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.