I’ll never be able to listen to Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” the same way again.
Sitting at a table in July last year, I heard a storyteller at the monthly Vinyl Voices event talk about the time he almost died while it was playing.
He and a group of friends had gone out drinking, and while driving late at night, they got trapped in a flooded section of road. “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” played on the stereo as their car sank into the water. They narrowly escaped with their lives, Chuck D’s booming voice at their backs spitting, “I gotta get out, but that thought was thought before.”
Now, whenever I hear those tiptoeing Isaac Hayes keys come in on “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” my brain flashes to that image of a car sinking into black waters. His story is carved into my memory like a vinyl groove.
Every last Tuesday of the month, folks gather around The Coronado’s patio in central Phoenix to hear local storytellers talk about their favorite records. All sorts of people appear at this show: musicians, cooks, poets, painters, and even music writers like me. The events feel as intimate as getting a handmade mixtape or eavesdropping on a confession booth.
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It’s the brainchild of cook and ska musician Liam James T. Murtaugh, and held at a restaurant Murtaugh co-owns with his wife, Emily Spetrino-Murtaugh. Hosted by comedians Leslie Barton and Jose Gonzalez, the show features locals talking about a particularly meaningful song, and then a DJ plays that track for the audience.
Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Leslie in theater projects in the past, so it wasn’t hard to get her to open about her experiences with Vinyl Voices — and what’s at the core of the event. “It harkens back to music-listening groups, when people would sit around, listen to music, and talk about it,” Barton says.
“When Liam started it, it was called Phonographic Memories,” Barton says. “And then a guy in California got all bent out of shape because he had something called Phonographic Memories — God forbid there should be two!”
After switching the name to Vinyl Voices, things took shape quickly, with Barton and Murtaugh doing the booking and Gonzalez working as the eternally enthusiastic MC.
It’s not uncommon to see people getting experimental with their storytelling approaches at Vinyl Voices. Once, Treasure Mammal frontman Abe Gil led the crowd through a guided meditation as he played a synth track by Isao Tomita. But the performers haven’t forgotten the crucial element that make storytelling events succeed: sincere, honest emotion.
You’re as likely to hear a story that will break your heart as you are to hear somebody play “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
Sari Beliak is a Vinyl Voices veteran. A comedian, storyteller, and writer for comedy sites including The Hard Times, Beliak told a story that touched on her relationship with her brother, depression, and the struggles that come with trying to figure your shit out. The song she picked was “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones.
“The beginning of that song always haunted me because the choir sounds so beautiful,” Beliak says. “It always felt so bittersweet to me, and it perfectly captured a moment shared between me and my brother when we were growing up. There’s also something kind of triumphant about that song as it unfolds, so it felt right to use that piece with my story centering around depression and coming out of that place in the end.”
Another regular is freelance writer and Wednesday Morning Surf Report podcast host Jeff Cardello. He used The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” to tell a story about his struggles with Guillain-Barre syndrome.
“It’s a rare medical condition that resulted in my temporary paralysis,” Cardello says. “I actually was hospitalized and ended up with extensive nerve damage in my legs. I had to use a walker and go to physical therapy. The whole process tapped into levels of patience and persistence that I didn’t know I had.”
When it came time to choosing a song to soundtrack that time in his life, Cardello says that the Jonathan Richman penned classic was an easy choice.
“‘Roadrunner’ has only a few chords. But it has a bouncing optimism that keeps it moving. It’s a song about appreciating what’s around you. It’s a song about being alone and it being okay — because the radio is on. This song never lets up in its tempo, and I never gave up in doing everything I could, like walking and riding my bike, in order to get better.”
When I was asked to do one of the events, I immediately knew which song I wanted to play. It took some time to track down a vinyl copy of it, but eventually I saw the bright yellow sleeve of Flipper’s seminal 1982 LP Album — Generic Flipper in a Zia Records bin.
The night I went up at Vinyl Voices, I played Flipper’s “Sex Bomb.” It’s seven minutes of sloppy, anarchic bliss. The only lyrics are “She’s a sex bomb, my baby, yeah,” and they’re howled over and over again in a voice that sounds like it’s been doing keg stands in hell. The bass line lurches and sways like a drunk trying and failing to walk in a straight line, while slide whistles and saxophones bleat and blurt in the background like a pack of idiots wolf-whistling. It’s possibly the dumbest rock ’n’ roll song put to wax since “Louie Louie,” and I love every second of it.
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I told a story about dashed expectations. Growing up without much access to the internet or cool friends to hip me to things, I’d read about all these amazing albums that I just couldn’t get my hands on in rock magazines and secondhand music books. One book in particular became my musical bible: The Spin Alternative Record Guide (published in 1995). I hunted down every album that got a perfect 10 score in the book. The ones I couldn’t find (like Cut by The Slits or the first Raincoats album) I’d imagine what they sounded like in my head. When I eventually started finding and listening to those albums, I felt a crushing disappointment. The real records didn’t sound nearly as good as the ones I had made up in my head.
The only exception to this rule? Flipper. No one could imagine a record that sounds like that album. It’s like giving a filmmaker a million dollars and asking them to create a film as intentionally bizarre and inept as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room — you just can’t fake that sort of thing.
It felt really good to share that song with a patio full of strangers and reveal a small part of myself, even if that small part is love for a very dumb song. Perhaps that’s why storytelling events are so popular. You get all the benefits of unburdening yourself that you’d get in a confession booth without having to say 20 Hail Marys afterward.
The next Vinyl Voices is Tuesday, June 27, at The Coronado. The show starts at 8 p.m. and admission is free. This month’s storytellers are Katey Wilkins, Seven Tomek, James Hansen, Emily Spetrino, and Zed Phillips.