Ouroboros - Music Notes Part II
I continue listening to old tunes that comprised my childhood soundtrack. I was lucky to have my own bedroom and be handed down a little record player that snapped shut like Dad's attache case. I placed this in the white-washed window seat next to the three cushions my sister had sewn for me out of red and white calico printed flannel, a remnant from the bolt my mother had used to make our matching nighties. The cushions read L A P, the initials of my name, in a bubbly font of all curves and no corners. "Don't!" I would say, dragging the nnnn out, when my sister would come in and move the letters around to spell PAL. I wanted the L and the P in their rightful spots. Maybe I felt this intervention desecrated my nook, the prized feature of my bedroom. It was from this window seat, as the school year was ending, that I could reach for ripe cherries off the tree that was planted in the earth below. I would nestle into the window seat to look out at the framed scene: blue sky, green leaves, and ripe red hearts drooping in clusters from gnarled branches. I monitored their ripening. I hoped to reach out to clutch a few in time before enterprising birds darted into the picture to bounce the limbs and jostle the bright fruit down. This position made me feel like royalty. A game I would play by myself was to give alms to an imagined pauper boy who passed by below. He would look up to me, somehow knowing my high status was a prison and I would look down to him in kind, my altruism a hopeful investment in his freedom to roam. I would toss him bright pennies, likely pinched from the cement floor of my brothers' bedroom in the basement. Like any child's game, the story arc was short. Once the pennies had all been thrown out the window, I would break character to scurry down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the mudroom to then swoop around to the front of the house and collect the copper for another round of The Benevolent and Lonely Princess.
I was small enough then, at about six years old, to sit with my knees up in the window seat next to the record player.
The only little vinyl records I had to play came free or on special offer from the Book Mobile that sometimes parked outside of the elementary school. One of them was a collection of narrated folktales. It had a bright red sleeve and the illustration of an elf prancing around a campfire framed by forest in the black of night. I stared closely at the lines of the drawing because I couldn't quite make out which features were which of the miniature man. The stretched-out stocking toes, the trailing cuffs of his sleeves, and the long peak of his hood all hover in mid-air as he dances. He is so spirited in his jig and his leaps appear so vigorous, that one sleeve and one stocking have become tied in a loose knot near the tips. Sticking out from his hood is a profile lead by his big beak of a nose, under which is drawn a contented grin aimed at the cake he grips in one hand. The other holds a beer stein, the hinged cap of which is flipped open in the height of celebration. He is suspended above his campfire, the tip of a stocking intersecting a licking flame rising from his bonfire. My eyes are moving between the nocturnal ritual caught on the record sleeve and the sheen of the spinning vinyl.
My favorite cut from this collection of stories is Rumpelstiltskin.
The tale goes like this: A miller has a beautiful daughter that he farms off to the King who sequesters her to test the verity of the miller's tall tale that she can spin straw into gold. Everything happens in threes. The rooms she is ushered into over three consecutive nights contain only three things: a heap of straw, a chair, and a spinning wheel. The three increasingly larger rooms with increasingly higher heaps of flaxen hay prompt weeping from the nameless girl, the sound of which summons the giddy goblin to appear. She tries to pawn him off with gifts of a ring, a necklace, and ultimately her firstborn baby - a jewel she cannot yet conjure in her delicate state. With each agreed exchange the goblin approaches the spinning wheel and ...
- Whirl - Whirl - Whirl -
... the mound of straw becomes stacks of gold, thrice sparing her life. Upon the hefty yield of the last stint, the King marries the whining child. She seems happy to have earned enough chips to become Queen and they conjugate the situation with a baby post-haste. Later, in her woozy post-partum contentment, she is startled when the impish alchemist turns up to collect on their last barter. He sniffs at her offer of the jewelry upgrade she now dons as Queen and gives her three days to guess his name so she can hang onto her child. Apparently as bound to her chambers with her infant as she was with the spinning wheel and all that flax, she hands the task over to a messenger to take a census of popular names in the village. After two fails, this guy gets depressed and wanders deep into the woods. It is there that he stumbles upon the etched scene of the inebriated goblin whirling around beside his straw hut. The noisy little man sings, grumpy yet gleeful,
Tonight my cakes I bake,
tonight my beer I make,
tomorrow, tomorrow, tomo - orrow,
the Queen's will baby I take!
