In July of 1954, a person named Dewey Phillips was playing records and broadcasting live on the radio from the Hotel Chisca in downtown Memphis. People were still playing music like they always had, but they’d figured out how to contain the vibrations in the air made when fingers plucked metal strings, wooden sticks hit drum, a larynx warbled. They captured the sounds and carved them into a flat piece of sturdy circular plastic. This was called a record. You could play a record by running a tiny piece of metal over it at a certain speed. When you did that, you could hear the music etched into the record, even if it had been sung five months ago or fifty or a hundred miles away. It was magic.
You could also let other people hear the record if you had the ability to transmit signals. There were machines that could modulate electromagnetic waves, the kind that vibrate lower than you can see with your eyes, the kind that maybe people on Mars can see, but not us, not yet. You would play the record on an electrical-type machine that would make the air move in a certain way, and it would spit the shaped air out in a way that other people could listen to it, if they had machines that could taste the spit right. People that played records for other people were called disc jockeys, or DJs. Dewey Phillips was a DJ. He spit music into the night. This was also magic.
That summer night in 1954 the DJ spit a song sung by a nineteen year old. The teenager didn’t write the song. He was from somewhere nobody cared about. He wore shirts that were dyed bright colors and had lace cuffs and liked to put a cosmetic device on his eyelashes called mascara. In another city named the same as the city the teenager lived in, people would mix a powdered copper rock with honey and smear it around their eyes to ward off evil and protect their souls. Maybe the teenager did it for the same reason. This, too, is a type of magic.
People in Memphis who had air-spit machines loved the song the teenager sang. The DJ ended up spitting it fourteen times into the smoldering night. People will go just crazy for a song that they like. It makes them feel good and they want more of it. There is a juice in human bodies called serotonin. It is like a radio that only spits out your favorite songs. Music can induce feelings of euphoria, possibly through triggering higher discharges of serotonin. This is most certainly magic.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, scientists spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get human bodies to make more spit like this, or not to get rid of it as fast if their bodies could actually made it in the first place. The scientists tried to determine how to replicate the spit in the same way that records could play back a song. This was a holy mission in search of the rarest of magics.
The concern some expressed at the time is that there is never enough of this spit. There was only the first time that Dewey Phillips played the record by the teenager; and certainly by the fourteenth time it felt differently. There was only the one time where you kissed your first kiss ever in the back of your best friend’s dad’s Buick. There was only the one time you stood at the wall of the teenager’s house and pressed your hand onto the sharp-edged rock. There was only the one time you held hands in the back of a cab on a January night when it felt like nineteen degrees outside. There was only the one time when you pressed your face to the cold brick of the Hotel Chisca, ruined and empty. There was only the one time when you buried your face in your hands on the banks of the Mississippi River. Not all records can be played twice.
That’s all right. That is the magic of life.