THE WORSER THE BETTER

 

You could always find weird things at the reservoir. Once while I was jogging around it I found a birthday cake, still in the bakery box, a little the worse for wear, but largely intact. (And no, I didn’t sample it). A few years earlier, when I was in Boy Scouts, I found a cache of lawn jockeys, presumably stolen, maybe 8 of them, piled up behind a rotten tree stump. I rarely visited the reservoir (or rather the woods surrounding the reservoir, and the dirt road that ran through the woods) without wondering: what goes on here??

When I was about 15 my friend Chuck made a super-8 movie for Health class called "Paths of Destruction." One Saturday we were scouting locations for it along that dirt road. We were looking for ominous-looking trees. Chris Stinson was going to lurk behind the ominous-looking trees in the climactic scene, clutching a sledgehammer. Chris wasn’t lurking there that afternoon, but Matt Dennis was. Well, technically it wasn’t Matt himself, but an album of his greatest hits, a sleeveless slab of black vinyl, embedded in the forest loam.

Unless you are of a certain age, as they used to say, the name Matt Dennis (1914-2002) will probably not mean anything to you, but he had a pretty respectable career as a singer and songwriter for two or three decades-- he wrote, among other things, "Everything Happens to Me," which was a minor hit for Frank Sinatra for early in his career.

Chuck and I didn’t know about that. We had never heard of Matt Dennis the songwriter. We only knew about Matt Dennis, the annoying kid we went to high school with. I brushed the dirt and leaves off the record and took it home. I’d show it around school on Monday— "Hey everybody, it’s Matt Dennis’ Greatest Hits!"—and hand it to Matt himself just before the bell rang. I was picturing the look on his face as I rinsed off the vinyl.

Well, everyone was suitably amused except Matt. Matt just snorted. "Everybody keeps giving me this stupid record," he said. "I throw it away. I threw one of these stupid records away last week at the reservoir. I wish people would stop giving me this stupid record."

Then the bell rang, so a lot of questions went unasked, such as: everybody keeps giving you this record? Like who else? And: What did you do with the album cover? And especially: Why did you take it up to the reservoir to throw it away?

I wonder if Matt hung on to any of the (apparently) thousands of copies of ‘Matt Dennis’ Greatest Hits’ that passed through his hands, or even listened to it. I suppose I’ll never know, since I lost track of him at least 30 years ago; there was a rumor that he’d been bludgeoned to death during a prison riot, but since I made that rumor up, it might not be entirely reliable.

I was thinking about that slab of black vinyl in the woods the other night while watching "Antiques Roadshow," the show which always gets you wondering if you own anything worth taking to "Antiques Roadshow." I probably don’t, but if I’d hung on to that copy of Matt Dennis’ Greatest Hits I might have taken that anyway. Not that I think it would be worth anything, especially after being skimmed through the forest like a Frisbee. I just would have liked to tell the expert from Sotheby’s how I happened to acquire it.

Although I doubt that any of them are Roadshow-worthy, I do own quite a few very bad records, and from time to time I ask myself precisely why.

We’ve all bought bad records. We didn’t realize the new lead singer was going to be that lame, or we figured the last, not-so-great album was just a glitch, not the start of a rapid downward spiral into the toilet, or (this is probably applicable only to LPs) the cover was just so cool. Sometimes we hang on to these records for a while, hoping maybe they’ll sound better later, but they never do. So we give them away, or throw them out, or we drive up to the reservoir and hurl it out the window. I have actually bought and thrown out a couple of records twice. (The one I will admit to is The Soft Parade by the Doors. A couple of years after I threw it out the first time I found it in the 49 cent bin and thought, this is probably a lot better than I remember. Nope. So long, guys, and say ‘hello’ to Matt Dennis if you see him in those bushes).

But there are some bad records that we don’t part with. Maybe they were gifts. Maybe it’s the only bad record your favorite singer ever made but throwing it away would make you feel like a pseudo fan. Maybe you really like it even though you have to admit it stinks like a sweat sock stuck to your carburetor. Maybe it’s so mind-numbingly awful that you use it to clear out the house when your party is winding down. Maybe you don’t have any idea why you kept it but you aren’t throwing it away because you just aren’t, that’s all. My friend Pashwari, for instance, has a record called "Virginia Belmont’s Amazing Singing Birds." The record begins with Virginia sweetly singing, "Butchie butchie butchie butchie boing boing boing," and then her talented pet parrot responds, "Butchie Brrraaaaakkk! Rrrraaaaakkkk!! Gghhhh! Nnnggaaakkk!" I’m not sure why he kept it, I’m not sure he knows why he kept it, but I think it’s self evident that he must. He would have to be insane to dump it. Ditto my friend Chuck and his LP of Jack Palance singing his own original country-western songs.

THIS YEAR’S CONTEST: What is the worst record you’ve ever bought and kept? And why. That’s the key here. Try to keep it under 50 words. You can email your entries to me at jgrimshaw@blast.net or send them to me care of this newspaper, but either way entries must be in my hands by March 9th. You get points for the sheer awfulness of the record and for the inanity of the reason you’ve held on to it. There will be 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place prizes, which will be copies of the absolute worst records I own, freshly burned to CD-Rs for your listening pleasure. Winning entries and honorable mentions will be published here so double-check your spelling, please.

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