I’ve recently been reminded of the song “Mr. Crowley,” by Ozzy Osbourne.
I’m not pleased by this fact.
I dislike earworms. They bewilder me. I’m a noisy thing. I’m constantly humming or pronouncing words I’ve just learned or been reminded of. Working through lines of columns I need to write, under my breath, at work. Several people have commented on it, the humming. As I’m setting up a draw circle or performing quality control on equipment. I catch myself doing it while I’m drawing a donor, even. The humming. Always with the humming.
Before podcasts were a thing, I commuted three hours a day, five days a week, for three years straight to complete my undergraduate degree, and music was it. I’ve always loved music. Been able to feel it in my guts and my bones. Depending on the voice, and the rhythm, and what kind of a mood I’m in it can set my cells themselves humming in a purely electrical way. Or it can shred my brain into the finest, most transparent slices of gray matter and arrange them artistically on a platter as cold cuts.
The thing I can’t deal with in regards to earworms is the fact that it’s always some catchy top 40 sounding thing or a jingle from a business that shouldn’t exist anymore. Like daytime television lawyers. Now, there’s nothing wrong at all with catchy top 40 things, but they seldom wield the stamina it takes to keep my fractured mind to retain them long enough to burrow down into my memory and dig their little talons in.
Love songs are the worst because they just remind me how surly and jaded I’ve become, and then I’m wrapped up in the gnarly cognitive dissonance of both looking forward to Valentine’s Day while mapping out a blueprint for the underground bunker I absolutely must construct before the unholy day arrives.
This time, though, I’ve got the Prince of Darkness on my noggin’, and it’s reminded me of the fact that the only person I know who I actually enjoy hanging out with who listens to Ozzy Osbourne is my Uncle John. The only reason I can claim to own any creative work of Mr. Osbourne’s at all is because before my uncle and aunt moved to Kona, Hawaii, they unloaded a bunch of stuff it would have been expensive and kind of useless to ship there.
Below me, lining the wall in the farthest corner of my living room is a collection of 100-some-odd records spanning years and genres that both delight and repel me. Along with the boxes of time traveling treasure came a record player that one could hook up to a laptop, if one were so inclined, and use to digitize said vinyl.
The whole idea sounds stupid as all get out, if you ask me.
I guess there’s probably 120 of them or so, though I’m bad at estimation. I once told my supervisor at a third shift factory maintenance job that there was “like three inches” of water on the bathroom floor, to which he responded by holding his thumb and forefinger three inches apart, staring at it a moment, turning a quizzical gaze to me, and saying, “your boyfriend must love you.”
But there’s a lot. Not all of them are something I would listen to, but they’re all more likely to get play than the demonstrably more compact compact disc collection that’s been gathering dust in the corner of my upstairs hallway closet for nigh on three years now and subtly driving home the redundant irrelevance of the vinyl and usb turntable since my Uncle John (who did have a band, as a matter of fact, and thank you very much for catching the second blatant nod to Our Lord and Savior Jerry Garcia and, while I have your attention, would you like a pamphlet on his blessed second coming) moved to Paradise, well more than twice that many years ago.
I toyed with the idea of selling the lot of it in the name of the minimalist lifestyle I apparently have an approach avoidance issue with wanting very much to live. I went so far as to itemize the entire collection, down to region of release, label, and catalog number. Many were tagalongs, just like his wife and red Spitfire, upon his return to the United States following a starter career in the Air Force. It was fun to watch the value of each clunky cardboard and plastic bundle tick up as I realized that oh, no wait a minute, this was the one released in Germany the year after it charted in the US.
I had to fight the most powerful lust, as I took that deep but ultimately amateurish and short-lived dive into pricing vintage records, to doff my contacts in favor of my black and rhinestone cat eye spectacles, and to throw an obnoxiously hand knitted skullcap on my head while I debated the accuracy a grade of good plus versus very good plus on the 1977 “Animals” gatefold.
I felt very hip, and not mainstream at all.
Which immediately made me feel worse than gross, and put my contacts back in like a grownup and handle my business like the crusty, mercurial GenXer I am in my heart.
There’s a fair amount of money in my little musical inheritance, but compared with the way I feel when I hold the manic, Pepto Bismol sleeve of Frank Zappa’s Hot Ratsin my hand and imagine my uncle, at the age of 23, jamming out to it in some blacklight opium den in Ipswitch (if you know anything about Ipswitch you won’t need the sarcasm sign, but for those of you who don’t, please observe the sarcasm sign). The amount of happiness in his body as he ingested Frank Zappa on the pinnacle of technology at that time – a vinyl record, with all its pips and pops and clicks and hums – must have been positively ignitable.
