Walk in Silence 12

I’m not going to lie, I really did feel a sense of, well, a lot of emotions when I started hanging out with Chris and that gang.  A mixture of relief, nervousness, amusement, and maybe even a bit of pride.  These were all people one year ahead of me, and it kind of felt like I was skipping to the front of the line.  [I was in fact rather close in age to some of them.  Only a few weeks separate Chris’ birthday from mine, for instance.]

There were about a dozen of us, maybe more, shifting position at the cafeteria table we’d meet up at.  A few of them I knew in a roundabout way — one was the lifeguard at the YMCA pool during my years at that job; someone else’s mom knew mine; one lived on the outskirts of my neighborhood and we’d hung out briefly, years back; a few others I knew from Student Council.

Since they were all a year ahead of me, I never really thought of hanging out with them up until that point.  Was it a revelation?  Well, not really, but it sure felt like some kind of emotional and intellectual release.  It was probably the first time in years where I actually felt like part of a group instead of an outlier, and I really liked that.

We weren’t meeting up on a daily basis of course, but as our own class schedules and projects permitted.  Many of us had the same lunch period so that seemed the best time to congregate.  We’d say hi as we passed each other in the hallways or on our way home from school.

The change in atmosphere must have done me good, as I found myself finishing off the Infamous War Novel in May of 1987, as well as starting a new story that January.  This new project was something that had been floating in my brain for at least a year, and I’d attempted various versions of it around late 1985.  It was also my first attempt at writing in screenplay format.  It was a John Hughes pastiche, heavily borrowing from Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club, its soundtrack chock full of tracks from that era’s American Top 40.  I called it One Step Closer to You (name borrowed from the minor hit from Gavin Christopher), it was your typical ‘boy meets girl, girl is out of his league, but he eventually wins her over’ story.  It was full of my horrible puns and goofiness, and it’s a painful piece of derivative crap…but it was so refreshing to write, to be honest!  It’s so infused with my own idiosyncrasies that it’s essentially one big fat Mary Sue story, but it’s fun and it contains some rather creative bits to it.*

It did feel kind of strange to be hovering between two different social circles, to be honest.  Part of me wanted to drop everything and everyone and hang out with this new crowd.  Our conversations were so much more intellectual, even if I found myself barely keeping up sometimes.  When they talked about theories and philosophies they covered in their AP classes, I had little to no input, but I would sometimes ask for clarification.  Not often, as I was still a bit too shy to admit my small town hick ignorance.

But when we talked about music?  Gods, that’s when I would not shut up!  Even then my ace in the hole was obscure music trivia, release dates, and being aware of the latest trends in college radio.  I could infuse song lyrics into regular conversations at the drop of a hat (which would sometimes cause a hilarious ‘wait a minute…’ reaction).  We had some great times and conversations during our short visits at lunch.

But what about my past?  What about my other social circle?  The kids in my own grade, most of whom I’d known since grade school?  I was leaving them in the dust most of the time.  I hadn’t meant for it to happen but it felt now as though I’d…well, outgrown them somehow.  A tough thing to say, let alone admit.  It felt that way at the time, though in retrospect of course I was merely giving myself a way to evolve in my own way, separate from the influences and people I’d known for so long.  This meant adults as well, really…I respected my elders as I always had, but I had stopped being so deferential, often to the point of going against my own thoughts and emotions.

So I did my best to balance the two.  Since this new gang had a different schedule than mine, some days I’d be with them and other days I’d be back with Kevin and whoever else happened to be nearby.

It was kind of a strange feeling, straddling the two circles.  On the one hand I wanted to break out and try new things, but on the other, I felt a sense of guilt, like I owed it to my older friends not to leave them in the cold.  Call it the Catholic Guilt if you will.  [Noted: I was brought up Roman Catholic, so I know what I’m talking about!]  But let’s be honest here — I couldn’t really have it both ways, and I knew that instinctively, even if I didn’t always act on it.

 

* – I would resurrect One Step Closer to You in early 1995 when I decided to try my hand at writing a screenplay for a local writing competition.  I updated it and rewrote it in the span of one month, proving two things to myself: I can still write a script, and I can definitely write under deadline.

