LP: Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits
2009 Island Records 4228424691
Favorite Track: 16 Shells From a 30-6
I can imagine the writing room in Hollywood right now: four or five guys, young, business casual, three with beards, one bald but wearing a basketball cap, sipping on their morning coffee and reading the morning paper together. The first guy says, “Faux-Indie romantic comedies with quirky, pansexual characters are so epic right now.” The second guy leans over and adds, “If the character is apathetic toward love and the tone is dark and ironic.” “Coffeehouse triangle?” the bald guy asks and sneezes a line of snot into his mocca, “Or maybe they meet at a funeral. I once had s–” but the fourth guy interrupts, “Do you think this news story is true? About vinyl record sales going up?” First guy’s face mimics a state of apoplexy, “Larry, you are genius! Two lonely outsiders, typical freaks wearing those second hand shirts that are either too large on the ladies or too small for the men, accidentally run into each other at a record store after snorting derisively at other customers in Rush T-shirts or holding Lady Gaga CDs. They are the only ones in the vinyl section. They eye each other. Cue in the music. Something old, but still hip,” meanwhile he pisses himself a little as he peels the styrofoam from his coffee cup into strips. The second guy shouts, “The Smiths! It’s got to be the Smiths! Sad, hip, loner rock, moody, but melodic, familiar, acceptable.” Fourth guy, “The Smiths is perfect. These freaks, we need two leads in their early 20’s. Strikingly beautiful. Embarrassingly beautiful. I want Brigitte Bardot to shield her face with her coat lapels. We can make them ugly in the first act by making them wear glasses.” The third guy is holding back his erection with baseball statistics and avoiding thinking about his investments. He says, “Okay, let me re-cap. Two mega hotties disguised as everyday disillusioned young adults meet and fall in love at a record store. Their anti-marketing attitudes, cool sensibilities toward intelligent or, at least, thoughtful art and music, and, of course, graphic sexual encounters in fashionable yet paramount locations, say Times Square during New Years, lasts for a good six, seven months until they realize they are just selfish individuals who are really in love with themselves and their own taste in culture.” The first guy smiles, “Can one of them be black?” Third guy, button on his trousers about to erupt, “Better make the female Asian. Our market research shows higher male demographics if the lady is Asian. We’ll have to make a secondary character Middle Eastern or South African.” “How do you say fuck in Arabic?” asks the bald guy. All laugh while the bald guy blows a steady green line into mocca then drinks it.
Obviously, that is parody. I have to entertain the idea that people out there in the real world meet somebody at record shops. Maybe they fall in love at first sight, maybe it happens weeks later. Fairy tales happen in the real world although they usually do not happen as quickly and cleanly as they do in the stories. Life and love are long, more nuanced, and messy. It is never my intention to meet a girl while record shopping–I am, after all, searching for music. But, as I think of all the frequent parts of a city I inhabit, a record store probably is the best place for me to meet someone with similar interests. And for all the years I have been at this hobby, it has never happened. Not even close. Not even a smile back.
Except for that one time.
My own Hollywood romantic comedy began as they usually do: I was alone in the basement looking at records. I found a decent score although, at the moment, I cannot remember what it was. I was digging deep, minding my own business as I racked my brain for artists I haven’t searched for in a while. I never heard her descend the squeaky wooden stairs. When I saw her, thankfully, the Smiths were not playing over the speakers. To my amusement, I will pretend it was Freak-a-holic by the Egyptian Lover. She was looking at me in mock amusement. I worried that my hair was sticking straight up or that a roommate had drawn something untoward on my face in permanent marker. Instead, she recognized me from Ohio University. We made small talk as we flipped through crate after crate. She tried to get me to buy a Bruce Springsteen album. She asked me where was a good place to eat lunch and I mentioned Melt then offered to join her for lunch, if she didn’t mind. She didn’t.
You couldn’t have written a better first act. She was pretty, raven-hair long over her checkered coat, teeth white like the Chesire Cat’s. I was probably wearing dress pants, a ragged button-up (also from my Ohio University days) underneath a blue velor sweater, and a pair of running shoes. We didn’t pry into our private lives, but held a natural, care-free conversation. The warm delicious anticipation of Melt’s veggie cheesesteak sandwich watered my mouth. My nose could smell the spicy soy aroma. She even smiled more, probably hungry like me. We were standing shoulder to shoulder.
Then I pulled out Tom Wait’s Swordfishtrombones from behind a bunch of Pete Townshed records. She wrinkled her nose and said, “You have record store luck like my boyfriend. He always gets to find the good ones.”
Now cue the Smiths. Or a thousand self-pitying violins. Or put me in some iron armor and helmet belting operatic aria at the angry gods represented by tubas and percussion. Maybe Tom and I could have a whiskey in some dirty booth, the jukebox loudly playing fifties rock, stale cigarette smoke clouding the air.
I jest. I wasn’t heartbroken. Slightly annoyed at losing the cute little romantic, little insane story I could have told in the future. But, as I said early, fairy tales happen in the real world although they usually do not happen as quickly and cleanly as they do in the stories. Life and love are long, more nuanced, and messy. I may be the author of my own story, but I certainly cannot write any other character.
We paid for our records, walked over to Melt, and had a wonderful meal. She was interesting, shrewd, and fairly funny. I was probably a tad boring. Reticence is my middle name. After we ate, we walked to her car and she asked me where other record stores could be found. I told her of a few and wished her good luck. Then I walked the two miles home over the bridge spanning the aqueduct. When I got home, I put on Tom Waits. I had wanted to give it to her for some inexplicable reason. I didn’t think it would make her thing any different of me; maybe it was a generous impulse. While I listened to the record, I wondered why I don’t meet more people at the record store. Most of it has to do that the only time I have to go falls in the middle of the afternoon during the work week. Everyone else is at their desks or cubicles.
But there is always next time, right? After all, why else do we do what we do? You never know what to expect when you walk in the door.