My first job was at a Christmas shop in our little village in rural Western New York. I was 14, a curious bookish kid who had an easier time talking to adults than to other kids but never quite mastered the art of retail. I was the sole employee other than the owner. At the time, federal minimum wage was $4.25/hour. Every Saturday I’d come in and collect my pay for the previous weekend: $68 for two days. My parents made me keep my first ‘paycheck,’ $34 cash, in an envelope in my little desk. I did, though I’ve since lost it. They also made me promise not to spend any of my earnings until I’d earned $1,000, at which point I was encouraged to drop $100 on something wonderful: my first CD player, a Sony CDP-100 if memory serves, which still worked perfectly, fifteen years later.
The store was smaller than the coffee shop where I’m writing this now. In the back was a little closet where the stereo was kept. I worked there all year long, and in summer there was little or no business. At such times I was permitted to close an hour early. Or I could hang in there and read — one weekend I read an entire Dragonlance trilogy, in one collected volume, which we’d bought at Waldenbooks that week.
The music choices included: a wobbling tower of indistinguishable Christmas CDs, a CD full of swingin’ renditions of holiday classics, several New Age collections from Narada Records (Michael Arkenstone was a favourite), and two Enya albums: Watermark and Shepherd Moons.
I can even now sing all of both these albums, sounding out the Gaelic lyrics as I go. You can’t be objective about music that has become part of your body.
‘Orinoco Flow’ has just begun playing.
I am fourteen years old; it’s 4:30pm, nearly closing time, and after a reasonably busy day the sun is setting on Monroe Street. Watermark has been playing on repeat for seven and a half hours.
What I want to tell you is that this music is good or bad, that it has ‘aesthetic’ qualities, that it can be compared somehow to other music — not only ‘New Age’ synthesizers-and-Buddhism stuff but pop of other sorts. I want to be able to say something about ‘Orinoco Flow,’ which is named after the studio where it was made, includes shoutouts to its recording engineers, and ends with a minor-chord non sequitur, all of which suggest that something other than po-faced Druidic cashing-in is going on. I would love to be able to talk about Enya’s remarkable voice, her dynamic command, the weird syncopated almost Zeppelin-esque hop in her midtempo (midtempo is Enya’s ‘uptempo’) vocal melodies.
But I’m fourteen years old, it’s nearly closing time, this is my first job, she just rhymed ‘Bali’ and ‘Kali’ accenting the second syllable of each, and it will be nearly four years before a Canadian girl kisses me for the very first time in the front seat of my Chevy Blazer.
The world of this music is as completely self-contained, as madly devoted to a private vision, as that of Trout Mask Replica or Sextant or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Like those albums, each in its different way, it is beautiful and difficult music. It takes me far away from myself and into another. I don’t much care whether you like it. I don’t know if I like it, or if I would, were such a chance available to me.
The Canadian girl’s name was Jamie. She wore baggy pants and was, I was reliably informed, a useless stoner. She smiled at a joke she wouldn’t share and she smelled of oils and nighttime and tasted like lip balm. We devoured each other for a moment, which passed.
I taped both of the Enya CDs at the Christmas store and played the tape until it broke in the ancient radio of that same Chevy Blazer. The truck’s name was ‘Big Blue.’ It got seven miles to the gallon; we paid $1 for it. I crashed Big Blue after falling asleep while driving home one night on Route 219.
The Christmas store’s name was ‘Evergreen.’ It closed years and years ago, as the owner must have known it would. It’s not there anymore, but I’m there now.