[The following is a rough draft excerpt from the introduction to Walk in Silence. This passage explains how I got into listening to music, and how I became obsessed with ‘college music’ of the mid-to-late 80s.]
My first memory of listening to music—specifically, the act of recognizing, liking, and remembering a song—is of the car radio playing Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” while on a family vacation. As I was the youngest of four kids and all the members of my family were avid music listeners if not novice players, I learned music appreciation at an early age. As I got older I’d latch onto whatever my older sisters were listening to, either through their seven-inch single and album collection, or the local rock stations, or records we took out of the library. One of Boston’s independent television stations would play The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine every year, to everyone’s enjoyment. In 1978 my parents took me to see Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton movie sort-of-based on the Beatles album of the same name. Both movies sparked a long-lasting interest in the Beatles for me, and I remember taking out their 1962-1966 compilation album, also known as the ‘Red’ album, out of the library quite often. By that Christmas my mom bought me the companion album (1967-1970, the ‘Blue’ album). Exactly fifteen years later in 1993 when she bought me the same album on CD for Christmas, I’d joked that my now-gigantic record collection was entirely her fault. By 1980, the seeds of my music collection had started, beginning with the Beatles. One by one, I’d find an album or compilation or single at the local department store or at a yard sale or flea market that I didn’t have, and beg my parents to let me buy it. New or used, I didn’t mind, as long as I got more of their stuff. My first completist-level music obsession!
Also by this time, I’d become aware of the end-of-year countdowns on the radio. I was fascinated by these, excited about guessing what the top spot would be, and picking up on songs that I’d somehow missed. One of my older sisters had taped some previous countdowns in the past, but had only chosen specific songs. I had to go one better and tape the whole thing. I would actually bother my Dad into buying me a handful of blank cassette tapes at the local Radio Shack so I could tape the countdown. The downside to this was that we did not have a tape recorder directly connected to the stereo, so any ambient noise such as phone rings or someone coughing would be caught on tape forever. I tested my sisters’ patience dearly by shushing them whenever they came into the room.
A year or so later, we were all enthralled by the wonder that was a new channel called Music Television when cable TV was finally available in town. MTV had come up with the brilliant idea of showing nothing but music videos. Even their buffer “filler” videos of random black-and-white stock footage were set to music. The fledgling channel played all kinds of things, whatever videos they could lay their hands on. They played the Top Forty pop I knew from the radio, the simple performance videos of rockers, and otherwise obscure music that I’d never heard before. I picked up on all sorts of music at that point, and began to suss out the different subgenres of rock. I’d started to consciously develop a taste for different styles of music, gravitating to some and avoiding others.
Around the same time, I’d also discovered a show on the USA Network called “Night Flight”, which played four hours of all kinds of weird things on Friday and Saturday nights, and if I was able to stay up late, I’d watch some of them. Sometimes they played cult movies like Reefer Madness or 2001: A Space Odyssey; sometimes they played video art installments; sometimes they had themed music video shows. Along with the then-unprogrammed MTV, these two would occasionally foray into showing videos of bands I’d never heard of, such as Hunters and Collectors, Split Enz, The Cure, Ministry, and Depeche Mode…music that rarely got played on commercial radio. Interesting stuff to be sure, but nothing that really grabbed me at the time. I was aware of it, but I didn’t “get” it the first time. Besides, by the early 80s, I and everyone I knew had fallen prey to Top 40 radio and MTV’s pop style. Videos were eye-catching and had a plotline, and were shot in or emulated exotic locations. Meanwhile, my continuing love for countdowns drew me towards the American Top 40 radio show on the weekends, which pulled me further into the pop mainstream.
Somewhere along the line, probably around 1984, I also got a personal stereo—not exactly a Sony Walkman and it didn’t have a cassette player, but it was close enough, it was my own and I was thrilled to have it. I’d gotten it as a Christmas present from my Dad’s company, and it was the first present I’d gotten from them that wasn’t a toy or a game. It became one of my prized possessions, because I could now listen to the radio at night in private, without having to worry about waking anyone up. Not too many stations came in, due to our house being in a valley, but I didn’t care, because all the stronger ones did. And let me tell you—listening to music through stereo headphones was a revelation to me! I was floored by the added depth to the music I already knew, suddenly being made aware of intricate noises and flourishes going in different directions, things I’d never noticed before! This was heaven!
