Still in Rotation is a guest post feature in which talented writers tell Midlife Mixtape readers about an album they discovered years ago that’s still in heavy rotation, and why it has such staying power.
Last summer I made the genius decision to attend the Book Passage Travel Writer’s Conference, and even if I’ve written barely a word of travel prose since, it was the best introduction I could have asked to a group of super-talented writers consumed by wanderlust. One was Erin Byrne, an award winning writer of essays, poetry, and screenplays, and in this piece I love how she captures the full body takeover that is falling in love with music as an adolescent. This essay is an excerpt from Erin’s story, “Avé Métro (which is in itself an excerpt from her upcoming travel memoir, Wings From Victory.)
by Erin Byrne
My job in this life is to give people spiritual ecstasy through music.
Even before birth, the sounds of Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, and Charlie Parker formed and nurtured my growing ear-for-music, and a record player was playing in the foreground nearly every second throughout my childhood in the 1960s. As a girl, I constantly pestered my mom to play my own records: Hans Christian Andersen, The Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins. When I was ten years old, liberation: My own 45 rpm singles blared from a new record player in my bedroom, and I sang into a hairbrush microphone to the Monkees and a band called Smash.
Then, one day in 1971, when I was twelve, my cool, long-haired, college-aged cousin gave my parents a shocking gift: a record album with a languishing naked black woman on the cover. Another lady, red and nude as well, stood in profile, straddling a drum: Santana’s Abraxas. My dad, a drummer, pianist and jazz purist, blanched and set the album down on the coffee table. I instantly seized it as my own.
I could not believe it. Santana. They’d been at Woodstock.
The family drifted off to the dining room and I was alone in the living room, just me and the giant, wood-paneled stereo console. I turned the knob, removed the black vinyl disc from its cardboard casing, slipped it out of its paper sleeve, and placed it in the elevated position where it wobbled and hovered, suspended above the spinning, plate-sized rubber disc.
The whir of the base circling emptily was interrupted by the click-clatter of the record dropping. The needle arm lifted and moved over above the record and then dropped. There was a fuzzy, anticipatory static followed by the whisper of a stylus scraping the groove…then…two dramatic piano chords, wind whirling through tinkling chimes.
A few more solid chords, tinkles. Notes ascending.
Exotic drumbeats along with untamed, unidentifiable sounds grabbed a place between my throat and my chest, pulled something out and used it to tie my stomach in knots. The electric kite pulsated into my body, then out, but I was still attached to it.
It was as if I danced with my own being, apart yet fused, separate yet one.
The shush between songs sounded for a second. Next came an eerie, mesmerizing melody and the guitar returned. In a weird but really cool way this music was somehow calling to something deep within my skinny, knobby-kneed body. I stood with my hand on the trembling top of the waist-high console and the vibration traveled from my fingertips inward. I felt plugged in somehow: Zzzzt.
My hips swayed with a surge of naughty rebelliousness, a rising bubble of “No!”
A voice: “Got a black magic woman…”
From that moment on, I’d follow Carlos Santana wherever he’d take me.
Where he’d taken me with those two songs, Singing Wind, Crying Beasts and Black Magic Woman was someplace deep inside myself; he’d got his spell on me, baby.
Abraxas caused a riot in my adolescent body, mind and soul, although at the time, I didn’t know what that meant. Now, forty years later, I think it meant I attained spiritual ecstasy through music. Even today when I listen to that album*, my rib-cage vibrates and the soles of my feet tingle.