Clive: Working for the Man in the Age of Vinyl (opening)

on Jun 22 in Clive: Working for the Man in the Age of Vinyl by

In 1978, the summer after most New Yorkers followed the gruesome antics of a serial killer named Son of Sam, I was wandering around midtown, a roll of dimes in my pocket, a briefcase full of cassettes and Xeroxed resumes in my hand, trying very hard not to look too much like what I was—a kid from out of town come to make it in the music business. It was just after the first gas crisis, before New York City began a dive that was finally reversed by the financial and real estate booms, before Rudy Giuliani put the squeeze on the squeegee guys, before John and Yoko moved into the Dakota and Disney arrived in Times Square.

I was twenty-one, just out of college, and obsessed with music. When I wasn’t dropping off resumes at record companies and making calls from one of the phone banks that used to be nestled in the lobbies of most Manhattan office buildings, I was living with my new bride in the basement of my parents’ house in the suburbs of Philly, talking on the phone, smoking weed, listening to records, reading Billboard, and fantasizing about being rich.

My love affair with music began early with records—the orchestral accompaniment behind “Hansel and Gretel,” “Peter and the Wolf,” Peter, Paul and Mary—and listening to my mother play piano. She favored Chopin, the more complex and overwrought the better, notes cascading through the house, her face unselfconscious, her brow unfurrowed. Sitting next to her on the bench, smelling moisturizer and coffee, I’d watch her hands rising and falling, her nails lightly tapping the keys, pressing and then quickly lifting off as she turned the pages to the books with the jagged hash marks that only she understood. From the beginning, music was a way of cataloging emotion and sometimes, even today, I’ll hear a song or progression of notes that puts me right back in a memory that belongs to this time of life.

I was an inquisitive kid, cautious, serious, with what my mother and my aunts called a sensitive temperament. I played ball and hung around with other kids, but I was moody and I liked being alone, particularly after the arrival of my sister, who according to my personal mythology so absorbed my mother’s attention that I ended up spending long afternoons wandering the house, making up stories and songs. When I got upset, I held my breath and looked down. There are silent movies of me when I was little, glaring into the camera, while my father tried to get me to smile. The kinds of trouble I got into—lighting matches in trashcans, combining household chemicals, and once falling through a picture window—reflected the sounds I liked: Tchaikovsky’s marches and songs like “Seventy-Six Trombones.”

Two weeks after I turned seven, JFK was shot and we were released early from school. That weekend, we watched TV: the assassination of the assassin and then the funeral with the Kennedy kids, the same ages as my sister and me, marching behind the horse drawn hearse. A few weeks later, my parents found out my grandmother’s cancer had spread, and after an operation, she moved into our basement, which my parents fitted with an oxygen tent and a hospital bed. I’d come home after school, go downstairs, and find my mother and grandmother sitting together, their voices hushed, the shades drawn, the TV on without sound. I’d get as close as I could for a hug, and my grandmother, her fingers permanently curled, would look at me wistfully before my mom shooed me upstairs.

One night, a couple weeks after my eighth birthday, I pushed aside my bedroom curtains and saw, hovering just above the horizon, a tiny, shimmering silhouette of a white angel. I stared at it for a long time, toggling between what I was seeing and the knowledge that it was unlikely, if not impossible, especially for a Jewish kid. Throughout the early part of the night, I lay down, then got up again and looked for as long as I could, blinking, turning away and then looking back, trying to either disconfirm or memorize the image before falling asleep. The next morning, my father was sitting on the edge of my bed when I awoke. “God took Grandmom to heaven last night. Naturally, Mom is very upset,” he said, his voice serious. “Upset” turned out to be a radical understatement.

I barely saw my mother for weeks. Food arrived and was eaten, the dishes got loaded into the dishwasher, laundry got done, TV shows were watched and my dad slipped into a habit that he then kept up the rest of their lives: trying to lure my mother out of her funk. There’d be glimmers of her old self—laughing at something my sister or I said, twirling her hair, talking on the phone, tilting her head back and letting the midday sun shine on her face—and several Saturdays that year the two of us rode the train into downtown Philly to hear the symphony play in the Academy of Music. But after my grandmother died, the lid came down and my mother never touched the piano again.

One day, a short, plump brown woman with a gold tooth and heavy framed glasses got off the bus and walked into our lives. Annie Jones must have been in her thirties then, unmarried, childless, and perfectly happy to stay with us weeknights rather than endure the long commute home to South Philly.

Annie Jones

She was an old soul, not the least bit intimidated by my mother’s dark moods or my father’s imperiousness. She was calm and steady and a little mischievous. As she went about her chores she filled our house with chatter and song. When I got home from school I would take out a toy or a board game or put a record on and we would talk while she ironed clothes. She told me about growing up in the south, about losing her parents, about getting along with difficult people—and before long, I came to understand Annie’s belief in the inherent goodness of people and the futility of trying to control what we can’t—both ideas that seemed antithetical to my parents’ life philosophies, expressed and implied. In response to my moodiness or anger, Annie would talk as if I wasn’t there, making a little falsetto hoot before leaving the room, giving me space and time to mull over something that was, for my young self, too upsetting to face directly.

Around this time, the Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. That particular Sunday night, my parents were in Europe and I was staying at my Aunt Yetta’s in West Philadelphia. I was eight years old and, like millions of other boomers whose memories of events have been inflicted upon us ad nauseam, watching that performance changed everything. The next summer, watching Coppertone-covered teenagers at the club shake and shimmy to the buzz saw guitar and diffident phrasing of the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” I understood on a cellular level that music was integrally connected with independence, speed, and whatever notion I had of sex.


Clive: Working for the Man in the Age of Vinyl will be released in January 2013 as an 80 page ebook for Kindle, Nook and iBooks, one edition with just text and the other with links to approximately 80 performances of the songs mentioned. For an advance copy, please use the contact form on this website.

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