Walk in Silence 11

What was the tipping point, though? What was the time and music where I finally got it, and sold my soul to the Indie Devil?

Well, that would be a summer afternoon when I finally found the album I’d been looking for since about April of 1986, when I first saw them mentioned in Star Hits and my British pen pal dropped one of their songs on that mixtape for me.

I found the cassette, with its hot pink spine and white norelco box, and the spandex-and-frightwig lead singer on the cover, alongside the band’s ringleader, guitarist and dual drummers, looking like something straight out of Blade Runner.

sigue-sigue-sputnik

Yes, I’m talking about Sigue Sigue Sputnik and their debut album, Flaunt It.  News of the band’s infamous four-million-pound signing to EMI in the UK had made its rounds in the American music magazines, and by August they’d come stateside with their ridiculous (yet ridiculously catchy) album — complete with commercials inserted between the songs.  The music, now that I hear it decades later, is a cross between the aural weirdness of Suicide, the single-chord foundation of Neu!, and the twitchiness of early 80s synthpop, only it’s played by a couple of guys let loose on samplers and synthesizers and don’t quite know how to operate them correctly.

It’s gloriously amateur and exciting at the same time, as their entire shtick was to infuse science fiction into the mix, via images and soundbites from glitzy London, neon Tokyo, Blade Runner, THX 1138, the evening news (a reading of David Hinkley’s attempted subway vigilantism, among other things), and Max Headroom.  The future was an apocalyptic mess, but it was damn sexy!

This ridiculousness was right in my wheelhouse.

From the moment I hit play and heard the synthetic orchestral crash opening the album version of “Love Missile F1-11”, I was completely hooked.  It was so exciting, freakish, hilarious and over the top that it was enough to put the rest of my life in perspective.*  That cassette followed me everywhere.  I nearly wore it out and probably would have, if I hadn’t lost it later in 1987 to one of my friends!

 Come September, I was a sophomore, no longer the lowest rank, and I had a fresh outlook on life.  Some of my longtime friends may have thought I’d gone off the deep end or gotten all full of myself over the summer.   Meeting up with my buddy Kevin again was something I was looking forward to as well — we’d crossed paths rarely over the summer, since he was a Royalston kid and too far away from it all (well, back then, anyway).  He and I shared a lot of classes again, and also had the same lunch period, so we’d be like two peas in a pod.  Bad jokes and puns, quoting Dr. Demento songs, and other silliness ensued on a regular basis.  He probably saw the change as well.  He didn’t say much about it, but apparently my more positive and outgoing attitude wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

So this is where the school newspaper comes in.

I was in a bit of a conundrum here…I did want to write for it, but I didn’t want to write reportage.  I wasn’t a sports fan so I couldn’t have covered any games.  I wasn’t the best at coming up with interview questions on the spot, and I was definitely no good at writing and listening at the same time.  What I did offer was entertainment news, stuff that the other kids might be interested in.  Pop music, movies, and whatnot.

And that autumn, I took the next step.  I wrote a review of Flaunt It for the school paper.  One of my first pieces of writing where I put everything into it.  Oh, the Infamous War Novel was where I poured my emotions and insecurities, but this one review was where I would regale them with “DUDE. You MUST listen to this.  It’s NUTS.”  Or something along those lines, anyway.  I was obsessed with this album, and I wanted other people to know about it.

That Friday when the paper came out, I excitedly grabbed a few copies and tore through it.  My first real article I could be proud of!

And the general consensus of the review was just about as you’d expect in the halls of a small town high school in the 1980s: derision and crickets.  Those who were bothered by my weirdo sense of taste made fun of me for listening to freaks in fishnets and questioned my sexuality.  And the rest just shrugged, said ‘whatever’ and went on their way.

Just about what I’d expected.

But you know, my aim hadn’t been to try to fit in or make people like me for my new, improved and bizarre tastes.  And maybe there was a half-serious attempt to indoctrinate others who were on the verge of letting their weirdness come out.  But if anything, my real aim was to find out if anyone else in this town had the same tastes as I did.

At first I heard nothing, and that was what I’d figured.  This small town was getting too small for me, damn it all!  Sulking and frustrated, I turned back to the usual silliness with Kevin.

Jim approached me the following Tuesday.

“Hey, you’re Jon, right?”

