There are about ten milk crates of family records in the attic and I head there to raid them, looking for a soundtrack to help me sort the pictures and letters. I am not looking for favorites from a vast teenage collection – a vintage that, in places anyway, has been replaced on CD, but even if it hadn’t and I was still looking for Some Girls or American Beauty or Blow Your Face Out or The Last Waltz there is actually nothing left to play. My old records are physically here, stored separately off to the side in moving boxes, but they are segmented from the milk crates for another reason entirely: they’re literally unplayable.
There was a religious purge my Junior year in high school and only a lily-pure handful survived a record-scratching Sunday afternoon. With the various carving, cutting and decapitation instruments available on a Swiss army knife, I destroyed nearly every record I owned, ripping horrible radial scars against their grain to render them unplayable. A few times over the years I’ve come across the boxes in the attic that still hold the destroyed collection and I’ve thought with a rising hope that maybe this box contains records that I might have bought after the Purge, but then I open a record, roll it out from its inner sleeve and see that, no, these are the same ones and the whole business comes back to me, even at me.
Religious unrest had been brewing for some time. I had read a story weeks earlier in Rolling Stone about a Baptist minister that had his entire youth congregation set fire to their rock and roll collections in a photo-op, church-front conflagration. Everybody at Rolling Stone right on up to Jan Wenner’s office was beside themselves, aghast at the sacrilege, but the crystal-eyed teenage faithful reportedly feeling cleaner and closer to God. Back in Central New Jersey, their superior Southern conviction unsettled me, and I was not easily to be outdone in spiritual rigor. By their fruit – and mine – you will know them! So, in a grisly Kasey Kasem Sunday countdown, one hit record at a time, I considered the fruits of my collection and made terrible judgments with my swift little sword. I sat alone in the house, knife out, dispatching the congregation, easing larger tensions for a season.
Not surprisingly there were few sheep and lots and lots of goats. At a monthly bible study later on, there was a sympathetic, but mostly disapproving consensus among evangelical fellow-travelers. It concluded with solemn, head nodding and lip-pursing solicitude (not to mention a prayer circle that ran well into overtime.) A brother had gotten carried away. He should have spoken with somebody or other first. We all felt sorry for each other, but I didn’t take the bait, knowing they were either kidding themselves or secretly suffered the same fundamental discomfort.
In any event they lacked my true apostolic nature.
“And sex and sex and sex and sex and look at me! I’m in tatters!” Mick brayed.
Well, of course you’re in tatters! Cut, slash, gouge. Bad, evil lyrics. Cut, cut, scrape all the way to the edge. Don’t let any songs on that album get away. Bad, bad people. Bad Mick Jagger. Even looks like the Devil. “Day in New York and Back in LA.” No, he isn’t saying that at all, a friend had explained; he’s saying “Gay in New York and Fag in L.A.” Jesus Christ! And “I would suck a duck!” What???!!!? Cut. Slash. Cut. A mockery of everything I would truly love in my fleecy white Christian heart if I could just get that heart to open, but I can’t because I’m still friends with These People. I had no mammon, but I knew that I could not serve God and rock and roll. The Holy Spirit can’t get in. When the whip comes down! When the shit hits the fan, sitting on the can! Cut, cut, slash, cut! Heads up, everybody! Whip coming down!
As prophesied! You have said so!
The Grateful Dead! The Dead! Better believe it. And Cheap Trick! Turning tricks. Prostitution right in the name. In their name like a taunt at God! Who was I fooling? How could I imagine I could hear God with ears that could hear this? “I want You to want Me.” How they screamed! They should want God like that. Listen to the idolatry! You can’t make this up! In a movie you wouldn’t believe it. They know not what they do, but God will not be mocked! Galatians 6:7. The only verse in the entire Bible that ends in an exclamation point. Look at this record liner photo! That guitar player probably doesn’t even like girls. Look how he dresses. And the little boy hat? What’s that about? But you can bet that old drummer likes girls, little ones probably, and not in a righteous, God-fearing, only-when-you’re-married, try-not-to-enjoy-your-orgasm way. Death to Budokan! Death to J. Geils! More! More! More! Onward Christian Soldier! Give me the yoke! I know what God wants. He wants oxygen… I need the mask… oxygen…Dennis Hopper… hyperventilating… Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.
Meanwhile over in Bo-Peep Meadow: the sad choral bleat of “Godspell” with the Original Broadway Cast, all by their lonesome, singing Day by Day at the top of their lungs, hoping I wouldn’t recall the second act Mary Magdalene nudity scene and knife out their vocal cords. To follow thee more nearly, know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly.
Oh, what a slippery pile of carnage and conviction spread out before me! The records were sprayed out at all angles ten feet wide on the killing floor. My cat sat on a far edge of the pile, looking offstage sleepily, away from the Inquisitor – like Charlie Watts, casually bored, even contemptuous of the front man, keeping the beat but not wanting anything more to do with it.
Oh, somewhere the devil must have laughed hysterically that afternoon, blood spraying out of his nose onto his cocaine mirror, his ashtray of cigarette butts and his trembling red hands.
As for Jesus, predictably he said nothing, but that’s just the kind of heavenly father he was. I always needed too much attention. It was just one scene after another, and he was bored of it. Sometimes it was like we weren’t even related.
My mother came home and was white with fury.
“I didn’t cut your records, “ I said. “I cut my records. I paid for them and I can cut them if I want. They’re mine to do what I want with,” I yelled in a righteous, temple-clearing rage, italicizing all the pronouns, yelling at the Pharisee who needed to hear the Truth for once, just once, spoken like it was, that nobody ever dared to do but me. Me!
“You are not allowed to throw those records out. You will keep those records forever. Forever!” my mom yelled, getting dangerously close to tears, signaling the end of the exchange.