Five years and a couple of weeks ago, I assembled a box of gift records for my best friend’s son, on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. And then yesterday, completely out of the blue, I receive a link to a performance by said Bar Mitzvah, who is now 18 years old, of a song that appears on one of the albums I gave him. My best friend, his mother, made the video animation. She has him singing on Delmar, as he is wont to do. He turned out even more wonderful than we imagined, and here is the proof.
Along with the box of LPs that I gave him, a copy of this letter. I had never been to a Bar Mitzvah ceremony before, and I haven’t been to one since.
Letter to a Bar Mitzvah
I don’t know much about Judaism, and yours is the first Bar Mitzvah that I have attended, but a bit of Internet research yields the following fun facts:
- You are now responsible for your own actions. (Uh oh!)
- You may be legally married by Jewish law (Uh oh again! Please wait a few more years at least, because 13 is awfully young to settle down.)
- You may possess personal property. (Finally: something that doesn’t warrant an “Uh oh!”)
Obviously, I don’t know anything about the many religious rituals and ceremonies in which you are now eligible to participate, so I won’t presume to hold forth about those. I’m going to talk about your rite of passage in more general terms. I wasn’t brought up in any faith, and I have never been a religious person, but I did survive adolescence. What got me through, what jump-started me into puberty and ushered me into adulthood, what made the whole dreary enterprise seem worthwhile and sometimes even magnificent was rock & roll. When I was confused, or frustrated, or pissed off, or in love with some boy who barely knew I was alive, I could always rely on my music. No matter what I was feeling, I could always find an album that would make me feel understood, less alone in the world. My human friends disappointed me sometimes, but my record friends never let me down. Do you know the Beach Boys song “In My Room”? It goes, “There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to/In my room, in my room/In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears/In my room, in my room.” My room mattered to me because that’s where I kept my records and my record player. Nothing could touch me there. My room is where I was my best and truest self.
Most kids these days have iPods, and they can carry their “room” around with them wherever they go, but I think they’re missing out on the magic that comes with having a personal sanctuary filled with sonic totems: a turntable, LPs, dust jackets, real speakers. Vinyl records, unlike mp3s, have an odor, a life force, a physical presence, a past. They crackle a little when they get worn, skip when they’re abused. If you treat your LPs right, they will outlive you. When all the CDs and mp3s have died their little unmourned digital deaths, the vinyl will abide. I own many records that belonged to people who are dead now, and it comforts me to think that my record collection will be dispersed among future generations when I’m gone.
I took good care of my records when I was a teenager (invest in a Discwasher cleaning system, if you don’t have one already—when records are free of dust and debris, they’re much less likely to get scratched—and make sure to replace your needle fairly regularly, about every 6 months if you use your turntable every day), and I hope you’ll do the same so you can bequeath yours to a worthy recipient someday. I still have records that were given to me by my grandparents, parents, ex-boyfriends, and old friends. Some of my albums, I know, are worth a lot more on eBay than I originally paid for them, but their monetary value means nothing to me. How could I put a price on a friend, on a memory? Whatever I paid for the albums in my collection, my investment was returned to me a millionfold. I paid stupid meaningless money for them, money that I might otherwise have blown on Diet Coke and nail polish, and they gave me knowledge, experience, passion. They helped me make sense of it all: the hormonal maelstrom, the endless hurdles, the darkness and doubt.
The albums I’m giving you today aren’t supposed to be comprehensive, some kind of starter kit for a young collector. I picked out 18 from my personal stash because Wikipedia told me that the number 18 has special significance for the Bar Mitzvah; supposedly, it represents the Hebrew word for life or something. (Also, given the fact that several of the albums I gave you are doubles, that was the maximum number I could fit in the box.) These 18 albums are not at all representative of a well-rounded person’s taste. The only thing these records have in common is that they meant something to me when I was a teenager, and I know they have something to do with the adult I am today. Here’s a truth that adults never seem to mention when they’re lecturing you about growing up: The Teenage You never goes away. All those lyrics you pore over now will be imprinted on your consciousness forever. You’ll forget your wife’s cousin’s name, your license-plate number, your grocery list, countless appointments and passwords, but the songs you love now will be seared into your soul until you die. They’ll matter to you in a way that songs you’ll love later never will. I can’t guarantee that these albums are going to have the same significance for you that they did for me, but I do know that the Future You will be shaped by everything you love now. So love widely, love deeply, and love well.
Won’t you let me walk you home from school?
Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?
Maybe Friday I can
Get tickets for the dance
And I’ll take you.
Won’t you tell your dad, “Get off my back”?
Tell him what we said about “Paint It Black.”
Rock & Roll is here to stay
Come inside where it’s okay
And I’ll shake you.
Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?
Would you be an outlaw for my love?
If it’s so, well, let me know
If it’s no, well, I can go
I won’t make you.
(from “Thirteen,” by Big Star, on one of the albums I gave you)