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Friday, January 27, 2012

(4th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "The Compact Disc; The Vinyl Record; and The Cassette"

Song: Worried About You
Album: Tattoo You
Released: August, 1981

Compiling this week’s Stepping Stone turned out to be an assembly line of thought in and of itself.  In an attempt to bring it all together, I decided to divide these sub-stepping stones (grains of sand?) into three main sections:  The Compact Disc; The Vinyl Record; and The Cassette.  All refer to one album, the 1981 classic, Tattoo You.

The Compact Disc (aka: Yesterday’s Papers)
Before getting started on The Compact Disc, the fact of the matter is there could have been another section broken out here:  The iPod.  But this trademark term does not quite fit, and besides, it would be more in line with my brother, Pat’s story, not mine.  Let me explain. 

This past summer, Pat and his wife Ruth hosted one of their signature classy family gatherings (overcoming our attempt to turn it into a frat party).  Near the end of the affair, as the crowd was thinning, Pat walked up to me with a box full of compact discs.  A quick scan of the discs reconfirmed my long-standing observation that Pat has a very diverse taste in music (also affirmed in Pat’s choice of songs when taking the stage to perform karaoke, which as many of us know, he is very, very good at). 

I thought Pat was simply going to pour through his collection with me and that we would discuss music a bit, perhaps play a disc or two.  But then, in his usual generous way, Pat asked me to take whatever I wanted, seeing as for quite some time he had graduated on to the iPod and these discs were gathering dust in a dark corner of his cellar. 

Now many young (and older) folks wouldn’t be caught dead with such antiquated medium these days.  But me?  Well, I still can’t be reached by cell phone, and at last measurement my tv remains almost as deep as it is wide, so this rummaging through yesterday’s papers was something I had no problem with (though I did exercise restraint, realizing I also had a number of rarely played orphan discs at home).  And after poking through this box of misfit toys, I picked out a few which, over the ensuing weeks, would see the light of day once again.

Later that evening, heading home, the Joe Jackson and Clash discs (among others) temporarily made their way into my glove compartment.  There was one disc however, Tattoo You, that did not even make it out of Pat’s driveway before being popped into the player.  And, as I suspected, the fresh listening unleashed a series of fond memories and a few new insights.

My initial reflections were music related.  Tattoo You is an album of dichotomy:  It Rocks on side 1 and Rolls on side 2 (caution: the word “side”, as used here, is only relevant for those of us who remember vinyl).  When writing the Gem Videos several years back, I discussed the album Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits (# 62: “Style and Substance”), which also has contrasting music between the 2 sides.  Listening again to Tattoo You brought me back to this novel approach of organizing songs on an album. 

Though I had not listened to Tatoo You in some time, there are a few songs from it that have never escaped my consciousness:  Start Me Up and Waiting on a Friend (Gem # 41) are hits, and both are likely to be staples on classic rock radio for as long as these stations are around (and Start Me Up has been the opening song of Stones concerts for many-a tour).  To a lesser degree, the same can be said for Little T&A and Hang Fire.  The bulk of these songs are on side 1 and it was indeed refreshing to hear them all in their original context. 

Yet it was the opening salvo on side 2, the roll side, which really got my mind wandering.  Worried About You, this week’s Stepping Stone, opens up with the line “Sometimes I wonder why you do these things to me”:  A verse (and song) that, at face value, is a straight-up love-lost song, but has also been interpreted as the early stages of a deepening rift between Jagger and Richards.  In my head though, the word “Sometimes” skipped, or more accurately, was hyphenated to “S’times”.  It was automatic.  Every time I replayed, this skip would occur in my head.   Why?

Several weeks later, after my memory kicked back in, I went to my own cellar corner….which in turn brought more thoughts back into focus.

The Vinyl Record (aka: The Needle and the Damage Done)
I never really thought much about it before, but in hindsight, it really has been great to have friends who are also musicians.  Since sand-box days, I’ve had two musical savants to hang out with:  Pete and Phil.  Pete plays the drums, and Phil plays just about everything else.  They both have done their fair share of entertaining, be it in clubs, parades, weddings, or jams in a basement.   The moments I’ve been there to witness have always been uplifting.

There is at least one other perk to having musician buddies:   They know their stuff when it comes to stereo equipment, be it woofers, cartridges, amplifiers, or cable lines.  And though I have not taken advantage of this knowledge as often as I could have over the years, there was one key moment that comes to mind when that expertise came in very handy. 

That moment started coming back to me when I pulled my old Tattoo You album out of an old Garelick Farms milk crate in my cellar several months ago.  The skip drew me down, and the album brought me back; back to the moment in the winter of 1981 when I bought it.  It was the one album purchase that coincided with the investment of my first (and only) high-quality stereo system. 

