This is my brain on records (and quite possibly the cerebral cortex of a few of you out there who also obsess about such things):
I couldn’t stand Mason Ruffner giving me the cold shoulder any longer. There he was, every time I sifted through the “R” section in the bins of my favorite used-record store (yes, they still do exist), on the lookout for vintage titles by the Replacements, Raspberries, Remains, and yes, maybe even a mis-filed Rolling Stones album. (The Stones had their own section, but it wasn’t unheard of for some unscrupulous customer – actually, I like the word ‘strategic’ a bit better – to purposely misplace a desired album they either didn’t have the money to buy at the moment, were undecided about, or wanted to hold off on while they checked their inventory).
I always inevitably came upon Ruffner’s LP, filed at the back of the “R”’s with his outdated rockabilly pompadour, scarf and 80’s leather jacket, with just a hint of sepia to the picture, subtly suggesting the guitar-slinger’s old-school leanings and cred. The title of the LP looked as if it had been scrawled in dripping red lettering, which was obviously the point when you called your album “Gypsy Blood.” Not only was I acquainted with the album, this was the very record I had owned for more than 25 years.
Anybody who knows me could easily tell I had owned the thing. Even after all those years since I had bought it back in 1987 — right after Rolling Stone magazine compared Mason’s middle-of-the-road bar band blues-rock to fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan’s six-string majesty (wrong!) — the album was still pretty close to mint. It had a clean, pristine cover, the inner sleeve was intact and un-torn, and the vinyl — like the cover — was still glossy and barely played (there was a reason for this, which I’ll get to in a moment). You know how automobiles have that new car smell? Well, the same can be said for a record housed in cardboard and freshly cracked open from its cellophane seal. I lived for that smell.
I had spun “Gypsy Blood” no more than a few times. The first couple of occasions was when I bought it and played it in my dilapidated, drop-ceilinged, roommate-stuffed off-campus apartment in Sunderland, Massachusetts. Oh yeah, my abode back then was located in prime real estate. Just a quick traipse through the overgrown weeds, tossed empties, and convenience store dumpsters that sat across a two-lane blacktop from “Seven O’s,” an equally dilapidated shot-and-beer dive bar I visited when I wanted to get away from the drop ceilings and the roommates. This structure of stale smoke and bad lighting, I told myself, was a roadhouse of infinite life-affirming possibilities. Hearing Ruffner’s whiskey-soaked bar band shuffles, even just once or twice, primed and prepared me sufficiently for whatever nocturnal encounters awaited.
I also played “Gypsy Blood” a time or two a couple of years later, when I lived in — surprise! — a dilapidated, depressing house a dozen or so miles away in Easthampton, Massachusetts. (The first town I was assigned to cover professionally as a daily newspaper reporter; my beat was crime and schools, which were occasionally the same thing).
During those heady, halcyon days, I rented a room in a house inhabited by a chain-smoking, Gallo-swilling roommate named Bertha (names have been changed to protect the guilty). Bertha was a hearty gal of solid townie stock who frequently presided over kitchen dinette table debriefings of “People” magazine’s hottest hunks, frequently joined by her grape-loving girlfriends doused in Liz Taylor’s “White Diamonds” perfume and drenched in oceans of acid-washed jeans and waves of feathered hairdos that strongly suggested they were time travelers who had been transported to that kitchen from 1979. That dreary domicile of celebrity lust and not-so-quiet desperation was, it turned out, also situated a few mere doors down from a dank bar that looked as if had employed the same crack architectural team that had designed the illustrious “Seven O’s”).
Anyway, I digress (but when don’t I?). I remember recusing myself one afternoon from Bertha’s Pall Mall-sucked and Riunite-soaked round table and escaping to the sanctuary of my room. There, I did what I always did: flipped through my LPs to mentally drown out the cackles and coughs emanating from that kitchen of estrogen and tar. Rooting around for inspiration and something to play, I eventually hit upon “Gypsy Blood.”
Given my current entertainment options, I wondered whether I hadn’t given old Mason a fair enough shot after all. I pulled him from the pile and carefully leaned his visage against the favorite low coffee table I had inherited from my parents’ home when I moved to this clapboard paradise. Perhaps on a subconscious level, I hoped that the nostalgic feeling and the fond family associations I had for that table, on which I had spent countless childhood hours drawing, plotting, writing, and even occasionally doing a bit of homework, would rub off. Who knows? Maybe I’d gain a similar affection for Ruffner and his homespun songs.
I freed the black wax from its inner sleeve. It seemed to breathe with freedom and relief as I put it on the turntable for a spin. (Or maybe that was just me). The tonearm and needle went down. The big, broad chords came up. So did the gruff “whiskey-soaked” (I think that was in the review) voice, sort of a rough and tumble cross between John Hiatt and ’70s Dylan (not a bad thing). There were lots of bluesy guitar solos. I’m sure many of them were technically impressive. But alas, they just didn’t strike a nerve. My heart and spirit sank a little. I was kind of disappointed for both of us.
