Peanut Butter Knife

Monday, July 21, 2008

A History of My Taste in Music Part III

Part III 1991-92

Looking back, its tempting for me to, like many in my generation, pinpoint the time when I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as THE turning point in my musical tastes. Make no mistake, that was huge, but while I didn’t realize it at the time, the signs were pointing to some major upheaval in my listening preferences.

To that point, being the “classic rock kid” was my thing, old people loved me because I somehow validated to them that new music sucked and the best sounds were from their generation. But I already made 2 exceptions for modern bands, R.E.M. and U2, especially the former. I was a big Byrds fan, so reading about Peter Buck and his Richenbacher in Rolling Stone hipped me to them. Towards the end of 8th Grade, Out of Time was released and I bought it the day it came out and played it in near constant Walkman rotation. It wouldn’t yet obliterate what I knew about music, but it made me more aware that there was more to new music than just hair bands and bubblegum pop.

Also around that time, Neil Young’s Ragged Glory became a very pivotal album for me. Although I knew enough about Neil to know that he’d always been an iconoclast, I also knew enough about the music that classic rockers made in the 80s to expect it to be cold, studio slick and not altogether good, no matter how legendary the artist once was. Ragged Glory was different. It was loud, it was filled with mistakes, it sounded like what it was 4 guys in a room playing rock and roll and it was awesome. Young’s tour for the album featured Sonic Youth as an opening act – I unfortunately didn’t go. But I read about their unorthodox guitar tunings and figured if they were good enough for Neil, I may as well check Goo out of the library. I don’t think I was quite ready for what I heard, but I did like “Dirty Boots” and filed the band away under “pretty interesting”.

There were other minor touchstones too: hearing the Velvet Underground while I wrote a report on Andy Warhol for art class, seeing World Party on SNL, hearing Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, a pre-Nevermind article in Rolling Stone on the “Seattle scene” that I thought sounded interesting.

Then there was “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I was in the car with my mom, I was in 9th Grade. I was listening to WONE and they said they weren’t sure whether they wanted to play this song, but they’d been getting so many requests for it that they figured they had to. Its part of the rock canon now, but seriously, if you were there in 1991 you know what I’m talking about. Hearing this song for the first time was an event. The guitars, they were aggressive, but they were so melodic and tuneful (and I was probably the only 14 year old who heard this and thought the intro sounded a lot like The James Gang’s “Walk Away”). And damn if I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I could feel it. I doubt music had ever hit me on such a visceral level before. I remember going home and just flipping around to every rock station I could get reception on until I heard it again. I bought the album, I learned it on guitar but mostly what this song did is made me want to hear more.

You see, while I could appreciate the musical qualities of what I’d listened to up to that point; what it lacked for me was a real emotional connection. I was a depressed, misfit 14 year old kid from Cleveland, how was Eric Clapton singing about the dangers of cocaine or Crosby Stills & Nash harmonizing about the free lovin at Woodstock supposed to speak to me? Oh sure, I learned from it and I could appreciate it intellectually, or as entertainment, but it was never going to be mine. And my mom hated Nirvana. She liked just about everything else I played around the house, but this? Was this even music? And who else listened to this? There was a small group of kids that were already into these kind of bands. They seemed alright and not caught up in all the other bullshit of high school. They were into doing their own thing. And hey, wasn’t I already into doing MY own thing all along? This was huge, for the first time in my life I was finding an identity. And most importantly, some of these people were girls.

And then U2 came out with Achtung Baby and it was a totally strange record like little else I’d heard before. Were they alternative too? Clearly I needed a crash course in this “alternative” music. So, I did what any suburban kid with some magazine subscriptions and a spare penny to tape to a postcard would do: I signed up for the Columbia House record club under the “modern rock” genre and got my 12 free introductory tapes. I don’t remember what they all were, but some of them were as follows:

Primal Scream Screamadelica
Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians Perspex Island
They Might Be Giants Flood
The Ocean Blue Cerulean
The La’s
Sonic Youth Dirty
Violent Femmes Why Do Birds Sing?

And in the interest of full disclosure, not all of them were good (though don’t tell 15 year old me that):

Toad the Wet Sprocket Fear
Spin Doctors
The Soup Dragons

It still wasn’t enough. I had to know more. I discovered college radio, I taped 120 Minutes each week. I wrote down the names of anything that even sounded half interesting. I began redoubling my efforts at the library, discovering The Cure, The Smiths, Dinosaur Jr, and The Feelies this way. It may seem strange now, but back then these records were not found at the mall and weren’t written about everywhere, I needed a more reliable source and that’s when I discovered Alternative Press.

Far from the glossy mall-punk rag that its become, AP in those days was probably most akin to Magnet now in terms of coverage and placement on the mainstream radar, maybe even a little more on the edge than that even (would a band like Kitchens of Distinction merit cover placement on any magazine today?). And they were based in Cleveland, how cool is that? Here I read about bands that were even more obscure than what was on 120 Minutes. You couldn’t find their records in stores, at least not the ones in North Olmsted, Ohio. I had to find out what this was all about.

