In a continuation of our ‘Music and Memory’ series, Tiffany Murray remembers the transformative childhood experience of listening to music with her mother’s boyfriend, Fritz.
‘Don’t touch the black, Tiff. Fingers on the edge and thumb at the centre.’ Fritz was the new boyfriend and his first lesson was ‘How to Handle Vinyl.’
I looked down at my tiny fingers: my 7-year old hand-span wouldn’t manage it.
That hot afternoon I lay back on Mum’s old Chesterfield, ill, and watched this new man in a blue, velvet jacket, fingers tick-tack-ticking through his record collection. ‘Look, Tiff,’ he said. The album cover was a rainbow. ‘Listen,’ he told me. As the LP dropped to his turntable on our windowsill the cats scattered.
When Levon Helm sang ‘Strawberry Wine’, I giggled. It sounded like Levon was perched on the edge of the sofa, grinning and singing at me; I wanted to dance. When I listened to the words to ‘Daniel and The Sacred Harp’, it was a bedtime story. When Mum came home, she was pleased. I was feeling better and Fritz was sitting on the carpet, his records fanned out around him like paintings in a gallery.
And so it began: our first summer as a family in a tiny, damp cottage in the middle of a wood. Fritz – a man from Blackburn – took us on a journey, a sticky Southern-American journey as he played The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, JJ Cale, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In the hot evenings I’d gather up feral kittens from the litters in our bushes, and Fritz would play ‘The Weight’, ‘Magnolia’ and ‘$1000 Wedding’. It seemed to fit. It was 1977 and our rivers were dry. Birds dropped from the trees in the heat; that summer our Welsh border cottage was as hot as the Mississippi Delta.
And then, one day in August, I found Fritz crying at the kitchen table. I poured gold top milk on my Alpen and asked him why. ‘The King is dead,’ he told me. From then on, that summer’s nights were filled with ‘Suspicious Minds’, ‘American Trilogy’, and my favourite Elvis song at the time, ‘Old Shep’. After all, I was only seven.
Fritz stayed with us, and ‘Mum and Fritz’ were my parents. At seventeen I spent my first Christmas working away, so they came out to visit me in Florida. The first thing to happen was we shared an elevator with Audrey Hepburn. I smiled at her and she asked me my name. ‘Er, Tiffany,’ I said then panicked, ‘no really, it is.’ Fritz laughed, Audrey wasn’t pleased, and I was mortified. The second thing was Fritz decided on a road-trip. ‘The Band are playing a concert. It’s in a cinema in one of those things, what are they called, Tiff?’
‘Yes, one of those. Weird.’
And it was. We drove for a day, and the cinema was tiny, in a small courtyard mall, a dry-cleaners next door. Fritz sat with me in the front row. ‘You know Robbie Robertson left, don’t you Tiff? And’- Fritz looked up at the make-shift stage, eyes big, ‘and Richard Manuel killed himself’-
We waited. We waited for an hour. Then Rick Danko came out. ‘Well folks, me and Garth’ll have to play for a while. Levon just got his pilot license and he’s caught in a storm.’ The place was so small, Rick looked huge, and Garth was like a bear. I could reach out and touch them. When Levon landed two hours later, he walked on stage, sat behind the drums and played ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ straight off. It was my favourite Christmas, ever.
Twenty years later I turned to Fritz for help. I had written songs for my imaginary band ‘Tequila’ in my second novel Diamond Star Halo. The band, eight brothers from South Carolina and a pregnant girl, Jenny, from Wyoming, arrive at a Welsh recording studio one summer’s evening in 1977, and they arrive in Nudie suits. ‘They’re not a great band,’ I told Fritz, ‘they’re sort of hokey.’
Fritz sat at the desk I’m writing from now, he wrote the music, and he recorded the songs. I still have them. ‘Stallion Boys’ is straight from Emmylou and Gram’s, ‘Cash on the Barrelhead’. ‘Goodbye Jenny’ is a ghost of The Band’s ‘It Makes no Difference’, and ‘Little Girl’ is almost Led Zep.
When he was in hospital and we didn’t know he was dying, Fritz talked about the book. It was almost written. He said ‘Tequila’ was the perfect name for a band that wasn’t quite good enough. Four weeks later, Fritz’s funeral was a set-list, and I chose it. A set-list was the best eulogy for my father.
I now see that Diamond Star Halo plugs into that summer Fritz first moved in with us and played American country-rock. I think those sticky songs, in some sense, made me a writer. They were some of the first stories I listened to after all. And it’s not lost on me, the fact that the first record my father-in-waiting played to me – the LP with the rainbow cover – was titled ‘Stage Fright’.
Going back to our favourite music is more than nostalgia: it’s time travel. If I listen to ‘Strawberry Wine’ right now, for two minutes and thirty-six seconds it’s hot and sticky, Mum is cooking sweet spare ribs, feral kittens mewl from the bushes, and Fritz is sitting on the living room floor in a blue velvet jacket, fingers tick-tack-ticking through his record collection.
Image by Peat Bakke