I’ll be afk for a bit while we head out on a well-earned vacation (and to rawk out at Outside Lands upon return), so it’ll be a bit quiet here for a few weeks. I may pop by for a bit of photo sharing though!
Upon return, I’ll be returning to the Tuesday & Thursday posting schedule that I’ve had going for the last few months. The WiS series, at least the 80s years, is done, so I’ll be jumping back into music blogging, talking about tunage old and new.
4 Charlesgate East, Boston (Picture courtesy of backbayhomes.org)
My first long distance drive, mere weeks after I got my license, was to drive all my stuff to Boston. For most of the trip it’s relatively easy — Route 2 all the way in. The trick is navigating the weird roads: the double-lane rotary in Concord, four-lane highway down to two-lane surface road, the weird intersections in Cambridge, the lane-change to get on to Storrow Drive, and looping around multiple one-way streets of Back Bay to pull up next to my dormitory and unload with all the other students. At a building that had no parking. Somehow the insanity of that early September day ran smoothly, thanks to a number of fraternity brothers teaming up to help us newbies.
As you can see above, it wasn’t your typical box dorm…Charlesgate was once a hotel, turned into an SRO, became a Boston University dorm (BU is a few blocks on the other side of Kenmore Square…they still have a few frat houses on Beacon on this block), and eventually became the largest dorm for Emerson College.* Some of the rooms were huge and spacious (like mine, thankfully!), while others were little more than a closet space. It was old enough to have its own ghost stories! Some of the older SRO renters still lived there per a loophole, including an older lady that lived up the hall from me and smoked smelly cigars, despite the no-smoking rule in the buildling. It was quite the peculiar building, but it was a great place to live. Our cafeteria was right across the street, along with a bus stop for a school shuttle that would bring us to the dorm at the other end of Beacon.
Note: Yes, this is the exact same Fuzzbox I’d fallen in love with a few years previous…their second album was a complete 180 with shiny production and nary a thread of Oxfam in sight. It was one hell of a brave move and I love this album all the more for it.
My freshman dorm room was 306, facing Beacon (you can see it the picture — second floor up from the white stone facade, the farthest-left bay windows). I’d been placed with a kid from New Hampshire who I originally thought I’d get along with, as we both had the same tastes in music. In reality, though, we couldn’t have been more different and irritating to each other. He was a punk purist who actively disliked any college rock tainted by commercial radio and major labels, even if they’d started out on indie labels. I was someone who liked pop radio just as much as I liked obscurities. He thought I was an ignorant local yokel. I thought he was a poseur and an ass. I liked a bit of order and cleanliness; his side of the room was a total shithole. We didn’t hate each other…we just had absolutely nothing in common except for some music choices. We merely tolerated each other until our year was done. On the plus side, I will say that he did introduce me to a lot of excellent indie bands that I’d otherwise have ignored.**
One big problem I had? I was within walking distance of three record stores. There was the Tower Records at the corner of Mass Ave and Newbury Street, where I could get all the new releases. There was Nuggets in Kenmore Square, an excellent used record store where I could buy a lot of stuff cheap; and up the street from that there was Planet Records, which catered to my collectible whims. This basically meant that I was constantly broke, but at least I had a soundtrack for it!
Another big problem was of my own making: I’d been expecting to meet more people like the Misfit gang, and had completely failed to do so. A specialized college like mine tended to attract the artistes and the trust fund kids (or at least that’s how it seemed at the time), so I quickly found myself not fitting in anywhere at all. Even some of the students from towns smaller than mine were all about being the intellectual hipster with a dash of special snowflake for added flavor. But it was also my own damn fault, as I was looking for my own imagined version of an ‘alternative crowd’ that wasn’t there, at least not at this college. It took me most of the first semester to figure that out and get my shit together. By second semester I’d shifted focus and met a different crowd that I got along famously with. [In fact, I’m still in touch with two or three of them to this day.]
