Not long after I learned how to drive, I mutated from a mid-80s punk into a late-80s Dead Head, and at some point during the transformation I bought a five-pack of TDK SA-II-90s and took them to my Uncle Pete’s house and filled them with music that would carve a weird little curve into the arc of my life.
Pete was my rock and roll uncle. All through the 70s he looked just like Jerry Garcia, except he was skinny. He used to sit on a pillow in the corner of my grandparents’ living room and play electric guitar with a big pair of brown headphones clamped to his head. He drove a purple 1963 Volvo and played in bands with names like Free Buffalo, Fred Bread and the Butterini Band, the Cut Hairs and the Rock and Roll Cows. His albums were lined up in boxes he’d built out of plywood and painted black, all in alphabetical order. I hunkered down on the floor and flipped through them, starting at A, and pulled out ones I wanted, made a pile: John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Gilded Palace of Sin by the Flying Burrito Brothers, Merle Haggard, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits. When I reached the Zs, I found Freak Out!, by Frank Zappa’s first group, the Mothers of Invention. I stared at the cover, the solarized photo of five hideous, furry freaks glaring at the camera, and I remembered an old interview with Paul McCartney in which he said Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was going to be the Beatles’ Freak Out!. I took the quote as a mandate and as Gospel, and put the record on the top of my pile.
Pete came in to check up on me, saw Freak Out! and laughed the kind of laugh people laugh when there’s nothing funny to laugh at—more like bragging than laughing. He was in transformation then, too: newly married, newly hired as a high school shop teacher, new home owner in a small Midwestern town, new member of the church my grandparents went to, not yet a father. His beard was gone and his hair was cut above his ears. He knelt down and pulled out another record, handed it to me and asked, “Have you heard this one?” On the cover was a cartoon doo-wop band with shiny pompadours and long noses, like the goofy humanimals in the earliest Disney shorts. Cruising with Ruben and the Jets. On the back was Zappa’s senior picture, colorized.
Pete put the record on the turntable, cleaned it with his Disk Washer, lowered the needle into the groove; “Darling. Darling. Please hear my plea. God only knows what your loving does to me.” The voices were high pitched, unnaturally so, like the Chipmunks, but odd, not silly. And when the band kicked in, like a bunch of dorks on guitars their moms had bought them at Monkey Wards, and Zappa sang, “Cheap thrills, in the back of my car. Cheap thrills, how fine they are,” the record started skipping, and my uncle was laughing for real. He told me he’d borrowed it from a friend in the early 1970s, fell in love with it, and bought himself a new copy. But it wasn’t the same without the skip, so he traded the new one for his friend’s old one.
I recorded all his Zappa—Freak Out!, Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, and Absolutely Free—and those tapes were with me longer than any of the other tapes I made that day, all through college and the early years of my career, until I bought a car without a tape deck and figured out how to steal music on MP3. The first song I loved was “Who Are the Brain Police?”, on side one of Freak Out!. There’s a part in the middle where all these voices say, “I think I’m going to die,” over and over and on top of one another. After my first Dead show, when I was still tripping hard, I sat alone in my room and listened to “Call Any Vegetable,” the last song on side one of Absolutely Free, and during the long jam near the end, with the spastic horns and drums and Zappa’s guitar tearing through like a long lightning bolt, my brain exploded into globs of phosphorescent color.
At 17, I assumed Zappa was on all kinds of drugs, and I didn’t believe it when I learned that he not only didn’t do them, he forbade his band members from doing them as well. But after I sobered up for the first time, when I was an undergrad, I began to understand the purity of weirdness. I would drive around Boulder in the Toyota minivan I’d bought off my parents for $700 and roll down the windows and crank the freaky ‘50s cheese of Cruising with Ruben and the Jets so that all the people who surrounded me in Subarus and Volvos and old Volkswagen vans could hear it. In my dorm room I’d stuff Absolutely Free into my jam box and turn the volume up high, put down whatever Marxist or feminist screeds my professors were forcing me to read, and pace and sing along, “Be a jerk – go to work. Be a jerk – go to work. Do your job, and do it right. Life’s a ball. TV tonight.”
