I received a portable tape recorder from my parents as a 12th birthday gift, and it was an absolute game-changer for me.
See, up to that point, I’d only ever used the primitive tabletop recorder that my parents had owned for years, compete with its tiny hand-held microphone that plugged into the side of the bulky unit. As clunky as that dinosaur was, the thrill of hearing your own voice played back for the first time through that cheap, tinny speaker was close to magical, especially for anyone who can remember a time before smartphones and iPods.
My siblings and I would usually record everyday conversations, songs or just general goofiness, but most of the time we were limited to doing so at the dining room table, as we needed to be near an electrical outlet for the power. Batteries were an option, of course, but my parents weren’t going to allow us to burn through boxes of pricy ‘D’ cells so we could save our crappy rendition of the Brady Bunch theme song for posterity.
To be liberated from the old recorder’s tabletop tyranny was exhilarating. The portable unit’s very portability was by far its sexiest feature, and even though I still struggled to have anything remotely interesting enough to record, that didn’t stop me from wearing out the Record button over those first few months. I carried it everywhere I went, clutching it tightly, cub reporter-style, or swinging it by its flimsy plastic strap, which may still be the nerdiest tech accessory I’ve ever seen.
To say that my early recordings were eclectic is a gross understatement. I recorded everything. Nay, anything; I recorded anything. I taped TV reruns by sitting in of front of the television speaker with the recorder pressed right up against it. I taped spats between squabbling neighbors. I captured cats purring, dogs barking, doorbells ringing, cars revving. By far, though, the weirdest thing I recorded was the sloshy sounds my belly made after I’d guzzled a large glass of Coke. Playing one of those early cassettes front-to-back was as avant-grade as experimental sound could get, even for the 1970s. I’d like to think I was ahead of my time, but I think my parents were starting to worry that their gift to me was warping my young impressionable mind. That tends to happen when you spy your son with a tape recorder jammed up against his stomach at the dinner table.
And so it was that my parents came up with a plan to curb my wayward audio fetish. They were sensible adults, and, as such, they had come up with the very sensible idea to give me an honest-to-goodness recording job. They must have thought the machine’s utility would blow me away, once I used it for their Establishment purposes. It’s clear to me now why their plan failed: they couldn’t have known that their son was the Bertolt Brecht of the portable tape recorder scene! I was Kerouac with a built-in condenser mic! I couldn’t be tamed by a couple of squares like them. Even if the job involved Christmas Carols…
Yup. The job involved Christmas Carols.
Christmas Eve was, for as long as I could remember, the night that my mother’s side of the family came to our house to celebrate the holiday with us, every single year. They were an extremely musical clan, and they used to ring in Christmas at the stroke of midnight by singing a capella versions of carols starting at 11:45pm on the 24th. When midnight came, the youngest child in attendance would dramatically place the miniature figurine of the Baby Jesus into the Nativity scene. Beautiful, right? Enter my parents and their plan…
“Charles,” my Mom began, “we think it would be a nice idea if you could put some Christmas songs on your tape recorder for everybody to sing along with on Christmas Eve. What do you think? Wouldn’t Grandma love that?”
Hello? A chance for me to stand in the spotlight with my tape recorder held high (one-handed at that! Portable!) on the biggest holiday of the year?!? Yeah, I definitely wanted some of that glory, for sure. But with cassette tapes at a premium, I wondered what treasured piece of my collection would have to bite the dust to make way for “Silent Night” and the like. I wasn’t ready to erase any “Odd Couple” or “Honeymooners” episodes just yet; my arm had gone numb getting those half-hour shows on tape, and besides, I had to stifle way too many laughs to get clean recordings. Those were keepers, there was no way I was wiping those out, even for Grandma.
As the 25th closed in, it looked like a toss-up between some episodes of “The Gong Show” or the moody, atmospheric aural masterpieces culled from my digestive and intestinal canals. It was a tough choice, but eventually I decided that “Hey, it’s not like they’re gonna cancel ‘The Gong Show’ any time soon, right? I’ll get some new tapes after Christmas and beef the collection back up.” Sorry, Chuck Barris.
