Music is the Invisible Ticket

The Ahlborns bring an unwritten library to Bobblehaus

No. 203
Article by:
Leona Chen

Brian Ahlborn has mapped much of his life upon music. His daughter, Ronnie, is named after six musicians - three men and three women artists, including folk singer Ronnie Gilbert who, according to another singer-songwriter Holly Near, “ gave every woman that I know a way to express exactly how she’s feeling.” Having lived in Germany in the 80s, Ahlborn named his son, Max, after Reinhard Mey’s “Du bist ein Riese, Max,” a German song that translates to “you’re a giant, Max.” Their namesakes pay tribute to Ahlborn’s profound appreciation for what music has done for him his entire life.

“Much of history isn’t written down,” Ahlborn says. “But it can be understood through music.” Today, he lives in New Orleans, where music is imbued into the city’s physical ecosystem and cultural soul. “Introductions are everywhere,” he says. “Discussions about music are everywhere. The Jazz Fest lineup just dropped, so my group text chains are going nuts.” Online, too, music is omnipresent: “I’m a Bob Dylan fan. I can go to his website every day, and it lists articles about his history… and recommended artists.”

“Much of history isn’t written down. But it can be understood through music.”

From his young adulthood Ahlborn was probably Dylan’s most conscientious listener. Dylan’s lyrics, written a generation before Ahlborn’s own coming-of-age, were prophetic for the human condition ahead. “I was reading about [Dylan’s perspective on] divorce when I was 15; reading about religious transformation in my 20s; reading Dylan’s experiences as a grandfather when I was in my 30s.” 

The lyrics were richly liberating, offering a way out of his hometown, a conservative community where teenagers were dutifully sorted into farmers, football players, and cheerleaders:

“A question in your nerves is lit

Yet you know there is no answer fit

To satisfy, ensure you not to quit

To keep it in your mind and not forget

That it is not he, or she, or them, or it

That you belong to”

Before long, Ahlborn had consumed over thirty different books about Dylan, his lyrics, and their various interpretations. After all, he was a disciple of curiosity, not certainty. Untethered to a single artist, Ahlborn applied his fervor more widely to the works of The Allman Brothers Band, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, and Led Zeppelin. He found that their music offered him a way into other worlds, perspectives, and generations. It was a form of escape from his hometown of Indiana, as much as it was a framework for empathy. 

But music had a way of collapsing those walls, even if just enough for them to see eye to eye. Ahlborn remembers from his early life a quiet day with his father, Fred, who’d suddenly pointed out a Johnny Cash song that had been playing on the radio in the background. It was “I Walk the Line”; Fred had liked its interpreted values of fidelity, loyalty. Though the hits had been steadily humming on the radio day in and day out, this was Ahlborn’s earliest memory of them talking specifically about the music and what it meant to them. 

The conversation continued, and the gulf between him and his father inched closer: Ahlborn eagerly asked his father if he’d heard Dylan’s “A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall,” widely believed to be about the Cuban Missile Crisis, though Dylan would later say it was “a funeral song,” more broadly about “evil for evil.” Fred talked about being a young father in 1962, during the Cold War, when “although we were focused on diapers and work, the overhanging threat of nuclear war created an omnipresent layer of stress that was overwhelming at times.”

The truth, Fred declared, was that all nostalgia operated as a fiction. His life, and the lives of those around him, had not at all resembled the “black and white Pleasantville stuff” often evoked in retrospect by their descendents. Fred’s life had featured complex high and low points; he told Brian, “I had a friend that tried to commit suicide when he was 23; I had a friend with severe mental illness that ended up in asylum; I also had friends who made a lot of money…”  

The problems and pressures that his son was facing, Fred argued, were not new. They were what people had been going through for decades. “Every generation goes through hard shit; and the next generation tries to forget it, or romanticize it. The white picket fences and the societal bullshit roles … that’s not what really happened.” It was precisely what Ahlborn had so ardently gleaned from the musicians, that he now heard explicitly from his father: evidence that through music the human experience could be shared, passed down, and learned from. 

Ahlbon also learned that while music could be a ticket to undiscovered places for himself, he could offer such a ticket to others, allowing them access to his own world. 

His grandfather, George, had grown up in a quiet Michigan farming community. He loved whistling along to The Mills Brothers, a Black quartet that rose to prominence just before World War II with vocals intonating brass instruments. “We’d drink Manhattans and play cards and listen to music together,” Ahlborn remembers. “And one day, I showed him Pink Floyd’s album The Dark Side of the Moon.” 

Ahlborn often introduced new music to his grandfather: “some stuff he was open-minded about, some stuff he wasn’t.” But that day, George was riveted by something else: the technology. “Headphones were new in the early ‘70s,” Ahlborn says. They listened to The Dark Side of the Moon (on Eight Track tapes!) together with the new experience of the music traveling left to right, right to left. “I gotta go get one of those,” marveled an amazed George. 

