Stan Beard & the Swinging Strings

Snowbows

By Lara Shelton

When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? I also believed that I could be a circus veterinarian who doubled as an acrobat when the regular acrobats occasionally broke their legs. Oh, and a singer/songwriter, selling out packed houses and doing the Mike Douglas show in my spare time. I sang about my cat, my dog, my bedspread, how much I loved pancakes. Somehow my songs, though carefully recorded on a Fisher Price cassette tape recorder, never made it onto the radio.

song-poem-1If you haven’t ever heard of MSR there’s a good reason. The acronym comes from one of the biggest labels dealing in “song-poems”, a loose, semi-professional recording scheme popular in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, whereby patent amateurs would submit their song lyrics to a company, along with a fee, and a few weeks later be presented with a recording made by “professional” “studio” “musicians.” I hope the liberal use of quotation marks will not be overlooked.

Some of the musicians working in the shadow industry of song-poems had skill, even talent. Rodd Keith is revered in certain circles. Teri Summers stands out as a vocalist who could imbue even the most hackneyed sliver of a lyric with an air of gravitas. But where the real frisson occurs in these songs, what gives them their unique savor, is usually the collision between the relative amateurishness of the lyrics and the relative slickness of the musical productions. Listen to Snowbows, below. (It’s mistakenly titled Snowballs, I know. But such a mistake is entirely in keeping with the spirit of MSR.

The rhythm track is scattershot, at best, the electric piano solo meandering. But Stan Beard could have given Pat Boone a run for his money, and the melody is as lovely as anything the Carpenters ever put out.

song-poem-3When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? it’s a ridiculous concept by any stretch of the imagination. Or is it? Now that I’m an adult I still believe in concepts like Democracy. I believe in World Peace. I still believe in True Love, despite the evidence to the contrary.

What I mean to say is nothing that hasn’t been said before: we are dead without a dream. And what better dream than the one that a couple of lines, scratched out on the back of a cocktail napkin and recorded by “professional” “studio” “musicians,” can rocket you to immortality?

By nearly all metrics, Snowbows is a terrible, terrible song. And yet when I listen to it, I begin to dream. I dream of the lyricist, who may very well still be alive, keeping the 45 rpm vinyl in a special place in a heavy oaken sideboard of early ’70s manufacture, and getting it out once a year to listen to it in solitude. And listening to it unironically, as I do. And the snow begins to fall, and there is the sound of hooves on the rooftop, and for a moment everything works the way we always wanted it to. Then the record ends, and we put it away for another year.

Everything you ever wanted to know about song-poems on Wikipedia.

song-poem-2

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Stan Beard & the Swinging Strings

Eric Carmen

eric carmen

All By Myself

By Tony Hidalgo

So I am a single man, never married, already forty-five years old, getting older by the minute. Yellow flags are going up in your head. I know. Presumably as a means of flattery, my good friend, slightly younger, slightly more married, with plenty of kids, asked me for his blog series to write about a song from “my time”, a song for me to muse upon, “All By Myself”. Sure, that’s a nice one for me. I am perhaps less flattered than the jazz-loving leper in his writing group he had reflect on Kenny Loggins’s Footloose and less charmed than the pretty fourth-grader he had wax lyrical on Only the Good Die Young between treatments in the oncology wing. Still, I should feel honored.

This is one of those songs that goes on for-EVER. I remember that. I can hear the singer. It was Nilsson or O’Sullivan. No, it was Eric Carmen, formerly of the Raspberries. I visualize him on the high-contrast album sleeve, pouting, or on the fuzzy Panasonic set, lip synching (it was accepted then). I can still see his open shirt, his smushed facial features with a huge coif cherry on top, a bouffant so baroque you would expect to see it on a bust in the back of a woman’s wig shop, accumulating dust more than admiring glances. Yep, way too long. I think why I recall the record’s epic length is the false fade of a verse where you think it’s finally over, followed suddenly with more drums and that maudlin chorus all over again. If you’ve never heard it, you have missed out. But you ought to thank me for the well-arranged, bombastic schmaltz I have saved you from. You really should.

