What We Gave Away

You and I, we were captured. We took our souls and we flew away. We were right, we were giving. That's how we kept what we gave away.
- Neil Young, Comes a Time

The other night I spoke at All Souls in Shelburne. The idea was that I would talk about campfires and why we love fire so much and how the desire to stand near a fire is embedded deeply in our DNA and probably something our souls long for us to do. But I wasn’t really there to talk about fire, I was there to talk about human connection. I talked about how being near fire, together, makes us sit still, calm down. How we’re OK with closeness and quiet in that space. And, of course, how we share our stories and sing together, how fire brings that out in us.

At the end of the night I retreated to a friend’s space in Burlington and found there a magical collection of records. In the light of day the next morning I was fairly frothing with excitement and couldn’t wait to start listening. I figured out how to use the record player (easy) and I started looking through the albums (alphabetized, so awesome). And then my entire youth washed over me. My entire life, really.

But it was really when I put the needle down on the vinyl for the first time that something happened to me on a cellular level. I had completely forgotten what it felt like to pick up a needle and move it to a place on a record (trickier at 53!). I forgot about the greatness of the crackling sound you hear before the music starts, that moment of anticipation. The whole thing made me giddy, truly.

The first record I chose, though I have no idea why, was Tears For Fears/Everybody Wants to Rule the World: Shout … Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure, nothing ever lasts forever everybody wants to rule the world. For me that was about 1982-87… the Metro in Saratoga. Dancing, so much dancing. Jazz upstairs, dollar Stoli nights, my god it was so much fun. My life then: The B 52’s, Adam Ant, The Waitresses, Blondie, Laurie Anderson, Romeo Void, The Boomtown Rats, Prince, The Talking Heads, Men Without Hats. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday but I know the lyrics to all of their songs. What is that?

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Nestled in this beautiful space devoted to music and creativity and loaned to me by a generous and kind-hearted friend, I remembered the joy of listening to a record all the way through. Of the physical act of walking over to the record player and lifting the needle and moving it if I wanted to hear a song again. Which I did, a whole bunch of times. And then a side ends and you have to get yourself up and walk over again, unless you want to listen to the repeated scratchy sound for a while, which actually I loved on this morning and never wanted it to end. I remembered about all the in-between songs, too. How you would buy a record for some of the songs that you knew and then find these other treasures there. And you listened to them and learned them, too. All of it mattered.

Also, I forgot how great it is when the records pile up by the record player and then you have to put them all away. There’s a lot of work involved in listening to records!

Neil Young next … Take my head and change my mind, how could people get so unkind… Probably because I saw him live not that long ago, a hankering for more of his voice. That was the mid-80s through having kids in the 90s, I saturated my life with that music. When I went from being a Billy Bragg and Clash-loving, asymmetrical hair cut, living in London girl to a mellow sort-of-hippie, shopping at health food stores and living on 60 acres in the Vermont countryside. In the field of opportunity it’s plowing time again …

Ah, the many identities we try on in our youth and all the music we choose to accompany those times.

Can we talk for a minute about album covers? I mean, I know we all moan about what kids these days are missing, but this one’s The Truth. It wasn’t just the music we got when we bought an album, it was art and photography and sometimes just plain weirdness. I’m ready to confess that I spent a lot of hours staring at album covers. Often the cover was a close-up of those amazing rock ‘n roll faces: James Taylor, Tom Petty, Leo Kottke, Santana. There were a lot of confusing album covers (Poco, the horse; Robert Palmer standing in water with a Walkman: The Go Go’s wearing towels and face masks; Joe Walsh having an underwater picnic.) It didn’t matter, though, having an album was having a thing, to hold in your hands, to look at while you were listening to the music. It was the whole story of the music you were hearing, and it told you something about the people who made the record. Take a look inside Neil Young’s record with no name, the one that has What Did You Do To My Life and The Last Trip to Tulsa and you see Neil standing in his kitchen on one side and all the lyrics, handwritten, on the other. Treasure.

Owning and listening to records was a full-body experience and you can talk all day about the ease with which we get our music today — that you don’t have to buy a whole record to get the few songs you really want, that you can take your music everywhere you go and listen to it anytime — I don’t care; that moment in time when we were people whose parents had records that fascinated us and then we all started stockpiling records, was very good. Everyone who lived then remembers the first record they bought (Elton John on 45, Crocodile Rock and the Bay City Rollers, also on 45, Saturday Night). Everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about when I swoon for that crackling sound of needle dropped to record. Everyone knows about the songs in-between the songs.

Here’s my point: this stuff matters. It actually does. It’s nostalgic, for sure, all these feelings about the way we experienced music back then, but there’s also some truth. There’s some truth around how we are meant to behave as humans. How life is supposed to be a multi-sensory, full-body experience. Why else would we be walking around in these cumbersome packages?

The other night I talked about fire and how it makes people slow down and sit still and listen to each others’ stories and I’m talking about the same thing when I speak of records today. What I’m talking about is the very real and very human need we all have for actual, meaningful connection. To our own core being and the things that feed the soul that resides within the frame and to each other in ways that actually matter.

Yes, we can do things faster and more efficiently today, but I am not convinced that this is better.

I don’t think we need to return to anything, I think we need to reclaim the parts that matter. And soon. I can see and feel the levels of anxiety rising in us. Our kids are having nervous breakdowns; we never put our phones down; some people go for days without human contact. We are becoming more lost and yet the way back to each other is so obvious. Quiet down, ask someone how they’re doing and then pay attention to what they say. Sit still for once, and I don’t mean in front of a computer. Nebraska has a brilliant new marketing campaign: Lucky for you there’s nothing to do here. Genius. Take a vacation in Nebraska.

Be grateful, all the time, for what you do have. Turn every fucking annoying sound your phone makes off and leave it off. You won’t be missing anything, but you will gain something beautiful: the world that is happening right in front of you right now and all of the wonderful people in it.

And believe me when I tell you you do not get to be in it forever. Amen.