WIS: Unexpected inspiration

The other day while reading Martin Aston’s book about the 4AD label, I came across a single sentence:

By 1985, American college radio had gathered momentum alongside the spurt in independent record labels, with the likes of [Clan of Xymox’s] “A Day” striking radio programmers as adventurous and commercial, and a modern, gleaming alternative to the guitar-centric homegrown scene spearheaded by bands such as REM, Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü.

To be honest, I hadn’t been thinking of my Walk in Silence project lately, partly because I’d put it aside some time ago.  I didn’t trunk it, I just put it aside so I could focus on the Trilogy Edit and newer fiction.  I’d also gone through my projected timeline last summer on a personal level, if only to purge it from my writing brain for a while.

That personal version really wasn’t the original idea that I’d had.  I was thinking more along the lines of a chronological book about college rock.  The releases bracketing the story would be The Smiths’ third single, “What Difference Does It Make” (January 1984) and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine (October 1989).

I could never quite figure out a way to solidify my idea that that was the golden era of college rock, before it became much more mainstream in 1991 with Nirvana and everyone else.  Until that one sentence.  It made sense to me, though…1984-85 was about the time that a lot of independent distributors and labels in the US, such as Relativity and Caroline, started licensing British bands that had only been available on expensive imports.  [Only Sire had any sizeable share in that field as a major label, having signed the Smiths, Depeche Mode, and others.]

So it occurs to me that perhaps it’s time for me to resurrect the Walk in Silence project as it was originally intended, focusing on the sounds of college rock in the mid to late 80s.  Maybe without so much of the personal added to it this time out.

Of course, I already have a few writing projects on tap as it is, so I’ll have to figure out how the hell to fit this in.  Heh.

More on the 90s

So yeah, I’ve still been contemplating expanding the Walk in Silence series to include the 90s.  I’ve started listening to the decade chronologically, much as I did with the original series and going through the 80s, and once again it’s been an interesting ride.

Presently I’m listening to Living Colour’s sophomore album Time’s Up, which came out in late August 1990.  It was the back end of summer, and I’d chosen to take the last two weeks off between my summer job (second year at the DPW) and starting my sophomore year at Emerson.  Chris and I got together to reform the Flying Bohemians as a duo, and recorded a few tracks in my parents’ garage.

I spent those last two weeks doing not much of anything: made a pretty decent compilation that I still listen to in 2016, did a bit of poetry, lyric and journal writing, a lot of Solitaire playing, and met up with all my friends who’d come home for a brief time.  For the most part, most of them had taken root in their college towns and gotten local summer jobs or were taking summer classes, so there was only a narrow window of time that we could meet up.

Me?  The only reason I’d come back home for the summer was that I hadn’t prepared myself for any summer position or an apartment to sublet for a few months.  It had crossed my mind, of course, but I hadn’t the time or the money to plan it out sufficiently.  I figured the summer of 1991 would be when I’d stick around.

That, and I’d wanted to spend more time with T, as well as distance myself from the frustration of freshman year.  Summer 1990 was time to start over again.

Walk in Silence 21

Love And Rockets

(Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images)

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!

fiasco

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.

The Last Home Year had finally come to a close.

Walk in Silence 19

cocteau twins

Cocteau Twins, picture courtesy of Getty Images

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.

 

 

 

Fly-By: WiS will return next week!

Whew!  Didn’t think I’d be able to keep the series going with such consistency, but I did it!

Alas, I do not have an entry up and ready for today, primarily due to other deadlines and Day Job stuff.  I figure I can give myself a rest now and again, and can start again fresh next week.  [This will also give me the weekend to get ahead and create a buffer again.]

Thanks for tuning in! 🙂

Walk In Silence 1

I’d say the music that I connected to most at the time was classic rock.  I’d grown up listening to it, and started my music collection with the Beatles.  Not to say I didn’t enjoy other genres or station programming…I had a passing interest in the poppier Top 40 sounds, especially from about 1983 onwards, when it updated its sound and included multiple genres.  But thanks mainly to WAQY 102.1 FM out of East Longmeadow and WAAF 107.3, originally out of Worcester, I found myself listening to a lot of classic and AOR rock.

