(more memories from A Life in Vinyl)
One of the ways that I earned money to save up for my first stereo was by babysitting for a family that lived just across the road on a cul-de-sac near the local golf course. Mr Burke was the heir and owner of the local lumberyard, so he was considered rather well-to-do by our neighborhoods standards. His wife, Katherine, was from well-heeled Boston stock, and she brought with her a level of sophistication and refinement that was rare in Western Colorado.
They had two boys, John L. and Nelson, who were about three and five at the time I started babysitting for them. The Burke’s were very active socially, so at least once a month I would be put in charge of the boys and the household until the wee hours of the night when they would return home abuzz from a dinner party or some other occasion. Once in a while they would host a huge party, and I would be called into service minding the boys and bussing the tables.
My family were strictly meat-and-potatoes type of cooks, the basic brands and staples of beans-and-cornbread were a holdover from my Dad’s upbringing as a poverty stricken ranch hand. During our ranch days, and for several years after, it was an annual ritual to select a steer and convert him into a side of beef in our freezer which would last an entire year. Fancy foods and gourmet dining were things that I had never encountered.
So it was with great interest that I explored and enjoyed the treasures to be found in the cabinets and refrigerator of the Burke’s. Katherine was used to the high life of Boston, and thought nothing of spending vast amounts on shipping things in from the Dean and Deluca gourmet foods catalog or airfreighting in 100 fresh oysters for a party.
Rare delights such as fig paste, Grey Poupon mustard, or caviar were all new to me so preparing snacks or dinner for the kids was always an adventure. I would marvel at the flavors while being astonished by the price tags on some of the small bottles and packages imported from distant countries.
The Burke’s also kept a lavishly well-stocked bar and wine rack in the kitchen, this was certainly a contributor to my earliest less-than-healthy habits. By the time I was in my mid-teens I was dabbling in all forms of inebriation, both licit and illicit. Needless to say, I was on hand as often as possible for the Burke’s every event.
Many important milestones in my early adolescent life happened at the Burke’s, and central to it all was their hi-fi system complete with large built-in speakers placed throughout the house. Above the television on a shelf in the family room was an amplifier and quality turntable, along with a decent sized collection of records.
I have a hard time recalling any of the other records in her collection, because one particular album stood out so far beyond all the others. A Night at the Opera by Queen is a legendary record that needs little introduction given it’s historical context, (and blockbuster film release), but at the time, when it was still quite current in the 70’s rock milieu it was truly mind-blowing.
The minute they would leave the house, I’d drop the needle on Death on Two Legs. Of all the concept albums of the era that were conceived as works of art meant to be experienced in sequence from the start of side one to the end of side two, A Night at the Opera looms larger than most.
Few albums tested the limits of dynamic range available on a vinyl record the way that A Night at the Opera did. From the quietest lilting ballad sections to the insanely hard rocking screeching solo guitar passages, this album was a tour-de-force of emotion and energy like no other. With textures and aesthetics ranging from the cute little ditty of Seaside Rendezvous to the epic orchestral/heavy metal mashup of Bohemian Rhapsody, this record covered more ground and opened more musical doors than nearly any other one single piece of vinyl that I know of.
So for all my memories of my years with the Burke’s, the feeling of those screeching guitars and soaring vocals are what colors my experience and remain emblazoned upon my consciousness. Once again, it was the music of the moment that made a marker of meaning on my life. Having recently obtained a fresh copy of A Night at the Opera, it takes me right back to those formative times when my mind was being expanded and the doors of debauchery were being opened.
To be continued…..
(present-day addendum: Last night I had the duty of driving my 13-yr-old daughter and best friend to a supposedly covid-safe, vaccination-records-and-masks-required, live concert in Oakland of a group called The Destroy Boys, their first real live unsupervised show. Aside from the cell phones and the memes, I’m happy to report that not much has changed. Rock and Roll seems here to stay.)
Director of the Dance First Association
Publisher of Conscious Dancer Magazine