November seems to have made its entrance — gray skies and 40s for the foreseeable future. And, of course, daylight saving time bid us farewell, which means black skies outside at dinner time and sigh oh well.
I spent part of the weekend cleaning the basement. Didn’t get it all done, but enough that I felt progress happened. One of the boxes I pushed into the maybe-get-rid-of pile was one of Alan’s 45s. Before any of you squawk, rest assured he already did, and they’re going back on the shelf to never be listened to for another decade. I know I could dig up an adapter and play them on our turntable, but I’d have to change them every 2:30 minutes, and that gets old.
We also have quite a few 78s, and those have never been played in my presence. They were Alan’s dad’s, a collection he started before going off to fight for his country. During his absence, he always said, his brother Dick took the best ones and “traded them for some hillbilly records.” I pulled a random folder off the shelf; it says “record album” on its front, and that’s why we call them that — they once were stored in sleeves in these books, just like photos.
Opened the cover: “St. James Infirmary” by Cab Calloway & His Orchestra. There were a few of Harry James, playing with that special young singer, Frank Sinatra. I wondered where we’d find a modern turntable that would spin that fast, and remembered my all-time favorite 78 rpm memory.
[Zoom in on spinning record label, soften focus; harp glissandos.]
A bunch of us are in the Upper Peninsula, at my friends Paul and Mark’s cottage. Technically, we’re down the path at the Les Cheneaux Yacht Club, which is a big boathouse with a second floor. We’re the only ones there. There’s a balcony that overlooks a big bay, and out to Middle Entrance, where the big lake starts and there’s nothing to see but water and horizon forever.
We’re here, in fact, and if you look in the satellite view, I put the pin at the end of the dock, but we’re in that building. Zoom out and see the vast lake, imagine half a dozen young people in that club, late at night, probably a little buzzed because that’s what we did at night up there. We’re sitting on the balcony in the inky night, the weak radio station has dissolved into static, and someone mentions there’s a Victrola in the room behind us. An original, probably been there since that was the only way to hear recorded music. Paul cranks it up, and puts on the first record he grabs — “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” warbled by some cowgirl singer, maybe even Dale Evans herself.
The song starts to unfold, with all the pops and low-fidelity fiddles and guitars, the girl’s voice over all of it. We’re happy, clapping along where you’re supposed to: The stars at night are big and bright clap clap clap clap deep in the heart of Texas. They can’t possibly be as bright as they are here, miles and miles from anything brighter than a few weak streetlights. And in spite of being with my friends and 23 years old, and half-drunk and healthy and all the rest of it, I get a little chill. The old-timey sound of the music seems so lonely all of a sudden, reminds me how big the world is, how far away Texas is, how isolated we are in this U.P. summer colony, not even close enough to the nearest neighbors to disturb them with our singing and clapping.
It’s the music that’s doing it. I’d like to hear it again, but it wouldn’t be the same. There’s probably an audio filter I could run a contemporary copy of “St. James Infirmary” through, like an aural Instagram, that would instantly make it sound like it was sung into an enormous microphone and recorded on a wax cylinder.
That night in northern Michigan was about 30 years ago. And I just wrote about it on the Internet, linking to a Google map of that very place. Strange.
[Harp glissandos; sharpen focus on middle-aged woman holding a duster in a basement]
I put the records back. One of these days, maybe. A mix tape: The Best of Alan’s Record Box.
How was your weekend? Two more days, and we can start talking after the election.