Looking back, I think part of it may be due to the quality of the production and the creativity of the music.  It didn’t necessarily need to be a genius creation, it just had to have something that caught my attention somehow.

That would mean John Bonham’s thunderous drums and John Paul Jones’ synth strings on the epic “Kashmir” — the first rock song to completely blow my mind — or the Beatlesque* sounds of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”.  Or it could be the countrified twang of Eagles.  Even the bubblegum fun of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” and “Fox On the Run” counted, thanks to their catchy guitar riffs and high-pitched harmonies.

 

I often say The Beatles’ 1967-1970 compilation is ‘officially’ the first album I ever owned, but that’s not entirely true.  I will admit that claim actually belongs to Shaun Cassidy’s Born Late, which I’d gotten for Christmas in 1977.  I kind of consider that a trial run, though…in December of 1977 my music collection was pretty much a reflection of what I thought album collecting was about at the time: pop music and buying whatever was popular at the time.  Why did I have my mom buy that Shaun Cassidy album?  Who knows.  I think it was because he was one of the Hardy Boys on TV at the time, and he was all over the covers of teen magazines at the time.  David’s little brother, also a musician and an actor and a heartthrob!  Buy it now!  Hell, I was six years old at the time, I didn’t know any better.  I didn’t even know I was breaking a perceived gender role at the time by liking a young pop star’s music.  My parents may have side-eyed me (more on the quality of the music than the gender role, that is), but I didn’t care.  Even then it was about the music.

All that changed in 1978, when two things happened.

First, the much maligned movie Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, featuring the insanely popular Bee Gees (another favorite band, thanks again to an older sister) and Peter Frampton (a huge pull, thanks to the fantastic Frampton Comes Alive album and his mindblowing use of the talkbox guitar effects on “Do You Feel Like We Do”).  I originally went because I liked the singers, but my mom had hinted that I’d enjoy the songs they’d be singing here.  It’s painful to watch now, but at the time it was silly and a lot of fun.

Second, I was made aware of an annual tradition on WLVI, channel 56 (6 on our dial), one of Metro Boston’s independent television stations (decades before it became an affiliate of The CW).  On a summery Sunday afternoon they’d play Yellow Submarine, the 1968 animated Beatles movie.

I knew the Beatles in passing, of course.  In the 70s, who didn’t?  They’d only broken up a few short years before and were enjoying healthy solo careers at that point (especially Paul McCartney).  Their music was still getting heavy rotation on the radio at the time.

[I should probably interrupt here and state that there was a third event that took place in 1978 that changed everything, even though I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time.  That event is the overwhelming change in radio listening habits in the United States.  It was this year when people began listening to music on the FM dial rather than on AM.  There are many and varied reasons for it — the acceptance of rock radio as a valid genre rather than an underground interest, and even the fact that home stereos were becoming more affordable.  By the time 1978 rolled around, we’d had a stereo in my parents’ bedroom that as soon moved to my sisters’ bedroom, where it got much higher use.  I ended up with a cheap hand-me-down kids’ record player where even to this day, I can still remember the loud nasally wrhirrrrrrrr of the motor.  I’d get the old stereo when my sisters upgraded, and finally getting my own sometime around 1983.]

So yes, it was in 1978 when I finally, officially, owned my first record, and also picked up on my first musical obsession.  Over the next four or five years, I searched and found all the Beatles-related records I could find.  Some of the albums I purchased were new (usually bought at Mars Bargainland, the department store outside of town), but many were found used at garage sales, town fairs and elsewhere.  First came the albums, then came the singles.  I believe I got Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road early on, because I was already familiar with most of those songs from the Sgt Pepper movie.  Revolver was another early one, thanks to familiarity with some of its tracks as well.  Imagine an eight-year-old  hearing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the first time — I had no idea what I was listening to, but it certainly was amazing!

