I got the record player because there was still a box of records in the garage at my parents’ house. It survived the demise of my parents’ stereo system. It survived the move in ’93. Then it survived the rebuilding of the garage ten years later, and regular purges of garage stuffs. I’m not sure why the records remained. I’m sure my parents had no intention of ever listening to them again. My parents really like technology, at least in theory (we are ridiculously analog people — just come by and look at the tv, our phones). What I really mean is, my parents are not sentimental. I moved out when I was seventeen and they barely called me twice a month. Nostalgia doesn’t move them either, the way it moves people of my generation who grasp at slow movements and Americana we don’t remember. My parents got themselves a sleek cd player from Brookstone, and now they’re addicted to YouTube. I got the record player.
I had just a few records in my Potrero Hill apartment. Three battered old Tchaikovsky ballet records, a Christmas gift. I knew what was in them even though I couldn’t listen to them. Then I got the record player and hooked it up to the ancient tv and listened to Nutcracker highlights in mono. The Nutcracker is something I like a lot — I am a tiny bit more nostalgic than my parents are, not that I ever call home either — so I spent a Friday night alone. At Best Buy, of all places. I brought home boxes of ugly black stereo equipment and a wheel of speaker wire. The black speakers and amplifier looked huge and domineering among my books and wooden shelves, but their largeness somehow made them look more benign. Too bulky to belong to anyone not related to me. I took comfort in that thought and learned how to strip the wire. Twenty minutes later, I was brooding to the moody Swan Lake overture and texting everyone I knew to wow them with my AV genius.
The records built slowly. I took a trip to Berkeley, which now has a Chipotle on Telegraph and decidedly does not feel nostalgic. I bought just a couple of things. Laura Veirs’ July Flame, which I had just seen her perform, seven months pregnant, at Cafe du Nord. Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto. These two, the first I bought, are probably the ones I’ve listened to the most.
My birthday came around and MG gave me a couple of albums. Her favorites from our formative years, Siamese Dream and OK Computer. And a couple chosen by E from his formative years. Exile in Guyville, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. I added the ones from other shows I went to, the xx and Land of Talk. My one law school friend moved back to Brooklyn and gave me his copy of Leonard Cohen’s first live album. Ray Charles and guitar transcriptions of Bach were gifts from C at Christmas. And a certain young gentleman came over one day while I was at work and drilled holes in the back of my bookcase-cum-faux-mantlepiece. I came home to discover all the wires neatly hidden in back (and a sink’s worth of clean dishes in the rack).
I got Dvorak’s New World Symphony because my dad remembers playing it in high school, at the Interlochen music program in Michigan. Actually, he remembers pretending to play it in the back of the string section at the annual outdoor summer concert. The night air was warm, the lake in sight, and according to him, he wasn’t about to interfere with the beauty of the moment.
My aunt, a former concert pianist, came into town and over a Cantonese seafood dinner involving frog legs, I asked her who her favorite composers were. She said when she was my age, she loved the later Romantics. Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, exactly like me. Now she loves Schubert because she says there is no sadness underlying the music. I think I know what she means. I think I love Bach for the same reason. I’ve read that with Bach, there is only the music. I’ve also read that playing Bach is like being hit in the head repeatedly with a teaspoon.
I went home and took some of the records from the garage. I’ve learned that my mother has always liked the Ave Maria, and most of the contemporary music, the Jackson 5 and Simon and Garfunkel, is hers. My dad appears to have liked Chopin and Beethoven a lot. Among his records I found the same cycle of Herbert von Karajan’s Beethoven Symphonies that I bought on cd at Rasputin when I was a Berkeley student. It makes sense now, how familiar they sounded at the time. I made him listen to the records when my family came to visit me and he swayed back and forth from the memories, nearly sloshing his glass of wine on the rug. I guess we’re kind of sentimental after all.
I went to more shows and picked up Sharon van Etten and Diamond Rings but not Explosions in the Sky because some devices can definitely be too mnemonic. When I was homesick for LA, I went to the Time Travel Mart and brought back Chickens in Love, a collaboration between Los Angeles-based musicians and the kids who take creative writing at 826LA. The kids wrote all the lyrics and they’re hilarious. E and I once drank an enormous pitcher of mimosas by ourselves at Suppenkuche and wandered down to Grooves on Market, where I bought, at his urging, a recording by the Pfister Sisters of New Orleans. P used to work at a law firm with one of the Sisters, and the record is hilarious and awesome in parts.
I haven’t acquired or listened to much now that I’m back in Los Angeles, though I did pick up the Grimes album when it came out. It has just about the most frightening cover I’ve seen — A and I kept making each other hold it in the car. And on a recent visit back to San Francisco, E gave me a Roberta Flack record which I love but only listen to when I can deal with being homesick for San Francisco. There is nothing like music for punching you in the gut sometimes. I’m writing about it while the pile of records and their entangled memories are still under control; for now, at least they all fit inside a single box.