In its demure, seven-minute run time, there is slack between sad-sack confessions of “all by myself” for an instrumental interlude. How about two? I always thought there was something cutting-room Beatles in this recording. Was it the seventies-era McCartney Tony Quote 1lyrical cheese? No, it was this first interlude at 1:50, the bridge with the pleasant slide guitar solo which you hope only sounds like George Harrison making a little session money. I’ll look it up later. A chorus more and at 2:54 you are confusingly entering another, grossly longer interlude which transports you this time into the Romantic era of piano, tinkling like Rachmaninoff never would, then weaving in wispy violins to try to jerk the tears out of your lonesome self one last time. Apparently the Sergei similarity I noticed is worth 12% royalties. If you need to take a nap during the song, this is the time to do it. You have two and a half minutes. Make a sandwich, brew some iced tea, then return after the pregnant pause for those slow drum taps ushering in the sweeping chorus of agony again. It’s a beautiful thing. If you hear the song in your vehicle, you’re really not respecting Eric Carmen’s memory. The radio edit crushes the histrionic voyage down to a flimsy travel guide, a 4:22, 7-inch butchering better laid to rest between drinks and tabletops. I’ve just learned Eric Carmen is alive. So that’s nice.

You can watch the song if you like. YouTube is littered with jittery videos from ’76 of Carmen in aforementioned “do” and wide-open collar behind the scuffed baby grand of a long-forgotten variety show, brooding at a fixed mike, crawling through, one chorus at a time. Before seeing it in close up, I didn’t realize how much his lower lip and underbite eric carmen 2played into how he belts out the aforementioned “by” and “my-“. He looks too young and famous to be so blue. And those audiences. Reverse shot. It’s not exactly a song they can rock their heads to. They just sit there, glassy-eyed, largely inanimate, as most Eric Carmen fans must be, like mannequins waiting for someone to put that wig on them. They can’t even be fans. This is the general lot who wanted to get into a variety show taping. Hey, there’s that slide guitar. And the beefy dude in the green suede jacket playing it doesn’t look a thing like George Harrison. The videos are full of such subverted expectations. The microphone isn’t even a dummy. It really works. In another video, on Bandstand, Dick Clark has our hero at the extreme, pantomiming and unzipped to the navel. I am redeemed but subverted again!

You can buy this song if you want. I don’t think anyone does that anymore. Buy music, I mean. But if you did, it comes in a package called “The Essential Eric Carmen”. I would not call this Tear Fest “essential” to anyone–well maybe you if you’re the kind that stays at home alone Saturday nights and you are wont to don over-the-ear Sennheisers whileTony Quote 2 dreaming up ways to romantically die. Why? ‘Cause the love of your life really doesn’t care for you. You don’t know that either because you never told her how you feel. She doesn’t really know you. The evening news has finished. Perhaps it is “essential” to this guy’s memory. I can’t imagine any other song in that collection. You are lying on the rug with a curly cable nudging your ribs and those bulky cans gripping your head and shedding sponge. You are soaking it in. You watch the title counter tick up to its ethereal 7:15, blubbering in private with quiet dignity. You’re not even dressed well. Tom-tom drums are stomping up. Violins are sailing in. The best work of this singer-songwriter is floating repeatedly into your ears and the Essential Eric Carmen is an EP of one song and you’re not even sleepy.

I guess what I am saying is that you are missing out if you don’t know the music of when I grew up, the music my friend Andy seems to think resonates with me. “All by Myself” is blessed with nice chords. But it has its flaws. Its lyrics are too simple when you read them. Its orchestration is too ambitious for its modest writing. It may, like a gastrointestinal incident, make you want to walk out of the room for a bit. But it will provide you something that the current, snide song factory cannot: a glimpse of a lost age–a soft, eric carmen 3yearning style of love song retired in English-speaking nations and a crooner whose best hair days are behind us but whose melodious, melancholic machinations refuse to leave your belfry. They transcend quality and haunt us uncomfortably. The sadness and loss shamelessly evoked through bathos repercuss within a tender side of us which we never show the crowd. So if you’ve never heard it and no one is looking, sample this ready-made recipe on the shelf. Open your heart to this track written and recorded by little Eric Carmen of Cleveland, Ohio. And if someone unexpectedly walks in while it’s on, someone who was born decades after the song came out, hopefully they will weep with you. If such newbie instead starts smirking, resist the urge to blush or unplug. Instead, toggle to a confident irony. And if you can’t pull off ironic like a pro for a few seconds, then hand this unannounced guest a home-brewed drink and politely tell her that you’ve just murdered someone. You will be in the clear. Cheers, aeons too late, to dear Eric, Sergei (verse melody), and George (yeah, he had nothing to do with it).

