Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Musical Memories

When a Led Zeppelin song comes on the radio I turn it up (unless it's from "In Through the Out Door"). I didn't grow up on Zeppelin. I didn't even know it was the break from "Whole Lotta Love" that they played on Channel 20's Saturday afternoon Thriller Double Feature. Robert Plant moaning over Jimmy Page's freaked out guitar terrified me for years after and when I finally heard the whole song on "Led Zeppelin II," I nearly drove off the road.

I'm sure I heard a lot of popular music while I grew up, I just don't remember much of it. The only mainstream hit that got into my bloodstream was Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Up Together." My cousins had a 45 of this song and I loved it so much they gave it to me. Young enough to not know how to read yet, my cousins marked up the side I wanted to hear with little hearts on the label. I remember dancing to this and the Bee Gee's "Jive Talking" quite a few times at my Grandma White's trailer.

Apart from a few 8-tracks that I can't remember, my Mom spent a lot of time playing classical music for me, most likely because we performed similar songs while taking piano lessons. On the way back and forth from Mrs. Mack's house where we did our back-to-back lessons, we'd rock out in the AMC Matador to Bernadette Peters, Barry Manilow, Crystal Gayle, or The Oakridge Boys on cassette tape.

The rest of my musical exposure came from AM radio, particularly "Honey Radio" down at the left end of the dial. It operated out from dawn to dusk and played nothing but oldies. We'd do-wop our way to Wompler's Lake most Fridays during the summer, returning sunburned and tired on Sunday evening, hitting Ann Arbor right around the time Honey Radio went off the air.

I felt like the boy in the musical bubble. The introduction of MTV helped broaden my horizons as far as the MTV rotation would go. I enjoyed a lot of the music but didn't do much more than that. I contented myself with the occasional LP like Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and all of Weird Al's records. I spent hours on end listening to comedy records from Bill Cosby. My favorite record had to be the two-LP set from K-Tel, "Goofy Gold." This collection properly warped my mind. I didn't understand a lot of the jokes ("How do I get this car out of second gear?") but they were catchy and annoying enough to infect my nascent musical sensibility.

My best friend growing up had older brothers that were definitely into some stuff I considered freaky. They'd listen to bands like Blue Oyster Cult, KISS, and Ozzy Osbourne. I showed up at their house one day while they were watching Ozzy performing "Iron Man." The flabby white, sweaty chest, the raccoon eye makeup and his vacant stare as he marched across stage (along with the rumors that he bit the heads off of bats) made Ozzy a pretty terrifying dude.

It wasn't until high school that I really felt the bubble starting to burst. Riding around with older kids from marching band I started to hear what was on popular radio. Cameo, Oran "Juice" Jones, Neucleus, The Beastie Boys… These sounded like novelty songs with a bigger budget. I started spending hours at home flipping through radio channels, taping songs that I liked and listening to them ad nauseum. This had to be about the time that I found Dr. Demento on the airwaves late at night as well as the show "Brave New Waves" out of exotic Canada.

This also seemed about the time where music started to get really important to my friends. They used it as something to set them apart from everyone else. Find the most obscure artist and decorate your Trapper Keeper with their logo. This made you someone. My occasional trips to the Wyandotte Record Exchange with my mom became regular weekend outings with my friends. We'd walk down the railroad tracks into Wyandotte and scour the shelves and bins, looking for new music. This also coincided with us becoming more commercial creatures, putting money towards records and cassettes.

I don't want to know how much money I spent buying music. I latched on to a few bands (making sure they weren't the favorites of my other friends but cool enough, nonetheless) and sunk my lunch money into them. I had enough cassettes that I built my own shelf for them, looking like some kind of Homer Simpson home improvement project. I kept it impeccably alphabetized and would proudly study the shelf, leaving room for the few tapes by Siouxsie & The Banshees or Public Image Ltd that I had yet to find (but knew were out there).

As any teenager knows, there wasn't much to do in my hometown. Shopping became the extent of our activities. We'd trek out to Penny Pincher for clothes and the in-store record shop, Earwax. Occasionally we'd make the trip out to Royal Oak or Ann Arbor for their dozen record stores. Going to Chicago with my folks, I couldn't wait to stop at Quaker Goes Deaf to see what they had to offer. Going in, standing in front of bins, and patiently flipping through records as your fingers turned black from dirt became my career outside of high school.

