Once a month, the lights of Phoenix Books and Music burn extra late into the night, setting the sidewalks of Capitol Avenue in downtown Cheyenne aglow. The first Thursday of each month brings together the “Knights of the Turntable” – an eclectic cross-section of local characters who have a passion for vinyl and a penchant for storytelling.
Orchestrated by the shop’s owner, Don McKee, the group gathers, records in hand (or borrowed from the used selection for sale in the shop), ready to spin songs for their fellow discophiles. The rules of the event are simple and clearly lined out: Sign up for a 15-minute slot in which the presenter plays music and extrapolates on his or her selections pertaining to the night’s theme. At the end of the night, everyone votes for best presentation with the winner receiving a gift card for $10 to the shop. While aware of its existence, I’m not a self-proclaimed vinyl devotee, so I’d never found myself at this particular gathering in town. However, when I brought my friend Jeff (a hardcore music lover and avid record collector) to meet Don, my curiosity about the Knights of the Turntable was sparked. I love sampling others’ passions with them, merely for the exposure to something new. The enthusiasm seeping out of their words bundled me up in excitement and I was compelled to come see what I was missing!
I walked in, five minutes late (in true mom-of-a-toddler fashion) to see a small sea of strangers. Don’s was the only familiar face in the crowd and the introvert in me swallowed a moment of panic as I shimmied my way toward the back of the record section while curious eyes followed me. Primarily consisting of men, the group did have a sprinkling of females: a young woman about my age, a woman not quite old enough to be my mother, and me. There was an open seat next to the older of the two, in the back row. Perfect. I sat down and pulled out the sweater I’m knitting this month – and was DELIGHTED to see my neighbor pull out her own needles and a green and blue sock that was two-thirds finished. Paula, an elementary school Special Ed. teacher regularly attends and always knits socks as she listens. My fears of being the weirdo in the room with my knitting paraphernalia melted away and I immediately knew I was in good company. It turned out, Paula made an excellent tour guide to the evening as well.
September’s theme “XYZ” was a fairly loose and open-ended topic. The end of the alphabet played some element in the selections; artists’ names, song titles, monikers mainly began or ended with the triad of letters, and the resulting playlist promised to be as wide-ranging as the assortment of attendees, I soon learned.
The first presenter, a local community college professor with thick, free-flowing grey hair was mid-pontification about some 1970s bands I would classify as “my dad’s music.” Having read an article once upon a time about music from our high school years striking the most nostalgia in our hearts, his choices did not surprise me. Given the average age in the room, paired with my serious lack of music knowledge, it also didn’t surprise me to have never heard of many of the bands to which the rest of the group nodded their heads in recognition. As the melodies of Little Feat flowed through the stereo (a band who spelled their name as a nod to the Beatles – which, I’m embarrassed to admit, I never realized was spelled to incorporate the word “BEAT”), the journey began.
My needles quietly clicking away, the group wove a tapestry of their own, blending their diverse tastes, backgrounds, and knowledge. An older gentleman brought silly Christmas songs by 1950s’ comedian Yogi Yorgesson; A tattooed and pierced railroad worker spun British punk rock (X-Ray Spex) and gave an etymology lesson on the word “Zaar” (a demon from the cultures in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East that possesses primarily women, causing discomfort and illness, if you were curious). A ceramic artist with a curly pixie cut brought her copy of Sergeant Pepper from the Soviet Block, plastered with Cyrillic titles over the familiar images. Cover art featuring scantily clad women and French models circulated the room from the collection of a conservative-looking professional. Don, the shop’s owner, even got in on the game and presented a snippet of an interview with Dodger’s pitcher Sandy Koufax from a square, paperboard record collected from a stop off Route 66 in southern California several decades ago. The oldest member then stepped up, hair pulled back in a ponytail and sporting a tie-dyed t-shirt. A yodel about Wyoming, a 90-year-old 78 RPM record (that required its own player), and a Hebrew-language instant-hit (in its day) further diversified the evening’s soundtrack.
My mind spun like the records. Paula narrated as she knit, sharing more about the group (one night a member danced an entire Irish jig for the group and another time they made a human timeline of the history of the guitar, winding in and out of the aisles formed by the racks in the small shop). It became abundantly clear to me – this group needs to become a regular part of my world. The contagious joy in the room filled my heart with happiness.
The night ended in the most appropriate way possible; the perfect finale to this assortment of sounds – Yoko Ono and Sonic Youth’s GOO album. Watching the hippy-haired attorney spin the last tunes of the evening was my favorite moment of all. Although he got some good-natured guff for his selections, he shamelessly stood, eyes closed, swaying to the sounds coming out of the speaker, his love for the music pulsating around all of us. In fact, he left with the top prize for the evening in hand, despite the group’s anti-Ono disposition. That, in and of itself, spoke volumes and begged me to come back, to be a part of this community.
If you find yourself in Cheyenne on the first Thursday of the month, I highly encourage you to step into Phoenix Books and Music between 6-9 p.m. Tourists and locals alike are welcome – in fact we had several spontaneous drop-ins during my evening there. You are promised a memorable cross-section of the community, an increase in your random knowledge reserves, and, hopefully, find a song or two to add to your own playlists. (Kooks, by David Bowie made its way to my heart that night). Check the Phoenix Books and Music Facebook page for up to date information.