Decades later, Ahlborn continued the conversation as a father of two. He took a professorial approach to developing Max’s and Ronnie’s  literacy and curiosity for music. He recalls their family car rides throughout their suburban hometown in Michigan, twenty miles from Detroit. With Ronnie and Max strapped in the backseat, he’d ask, “hey, you wanna do a Dylan song right now?” 

Both kids would immediately understand this to mean, dad’s about to play a song, but he’s gonna stop it thirty times, and he’ll want to talk about it along the way. 

“One thing you learn from the music is that your kids are so different,” Ahlborn says. He could point out his own sources of intrigue: Mick Taylor’s solo, a particularly cerebral refrain, a decadent brass section. But at the end of the day, “[the kids] will get what they get. And if they didn’t want to engage at that time, we’d simply drop it for the moment.” Still, it was a special way for him to show his children how they could cultivate a relationship with music, and how music would be a way for him to communicate with them throughout their lives. 

Years later, Ronnie recalls that dissective approach, stanza by stanza. “He’d pause the music and say, ‘did you hear what [the artist] just said? That was insane to say at the time.’ He would tell me how it made him feel, what it made him realize. He would tell me what he learned.” 

“He’ll find appropriate songs for different times in my life. He always says that there are songs you grow up with, and songs you grow out of and then back into.” The Ahlborns love that music is a shared language and medium to prove that no experience could be totally isolating or overwhelming. 

“I have more to contribute to the conversation now,” says Ronnie. “I can offer my own context. I can tell him what matters to me. I can tell him what songs are going to be the biggest hit of the year, and why.” 

“[For] the Ahlborns… music was a shared language and medium to prove that no experience could be totally isolating or overwhelming.”

Throughout his life, Ahlborn collected well over 1,000  vinyl records. Today, the collection has been distilled to several hundred, divided equally - materially and spiritually - between his two children. The delineation process crystallized how Ahlborn had come to know Ronnie and Max through, and because of, the music.

 “We were all standing around this tower of records and he was just distributing them, literally, left and right,” says Ronnie. “Some of it was mathematical: four Beatles for Ronnie, four Beatles for Max.” But while Ahlborn abided by the paternal principle of fairness, he bequeathed some albums with the deeper paternal instinct of love: “If an album evoked the soul of Brooklyn, it would go to Max, who was living there at the time. Or he’d look at a record and say, ‘this  was about mold-breaking women… for you, Ronnie.’” 

The albums are a physical inheritance for the Ahlborns; their relationship with music is a more profound one. As a young Brian Ahlborn shared the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Tony Bennett with his father and grandfather, Ronnie and Max have introduced their father to frameworks of their own, like what it means to construct a playlist not by artist, genre, history, or ideology - but by its vibes. 

“I do Spotify playlists now,” says Ahlborn. “I’m getting into that chill, study, coffee house, ambience-focused music.” To be clear, Ahlborn isn’t new to the curatorial approach of playlists; he proposed to his wife, Leslie, in the 90s with a cassette tape acrostic poem spelling out “Will You Marry Me, Leslie?” (W was, appropriately, The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four”.) 

Now, Ronnie and Max are bringing part of their inherited collection to Bobblehaus as part of an experiential listening gallery and series of events. Ronnie’s albums made their first appearance in the 2022 BobbleHoliday collection, where they served as an aesthetic complement to the vibrant photo shoot. Ophelia recalls that during the photoshoot, Ronnie had handled her vinyls with a tender particularity. She is, after all, her father’s daughter: “the cardinal rule is that you never reshelve someone else’s albums,” he had said. Everyone has a system of their own; Ahlborn alphabetizes them by last name, then chronologically; his children alphabetize by first name. 

More than that, though, the tactile work of handling her albums prompted Ronnie to share the role that music played in her life, and that of her family. “I immediately understood what that [connection] meant,” says Ophelia. 

The Bobblehaus team wants to share the various ways music can be a community experience. The BH Valentine’s Day Indulgence drop will be sold inside vintage album covers, evoking the exhilarating experience of sorting through albums. Community members will be invited to swap albums–  sharing as a fundamental means of sustainability. Their flagship on 180 Orchard Street will host listening galleries in the tradition of Ahlborn and his friends, who would go to each other’s house to just listen to music. 

Invisible Ticket: An Unwritten Library will be officially opening on February 9, 2023, with an opening reception from 6-8pm EST at BOBBLEHAUS.

RSVP for the opening here.

Throughout the exhibition, album trading will be available, to continue the tradition of passing on stories through music. The Bobblehaus team has chosen the albums most important to us, and included a story of what each album means to each of us. We just ask that when you bring in an album to trade, you provide a story as well. We will include and display the handwritten stories as part of the exhibition. 

We are thrilled to present Invisible Ticket: An Unwritten Library as an exhibition honoring music as a love language from February 9 to April 3, 2023. We hope to see you there and can’t wait to hear your stories!