How BMG’s Music Club Made Me a Better Reader and Broke My Mother’s Heart

The CD mail-order catalog helped me find myself and connections I longed for

The BMG music logo was the thing that first drew me to the four-by-five card embedded into the spine of a Rolling Stone magazine. Album titles and the occasional colored pop-out images of recording artists like Sting and Chris Isaac littered the two-page spread. And there at the bottom, surrounded by blank space and perched above the music club return address, a dog was looking curiously down the horn of a phonograph with its head cocked. The image resonated with me.

I fell for music the summer after my freshman year of high school. Up until then, I spent my free time devouring stories. A year-round latchkey kid, I read a regular rotation of Louis Sachar, Beverly Cleary, and Judy Blume. The pages of Tiger Eyes and Island of the Blue Dolphins had been fingered so many times, their corners were sheer as onion skins. My first year of high school English had left me enamored of American literature: A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Grapes of Wrath. Borrowing copies from the library, I read them again that July along with my grandmother’s Danielle Steele novels and a Stephen King/Richard Bachman catalogue I inherited from my aunt. Before I’d finished working my way through a long bookshelf of self-help books in my mother’s bedroom though, television revealed for me a new kind of story obsession. Previously, songs were something I heard by accident on the car radio or as a soft background soundtrack at Kmart. But that summer, MTV and VH1 shocked me into a fascination with music videos. Packed with the same kind of storytelling I lived for, they unfolded in a fraction of the time. Songs, even those I’d been listening passively to for years, were also for the devouring.

Following my parents’ catastrophic undoing, I spent a tremendous amount of time by myself while my mother worked full time and cleaned houses on the side for extra money. My school friends seemed to live in another dimension filled with summer camps, vacations, and long days at their neighborhood swim clubs. I mostly spent my time worried about my mother. For a long time, I tried hard to figure out how I fit into everything: my family, high school, myself. I was petrified of peers discovering my strange universe: how even at fifteen, I still built television sitcoms sets out of Legos and spent most all my time swirling inside my imagination. I could see myself in stories, but I could also see the self I wanted to be. Stories gave me company, but they also gave me access to a different reality.

Dwarfed by our giant hand-me-down Panasonic console television, I observed how music videos broke the rules of sitcoms, soap operas, and novels, but were still driven by what I loved most: busted-up scraps of language. I could take the narrative the video offered or I could construct my own. I could love the entire composition or just a single line that pinched my insides. Music videos showed me the narrative potential of songs.

I could take the narrative the video offered or I could construct my own. I could love the entire composition or just a single line that pinched my insides. Music videos showed me the narrative potential of songs.

The problem was that I couldn’t return to videos over and over like I did books. I was at the mercy of someone else’s choosing, an orchestrated mix-tape I had no autonomy inside of. Maybe it would be the boys and mall escalators, Tom Petty’s free falling skateboarders dropping into swimming pools like a pair of cherries pitching themselves from a tree, or Sinead O’Connor’s shorn head and sad eyes, a cantaloupe tear rolling down her cheek in “Nothing Compares 2 U.” But it might also be a block of hair bands, Garbage, or Supergrass. The list of the songs I coveted grew by the day, and that BMG dog seemed to peer down the phonograph’s hole at a deep fulfillment. Owning the songs I saw on TV meant I could revisit the same stories over and over the way I read my books on loop. Albums would give me access to new video-less songs by the same artists.

The offer seemed simple enough: pay for one compact disc and enjoy three more at no additional cost. I fingered the ecru cardstock and considered my lack of a regular allowance, how quickly I spent birthday money on books. I knew my mother wouldn’t approve — she’d repeatedly lectured my sister and me on the dangers of credit card debt and mail scams, and I knew intimately the scrupulousness with which she had to manage finances. The year before, I had given up youth basketball after sitting for an afternoon rolling change from her closet jar into bank coin rolls to pay the league fees on my second season. Those spare quarters and dimes usually meant extras like donuts on Sundays, movie rentals at Blockbuster, licorice whips before matinees. When the jar came up empty before we’d even considered the cost of uniforms or team pictures, it became clear I wouldn’t be playing basketball after all.

Owning the songs I saw on the screen meant I could revisit the same stories over and over the way I read my books on loop.

