Friday, March 7, 2014

Moments of knife-sharp anguish preserved

Other's people dirt. In hotel rooms and rented lake houses, it makes me recoil, sends tiny shudders through my body. But when it comes to vinyl and cassettes (not so much compact discs), I embrace it. Occasionally it's an invisible soot that comes off record sleeves, and sullies fingertips and settles on clothing. But it can also be a little more tangible, a bit more revealing: a faded boarding pass, a pleated ATM receipt, a shopping list chicken-scratched upon a yellow sticky note. Other people's dirt—what the great unwashed are inadvertently and perpetually leaving behind, an incomplete legacy of grit and skin flakes and random curio.

When I first opened my used cassette copy of Astral Weeks, purchased long ago on eBay for $2.99 (plus free shipping!), what I instantly noticed was that the tape wasn't properly rewound before it was sold. Since the cassette was placed in the case with Side B facing out, I assumed this was the last side the previous owner listened to. So I popped it in my radio and played Side B.

Now, owning a used cassette stopped mid-album was certainly not "other people's dirt" in the same way that possessing a record with a faded personalized seal on the sleeve was "other people's dirt." (On the lower right-hand corner of my copy of The Mississippi Blues, No. 3: Transition, 1926-1937 is a purple-inked stamp from Dick Freniere of 385 Powder Mill Road, Concord, Mass.) This used tape suggested what was possible, it hinted at something obscured—a fleeting moment observed through a slightly cracked door.

When I hit play, I immediately heard the second "Yes it is" from "Ballerina"'s "Alright, well it's getting late / Yes it is, yes it is," the plunging valley before the song's astonishing, emotionally-charged apex, and I envisioned a listener who could no longer bear the cosmic strain of Morrison's lyrics and vocals, so he checked out. The sheer, impassioned weight of "Ballerina" crushed him, even before he experienced its climax; he ejected the tape and summarily placed it inside the case. So his moment of knife-sharp anguish was preserved with the click of the "stop" button, like a city clock frozen at the moment a titanic bomb exploded.

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