Hello, Cheesy Polynesia of the Mind!

text and photo by Stewart Engesser

In the blurry, sleepwalk days immediately following the birth of my daughter, we spent a lot of time together, prostrate on the floor, as my daughter wept, wailed, and struggled to express her true thoughts and feelings.

In that way, it was not unlike a lot of relationships I’ve had over the years.

I loved my daughter deeply and immediately, yes, of course, but what was I supposed to do with this volatile tomato-faced bundle? I had no idea. Although it was already clear that we had one thing in common: a tendency to break out in rashes.

We gurgled. We napped. And I shared with her one of my greatest pleasures: I played her records. She enjoyed side one of Rubber Soul, but not the glassy operatics of Berlin-era Bowie. The lo-fi reggae soul of “Everything Crash” by The Egyptians and the spooky echo of Lee Scratch Perry passed muster, as did the bubble-gum wall-of-sound blast of the Ramones’ first album. She loved the lilting Black Country folk of the Fairports and the gothic twang of the Handsome Family, but my copy of James Mason Reads Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” always just put her to sleep.

That was a good thing.

She cooed along to the lush orchestral arrangements and exotic vibes of Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village.” The Cramps’ comic book horrorbilly just kind of frightened her. But the album that never failed to entrance was a kitschy 1959 album by The Diamond Head Beachcombers called “Aloha from Hawaii.”

Contrary to what its name and album art might suggest, Aloha from Hawaii was not recorded in Hawaii, but in New York City, far away from the endless springtime and exotic skull-borne cocktails of Polynesia. And let me be the first to tell you: This is not a great record. But if you’re looking for a pretty straight take on Hawaiian slack key guitar; the lilting, shimmering swoon of pedal steel, the chunky bamboo tock of island percussion, all wrapped up in a nice, slickly-produced faux-tropical bundle, then this is the record for you.

I got mine for two dollars at Enterprise Records on Congress Street in Portland, during a March blizzard in 2000. It had been a long winter. My girlfriend and I were trying to plan a wedding. We needed a vacation, a change of scene; we needed warmth and sunshine but couldn’t afford to go where those things existed. So instead I went to Enterprise Records and bought Aloha from Hawaii and brought it home. I put it on the turntable, set the needle down, and immediately our cold drafty house in Maine took on the exotic feel of a Tiki bar. (The rum and tonics helped, too.) Snow drifted past the windowsills outside, but inside we smelled orchids and felt the sugar-sweet caress of the Trades. We were castaways, lost in a private paradise, far away from the blowing snow and skidding cars outside the window.

Now our daughter is six. Winter is coming again. The days are short, but too warm for the season, and like many people I am haunted by a strange, unsettled feeling. Is everything in the world really as bad as it seems? Is everything really falling apart?

Dead leaves skitter across the lawn and the darkness gathers. I want to take my family far away, to an easier place, somewhere dreamy and exotic and warm. But for now true escape will have to wait, so I do what I can: I slip the record from the sleeve. I set it carefully on the rubber mat of the turntable. I set the needle in the groove, I turn up the volume, and together we are borne away by the glistening swoop and tremble of the pedal steel, to an imagined paradise, where the sea is blue and the calm days roll by undisturbed, like perfect waves, waiting only to be ridden.