Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Sleeve Notes: Sleeptalking

Original 1974 
Album Cover
Sleeptalking is a non-fiction short story written for Hannah Griffiths’ now defunct website The Sleevenotes: Writers On Records. It was published there in the summer of 2004. The site took the form of an online anthology where writers used a memory of one particular song as the springboard for a short story of around a thousand words. 
Here is a link to the song I chose: from Keith Hudson's 1974 album 'Pick A Dub'. Below is the piece I wrote. It's all true. And reader, I married him.


It was our first night together, and I was woken from the shallow sleep that comes with a new lover.
   “I’ve got the biggest and the smallest,” he said with a childlike smugness. His eyes were closed tight and his face was immobile in the semi-darkness of my bedroom. Light from the street outside cast a greenish glow across his mouth and I could see a glint of moisture on his slightly parted lips.
   I’d never had a sleep-talker before. I wondered if it was like those hypnosis shows on TV, so I asked, “the biggest and the smallest what?”
   The reply came without hesitation, “Record collection. My record collection is the biggest and the smallest,” he said and then rolled over, presenting his back to me. I gazed at it wondering who this man was that I seemed to be falling in love with.
   The next morning when I questioned him about what he meant exactly, his face blanched with embarrassment. He had no recollection of having exchanged words with me in the night. I told a few friends about our nocturnal conversation and we laughed at the obviousness behind the size of a man’s vinyl collection and the measure of his virility.
   The next time we met was at his flat. He had offered to throw some food together, which was his way of inviting me over for dinner without actually using those words. I arrived nervous and expectant, and the first thing I noticed was the wall of vinyl.
Choose a record, he said casually, while I open the wine.”
   ‘Shit,’ I thought. ‘I’m a small town girl from Ottawa, Canada, and here I am being asked to choose music by someone from London, England’. This particular June evening was hot, stiflingly hot, and Reggae sprung to mind. But then I panicked. Suddenly all the songs I ever liked and all the albums I had loved in my life abandoned me. Reason, too, abandoned me. I felt this was the most important moment of my life. One of those rare defining moments that I would look back on later. I could smell my sweat over the garlic being fried next door.
   I wondered whether to put something on that had changed my life when I heard it for the first time — Nina Simone singing House of the Rising Sun, or Jimi doing his version of All along the Watchtower, or Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Or should I try and second guess him? But this was only the third time I’d ever met the guy. I didn’t even know his last name, let alone his favourite songs. I was bound to choose the one album an ex-girlfriend had given him which he kept for sentimental reasons but didn’t really like.
   He came in with a glass of wine. “I won’t be a second, I’m just soaking some mushrooms.” Maybe he was feeling a similar kind of tension around our supper ingredients.
   “No problem,” I replied, adding, “You’ve got a lot of records.”
   “Yeah, I know, but not as many as I’d like. You can never have enough.” There you had it: the biggest and the smallest.
   Oh, hell.’ I was now getting angry. ‘Go with the moment,’ I told myself. ‘It’s a hot June evening, you’re falling in love, you’re having mushrooms soaked for you. Stop trying so hard, just choose something, Goddam it. Anything!’
   My hand reached for the ‘H’ section (yes, of course it was alphabetical) and pulled out the record wedged between Freddie Hubbard and Mississipi John Hurt. I slipped it out of its sleeve. The opening notes of Augustus Pablo’s melodica rang out and I knew from those first five chords that I had done the right thing.
   Jason popped his head ‘round from the kitchen, “Good move.”
   Keith Hudson wasn’t an obvious choice. I could have gone for Tubby. That would have been just as summery, sexy and confident. Or Lee Perry. That would have been a touch more playful. But no, Keith Hudson was the man for the job: subtle, strong, exactly right. Those lilting opening sounds on Pick-a-Dub defy anyone not to be in love. The elegant minimalism leads you on until you just can’t take it anymore and then the drums and the bass take over with a soulful passion. For several moments I stood suspended in the loosely contained chaos of pure musical joy.
   Jason entered the room and looked at me. “I’ve put the rice on. Won’t be long til’ we eat.” He sounded distracted. I knew he knew what I was feeling.
   “Great.” I wasn’t taking in what he was saying. Our real conversation was running parallel to our words.
   “So you like Reggae?”
   I nodded. We fell silent and listened.
   I had noticed the way people reacted to music in London. In Ottawa it was the background to other things. Here it was an activity. It defined you. It defined you so much that every time I opened my mouth and some smart ass guessed I wasn’t American, they would then come out with, “I guess you like Bryan Adams.” Luckily there were plenty of non-smart asses who would hear my accent and mumble something about Neil Young, which at least went somewhere towards making me feel OK about being from the most boring country on earth.
   Sitting on cushions on the floor we eventually got round to eating. We ran out of booze at about eleven and fuelled the rest of the night with music until the sun came up. We dozed for an hour or two until I dragged myself off to work, he to a wedding.
   As I sit and write eight years on, I now live with Jason. In idle moments I sometimes wonder what life would be like if I had chosen Blondie or Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles — or any number of musicians I adore — in that moment on that hot summer night. But fate guided my hand. The fate of two people, young, letting go, just seeing what happens.

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