Ha - Ha - Ha !
Lucky I go and lucky I came -
for RUMPELSTILTSKIN is my name!
Finishing his chant, his cackle trails off like his woolen stockings. With this, the jig is up and the messenger, after his third round of inquiries, delivers the exalted name to the Queen. On the final visit of the smug Rumpelstiltskin, she toys with him at first and throws out, "Is it Tom?" - "Is it Dick?" - "Is it Harry"? NO - NO - NO, he barks in between each name. When she finally utters his true name, the crash of a cymbal chimes and, foiled, he stomps so hard he falls deep into the earth never to be seen again. I had the power to see him as often as I liked. In swathes of time spent in my room upstairs, I would drop the needle down in just the right groove to play Rumpelstiltskin's song in a loop until I could cant it in unison with the imaginary man.
* * *
Now I am sitting, distracted, both by the clusters of three and by the insertion of the names Tom, Dick, and Harry. These seem to be a cultural revision farfetched from the true names likely translated from the scrawlings of the Brothers Grimm in the 1800s. I prefer the options Bumponalump, Luckyfox, and Blusterbeast spewed out by the exasperated young mother in the first round. I mentally move from the listening back down to the image of the little record player and the bright plastic insert twirling around the spindle of the turntable. These were placed into the center of the disc to adapt a 45 rpm single record to the 11-inch turntable. Wait! - I am mistaken! I am getting lost in collapsed time. A simple search offers the truth that the 1973 folktale recording was a 33 1/2 disc that required no stabilization on the spindle. I look again into my mind to see the yellow adapter and realize it is a few years later that I will employ this device to play a different disc ad nauseam. The shape is like a Please Recycle symbol or some tail-devouring dragon, rubbed of its defining detail.
The stop-motion form brings to mind two moments situated further along the timeline from my window seat wanderlust.
* * *
We each got five dollars of allowance to buy something at the mall. It was a special occasion. This was the first time I was allowed to pick anything I wanted and pay for it myself at the cash register. Some of my siblings headed directly to the music department and I followed suit. My plan was to buy the 45 single of Barry Manilow's Can't Smile Without You I had been crooning to that warm season while the foundation was being built for a huge addition to our house. To make space in the side yard for the structure, our other cherry tree had been lopped down while bearing fruit. I felt giddy with good fortune as I stood between the jagged grey cherry tree branches on the ground that pulsed with ripe fruit. I got on my knees and began to forage, stuffing cherries into my mouth and spitting the pits out in the spring grass as my father and the workers hoisted up freshly-cut poles, their radio up loud. When Barry's top 40 hit came on I let it serenade me from the tangle of branches to a clearing in the yard nearby. Overstuffed on cherries, I twirled and sang along:
And you see I can't smile without you
I can't smile without you
I can't laugh and I can't sing
I'm finding it hard to do anything
You see I feel glad when you're glad
I feel sad when you're sad
If you only knew what I'm going through
I just can't smile without yoooooooooo
A similar enchantment struck me in the music section of the Ann & Hope department store as I looked at the rows of 45s, five-dollar bill in hand, poised to make my purchase. This was one of many hits released as singles off Manilow's album Even Now, which debuted in early 1978. I felt drunk with the choices and couldn't see clearly to find the right one because there were so many covers with Barry's fuzzy face on them. On one he looked straight back at me with big blue bug eyes, his long nose gently torqued to one side by a dreamy closed smile. On another, he bears a load of teeth that makes matching dimples like parentheses. On another, he looks out thoughtfully over a sunset, his profile dominated by a nose that makes him seem innocent and rodent-like. Mom was getting antsy to go so I just grabbed one and lined up to pay for it. In the van, on the way home one of my brothers pointed out that the 45 was not of Can't Smile Without You, but a different Barry Manilow tune from that year. "Can't you read?" someone says. I pretended I didn't mind and settled for two versions of Copa Cabana on the A and B side of the disc. I learned to love the exotic storyline of At the Copa. I entreated my oversized stuffed animals to role-play the intrigue of the nightclub scene with me.
Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there
Hmm-hm-hm Hm-hm, Hmm-hm-hm Hm-hm
Da-da Da-dada da da daa
Ba-ba-bap - Bada bada Ba, Hmm-hm-hm Hm-hm
Bap bap baa baa Baa?
At the copa (blah) Copacabana (Bapabapada) The hottest spot Hmm-hm-hm Hm-hm Blah-blah blah-bla blaaaa Music and passion were always the fashion At the Copaaaa ...... they fell in love ...
Together, we imagined the seduction, the broken chairs, and spilled blood as we moved around my room to enact the love triangle of Lola, Tony, and Rico. Unlike in the folktales, the young maiden loses her love, her spirit fades with time and she gets stuck in that place, out of her mind with drink.
The song trails off with a blunt moral to the story: ... Don't fall in love ...
* * *
The second head trip that shows up while I hold the 45 record insert in mind takes me further afield. I was at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, during my last term in art school, 1992. The object of my obsession one February day in the dark archival rooms of the MET was a palm-sized bronze tiger and bear in combat. I had been tasked with peering through the hermetically sealed case at the small gilt ornament from the Han Dynasty in China. The assignment was to describe an object from the period visually and to discuss its function and intimacy in context. Drawings in my sketchbook give an idea of the status of the two animals in a battle clench. The bear is losing. One paw rests docile on the ground and his snout is hinged open, surrendering his breath. The tiger snout is delineated by wavy rows of furrowed brow and jaw flesh that curl back to make room for the cinching teeth we don't see but trust are puncturing the throat of the bear. The tiger's back is honed to a fine edge like a mountain range and the bear's haunches are reduced to curlicues. I wasn't sure whether the object served as sleeve-weights for noble garments or mat-weights for the flooring in their quarters. Although the flattened base and the heavy material indicated otherwise, I fancied the idea of having something like this up my sleeve. The Han aristocrats wouldn't have chairs for another century. All their rooms contained was a low bed, a side table, and straw mats kept in place at the corners by elaborately cast weights.
I imagine sitting there with everything low to the ground and wonder if these mats are magic carpets that could carry me away if it weren't for the weight of those warring animals frozen in time.
The beasts are drawn from three points of view in my sketchbook. In the aerial view sketch, I recognize the yin-yang twist of that adapter again, the so-called ouroboros, or cycle of endless return. This would be the last of many art history courses I had stuffed into my years in art school. This time travel opened the world up for my innocent pleasure. To my foolish surprise, I learned that the lost-wax bronze casting method used to forge the conflicting animal forces had long preceded a world when the Brother's Grimm would create bewitching tales of lost children and their captors. I go, round and round, pausing the turnstile of my mindscape, now into the present, now into my past, now into a putative ancient history. I replay sights and sounds in the hope to get them in the right order, only to find the end catches up to the beginning. I will stop here and let you rest, lest this become just another never-ending story.
1973 Rumpelstiltskin from Scholastic Records 33.5 rpm, retold by Edith H. Tarcov
Barry Manilow Lyrics
Han Dynasty sleeve +/or mat weights, accession #18.39, Gilt Bronze, ca. 2nd-1st Century BC
Tiger and bear in combat. Courtesy of www.metmuseum.org
Joobin Bekhrad Exhibition at Germany's Kunstmuseum, Wolfburg, December 2017