Archived Opinion

Thanks for the gift of music

Thanks for the gift of music

The nicest thing my mother ever did for me was buy me a stereo I didn’t deserve. I was a sort-of-sophomore at N.C. State living in an apartment off campus, and man, I was in the weeds.  

My plans of becoming a lawyer had gone up in smoke in the very first semester the year before, and I became far more interested in my unexpectedly thrilling social life than in such mundane activities as attending class and spending my evenings doing homework, when I could be drinking buckets at Blimpie’s or sitting in the floor of some smoky, dimly-lit dorm room listening to The Doors, taking impromptu classes and learning lessons that were not listed in the curriculum. 

I went to class just enough to scrape by, just enough to get invited back for another year, although I was on academic probation. I resolved to do better and find a more compatible major, maybe Sociology or Psychology or Communications? I had no idea what I’d do in any of those fields, but those considerations were not yet entirely meaningful for me, and I had to major in SOMETHING. 

I moved into an apartment nearly 10 miles from campus with two friends I had made from Owen Hall, and my academic performance went from shaky to shoddy to shocking. I was staying up all night listening to the Velvet Underground, reading books that weren’t on the syllabus in any of my classes, and writing some very bad poetry. I was drinking something called Manischevitz Pina Coconetta, which tasted like fruit cocktail syrup left out in the sun for three days. I was smoking thin cigars and burning sandalwood incense. I bought myself some sunglasses, which I wore all the time. Some of the boys started calling me “shades.” 

I thought I was quite the bohemian. 

I don’t think my roommates were much impressed with the changes in lifestyle my new “image” required from me. One of them was, of all the godawful things one can be in this life, a “morning person” who seemed to love tormenting me every single morning by blasting .38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely” on the stereo at 7 a.m.

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If Vladmir Putin is ever captured and tried for war crimes, he should be forced to listen to “Hold On Loosely” every morning at sunrise at about 90 decibels. He’ll confess to everything. 

I was miserable every morning until my roommates finally relented and left for their early classes, but I was also jealous. More than anything in the world, I wanted a stereo like the one my roommate had, with big JBL speakers and a sweet Pioneer amplifier/tuner. Back in Owen Hall, quite a few guys had similarly impressive stereo systems, flashy integrated amplifiers and Technics turntables on makeshift shelves fashioned from oak planks and cinder blocks. 

I had a cheap little Emerson combo “system” that included a turntable, eight-track player, and speakers all in one compact unit. The whole thing weighed maybe 20 pounds. If I turned it up loud enough to drown out the nightly concerts issuing from down the hall, it would crackle like kindling burning in a fireplace. Even at full volume, it was no match for those majestic Circuit City systems. 

I knew my parents were spending a fortune sending me to college. I kept my remorse for my performance at bay by imagining different redemption narratives in which all of my struggles would somehow be revealed to be a necessary preamble for the stunning turnaround or epiphany yet to come. When the shame got too much on top of me, I’d open another bottle of Pina Coconetta and write a terrible poem about it. 

One afternoon, I took a ride with a friend to Circuit City. He needed a new cartridge for his turntable, and I spent an hour or more looking over the gleaming rows of receivers and loudspeakers, including some I had seen in my friend’s dorm rooms. I dreamed of different combinations I could make. This amp with these speakers and that turntable. Then I did the math. Sigh. 

I couldn’t take it anymore. When I got back to the apartment, I called mom and told her that I knew she wouldn’t understand probably, but I felt my life depended on getting a better stereo system. I told her that I had never needed anything so badly in my life, nor did I expect that I ever would again. I described it to her in exquisite detail, every component. How they looked. How they sounded. How they smelled in the store. 

She asked me how much something like that would cost. I told her it was a lot. There was silence for a few minutes as she processed this and attempted to comprehend why anyone at any age under any set of circumstances would ever need to spend nearly $800 on a stereo. 

An hour later, I was back at Circuit City writing a check for $770 and loading a new turntable, receiver, and some sweet Cerwin Vega speakers in the back of my pick-up.  

This system was my most prized possession for nearly 20 years, seeing me through a parade of dorm rooms, apartments, and houses in different cities and towns. Setting up the stereo was the very first thing I did in every place I have ever lived. It has played countless thousands of hours of every kind of music you can imagine, with the notable exception of “Hold on Loosely.”  

With Mother’s Day fast approaching and the years flashing by the way they do, I just wanted my mom to know that Shades says, “Thanks, thanks for everything, but especially for the gift of music, and of belief in your son.”

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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