Broadway cast albums. My parents owned all of them.
Every new show, often before they went to see it, the record would be in our house. Dad would play it nonstop for one week, perhaps two, and then it would begin to drop off the rotation. Mom, at some point in her earlier life, had loved classical music; it had been a vehicle of escape and deliverance for her as a conflicted teenager in Philadelphia, infiltrating the intermission crowds at the Academy of Music, walking casually in as the lights went back down and finding a free seat for the second halves of symphony concerts with her great friend Jane Fried. Mom had a decent working knowledge of composers and symphonies, and they meant something deep in her, but (in some moods, to her regret) there wasn’t really space for it in our daily lives.
The stereo equipment was pretty marvelous: Fred Kimball, an actor my mother had worked with in The Balcony at the Circle in the Square in 1960 (and who cowrote Looking for Richard, Al Pacino’s 1996 exegeses on Richard III) built the amp—two parallel-wired metal boxes rife with uncovered tubes. The only controller was a toggle switch—flip it up and the large bulb-type tubes would gently start to glow, and in about a minute it was warmed up enough to play a record. Played well and lasted forever—when, after twenty-five years, the tubes eventually started to burn out, the stereos in stores were all solid state; for a while we could find replacement tubes, and then eventually we could not.
They still used them in Russia, we were told, but that was no help. True fact: Mom spent her life wanting to go to Russia, regarding it as part of her heritage. She never did. There’s a lesson in that.
Anyway. Three speakers, mismatched, a large and a small one in my father’s office, which is where the amp and turntable and records all lived, and another large one in the living room, there for parties, wired through a hole drilled in the wall.
Music. All the time. Show tunes, whatever was on Broadway that minute that was good, plus dips into shows that had lasted in the lineup by dint of shining quality. Dad played music when he was writing—something I have never been able to do—and would stop to change sides and then keep on typing whatever script he was working on.
He took terrible care of his records, my father. Left them in stacks on the floor, plastic scratching on plastic, like a teenager. It was a clue to him, somehow, that he loved them and didn’t take care of them at the same time.
I was having dinner with my mother’s father—Grandpa Joe, the used car man—the night the Beatles played Ed Sullivan. Sunday ritual every two weeks, and had they played on the next week I’d’ve seen them, because Mom and I watched that show every alternate Sunday. Probably a steakhouse: Al and Dick’s on 54th street, perhaps, or something grander. Grandpa drank scotch; Mom and dad drank vodka. I had a Shirley Temple. A TV on at the end of the bar area—Sullivan, but not the Beatles; not yet, or perhaps they’d already played. Then, at the table, out of sight of the television, the Beatles phenomenon was considered, analyzed and rejected by my grandfather. My mother listened, let the vodka help her disagreement stay in check—anything, I now see, to keep the conversational ball drifting gently in the air, making contact with nothing. I remember being disappointed not to see the Beatles, even as I had only a vague understanding of who and what they were. They would be a topic at school the next day, I surmised; everyone else would have seen them, and I would not have, the faux pas looming in the distance like an inevitable storm seen across a dry desert.
I was wrong, though. I most always was, when I saw social disaster ahead of me. And the Beatles were big enough, in the Walt-Whitman-containing-multitudes sense, to include me, sweep me right along with them when the time came.
Sie Liebt Dich, their version of She Loves You sung in German, played loud on the radio in a taxi. The moment did eventually arrive. And when it did, that band had the power to render both my difficult grandfather and my own sense of continual teetering social inadequacy utterly and defiantly meaningless.
Because that’s what you felt when you felt pure joy. That’s why the girls were screaming. That’s what that band could do.