Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Feed the World

When I was a kid, my Uncle George (the only uncle I have whom I’ve ever addressed with his English name) had the best record collection. He had a stereo in the basement, where my brothers, sisters and cousins would all hang out when we were visiting the great old Victorian that they lived in.

The basement was fully furnished. One side, if you turned left at the bottom of the stairs, was set up with a bar, and he had lighted Tuborg beer signs on the light wood paneled walls. Bench seats were built into both sides along the walls, and the center of the room was left empty—plenty of room for a bunch of kids to bounce around as they danced to George’s Rolling Stones and Beatles records.

The other room, a right from the bottom of the stairs, was the stuff of imagination. The only source of light in the room was recessed into the walls, to illuminate whatever he had displayed on insets in the walls. There was a huge drafting table on the far wall, and that’s where the stereo and the records were stored. We had to stand on a chair to reach the record player to change the record, or to move the needle back so that we could play the same song over and over again.

To the right, just as you walked into the room was a small work bench with shelves above it. On the shelves were numerous beakers, a Bunsen burner lighter (you know, one of those squeeze-y things with the flint in the metal cup), test tubes, and a vial with litmus papers in it. I still have no idea what Uncle George was doing with all this stuff; I suspect that these items were just a part of his eclectic collection. At the time I pictured Uncle George wearing a lab coat and swirling some unknown liquid in a beaker on the days when we weren’t visiting. He’d take the rubber stopper off a test tube and sniff the contents of the test tube, then dip a piece of litmus paper in it and examine the paper under the short fluorescent light that hung over the bench. Then he’d frustratedly pour something else into the beaker and swirl it around again. Then, disgusted, he’d put it all away and go upstairs for dinner.

He also had old army stuff on display in the room—old helmets, a gas mask, and a huge military radio system in the middle of the room about which we used to fight over who got to be Radar when we were playing M*A*S*H. Next to George’s vinyl collection, the military radio--complete with headphones, and numerous cords, switches, and plugs—was the coolest thing in the basement.

But his record collection still held the number 1 spot for coolest thing in Uncle George’s basement. On one visit Uncle George held up a record for me and explained that all the better songs were on side A, while all the other songs that the band didn’t like as much were on side B. I recited all the Rolling Stones songs that I liked, and he concurred with me on most them. He wasn’t entirely convinced that “Ruby Tuesday” was the world’s best song, but said he understood why I thought so.

When I was 10, I saw the video to Band Aid’s “Feed the World” which was the British pop singers equivalent to the “We Are the World” that the American pop stars put out sometime around 1984-1985. I declared “Feed the World” way cooler than “We Are the World,” and found vindication when the record showed up in George’s collection. I was visiting one afternoon when my cousin Joanna put the song on. Then we listened to it a dozen times more, and tried to identify the names of the singers. We easily picked out Boy George and Simon LeBon, and we tolerated Bono as he sang. (I wonder if now Joanna, just like me, tolerates Boy George and Simon LeBon and smiles when she hears Bono’s voice.)

Every year I look forward to hearing “Feed the World” on the radio at Christmas time. It brings back the excitement when I saw it in Uncle George’s collection and the afternoon I spent with Joanna listening to the song. But it also makes me a bit sad every time I hear it. The song is actually quite a sad song, designed to make the listener feel guilty and donate to the cause of feeding the world. The first time I hear the song every year, without fail, I start to cry. I call myself a big dork, and laugh as I brush the tears off my cheeks.

Today I was in my car doing the last bits of Christmas shopping. I endlessly pressed the scan button, looking for “Feed the World.” I lamented hearing the “War is Over” John Lennon Christmas song, I rolled my eyes at “Santa Baby” and I gritted my teeth against that piece of crap “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” and once again wonder how nobody has yet gotten around to destroying every copy of that song in circulation.

Just as I got back into my car, I heard the familiar chimes . I squealed in delight and cranked the volume up, and was instantly transported to Uncle George’s basement.

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