Eight children, four each from different families, purÃ©ed Brady Bunch style in a $250-a-month, four-bedroom apartment in mid-’70s Elyria, Ohio. Inflation squeezed the wallets and coin purses dry, forcing both mother and stepfather to work full-time to keep Swansonâ€™s frozen dinners, soup beans, and cornbread on the table, along with new clothes for the oldest son and daughter to pass down as they grew.
Eight children, two working parents, limited income — who was going to watch the kids after school? Daycare and nannies were out of the question, as were babysitters who would charge the going rate, so four days a week my mother depended on her niece, my Aunt Jackie.
Jackie was in her late teens/early 20s. She had long, straight black hair parted right down the middle, with stray flyaways here and there, like Janis Joplin. She was a child of the ’60s, absorbing as much hippie culture and flower power as she could in our small midwestern town, miles away from the communes of San Francisco and the sounds of Woodstock. Her manner of dress reflected her youth — long, colorful beads and smock tops over blue bell-bottoms. While Aunt Jackie may have looked like she was trapped in the ’60s, she kept herself current with the music of the ’70s.
And thatâ€™s where she took a special liking to me.
Aunt Jackie was a cool babysitter. She kept us safe and kept us in line but also allowed us to be kids, something my stepfather rarely let us do. We laughed at the dinner table, played games in the living room, had talent shows where we lip-synched to our favorite 45s on the family stereo. And since my older brother and sisters were already junior-high age, Aunt Jackie could lavish some extra attention on my little sisters and the middle kids, including a seven-year-old like me.
She noticed that while all the other kids spent hours playing outdoors, I was happy to stay in my portion of my shared bedroom, reading comic books and listening to the same 45s over and over. Allowance Day on Fridays was a big deal in our house — it meant I could take my weekly dollar and save it for our next trip to Clarkins or Uncle Billâ€™s Department Store, where singles were just 99 cents each. The 99-cent price point was a particular torture for me since the total ended up being $1.04, that extra four cents in sales tax continually eluding me. I canâ€™t tell you how many times my sad puppy-dog eyes, peering out from behind thick, horn-rimmed frames, got the cashier to forget about the sales tax and let me run off with my newest vinyl treasure.
Aunt Jackie noticed my love of music and the pitiful selection of 45s I was stuck with, so one day she showed up carrying a big cardboard box. As everyone milled about the house doing their own various things, she sat on our couch and called out for me to join her.
â€œJohnny,â€ she said, â€œI brought you a few things, but before I give them to you, you have to promise me a couple of things, okay?â€
â€œOkay, Aunt Jackie,â€ I replied, a little unsure of what was going on.
â€œYou like the DeFranco Family, right? And ABBA?â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™ve brought you some new records to listen to, okay? But you have to promise me youâ€™ll be very careful with them, â€˜cause I want them back someday, okay?â€
â€œOkay!â€ I squealed, already dying to snatch the box from her hands and tear upstairs to begin listening to them.
â€œAnd you also have to promise me something else, okay? These are really new records, okay? Stuff that isnâ€™t too popular here yet. So your mom and stepdad may not get it, okay?â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€
Aunt Jackie paused for a moment, not sure if she should continue or not. Gathering her wits, she smiled and pulled out an album. She opened the gatefold sleeve, revealing a lanky man in a blazing red-and-blue leotard, sparkling with glitter, his hair a fiery red blaze, his face fully made-up and topped off with a blue lightning bolt across one eye that reminded me of my favorite Saturday-morning TV show, Shazam! I heard the sound of my jaw hitting the floor.
â€œThis is a guy named David Bowie,â€ Aunt Jackie explained. â€œHe started what they call â€˜glitter rock.â€™ Thereâ€™s a whole bunch of bands in England making glitter rock and … I donâ€™t know, but I just thought youâ€™d really dig it, okay?â€
“Okay,â€ I said, rapt.
â€œThing is, you know how your mom and stepdad are really into the church thing, right?â€ She rolled her eyes. â€œIf they see this stuff, theyâ€™ll get really mad at me for giving it to you and theyâ€™ll take them away from you and you wonâ€™t be able to listen to them anymore. But I think you can handle it, right?â€
â€œYes! Yes!â€ I agreed. I understood what she was saying, yet I couldnâ€™t wait to hear what this alien creature sounded like.
â€œI brought you a bunch of other stuff too. Some Suzi Quatro, Nick Gilder, Sweeney Todd, the Sweet. But hereâ€™s how weâ€™ll do this.â€ She began taking the records out of their sleeves. â€œWeâ€™ll keep the records in these sleeves instead, okay?â€ From the box she produced some camouflage record covers: The Partridge Familyâ€™s Second Album, the Carpenters’ Yesterday Once More, various K-Tel compilations. â€œYou get it?â€
â€œYeah, itâ€™s like when I sneak up to watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman on the little TV upstairs!â€
â€œExactly!â€ Aunt Jackie laughed. â€œSee, I knew you could handle it.â€
I thanked her and ran upstairs, putting the record that intrigued me most, Bowie’s Aladdin Sane LP, on my tiny Emerson turntable with the built-in mono speaker. After that it was on to the candy-coated glam confections Aunt Jackie gave me: Nick Gilderâ€™s underage-hooker opus, â€œHot Child in the City,â€ and his slinky ode to getting laid, â€œHere Comes the Nightâ€; Suzi Quatroâ€™s uber-butch remake of â€œAll Shook Upâ€; and a song that was eerily similar to one on Aladdin Sane, the Sweetâ€™s pounding, nonsensical â€œBlockbusterâ€ (download) (the line about â€œlong black hairâ€ still reminds me of Aunt Jackie). I would sit listening for hours, watching the Bell or Chrysalis Records logos spin endlessly.
“Blockbuster” and Aladdin Sane‘s “Jean Genie” were both released in December 1973 and shared more than a few similarities. For example, while “Blockbuster” ruled the charts in the UK, reaching #1 while keeping Bowie at bay at #2, both singles were spectacular flops in the U.S. — “Jean Genie” peaked at a measly #71, and “Blockbuster” fared even worse at #73.
Oh yeah, Aunt Jackie never asked for her records back. And my parents never heard or found them.
Thanks, Aunt Jackie.
“Blockbuster” peaked at #73 in 1973.
Get the Sweet’s music at Amazon.