Theatre, arts, culture, politics, and snark from a practicing playwright and recovering journalist.
Monday, June 21, 2010
Whistling Through the Graveyard of Forgotten Vinyl
In downtown Grants Pass, Oregon, not far from Dirty Bird Sporting Goods (notable for the cartoon vulture in its logo and advertising), where you could purchase most firearms known to man, was the Trading Post, but a few long blocks’ walk in the rain. A narrow, slightly stooped building with weathered siding that gave it the look of an old west outpost (very popular in the new west of a certain period), mostly it was a junk shop. They’d also sell you a firearm or two, of mostly untraceable origin, but I was a regular for the used records. Rows and rows of plastic mike crates full of orphan vinyl.
Long before there was an alternative anything, the Trading Post offered up a parallel history of popular American music: the formerly known, also rans, third-tier, never heard from agains. Radio-only pressings never broadcast. Small-label bankrupters. Vanity projects with cover art done by a relative. Just out of the law of averages, a gem or two could be had for a dollar or less, which was pretty much my budget.
Maybe it was just one or two songs—the ones that probably clinched the contract—but someone had poured their aspirations into those recordings, and you could find wonderfully weird music you’d never hear on the radio. That is, unless you’d tuned into some alien AM signal reflecting back broadcasts sent a couple decades earlier.
I particularly fell for the swinging bachelor pad music, the best know purveyor of such being Esquivel (one name long before Cher or Sting), but the real magic came from those trying to make their mark by ripping off Esquivel. I suppose it made sense at the time, at least for 15 or 20 minutes. The covers always looked like a Jetsons outtake, wrapped around a come-hither catalog model with a mid-thigh skirt, hair a half-undone beehive, and a martini in each hand. (One for me…and one for you.) If you searched through the Trading Post’s clothing and accessories sections, you could probably find the quilted smoking jacket, cigarette holder, and chrome-plated ashtray to go with the record. The ladies would no doubt follow, though, when I attempted to sway young women friends with Esquivel’s pre-synth swoops and whooshes, the humor didn’t make the translation, and they’d ask if I owned any Pablo Cruise. I did not. If we couldn’t bridge the distance with The Doors, the evening was pretty much over.
After awhile, the scratches and pops became part of the sound—you memorized the songs with surface noise intact—and you would wonder who had so well played such obscure records. Cowboy songs, swingin’ hep jazz, generically handsome crooners, and doo-wop groups no one had ever heard of, but someone still managed to gouge a skip or grunge up the vinyl with unknown substances that had to be carefully scraped off with a fingernail. Drop the needle, and suddenly it was all orange western skies and ten-gallon hats and neon cocktail signs (the martini glass flashing back and forth) and backyard barbeques with fireworks and folding nylon-webbed chaise lounges and huge convertibles with fins running red lights and empty longnecks flying out and shattering on yield signs and satin sheets and TV dinners and rabbit ears and Brownie cameras and yellowed family pictures with serrated edges, and a country of the upwardly mobile losing altitude—the blood barely dried on their uncles and cousins who never came home from Guadalcanal or Inchon.
The Dirty Bird’s gone now, replaced with a furniture store or something equally forgettable. So’s the Trading Post, refinished with appropriately vinyl siding and turned into some business no one needs. But it once served as an assisted living facility for lost American dreams, and I prefer to remember it with an ill-fitting wig and a martini in each hand. Come up, sometime, and listen to my hi-fi, baby.
Steve Patterson has written over 50 plays, with works staged in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Tampa, and other U.S. cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His works include: Waiting on Sean Flynn, Next of Kin, Farmhouse, Malaria, Shelter, Altered States of America, The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Bluer Than Midnight, Bombardment, Dead of Winter, and Delusion of Darkness. In 2006, his bittersweet Lost Wavelengths was a mainstage selection at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and, in 2008, won the Oregon Book Award (he also was an OBA finalist in 1992 and 2002). In 1997, he won the inaugural Portland Civic Theatre Guild Fellowship for his play Turquoise and Obsidian.