Jim was a junior that I knew of and had seen around.  We didn’t hang out but I knew who he was.  He was one of the more outgoing students who were part of the Student Council, had been in a few school clubs, took AP classes, and got along fine with pretty much everyone.

I stopped and blinked.  No one ever approached me like that.  “Yeah?”

All at once he got excited.  “Oh, man!” he gushed.  “I saw your review last week!  Me and a few of my friends saw it.  I had no idea there were others here that liked the same music we do!  That was a great article!  Thanks for writing it!”

I stood there, dumbfounded for a few seconds.

Someone had liked my article?

Someone else knew who Sigue Sigue Sputnik was?

“Oh, that’s right,” he continued.  “You know Chris, right?  He says he used to hang out with you in junior high.  He says he’s related somehow.”

Wait, Chris?  Oh!  Yeah, that kid I hung out with briefly in junior high, about two years ago!  I’d seen him around.  He still listened to music as much as I did?

“Yeah!  I remember him.”

“So yeah!  Thanks for writing up that review!  We loved it!”

And with that, Jim waved and left, joining his friends at their table in the cafeteria.

Me, I just stood there for a second, trying to process what had just happened.  No one outside of relatives had ever commented on my writing before, but more to the point, I had not expected such a pleased reaction from someone else in this school!  I know I was the black sheep at this point, but the sudden acceptance threw me.

I may have dwelled on that — obsessed over it, more like — for the next few days, maybe even bothered Kevin about it (who took it in stride).  I really wasn’t quite sure how to proceed…should I insinuate myself into this new crowd?  Ingratiate myself?  This was new territory for me.  Or more to the point, it was new territory in that I wasn’t oblivious to whether or not I’d be accepted.

The answer to these questions came a short time later when I happened to run into Chris on the way through the cafeteria.**  After a few fumbling words of introduction and small talk about the review, he was more than happy to invite me into his circle of friends.

Life was about to change.

 

* – Yes, I know.  Basing my fifteen-year-old life on Sigue Sigue Sputnik?  Really?  Was I that sheltered from reality?  But that’s the way I was back then — I rarely took anything in that was half-assed or didn’t immediately gel with me.  This album was enough to put to rest my lingering feelings that I’d quickly outgrown my hometown already.
** – Everything happens there, doesn’t it?  The layout of Athol High School makes the cafeteria a main gathering area as well as a connecting thruway between the gymnasium and auditorium and the classroom hallways.  I’d run into pretty much everyone there.  Come my senior year, Kevin and I would start our days in the hallway just outside the cafeteria and would chat with everyone who stopped by.

Walk in Silence 10

The first piece of the puzzle to fall into place was, again, Star Hits.  In particular, it was its penpal section.  It was the spring of 1986 when I finally decided to make the first move to wider pastures by putting in a listing.  I don’t think that one went anywhere, but I did have a brief correspondence with this one girl from London named Roberta who, at my request, gave me a mixtape of some of the BBC countdown.  We also got into an interesting conversation about being a punk, or at least a nonconformist — what it meant, and what it entailed.  She really opened my eyes on that.  It hadn’t completely occurred to me to openly and publicly embrace being a misfit.  It meant not giving in.  It meant being true to oneself.  It meant respecting others the way you’d want to be respected.

It was me going to the source, really.  I wanted someone to explain to me how the UK 80s punks and outcasts lived their lives.  I mean, other than the ones slumming and drugging up and lawbreaking, as was the accepted stereotype in the 80s.

So.

This meant me, being of sound mind and body, finally giving my old pathetic life a big fuck you and letting my freak flag fly.

I could get behind that.

Thinking back now, it’s not exactly surprising that I fell for alternative rock so fully and completely.  Betwee the nonconformity conversation, the change in social circles, and the quirky mix of popular chart music, it was only a matter of time before I started down that road.

My freshman year ended uneventfully, in that I’d survived a year at a new school, and felt a bit more mature because of it.  It was one year past the hell of junior high life, and I actually knew what the hell I was doing now.  My high school graduation was that much closer to being a reality.

What job did I have that summer?  I don’t even remember at this point. Maybe another season of working at the supermarket, I think.  And during that summer, I made it a point to Buy More Records.