Eric Carmen’s Official Website

Eric Carmen

A Playlist for the Burned

By Dave Meyer

Every week MEDICINE I DIDN’T KNOW I NEEDED features a piece of writing inspired by a particular piece of music. This week Dave Meyer remembers a rocky love affair set to a playlist in his mind.

1. The Doors, “L.A. Woman”

City at night…
City at night…

We met at night. We drove up to the top of the hills. The city was laid out before us like a glittering blanket and we thought we owned the future.

Sometimes when you’re new in love you think you are above it all.

2. New York Dolls, “Puss ‘n’ Boots”

And now you’re walking like you’re ten feet tall…
Just like Puss ‘n’ Boots
I hope you don’t get shot for tryin’

Should have taken the song (a favorite of hers) as a warning. I knew I was dressing up. I knew she was slumming.

3. Roy Orbison, “You Got It”

Sometimes obsession dresses up as love.

4. Radiohead, “All I Need”

I’m a moth
Trying to share your light.

I began to sense that she needed me as much as I needed her. Every time we struggled to get away from each other we fell back into flames.

5. The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”

I’ve made a big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life

We canceled each other out. Passion was a yearning for oblivion.

6. Aphex Twin, “Come to Daddy”

Life became a fever dream and I an emaciated thing hiding in shadows. Unloveable in a hall of mirrors. Drowning in each other.

7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “The Mercy Seat”

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth

8. The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”

The cacophony builds and builds until it’s unbearable. Until you can’t hear yourself think. And even when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, it does.

Until you hit that final chord. And suddenly it’s over, and there’s irony, and sweetness. And relief.

9. Glen Campbell, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”

She just didn’t know
I would really go.

Gentle guitars, and the whine of strings. Sunlight slanting through the windshield. A hint of regret for what might have been, and my part in the failure. And the relief that it’s really over.

A Playlist for the Burned

The Magnetic Fields

If You Don’t Cry

by Karissa Stein

My daughter had a difficult infancy. Ear-piercing shrieks. Diapers filled with green goo. Gnashing of teeth, mostly mine.

She might have been cute if she weren’t twisted up into a shriveled, wiry, sallow thing all the time. She was like a jaundiced Slim Jim in a pink onesie.

The Doctors said, “There’s nothing wrong with her. Just a little colic.”

The Parents said, “You were the same way when you were a baby.”

The Friends said, “Uh, no. I’m busy that night. Can you get AWAY for a drink?”

Meaning, nobody wanted to come over to my house. And my husband was traveling for work.

I don’t blame my husband. He hated his job. He’s recently moved on to a better one. But I did think a number of times that no job could possibly be worse than the 24-hour a day one which shackled me to a screaming, writhing meat stick.

It’s safe to say I had post-partum depression.

The Doctors said, “It’s normal to feel this way when you’re not getting enough sleep.”

The Parents said, “We were the same way when you were a baby.”

The Friends said, “Uh, no. I’m busy tonight.”

When I was able to convince a friend to come over (and I understand that I have a couple of very good friends, ones who were able to recognize that this child which interrupted our conversations in the most violent manner possible and yet were able to pick up the thread of what we were talking about twenty-five minutes later as if nothing had happened) I could see the energy draining from their faces. Three glasses of wine was not enough.

I began to wonder if I would ever love my child.

At some point one of these friends brought me these CDS, and I put them on the divider. That’s where all the things went, when I was too tired or frazzled to put them in proper places. Our divider looked like it belonged in the basement of an old hoarder. I remember three solid months where I watched an orange first grow mold, and then shrivel up into something hard and waxen, because I only had enough brain power to carry me from one task to the next, and anything else which got in the way was a distraction. And moving an orange, no matter how shriveled, from the divider, was not as a task very high on my list.

But there was a point, a very dark point, where she just kept crying and crying and I just couldn’t listen to her anymore. I needed something to drown her out, even though I was holding her in my arms.

The song which I put on repeat was “If You Don’t Cry.”

If you don’t cry
It isn’t love
If you don’t cry
Then you just don’t feel it deep enough.

And for a moment everything fell into place. Here was my justified. It was love, because I cried. I cried and cried and cried.

We cried together.

Things did not get easier immediately. It was a full six weeks before she began to sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time. But every time I cried, I reminded myself: If you don’t cry, it isn’t love.

My daughter is now four years old. She’s not easy. I doubt if she ever will be. But now that I’ve been able to get something resembling a full night’s sleep from time to time, I’ve realized just how strong she is.

