Dad always gave elaborate instructions on how to use things. Most of Dad’s instructions were negative, as though the right way to do things would occur to one eventually if all the ways to do it wrong could be enumerated and cautioned against. The thing he was cautioning me about that day was the big radio–record player combo that had sat on a black wire stand in the living room, and now — mysteriously, wonderfully — sat in my room. It was brown and boxy, qualities that I associated with my mother in her heyday: all those photos of her in the muskrat coat with the Joan Crawford shoulders, the big hairdos like airplane fuselage.
A light shone under a tear of green glass when the radio was turned on. It hummed. It smelled of dust and resin and old felt. Sometimes it chose to shock you when you touched the spindle that held the records. One could put a number of records on at once, but never too many, never of different sizes, and never some particular ones that Dad showed me, which were so heavy and rare and precious that they had to be put on one by one and afterward slipped worshipfully back into their cases. Tubes glowed inside the body of the contraption like the lights of tiny skyscrapers.
That was the year we finally got a TV. I suppose they gave the radio to me to get it out of the living room. I suppose it never crossed their minds that I would like it.
It is too late now to ask whose tastes their record collection represented. Mom was a city girl whose father made tires in the rubber plants. Dad was a country boy whom polio and education had saved from his father’s life in the Pennsylvania coal mines. There are photographs of them dancing when they were courting, but nothing else about them could be called musical. I had never heard them play any of the records. Maybe that was one of the things adults set aside.
The collection was a war-movie soundtrack: all the big bands of the forties, heavy on Glen Miller and Ozzie Nelson and the Dorseys and Frank Sinatra; a few Jeanette MacDonald and Jane Powell numbers from the movies; and some novelty songs by a duo called Lula Belle and Scotty. That record had pictures on it, of Lula Belle and Scotty themselves; on one side they sang about how sick and tired they were of each other, and on the other of anticipating their wedding day. I thought that, if it was possible to have pictures on some of the records, it was a terrible waste not to have them on all — unless maybe I was missing something; maybe records without pictures, like books without pictures, indicated a special maturity, an adult tolerance for the dull and serious.
I already had a Mickey Mouse Club record player and a bunch of records with yellow and red labels that played tunes about animals and cowboys, but all that was strictly kid stuff, and it went under the bed when the new apparatus appeared. The grown-up records were black and ponderous and fragile. They spun on the turntable at an alarming speed. The companies that made them were Decca, RCA Victor, and Columbia. The ones I liked best tended to have green labels, and I took it for a natural fact that the record people knew the sort of person I was and made selection easier with color-coded labels: These are the ones you will like. Of course, the records had not been made for me at all, but for my parents, in a time of innocence that I could not imagine even in my own innocence. As I listened to Jeanette MacDonald sing “Donkey Serenade,” I assumed it arose from the childlike morning of the world.
My patronizing attitude was due in part to the fact that I thought I knew my parents, whereas they did not know me. If they watched me with the same curious intensity that I watched them, they kept it well hidden. They talked about their lives in an offhand way I have never, to this day, mastered. They had lived through history — a World War and another in Korea — and I knew something about them simply by knowing that. I, on the other hand, possessed the mystery of the undefined. Where I was going and what I would do, none of us could guess. I thought myself wildly sophisticated because, in the confines of my little blue room, there was no one to challenge my suppositions.
So there I was, eight years old, finding my parents’ lives quaint and their music corny. But corny compared to what? There were no other records in the house, except the Mickey Mouse Club ones. The radio was never on, except the one in the kitchen, which was tuned to the news in the morning. And even if the big radio had been played, the sort of music on those records still ruled the airwaves. But as I listened — and I did listen, hour after hour, day after rainy day; I can still sing tunes from the Hit Parade of 1946 — I felt my parents’ music was somehow preliminary, and that some great and permanent music was coming after it, perhaps had come already, but my family was too isolated and backward to know of it.
Dad liked “Begin the Beguine,” and I played it again and again, to discover why. Mom liked “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and I played that too, taking in the unfamiliar black voices, the close, jazzy harmonies of the arrangement, without understanding what I heard. I put my lack of sympathy for both records down to the fact that they bore maroon labels. I didn’t even know what instruments made the sounds behind the voices, or perhaps even that the sounds were being made by humans, rather than, say, rounded up from some natural source. Only the piano I understood, because we had one of those in church.
One especially vehement warning that Dad gave was to avoid “that longhair music.” But the longhair music — whatever it was — was included in the records he passed on to me, so I realized this was not a strict prohibition, but rather one of those man-to-man warnings, a word to the wise, which implied that I was now old enough to understand such matters. I wondered what he didn’t like about the longhair music. It was longer, for one thing, and required a great stacking of records on the spindle, something that made Dad nervous, even though it was officially allowed. There was certainly enough music to play without resorting to the longhair albums, though the fact that many of them sported green labels drew my hand tentatively toward their thick spines more than once. What if I played the longhair music and liked it? I didn’t even know what sort of trespass it would be. What were the consequences of listening? I was not yet a rebellious child. I wanted things to be as they were presented.
