Memory machine

The portable record player as memory trigger
The portable record player as memory trigger

So Lyra up and did what she said she had long planned. One evening last week she came home laughing and gleeful from a jaunt with a friend, toting a shiny black box marked “Motorino” and daring her sister and me: “Guess what! Guess what!” But I was distracted and annoyed by breaking news on the TV newscast, and couldn’t rise to the challenge..

Unpacked from its box, the portable record player sat gleaming and elegant. We stood around admiring it, and I was suffused with regret. Many years ago, maddened by the thousand and one details involved in moving house, I announced to the family that we needed to get rid of the vinyl records that I said had been taking up space for too long. A noisy argument flared, which I tried, vainly, to shout down. I recall being pelted with recriminations: How could you even think of it! You want to throw everything away! So what if the record player, old and unwieldy, was broken! One day CDs will be outmoded, too! 

The stash somehow disappeared in the disorderly course of settling down in our new place, assisted by our trusty handyman. There were boxes everywhere, brimming with gewgaws that required sorting, for which no one had any time. (Liana, then living abroad, was spared the general hassle; she came home for a vacation to find her stuff rearranged in her new bedroom that, she noted snootily, was crowded in one corner by assorted papers and books that couldn’t be squeezed into the groaning shelves in the third-floor library.) 

That evening, sniffing the newness of the portable record player, I guiltily remembered the music that filled our old home when the kids were growing up. And wondered, sighing, where I could score vinyls for this mute and expectant gift. 

Turned out Lyra had saved some of the LPs. Shortly her sister came from upstairs bearing a dusty Elvis Presley jacket, “Pure Gold” retrieved, per Lyra’s instruction, from a box that used to hold a scanner on a shelf beside the door to her room. (What wonders ignored shelves hold, I now realize. The box had been there all these years, moldering beside stacks of CDs, books,  and who knows what else, holding a number of vinyls that Lyra had bullheadedly rescued from my pre-Kondo attempt to declutter.) Elvis’ unmistakable drawl soon wafted through our living room, lamenting “Kentucky Rain” and a decamped love and segueing into a declaration of desire: “You give me fever when you kiss me/ Fever when you hold me tight/ Fever in the mornin’/ Fever all through the night…” The King lives!

These days we’re being treated to long-ago music seemingly forgotten but slowly stirring to life, poking pouches of memory: the woo-wah-wah of Elvis’ Jordenaires as well as the smooth thumps and thuds accompanying Neil Diamond’s “beautiful noise,” and the  riffs, rhyme and rhythm he directs at a mysterious, improbable love: “Lady Oh, Lady Oh/ I walked the streets again last night/ I saw you in the city light/ Like a vision, Lady Oh…” It’s a grievous thing that Neil Diamond has ceased performing, illness having gotten in the way, but in our old vinyls he is young again, at the top of his game again: “Was in the spring/ and spring became the summer/ Who’d have believed you’d come along/ Hands, touching hands/  touching me, touching you…” Always the singer is more than the song, but the song of his own composing is never a slouch, constantly nudging a nerve as a good song should: “You are the sun/ I am the moon/ You are the words/ I am the tune/ Play me…”

Ex-Swifties for the moment, we’re riffling through our treasure with neither method nor system, marveling at our hoard and the collector’s items therein, and clucking at the occasional slip of the needle signifying dust in the grooves. Enjoyment of Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter & Tears” LP, for example, was aborted at his “Laughter in the Rain” and now hinges on a delicate cleanup. But “Watertown,” Frank Sinatra’s little-known classic LP of freedom and heartbreak (songs composed by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes), is then and now close to perfect; I sing along unsurprised at the fidelity to the lyrics of the words tumbling through my brain and out my mouth, of “Old Watertown/ Nothing much happens down on Main/ ‘Cept a little rain…” and of small-town domesticity and the seduction of the city lights: “In a coffee shop with cheesecake and some apple pie/ she reaches out across the table, looks at me/ and quietly says goodbye…”

