Friday, July 18, 2008

Letter To My Kids About My Now Technologically Obselete CD and Vinyl Collection

Ever have a musical argument? Those dinners or bull sessions that drag on endlessly and have less resolved then a one-hour cable pundit show? I had too many to count when I was a teenager and definitely too many while I was in my twenties, when I supposed to be a responsible father of three.

The spats are based on taste and the opposition knows this. You claim an album or artist is valid and they disagree. You can prove it, and they disagree. They, in turn try to make you believe that blah, blah , blah and you're done. Next thing you know, three hours have passed and your girlfriend is sitting next to you wondering why the hell she should spend another minute with a guy has the nerve to hate The Cure.

It's American, man. It's what we do.

So kids, here's how music happened to me:

I was shy. Horribly, horribly shy and afraid of everything when I was a boy. There was no one around who was equipped to understand or aid me through my social affliction, so I had to figure it out on my own. (Almost there!)

At the beginning, I had to go with the flow. My parents had a total of ten records in our little apartment. Three Christmas albums, Santana's first, the Woodstock Soundtrack, Bee Gees Hits and Barbra Streisand. I realize that's not ten but the point is there. We also didn't have a record player after 1981 or so. So it was just the radio. They listened to oldies, which are now considered golden. I know every pop, bubble gum, one hit-wonder song from 1957 to 1971. But remember, oldies are radio hits. That means no Dylan, Hendrix, deep Beatles cuts, 'Pet Sounds', the Dead or even Led Zeppelin. If my parents knew who Frank Zappa was, they never let on.

I was a blank slate in 1983, so I listened to what my friend Sam had. Sam's parents had a little money at the time, so in his wee sixth-grade collection he had all the major 80's albums including Duran Duran and the Pet Shop Boys. It's what is referred to now as "John Hughes" music, after the director of the quintessential eighties films of which I could never relate. So, that's what I thought was music. Synthesizers and androgynous makeup. There was some Prince in there and Michael Jackson, too. But that didn't sound right either. This music was…clean. I liked it because my friend liked it and the girls at school with the giant hair liked it, too.

My friend on the other side of the classroom was an only child. Eric was into classic rock and had parents who were into the same. Pink Floyd's Animals was still way over my head (no pig pun intended) but the first Van Halen album was pretty cool. There was a sweet mix of radio rock and some newer, (although still very sexually confusing) glam rock, which had more balls than Cutting Crew but still left an unsatisfying hairspray taste in my mouth. Still, I stuck with it for awhile. The only other development worth noting was rap. Rap and breakdancing made its way to Central Florida about 1985, and as far as we were concerned there were only two groups: The Beastie Boys and Run DMC. For kids my age, this music was immensely significant. Rap was universally hated by parents. That's how it took off.

I loved music because it affected your mood. It was quicker than a book or a movie and and had a better success ratio than the thousands of hours I spent watching TV. I wanted to go outside and run when I heard music. When I finally got a Walkman, I could do just that. (A Walkman was a device that played cassettes, which were small, compact versions of albums. 'Albums then', in turn were what we call the entire release by an artist. Got it?)

In 1987, I had a stupid health class taught by a stupid football coach who obviously drew the shortest straw. In one of the many lessons that went nowhere, the mullet-headed assistant coach prattled on about all the conspiracies and fan theories about the Beatles. I knew who the Beatles were and a lot of their songs too, (the hits on my dad's oldies station, of course.) But this jarhead's little fifteen minute pop history lesson about "LSD" and Paul is Dead and Number 9 captured my interest. On that recommendation alone, I got my first album with my money: The Beatles' Revolver.

The Beatles broke up before I was born, but for a year they were all new and they were all mine. By the end of the eighties, the synth-pop Pretty in Pink stuff disappeared and glam bands were ripping each other off, waiting for an unknown and sad, blonde guy from Aberdeen, Washington to get his band noticed and put hairspray rock out of business. Rap had gone west coast and scary. But for me, it was Lennon and McCartney. This music wasn't just historic and good and fun to sing, it was a connection to another time. For a future history nerd, this was everything. The slang and the clothes; the experimentation. Why use the sitar, exactly?

The point was I found the Beatles on my own. Granted they weren't hard to find, but I can't stress this enough: we had ten records and no needle. I was a tiny little part of Beatlemania.

However, that music was intended for my parents. It's not my fault they missed out. Those sounds were just footnotes in hall of fame collections. I missed the grand opening of the British Invasion by more than two decades.