I don’t know why it took me so long, considering my delight in the records, to play the radio. I understood the principle of radio, of course, but not the operation of an actual radio set. I assumed it was broken because the first few times I turned it on, nothing came out. Then one day a brush from my body turned the knob just far enough that I heard chickeny sounds. I fiddled with the controls, and a station came in, a man talking in a loud, cartoonish voice, and then a song I’d heard once on the kitchen radio and liked. The song was “Telstar,” and it was about a satellite, though there were no words. I turned the volume down so low that I had to press my ear against the fabric of the speaker to hear. My belief was that the power of the radio, which made a faraway voice come into my room, was illicit in some way, and that if my parents discovered that I had wielded it, the set would be taken away. Father had not said one word about the radio. Did he not know it was there? Was it so profoundly forbidden that it had not so much as crossed his mind that I would discover it?
During the day, when my parents were around, I played the jazzy records, often choosing ones they liked so that they would approve of my taste. Sometimes at night, though, I’d pull the wire stand over to my bed and turn the radio on very low, then hang my head and shoulders into the space between bed and radio, balancing with my hand on the floor, trying to get close enough to hear. At the start, I listened to the first station I happened to tune in to; later I began turning the knob ever so slowly, starting as far to the right as it would go and moving steadily left. I wanted to hear everything.
I kept the knob on a station just long enough to find out where it broadcast from and what its specialty was. The big Akron and Cleveland stations came in as if they were across the street, but I could get other places too: Sharon, Pittsburgh, East Liverpool, Youngstown, Erie, Kent. On certain nights the signal would skip over incredible distances, and I’d pull in Chicago and Detroit and Cincinnati. There were foreign languages. There were strange noises, codes, and gibberish that never came in clear no matter how precise I was with the tuning knob.
One rainy night a station came in where there had been none before. The announcer’s voice sounded a little pompous and long-winded, like on those stations where all they did was talk, and I was about to ease the knob away when the music began.
It wasn’t a song; it was much too long for that, and it didn’t have words. But it was nothing like “Telstar,” which didn’t have words, either. It was — I couldn’t describe it. Glorious. Complicated. Liberating. A challenge, a discovery, something you had to listen to, not merely hear. I dropped out of bed and sat on the floor with my ear pressed against the speaker. There was always the danger that my mother or father would come in and ask me why I was out of bed, but I didn’t care.
When the music came to an end, the announcer said the station was CBC in Toronto. I had never been to Toronto, but I assumed it was wood shacks and igloos, and I wondered why they should have such splendor when we did not. He must have said the name of the piece, too, but I had no context in which to understand it. The music came on again, and I listened. I fell asleep on the floor. I woke in the middle of the night, and the radio was still on, and it was still that music, a different piece but with the same fullness, the same immensity, the same beauty.
Only in the morning, with the set cold beside me, did it dawn on me what I had heard: It was what I had been warned against. It was longhair music.
It turned out that CBC wasn’t an atmospheric anomaly, but would come in most nights — though seldom in the day — if I was very patient setting the dial. On some nights there would be just talk, talk, talk. I thought maybe this was what my father was afraid of, the talk that came along with the longhair music, talk the likes of which nobody we knew was capable of: the speakers quoted poetry and alluded to dead kings to prove their points. I was as bored by it as my father would have been, but I knew this was just because I was a child.
I was about to take a queer step. I was about to leave the ordained path. These were the people I had been taught to hate — not the Negroes or the Jews or the foreigners, but the upper class, the longhairs, the eggheads. I went to the stack of almost-forbidden music, took out a big album with a brown cover and night blue labels, and set the records on the spindle: one, two, three, four, the stack tottering and huge. The labels said: “Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto.” Beyond the single intelligible concept “piano,” I didn’t know what that meant. The needle hit the record. I heard myself gasp. That was it, the sublime music, beautiful beyond description and to be desired beyond all cost. And here it had always been, scorned but available. I could have played it before. I could have been a longhair for six months already.
There was lots of Tchaikovsky and Chopin, some Rachmaninoff and Schubert, and a host of Romantics — though I had no idea they were Romantics, only that they were wild and huge and I loved them. Mother said nothing about the longhair music, and I was careful to be done playing the records by the time my father got home. My mind was racing. I had seen a way out of that house and that gray town, a way beyond what I’d thought were the limits of the world. A turn of the dial, and the walls had dissolved.
That night I went to bed early. I pulled the wire stand close to the edge of my mattress. Ever so carefully I searched for CBC, in the exact center point between two hillbilly stations, all caterwauling and heehaws and yuks. And there it was, one of those boring, not-like-us voices. But that was exactly what I wanted. As I listened, it was as though a bridge had formed between my bedroom and Toronto, graceful and glittering white, upon which I would walk one day. And if that day was not today, I could rebuild the bridge tomorrow simply by tuning in a radio station. It was not a gesture of defiance. I was not turning my back on anything. I was finding home.