Music Notes Part I
The covetous perusal of album cover art is something I miss in our move away from the physical delivery of music to us via vinyl or compact disc. The photography, illustrations, and graphics that accompanied the recordings formed part of the absorption of the music, and to hold them and study them while listening brought a stillness to me, regardless of the tempo. I was the kind of listener who would learn every word and sought to decipher the relationship between the cover art and the change in tone and flux of the recording in its entirety.
My bedroom was just up the white staircase from the formal living room reserved for special occasions and guests. Inside the closet of this living room were two shelves I could only reach by dragging a chair over quietly across the carpet. At about face level there was my parent's turntable which played the vinyl records that were stored on the higher shelf in a tight stack. The tiny text on the slim edges of the album covers was too hard to read, so I had to tip-toe up in order to pick at the top of a sleeve and pull it out a bit so that the color and graphics could be exposed. When Dad and Mom entertained business partners who called them Dick and Dot, or friends with names like 'The Loveleys', the atmosphere in the room was prepared ahead of time, the musical selection included. I would be shooed off to bed and could hear the music start as my parents' voices dissipated off towards their bedroom where they went to spruce themselves up before company came to knock on the kitchen door.
This is the moment I sneak downstairs to check out the glossy gnarled-wood coffee table decked with a rectangular basket filled with a tight row of crackers and sliced orange cheese fanned out on a cutting board next to the crackers. There are pimento stuffed olives in a crystal bowl and a shot glass full of toothpicks by its side. I am only allowed to taste these special snacks Mom calls orderves at Thanksgiving and even then I get in wicked trouble if I graze too long around the coffee table before company shows up. Plus Mom knows exactly how many slices of cheddar and how many Triscuits are there so I won't make that mistake again. I'm drawn toward the snappy sound of bright horns and deep drums coming out of the record closet. Its door is ajar and a small overhead bulb glows from the inside where the speakers tower on either side of the loping turntable. The closer I get, the louder I hear the prickly popping sound of the needle that wavers back and forth slightly as it makes its way to the center of the shimmering black disk. I am not allowed to touch the turn-table, or even bump it, else Dad's record will be scratched. The needle's motion along the track is a lot slower than the bouncing excitement coming from the speakers near my head. I look up and see a few records have been pulled forward a bit from the thick collection on the high shelf. This is Dad's music selection for the night. Later from my bed, I will hear murmured talk and then shouts of laughter while the men tell loud stories and the women giggle, hiss Pffft! and say, "Oh c'mon, you're so full of it."
The giddiness, the words I can't make out, and the variety of music will go together perfectly and eventually lull me into a half-sleep.
With one ear alert for the approach of clacking shoes on the kitchen linoleum, I reach to pull down the empty album sleeve that leans between a speaker and the spinning vinyl. It catches me off guard. I scan the posing lady and decide I will have to come back another time during the day to study her more closely. And I will, more than twice. While Mom is busy enough on the other side of the house, I will carefully bring a chair over to walk my fingers through the stack of albums like Simon & Garfunkel, Quincy Jones, and The Man from La Mancha until I come to it.
The record jacket reads:
1965 Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass Whipped Cream and other Delights
The model sits against a green background the color of our couch cushions. She is propped up on a mountain of whipped cream. A plop of cream is slipping forward on her brown hair like the little hat Mary Poppins wears. There is no cherry like I expect to see on the pile of whipped cream on a banana split sundae. I can't take my eyes off of all of her. She is very much not like my mother, dressed in a nice outfit for special nights, in her black turtle neck sweater topped with a yolk-necked patterned dress to the floor and a medallion at the end of a long chain resting on the shelf of her bosom. She says her zodiac sign is the water-bearer. This is a shy woman who pours a ribbon of water from a jug, the stream of which connects up with her flowing hair and down into her gown, all swirling neatly into a tidy circle of brass.
The Tijuana woman looks right back at me with brown bedroom eyes like she knows I'm looking. I move between these eyes and the one globe of a breast, half-carved of flesh and half heavy with cream. The rest of her disappears into a mound of more and more white whipped cream. She is legless and the shape of her reminds me of two things. She sits like those sculptures where the body is cut out of white marble with suddenly smooth parts of skin growing up out of the jagged rock. She is clumsy-looking too like the Barbie-doll toilet paper roll covers Grammie Pearsall makes as gifts to sit on a shelf in the bathroom. The plastic doll is crocheted into a sleeveless floor-length knit gown. Underneath, her pointy legs are inserted into the hole of the toilet roll, so that the skirt falls around and hides the spare toilet paper from view. The plastic doll looks off to one side with bored eyes under heavy eye liner. The Tijuana Brass woman is alive in all-white like a wedding cake bride at the end of the party. I have seen images on TV where women jump out of cakes and squeal Surprise! - showing their bikini bottoms snapped tight below the little swell of their bellies.
They love this gag. So, it's not really a surprise if you see a giant cake roll out onto the floor on a game show. Nobody thinks the winner just gets the cake.
I am looking her over again. She's got whipped cream on her fingers and the tip of one barely touches her tongue, that's lazily stuck out the way a cat might do. The other hand loosely holds a drooping long stem rose. Is this what dates are like? I understand that men are supposed to give women roses on dates. But with this extraordinary portrait, I somehow know I am not the only one looking too long at her. She is not on a game show or in a fancy bedroom, and yet I know she can't be alone in the plain green room. The record logo says 'Big Band' after all and those have a lot of men playing on their different instruments. From where I can see, I am with the band.
Remembering the tacit sense of secrecy I held when sneaking a peek at the whipped cream-covered woman, I looked it up online and easily found the now iconic album cover. I discover that the model was three months pregnant and the whipped cream was actually shaving cream, used for its stiff staying power under the hot lights. This news jumbles the seductive memory and brings to mind a likely reality of the five years between the release of this record and my arrival to the family: Mom usually pregnant and Dad with a flick of menthol-smelling Barbasol on his ear, freshly shaven and heading off to work. This does not square with the sleepy heavy feeling I get as I listen to the groovy tracks and read the song titles in a swooping lime-green font.
The song list reads: A Taste of Honey, Tangerine, Love Potion #9, Lemon Tree, Lollipops and Roses, Peanuts.
These names are colorfully sweet, soothing, bitter and tart. The peanuts are the outlier to the imagined flavors and I decide the salty snack goes better on the coffee table with the cocktails. To think of the other delights served up on the record brings is to picture things that drip or slip off, melting things that leave a strong scent behind. Sugar whisked to a frenzy and citrus fruit ripe and easily plucked off a low branch with a twist. I see the rose petals tumble to the floor with the brushy crash on the hi-hat cymbal.
I hear jewellry and shoes in the kitchen and smell a waft of Mom's special occasions Shalimar. I slide the coveted record jacket gently back to its exact angle without touching the turntable, I lower myself back down onto flat feet and pivot on the carpet. In a flash, I am back up the stairs in my bed, grateful that the bass drum's boom - boom - boom joins up with a bleating trumpet to cover the sound of my escape up the creaky white-washed steps.