Listening in the Dark

When I was a student at the University of Minnesota, the center of life was Coffman Memorial Union (or “CMU”).  It sat near the geographic center of the University, and at the social center.  There were, nominally, two other student unions on Campus—one in St. Paul (on what was sometimes referred to as the “Ag Campus”) and another on the West Bank campus.  But in those days, Coffman was really the place.  I want to describe it as best I can, and I’m probably incorrect in some details, but this is what I remember.

From the top:  The fourth floor was The Campus Club—a nice place for faculty to have dinners and such.  Generally off-limits to students.  I was up there a couple of times for sociology department events, but that was about it.

The third floor:  Offices, though I don’t recall for exactly what.  I suspect mostly for administration matters having to do with CMU.  I wasn’t often up there.

The second floor:  student organization office space.  I spent a fair bit of time here, working for the combined Fellowship of Reconciliation/War Resisters’ League (“FOR/WRL”) chapter to which I belonged.  That make me think, by the way, that the third floor must have been conference and meeting rooms, because I know that FOR/WRL met in CMU on a regular basis, and I don’t think it was near the offices.  But I could well be wrong.

The main floor:  You entered from either end of the building (East or West) via a kind of glass enclosure that was supposed to keep the hot air out in summer and the warm air in in winter.  The front of the main floor was a kind of shallow atrium, floor-to-ceiling glass hung over a series of shallow enclosures that held benches, couches, chairs.  Sort of an airy study space.  Behind you, if you were facing the atrium, was a series of things.  From left to right, as I recall, a movie theater, a large round room that I think had a non-functional fireplace.  It was carpeted up over a ledge that ran around the perimeter for sitting.  Next, an information desk.  Last, near what was the Western end of the building, the music listening lounge.

The lounge was a series of open, carpeted rooms with interesting, chunky shapes molded into the floor and some chairs and couches.  You handed your student ID to a student employee at a glass booth at the entrance to the lounge, in exchange for which you got a set of headphones and you could make a request for an album or tape.  If they had it, and had a deck or turntable free, they put it on.  Otherwise, you took what was available.  You walked back into the lounge, found a comfortable spot with a plate, and plugged in the headphones.  The plates were distributed all over the room, and each had a headphone jack and a rotary switch, enabling you to select from around 10 channels.  One was always radio, if I recall correctly—probably KQRS, the “progressive” station of the time, but the channel may have been a University station.  The others were all the request channels.  I remember hearing Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” for the first time in that room, along with a lot of Frank Zappa.  Your ID bought you an hour of listening, and you could renew if there wasn’t a waiting list.  It was a clean, well-lit place to listen.

The floor below this, what I liked to think of as the basement, held the Minnesota Student Association store (“MSA”) which sold paper, writing supplies, rulers, books, and the like, and its evil twin (“MSA TOO”) which sold records, posters, some clothing, and “paraphernalia” (papers and bongs).  I first knowingly encountered Neil Young’s music in that store when “Comes a Time” was playing.  I bought the album immediately.

MSA and MSA TOO fronted via floor to ceiling glass shop windows onto a dark court, which had a couple of stands selling what passed for food, and an early-generation ATM.  This was before digital displays, for all intents and purposes, so the ATM interacted with you by turning a many-sided roller to display messages through a window.  Very cool.  When I say that this court was dark, I mean it.  It was hard to read sitting at the tables in the court, and the smell of sandalwood from MSA TOO mingled with the food smells and gave the place the aspect of a kind of opium den.  At one end was a large assembly room, and corridors ran out the East and West ends to walkways.

And then there was the sub-basement.  This was the single most futuristic place I had ever seen.  You came down through a kind of tunnel into a little café area (seldom open) with tables done up in faux-butcher-block finish.  I think (I’m pretty sure, now, but I could be conflating CMU with another place) that there was a bowling alley running from that area down a long hallway, and on the other side were pinball machines.  This was the late ‘70s, so most of these were actual mechanical pinball machines, save for some very early video games, including Asteroids, which I loved (in spite of never playing it well) on a black-and-white screen.  Once you emerged from the game hall, there was  a small study area done up in chrome wallpaper, flat black paint, and some kind of nearly luminescent-pattern-on-black carpet.  There were ramps and circular (and tubular) walls and it was all kind of space-station chic.  Also down there was the “Whole” coffee house, where I volunteered for a few weeks during folk shows.  I met guitarist Brownie McGhee there, when he and Sonny Terry were supposed to play a show.  Terry never showed up, so Brownie refused to go on solo.  My impression was that the two hated each other—a first intimation that the music world was not all roses.  The Whole was essentially run by a student whose name I’ve forgotten, but who sticks in my mind as the first person I knew to describe herself as a “woman of color.”

Back to the basement, with its opium-den atmosphere.  MSA used to play music that leaked out of the store and formed the undertone of this room.  And it’s where I remember learning to appreciate music for its emotional value.  I suppose that’s because it was so dark, it was hard to do much of anything else.  It wasn’t quiet, but the music could hold your attention if you could shut out the sounds of conversation around you.  I think that I first heard Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” down there, and a lot of other music as well.  I would hear the music and feel a sympathetic ache in my heart.  I suppose gawking at the girls (and the posters from MSA TOO) helped to create that ache.  I remember especially the smiling face of Nicollette Larson, who had performed on “Comes a Time” and who had a disco-flavored hit version with Neil Young’s “Lotta Love” around then.  And other music, like Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” felt like it was cutting me to the heart.

Interestingly, although I heard more music upstairs, intentionally, in the listening lounge, the music that has lasted for me has been the poorly-heard undertone of MSA TOO and that dark den.  I don’t know why, but I do know it’s true.  Was it the darkness?  Was it my social uncertainty and, for want of a better term, liminality?  I don’t know.  That was all mainly during my freshman year, as I gradually started hanging out in other places as time went on.

Coffman, when I last visited it four years ago, was a much cleaner, brighter place.  I think most places are, now that I think about it.  There is a grittiness that I recall from the ‘70s, and I think it may have had a lot to do with the fact that we didn’t worry as much, in those days, that contamination would kill us.  With the advent of AIDS a few years later, everyone got very concerned about cleanliness, and things just got whiter and brighter.

I suppose in some ways that’s a good thing.  But I find it much harder to relate to music in the warm light of day.  “Year of the Cat” was slick and new when I heard it in the listening room, but it didn’t grab my heart until I later heard it at a party in a tumble-down apartment just off campus.  It’s almost the only thing I remember from that party.  But it’s enough.  I can call the event back at the drop of a needle onto the opening track.  It was a dark, poorly-finished, drafty place.  The kind of place it needed to be.

How do you listen to music?  And what does it take to drive it into your heart and memory?


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One Response to Listening in the Dark

  1. Pingback: I Feel Like Goin’ Back (Introducing Ann Reed) | Law School is So Over

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