Now that I knew more about college rock, and was armed with a shopping list of titles to look for, thanks to Trouser Press, Rolling Stone and Star Hits, I set about hanging around all the record stores whenever my family went shopping at the malls.  I knew enough that most of the titles I was looking for weren’t going to be at Mars or the Music Forum.  Still, that didn’t keep me from scooping those right up when I did find them.  Each time it felt sneaky, like I’d just found a pot of gold in amongst all the pop manure!  The Cure’s Happily Ever After at the record store in downtown Greenfield?  Sweet!  Depeche Mode’s “Shake the Disease” single in the cutout bin at K-Mart?  Yoink!  I loved it when I found these great titles in the weirdest places!

Another habit of mine that started up about this time was staying up way too late on school nights.  I mean, staying up until 1am, after everyone had gone to bed, door closed with just my bedside lamp on, scribbling away in my notebook.  I was on the back end of writing the Infamous War Novel at the time, so most of my late nights were spent listening to the radio or my new cassette purchases.  Happily Ever After and Standing on a Beach were on heavy rotation, which made the plot of the IWN that much darker in mood.  The characters weren’t just fighting a war anymore, they were fighting their own faltering sanity.

NIGHT-FLIGHT1

Picture courtesy nightflight.com

The late nights on the weekends opened up another avenue for me — cult TV.  USA Network had a four-hour show called Night Flight that featured all kinds of wild things — weird videos, video art installments, horror movies from the 50s, art films, and everything in between.  I’d stay up and watch it for a few hours, and later would tape them as well.  I’d been watching this show off and on since the early 80s, and by 1986 their episodes had gone from low-budget indie and public domain films to relatively recent art-house films and cult classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fantastic Planet.  The weirder the films, the more fascinated I became.

Another show that would catch my attention, purelly by chance because they were playing a Woodentops track at the time that I loved, was MTV’s 120 Minutes.  To say I was gobsmacked by it from Day One would probably be a lie — at that time they were still figuring out the programming, and who would fit as the host.  This was well before the weirdness of Kevin Seal or the snotty hipness of Dave Kendall.  We had dorky Alan Hunter, old guard music fan JJ Jackson, and a few others.  The playlists were a bit dodgy as well, sometimes featuring Peter Frampton and Vanity alongside the Go-Betweens and Laurie Anderson. [Contrary to popular belief, 120 Minutes didn’t exactly start off as an all-alternative rock show; it was more an AOR-meets-progressive-radio mix inspired by another show on the channel at the time, IRS Records Presents the Cutting Edge.  The purely-alternative playlists would solidify by late 1986.  An excellent reference site for the show’s playlists can be found at The 120 Minutes Archive.]

Just like the college station I’d found, my reaction to 120 Minutes was “Ah…this is kind of cool.  I’ll have to remember to check this out more often.”  I toggled between it and Night Flight for a few months through out the summer of 1986, taping episodes as time (and blank tapes) permitted, learning and listening as I went.

This wasn’t about me trying to find a scene, though.  It was never about that, because I knew that didn’t exist, at least not in my small home town.  The punks and the nonconformists you saw in the movies and on television — even if you knew they were quickly-crafted stereotypes — didn’t exist in my town.  We had the jocks, the geeks, the band nerds, the smart kids…but really, there was no alternative scene.

And I was okay with that.  For now, at any rate.  I had all this new music I could immerse myself in, and that’s all I needed.

Walk in Silence 9

Speaking of high school dances, these were probably my one true link to my fellow classmates outside of my neighborhood and outside of school hours.  I looked forward to hanging out with my buddies, listening to tunes, and maybe even getting in a dance or two.

I wasn’t exactly a wallflower.  I just didn’t have a girlfriend for most of the high school years, for varying reasons.  I had a few female friends and a few who were willing to slow dance at these shindigs, but as far as a love life was concerned, I was on my own.  I had a few short flings in junior high, none lasting more than a few months.  I didn’t know what these relationships meant then, just that I didn’t have one and was, to be truthful, a bit lonely.

The school dances may have fostered a few ‘maybe’ relationships — including a kind of brief one with a girl I actually had a crush on in fourth grade — but nothing permanent.  More often than not I’d be hanging with my guy friends on the bleachers, chatting and listening to tunes.

