Biomythography - Note 34
No Rock Music
There was no rock music allowed in my house until I reached fifteen. Even then, the rule didn't change. What happened was I got better at sneaking in music.
It was my policy to change the parental policies of the house. That was why, following my personal code, paragraph 2, subsection 1, I protested against the No Rock Music rule by wearing my parents down as much as I could, forcing them into a state of resignation like a well worn groove in a record, a record I played over and over. I started by sneaking in transistor radios and listening to Casey Kasem or Dr. Demento late at night. I had my first radio confiscated when I was seven. The second one, too, a year later. But after the second, they stopped talking them away for very long. Eventually, four radios into my rebellion, my parents gave up trying to overhear my station choices.
Sneaking in records was harder. In theory, a transistor radio could be used to listen to news. I often pretended I was doing that. But a Beatles record could not be used to play Mozart. There was no reason to have one except to be a no-good, long-haired hippie. Regardless, I wanted the records.
In this home environment, the first rock album I decided to buy was Jazz by Queen. I spotted it in a Montgomery Ward department store. Amazingly, about half of the albums in the Ward music rack, which did not have a great selection - it was about as wide as my arms outstretched - included a picture of the Nude Bicycle Race as a special bonus poster inside. (There was a “warning” sticker on the special editions to let parents know not to buy them.) I had to have it, partly for Fat Bottom Girls, Bicycle Race, and Don’t Stop Me Now, but also for the poster.
I couldn’t drive. There wasn't, not ever, a prospect of getting into any store by myself. I knew I had to buy the album and hide it from my mother at the same time. Inspired by the sticker telling me about the extra-forbidden poster, I went elsewhere in the store and got my mother two Christmas gifts. Then I told her I was buying gifts, which was what we had come to do anyway, and I warned her not to come to the register. I bought the album at the same time as her gifts.
She tried hard not to look at my Wards bag. She was honest. For sure, she was more trustworthy than me. I took the bag straight down to my room and tucked the album away. Then I got out the holiday paper and innocently wrapped presents.
That night, I turned my record player volume on low and lay next to it as I played side one of the Jazz album again and again. I fell asleep, woke when the music stopped, put the needle back to the start, and lay down to rest about three inches from the forbidden sounds of rebellious, non-classical, non-big-band, non-religious music.
It was wonderful. I memorized it all, poster included.
When there was only a week to go before Christmas, I decided I had to buy my uncle a copy of the album with the nude bicycle race. He was only three years older than I was and he desperately yearned to date, kiss girls, and maybe see a girl in the nude sometime. I totally sympathized. And he lived with his mother, who frowned on even the mention of such things. So his cause became, as with so many causes before and since, a sort of holy mission for me.
“I’d like to get an album for Mark,” I mentioned to my mother in the kitchen the next morning. I knew this stood a chance of blowing my cover.
“It’s not a rock album, is it?” my mother asked.
“It is,” I admitted, “but uncle Mike has rock albums. So Mark is allowed.“
“I guess he is,” my mother said with a slightly surprised gasp.
Off to Montgomery Ward we went. I desperately strode to the music section there and prayed that they hadn’t sold all of the Queen albums. I was in luck, or Mark was. There were five albums left, two of them advertising the nude bicycle race poster inside.
I must have let my guard down because, right then, I got caught.
“You can’t get him one with pictures of nude women in it,” my mom said over my shoulder.
I jumped, startled.
“Oh, that’s no problem," I said. I set down the copy that had the pink sticker. “They have most of these without the poster inside, see?”
I held up one of the Queen albums that sadly did not contain a poster and she inspected it carefully.
“This one is creased, though.” I pointed to the corner of the cardboard. Someone had bent it a little.
“You’re getting a different one?” She let me slip the one she was holding out of her hands.
“Just a nicer copy.” I put back the album with the sticker and pulled out the next album from the stack. My mother yanked it from my grasp and checked it. There were no stickers except for the price. When she was satisfied, she gave it back.
She followed me all of the way to the register, watching. Even as I was buying it, she turned the album over twice to make sure it wasn’t hiding a sticker in the wrong place. When I wrapped it at home, my mother handed me the wrapping paper and watched me start the job.
On Christmas morning, at my grandmother's house, Mark opened up his gift, the Queen Jazz album. His mother scowled. My mother scowled. Mark beamed with delight. I had hardly ever seen such raw, relaxed joy on his face.
“Everyone at school has been talking about this!” he exclaimed.
The adults around us slumped. They let down their guard a bit. Even our parents understood Mark's desire to fit in more, to be more cool.
“Let’s go open this in your room and listen to it.” I put my hand over his to prevent him from ripping off the plastic right there.
“Quietly!” my father yelled.
“We don’t want to hear it,” my grandmother added.
"Too bad you couldn't get the special edition," Mark whispered as we walked down the hall. He opened the door to his room. "That's what all the guys are talking about."
I yanked his door closed behind us. I took the album from his hand, ripped off the plastic myself, slipped the poster out, and swung it onto the top shelf of his closet. No one could see it there.
"Was that ...?" he trailed off.
"Put on the record," I said.
"Didn't we say we were coming into your room to listen to the album? Let's listen."
A minute into Mustapha, the first song on the album, my mother opened the door to Mark's room. She popped her head in and looked around. It took a moment for her gaze to calm down and find us, her son and her youngest brother sitting calmly on the bed next to the stereo. We weren't doing anything wrong as far as she could see.
"Is that the music?" she said. She glanced at the record player.
"Sounds sort of Arabic." The realization seemed to set her back. She spent a moment actually listening.
"I think the singer is Turkish or something. It's a tribute. The rest of the album is rock songs."
"Okay." She stepped out and closed the door. A moment later, she opened it again. "Lunch is almost ready. Come out in ten minutes."
"Sure," Mark said.
"Ugh," I muttered. My grandmother was not a great cook. She boiled everything except the pies. Sometimes she thought mincemeat pies were a treat, too. It wasn't polite of me to let my opinion slip out. But it was normal. And I was striving for normal.
My mother gave me a warning look. She'd given me plenty of lectures about politeness and food. Then she closed the door again. This time, we heard her footsteps in the hall as she walked away.
"That was close," Mark said.
We sat and listened to the album for a while. We got through most of side one before the adults called us to the lunch table. Of course, we got seated at the kids table. That was normal for us. This time the kids got put slightly off to one side of the basement in the laundry room. Mark and I discussed music and school there for a while. Mostly, though, we had to talk with the younger kids about their games. After lunch, we played cards.
I didn't see Mark again until a month later. He came over for our joint birthday party. After the song and cake, he trudged down the stairs to my basement. His gaze turned left to my stereo system as he walked in. At the front of it, tilted to one side, lay the Jazz album by Queen. I had snuck in two other rock albums, too, but the first one was my favorite. I'd left it on my player.
He sat down on my bed and picked up the album cover. I turned on the stereo, picked up the phonograph arm, and moved it to the fourth track.
"Thanks," he said, and gave me a sly smile. "I really liked the poster."
I stood there and he sat there, listening to Bicycle Race. We grinned at each other. As we listened, our grins got bigger.