Friday, August 9, 2019

Vinyl Nostalgia: Flashback to Steve Martin & Sgt. Pepper’s (but not the one you think)

Filmstrip of A Wild and Crazy Guy and Sgt. Pepper'sWhen I was a kid I'd tag along with my mom on shopping trips to the PX (that's Post Exchange to non-Army brats). I'd wander the aisles, usually without a cent in my pocket, aimlessly picking up and turning over merchandise in my broke-ass little hands.

On one trip, however, I actually had a few bucks to my name. I made a beeline to the record section.

I can't remember how old I was, but was probably still in elementary school, maybe early '80s. My personal record collection at the time amounted to kid stuff I hadn't bought myself. Prime example: the Star Trek comic book that came with a 45 rpm record dramatizing the story. Which I just realized was my first audiobook (I still have it).

Music transported me, felt mystical and special, even if just about everything I'd listened to so far was the music my much older siblings or ancient parents played (my dad's favorite singer was Slim Whitman, if that gives you any idea of the hell I endured).

When there was something I actually liked on my own, either on the radio or at at a drive-in, I'd hold a cassette recorder up to a speaker to capture the song. I sometimes regret tossing those tapes long ago. I can only imagine what other conversations I'd picked up in the background – probably corny old TV shows or my parents yelling at us kids. They were time capsules, those tapes, but blinded to their value I saw them as rubbish and surrendered them to a landfill for eternity.

So of course that day at the PX I made my way to the record section's clearance bin, beckoning with promises of something, anything, I might be able to take home on the cheap.

Flipping through the smooth, beautiful covers – mini artworks accessible to the masses – two thrilled me beyond belief at my good luck. They might have cost a total of $2, or perhaps that much each, but either way they were destined to be mine.

Steve Martin's A Wild and Crazy Guy album
The trophies I took home that day were Steve Martin's A Wild and Crazy Guy live comedy album and the soundtrack to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band the movie. It was momentous. These were the first albums I ever selected and purchased for myself, forging an invisible chain between me and music and comedy that threads it's way through all my years, all my life. Picking out my own records was an exhilarating taste of freedom and independence for someone too young to have control over much in her own life. The covers were special and exciting and beautiful to behold.

These were older albums by the time I found them languishing in that bin, priced to move. Martin probably soon would or already had stopped performing stand-up (he shelved that trademark white suit in 1981 and focused on acting). Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band the movie was long since a butt of jokes and considered one of the worst movies ever made.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack albumLet me clarify that last point. I did not buy a Beatles album called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but rather a double album soundtrack to a movie musical which tells it's crazy acid-trip of a tale through Beatles songs, sung by everyone but the Beatles, who weren't in the movie at all. It starred Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, as well as a slew of other other famous names – including Steve Martin singing Maxwell's Silver Hammer. Others performing Beatles songs included Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and Earth, Wind & Fire, to name but a few. It was trippy.

I'd seen that movie at the drive-in, repeatedly, because my dad managed drive-ins at one point. The songs were amazing, even if the movie was hokey, which I doubt I realized at the time. I recognized some of the tunes from heady days when my favorite brother let his baby sister ride along in his old white Chevy, blasting Beatles songs on the 8-track player so loud it's amazing it didn't blow the love fur right off his dashboard. (Don't know what love fur is? It was something like this, but in his car covered only the dash rather than the entire interior.) He later denied the faux fur, but I know what I know, dammit. I'm fairly certain there were fuzzy dice dangling from the mirror, too. Seriously.

I love the Beatles and will always associate them with the thrill of getting a rare ride with my big brother, zooming around corners and having a blast. But with some of their songs, when I think about them to this day, the version I hear in my head came from the movie. Now and then, "You Never Give Me Your Money" pops into my head and I'm singing along with the film, not The Fab Four. I don't think I've ever heard any other version of that particular song.

Steve Martin A Wild and Crazy Guy interior of album cover
The album cover FOLDS OPEN!
However, the enduring treasure I unearthed that day at the store was A Wild and Crazy Guy. I already loved Steve Martin, even if I misunderstood his whole deal. (But then again, even adults didn't really get him back then – they thought he was some wacky guy in real life, when in truth he was super serious and more likely to shop for pants at Barneys and peruse art galleries than get happy feet.)

I knew Martin from Saturday Night Live, the late '70s version, immortalized by the rock star renegades of the original cast. I was way too young to watch that show and shouldn't have been up so late, but I had little parental supervision and my older siblings watched it, so who was to stop me?

Martin's hilarious characters and skits on SNL culminated in the shining glory that was his performance of King Tut in 1978. It totally rocked my socks and I still get that song stuck in my head, an earworm that's lasted decades. I've never forgotten the chorus: "Now, when I die, now don't think I'm a nut, don't want no fancy funeral, just one like ol' King Tut." That's lyrical gold, people. GOLD. The SNL performance was accompanied by flashy costumes and dancing in what was basically one of the earliest music videos, and that song also closes out the album. If you've never seen it, prepare to be amazed. Or at least amused.

I've since watched many a Steve Martin movie and admire him as the author of one of my favorite books, Shopgirl. But first and foremost, to me, he is linked to the album bought decades ago when I had little money and over-the-top excitement at owning it. It greets visitors the instant they enter my home, framed on the wall along with other covers I love.

In making a sales pitch on Mad Men, Don Draper exquisitely noted: “In Greek, 'nostalgia' literally means 'the pain from an old wound.' It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone." Both of those albums build a bridge of nostalgia, taking me back to the pleasure in owning them and reasons I wanted them in the first place. There may be a twinge laced through that delight, the melancholy fragments of life winding through the intervening years, piercing the memory. I suppose that's what makes the albums so special. Still.

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