I lost or threw away the tapes soon after the turn of the millennium, around the time I met the woman who would become my wife. We bought a house together, adopted a dog and spent our Sundays looking for a church to belong to. I had a job as a staff writer for an alternative weekly, and I was consumed with journalism and writing. Music no longer defined me. I still needed it, and I’d get online and steal it, burn those compressed songs onto cheap CDs, load them onto an iPod, but it was all just aural air freshener. I sold a book, quit my job, tried to sell a second book and, frustrated and desperate for an escape, I got into politics and helped a guy get elected mayor and wound up putting on a suit and tie everyday for a job on the top floor of City Hall, making twice as much money as I’d ever made in my life. But power exposed me as an inept sycophant, and the mayor as a nepotistic liar, so I quit and enrolled in an MFA program. Writing again, free for the first time in many years to explore whatever the hell I wanted, my appetite for music came back strong. I traded some writing for an old chrome receiver and a couple of vintage shelf speakers, and I bought a wood-paneled turntable. I called my uncle and asked if he still had his records. He said he’d sold most of them, but he still had a few he couldn’t bear to get rid of, though he rarely listened to them anymore because he’d been too busy raising kids, working, volunteering at his church. I asked if I could borrow them, and he hesitated but said he didn’t see why not. So when my wife and I went back to Indiana for a wedding, we went to Pete’s house and he pulled all his records out of a closet and we went through them. The Zappas were still there. Pete pulled out Absolutely Free and told me he’d listened to it a few nights earlier, when a friend came over and they were drinking whiskey. “It sounds really good,” he said. My aunt crossed her arms and frowned and said, “Pete, that record is so weird.”
I came back the next day and Pete had all his records out in the living room, in three piles, one of records he wanted to keep, one for me, and one for his son, Jake. Jake has been in bands since his early teens, bands named Islands in the Sky, Jake Miller and the White Belts, the Skate Whores. Now he was in the Kansas Bible Co., an experimental pop band with a horn section, and they were trying to make it big in Nashville. The band lived in a former crack house in a comeback neighborhood, all twelve of them, along with a dog and a few girlfriends. Jake didn’t have a turntable, but the guitar player had one, and so did the trombonist. I knelt and looked through his pile. Freak Out! was third from the top. I clenched my teeth. I said to Pete, “You know these records are going to get ruined if you give them to him.”
The records went home with me and my wife. I listened to Ruben and the Jets first. It still skipped during “Cheap Thrills,” even on my record player. I sat down and looked at the cover, with the original shrink wrap cover still on it, split and taped at the edges so you could open the gatefold. I held it up for my wife to see and said, “This is a sacred artifact.” She raised her eyebrows and took another sip of wine. My uncle told me he was “a degenerate” when he bought this and the other Zappa records, long before he started dating my aunt. They’d been married since the mid-80s, but he’d never played one of them for her, and when he finally did, she recoiled. He’d thinned his collection several times, stopped listening to them altogether as he got busier and busier being a normal American man, but he couldn’t part with the Zappa, kept them tucked away but nearby, like a half pack of cigarettes hidden at the back of a high shelf, in case of emergency.
I talked on the phone with my cousin on Thanksgiving. He reminded me that his bandmates had a couple of turntables at their old crack house in Nashville, and they were collecting vinyl now, and taking good care of it. I swung through on a road trip in the spring, bringing with me a box of records I’d picked up in Chicago and at another visit to Pete’s, and after I’d taken a tour through the rambling and ramshackle house, after I’d had a few beers on an empty stomach, took a hit off the hookah in the living room, and pissed in a bathroom that had never been cleaned, after I watched his band practice, heard them sing a hymn that he had written, we gathered in the guitar player’s room to spin some vinyl, and Jake pulled a record out of its sleeve and grabbed it like a frisbee, with his greasy fingers pressed into the grooves.
I left a couple of crappy punk records with him. Back home in the Deep South, where I teach writing at a university but do not go to church, I wrapped a stack of Pete’s records that I didn’t like, the Roy Buchanan and the posthumous Hendrix, and sent them to Jake. There’s no fucking way he’s getting the Zappa. Not until he’s at least forty, has a wife and a house and a steady job, and he needs them.