After the second side ended, I quietly lifted it from the spindle of my turntable and placed it back among the “R’’s of my collection. And there it sat for years, through something like six moves across apartments and states – Massachusetts to New Jersey to South Carolina and then back to Massachusetts – tucked in among its brethren in bins and boxes, stored in crates and closets and shelves.
In retrospect, I think Ruffner represented a particular era of my musical tastes and listening habits: On the one hand, I was emotionally wide open and willing to take chances on a wide array of artists I had never heard played on mainstream radio. (Actually, that was a big plus; there’s nothing quite like the thrill of discovery). But I was also attuned and faithful to the kind of gritty, traditionalist (translation: old-fashioned) rock & roll I had always had an affinity for. I hungrily and earnestly took the recommending cues of the rock critics I read diligently, and eagerly forked over a good chunk of my $287 weekly paycheck as a cub reporter patrolling the crime and education beats on the mean streets of Easthampton.
As the years rolled by, my tastes widened but also became more precise, refined, and discerning (at least that’s what I’d like to think). I could hear, feel, and intuit what was inspired music and what wasn’t. Ruffner’s time – if it had ever actually existed in the first place – had, for me, long ago waned and dissipated despite my honest efforts to resuscitate whatever gypsy lifeblood and wanderlust fantasies resided in both that record and me.
I wasn’t in the habit of selling my records – in truth, I’d previously been a bit haunted by the couple of times I felt forced to pawn a stack of old (and sometimes rare) records for weekend beer money in college, and then spent years on the lookout trying to get them back. After all, my gig covering high school sports for the local weekly paper wasn’t going to foot the tab for that keg by itself. But now, a few thousand records in — and available floor space rapidly and mysteriously vanishing — I thought I’d thin the herd of my expanding LP library and maybe get some credit at the record store. So I could, uh, buy more records. So the big question became: What, and who, could I live without hearing ever again (melodramatic, I know, but remember this was before eBay or Spotify).
While flipping through the denizens of my collection – reluctantly and sheepishly, like a father determining which child he’ll have to send off into the dark woods with a flashlight and a loaf of bread – I came across Mason peering out, his sepia-tone serious demeanor frozen in time, as if preserved in amber. With the same fast, firm force with which you yank a Band-Aid, so the sting only lasts a second, I pulled Ruffner from the ranks.
Maybe Mason could make someone happy. Maybe someone was looking for precisely this elusive and – I’m guessing – out of print album. I know that feeling. It’s what happens when there’s something you’ve dreamed of or searched for. And then suddenly you discover it in a secret, surprise moment that is yours and yours alone. Your pulse and heart rate quicken, you feel flustered like the girl of your dreams just said “yes,” and there’s a celebratory Fourth of July fireworks exploding just for you in the grateful sky of your mind. So what if the people indifferently flipping through the stacks around you are oblivious to the treasure they’ve missed and you’ve just discovered? All the better!
So, feeling proud of myself for actually putting together a pile of potentials to trade for credit, I handed Record Store Reed what seemed to me a respectably healthy stack of records. Which should have proven once and for all (to anybody who suspected otherwise) that I wasn’t just some lunatic collector or, worse, one of the hoarders that get profiled on cable. No, far from it. I was a perfectly rational person with a good, grounded perspective on things.
Handoff accomplished, I quickly backed away into the recesses of the room and made my way to the shelves of “new arrivals” that had come in, themselves newly orphaned specimens who would soon be separated from one another. I also quickly turned to these new distractions because – as with that Band-Aid or a penicillin shot of Jagermeister– speed equaled less pain.
What I didn’t count on, though, was that unlike the rare British pressings of my stack of Cure and Charlatans EPs or some of the vintage Hendrix albums in triplicate I had hoar –er, amassed over the years, Mason Ruffner just did not have that kind of consumer star-power or collectors’ cache. But perhaps as a courtesy to a loyal, longtime customer like me, Reed took him in with the others.
But unlike the other titles, which were quickly snapped up and gone the next time I came into the shop, Mason continued to sit there and wait patiently to be brought home, like the awkward kid waiting to be picked for dodge ball at recess. Scores of other records, and not just mine, came and went. Mason remained, alas, un-chosen on the vast audio playground of the record store. Did that make me and all the other crate diggers the uncaring, insensitive souls?
Even though he was looking away on that LP cover, his eyes elsewhere, gazing off into the distance – maybe scoping out a hot chick, a rare guitar, or maybe a lucrative sideman gig with Dylan (which he did score a few years after “Gypsy Blood,” playing on Bob’s “Oh Mercy” record) – I felt as if he was somehow staring (or glaring) back at me. Adding injury to insult, the going price on Mason’s art was the grand sum of one dollar, a sad state of affairs for the guitar slinger once compared to Stevie Ray.