In high school, the aforementioned Sam continued his love for "alternative" music. That was a time when that actually meant something. Simply, it was the music you could buy but never hear on the radio, unless you were within earshot of the seven college radio stations that played it. Sam loved the Housemartins, the Beautiful South, Aztec Camera and the Stone Roses. Orlando, Florida had Murmur Records (named after REM's debut), the only place I knew of that carried that crazy shit. Unknown bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, Bjork, and Soundgarden lined the shelves with the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks. (The Buzz what?) Other than the Fab Four, my cassettes included Huey Lewis and Billy Joel! What the hell was this stuff?

So I dabbled here and there. I went to a Def Leppard concert and it was loud. I saw Pink Floyd and the flying pig. It was all pretty cool, but nothing grabbed me like the Beatles and nothing was as satisfying as that first (now frat party fare) Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill.

Until I was forced to listen to Jane's Addiction, I never would have done it on my own. A third fiend, Andy, appreciated all ends of the spectrum and was unashamed. He liked classic and new, silly and damn serious. He was the first person I knew who enjoyed Bob Dylan, someone I'd heard of my entire life but never experienced. Listening to Dylan the first time is like knocking down a wall in your home and finding out there's a room in there you've never seen. It's awkward, but the possibilities are endless. I'm not sure I even liked it, but it was so different.

Anyway, Jane's was a good band to listen to for me. Sort of alternative, sort of Zeppelin…I could appreciate the swearing, too. I felt I was on the right track although high school was over and none of this seemed to matter anymore. Music was a silly thing to think about with life and job and college and relationships out there looming. But even years later, just before I bought my very first CD, I knew this stuff would always be with me.

Grunge was peculiar because it was only time I can remember that some people wanted to kill it only two weeks after it started. (I assume the reaction to rap was similar) I don't know why. It ushered in all the careers of the great 'Murmur' bands from the eighties and it upended popular music for a good five years. It was really the last major fusion of music; punk met arena rock and had a child who lived in the Pacific Northwest.

My new girlfriend and I, (soon to be married and parents), loved this stuff. It was just like me, brooding, moody, whiny and clumsily masculine at the same time…plus we had an affinity for all things Seattle. (My loathing of Florida is another essay. Or two.) Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains made it more likely to hear REM on the radio. This was my music. This was me. I couldn't handle the lip gloss and mousse of those Molly Ringwald bands and the absurd lyrics of glam rock made me wince.

I was finding myself creatively then I was trying to write more honestly. The music helped. Hey, I was a young man with dad issues! Hey, I was pissed off and I didn't know why!

Then, the nineties had to go and continue. Everything I ever loved about the ebb and flow of popular music, the deep to the frilly to the folk to the pedestrian; searching for the next New York, the next Motown, the next Seattle; revivals and fusion and the wonderful question of "What's next" ended around 1995. It ended with two words: Spice Girls.

Pop. The most candy-apple, sugary sweet and empty calorie music imaginable arrived back into the world just when technology was about to blow the industry wide open. Movements were dead. Every type of music had a section in the store now, and soon would have a file on iTunes. Everyone could record. There is no history lesson needed here, because this is a personal essay. Good stuff got a lot harder to find.

Radiohead helped. Thanks. Beck helped. Thank you, man. My beloved Beasties could have put out more, but I appreciated what they gave me. Strangely enough this was the same time I started recording my own shitty music. Maybe I needed it that bad. I need expression somehow, and in the late nineties with the Backstreet Boys on every magazine…those musical conversations were as old fashioned as discussing the tax on tea.

I hit 30. Surely I was over this. Nope. Still looking. Always on the hunt for something new that helped me fill in the gaps of my life's soundtrack. I needed that one sound that was meant for me. I still don't know why. Then Jack White showed up and I could have kissed him.

That's it! That's the sound! Blues based but melodic, guitar riff heavy but a sense of humor. Stripped down, one take…barely matching the metronome. It was like comedy, my other obsession. It was a performance; not clean, not perfect, but reflective of the talent of the artist involved. Yes! The White Stripes eclipsed almost every group I've ever listened to. I was 16 again with my vinyl and my headphones.

At the ripe old age of 35, I still feel the same rush. Other humans are out there recording their shot to make it big, but to people like me who treat this more like gin to a wino its so much more. It is the next thing it is the next chapter. It wakes you up, comforts you when life sucks and is there when it happened again the next day. It is a reflection of who are and how you think. And I'll argue this until armageddon.

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