Yeah, that was me.  I actually went to these things because of the music.  I went to those things all the way up until my senior year, because why the hell not?  A fun scene, good times, and I got to see friends outside of the school day.

I mention this because I was not the most outward person outside of school.  I rarely went out with friends for the first couple of years of high school, for whatever reasons I’m still not exactly sure of.  Maybe it was laziness — I couldn’t be bothered to hang out at someone else’s house when it was a good couple of miles away.  Maybe it was my level of connection — I was an acquaintance of many, but not really a close friend.  maybe it was that my circle of friends up until 1985 or so remained the few people I knew in my neighborhood

And I knew I was moving away from them by that time.  There were three of us at one point, partners in crime, but as I got older I realized it was more of a single-kid-in-crime with the two of us following along out of boredom.  After a few close calls of dumbassery, I realized enough was enough and cut the connection cold by the end of summer 1986.  I’d grown out of my safe neighborhood.  I needed to expand my universe pretty damn quick.

And that I did.

 

1986 was an excellent year for quirky pop music, both American and British.  On the week I discovered college radio, the American Top 40 featured the following:

  • Prince & the Revolution, “Kiss”
  • Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love”
  • Pet Shop Boys, “West End Girls”
  • The Bangles, “Manic Monday”
  • Van Halen, “Why Can’t This Be Love”
  • Falco, “Rock Me Amadeus”
  • Whitney Houston, “The Greatest Love of All”
  • Level 42, “Something About You”
  • Janet Jackson, “What Have You Done for Me Lately”
  • Force MD’s, “Tender Love”
  • Sade, “Never As Good As the First Time”
  • Dire Straits, “So Far Away”
  • Madonna, “Live to Tell”

That’s quite a cross-section of popular music there.  Multiple genres, multiple generations, multiple countries!  It was a fine time to branch out.

And Star Hits was the magazine I gravitated towards for this sort of thing.  Hip enough to talk about all the music I liked, simple enough for my fifteen-year-old sensibilities (I really had no interest in professional music magazines at the time).  And this is where I started to realize, where it really became clear, that my interests in music were close to the level of my friends’.  That is, I was already completely and hopelessly obsessed with music at that point.  I was leaving everyone else in the dust.

So.  There I was, stuck in the middle.  Moving on from the crowd I used to frequent just a few years previous, and moving towards parts unknown.  Obviously I didn’t fit in with the jocks.  I don’t know if it was that I really disliked the dudebro attitudes of the time, or that I seemed to get along with the girls a little to well, or that I was just stick of trying to be someone I wasn’t, or no longer was.

Time to take the next step.

Walk in Silence 8

Again, I blame the Beatles.

By the early 80s, I had most of their discography, with only a few holes here and there.  Minor things like obscure b-sides.  I would branch out to the solo discographies around the same time.  Most of them were relatively easy to find, as they were still in print and selling.  Paul’s was the easiest, as his output was large and consistent; John’s wasn’t that hard either, as he’d stopped recording in 1975 with only the Double Fantasy album and singles to follow up on; George and Ringo’s albums and singles were somewhat harder to find, but not exactly difficult if one knew where to look for them.

Which meant going to specialty shops!  My father knew of one in Worcester that sold both comics and records that called itself That’s Entertainment, and that’s where I finally found (but did not buy) John and Yoko’s elusive experimental noise albums, Two Virgins, Life with the Lions and Wedding Album.  But more importantly, that’s where I found (and bought!) my first Beatles bootleg entitled Casualties.  It’s a takeoff of the legit Rarities compilation from 1980, containing an equal amount of outtakes (demos, alternate takes) and outfakes (mixes created by the bootlegger that aren’t entirely legit).  These bootlegs let me hear my favorite band in a new light, hearing the fantastic early version of “I Am the Walrus” sans the sound effects and strings, a decade before it would show up on the Anthology compilation.

That in itself spawned another treasure hunt: to find more Beatle bootlegs!  This would prove harder than expected, but it would also expand my knowledge of used record stores.  Over the next few years I’d make it a leisurely pursuit.  Since most of these records were expensive at nearly twenty bucks a pop, I could only purchase them if and when I had the money.  I was still looking for them around 1985 and 1986 when my dad brought me to a store called Al Bum’s in downtown Amherst, not that far from the UMass and Amherst College campuses.

