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Of the thousands of records in my collection, this may be the one with the most emotional resonance and formative importance. But I've held off on saying anything about it (though I did write up indie guitarist Dave Depper's wonderful 2011 note-for-note recreation) -- largely because I was still working on my book, in which I devote a few pages to Ram, and figured I'd let that speak for itself. But now that the book is published -- and, yes, I'd be delighted if you'd check it out -- I figured I'd post an excerpt here.
My folks must have been the only baby boomers with zero knowledge of or interest in popular music. They were teenagers when Elvis and Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry kicked it all off; they started a family while the Beatles and Dylan reshaped the universe. But what did we have in the house when I was a kid, back in the late sixties and early seventies, when the Stones and the Who were artistically peaking and Led Zeppelin was selling a gazillion albums and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were filling arenas?
Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Henri Mancini film scores. And when they’d had a little wine on a Friday night and really wanted to cut loose, it was time to crank up the Carpenters.
I know that sounds petty. I recognize that in most respects I had a pretty idyllic family life. My parents, still married today after more than 50 years together, raised me in a loving home. They worked hard to put me through college. I don’t mean to diminish that one bit. There are worse things than living in a household where music is sappy and schmaltzy and disconnected from cultural trends, where “(They Long to Be) Close to You” was our personal kick out the jams, motherfucker.
I can’t help but imagine how much I would have enjoyed growing up in a home with even a halfway-decent music stash. It wouldn’t have to be something edgy or hip. I’m not talking about parents who try to introduce you at an early age to the Stooges or Bowie or Lou Reed; the kind of upbringing where they would spin a little Nick Drake over a Sunday morning bagel brunch (long before he showed up in a Volkswagen commercial). But would it have killed them to have a Neil Young album lying around, or the Byrds, or even the damn Beatles? How many homes didn’t at least have copies of those omnipresent red and blue Beatles hit collections?
At some point, however, we managed to acquire one solitary, honest-to-god rock album: Paul & Linda McCartney’s Ram. On a jet-black 8-track tape. I don’t know why, of all the albums to choose from, we happened to have this one particular tape. We didn’t even own any Beatles, so what inspired my parents to pick up McCartney’s second solo record, a release somewhat reviled at the time (unfairly, IMHO, as more recent critical revisionism has confirmed)? Just hazarding a guess here, but I’m pretty sure my dad filled out one of those Columbia House Record Club cards you used to see in magazines, where you could get 11 albums for a penny as long as you agreed to buy just one more at full price. And this particular tape showed up in the mailbox and my dad neglected to send it back before he was charged.
And I just loved that tape. I made them play the living crap out of it. Of course, if asked at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to explain why I liked it. I didn’t have any context; I didn’t know who Paul McCartney was. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what it was about the music that excited me, made me attentively absorb every note and memorize every lyric, compelled me to demand they play it over and over and over. I only knew that there was something different about it, some emotional connection I wasn’t getting from, say, the soundtrack to The Sting, or Barbra freakin’ Streisand, or whatever else they’d pop into the stereo when I wasn’t pleading for Ram.
It would be like growing up eating nothing but frozen peas & carrots. And there’s nothing wrong with frozen peas & carrots, those shiny white plastic packages from Green Giant with the perfectly uniform orange cubes and unnaturally green globes. But one day someone hands you your first slice of pizza, or a steak, or a hot fudge sundae, and you’d be like, what the hell? You’ve been feeding me frozen peas and carrots when I could have been eating this all along? And you wouldn’t yet have the frame of reference to explain what made that slice of pizza so incredible, so much better than Green Giant peas and carrots, but you’d be pretty damn sure you’d been missing out on something huge.
When my brother and I were little, before my parents started shipping us off to some remote sleepaway camp with the rest of the suburban kids, we’d pack up the family Buick for a road-trip each summer, and Ram was my soundtrack. We used to visit this small resort town called Indiana Beach (beaches in Indiana, who knew?) a few hours beyond the outskirts of Chicago. The main attraction, aside from the kinda depressing lake-side beach and the kinda depressing rental units, was a small boardwalk-style amusement park. They had this one awesome ride, the Mystery Mansion, where you’d coast through a dark building in a little car while blacklight-illuminated objects leapt from the walls, until you found yourself about to plummet headlong into a speeding train while horns blared and lights flashed, terrifying sensory overload, and next thing you know you’ve smashed right through the railroad crossing and you’re back outside in the bright Indiana sunshine… If you’ve been to a Disney park and ridden on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, it was a lot like that. Well, kind of exactly like that. Where were the lawyers?
And all these years later, the one thing that stands from those family trips, other than the Mystery Mansion and its explosive car-crash finale, is listening to that McCartney tape repeatedly on the long drive through Indiana. I loved the opening track, “Too Many People,” as good a song as McCartney has ever written and one I’d gladly square up alongside the Beatles’ best work. I rejoiced in “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” my favorite song, with the silly voices and absurdist lyrics and deliriously catchy “hands across the water” sing-along refrain. Nearly every song was giddy and perfect, except maybe “Monkberry Moon Delight,” a noisy, nonsensical toss-off even by McCartney’s not exactly rigorous post-Beatles standards, which was pretty abrasive and tended to piss my parents off.
I particularly remember the bittersweet emotions triggered by the album closer, “Back Seat of My Car,” an operatic power-pop song that would build to an infectious crescendo, and just as it faded out, Paul would let out this cathartic wail; it was a truly joyful release, but it always made me feel sad because it meant the continuous loop of the 8-track tape was about to cycle back into “Too Many People” and my father would eject the tape, having indulged me long enough, and replace it with something like the soundtrack from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the baroque strains of Burt Bacharach lacking that magical, indefinable spark that only Ram seemed to offer.
Alas, this lone bright spot in the barren musical wasteland of my youth was blotted out the day my dad came home from work and dejectedly reported that someone had stolen his Buick Riviera from the train station parking lot—including the Ram tape in the glove compartment. A few days later, the police called to let us know they’d recovered the car. It was completely stripped; even Ram was gone. I’d like to think some car thief was psyched to open the glove compartment and find it there, casting aside the embarrassing Barbra Streisand tapes and rocking out to “Monkberry Moon Delight”—my parents really hated that song—while his gang chopped up that poor old Buick.