A music club was a luxury, but still, I tried reasoning with myself: surely I could dredge up the $14.95 from somewhere. I was good at solving problems. I carefully tore the perforated edges of the card away from the page, checked the “pop/soft rock” preference box, and made my first initial selections from the small catalogue of albums:

1) Prince’s The Hits 1: Singing from a plastic tube in the “7’s” video, Prince and his belly dancer circled one another with swords, blindfolds, doves. The video’s story of revenge was alluring and mysterious, but in the foreground, the electric currents shooting through his body seduced me. There was nothing I wanted more than unbound cosmic love.

The Artist Formerly Known As

2) Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues: The visages on houses and suspended on road surface markings in “Burning Down the House” reminded me of Twin Peaks, a show my mother loved. Might I get what I was after? All I was doing those days was holding tight. The album promised to incinerate the past.

3) Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?: The light patterns in the “Champagne Supernova” video were a Spirograph; the lava lamps and colors smeared together like wet paint. The spinning camera angles hypnotized me. Liam Gallagher lay on a bed begging the same question I was asking myself: where was I? He promised I could find him.

4) Jimi Hendrix’s The Ultimate Experience: An indulgence. I had never seen a Jimi Hendrix video before, though I recognized his face from the record covers in my former childhood bedroom. He was a sad burned-out light. I was drawn to that sorrow.

Liam Gallagher lay on a bed begging the same question I was asking myself: where was I? He promised I could find him.

Those days my father appeared a few times a month, mostly for meals of greasy chicken chow mein or triangles of pepperoni pizza. My sister and I would sit opposite him in the restaurant booth while he read the Penny Saver. In his house — in the room that had been mine ten years before my mother left with us — my mice village wallpaper had been painted over and covered by floor-to-ceiling record shelving, the edges of albums aligned in the same way my treasured books were: strips of color, thin rectangles of worn-down spines. In place of my four-poster bed were bongos and guitars, and a drum kit sat on the nut-brown carpet where I had once played Barbies. An American flag and three purple hearts from my father’s tour in Vietnam hung in a shadow box frame where a mouse baker had sold sleeves of baguettes from a wheelbarrow to other mouse chefs. I didn’t go into the room much in the years that followed, but I knew that music was everywhere where I had once been.

In the cab of his Chevy step-side, he turned the knob of the radio dial as far as it would go. ZZ Top and the Rolling Stones were favorites, but anything that clanged or smashed together did the job. In the ten years since the divorce, my father’s was the story I couldn’t figure out despite my hours studying the narratives of sitcoms, daytime television, and novels. What was going on in there? Where was he when the volume was up so loud? The BMG music club offered stories, but it also provided an opportunity: my father liked music. Maybe I could find him somewhere inside of it.

The BMG music club offered stories, but it also provided an opportunity: my father liked music. Maybe I could find him somewhere inside of it.

In my memory the CDs took months to come, though it couldn’t have been more than a few weeks. My mother and sister worked during the days, so I got our mail and kept my purchase concealed from my mother. I planned while I waited: after the delivery, I would round up the cash, pay for the single album as advertised, and receive the second batch with her none the wiser.

The package was right angles and brown cardboard. I pulled the tape creases back and the box unfolded completely, revealing four plastic jewel cases enclosed in sleeves of transparent cellophane. I peeled them open one by one, slipping the liner notes from each cover. I studied the album covers. Prince in sepia, a flash of light slicing across his right eyelid and the pout of his bottom lip. I snapped the disc from its compartment and loaded it into my hand-me-down boombox . Talking Heads was a curled ring of blue like a beaded periwinkle shell; Oasis a block of letters and curious punctuation, and finally, Jimi — his hands at his waist, confidently eyeing me, the other hand resting over his heart. “When Doves Cry” started up, its streaking knife-edge before the thudding drum arrangement. I didn’t know how to answer all the questions Prince asked, but I knew I had the potential to. The answers were resting on my tongue.

I don’t remember paying those first dues though I must have — four more albums came soon after but so did others — Siamese Dream, What’s the 411?, Automatic for the People, August and Everything After, Pablo Honey, Ready to Die, CrazySexyCool. I tucked the narrow white envelopes that accompanied each arrival into a corner of my dresser drawer and put the additional fees for bonuses, shipping, and monthly selections out of my mind: I was busy falling in love.

I tucked the narrow white envelopes that accompanied each arrival into a corner of my dresser drawer and put the additional fees for bonuses, shipping, and monthly selections out of my mind: I was busy falling in love.