[That is to say, I had noticed stereo before, much earlier, but never really paid much attention to it. Back in the 70s when your primary source of music was either an ancient radio or your sister’s alarm clock radio, the idea of stereophonic sound didn’t really enter the mind. I think I’d first noticed it sometime in the late 70s when I listened to Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue while lying on the floor with the two stereo speakers on the family turntable pointed directly at my ears. Not the smartest thing to do, but a neat trick when you’re eight or nine years old and it doesn’t take much to amuse you.]
During all that pop music, I also developed a taste for jazz. I’d always enjoyed it through my mother’s small but interesting collection—I knew Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” from a very early age—but never really got too into it, at least not until I got that little radio. It all started innocently when I was merely scanning the airwaves for something to listen to at night when I really should have been sleeping. Like I said—music in stereo was a revelation to me, and I devoured as much of it as I could by that time. Perhaps it was that I felt this innate need to branch out again…I’d liked the Top 40 stuff, there was only so much of it I could take, especially with the same songs in heavy rotation. At that point, I thought that getting into a new genre of music would be something neat to do, and perhaps assert my individuality in a way. I was certainly moving away from my old circle of friends I’d known since grade school, and needed to find out who I really was.
I soon found myself down at the other end of the dial, landing on WFCR, a station operating out of University of Massachusetts in Amherst and part of the ‘Five College Radio’ public radio consortium. They would play extended blocks of jazz musicians, live and studio recordings, and I got a very quick crash course on the cool jazz genre—Herb Ellis, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Zoot Sims, and so on. I gravitated towards that traditional laid back trio sound of piano, bass and drums, and their long, seemingly improvised arrangements and mood pieces. The music painted a mental picture in my head of being in a smoky and dimly lit cocktail lounge, drinking martinis. That was the thing for me back then, as a writer-in-training; I would try to create scenes based on images that would come to me while listening to music, and put them to paper…I would later call it my ‘music video treatment’ method of writing. I finally got to enjoy live jazz once as a kid, when at a cousin’s wedding reception I snuck over to the lounge side of the building and watched a local jazz band perform. I didn’t enjoy the smokiness back then, but I certainly loved the music and the atmosphere.
Then something strange happened. I don’t remember the exact day, but I’m pretty sure it was early spring 1986, because that’s a few months after Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist Clarence Clemons had a minor hit with “You’re a Friend of Mine.”
Why do I remember that song, of all things? Because on that one night, while once again scanning the radio for good jazz on a school night, I unexpectedly stumbled upon this song. Now, before I ever started paying serious attention to the ins and outs of radio, I always regarded that end of the dial as the “boring” end and rarely paid any attention to it in my youth. Any station lower than 91.9 was deemed non-commercial by the FCC, so most NPR and college stations broadcast at those lower frequencies. Any commercial stations had always been anchored on the upper end back then, so all the rock and Top Forty stations were usually at 99.1 and above. Right in the middle between 91.9 and 99.1 were the adult stations, programmed with easy listening, ‘Beautiful Music’ (or as we know it in more derogatory terms, ‘elevator music’), classical, country, news, or jazz—stuff the older generations might have listened to and the kids avoided.
