Remember the Columbia Record Club? If you’re too young to remember, “CRC” and its brethren—the RCA Record Club etc.— were mail-order divisions of the major record labels that enticed you to join with a bounty of free product upfront. In return, there was a fine-print commitment to purchase a certain number of albums (or 8-track tapes, or cassettes, or even reel-to-reel tapes, depending on the era), at the suggested retail list price plus shipping and handling over the next several years. The colorful inserts came inside of magazines like TV Guide and used clever visual tricks to pull you in, like reproducing album covers on tiny, tiny postage stamps that you would lick and paste into an order form along with a single penny that you would tape to the card. Like any TV products you might see today, record clubs made you feel like you were getting a bargain. The clubs were a variation of the Book-of-the-Month Club, flourishing from the mid-1950s through the late 1990s, when the Internet and its concomitant ending of music as a physical product dealt them a death blow (along with brick-and-mortar record stores, record labels and my career itself).
In 1977, I joined the Columbia Record Club. I was twelve years old and the promise of thirteen albums of my choice coming in the mail was simply too hard to resist. My father warned against my decision, fearing the subsequent commitment to purchase multiple records at the suggested retail price would prove too overwhelming to the financial limitations of a tween on a twenty-five-cent weekly allowance. But I had discovered the world of music for adults just a few years earlier and was eager to expand my collection of grown-up records. The record club seemed like the perfect way to do this, though my father vociferously objected, pragmatically explaining that by the time you calculated the shipping and handling, lack of discounting, and amortization of the up-front “gift,” it actually worked in the club’s favor. I can still hear him saying, “How the hell are you going to afford the records you have to buy?” Thank God I never bought a house.
Dad was most concerned about a feature of the club called “negative-option billing,” wherein the club automatically sent you a pick of the month unless you returned a card in advance declining it. If you failed to return the response in advance — as many club members did — you would automatically receive the unwanted and unreturnable product. This feature required a particular level of responsibility that eluded many adults, let alone kids, which is why it worked so well for the company. In those days they never asked for proof of age or credit information, so even though you may have technically needed to be eighteen to join, there was no mechanism to prevent a minor from circumventing the rules.
I heard what my father said and then disregarded his advice. I didn’t care; I loved those little stamps and couldn’t stop thinking about the day twelve records would arrive in the mail. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I’d figure out how I was going to manage the subsequent commitment — well — subsequently, referencing some vague theory of deferring purchases until future birthdays or something like that to thwart my father’s admonishments. In a fever of shopper’s hysteria, I finally broke down one day and joined. I can still taste the glue on the back of the stamps like it was this morning.
When my records arrived it was, to be sure, a very great day for me. Without the pressure to spend any money, I enjoyed the opportunity to sample albums and take chances with records I would not have otherwise bought and to begin to internalize the psychological pull of buying on credit at the same time. For the first time in my short life, I felt affluent and adult. I think I chose well, especially considering that one of the initial twelve albums, Janis Ian’s Between The Lines, became a soundtrack of my adolescence, serving as a musical port-of-entry to my own anguish and despair, hitherto felt but unexpressed. Isn’t that what every kid wants in a record? I can still remember eleven of my twelve selections:
1. Captain & Tennille, Song of Joy
2. Captain & Tennille, Come In From The Rain
3. John Denver’s Greatest Hits
4. Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits
5. Heart, Little Queen
6. Boston, Boston
7. The Carpenters, Now and Then
8. Meat Loaf, Bat Out Of Hell
9. Kansas, Point of No Return
10. Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits
11. Elton John’s Greatest Hits
12, Barry Manilow, This One’s For You
13. Janis Ian, Between The Lines
I was aware of Janis Ian because I was affected so deeply and personally by the album’s single “At Seventeen,” which had come out a few years before and is arguably the most soul-bearing confession of isolation and rejection ever recorded, certainly to have become a top-five pop hit. I had also seen her perform the song on the Grammys in 1975, the year she won Best Pop Female Performance and the first time I’d ever watched the show. What was it about Janis Ian’s music and essence that I related to so strongly?
Though she didn’t come out as a lesbian until many years later, her music was so imbued with a particular kind of outsider experience that it literally wrapped itself around my young, confused heart like a sable stole. Each song told stories of loss and longing with uncommon candor. To listen to Between The Lines today is to hear the spirit of Tracy Chapman, Sarah McLachlan, and so many other female artists who followed. Ian’s bravery in her songwriting was fascinating to me and the fact that she was skillful enough to craft songs that conveyed such open-hearted pathos without inducing embarrassment on the part of the listener is perhaps its most remarkable characteristic.
At Seventeen was just one of Between The Lines‘ great moments. My favorite song on the album, Tea and Sympathy, is Shakespearean in its tragedy and makes At Seventeen sound like “Da Doo Ron Ron.” I wanted to focus on that song but was unable to locate a video worthy of it, so here are the last four lines of the song, just to let you know that when it comes to sad songs, Daddy don’t mess around:
Pass the tea and sympathy, for the good old days are dead
Let’s drink a toast to those who best survived the life they’ve led
It’s a long, long time ’til morning, so build your fires high
Now I lay me down to sleep, forever by your side
Holy shit! You might think that a musical loop of “Tea and Sympathy” or At Seventeen emanating from a child’s bedroom might have been a suggestion of a problem to my distracted parents, but the 1970s were just so different. The album was filled with equally well-crafted songs that were both informed by the folk-inspired singer/songwriter tradition and the Jazz-inflected Tin Pan Alley of Rogers and Hart and Harold Arlen. Its mainstream success speaks volumes about what our culture valued at the time and, by comparison (with very few exceptions), how much has been lost in the age of air quotes: when anything that expresses sentiment is derided as “corny” and officiously dismissed, which is all fine and good until you face illness, heartache, death, or loss of any magnitude, and realize that—in the final analysis—life is, in the end, nothing but a huge cob of corn. Wasn’t it Bette Davis who said, “I wouldn’t want to live in a world without sentiment?” Luckily for Miss Davis, having died in 1989, she never had to. For the rest of us who do, it’s been, well, a bit depressing.
It is funny to think that something as frivolous as the fevered rush of joining the Columbia Record Club would place such an enduring piece of work in my young hands, and Between The Lines is still in my all-time top twenty favorite albums. In listening back to it while writing this, I’m struck not only by how good it still sounds and, even more surprisingly, that I don’t ache with the same intensity, though the outline is still there, like a visit from someone sad that I used to know, in this case myself. I take this as a measure of healing (except for “Tea and Sympathy,” whose string arrangement still evokes tears from its first bar). The catharsis is complete and now I offer it to the uninitiated, or for “those whose names were never called, when choosing sides for basketball.”
*This piece is dedicated to Nina Lucas, for reasons she understands.