I wish I were the type of woman who had an actual system that would allow me to hear the imperfections on these albums the way they’re meant to be heard. To be savored. Like the honest little drops of brilliant sunshine they are. If I had an actual record player with a decent set of speakers the idea of even creating a Discogs library of potentially liquid assets would have been blasphemy in and of itself. I want to be the kind of woman who owns a record player like I want to be the kind of woman who has a porcelain farmhouse sink and new but vintage-looking wooden butcher block countertops, and chickens who don’t poop anywhere but a tidy little pile near the compost. Like I want the nesting set of vintage Pyrex mixing bowls, that belonged to my grandmother, my dad’s mother, to not be vintage.
Like I want it to be the middle of May in 1923 every single day for the rest of my life.
I did wind up sending one of the records to my cousin Gemma, in Stowmarket. The rest of it I lined up along the farthest corner of my living room floor until I grow up and buy some bookshelves to display it on, like a grownup already. I couldn’t bring myself to part with it, ultimately, no matter how many of my bills it would have caught me up on. Because then I’d just be left with the phantom internet versions, and they’re not the same. I actually had to strenuously decline an obscene offer on the September ’75 Wish You were Here” UK release. The one with the pinched spine and the original, unmolested jagged-edged postcard intact.
“If you come for my Pink Floyd you’d better come armed because I will break your fingers if you reach for it,” I posted on Facebook once the whole awful interaction was finally wrapped up, unsatisfactorily for the hopeful bidder. To be fair, making an offer on something doesn’t make it for sale. It never was. I never got past publishing my library with condition notes and dollar value jumping off points for negotiation.
I want so badly to be a record woman. It all sounds great in theory, but the reality of it is that the only record player I have access to is one designed to de-pip, de-pop, de-click, and de-hum something that’s already been de-everythinged for me and is likely already on my intangible playlist.
If I wanted to hear “Ripple” in a sterile, cleanly mastered digital format I would download it from Amazon and add it to my playlist of essential, like, end-of-the-world times listening. The master list. The list of songs I need to be able to hear on tap, regardless of wifi or 5G availability. I have devoted space on my phone’s precious hard drive to the likes of Sam Cooke and Elvis Costello, Ella Fitzterald, Pink Floyd, Malvina Reynolds, and Pete Seger.
Tom Petty, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, oh my god, you guys, Jimi Hendrix, Janis. Freaking. Joplin.
My father, my Uncle John’s brother, gave me the better part of my musical education. I remember nights while my mom worked second shift listening to him play John Prine, the soft notes of “Dear Abby” or “Paradise” leaking through the screened upstairs windows, where I’d sit on the floor in our wide hallway and watch, transfixed, as his brain told his hands how to cradle and pluck a mandolin or a guitar. On the very best kinds of nights, you could hear “Fish and Whistle” suspended on the humid summer twilit air like tinny, silvertone fireflies born from the strings of his own uncle’s vintage Dobro.
Those, too, are memories of missteps and wrong notes, but played with confidence and a sheepish shrug and laugh, not even stopping to really consider them as he played on.
I get why we feel the need to digitize and sanitize the records, I guess.
For the sake of posterity.
But would I really feel the strings of my dad’s uncles vintage Dobro thrumming in my own heart if the only version I’d ever heard of “Paradise” was the airbrushed one available for me to download?
I don’t know if we’ve met but you should understand enough about me by now to intuit that the answer is a resounding “no.”
So why do we feel the need to sanitize and airbrush ourselves?
I mean, obviously, we live in a civilized society, so things like deodorant and pants are kind of universally accepted as mandatory.
We’re not animals, and baby powder is infinitely more pleasing a scent to encounter on the street than decomposing armpits.
But why do so many of us – why do I, in an instant of profound shame at having misspoken or not performed at or above my best ability – feel the need to focus so much energy on doing better the next time.
The music industry wants me to believe that “Uncle John’s Band” will sound better to me digitally mastered and delivered over a pair of very expensive speakers.
But I don’t feel one iota of magic when I listen to it that way aside from the memory of hearing it blaring on a pair of crackly speakers in the cassette tape player of my family’s little red pickup truck.
The magic of “Fish and Whistle” will always be in the way my dad slipped up on a chord progression, glanced up at my five-year-old face to gauge whether I’d caught him doing it, and smiling as our eyes met and we both knew that this version of the song was still the most perfect version of it there had ever been and ever would be.
Until the next time.
Aren’t people kind of more magical when they’re imperfect too?
I feel like I could even enjoy Ozzy Osbourne, if he would just unplug and meet me at the Starbucks to hum Mr. Crowley into his harmonica (Ozzy doesn’t play the guitar, turns out), in the dim gathering corner, with the scent of cinnamon and the sound of conversation punctuating the moments when even he runs out of breath or stumbles out of the intro.