A History of My Taste in Music Part II

Part II 1988-91

During our move I unpacked my mom’s records and decided that both Willy & The Poorboys and Cosmo’s Factory looked interesting enough to play, everything else was Broadway showtunes or easy listening. Fogerty, et al looked downright dangerous in comparison. I loved it right off the bat. It was so much more raw than anything I’d been hearing on 80s top 40 radio. It was also around this time that we got a computer with a 2400 baud modem. In those days, there were basically 2 things you could do with a modem. Sign up for Prodigy and call up the Cuyahoga County Public Library to reserve books and music (yes, I know about newsgroups and BBSs, but I wouldn’t discover those for a few more years). In a way, I was an early adopter to internet music. I could read about a band and look them up in the library’s catalog from home and have the records sent to my local branch. Then when I got them I could tape them for free. Seems primitive now in retrospect, but this was a new thing circa 1989. Since I now loved CCR and since I figured out that they qualified as “classic rock”, I started listening to the classic rock station in town and reading rock history books in order to fuel my late night library catalog searches. My Paves style flowchart would look something like this:

6th Grade: CCR, Eagles, Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood, Steve Miller Band

7th Grade: Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills & Nash, Allman Brothers, Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lou Reed, The Byrds, John Mayall, Bob Seger, James Gang

8th Grade: The Beatles (so late in the game, I know), Bob Dylan (same), Grateful Dead, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pink Floyd, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Robert Johnson, R.E.M.

It’s here that I have to stop and make a confession. While some of the above bands I still love and others not so much, I have no embarrassment about any of it. Even my week of staying home “sick” from school in 7th Grade and watching TNN and getting into Foster & Lloyd, The Kentucky Headhunters and Alabama is not embarrassing and I see it as a crucial side trip in my musical history – even if I disowned it quickly (though Foster & Lloyd were actually pretty good). But there is one anomaly that I really can’t seem to figure out. Sometime in 7th Grade and continuing through most of 8th grade I became a huge fan of Jimmy Buffett. I had all the albums, I made my mom take me to one of his concerts, I read his short story collection, I wore my Jimmy Buffett t-shirts all the time. To this day, I have no idea what got into me and what made me do this, or how it fits in to the way I listen to music now, but I think it might go a long way towards explaining why my backlash against classic rock was so strong in my early high school years. Despite still enjoying songs from every artist listed above, I have no residual Buffett nostalgia, I can’t stand the guy’s fans or his music. Weird.

But far from being just a list of bands I was into at different times in my life, its important to mention at least a little of what else was going on. As mentioned, I was in a new school that was 3 times bigger than the one I grew up in, the kids were louder, the girls had big hair and the boys were more interested in beating people up than talking about baseball cards, funny movies and pop music. They all listened either to metal (probably why I still never got into it today) or the insipid late 80s teen pop that was booming at the time. A loner by nature, I made little attempt at fitting in and so I guess its pretty fitting that I let myself dive so deeply into music. Around this time, I also started feeling more estranged from my parents and they from each other. Fights were common and nothing from that era seems happy now. On a lighter note, I started taking guitar lessons. I wasn’t a very disciplined player and never practiced enough to be good, but I learned the basic chords which I know to this day and a lot about song structure. Also, being perhaps the only 13 year old in Cleveland’s west suburbs that knew more about Neil Young than New Kids on the Block, I was always a curious oddity in record stores, at my parent’s friend’s parties, radio station contests (I won Clapton’s Crossroads box set from WONE for knowing who Ginger Baker was), etc. All the old folks wanted to talk to me and were tickled pink that I could reel off the entire Joe Walsh solo discography or tell them about the recording sessions for Tusk. So I basically felt like I was 13-going-on-40 during these years. Only adding to my already burgeoning sense of weirdness.

Next up is high school, and while my tastes changed drastically and seemingly overnight, the seeds were all planted here and the shift more gradual than I remember now that I think about it. But that will have to wait for Part III: The Alternative Era.

A History of My Taste in Music Part I

A few months ago, I started posting these lengthy rambling pieces about how my taste in music has evolved over the years on a certain message board I frequent. I stopped at roughly 1992 and I am now going to re-post the first 3 installments here in an effort to encourage myself to finish writing the rest of the series. Enjoy.

Part I, Birth-Elementary School.

Unlike alot of you here, I did not have musically inclined siblings (or any siblings for that matter) and my parents were not overly into music either. Actually, my dad was quite a music lover in his own way, but not at all hip and not at all a record collector, so I didn't really get too much of it passed down from him. All my musical discoveries pretty much through high school were my own. Preschool, really up through about 1st grade, my pop music memories are of a small handful of my mom's records that I would play on my Fisher Price record player: a James Taylor 45 for the song "Handy Man", a 45 for the funk-soul novelty hit "Chick A Boom" by Daddy Dewdrop, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and an LP collection of 50s hits performed by some anonymous hacks called "At The Hop". Plus whatever was on the radio in the car or around the house. Also probably by 1st or 2nd grade I was watching Nickelodeon alot and they had their video show "Nick Rocks" this is probably where I first heard Hall & Oates "Out of Touch", as well as stuff from Thriller. I asked for the Hall & Oates album for either Christmas or my birthday and got it and played it incessantly. Soon after I got a tape player and proceded to buy either with allowance money or from begging my mom, Hall & Oates' H2O and Rock N Soul Part I. I was pretty hooked on music by this time and started listening to top 40 radio (this would probably have been WRQC at the time). Though oddly, the stuff I gravitated towards the most tended to be on the more adult-side of top 40. This was mid/late 80s so that meant Huey Lewis, Bruce Hornsby & The Range, John Cougar Mellencamp, Crowded House, Squeeze, Wang Chung, Billy Joel, Robert Palmer, U2 etc etc mixed in with some of the wimpier hair metal (Def Leppard, Bon Jovi) and pop (Rick Astley, Whitney Houston). At some point I had tapes of all of those artists. As an only child, I mostly just stayed at home and found ways to entertain myself. One of those ways was by listening to Casey Kasem every Sunday Morning and making up my own lists of my favorite songs each week. I called it "Mike's Top 10" and at one point I had them all collected for the years I did this (mainly 1986-87) and stapled together. Not sure whatever happened to these gems. Probably lost in the fire at my parent's house a few years ago.

In 1988, I was in Middle School and we moved to a new suburb...This is the point where pop music turned from something to entertain myself with to an all out obsession. But that will have to wait for Part II.