The song found me, on a late night scurry to San Diego with old albums on the radio. Usually, it’s a book on tape or the set we’re set to sing come Sunday, with road trip Creature Comforts of empty black asphalt and Squid Ink sky, a grande butterscotch latte with half the pumps, and the fuzz muffin safe and clean at home who gave me a nose bump before I went so that’s new. The rental was a German car which, don’t tell my Jeep, is more car than I’ve ever driven. You think about the brakes and the car stops you breathe on the steering wheel and it turns. So you can blame this spiel on the sound system in that fresh-off-the-lot VW, but all bets are off when Bette Midler is on. Not wind beneath my wings from a distance beaches Bette. But 1970s Hammond and ballads Bette. The kind that makes you slap the stage.
It started with Millwork – which ain’t easy or hard: “Ain’t nothing but an awful boring job.” And the angst in the vow, “May I work this mill just as long as I am able, and never meet the man whose name is on the label.”
But here’s the part that got me: I was waiting for the record to skip. And when it didn’t, I missed everything else that wasn’t there.
My sense memory was waiting for the skip in that one familiar place from that one familiar scratch on an album I played a billion times from age 16 to 26. First, my father’s actual record then the tapes he made of it, for me to take with me when I went far too far away for far too long. The wireless Bluetooth now seamlessly streamed the formerly scratched track on side A of Broken Blossoms. An “Unbroken” version unimaginable in 1990. But in the scratch and skip lies the music box of memory those raised in the digital age will never understand. My heart skipped a beat in that impeccably remembered spot and when the music didn’t skip with me, I missed everything that used to live with me in that perfect imperfection: A silvery gray carpet in lamplight that held years of lollygagging, while my father pulled record after record out of sleeve after sleeve and told me story after story of the songs he loved. Even albums he was on. We played them on my mother’s massive (handmade if I recall, definitely in Taiwan so don’t ask me how many battleships it took to float it back stateside) record cabinet. Or a little black karaoke box with two tape decks that followed me from dorm to dorm and Brooklyn hovel to Upper West Side beautiful hole in the wall playing the same tapes over and over until they bled the same blood red as my wee little beating heart.
I wanted to pull a u-y from southbound to north across the dirt meridian, and wake up my dad and commiserate with him over bluesy disco on the floor of the music room that hasn’t existed for 20 some years. Bury my nose in the red fur of the Border Collie sleeping in the laundry room. Hear the squeak of the piano stool with the glass balls for feet, and the circle seat that spun round and round “like a record baby right right round round.”
But my parents are sleeping the embattled rest of suburban park rangers, freezing little hummingbird eggs the latest Saga of their golf-course-plot-turned-Animal-Planet. So left to my own devices and vices, I continued to hit every landmine hidden in Memory Lane. And then…that song. You know the one. I was a blithering puddle of backstory and I had to let it out somewhere. Sing something say something. This is what came out. This run-on of recollections on an insufficient wordplayer. Pinchedly lowering the needle, and waiting with too many thoughts in those several scratching seconds before the heartsong begins to play.
Halfway through, I was half a life away, with my favorite bass slide. It’s unbearable. All the all, wrapped in the envelope of that barely noticeable, descending slip of a string. Every time ever, my heart slid with it, and left me standing there – here – on the selfsame sidewalk, eyes closed, stock still, holding a purse and a jacket, waiting for the lift when the verse begins.
His mercies are new every morning. It’s no coincidence then that weeping lasts for a night but Joy comes in the morning. They arrive with the Mercies I assume. So I stand trusting, still, in the nighttime, with my heart standing on the sidewalks of Anaheim and sliding down bass strings. Appreciating the eventide for what it is, but waiting for the verse that still, is yet to begin.
post script: the song I’m going on about….
“You Don’t Know Me” — Bette Midler