Things Sara had learned early on: don’t ask the person behind the register and don’t get caught the white earbud headphones that come packaged with a new iPhone. The guys behind the counter weren’t there to be helpful; they didn’t so much want to be asked anything as they just wanted their opinions of music to be challenged in a way they could both demean the customer and while still feeling confident in their musical taste.
They never wanted to help her find a very specific edition, or pressing? — she wasn’t sure what to call it, of Pet Sounds.
“Really?” the nicer ones would say, “You’ve never heard Pet Sounds?”
She had heard Pet Sounds, more than she ever cared to. The trick was to find this very specific edition of Pet Sounds. Of course, the guys behind the counter — they were always guys — knew everything, but they never seemed to understand.
Sara flipped through thousands of crates of records in hundreds of stores across dozens of countries. Every shop was more or less the same. Behind the counter sat the coveted turntable, ported directly into the ancient “but authentic” audio system throughout the store where every manner of wild and esoteric music was played a little too loud.
And you’re looking for the Beach Boys?
Every one of them had a studiously maintained, sub-par patina of cleanliness where you likely wouldn’t get sick so long as you didn’t eat immediately after browsing. Atop every counter sat an ancient register, supported by a display case full of a wide array of glass pipes, rolling papers, lighters, and Tchotckies from local artists from whatever state you happened to fall into, or wanted to fall into.
“Hell, if that’s all your looking for, they sell that at Urban Outfitters,” one shop owner said. Partly to imply why are you wasting my fucking time, partly to imply: a girl like you should know all about shopping at Urban Outfitters.
And the headphones. Sorry, the earbuds — as Sara had been corrected dozens of times over — implied you only streamed your music. The lowest of the low. Shit earbuds for shit music. If you loved your musicians, you would listen to them on a real device. “It’ll never sound as good as the real thing,” an owner in San Diego said as he ran his hand across the top of a speaker cabinet.
“So, no Beach Boys, then?” Sara asked.
“Not what you’re looking for. I don’t even think it exists.”
Pet Sounds is available to purchase, new, in just about any medium you can imagine. If that is all she was looking for, Sara’s quest would have been finished months ago — from the comfort of her own home. Pet Sounds is available in the simplest of Google searches. Sara didn’t just want to hear the song; she had to find a very particular edition, pressing, of the album.
The unfortunate truth: most of what fascinates our collective consciousness evaporates or incinerates. If the license isn’t controlled or renewed, it may as well dump into an ether of nothingness, forgotten. Sara had perused the archives and found digital copies and books written about everything, but there was a certain magic that wasn’t in these new copies or the digital replication.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” someone would ask.
No, sorry, Sara would say. I’ll know it when I see it.
A shop in Brooklyn had an original 1966 release, in pretty good shape, on the wall behind the counter for $750.
“It’s not going to get any more original than this,” the shop owner said. “I can’t go any lower on price.”
“Money’s not the issue; it’s the date on the thing,” she said. “It’s a specific pressing from Capitol, but in 1968.
The shop owner looked confused. “The original is the original.” He waved his hand over the plastic sleeve holding the record. Sara walked out without the album.
There was one shop in Chicago where the owner, Rob, tried to be helpful because he didn’t seem to have something else going on.
“I know it was released in ’66, but the pressing I’m looking for happened in 1968,” she explained, then braced for the onslaught of usual questions.
Only to be surprised when Rob asked, “Not a re-release, or a re-recording?”
“Same record, but from a different plant. I think they used a different type of vinyl? There is something very unique and important about the sound this album puts out.”
Sara was afraid to say anything more.
“Hmm, well, even if they did keep track of stuff like this, I doubt there would be a record of it anywhere,” Rob said. “All of those presses closed up with CDs did their thing. They go out of business; no one much cares to keep track of the books anymore.”
“It’s on the vinyl itself — there is a certain grove right next to the label. That’s how you know.” Sara traced her finger along the edge of the record laying motionless on the nearby turntable. Three Eps by The Beta Band, she figured it was a good one if it was worth spinning in this place.
“I’ve only got the one copy in stock, but it’s pretty new, likely not what you’re looking for,” Rob said. “But leave me your number and I’ll keep an eye out.”
Ronin looked like he had aged a decade in the week Sara was gone. Laying on the king-sized bed in the living room, propped up against a mountain of pillows, under the television, near the HiFi system. 73, but he looked 103. Ronin was asleep as she walked in through the garage door into the kitchen, where Patrick — the day nurse — was washing out the last of the lunch dishes.
“How is he?” Sara asked.
“The same,” Patrick said. “He just had his medication; he should be awake now.”
A dozen records in cardboard packages were stacked with the rest of the mail on the kitchen counter. She opened up the top three, all copies of Pet Sounds, none with the telltale groove. She added them to the stack of another fifty that had been shipped in from all over the world over the last month.
