Like clockwork, my wife, Sue, has commandeered our spring cleaning with the force of General Patton taking Frankfurt. No problem — I’m happy to toss out books no longer read and clothes rarely worn. But the items I find impossible to get rid of are dozens of round pieces of plastic that used to take up only about three minutes of my life at any given time.
I’m referring, of course, to 45-RPM singles, providing memories of times, places and people almost on par with photographs or home movies. At least for formerly obsessive collectors like me.
I don’t mean my Beatles 45s in their original picture sleeves; those reign in a category all by themselves. Like the Shroud of Turin, they’re brought out for public display roughly once a generation before once more going under lock and key. And you can’t touch them, so don’t ask.
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Music’s Powerful Grip
No, I’m talking about the records I bought during the 1980s, the last golden age of the 45. I had moved to New York, filled with brio, brashness and big dreams, and the music I was listening to reflected it. The nerve of Elvis Costello, the dizzy charm of XTC, the straight-ahead pop sensibilities of Squeeze leading the way — it was the second great British musical invasion, and I was determined to track down every import copy in their cardboard picture sleeves.
Today, music for me is simply a welcome diversion when doing chores. But back then, gazing at the images on the sleeves, I’d be transported 3,000 miles to recording studios — presumably drafty, this being England we’re talking — where, like clockwork, bands were releasing 45s with precious B-sides available in no other format.
While I was going through the singles recently — the first time in many years — I was struck by the power they still had over me. Friends and lovers long vanished were suddenly by my side once more. Late night parties, Sunday afternoons shooting pool and rolling joints on the back cover of a Hall & Oates promo single (look carefully and you can still see the faint green stains) — all I needed was my collection of skinny neckties and black high-tops to make the scene complete.
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Pop music’s undeniable power wasn’t unique to me. Like men of earlier times who read poetry to the women they were courting, '80s males created mixtapes of their favorite singles — the rarer the better — to prospective girlfriends. As well as being gifts, they were confessionals of sorts, our way of saying, “This is who I am. I hope you approve.” And women would lose themselves in dreamy reverie while listening to them later on. Or so we hoped.
I mean, anyone could make a copy of an album. But putting together a flowing aural landscape of unrelated songs that expressed your personality, taste and romantic desires? That took skill beyond pushing the “RECORD” button and watching TV until it was time to flip the record over 20 minutes later.
Today, the singles I collected — most of them worth little more than what I originally paid — can all be heard sounding better than ever on CDs and online. But that doesn’t replicate the thrill of carefully slipping one from its sleeve for the very first time, inspecting the inside groove for a secret message scratched in by the recording engineer and placing it carefully on the turntable.
A Reminder of the Past
During our spring cleanup, I got rid of 30 CDs without batting an eye, as they lacked any emotional connection to me. But those 7-inch singles in the picture sleeves? They were entirely different, arousing memories of a time totally at odds with my current life as a husband and father living in a clean apartment without roaches (of the insect and marijuana varieties), and a refrigerator with fresh fruit and vegetables rather than Budweiser and stale pizza.
You see, these records remind me not just of the good times, but how I wasted that decade on unhealthy activities, sketchy friends and dreaming rather than doing. Living in an unkempt “railroad” apartment with beer-stained carpeting, no air conditioning and a roommate whose cat regularly knocked over the kitchen trashcan in search of late night snacks. And not forgetting junkies shooting up on the roof and drunks napping in the vestibule. Or living over a convenience store fronting for a drug dealer, where I was once gently threatened with a gun. (All I wanted was orange juice, honest! Well, at least that morning.)
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Yes, those 45s, as precious as they are to me, are something akin to old acquaintances who start every other sentence with “Remember when…?” Yes, I do. Unfortunately.
So after carefully putting the singles in alphabetical order by artist (and sub-categorizing them chronologically, naturally), I returned them to the basement in a box marked “SINGLES. KEEP ON TOP. DO NOT CRUSH!” I’m not ready to let them go — I may never be — but I’m not going to let them pull me back, either.
And in case you were wondering — yes, I made a mixtape for Sue when we were dating. And despite it reflecting my personality, taste and romantic desires, she still married me. There’s magic in music, all right.
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