I still wonder what she was experiencing during that time. Was it pain? Was it astonishment? Was it just a reflex? Whatever it was, it came from a little person who came out a warrior. To be able to cry that much, that consistently, takes a lot of strength.

I should know. I did it too.

The Magnetic Fields

Chad VanGaalen

spooky lakeMolten Light

By Lara Shelton

Cory was the pretty one. It would have been easy to hate her, but she was also so very very nice. A little Christian girl, raised in a perfect nuclear family, with a gaze as open as uncomprehending as a three-week-old puppy’s. She was always the first girl awake in the morning and the first girl asleep at night. Never mind that her brother liked to cut the tails off of mice and set ants on fire. Cory herself was faultless.

The counselor who stayed in the room with us had passed out. The two of us who still keep in touch agreed at one point that she had been drinking. At one point, that is. Because the story only came out between us once, about ten years later, when we both had been drinking as well. When I tried to bring it up another time, without alcohol, I could feel things getting strained, and could tell that Ellen was going to shut down—that the conversation was going to go someplace our friendship wasn’t strong enough to go. And maybe I was a little scared of how it would make me look, the press on. Because Ellen clearly believed it was some sort of mass hallucination.

spooky lake 2

It started innocently, as these things do. Cory had the make-up bag, even though make-up was contraband at camp. Of course we all tried to get around it. What about moisturizer? What about moisturizer with a little color in it? What about Chap-stick with a little color in it? What about lip gloss? But Cory had sneaked her make-up bag in, and it was an innocent thing to do.

The campfire story that night, told to us by the counselor who had probably been drinking, had only been remarkable for how inappropriate it was. I distinctly remember the word screwing, and I remember the word whore. As in, “She was caught screwing her boyfriend in his mother’s bed,” and “the word whore found written on the corpse’s forehead, in his mother’s shade of lipstick.”

But other than that, it was pretty standard slasher movie fare. Girl has sex, girl gets murdered, girl haunts woods. We weren’t scared. At least I don’t think so. We were just amped up. And when the counselor passed out Mina remembered Cory’s make-up.

spooky lake 3

“Come on, Cory,” we all begged. “We know you have it.”

It took a little coaxing, but eventually she brought out the bag. She had hidden it at the foot of her sleeping bag. I remember the bag was as tidy and Christian as Cory herself, a white quilted affair with a gold Clinique label. The inside smelled of a life spent in spotless suburban bedrooms, department stores, and freshly-vacuumed SUVs.

In the absence of a mirror we ended up putting teal eyeshadow on each other, doing each other’s lip stick. The tickle of the mascara brush so close to the eye was the only hint of danger.

After a while we settled down. Cory fell asleep first, as she always did.

I think I had drifted off when I awoke to Lisa leaning over my bed. All of the girls were standing with her, their flashlight beams playing across their faces. “We’re going to make Cory up like a whore,” she said.

I had only the vaguest idea of what a whore looked like, but there was a rabid intensity to their expressions which made me think it would be a good idea to do whatever they said. We slathered on eyeshadow and lipstick. We went thick with the mascara. Cory was a heavy sleeper, and we all knew it, which was why we knew we could get away with it. At the time I remember feeling awful about it, but there was nothing I could do. Cory had somehow become the target of all my adolescent girl anger and frustration.

spooky cabin 2“When the mother came in and found them screwing,” Lisa said, “she called her a whore.” I found myself nodding. “Because she was.”

“She was a whore,” Mina said.

“And she slashed her throat.” Mina took the lipstick and drew a line across Cory’s neck. At that point the spell was broken. I knew we had crossed a line. Even Mina and Lisa knew it. Lisa tried to wipe the lipstick mark away with the sleeve of her night gown, but Cory stirred when she did this, and we knew we couldn’t finish.

After we turned the lights out again, I knew the murdered girl from the story was in the room with us. She was hiding behind the bunk beds. She was underneath the covers. She was in Cory’s body, and in my own body, as much as out in the woods. I kept going in and out of dreams—one where the door to the cabin opened, one where the mother stood over Cory, about to slash her neck, one where I was lost in the forest and couldn’t find my way back, but a figure in white kept leading me forward. When I got close, she turned and I saw her face in the glare of the flashlight: ghastly and clown-like under all of the eyeshadow and lipstick.

