Being born a Cape Bretoner, people always assume I’m either the master of many musical instruments or that I must be one hell of a terrific singer. But alas, I am not. Nor were my brothers and sisters growing up, although today that’s changed somewhat since my brother in law Stewart joined the family, a fiddler extraordinaire much in demand amongst the Cape Breton music scene. But Stewie came along much later, so he was of little help back in the day when, alas, we were all thumbs and completely tone deaf it seemed. Now, if truth be told, I’m forever a rock star when I’m driving in the car blaring Gaga or Coldplay and ( most especially) Journey. And I often forget I’m warbling along with my earphones in while running in the treadmill or roaming through the park. And I’ve been known to play a mean imaginary drum kit at times. But no, even that does not a musician make.
But, with that said, I love music. All kinds of music. And I feel a true fellowship and kinship to it, in all its many varied artistic forms. Like most people, music has been the soundtrack to many of the happiest memories of my life. And music’s comforted me through the lowest of times as well. Music lifts my spirits, helps me to relax into the evening after a long day, and gives me energy to face the dawn of a new morning fresh and new.
I believe this long love affair with music first began when I was just a wee, small lad. Growing up in Whitney Pier, in the not quite a metropolis of Sydney, on the beautiful Isle of Cape Breton, I was surrounded by many good, hard-working honest people, who, after putting in day after day of hard back breaking labour (as many an old Celtic song might go), sought to play just as hard when the sun went down. Our house, like many other houses in many other neighborhoods across the Island, was often the site of “kitchen parties”, where friends and families would gather in droves in the heart of the home, the kitchen, eventually spilling over into the living and dining rooms, bathrooms and bedrooms, rooftops and porches….and wherever else one might find space. Bringing with them plenty of food and drink and musical instruments and paraphernalia in tow, the revelers d would sing and dance and carouse well into the early morning hours. I remember those nights still quite clearly. Being only 5 or 6 years of age, clapping and bouncing joyously on my mother’s knee, my younger sister Raylene perched precariously on our father’s knees a few feet away, mirroring my actions as best she could nonetheless. My older sister, Donna, in her green tartan skirt and matching tam, delighting the crowds and company by doing the latest steps learned from her weekly highland dance class. My older brothers, Ian and Dennis, entertaining the masses with how well they could sing along, and recall the words, accents, swear words, and all, to the ol’ Cape Breton coal mining songs. And later, being carried to bed, whimpering while under protest, by my father and mother, but soon drifting off to sleep, still blissfully aware of the slightly muffled but ongoing musical antics below.
Being the fourth of five children, and the youngest boy, a full four years younger than the sibling next to me, it seemed my brothers and sisters and I had little in common. We were different ages, in different grades, and as a result all had different friends and interests. We didn’t like the same television shows (although at that point we didn’t have cable, so who wanted to watch TV anyway?), we didn’t enjoy the same games and activities(besides, they were almost pre-teens…who had time for games when discovering boys and girls awaited just around the corner?), and we didn’t have the same taste for food (I still can’t even look at shellfish after being first introduced to lobsters by my brothers as they gleefully chased me through the house with live ones, claws snapping, while I nearly screamed my head off). No, when it came to a common ground, we didn’t have much to work with. And besides, we were so busy running in so many different directions we barely had much time to catch up with one another anyway. But one day that changed, when one spring day a delivery truck pulled up front, with real live delivery man in tow, carrying with them an Electrohome console turntable stereo system, which was then set up, centre stage, in our living room. Hot off the assembly line about 3 years prior, likely a floor model and showing some not so subtle signs of damage, this was nevertheless a significant purchase for our family. But my father had purchased it discounted, as our local Kmart was clearing the way for a newer model that not only played 8 tracks and vinyl but now also cassettes, and my mother had recently begun working weekend nights at the local store, which might then account for some magical staff discount. However it came to be here, however our parents (with five needy children under their charge and therefore known for being so very careful with a dollar) made the decision we had to have it, I didn’t care. It was OURS…and I was mesmerised by its beauty. At almost four feet long and almost two feet deep, I’d spend hours those first few days running my hands over the walnut surfaces and felt topped interiors of this monstrosity. And when no one was looking, with the sound cranked as high as it might go, I’d lightly touch my finger to the the diamond needle head, just to hear that loud scratching sound magnified through the enormous speakers. Or I’d scroll carefully through the radio dial, which looked, i imagined, just like what an alien UFO dashboard might look like, to find some faraway FM station, overjoyed when much later I finally discovered, after hours of careful scrolling, some terribly staticy french language station I could barely understand, or some bored and stuffy sounding newscaster I didn’t want to know.
But the best times I had with this overgrown sonic toy were when we would all gather, as a family, scrambling for spots around the front of the console, our dad in his black leather Lazy-Boy, a warm beer and a crumpled well read newspaper at his feet, our mom in a high backed wooden rock chair, laughing and smiling about stories from the day as she passed around tea biscuits and butter and jam made fresh that day. And then we’d begin to sort through records, choosing what to play…vinyl records so shiny and black, with such sharp edges, and prisms of light flashing across their cool reflective surfaces, captivaing as they passed fromr hand to hand, or as I leaned forward and watched them spin round and round on the turntable. Stacks and stacks of vinyl that we’d playfully fight and jostle one another to take turns placing on the centre spindle, and then sit back breathlessly as the mechanism kicked in and the record slowly began to drop. I can still remember that first thrilling moment when the needle first hit the vinyl and that loud audible hiss before the music started to play, music with a sound so rich and dense and full and BIG. Most nights we’d stick to the basics, and sing along badly to good ol’ traditional Cape Breton music, and others we’d dance in circles to Newfoundland jigs. Some nights these would be replaced by some of Ma and Da’s favourites, like Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, or Loretta Lynn. And at Christmas time, Mr. Jim Reeves. These sounds, now, compose the very soundtrack of my childhood.
A year or so ago, Shawn and I were out wandering during one snowy afternoon on one of our many antiquing/collecting adventures, and came across an Electrohome systerm of a very own….an early 70s “bubble” stereo at a local thrift store. A bit expensive, and due to its size we were both unsure where we’d put it in our (then) small and somewhat tight apartment….but truly a beauty to behold, and it seemed neither one of us could take our eyes off of it, and without saying a word we both immediately knew we simply needed to have it, and so before we knew it, there it was, in the midst of our living room. A relic itself of the early 70s, housed in a lovely metallic shade of blue, the stereo actually looked like some imaginary spaceship I might have conjured up in my childhood, with its huge removable bubble dome and “floaating egg” design. Now, I love modern technology. I love my IPhone and ITunes and all things Apple. But as much as I’ve grown accustomed to my nouveau technological ways, nothing, and I mean NOTHING has come close to surpassing that rich, vibrant, crisp, all-consuming sound that ushers forth when that diamond needle strikes those vinyl grooves. And even if I’m more likely to listen to some 80s Madonna or Duran Duran these days, the mere act of pulling the cool vinyl from it’s sheltering sleeve flashes me back to those halcyon days of my childhood, warm and safe, loved and connected, sharing this one great thing we ll had in common, this love of music, with family and friends so dear.
And on that note, I think it’s time to go spin a few records, and perhaps let that bubble stereo take me away on some musical journey into the past…
I’m glad you’ve had the chance to stop by and listen… 🙂