Sara took a copy into the living room where her husband lay in a daze. Sara said, lightly, “my dear, we may have something.” She placed the record on the spindle and dropped the needle — side A, track 1, without the telltale groove. Through the speakers, the opening riff of Wouldn’t It Be Nice picked out from the tightly-gripped guitar neck somewhere back in 1965.
“Oh, this isn’t it,” Ronin said, his voice a dry rasp. “It’s nice, so nice of you, but this isn’t the one.”
Sara reached to stop the turntable.
“No, no. Let it play,” Ronin said.
Early on in the search, while throttled on morphine, Ronin had asked to leave the record playing. As he drifted in and out, he talked of a woman — a girl — named Bethany. She had been a love from years past, decades past, when he was just 17 and saving up for a car to drive around his home in the midwest
“She had great skin, and great skin wasn’t so easy to come by in those days.”
Bethany with the skin. She had a car. They spent hours together on summer afternoons playing through her collection of records, dozens of them. That was the summer of Pet Sounds.
Sara wouldn’t know about Bethany until they had been married for three years after the cancer showed up and started taking Ronin back a little bit at a time. As the tumors ate away at him, his entire history was torn open in no particular order and reviewed in-depth whether Sara wanted to hear it or not.
“When I got back from Vietnam, I learned the hard way Bethany hadn’t waited around. I was depressed, sure, but my friend got me a job at a plant in Cleveland that made records. One week we were printing Pet Sounds, the first time I had seen that album since I heard it while laying on the floor of Bethany’s room. So I took one,” Ronin said. This was in his more coherent years. When the drugs were minimal and the prognosis more helpful.
“I remember it had a white groove, right here,” he said, holding up another copy of the record, “Right where the label meets the vinyl. The machine would stamp it in such a way the material would look white.”
“Oh, how I would love to have that record again.”
And so the quest for Pet Sounds began. As Ronin spent more time asleep, Sara toured every shop she could find. Local, then not as local. She picked through thrift shops and flea markets. Hundreds of shops in dozens of countries. She even went to Cleaveland. Through it all, the memory of a fabled groove. The memory of the groove, the fabled white groove. She would drop the record on the turntable in the store, to play Wouldn’t It Be Nice so many times over she started to grow sick of the song.
Was there something else she was supposed to look for? None of the record she saw, much less Pet Sounds, had the groove.
Yes, Sara was looking for Pet Sounds, but in a way, she had no idea what she was looking for at all.
She would return from every trip with a half dozen new copies. Every time, Ronin would say the same thing, “It has the memory, but not the feeling.” The record would go back into the sleeve onto the shelf. The nearby record store stopped buying back her copies, even the original pressings she had spent a fortune on.
“All of the world’s copies of Pet Sounds, in a little shop outside of Houston. People are gonna think we’re a front for something more sinister,” the local shop owner said.
The record would play in the living room; Ronin would fade in and out as one track spun into the next. Sloop John B would play through before coming to a hiss, then silence, then a stop.
Sara hadn’t left the house in weeks. The search had been fruitless. The wear of travel, only to come home and know her efforts had “memory, but not the feeling.”
A text comes through, Rob in Chicago. “Maybe?”
The attached picture is the record label. His finger pointed to the edge of the label, where it met the vinyl. The picture was just blurry enough; it could have been anything.
“Can you send it to me?” Sara texted back.
“Dropped a mint on this one. Thousand, plus shipping and insurance. You sure it’s the one you wanted?”
Maybe it was?
Sara looked over at her husband, asleep and dead to the world. He had no idea what day it was. She could be gone and back before he noticed anything. Patrick would know to say, “she went to the store; she’ll be right back.”
“I’ll come out and see. Hang onto it?”
Sara arrived at the shop in Chicago the next day as Rob was locking up for the evening.
“Am I too late?” She asked.
Rob looked up from his key ring. “Oh, there you are.”
“Runway delays, sorry.”
“No worries, come on in.” Rob raised the shutter just enough to duck under, Sara crawled through and into the dark and incensed shop behind him. Rob snapped on a light by the register.
“Here she is,” he said, laying out the record. The sleeve was well worn; the record was a worn-out mess. “This one has been some places. I gotta say, you can tell this one is definitely different than the others.”
Then, pointing, “here’s your groove.” And what a groove it was, a faded, almost white. A marking from a different press.
“I guess this is it then,” Sara said, pulling out her wallet.
“Give it a spin? I want to make sure it sounds OK.” Rob said. Sara nodded, sure.
Rob places the needle down, Side A, track 1. A chill rushes through the shop as the music flows from the speakers. Sara looks at Rob, who is looking directly at her.
Oh wouldn’t it be nice t
There is something here. Something has entered the room. Sara could feel every hair on her arms stand on end, tightness in the bottom of her gut, a swell in her hips. Rob takes half a step back and falls into the seat of his stool, out of breath. Sara grabs the edge of the counter to keep her balance.