Of course, I was also missing Tracey something fierce, and that had its own problems, mostly in the form of a high phone bill, but also frustration that we were so rarely able to talk to each other. We’d write letters and call each other now and again, and nearly every time I came home on the weekends, I’d make sure we spent at least part of the day together. But it became obvious that I was torn; I wanted to loosen the ties I had with my home town, but I couldn’t exactly do that, at least not completely, without ending the relationship. And I just couldn’t accept taking that step at that time. Would it have made any difference if we had split up? Who knows…I’ve long gotten past mulling that question. Either way, I felt a bit stuck: not quite released from my old bonds, and not quite connected to the new ones.
I’d even stopped writing for the most part. Sure, I was focusing on my school work (once more a B- student with deadline issues) and my occasional extracurricular activities (getting a midnight shift at WECB, our then-AM station!), but I’d started to find myself falling into that dark spiral again, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep that up again. I toyed around with reviving the IWN again, but creatively I was running dry. I did write some of my best Flying Bohemian songs in 1990-91, but a lot of the poetry and lyrics had gotten quite…angry.
On the plus side, I’d started drawing a hell of a lot more. During one of my history classes I was doodling in the margin of my notebook, drawing a caricature of Daniel Ash from Love and Rockets, when I came up with an idea: an alter-ego character. I’d drawn similar characters my senior year in high school (two characters from my Belief in Fate project in comic strip form), but Simon ‘Murph’ Murphy was to be one of my favorite creative outlets of my college years; he was full of non-sequiturs, weird life observances, smart-ass remarks, and had no filter whatsoever when it came to saying what was on his mind. He was the right outlet I needed right then.
The weekend trips back home were also what saved my sanity. I’d hop on the commuter train at North Station on Friday night, bogged down with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and a backpack of homework and music to listen to. I’d take the Fitchburg train out to its terminus, where my Dad would pick me up and drive me the last few dozen miles home. Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine got some seriously heavy play on those trips…it was my ‘Fuck you, Boston’ album on the ride out to western MA. Alternately, Bob Mould’s Workbook was the ‘fuck it, let’s just start over correctly this time’ album for the same trips. I got a lot of my shit together on the rides back. By Sunday afternoon when my Mom or Dad would drop me off at the station, I’d be in a much better mood (and bogged down with clean laundry and a bag of fresh groceries to keep me fed) by the time I got off at the Convention Center stop on the Green Line and walked back to the dorm.
I had to grow up a hell of a lot in a short amount of time, and freshman year was a blur of anger, frustration, depression, and everything in between. But it was also a blur of excitement, unexpected creativity, and self-realization. It took me quite a long time to get used to this new reality, but I wasn’t going to overwhelm me. I’d find a way to figure it all out. One way or another.
* – Emerson sold off Charlesgate and its neighboring building Fensgate in the mid-90s when they moved the entire school over to the Common…they’re both upscale condos now. In fact, at this point, the campus I knew as a student no longer exists as part of the school.
** – In a very bizarre twist of fate, he’s now a lawyer. I don’t even remember what he went to Emerson for…writing, perhaps?
The summer of 1989 was spent mostly in cemeteries.
No, I hadn’t decided to go full-on goth…I was in the Cemetery, Park and Tree Division of the DPW, lugging lawn mowers in the back of the town trucks around to most of the local cemeteries. We on the summer help team would cut the grass around the headstones and the odd niches, and one of the regular full-timers would come riding around on a John Deere and cut the rest. We’d usually be one or two sections ahead of the riders, so occasionally we’d sneak into one of the wooded areas and enjoy the shade. The cycle of cutting was such that by the time we made our rounds at all our usual stops, it was time to cut the grass on the first location again. My favorite cemetery to mow was Silver Lake; it’s the largest in town (a few of my relatives are buried there), so it would take a few days to finish, and we’d have so much more time to goof off.