So I recorded 8 Christmas classics over Side 2 of my favorite “Gong Show” tape. I mastered that side like I was George Martin putting the finishing touches on a Beatles opus. No extraneous noise. No volume dips. Clean fades in and out. Nothing but pure sonic Christmasness. Perfect. Cue the spotlight, here came my big moment.
My relatives arrived with the usual Christmas Eve chaos at around 9 pm, and I could feel the very first flop sweat of my life trickling down my spine as I rewound the tape again and again to rehearse my cues for the “show,” as I had eventually come to call it. My 2 brothers laughed at me and warned me not to screw it up, but I knew they were just jealous that I was the one who had been chosen for this most important of positions on the grandest night of the whole year. In a few hours, I would have the room in the palm of my hand. I could hardly wait.
Many theories have been posited over the years to explain how the proceedings went so horribly wrong, but myself, I suspect sibling chicanery as the culprit. I envision somebody thinking it would be funny to flip the cassette over in the player while I was on a bathroom break to mop my sweaty brow before getting my ‘Roll Tape’ cue. However it went down, down is surely where it went.
As the room lights were lowered and candles were then lit, my mother proudly gave me the thumbs up to start us down the road to “Christmas Sing-Along, Mach 2: Like No Other Christmas Caroling You’ve Ever Heard Before.” She had printed out and distributed all the lyrics to the carols so that it would be an absolutely symphonic treat for the ears when music and voice became one in this most festive air. I pressed Play.
To my horror, what I heard next WAS NOT the first plaintive strains of Perry Como’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” as painstakingly and very responsibly planned. No, instead it was the manic Duke Ellington riff that they played on the now-forever-accursed “Gong Show” to indicate that it was time for Gene! Gene! The DANCING MACHINE! to make his way out to the middle of the floor and do his boogie best.
Oh no. No. Just a big heaping bowl of No.
Needless to say, the room was split, quite unevenly, between hysterical guffawing from a very few areas, and apoplectic sputtering in most others. The only faces I was interested in seeing at that moment were those of my parents, if only to gauge how long the imminent grounding would last. Where was Dad? There he was. Uh-oh. The veins in my father’s head and neck had popped out so far that I thought they might knock his glasses off his face. He was a tightly-wound, Type-A teeth-gritter on his best day, but this… this, on Christmas Eve, of all nights… with the Baby Jesus waiting for his closeup… with a near-perfect Norman Rockwell Christmas Tableau now gone hopelessly awry… and my mother’s family almost certain to lay this at my father’s feet… No. As it happened, I lip-read for the very first time that fateful night, and it was not a pleasant read. What graced my father’s lips was what the newspapers called an “expletive deleted.” I finally understood that phrase, and why those expletives so sorely required deleting.
My mom, on the other hand, looked more than mad; she looked disappointed, which is so much worse. Mad blew over after a while, it was too stressful to try and keep that up for too long. But disappointed? Mothers can do that standing on their slowly-shaken heads for weeks on end. She tried to lighten the mood by making light of my gaffe as I frantically tried to flip the tape over to the correct side and get it to play some Christmas tunes, pronto. My sweaty hands fumbled the tape several times before righting it in its proper place and rolling the never-sweeter sounds of the late, great Perry Como. I will never be as happy to hear his voice ever again as I was on that night.
The singalong gathered a sad little head of steam once it finally got underway, but it never approached the euphoric levels that my mom had originally dreamed of. When we were done, my brothers clapped me on the back and congratulated me for what they thought was a most hilarious and memorable prank. My irate father also believed that I had done the ol’ switcheroo on purpose, in order to garner some cheap laughs from the big crowd.
Only my mother had anything resembling sympathy for my boneheaded move, and after all these years, I think I have finally figured out the reason why. At the very least, the Gong Show music was upbeat, happy, tuneful. She probably imagined what nether depths the room would have descended into had I instead mistakenly rolled the disgusting sounds of my stomach’s roiling digestive juices. How festive might that have left a crowd awaiting the Baby Jesus’ curtain call in the manger?
Thanks, Mom, for seeing how much worse it could really have been. Merry Christmas.