In the morning when I awoke Cory was still in bed, but her face was clean. It wasn’t a mystery how it happened. She always awoke before anyone else. She probably saw her face in the tiny compact, probably saw the slit across her neck, probably went to the water pump with her pristine white washcloth which was always perfectly folded on her little shelf, probably scrubbed all of the make-up off.

spooky cabinThe saddest part of this version of events is that she then got back into bed, and pretended to be asleep, with all of her betrayers surrounding her.

The other possibility is that none of this ever happened. Which is more or less what Ellen said when we talked about it ten years later: that we all did things to each other during those two weeks at camp, and that some of them were not nice, but that no single thing was less nice than any other single thing.

When I heard this song about five years ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop in an urban environment, surrounded by warm lights and warmer drinks. But I felt a sudden chill pass through me when I thought about Cory, slipping back into her bunk and knowing that we had all betrayed her. And I thought about that long night in and out of dreams, when I was both the innocent and the whore, both the victim and the murderer.

During the month of October MIDKIN will devote entries to music and themes in keeping with the season. Submissions along these lines are welcome. Click the submissions tab.

Chad VanGaalen

Goblin

Theme to Suspiria

by Andrew Fort

m.c. escher

In the dream there was a courtyard, and a pile of apartments across the courtyard, as if the window I looked out and the distant apartments were all part of the same circular complex.

There was also a caterpillar (or was it?) running through the various apartments.

Also, the apartments were built at impossible angles, so it was very much like an M.C. Escher drawing. And inherent in this was the knowledge that the caterpillar was actually a team of burglars in cunning disguise, scaling the sides and the stairwells of the building in order to sneak in and out of apartments unnoticed.

But this was just a portion of the dream, which mostly centered around the sense of dread that this plague of robbers represented.

I was home alone. I was eleven.

In the dream my friend Jeff and I had somehow stayed too late at school and it had gotten dark when we weren’t looking. As we walked home through a nightscape haunted by neon, adults were busy doing adult things in all of the houses. You could sense it in the air. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the electrical charge we both felt was, but Jeff was very succinct: he listened intently, then told me: “I hear balls.” That seemed to clarify everything.

He wanted to stay and try to catch a glimpse of what was going on through the bedroom window; I decided I’d better get home. My parents had left for the night, and my mother had put my dinner on the windowsill which faced the courtyard: a metal bowl of the type that we used to feed the dogs, full of liverwurst and cooked ground beef. She had never been the best cook in the world, but this was a new low. I pushed it aside and watched out the window, as the caterpillar-burglars raided the apartments.

hot lava

 

I was beginning to feel agitated, so I decided that, since I was alone, I might as well play “hot lava.” I got up on the bed and pretended that the carpet was untouchably hot, and that if I fell in I would turn to ash. As I made my way around the room, past my denim record player, past my lamp whose light bulb still had melted crayon stuck to it, over the bed, past the little bookcase, and the closet with the mysteriously rattling metal doors, and back to the windowsill, I realized that I was not alone. As the lava roiled beneath and the burglar caterpillar prowled the Escher landscape outside, I noticed that sitting on the window sill was a disembodied head: bright red, like a devil, but not with the traditional black hair and goatee; in fact, aside from the redness, it looked rather angelic, with close-cropped pale blond hair and the handsome features of a baby-faced man.

It began talking to me, saying things I didn’t understand—adult things—and I remember terror mounting within me as I realized that what I really needed to do was shove the head into the roiling lava.

I woke up in one of those panic-sweats.

Despite its vividness, the dream was forgotten by the following morning.

But these things have a way of lurking subconsciously. When I returned home after college, I had learned many of the adult things that the devil-head had been whispering into my ear, but rather than answering my childhood questions, they only raised more questions. The world had become more baffling and my place in it more uncertain.

For one, I had realized that there were two kinds of writers: writers-for-hire who recognized their status as writers meant that their talent was to be exploited for material gain, and those who wrote because they were unable not to. The first type seemed to me more practical, and it seemed like they had a clearer path forward to a successful, happy adulthood. The second type often ended up poor, miserable, and alcoholic, and quite possibly laboring under a delusion of talent. One of the baffling adult questions on my mind was whether or not the fact that my work had been rejected in bulk meant that I was of the second type.

suspiria redAbout this time I saw the film Suspiria. Almost immediately, the dream came back to me. In fact, the theme music, and the film in general, seemed to be an elaboration of that dream. It was as if Dario Argento and I had been to the same vacation spot in hell and brought back different postcards. When I saw the girl running through the forest, and when I saw Stefania Casini fall into the room filled with razor wire, and when I heard the Goblins howling on the soundtrack, something inside me unlocked.