Music was identity, commerce, entertainment, and rebellion all rolled into one neat package. When the stores had closed I'd spend hours in my room with my headphones pumping out ear-splitting volume to catch every nuance of "Never Mind the Bullocks" or I'd be driving aimlessly through the subdivisions with my speakers threatening to blow out as "It Takes a Nation of Millions" polluted the air with Flavor Flav hype. I tried to be eclectic but know I just took baby steps outside of my comfort zone on the rare occasion. And, little did I know, there huge gap in my musical background.

All those years listening to classical records and classic rock gave me some good footing in oldies and way oldies. But I had missed a lot of what happened between the Beatles breaking up and the Beastie Boys depriving themselves of sleep until they reached Brooklyn. Apart from that run-in with Ozzy, I had no idea about Heavy Metal and even Disco had come and gone under my radar.

One day in first grade a kid, Gary something, started singing "Hit the Road, Jack." I thought it was great. He wrote down the lyrics and told me that he wrote this song. It was mine for a dollar. I didn't pay him a dollar but I believed him for a few hours until I asked my parents about it. When I was just out of college I went to West Virginia and this guy, Keith something, started playing "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp". He could have told me he wrote it and I would have believed him. I had no clue about Led Zeppelin and wouldn't have until Keith proceeded to play the entire "Led Zeppelin III" album on an acoustic guitar.

Going into college my musical direction took a decided turn. I stopped buying cassettes, save for blank ones to record music onto for car rides, and stuck to vinyl and a new format, compact disc. I'd gotten my first compact disc player for my graduation present (a combination CD, LP, cassette player/recorder). When it came time to pick colleges, by the way, my choices came down to two schools: the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. It took me months to figure out that they were different schools since they both had "University" and "Michigan" in the names. The biggest differentiator came down to U of M having scads of great record stores while MSU had a kick-ass radio station. With my track record, you can imagine I went for the record stores.

Now instead of Bauhaus or The Cramps, I looked for records by new bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. I wouldn't buy there on any format other than vinyl. Meanwhile my CD collection boomed. This was 1990, the dawn of Grunge's mainstream popularity. I'd been listening to Nirvana and Soundgarden in high school but now I delved into bands that influenced these two or who followed fast in their footsteps.

Nirvana bookended my college career. I entered school right around the time "Nevermind" dropped and loved it. My poor roommates had to endure that and a lot of the music I was into, though they got me back via Michael Bolton and repeated listening of REM's "Automated for the People." After a little more than a year at school I decided to branch out and inflict more people with my musical taste, applying for a disc jockey position at our campus radio station, WCBN. Resting at the tail end of the dial, the joke for the frequency geeks was, "If we were any more to the left, we'd be television."

My buddy, Jeff Dunlap, and I produced a couple of tapes with our dulcet voices back-announcing tracks and were both accepted for graveyard shifts. Not one for doing more than I'm required, I surprisingly volunteered for jobs recording some local interest shows and turning on the Pacifica Radio broadcast (think of a more liberal NPR).

The radio station afforded me a wealth of music to devour. Here I got into Exotica, Noise, and even some Blues. Jazz, the station's mainstay with its 8AM-12AM "Jazz 'till Noon" block remained an anathema. I could dig on some John Zorn when he was channeling Ornette Coleman but keep me away from the kind of stuff the cats at the station dug so much.

My musical education became a hardcore study hall, continuing to flip through vinyl every night from 12PM to 6AM when the doubly named Arwulf Arwulf would take to the air, his eyes bleary but his be-bop in tune to the morning groove.

Time wore on and college wound down. Everything heading for an April 1994 graduation date. And that's where the music ended for me. Just a few weeks before my radio career ended for a new batch of students to take over a late night summer shift I got the news that Kurdt Kobain had killed himself. Just as Nirvana kicked off life in the dorms, they went out with a bang right before I donned my black robe and mortar board.

I know I kept record shopping for a little bit after that but the joy had really left Mudville for me. It was time to do a Jackie Paper and put away such childish things. And as I walked away from a life dedicated to music (listening to it, not playing it), music walked away from me. Record stores re-ordered their shelves to be exclusively retailers of CDs, cassettes faded away, and by the time Nirvana's "Nevermind" turned 10, most of those old haunts of mine had shut their doors, put out of business by internet CD sales and a new thing called "peer to peer file sharing."

The records that were once unicorns, elusive and precious beasts, are now readily available for download or on sale in the four corners of the earth, it just takes an internet search to find them. The hunt is over and this hunter has given up the game.

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