Me? I got along just fine with everyone at the job. They thought I was a bit weird, wearing my Cure and Smiths tee-shirts and all and listening to that weird shit, but I gave as good as I got, and got the job done as needed. I brought my Walkman (I finally had an official Sony by that time!) and listened to all kinds of stuff during my job, both old and new: Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Bauhaus’ Swing the Heartache: The BBC Sessions, most of my 1988-89 compilations to date, The The’s Mind Bomb, Concrete Blonde’s self-titled, The Cure’s Disintegration and The Head on the Door, most of Cocteau Twins’ Treasure, The Moon and the Melodies and most of their EPs from that era, and so much more. I’m pretty sure I went through fifty or sixty dollars’ worth of AA batteries that summer.
I also started focusing a bit more seriously on the writing. The IWN had pretty much gone into stasis, the Belief in Fate project was complete, so I focused mostly on my lyrics and poetry writing. I also worked on my guitar chops, both on my bass and on my sister’s acoustic. I’d gotten better, though my chord-shifting still needed a hell of a lot of work. Given that I was outside for most of the day and hiding inside in the evening during the hot summer, I didn’t have much else to do except listen to a lot of music and let my influences get the best of me.
This was a bit of a double-edged sword, as I found myself returning to my ‘morose bastard’ ways again, even though I was in a strong relationship and was heading out into the Big Bad World in a few months. Perhaps it was a bit of melancholy I felt in realizing that I’d finally be letting go of both the good and the bad of my youth. Maybe it was a bit of sadness that I’d be heading off to Boston and leaving Tracey back home for another three years. Maybe it’s that I’d be even further away from my friends and would have to start over from scratch. Maybe it was that I really had no idea what I truly wanted to do, but I was afraid to admit it, especially after I’d already committed to my choice of college. Maybe it was a bit of all of this.
The end of the summer came quickly. I worked pretty much all the way up to the last few weeks of August, taking maybe a week off before I was to head out the first week of September to my new destination. Which meant any last minute music dubbing and compilation making would need to be done post haste!
It also meant that, for a very brief time, I’d get to see all my Misfit friends again. Chris borrowed his grandfather’s cabin out on Packard Pond north of town, and invited most of the Misfit crew in for a three day get-together (which he’d amusingly named a ‘fiasco’). It was a purposely low-key party, just like most of ours, in which we listened to music, played various games, watched silly movies and cartoons, and went swimming. There was even a tag sale up the street that we went to, where I bought a few things for my impending college years. It was the vacation we all needed then, a few days of doing nothing but sleeping in, goofing off, chatting and just having fun.
If anything, I’d say this was the point where our friendship had truly become more than just being high school friends. Many of us have drifted various ways over the years, but that summer was the moment when I truly knew that many of these people would be in my life for years to come. I wouldn’t know when I’d be seeing them again after this, or if we’d be in constant touch with each other (remember, this was 1989, well before anyone of us used the internet)…but I knew that, despite that, we’d still find a way to make it happen.
I’d borrowed my mom’s car for that weekend, so I was one of the last people to head out when the party was over. I packed my belongings in the back seat, helped Chris clean up, and saw him off. He’d be heading back to his parents’ house for a bit and then head back to UMass in a few days, I’d be leaving the first week of September for Boston.
XTC, North Carolina, 1989 (courtesy of Getty Images)
Kevin introduced me to Tracey early in 1989. They were both band geeks who’d known each other for a while and he must have felt she’d get along with me and my weird music obsessions. We hit it off almost immediately.
The funny thing was that I’d been totally out of practice when it came to relationships, even on the high school level. I’d kind of avoided the whole dating scene for the most part since a few very brief hook-ups in junior high, but as a senior I figured it was high time I got my act together and figured out how to be a boyfriend. The other funny thing was, as a freshman, I could never quite figure out why some of the senior guys were going out with freshman girls. [I mean, yeah, did know the reason behind it, at least for some of the guys, but it just seemed so…weird.] And that’s why it’s funny: Tracey was a freshman. I totally took the route I thought I’d never take.
Being with Tracey definitely helped turn things around for me somewhat. Our relationship gave me an emotional anchor I hadn’t had for some time, and the both of us could see that that was a very positive thing. I’d finally gotten past that moodiness I’d been stuck in for so long; so much so that at one point I’d told her that I was in such good spirits lately that I kind of missed being the moody bastard all the time.