Guided by this music, I found myself laboring over a screenplay which eventually became a novel, in the same bedroom out of whose window I had watched the Escher landscape. For better or worse, it was the first time I was able to follow a novel-length vision to completion.

As it turns out, writing is a lot more difficult than dreaming. And publishing that writing is even harder. But it was at that point that I knew irrevocably which kind of writer I was. The important thing is that I did it in that very same bedroom, and when I look back on all of the complex emotions of childhood, and the sometimes baffling and tortuous beauty of the everyday world, I think I wouldn’t have it any other way.

During the month of October MIDKIN will devote entries to music and themes in keeping with the season. Submissions along these lines are welcome.

Goblin

Sylvia Rexach

Alma Adentro

By Lemon Peralta

“Now you tell me what am I?”

My abuela‘s favorite question. It came out when she had done something particularly American: “Now you tell me what am I? Puertorriqueño?  Or americano?

Now every fifth grader knows that Puerto Rico is an American territory. I’m not arguing with that. Are you, Mr. Cotton Candy-head? But just as Southerners are Southerners and Northerners and Northerners and Californians are really anorexic New Yorkers on Xanax and tanning spray, so Puerto Ricans are Puerto Ricans. Despite this, my abuela liked to make claims about how American she was.

She was about as American as a yuca empanada.  Besides “Now you tell me what am I?” her favorite American phrases were “I don’t like you what you say ’cause you fool” and “Hootchie Cootchie.” She dressed like she had wandered into her mamá‘s 1960’s-era closet covered in glue and come out with every paisley scarf and gaudy-as-shit piece of jewelry stuck to every available surface. And she smoked like a blackened hot dog fallen through the grill of a faulty Hibachi.

She was my idol.

empanada
Empanada

But with her shriveled-up face and her bright black eyes and the apartment always smelling of coffee and tostones, the answer to her question seemed pretty obvious to my brother and me. We would joke about it when she wasn’t looking: “Now you tell me what am I? A hot dog or an empanada?”

We both went through a Courtney Love phase and even our dear beloved abuela wasn’t safe from it. My brother bleached his hair. I pierced my belly button. But the worst thing we did was to start eating Americano. My brother spent all his money on Kentucky Fried Chicken. I swore off plantains. I hadn’t trusted them since I was young. Something about the combination of starchiness, the greenish taste of a banana but without the actual flavor of banana, and the funk of sliminess always lurking around the edges. It took me years to overcome my aversion, and I probably don’t have to clarify that it took something Jamaican with Y chromosomes to change that.

But as much as I tried I couldn’t give up the yuca. And grandma knew it. Yuca is inedible until you cook it. It starts out like a tree branch and becomes creamy and delicious when you boil it, like sticky mashed potatoes. When abuela made it I felt a slippery connection with my heritage. So that’s how she got me. That, and the music. 

My abuela never listened to much music around the apartment. It was always a surprise when she did, and not just because the record player was more a piece of furniture than a listening instrument. It was always hidden beneath heaped-up newspapers and straggly potted plants and piles of cats. Digging it out was an ordeal. It usually meant sweeping up spilled dirt and surviving a couple of scratches from El Diablo, the one-eyed bastard who loved my pillow but hated my actual person.

There was a cache of records hidden in a secret compartment. If you put the record on without remembering to switch the speed to 78 rpm you would end up with the sounds of a full-fledged demonic possession. But if you put it on the right speed you would usually hear Sylvia, most often singing “Alma Adentro.”

sylvia rexach 2This chain-smoking, bling-wearing, shriveled old apple had music in her soul. In her music, she was puertorriqueño. Somewhere inside that blackened hot dog was a glowing ember, and when we caught her listening to it my brother stopped bouncing his basketball, my mother turned down her Sally Jessy Raphael. A hush came over the apartment like a tacky veil over a fifteen-year-old at her quinceañera. We’d all stop to listen to Rexach’s voice, in that slightly wobbly 78 rpm timbre, and the rattle of the plate used to catch the extra water underneath the geraniums. I could close my eyes and see the tree ferns and coconut palms, and hear the waves caressing the moonlit shore underneath the serious moonlight. And our hard American bodies and souls would become soft, mushy, and delicious.

Even today I sometimes look up “Alma Adentro” on Youtube and play it back.

Now you tell me what am I? A hot dog, or an empanada?

Sylvia Rexach