Set a needle on my heart and play those songs of love and pain

Ray Charles, Don Henley, Roy Orbison, Springsteen, Paul Simon, Bobby Blue Band, Robbie Robertson

My record collection is a minefield of potential pain: stacks of Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Otis Redding, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Freddy King, Bobby Blue Bland.
  • My record collection is a minefield of potential pain: stacks of Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Otis Redding, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Freddy King, Bobby Blue Bland.
  • Image by Jeremy Eaton

“Strange how potent cheap music is.” — Noel Coward

The place should be a welfare hotel with a stuttering indigo neon sign outside the window. There should be a botde of cheap bourbon on the nightstand and a 38 lying on the once-gaudy, now-faded bedspread. This isn’t. There isn’t. It’s my apartment in Kensington, and while there is no gun, bourbon, neon, or even a bedspread, the place is filled with diabolical instruments of torture — chief among them, the stereo.

Staring past the ashtray filled with Winston butts, seeing how the apartment distorts into a sepia parody of itself through the water glass of Martell cognac — like a slow; artsy shot from some Italian movie, lending my anomie, at least for the moment, a certain historical quality — I think. Anybody can quit smoking, but it takes a real man to turn on die goddamned radio.

I'm not that tough. I pace from phone (front runner for the most painfully silent item in here) to the refrigerator full of beer and limes and mustard and, I think, some eggs. I reflect on the blank white expanse broken only by the little Mickey and Minnie Mouse magnets that up until an hour ago held pictures of us happy on the beach in Mexico. Now the pictures are at the bottom of a Hefty trash bag with the shattered glass of cognac I threw at the framed 5x7 of us, smiling at someone else’s wedding. I sift the broken glass off the photo and pin it up on the refrigerator; a little buckled and boozily odoriferous, but okay. The shadow of the warped picture makes that dent I put in the reefer door look like a shotgun wound in a polar bear A little blood from my knuckles, where I ground them into the punch hole (thinking of her with her ankles around the guy’s neck screaming, “Percy! Oh Percy!”) lends the hole an extra shade of mortal finality How can you fuck somebody named Percy? How can you scream a name like that with any real passion? That’s not his name, of course. It probably doesn’t even sound like his real name, but it does to me, you know? It’s one of those names to me Like Hargrave, Sidney, Purvis... Percy.

No offense, Mr. Sledge. You knew whereof you sang: “When a man loves a woman, deep down in his soul, she can bring him such misery.” (Maybe it was your name, man.) Anyway, it’s not her doing it is it? You do it to yourself.

Okay, avoid the refrigerator. Forget the phone I’ve already pulled it out of the wall and plugged it back in, pulled it out plugged it in... pull... plug On hands and knees, making noises I didn’t know were in my register to make. For a moment a long moment I wished I still did drugs.

Well, there’s the guitar leaning against the comer; under my poster of Robert “King of the Delta Blues” Johnson and T.E. Lawrence of Arabia Lawrence. How about picking out a few jaunty Beatles tunes? “It’s Only Love” comes to mind. Why do I feel the way I do? and as it does, here come those gagging sounds out of my throat again. Nah, nah. Stop. Right now. Where’s the cognac?

I toast Robert Johnson. ‘Well, it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell,” I quote him, “When all your love’s in vain.” But I’m not going to play guitar.

Come on, man. Turn on the radio. Him it to the mellow yuppie jazz station, no lyrics, just wallpaper saxophone

Turning the dial. Some oldies station. Foreigner “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Just great. Yeah, I wanted to know, and those English guys had a whole choir backing up their curiosity. I found out what it was. I should send them a Polaroid: Hey, guys, here’s what it is: me, grinning rapturously, upending a bottle of Drano into a hot water bottle, a hose trailing from the thing. Now, now. “... Be not cynical about love it is as perennial as the grass” — something like that I find one of those Valium stations, but it’s no help either Patsy Cline is singing “Crazy for trying, crazy for crying, crazy for loving you....”


"... The stereo is a special model that plays only music fraught with poignant associations.” — Jay McInemey, Bright Lights, Big City

I must love being miserable. For years I’ve listened to almost nothing but the blues. Once my high school English teacher; senior year; back in Chicago read one of my papers — it was about some blues guitarist I made up — read it to the class and said, "You’re a romantic!” He might as well have said, ''Why, you’re a homo, son!” for the effect it had on my inner-city all-boy, Catholic-school classmates. I heard about it for the rest of the year A guy named Pinkowski with no neck and an undefeated wrestling season behind him stuffed dead flowers in my locker I vowed never to be romantic. It was a good vow, but for the wrong reason. Both Pinkowski and I were laboring under the delusion that romanticism was effeminate In fact, there is nothing feminine about it at all. It is men who are romantic. This has borne itself out repeatedly in my experience I have never been given flowers by anyone except Pinkowski.


My record collection is a minefield of potential pain: stacks of Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Otis Redding, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Freddy King, Bobby Blue Bland. And, in recent years, a creeping insinuation of country and western music. I was telling myself I was getting at the core of rock and roll, the music of rebellion. Blues is the soundtrack to otherwise ineffable pain, and C&W, the music of resignation. It’s all about as romantic as you can get, when you think about it. It now seems that for two decades I had been stocking my musical library with songs to blow one’s brains out by. Why has this music pleased me so much for so long?

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