Our relationship had its usual teenage ups and downs, of course. There was the age difference, which we had to manage with a bit of care at least with the parents; there was my penchant for acting like a doofus more often than I should, which would get on her nerves; there was the distance and the fact I had no transportation, let alone a license at the time. But eventually we got over them one way or another.
She couldn’t make it to my senior prom, but that was okay — I chose instead to help co-deejay it with Chris, of all people! We and a few of the old radio club crew (Derek and Dean, who had a sound production thing going at the time) got together and had a grand time playing all the pop hits of 1988-89 on the stage of Town Hall. I’d suggested before the doors even opened that our last song would be U2’s “All I Want Is You” as a sendoff.
Our relationship lasted about three and a half years, give or take. We definitely had our highs and lows, but by 1992 it became quite obvious that the two of us had wanted to move on in our separate ways. It wasn’t a bitter break-up, but it certainly was one that took me some time to get over. Despite that, we remained friends and still talk to each other online every now and again. And I’ll always thank her for helping me get out of that moody spiral.
The last few sounds of college radio came to me during those last few months of my senior year. The radio on top of my bookshelf — the one that held nearly all of my cassettes — was firmly set at 89.3, WAMH. I turned it on every morning while I was getting ready for school, and had it on when I came home. I made four radio tapes at that point, calling them The Last Home Year Cassettes, reminding myself that this was probably the last semester that I’d be listening to my favorite station until further notice.
I graduated in May of 1989 and I’ll be honest, it wasn’t so much a release of excitement as much as it was what Dave Sim would call a “Grand Finally”*. I floated through the final exams in a haze, studying the best I knew how and getting them over and done with as they came. The graduation ceremony took place on the football field, and I was of course cornered by my family to take all kinds of pictures while most of my friends all dashed away before I could say goodbye to them.
For a summer job, there were only a few places I could think of signing up. I didn’t want to go back to the supermarket, nor did I want to work at the local factory. I needed something that would take me in just for the summer. My dad and his copious local connections got me a position at the Department of Public Works that summer, and for the next three and a half months I’d be riding the back of one of the trucks, cleaning up the sides of local streets and back roads, and mowing nearly all the cemeteries in town. It quickly became one of my favorite jobs, because I got to spend hours outside in the sun, listening to my tapes when I could, and goofing off with most of the local regulars. It was definitely a boys’ club, but despite that it was fun and we all got along just great.
The future was looming ahead, and it was pretty damn close. All I had to do was wait just a few more weeks. I signed up and got my driver’s license (finally), started making a list of things I wanted to bring to college, thought about what writing I wanted to bring with me, and of course what music I’d bring.** I’d prepared myself well for the move to Boston…I was totally looking forward to escaping the small town for the big city.
And to my joy and excitement, I’d received news that most of the Misfit gang would be returning home, at least for a short time, before heading back to college. We’d planned to meet up one last time for a three-day party at Chris’ grandfather’s cabin north of town.
* – Sim was referring to his and Gerhard’s completion of their megastory in the Cerebus comic book universe, ‘Church & State’. It had taken so long to finish, ended on a down note, and neither wanted to celebrate when the final issue of the story came out. He said it felt like ‘not so much a grand finale than a grand finally.’
** – I’d briefly spoken with my two new roommates that I’d meet in September; one chose at the last minute to go to UMass instead, and the other was a kid from New Hampshire who I thought I’d get along with musically. That match-up ended up being the total opposite, but that’s a story for another time.
The saving grace for me my senior year was my music collection. It was the one constant that kept me sane as I tried to figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my future, while trying to figure out how to sever ties with my past. I didn’t have a solid plan other than I want to tell stories. Whether this was via my writing or my music or my art, I didn’t know, but I was willing to try all the different avenues to see what fit the best. I’d already made a plan to head off to Emerson College in the fall to study film production.