Despite this great bargain, surely, for somebody, weeks and months went by and there were no takers. C’mon people! Mason was ready to shed some “Gypsy Blood” and make his fingers bleed crimson for you on your stereo. Just look at him, for crying out loud! The dude meant business, his guitar slung low, in the middle of a killer riff or a squealing solo. Geez, for a measly buck, you’d think somebody would take a chance. But nobody did. I’d quickly rifle past him and make a mental note. Still here, I thought with a deflated sigh.
This past week, I found myself in the R’s again. There he was, sullenly, or maybe embarrassingly, averting my eyes now. He had clearly given up on that sideman gig with Costello, and he was too old for the young, hot chicks (wait, I was talking about him, right?).
I simply couldn’t bear the torture – his and mine – any longer. Suddenly, I plucked the LP swiftly from its holding place. One dollar was a damn small price to pay to ease the nagging feeling and pang of guilt that I had violated some unwritten covenant between my albums, between Mason and me. I had not just sold off the record, I reckoned, but the guy too. And in doing so, had in a sense sold off my memories for a paltry sum. Even when an album is bad – and “Gypsy Blood” wasn’t at all bad, it just wasn’t memorable – the fact that you bought it during a specific time in your life, with high hopes and great expectations or even just modest anticipation, surely means something. Surely a buck. Surely my memory, and that record, was worth a buck.
But mostly, I just didn’t want to think about it anymore. I was finally finished with having it run through my brain like an OCD-afflicted hamster on an endless wheel of looped logic about what it would mean to buy back an album I didn’t really want and had sold in the first place. But maybe agonizing over buying the thing back meant I really did want it. It was part of my record collection and my history (and really, aren’t they the same thing?). Sigh. There I went again. Enough! No more wired hamsters! I carried it to the front counter, buried in a stack of some other stuff that I didn’t really need. Was I trying to hide “Gypsy Blood” like some public purchase of condoms amid the endless rolls of lifesavers and breath mints and dental floss at the drugstore? Maybe, but I was past caring about figuring out my psychological and emotional motivations. (Sort of).
Weirdly, I hoped Reed didn’t remember me selling “Gypsy Blood” to him many months before. Of course he didn’t remember – or just didn’t care one way or the other (he’s not insane, after all, like some people I know). So then why did I feel the weird need to blurt out that I sold him that very record and make a flippant joke about the whole thing? Was it out of some perverse sense of duty to set the record straight or document the sequence of events (as I guess I’m doing here now)? Was it about cleansing thyself by coming clean?
Whatever it was, I had blown my own cover. Reed mustered a faint smile to indulge me, the kind of gesture you make to somebody when you have the feeling something tiny and trivial and nonsensical is important to them. And even though you don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, you’ve made the mental calculation that smiling is probably your safest bet to stay alive.
After paying I walked out with Mason tucked under my arm. And just like that, a burden had been instantly lifted from my weary shoulders. An internal debate had been resolved, a soul-sucking dilemma swept away. I felt as if I was welcoming Ruffner and his record back into the fold from the dark, dusty wilderness. I knew I would be giving him a better home than that musty used record store, because it would be the home he had known for a quarter century. It wasn’t lost on me that Mason had lived with me longer than all of the houses and apartments and states I had moved to and from all through my twenties, thirties, and now forties. Hell, he knew me longer than my wife did. And this year we celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary. I just hoped Ruffner could find it in his vinyl heart to forgive me.
Mason’s now leaning on a few of his friends braced against a wall in my room, ready to be transitioned back to his old life in the shelves, where he’ll be reunited with his more critically acclaimed buddies the Ramones and the Replacements. And no, I haven’t brought myself to make Ruffner’s fingers bleed gypsy blood on my stereo yet. That wasn’t really the point in bringing him home, anyway.
Truth be told, I don’t really believe my opinion on the LP will change dramatically. The music itself might have disappointed me, but the decision to have it, and Mason, back in my house again won’t. In fact, it was probably the best and most sensible thing I’ve done in a long time. Come to think of it, it’s likely the best buck I ever spent. It bought me peace of mind, after all. And when’s the last time a buck bought that?
The video, title track, and first single from Mason’s “Gypsy Blood” (where would ’80’s vids be without the boss cars, hot guitars, and even hotter girls?): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dafJ9ZxKjBo&list=RDdafJ9ZxKjBo
My former roommate Bertha’s favorite mid-afternoon beverage: https://search.yahoo.com/search;_ylt=AwrBT7vQitFT2GEAGAVXNyoA;_ylc=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-?gprid=3DhYe4H.QJ6Xft_wUmAGrA&pvid=s4ei3zk4LjH.IESNTYn9jgANMjQuNgAAAAAcaM7y&p=riunite+on+ice+that%27s+nice&fr2=sa-gp&fr=mcsaoffblock&type=A001US0