“Livin’ Thing,” or How the Electric Light Orchestra Stole My Childhood
hen I was seven years old, I inherited my mother’s 45 collection. I discovered it in my grandmother’s huge walk-in closet/junk collection on some Sunday afternoon when I was rummaging, or building a fort out of blankets and cushions, or some other such thing to keep myself occupied. I was a quiet kid as it was, and the prospect of sitting and poring through them all, side by side, one after the other, gorging myself on the lot, enticed me. And that’s exactly what I did as soon as I got home that night, going through them all until I couldn’t keep my young eyes open; the next night, I picked up where I left off, and the night after that, and the night after that. I have no idea how many singles there were, but if I had to guess now I’d say somewhere in the neighborhood of 50. None of them had sleeves and as such they weren’t in the greatest shape. But as I was playing them back through a single-speaker Winnie The Pooh record player it hardly mattered.
A bit of back story about my mother: She and her family came to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1958, when she was 12 years old. She learned English and managed to graduate from high school at age 16 and fell in love with the music in her new country around the same time. Her collection had a little bit of everything: there were a few Beatles singles, “Satisfaction” by the Stones (an immediate favorite), and a few other chart hits of the early to mid-60s. There was also Lonnie Donnegan’s “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight),” a huge skiffle hit. There was Burl Ives. There was the Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball,” written by Paul Simon. There was the Everly Brothers. There was a bit of soul. A bit of folk. A bit of country. A bit of everything on offer, really. My mother had then, and still does now, very diverse musical tastes with a nose for the obscure—the majority of these records were tunes I’ve never even heard of since. I like to think her all-encompassing love of multiple genres made its way to me genetically. And so, much like my mother had done years before me, I fell in love with all of it.
After my first trip through the set, I started back at the beginning again, but this time, I started making notes. I played each side intently and judged whether I preferred the A or the B. I separated them into piles: one pile for records that I liked both sides; one pile for those in which I only like one side; and one pile in which I liked neither. Then I attempted to take it further and put them in order by favorites with the record with the two best songs on top and on down to the record that was just barely avoiding that discard pile. Lo, a music geek was born!
But through all of those songs, all of that music—and bear in mind, 100 songs is a lot for a seven-year-old brain to take in—I honestly can’t say I knew what a single one of them was really about. Sure, I could figure out whether something was generally upbeat or downtrodden. But my sheltered understanding of life didn’t prepare me for really even the most simple of emotions. What did I know about cars or girls or how white Mick Jagger’s shirts could be? Not much, and I hardly cared either; but I knew what I liked. This whole new world of popular music had opened up to me and I couldn’t have been happier.
A friend of mine told me once after many beers about his theory that everyone’s life ends basically the moment they discover the opposite sex, his idea being that before that life is nothing but happiness and coloring and naptime and toys and snacks and Santa Claus. Then suddenly, with that first innocent kiss on the cheek or noticing that cute boy, it all becomes complicated and the drag of being an adult begins. The “before” in this picture was me with my collection of 45s.
Then along came Jeff Lynne to fuck everything up.
Soon (a few months anyway) after my initial encounter with the 45s, I discovered the LP. My mother handed down a few of her old ones, and my brother and I soon chose favorites—I have the Beatles’ Something New, he had Blood Sweat & Tears, and so on and so forth. I would pay attention to the stuff my mother played and then when she wasn’t using the “adult” stereo (an actual stereo with big speakers and a cool blue-lit amplifier) I worked my way through her then-modern late 70s records. The Bee Gees were an early favorite, as was Cat Stevens and Hall & Oates. And of course, ELO.
My mother only owned one album, A New World Record, and I immediately grew to love its shiny gloss, harmonies, and utterly unique (for the time, at least) production values. I loved “Telephone Line,” because I thought it was cool as hell the way the phone noises appeared at the beginning of the track and the voice sounded like it was coming out of a receiver. And I especially loved the hit single from that set, “Livin’ Thing,” its hooks grabbing my young ears with ease.
One Saturday afternoon, I was playing the album in our basement on the big stereo rig and my mother came down and encountered me bopping out to the diddy over and over again as she did some laundry. The song features a slow, rather melodramatic breakdown featuring a solo violin and an echoing, disembodied Jeff Lynne crying, “I’m taking a dive...” After about the fourth time through the track, my mother, on her way back upstairs, stopped and asked me: “Do you know what he’s singing about there?” Of course I didn’t—symbolism and slang was largely beyond me at that point—and so I answered “No.” And so she told me:
“He’s talking about killing himself.”
And suddenly, the world stopped spinning. What?!? He’s talking about WHAT?!?!
I could hardly believe it, but I knew she wasn’t lying. It was just such a shock to me that people talked about such things in songs. I had no idea that these songs didn’t all just express the pure joy that my young, naive self got from them all. And then, just like that, it all changed.
I went back to all the 45s and listened to them with new ears. Fuck me, that guy singing about “Yesterday” was really bummed out. The Bee Gees weren’t all sunshine and light. The Stones? Oh God, the Stones! How did I miss all of this?!?
I suddenly became an even more serious little man than I already was—and trust me, that was really something. I just sat in my room and played records all day. Sure, I’d play with toys every now and again, too, but much of my time was spent alone, just trying to unravel the mysteries of music and lyrics and what the artists are really feeling below the surface. I didn’t feel like a child any longer, more like a serious adult, overly contemplative, looking for meaning in every little sentence out of my music, then my TV shows (what did Ernie really mean when he said that to Bert?), and finally to people.
And of course, pretty soon girls came along, and then it was all downhill—my self-defeating trend of over analysis continues to this day, although thankfully it isn’t nearly as crippling as it has been in the past. But that curiosity, that restless digging for meaning in the music—that never stopped. It has come to define me to some degree, although now that I’m a bit older and wiser, I realize at last that there is more to life and it has taken its proper place as a mildly obsessive hobby, as opposed to an all-consuming heroin-like compulsive habit. I’m really much happier these days.
And it all started in earnest with Jeff Lynne, and so I suppose I can either curse or thank him at this point. In my semi-grown-up wisdom, I choose the latter for probably the first time in my life. Still, I can’t help but think my life would have been a whole lot simpler across the board if my mother had explained “Evil Woman” to me instead.