Al Bum’s was a dusty, grimy indie record store that knew its base really well.  In the mid 80s, students were still dithering between cassettes and vinyl, and though cds were becoming more widely available, they hadn’t yet taken over the store’s main floor yet.  Al Bum’s cassette wall was similar to the one at the Strawberries chain in Leominster, in that it took up most of the back wall and was semi-blocked by a wall of sheet plastic.  Big fist-sized holes in the barrier let you take the tape out of its cubbyhole so you could look at it, but not be able to pull it (and its plastic security box) out of its section.  You had to drop it down — risking cracking the cassette case itself — and it would ride a well-worn conveyor belt up to the front register.  In the case of Al Bum’s, however, it looked as though that process had broken down quite some time ago.  If you wanted a tape, you had to flag down a manager or let the register jockey know you wanted something.

the-smiths

It was also your store for music posters as well.  Sure, you’d see the Bon Jovi and Duran Duran posters at the mall stores, but Al Bum’s was where you went for that Smiths poster you saw in Pretty in Pink, or that dayglo Bob Marley poster that looked so cool under a black light.  For Christmas in 1986 my sister bought me a ridiculously large poster of the Cure which took up half the west wall of my bedroom.  It stayed there until I brought it to college where it finally fell to pieces from wear.

I’d gone to other indie stores before…but this was the first one where I was actively looking for the music I was hearing.  I didn’t buy a lot of it at that time — not yet, anyway — as I was really doing a lot of casing out while still wanting to buy those bootlegs.

As it happens, I only bought maybe six or seven of those total.  It was mainly a cost thing: did I really want to spend twenty dollars on a record that may or may not be of good quality?

So — back to regular music purchasing.  That is, buying the pop music I still listened to.  I could easily find those anywhere, from the Mars department store, or the Music Forum downtown, or the chain stores at the malls.  [I should also add the flea markets and the tag sales my dad and I would frequent on Sunday afternoons.  I found some great tapes and vinyl super cheap that way.]  I even joined the RCA Record Club for a while.  And in the spirit of the time, I continued my habit of creating ‘radio tapes’ to add to the songs in my collection.

And now that I had a newer personal stereo and a mini boombox, both with tape players, I was able to listen to these tapes whenever and wherever.

Around 1985 or so, I’d started giving them names — silly, K-Tel-inspired names borrowed from one of the featured songs on the tape — and even made an attempt at keeping the theme and flow consistent, just like that label’s well-known mix albums.

Looking back on these radio tapes now, I’m kind of amused at how eclectic my tastes were, even then.  There would be a 12-inch remix of ABC’s “How to Be a Millionaire” followed by Wham!’s “I’m Your Man” followed by INXS’ “This Time” and ending with Dire Straits’ “Industrial Disease”.  That was the mix of the day, really, even on pop stations.  It wasn’t until 1986 or so that the truly pop productions (thank you, Stock Aitken Waterman) came in with their Linn drum beats and moon-June lyrics of love found or lost (or parties having or heading towards).  That was the thing: once the synth and the technology became cheaper and easier to buy and use, the Brills That Be saw an easy path to the top of the charts with catchy and fun music that might be great at the clubs (or in my case, the school gym floor), but was certainly far from being music meant to last.  It’s great for having fun, but it certainly doesn’t have the longevity.]

This is why I was still listening to pop radio for most of the mid-80s, even after I discovered college radio.  I wholeheartedly agree, it was good fun, and despite some of it not aging well at all over the years, it was tied to the lighter aspects of my social life, such as they were.

Walk in Silence 7

So how does one investigate new music in the mid-80s, when the internet as we currently know it didn’t even exist?  How does one research a genre when all its available outlets are so slim?  Well — thankfully, I had a local library and a magazine stand next door to it, both of which I’d already frequented for years.

The magazine stand, an old and dusty storefront with squeaky wooden floors, a basement stockroom and enough penny candy behind a glass case to feed us kids for years at a time, Norm’s Smoker was the one stop shop for dads and kids — the candy case, the cigars and cigarettes, the magazines and the comic books, and a dented and well-worn metal soda cooler.  I used to pick up my Archie digests here and a little later on, issues of the comic book The ‘Nam, but after my musical awakening, I needed to find quality music magazines to peruse.