At the same time, that nagging feeling that I just wanted to get the hell out of town and move on never quite went away. It frustrated me that I had to wait one more year before I could do anything about it. I was afraid that this year would hold me back, that I’d settle for what I already had well before I even got started. Music was there as an open door to remind me that there was a wider world out there.
Earlier in 1988 I’d chosen to expand on my ‘radio tapes’ collection; essentially I wanted to practice the hallowed art of mixtape making, though I chose to call them compilations to hint at my own version of the K-Tel album mixes of yore. Even the titles changed — instead of using one of the featured songs on the tape, I came up with my own theme. I made about five or six early wonky practice runs that spring and summer, with pretentious names like Cimmerian Candlelight (theme: quiet and/or dark songs to listen to at 1am) and Preternatural Synthetics (theme: synth-driven alternative rock). They’re not my best mixes, but at least I made sure there weren’t any dud songs.
That August I came up with the first of many mixes that would start a very long practice of mixtape-making: Listen in Silence. It was a celebration of the best of past and present college rock, including The Church, The Sex Pistols, Wire, Midnight Oil, Violent Femmes, The Church, The Smiths, and more. It was also a soundtrack for me to listen to on my headphones, often quite loud, while sitting in the back seat of the bus: in essence, it was a soundtrack for me to block out the rest of the world that was driving me nuts.
That was soon followed up with another mix that would become the template for all my future mixes: Walk in Silence. Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” in particular had become somewhat of a deeply personal theme song for me at that point, partly due to a dream I’d had early in October (and had used in my Belief in Fate project). In the dream, I’d been cleaning out my locker for the last time, taking down the music-related things I’d posted inside and pulled out all the notebooks and trash, when I heard my friends calling me from the other end of the hallway. They were waiting for me so we could all finally exit the building together for the last time. “Atmosphere” had been playing in the background throughout. [In retrospect, I would not be the least bit surprised if I’d fallen asleep listening to Substance and that song had entered my subconscious.] Since that dream I’d equated that song with the reality of literally walking away from everything I’d known up to that point — in a positive way. It was me saying goodbye to things I was no longer connected to. It was my theme of moving on, and that shows in the first WiS mix.
[The mixtape bug hit me quite hard, and I’ve never quite let it go. To this day I still make personal mixes, the latest having been made three months ago. I may no longer put them on ninety-minute tapes or even burn them onto cds (I create them via mp3 copies in a new folder, deciding on a perfect running order and retagging the mix accordingly), but over the last few years I’ve reinstated the rule of making sure the mix conforms to two forty-five minute sides, which maintains their tight theme and flow. I then put them on my mp3 players for travel, work and gym listening.]
For most of my senior year, when I wasn’t hanging out with Kris or Kevin in the cafeteria, I tried to maintain a social balance; on the one hand I made it a point to distance myself from those who held me back or irritated me, but on the other hand I also made it a point to be more open and talkative with my classmate acquaintances. I’d come to the realization that we were all pretty much the same small-town weirdos who were doing our best to fit in during our time here. The change was a positive one for everyone involved, as they were glad to finally get to know the new me, and I’d tossed my preconception that they were just irritating popular kids.
At the same time, however, I’d noticed I was veering into a bit of a free-fall on a much more deeply personal level. I’ve admitted before that I can be overly obsessive and even overemotional about things, and that means more than just music. Even while I was opening up socially, I equally felt myself falling ever deeper into my own rampant emotions. The lyrics and the poetry and the writing that I’d used as a mental and emotional escape had become an addiction of sorts, in which I found myself feeling some kind of depression or annoyance on almost a daily basis. I wanted to linger down there in the lower depths, because at the time it felt like the truest emotion for me. I never showed it publicly. I didn’t want anyone to make a fuss, and besides — after a night’s sleep and a bit of musical exorcism, I’d be okay the next day. At least until I headed home and was on my own once more. I don’t think I was falling any deeper…but I wasn’t rising all that fast, either.
It was an unexpected introduction that spring that made all the difference.