The Family Stereo

The offer was an eye-catching full page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle coaxing consumers to purchase a modern hi-fi set by throwing in one hundred long-playing albums. Actually, not throwing in, but if these records were bought at the suggested retail rate, the streamlined stereo could be purchased for the amazing sum of one dollar.

My father was a somewhat successful real estate broker who, going along with the job, was beginning to get interested in entertaining prospective clients. And with perhaps a bit of “keeping up with Joneses” added in, the four of us: mother, father, sister and I, piled into the car one Saturday morning, headed across the Golden Gate Bridge and walked into a well-stocked record store replete with a slick, transient-looking crew of salesmen.

If we didn’t know before arriving at this mecca of vinyl, we were soon to find out one very important thing – none of us knew anything about music. We had not even an inkling as to what would be interesting. After a brief exchange with a salesman, my parents began to pile Montovani albums into a huge shopping cart, while my sister and I instinctively headed for the scant children’s section to ogle at Mickey Mouse and storybook discs.

About half an hour passed before we all came to the conclusion that one hundred was an awful lot of anything, and that somehow we were going to have to supplement the meager stack we had painstakingly chosen. My father instructed us all to simply start removing records from the shelves, even though we might have no idea what we were stocking into our musical coffers.

This was the highlight of the day. My sister and I became giddy with this freedom. We giggled and chortled as we read the titles, looked at the pictures, and filled the cumbersome shopping cart with mysteries.

The record player grew to be a great diversion for me – but not in the way I presume the facility to be normally appreciated. A typical session would involve taking out a record (often unwrapping it too) and dropping the needle on different parts in order to find out if anything interested me. A sedentary alternative to baseball and a welcome diversion from excessive television, I soon found myself the victim of a strange compulsion. So I continued religiously.

During that time all the basic attributes of music appreciation wafted by me. Beauty and expansiveness from the second movement of the Symphonie Fantastique, although I had no idea there was more to it, or who had written it (a pops album with no jacket notes). The alluring and physical essence of latin rhythm from a Tito Puente record. Extroverted homophony from old Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Emotional angst from the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.

I believe it was then I was first branded an eccentric by my family. With an occaisional treasure from the kitchen, each would shuffle by dodging some part of my small body, woven into an unnatural position around the legs of the stereo console.

By the time we moved a few years later, the stereo had a completely different function in our household. Now weighted with a short stack of nickels, (from excessive use) the tone arm along with the rest of the sleek mahogany box was considered my property. The only rare exceptions were when my sister needed ammunition for the dispute between the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five, or when I would hear raucous grownup laughter late at night. That would be my parents with dinner guests, listening to one of the few adult recordings that surreptitiously found their way into that shopping cart.

There was one, above all the others, which especially took my fancy. I’m sure that piece of plastic has revolved enough to make a good healthy trip to the moon and back. I even saw the album twenty-five years after I last played it, in my mother’s attic. I took it out of the box and looked at those three grossly Anglo-American figures, The Kingston Trio. This was their Best Of album, and I remembered being held by the humor of The MTA, the melancholy of Scotch and Soda, and with the way they sang together in such a natural style.

The narrative vocal music grabbed my fancy when I became tired of the repetitive instrumental patterns. But they looked like me. I felt an empathy with them. What they did somehow seemed within my grasp, and as soon as I figured out the difference between a banjo and a guitar, I had convinced myself that I was going to play.

Deciding to study an instrument was a personally surprising evolution. Our first neighbors consisted of an awkward family – Howard Molar, father, heavy drinker, unstable, maker of false teeth; Eva, his wife, (that’s ‘eeva’) nurse, repressed, hopelessly cruel; and Douglas, two years my senior, hater of music, but forced to practice the piano two hours a day.

Occasionally their voices could be heard next-door, sometimes fighting, but usually just Eva rounding up Douglas for another bout with the keyboard. He and I had a somewhat sadistic relationship. I remember being punched, unduly blamed and intimidated, which didn’t inspire my musical dedication, since he was all I had to relate to on the subject. Except for my older crazy second cousin Patrick, who at that time had been closing himself into his dungeon-like bedroom with opera records, becoming even stranger as he edged past puberty.