So when I heard this Clarence Clemons/Jackson Browne duet somewhere around 88-point-something, I stopped in confusion—why were they playing this song all the way down here? Well, since I actually kind of liked the song and hadn’t heard it for some time, I decided I’d listen to it and see what came next. Perhaps this was a new rock station I could listen to? Perhaps someone local had jerry-rigged a radio antenna and was illegally broadcasting? I didn’t know the FCC rules at the time, so I had no idea what was going to happen next. To my surprise however, instead of hearing a segue into another song or a commercial—or even a deejay for that matter—I heard nothing but silence. Not the hissing static of a station off the air, but complete quietness. I was intrigued and amused at the same time—someone fell asleep at the controls! I’d of course heard commercial stations making that mistake, followed by the flustered words of an embarrassed deejay who’d forgotten to flip a switch. I’d also listened to stations going off the air for the evening, but they usually played a music bed and read some legalese before shutting down. What was going on? About a half-minute later, I heard music playing again. Not a commercial or a flustered deejay apologizing…but another song, as if nothing had happened.
This new song, however, was not the popular rock music I was expecting, especially after a Clarence Clemons track. It was something close to rock, but it sounded nothing like what I was used to. It had all the components of rock, but it didn’t sound the least bit commercial. In fact, it sounded a bit anti-commercial, like they were purposely going out of their way not to have a popular hit. In a strange way, I kind of liked it—it appealed to the same part of my brain that had latched onto jazz music in that it was different and challenging. Intrigued, I listened a little further, just to see what they would play next. I figured I’d wait for the deejay to come in and offer the playlist. Once I knew what they played and what station this was, perhaps I’d do a bit of digging the next time I was at a record store and pick some of these things up.
Ten minutes and three long songs later…
This was definitely strange, and not something I was used to in the rock genre. Sure, on those NPR stations you’d hear a full symphony or album side or something before they came in to let the listener know what they just played, but on rock radio? You’d be lucky if you hear two songs in a row without a quick buffer in between—you know, that testosterone-fueled, gravelly-voiced “You’re listening to Springfield’s HOME OF THE RAWK!” type of teaser. Plus, these weren’t exactly poppy or ballsy rock-out songs…they were quiet and meandering, and maybe even a bit underproduced…or they were lush arrangements with a lot of atmosphere and echo, done with surprisingly little instrumentation.
I don’t remember any of the songs I’d heard that night except two—Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” and The Cure’s “A Forest”. Two songs that couldn’t be more different from each other…one song short, loud and boisterous, and the other expansive and dreamy. I’d heard of both bands before in passing (and would realize later on that I already knew The Cure’s “Let’s Go to Bed” from the early days of MTV), but had never actively sought them out since I was still into the popular stuff. I was fascinated by the sounds I heard, though…this was stuff that had so many more layers, evoked so many different moods. With the Femmes I pictured a couple of snotty guys with so-so ability playing in their dad’s garage, playing their uncles’ acoustic instruments and jamming away with abandon…something I’d be doing myself a few years later. With the Cure…suddenly I found myself somewhere in the middle of a cold and dark forest well past midnight with a cool breeze pushing against my face, listening to the sounds of night around me. Certain classic rock bands had evoked this kind of imagery in my head in the past (Led Zeppelin, late Beatles, Cream, and so on), but very little mainstream rock had done so for the last few years. On that one night, however, I was hearing a cornucopia of different styles, each kicking my brain into overdrive. Something about this noncommercial rock clicked with me on a mental and spiritual level—somehow I knew right then that this was the kind of music I needed to be listening to now.
Eventually I found that the station was WMUA, broadcasting out of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, about thirty or so miles southwest of Athol. College radio! I’d heard my older sisters talking about it in the past, but I never checked it out until then, and since they weren’t fans of the genre, I never paid much attention to it. I’d always assumed that these stations were a school version of a commercial station, playing the same stuff I’d hear on rock stations only without commercials or the hype, or if they were more adventurous, they’d be playing progressive rock (in the genre sense) like Rush, early Genesis, King Crimson and so on. But now that I’d experienced it on my own, I finally understood what it was about. College radio wasn’t merely just a springboard or a testing ground for future disc jockeys, but an institution for free form experimentation, and a platform for bands with a lot of talent but sometimes little commerciality in the United States. It was an outsider’s haven, and as a dorky teenager in a small town, I knew it would be my haven as well. I knew this was a genre in which to immerse myself. It was something different and exciting, something different than the pop music I thought excited me. This was so much more.