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.
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.
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.