the relative privacy of a corner booth, underneath an enormous wooden ship's steering wheel, I'd rip the shrink wrap from my prize (no small feat with greasy French fry fingers). The tape would go right into the Sanyo, and the insert would be unfolded on the table before me, for optimal band photo viewing and lyric reading. The smell of a new tape was distinct, if unpleasant, especially when just opened. It was vaguely sulphuric, and my memory still mingles it with the ambient fry-o-lator aroma of a fast food place.

I remember in particular Metallica's ...And Justice for All, the punishing, percussive opening riffs of "Blackened" nearly shaking the foam off my headphones while the scowling faces of James, Kirk, Lars and Jason glared accusingly up at me from the formica table. I remember part of me wishing they weren't so awkward and ugly, and part of me being glad they were, and being a little embarrassed by the way they'd been made up and styled and melodramatically lit; some poor photographer charged with task of making this group of metal-misfits palatable to what the record company no doubt hoped would finally be a mainstream audience.

I know that I listened to the whole album straight through that day in McDonald's. I'm certain, as well, that the tape didn't leave my Sanyo for at least a month, carrying me right through the rest of the summer and into 8th grade. Finally, I know that no matter how many times it's been re-mastered, and no matter what the delivery system, from vinyl to mp3, and no matter what quality speaker it's been blasted through, ...And Justice for All has never sounded better than it did on that day in the corner booth at McDonald's in Little Neck, Queens, right across from Prime Cuts.

There are all sorts of rituals like this out there, many of them the sort of stories that are so mottled and pestle(d) into the mash of so many interesting, strange, sweet, and other memories, that they don't flow out, or are 'resistant' in some way to be heard. The idea of a dozen or so of these stories strung as vignettes for a film to give some sort of composite picture of how these various rituals have gone down over the last few eras of music listening and all their changes, and the generations in general, would be fascinating.

There are many stories out there, simple, beautiful accounts of dedicating time with a special album you've been psyched-up waiting for it to come out. To close shop on this piece, I leave you with a tale from Bob Brainen, who has a wonderful show on WFMU-- Jersey City, NJ. His account is from the pre-CD/tape/etc. era, and it's a time from which I wish had more of these stories.

Besides my friends gathering in my bedroom to listen to new albums while getting high (my real ritual was how those albums got to my house). Starting when I was 14, I would save up enough money to buy a single album. Often I would take the bus to a store in a neighboring town. I'd buy an album but would never get a bag-the joy was in carrying the album in full view on the bus ride back home. I'd proudly hold it and study the cover, flip it over, and study the back, reading every detail, flip it back over, etc. When gatefold covers got popular, I would have twice as much to study. Some albums I remember getting were the first Moby Grape (my choice for greatest debut album of all time) the 1st Grateful Dead, 1st Hendrix, 1st Vanilla Fudge (one of the few albums I loved then that is completely unlistenable to me now) Youngbloods-Elephant Mountain, Nazz Nazz (red vinyl!) In the Court of the Crimson King, etc.
If anyone would like to share their album release ritual story, or whatever you wish to call it-- please write in to Perfect Sound Forever!

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