The lyrics hit. Music brought up feelings that words couldn’t articulate. I felt less lonely. I tramped across our apartment’s mustard-colored carpeting while Oasis, Prince, and Talking Heads validated every experience I’d ever had and still wanted. Music gave me a new lexicon for feeling and I was drunk on it, dancing wildly alone for the remainder of the summer with the volume turned all the way up. I still read my books. If anything, music made me a better reader. I began to see books as mixtapes — suddenly Holden Caulfield was R.E.M’s “Everyone Hurts,” Biggie’s “Juicy,” Tina Turners’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” Each song cracked me open and tested my edges. I was learning myself.

I memorized all the songs on The Ultimate Experience, but kept a certain distance from them as well. They didn’t spark inside me like the others, but I admired them nonetheless. I turned each one up as my father did, the bass vibrating my bedroom’s single-paned windows. I got to know them through feeling. Once, my grandmother took my sister and me to my father’s house for an evening visit. The music in his living room was turned up so loudly he couldn’t hear her fists against the front door. My sister looked on with her arms crossed, but I smiled, recognizing the familiar lyrics to “Purple Haze”: Lately things they don’t seem the same/Don’t know if I’m comin’ up or down/Am I happy or in misery?/Help me/Help me.

The lyrics described my reality. I was learning that music was not a thing you listened to, but a thing you communicated with. It came alive inside you, reshaping memories and feelings and experiences. It showed you all you were and also what might be ahead. My father’s silence, his intense quiet, the loud drumbeat, was finally beginning to make some sense to me. He too had feelings he couldn’t put into words.

I was learning that music was not a thing you listened to, but a thing you communicated with. It came alive inside you, reshaping memories and feelings and experiences. It showed you all you were and also what might be ahead.

But the envelopes in my dresser had become a deck and the messages stamped on them had changed. Due dates passed and charges for monthly selections accrued as more of my lovers arrived — Chris Isaac, Jodeci, Credence Clearwater Revival. I told myself I deserved them. I counted off everything I didn’t have: a basketball team, summer camp, vacations in Hawaii, clarinet lessons. I had become possessive of music and how it made me feel. I drowned out the worry of disappointing my mother by turning up the volume, distracting myself with Mary J. Blige’s meditations on real love, Adam Duritz’s beautiful black-haired flamenco dancer. It’s me, I thought. Me. I could help him believe in anything, and he could believe in me.

One day an envelope arrived with the word “COLLECTIONS” stamped across the front. I knew that word — it was one my mother cautioned about when she lectured us about credit cards. A first, a second, and then final version of an official-looking letter came, formed in a boilerplate template quite different than the others and lacking the excess of exclamation marks, check-box options and catalogue selections. No Sting. No Chris Isaac. I was in trouble.

I dreaded telling her, but my mother’s reaction was far more punishing than anything I ever could have imagined: she didn’t yell or admonish me. I wasn’t grounded or denied privileges. These were not things she was used to doing anyway; I followed directions, I was responsible and trustworthy. Instead she listened quietly as I explained what I had done, leaving out the parts about how the music had changed me, how it made me less lonesome. How I actually didn’t regret it. I did apologize to her, and I meant it. I knew I was breaking her heart. When I was done showing her the paperwork, the final balance in a slew of additional charges and fees, she quietly went to her closet. She fished out the change jar, the bank sleeves.

She listened quietly as I explained what I had done, leaving out the parts about how the music had changed me, how it made me less lonesome. How I actually didn’t regret it.

I don’t remember how it was finally settled — or even at what cost. I just remember the feeling of sitting on her bedroom floor next to her, slipping a deck of dimes into those paper coin rolls. No song could have put words to my disappointment and shame.

Soon, I would get to college on a tuition scholarship through my father’s veteran benefits. I would swim one night in the sea bordering Santa Barbara drunk on shots of spiced rum, my body tossing dangerously into the frothy central coast waves. I would turn on my back, stars stippled like needlework in the sky and hum R.E.M’s “Nightswimming.” The sea rocked me, but the contours were different than how I had always imagined it in the song. I held it close anyway. It was a story I had been telling myself for years.

I keep listening, I still devour music as I do books. I see myself in the words — the you I was, the you I haven’t quite been yet. Now, when my father comes to visit, we talk about music. Over our shared standard order of fried eggs and crispy hash browns we discuss Kamasi Washington and Kind of Blue.

As for the logo that drew me in — I realized after it was over, when the albums stopped coming, when I sat on the floor in front of MTV, my ear at the Panasonic speaker, that the dog with the phonograph wasn’t just listening to the music. It was looking at it, peering down into the darkness, into the stories it didn’t quite understand.

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