My mother found my most prized possession a few months after my forty-second birthday. I thought it was long gone, sold decades earlier at a garage sale or perhaps a victim of one of the sewer backups that flooded my parents’ basement over the years. But it survived, and thirty-seven years after I first laid eyes upon it I was able to listen to Chuck Berry as I did when I was a new convert into the world of rock and roll.
Nothing compares to hearing music on vinyl. That crunchy sound is part of the experience. You can tell how often you’ve played a record, if you had kept it in the sun too long, if you unintentionally dragged the needle across those precious grooves. Your whole life with that record is written on it. I had most recently played my mother’s vintage 45 of Chuck’s 1957 “Rock & Roll Music” on my 16-year-old stereo’s turntable, and though nearly six decades of wear and tear were delightfully obvious, it wasn’t until I picked up that nearly four-decades-old white plastic arm and gently nestled its needle onto that magical black disc that I really heard the song like I did when I was a kid. That’s because I was once again hearing not only the song, but the record itself.
When my mother first showed me the musty treasure she had recovered from years of seclusion, we plugged it in and played a random 45 she had nearby. We were excited that the machine still worked, though its speakers—which are just holes drilled into the board upon which sits the turntable—left something to be desired. The pleasant scratchiness of an old record was overpowered by simple old age. Still, it was exciting to hear anything out of this blue box that had given me my start as a rock and roll fan.
It was quite an event, setting up that faux denim-covered, sewing box-style, late 1970s model SP-11 DeJay brand children’s record player to listen to “Rock & Roll Music” months later in the privacy of my own home. I made sure I was fully prepared and without distraction. This record shaped my whole life. And after all, without Chuck Berry, none of us would be here.
The only available wall outlet was near the couch, so I pulled up my small brown Ottoman and rested the musty blue beauty upon it. Yes, this is going to be perfect. I looked down at the corroded silver latch that held the case together, examined the subtleties of the denim pattern I loved so much when I was little, and took a deep breath. This was my version of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent unlocked the mysterious case and it seemed like the heavens were opening. I felt happy and peaceful and uplifted. First I saw the white plastic turntable, the curved tonearm, the speed selector that shifts between 45 and 33. Then I saw the cheesy drawing of the yellow-haired, denim-clad children on the inside of the case’s top. I remembered those kids as if we sat next to each other at the lunch table every day in elementary school.
My emotions were running high as I pulled out the cord and plugged it in. Before setting up the player I carefully selected my mother’s two Chuck Berry 45s, remembering that these pieces of vinyl were all I knew of the man for the first few years I was listening to those four sides as if they were my only source of oxygen. I had no idea what he looked like since there were no sleeves on most of those old 45s. I didn’t know where he was from, I had no notion of the scandal and parental panic caused by this music I instantly worshiped at age five. All I knew was that it sure as hell sounded good.
My experience with Chuck and rock and roll and this particular record is at once unique and universal, as millions of kids in 1957 felt the same exquisite thrill while listening to his tales of teenage love and music and cars as I did as a little girl twenty years later. What kids in the 1950s really loved about this music, however, was that it was theirs, not their parents’. For me, this music was as much mine as it was my parents’, though I had no concept of its age or connection to a previous generation. It was simply music.
That unstained joy returned to me as the first crackles of sound began after placing the ancient needle upon the remarkably well-preserved artifact that I had so carefully positioned on the turntable. I separated my fingers from the arm and then—Chuck! He caught me off guard despite the thousands of hours I have invested in listening to this song. My seven-year-old self was back in my parents’ basement—my middle sister and I called it “our apartment”—sitting next to this little music box, hanging on Chuck’s every word, studying the lyrics and singing them as if I had been hearing them for the entirety of the record’s two decades. What does ‘backbeat’ mean? I wondered. What did he say they were drinking from a wooden cup? I really needed to know. I prided myself on knowing these words, especially once I became aware that nobody else in my school had ever heard of Chuck Berry. And though I pitied them for not having the same musical experiences I was having, I was also happy that I had Chuck all to myself. All I needed was those blue-labeled Chess records and my little denim record player.