Two albums from the stash

There’s something about old love songs, I once told Elizabeth Lolarga who had sent a cover of “Prisoner of Love” that she said our friend, the singer Gou de Jesus, found on YouTube: “rhyme as evocative as the words.” I cite now one effortless example: “What’s the good of my caring/ if someone is sharing/ those arms with me?/ Though he has another/ I can’t have another/ for I’m not free…” In Sinatra’s songs that I’m getting reacquainted with—some first recorded in 1940!—the words slide as easily into the beat, simple declarations that flow along whether on expected or novel tracks, with the inevitable rhyme: “Lost in day to day/ turned another way/ with a laugh, a kind hello/ some small talk with those I know/ I forget that I’m not over you/ for a while…”

The color on the jackets has faded so that, as in Sinatra’s “My Funny Valentine,” the lovely Lena Horne is “unphotographable” in “Nature’s Baby.” Still she emerges lively and sassy in “Maybe I’m Amazed,” the song and lyrics her own (and eventually covered by such stellar types as Paul McCartney), with no pressing need for rhyme to push it along: “Maybe I’m amazed at the way you’re with me all the time/ Maybe I’m amazed at the way I leave you/ Maybe I’m amazed at the way you help me sing my song / You right me when I’m wrong/ Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you…”

Doubly burdened by her gender and the color of her skin, Horne was, though reluctant, a trail-blazer. (In May 1981, Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times: “In the beginning, Horne was called a ‘chocolate chanteuse’ and a ‘cafe au lait Hedy Lamarr,’ and for many years, she was denied a room in the very hotels that billed her as their star attraction.”) Now I’m recalling Nina Simone and her own crusade as a frontliner even before “Black Lives Matter” came to be. I’m scouring our shelves to locate her LP, recalling listening to her croon “Georgia on my Mind” and that delightful “There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York/ Come wid me, dat’s where we belong, sister/ You an’ me kin live dat high life in New York/ Come wid me, dere you can’t go wrong, sister…”

But meanwhile, the kids have found the Sesame Street albums as well as “The Rescuers” and are remembering the orphan child immured in Madame Medusa’s Pawnshop Boutique, looking up at the night sky and singing, “I’m lost at sea without a friend/ This journey, will it ever end?/ Who will rescue me?” (The LP of the story and songs from the original Walt Disney movie soundtrack is an excellent exercise in imagining, rather like the radio programs of long ago that moved Filipino children to see through their mind’s eye vivid tales of bravery and cunning, the feints and lunges of swordplay, the horses galloping toward the cliff…)

So much yet to rediscover and enjoy in our household’s latest craze! We’ve found the primary cache and we’re taking it slow—more Elvis, more Neil Diamond, the Beatles,  Bob Dylan, Spanish guitar, other Sinatra albums, Liza MInnelli, a raft of Barbra Streisands. And a wealth of Harry Belafontes and Simon and Garfunkels, rare and precious: “What a dream I had, dressed in organdy/ clothed in crinoline, of smoky burgundy/ Softer than the rain…” Even Nonoy Marcelo’s “Ikabod.” Pilita Corrales singing George Sison. Sammy Davis Jr. 

When Bruno Mars was packing it in at the Philippine Arena in Bulacan—“I should have bought you flowers/ and held your hand/ I shoulda given you my hours/ when I had the chance…”—I was communing with old lyrics and pondering on lost years. These days it’s the usual wrestling with the work routine, keeping tabs on Putin and Prigozhin, and meditating on the almost-daily afternoon rain, but I keep tearing myself away from all that to embrace this old-new music and every fabulous memory that comes with it: Bungalow Bill, polkadots and moonbeams, Julio down by the schoolyard, the dangling conversation, Eleanor Rigby, stargazers, Mr. Bojangles, blackbird singing in the dead of night, Matilda, strawberry fields, sweet Caroline, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…

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