My family had a subscription to Rolling Stone in the early 80s but let it lapse, but I’d continued to read it at the library for free.  Spin had launched in May of 1985, so I started reading that one as well.  And in a completely leftfield move for me, I started picking up Star Hits, which had started up in late 1984.  Star Hits was more of a teen magazine, but due to its tight relation to the UK — it originated as a British pop mag nearly a decade earlier as Smash Hits, and contained nearly all the same content.  That’s what appealed to me; Star Hits pointed out to me that the general idea of popular music in the US was much, much different than in the UK.  Pop, to me, was informed by what was on the Top 40 countdowns and on MTV.  There was a lot of bleedover, of course, but there were a lot of stark differences as well.  It was Star Hits that told me about The Cure and The Smiths and Depeche Mode — three now-giants of 80s alternative rock, but hardly heard of in Podunk, USA at the time, even if they were on major labels by 1986.*

Trouser press

At the library, I was blessed to have found a 1985 edition of Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records, which became my musical bible over the newxt few years.  I took that book out so many times and pored over it so obsessively that I finally had my parents special-order it from the Waldenbooks in Leominster for me.

Sure, I’d seen record guides before.  I owned a few cheap ones that were little more than info scrapes from glossy magazines and the most minimal of discography information.  There were the dry ones that focused on 50s and 60s rock (and kind of petered out come the 70s).   And there were the Rolling Stone-related ones that mainly focused on the more popular rock bands of the last decade or so.

Trouser Press, on the other hand, was a godsend!  Based on Robbins’ love for British music (and his previous fanzine of the same name, which he’d edited for the last decade), this tome was exactly what I was looking for.  Between those well-worn covers I found a solid (if not always complete) discography of hundreds of bands I would need to familiarize myself with.  I bought myself a small index card box and snagged a bunch of 3×5 cards from my dad’s bin and set to work copying out all the albums I’d need to look for the next time we were near a record store.

Was it as immediate as all that?  Well, not really.  It was more of a slow morphing.  I was still listening to commercial radio well until around 1987 or so.  First off, I understood that some college stations went off the air at the end of the semester.  Even though I had discovered that station in April, I knew I only had a few more weeks of listening before it would disappear on me.

That left me with the summer of 1986, fending for myself.  I’d recently started an after-school job at the local YMCA as a hall monitor, which really meant a few hours of walking around the building, cleaning things and making sure the kids didn’t injure themselves or goof off too long after their swimming classes ended (and let me tell you, I had to do a lot of barking to make sure they got to their awaiting parents upstairs!).

It was here of all places, during the drudgery of having run out of things to clean and monitor, that I hatched my plan of branching out.  What else was I going to do?  Walk around listlessly?  Sure, I could have shot hoops or hung out at the front desk.  All I had to do was make an appearance in front of the boss a few times, the rest was up to me.

So, I did two things:  I read my issues of Star Hits when they came out, and I wrote.  I perched myself at the foot of the back stairway with one of my notebooks and did a LOT of writing.  The first attempt at consistent writing, actually.  It was also when the Infamous War Novel got a major boost.  Thanks to my new music discovery, weirder and darker ideas were starting to emerge.  You can see a marked difference about a third of the way through, where the plot is less about the war going on and more about the lead character’s psyche as it slowly started to disintegrate.

One of the first purchases I made came at a perfect time — only a few short weeks later, The Cure released a major-label compilation of their singles thus far, entitled Standing on a Beach.  This was exactly what I was looking for!  This was a perfect starting point: jump in with both feet with a greatest hits package!  SoaB got a crapton of play on my tape players within the first six months of its release, but amusingly its first play was in the family car the day I bouht it.  Heh — little did my family know what they were in for!  They already knew I was a music geek, thanks to my prodding for an allowance of sorts so I could buy albums.  I bought it at Musicland down at Hampshire Mall in Hadley, specifically on cassette because it contained an extra twelve songs that were all b-sides.  The drive back was…interesting, considering.  Me grooving to this weird music, and my family squirming and side-eying me.  The best bit though was hearing “Let’s Go to Bed”, where both me and one of my sisters suddenly realized we’d heard the track before:  it had gotten some minor airtime in the early days of MTV, usually alongside Duran Duran.

