It’s safe to say I was probably the only ten-year-old on the block who would drop anything I was doing and stand transfixed once the whistle blew in the middle of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” and that awesome bridge featuring piano and drums started. But I wasn’t so much concerned with what was playing as long as it touched me somewhere and I could dance to the beat and sing along with the words. I was just nutty for music.
(It’s also safe to say I was the only child in 1978—perhaps in the history of the world—to look at the vast collection of records being sifted through by a square dance caller before begging him, earnestly, with no idea of the irony, if he would please play “Disco Inferno,” which, of course, I called “Burn Baby Burn.”)
If I were awake, I probably had the radio on. If the radio were on, it was probably set to WMMN, an AM radio station in the nearest town. Looking back I realize the station played an amazing variety of music. I can remember hearing “Rhinestone Cowboy” right after “Rapper’s Delight,” and this right after “Hotel California.”
Ironically, while I was the radio-junky in the family, my older brother and sister were the ones with actual musical talent. Each played a minimum of four instruments, and both were first-chair musicians in their high school band programs.
In addition to making sure I never, ever touched her beloved flute, my sister, during my childhood, kept herself very concerned with making sure my hands stayed off her Partridge Family and Bay City Rollers LPs. So when I got my first record player, at age eight or nine, my sister’s not being around was upsetting for several small—and two very major—reasons.
Major reason number one: I now had my own record player, and I wanted desperately to be able to tell her to stick her stupid record player where the sun could not reach it. Major reason number two: we were kind of poor? And I was lucky enough to get the record player? Finding even a few actual records under the Christmas tree, as well, seemed out of the question?
Since my sister had moved and taken all her belongings, the record player seemed a pretty useless gift to receive.
However (thank God?) my mother had spent many of my earliest childhood years employed as a bartender. After the 45s were taken off the jukebox in the beer joint where she worked to be replaced by more current tunes she brought them home. She dug them out of storage for me later on the day I received my record player.
This meant I had a bevy of records to choose from, albeit of a rather limited musical style. Donna Fargo’s “Funny Face.” Charley Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden.” “The Most Beautiful Girl” by Charlie Rich.
You get the idea: honky-tonk tunes.
That evening we had family over for a meal and for more gift opening. There was also the obligatory holiday drinking. My stepbrother Ronnie showed up late but that was no surprise. Ronnie was the kind of guy who always waited until Christmas Eve to shop.
When there were no more stores open, Ronnie had apparently stopped by a bar and wrapped our gifts while drinking boilermakers. He arrived with many funnily wrapped packages, clearly five sheets to the wind and smelling very much like a shot glass full of whiskey inside a glass of beer.
I’d heard talk (the way children hear talk: by tip-toeing around and hiding behind doors) that Ronnie’s girlfriend Cathy, to whom he might have been engaged, had recently broken up with him. This was alluded to again, perhaps in a whisper, and a little sadly, after he arrived in his less than sober condition. Looking back, I’m sure everyone present was hoping that nobody would forget and casually mention Ronnie’s former girlfriend.
After we unwrapped our presents talk commenced among the guests. I sat over by the Christmas tree playing disc jockey and watching Ronnie’s interaction with our grandmother, who we called Danie. It was a classic exchange of the “kind, tolerant grandmother vs. the disconsolate, stinking drunk” variety.
“I really love you, Danie. I do,” Ronnie said for the fifth time. “You and [Dee Dee, her husband], I really do love you two.”
Sitting stiffly with a mixed drink in her hand, Danie said, “Yes, Ronald, you’ve told us already.”
Then, disgusted, she made for the kitchen. This left Ronnie and me, just the two of us.
I thanked Ronnie again for the Shaun Cassidy Scrapbook he’d bought me (even though I didn’t care much for Shaun Cassidy), but he was lost in thought, staring at something on the floor near me. He slowly raised his hand and let one finger move outward to point at my record player. Stashed among these country hits of the 70s were a few chart-toppers from the 60s, most notably “Cathy’s Clown” by the Everly Brothers.
For some reason, maybe the odd, galumphing beat of the tune, I liked this one enough to put it on the little plastic turntable of my record player more than once on Christmas Eve. When Ronnie pointed at my record player, I was playing, for the fiftieth time, said Everly Brothers’ record.
“That’s me. Yep,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut and shaking his head. He continued in the monotone voice of a drunk about to pass out. “Yep. That’s me. Cathy’s clown…”