Back in the day, a good stereo system was one of the most important pieces of property that a college student could own.  It was usually the first thing in the car on the way off to school, though I was lacking in this vital dorm room cornerstone during my freshman year in North Adams.  Thanks to a fair amount of savings that first summer home though (landscaping), I was soon able to do a little shopping.
I made my way over to (I believe) Tweeter etc. in Framingham one day during winter break to buy a stereo system.  But I was not going anywhere without enlisting Pete’s assistance.  The most important piece of equipment, in my mind, was the turntable.  On the way over, Pete instructed me on the differences between a direct-drive turntable and a belt-drive turntable, emphasizing that the direct-drive was more durable and, though a bit more expensive, definitely a better deal.
When we arrived at the stereo store, we were approached by a familiar face.  The sales clerk was a fellow Franklin High School student who had graduated several years ahead of us.  It became apparent to us pretty quickly, however, that he was not looking out for my better interests: He was looking to sell me the belt-drive turntable, and was making a darn good pitch.  Without Pete there, I could easily have had the wool pulled over my eyes.  The exchange went something like this:

Pete:  “Can you show us the direct-drive turntables?”
Fellow FHS graduate looking to scam me: “you don’t want that.  Let’s show you this one”
Pete:  “We want to look at the direct drive turntables”
Fellow FHS graduate looking to scam me: “this one over here is our best seller”
Pete: “The direct drive”
Fellow FHS graduate looking to scam me: “Did you know that belt drives ….”
Pete: “Direct drive”

On it went.  Now, one of Pete’s greatest traits is that he’s always been able to call someone’s bluff.  Over the next 10 minutes, this clerk tried all the tricks of the trade:  He would have put a used car salesman to shame.  Pete was buying none of it. 

We walked out of there with a great deal.

That turntable was one of the best purchases I ever made.  It was likely my own fault that my Tattoo You album skipped at the beginning Worried About You.  The slip of a needle out of your hand and down onto vinyl after the ease bar has been lowered, and the damage is done.  And yet, those skips on those albums had an endearing quality as well:  The skips personalized them.  And years later one of those skips would stir up a memory of a good friend, Pete, going to bat for me.

Looking at the album more:  The image-doctored tattooed faces of Jagger (front) and Richards (back) reminded me of another album from the same year: Face Dances by the Who, which also showcased image-doctored faces of band members.  What was with that? (By the way, has anyone ever seen the tattooed images of Watts, Wyman and Woods, which were not included with the album?  I remembered these images, and tried tracking them on Google to no avail).  It was nice to recall all of this, yet, there was something else stirring, something deeper.   I couldn’t quite grab it. 

Then it hit me earlier this week.  How could I forget?

The Cassette (aka: Magical Mystery Tour)
Start Me Up, the hit song off Tattoo You, starts with a bang.  Three chords.  Most of us know them by heart.  One week-long stretch I would hear that 3 chord sequence over and over again.

This section of the story is also founded on a generous spirit:  My good friend Bob, who invited Nancy, Mac and I, along with a number of other good friends, to his wedding in Holland in 1990.  Bob’s generosity spilled over that week, and was personified in a rental van he had secured for us.

Along with the main event, Nancy and I had gotten engaged at the beginning of that week, so there was much rejoicing with everyone.  Celebration was in the air, and a lot of it was done in that packed van.  Paris.  Brussels.  Breda.  Kinderdijk.  Amsterdam.  A magical mystery tour that packed a year’s worth of good times into a very short, intense period of time.

Speaking of packed, packing for this trip was a challenge.  There would be weeks more of touring Europe for Nancy and I after the wedding. We had to pack tight, and we put all of our stuff in two backpacks.  I had little room for accessories (including the ring), but I did have a side compartment with just enough room to slip in a cassette.  With probably very little thought, I squeezed in Tattoo You (likely the only tape in my car while packing) and pretty much forgot about it for the next few days as we made our way to Paris.

Does anyone remember the hilarious What is Love skits on SNL with Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan? ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0vM0VnpR_w ).  This is what comes to mind when I think of the music scene in Paris in the early 90’s.  It was tough to swallow for die-hard rockers like myself and Mac.  Bob, who lived there at the time (still does), had a local friend, Victor, who joined us on the magical mystery tour that week.  Victor was an American expatriate who had fully immersed himself in the Paris music scene.  This alone was not the problem.  The biggest issue was that Victor had a briefcase full of these tapes.  For several days we were stuck listening to that crap on our journey from one side of the city to the other. 

This could, and would not go on much longer.

I took over the wheel on our journey east.  The radio had little to offer, but Mac and I were intent on eliminating the offense.  We put up with the radio, trying to find anything that had a remote pulse to it.  Victor protested, but we were slowly gaining the upper hand.  Then I remembered the tape. 

Tattoo You was played repeatedly from that moment on.  It got to be very funny.  Victor would protest and hand us a tape.  We would pretend to put it in, but instead reinsert Tattoo You.  We would turn it way up as the three first chords of Start Me Up kicked in.  We did this over and over again.  The strange thing about it is that it never got old.  I think I speak for everyone who was in that van when I say this.   Even Victor was sold after a while.  This album grew on us.  It became the theme music of the week.  After a while, no other music existed. 

Worried About You is a fantastic song.  It was the only song that existed for me this week as I prepared this write up.  The Rolling Stones make a total goof of it in their official video release (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MMgPbt9jhw), but even this can’t erase the quality of this song.  The Stones were indeed hitting a stretch of internal strife at this time, one that would carry on through the 80’s and beyond.  At this stage, though, the growing rift had little effect.  Mick Jagger is at his studio best.  He switches back and forth from falsetto to something entirely heavier as the song progresses.

One other thing I picked up on was how Jagger’s vocals seem to emerge right out of the guitar at the end of the guitar break (which was played, by the way, by session man Wayne Perkins).  In fact, it sounds like the vocals are part of the guitar break, close to the end, just faded way in the back ground.  Is it just my imagination or can you hear them on occasion if you turn the music way up?  They finally escape out at the end (“Yeah, I’m a hard working man.  When did I ever do wrong”)

Another great part is the jaunty bass guitar as the song hits the home stretch.

In closing a big thanks to Pat, Pete and Bob.  These are all giving stories.  What better way to connect the dots?

I’ve got blisters on my fingers. 

Until next week.

- Pete

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