The next purchase was Depeche Mode’s Catching Up with Depeche Mode (their US counterpart to the UK Singles 81-85), another greatest hits mix I could familiarize myself with.  As with the Cure album, I was already familiar with one of its featured tracks; in this case it was their minor breakthrough hit “People Are People”, which had even made an appearance on American Top 40.

From there?  It was a matter of searching.

And thus started a VERY long journey in the search for alternative rock.

 

* – In fact, at one point all three were on Sire Records.  [The Smiths and Depeche Mode were on Sire in the US for the entirety of the 80s; The Cure released The Top, Japanese Whispers and most of their 1982-84 singles via Sire in the US.]  This just goes to show that Seymour Stein, its cofounder, and signer of other classic alt.rock bands like Pretenders, Ramones, Talking Heads and Echo & the Bunnymen, was a true visionary for the alternative rock genre.  It’s said he was even the one who gave it the original name of ‘new wave’.

 

Walk in Silence 6

Indeed, what was this?

No commercials, no flashy filler.  No growly masculine voiceover, no sexy feminine voiceover.  Just a voice off the street.  And something about the music — it was hard to describe, but it was like a step backward, but in a good way.  A very good way.  There was something truthful about what I was hearing.  The focus was on the sound and the mood, and the lyrics were far from the moon/June pop or the party-all-night rock.  It wasn’t music written for the charts, and it was refreshing.

Another batch of songs later and I finally got my answer: I was listening to WMUA 91.1, a college radio station based at University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

College radio!  So this was what it sounded like!

I wasn’t completely ignorant of it…I had one sister just graduating from college and another about to attend, so I knew such stations existed.  Most of the more serious music magazines like Rolling Stone and the like would often mention these punk bands in passing that I’d never hear on other stations.  I was familiar with WMUA as well, having occasionally heard it in the background whenever we drove down through the Pioneer Valley.  The reason I’d never actually paid attention to college radio before then was simple: most of those stations rarely came in up my way.  Our house was in a valley, and the nearest college was a good thirty or so miles away.  I’d need a really good antenna or at least a radio with a strong receiver if I was going to get anything in.*

I listened to the station for a good hour or two that night, getting the feel of what they were playing.  It was quite an eclectic mix; sometimes loud and punky, other times quiet and melodic.  I’ll admit it wasn’t exactly a jaw-dropping, eye-opening, mind-blowing event.  It was more a revelation.  I’d heard of this genre in passing, and now I was finally experiencing it for the first time.  I do in fact remember three songs from that night:


The first two were Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” and “Add It Up.”  The almost feminine, not quite fey voice of Gordon Gano’s delivery was not exactly the kind of singing voice you’d hear on American Top 40.  Musically they were sparse and dirty, tight but frenetic, and not exactly something you’d share with your parents.  I was drawn to the hint of Isley Brothers with the former (with its progressively quieter delivery on a later verse only to burst out in the chorus), and the a capella introduction of the latter (I’ll admit I thought it was an old lady singing when I first heard it), and when I finally got a dubbed copy of the album some months later, it was on heavy rotation for years afterwards.**

The third song was by a band called The Cure, and the song in question was “A Forest”.  Brooding, spooky, and full of reverb, it was the first song in years that struck me so viscerally:  I wasn’t just lying in my darkened bedroom, listening to the radio with my headphones…I was also deep in the woods surrounding my house, in the dead of night, completely aware of my cold and dangerous surroundings.  I’d based images in the IWN on songs I knew, but this was the first time an image came to me unbidden and unexpected.

I had to investigate this music further.

 

* – This was tested a day or so later when I tried to get WMUA on my min boombox.  It came in ever so faintly, just enough that I’d have to pump the volume up considerably and hope for the best.  A short time and a quick run to Radio Shack later, I had a six-foot retractable antenna on it, and I was in business!

** – I was quite amused when it got a well-deserved nudge in popularity over a decade later thanks to John Cusack’s film Grosse Point Blank.  This album is considered a must-have in anyone’s collection.