This wasn’t the same record; it wasn’t the same song. Rob hits the stop button, and the audio warps as the record slows to a stop. The new silence in the shop hangs between them. The air feels cleaner, smoother, as if a brush had just scraped everything clear and clean.
“What was that?” Rob said.
Only whiskey seemed appropriate to match what they were feeling. At this hour, most nights, Rob would be balanced on a barstool, within reach of the jukebox, imagining conversations with whoever else happened to come into the bar that night.
Tonight, with Sara, he cornered them off to the booth, the one that felt warmer, next to the pipes that fed the apartment upstairs. The one a little bit aways from the speakers, away from the lights, where it was quieter, darker.
Intimate, as the kids call it. Where you went when you wanted to be alone, to work things out.
“I’m still buzzing,” Rob said. “What was that?”
Sara just shook her head, slowly. No idea.
“I mean, we’ve all heard the urban legends. Playing KISS records backward to summon the devil, or how some paintings make people go insane, or the WuTang album that was seized by the Feds. But, this. What was that?”
“I’ve heard of music so good it’s like sex. That was… Jesus. I haven’t felt that well fucked in a while.” She takes a sip of her drink, “sorry, not to be crass.”
Rob waved his hand, no, no problem. Crass away.
They sat in quiet, feeling the moment.
“It was like falling in love. You know?” Rob said. “Like, not quite like when a crush looks at you for the first time. Or when you kiss someone or that feeling, you get mid-fuck when you both sort of finding your stride. No, this was like…love. The kind of stuff they write movies about.”
They drink for a moment.
“What was that?” Rob said, as though asking again would prompt the answer to fall out of thin air.
“That song has been eating away at me, like an illness, for the past six months; I pretty much hate that song,” Sara said. “But that was like hearing it for the first time.”
“The reason for your hunt?”
“No, I’ve been hunting down this record for my husband.”
“Don’t worry; he’s almost dead. Cancer, terminal.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to…”
Sara cuts him off, “I had to make peace with it a while ago. I’m just trying to stay invested enough to eventually take the payout.”
Rob lets her last words hang in the air; he has no idea how to respond.
“Fuck, it feels so good to say that. Out loud. Shit. I mean, he’s going to die peacefully and comfortably no matter what. He can pay for any treatment in the world. All of his family is out of state and worried sick over it, and I’m just sitting there in the same room as him where nothing happens.”
“Jesus. I love the honesty.”
“It’s not like they show in the movies. It’s just time passing,” Sara said. “So, yeah, when he started going on about this album, that was my way out of that depressing as fuck room. I could go places and look for this stupid fucking record.”
“Clearly, it’s not a stupid fucking record,” Rob said. “First off, it’s Pet Sounds — arguably one of the most progressive records of all time. Second, whatever the fuck happened back there? Not stupid. I almost want to buy that record back and take another hit.”
Rob waves at the bartender, another round. He brings them over.
“You know, maybe this was all by design,” Rob said. “Maybe this was a total snipe hunt, a search for a treasure that doesn’t exist. Maybe he didn’t want you just sitting around watching him die, so he sent you off to look for something that didn’t exist.”
“But, it does exist.”
“Total fluke. Or luck.”
“Or fate,” Sara said, holding her glass out.
Rob meets his glass with hers and toasts, “to fate.”
They could have slept together that night. Sara had a hotel room not far from the shop; it was on the way home for Rob. He had a collection of other great records at his place. He had a turntable, fresh needle, just waiting. They could spin Pet Sounds again, see if it works on other players. It’s a good feeling, why not keep it going?
And after having spent the day together, why not hold each other close the whole night through?” Rob sang quietly in front of the lobby doors.
“You’re drunk, go home, Rob.”
Sara lands on the endless flats of Texas. In her home, the palace of the infirm, she places Pet Sounds, the Cleaveland Pressing, on the player and sets the needle. The sound fills the room. She makes her way to the edge of the bed, her husband laying behind her, in a haze of sleep and pain. His breathing slows, slower.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long.
One song fades into the next. You Still Believe in Me, Don’t Talk. The slow waltz of Let’s Go Away For A While.
And why wouldn’t you want to?
The record spins around, Sara’s eyes go soft and heavy. The needle draws closer to the spindle. She feels every groove, every bit of dust, every pop, and hiss the vinyl takes on through the decades. Sara leans back on the headboard of the bed. Her husband, now awake but far from alert, stares up at the ceiling.
Was he feeling what she was feeling?
Side A, track six, Sloop John B. A sad tale over upbeat music — like so much pop music, like all of the Beach Boys.
Brian sings This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on. Why not smile at the idea?
Was he thinking of her? Of Bethany?
Was he thinking of her? Of Sara?
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, Let me go home
I want to go home, let me go home
Why don’t you let me go home?