 *

I’m explaining all this, even though it has nothing to do with college radio, because this early obsession is a major reason why I latched onto it as closely as I did.

Even as the pop music of the seventies and eighties slowly morphed from one genre or style to another, I found myself irrevocably obsessed over it all.  I knew bands and their discographies almost as well as other kids my age might know who played on what NFL team and for how long.  Their stats were performance ratings and signature moves; my stats were release dates and what labels released them.

 

* – Beatlesque: usually means evoking psychedelic melodies of 1967, dreamlike whimsy, three-part harmony, and often attempting to sound like something from either Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road.

Walk in Silence 0

PROLOGUE:

I’ve been listening to college radio and alternative rock for thirty years as of this week.

Currently, I’m kind of cheating and switching between the XMU station on SiriusXM, RadioBDC, and a host of college stations via their streaming feed, but the point remains — the singer here (Paul Westerberg at his alcoholic best/worst on Let It Be) is barely making it through the song without stumbling.  You can hear the liquor in his voice.  It’s a classic song of generational discontent, as Wikipedia points out.  I heard the same thing back then, in my bedroom, late at night, and I felt the same thing: who the hell let him close to the mike?

But truly, that was exactly what endeared me to the alternative rock genre, and still does to this day.  The fact that studio time was given to a musician of middling proficiency and questionable talent amused me then, and impresses me now.  Well — at this point, anyone with a laptop, a few microphones and some cheap recording and mixing software can lay down their own music.  And thanks to the internet, they no longer need to jockey for position at the local radio station or bar; they can upload their latest song on Bandcamp hours after making the final mix, and let their small tribe of listeners know it’s out there.

There’s a lot of excellent indie rock out there if one chooses to actively look for it.  Some listeners like myself spend far too much time and money on it, but we love it just the same.  Again with the internet: many college stations stream their shows on their website, so someone like myself, now living in San Francisco, just over a mile from the Pacific Ocean and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge just outside my window, can listen to the broadcast of Boston College’s WZBC.

The only thing missing, in my mind, is having a blank cassette at the ready, in case one of my favorite songs comes on.

That’s one of the original facets of alternative/indie rock, really…the ability to look in the face of popular culture and loudly and proudly profess that you’re not going to play that game, at least not by those rules anyway.  One of the whole points of the genre, harking back to the original UK punk wave of the late 70s (and much further back, depending on which rock genre you’re thinking about), was to make sounds under one’s own rules.

It was about a certain style of anarchy –a personal anarchy, wherein one fully embraces who they are and what they want to be, where one stops trying to fit in where they obviously don’t belong, where they find their own path without outside influence.  Be what you want to be, and fuck ’em if they can’t deal with it.

*

Every music fan has that story:  where did you first hear that new song, that favorite band, discover that new genre?  Every fan has a story where they heard a song or found a new radio station or a new genre for the first time where it just clicks: YES!  This is the thing that has pierced my soul, has connected with me in such a deeply personal way that I will never hear it the same way again!

Okay, maybe not in so many words: often it starts out with a distraction.  Yeah, I kind of dig this track.  It makes you stop and notice it.  You may not know exactly why just yet, but you’re not going to dwell on that right now.  But its primary job has been fulfilled: it’s gotten your attention.  You may be intrigued for the moment but forget it a half hour later, or it may stay with you for much longer, so much that you’ll end up looking for it the next time you’re at the local music shop.

Or, if you were like me in the middle of the 80s, you’d have a small ever-circulating pile of half-used blank tapes near your tape deck, and if you liked the song that much, you’d slam down the play and record buttons and let ‘er rip.

This is the story of how I got from there to here.

*

 Let me start with this: I was part of the inaugural MTV generation.  I was ten going on eleven.  I remember when I first saw the channel when it was offered on our newly-minted Time Warner Cable system, the first cable service in my hometown.  I remember the beige-colored box with the light brown label on top, listening all the channels we’d be getting.  I remember seeing MTV for the first time.  [For the record: my first MTV video was .38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely”.]  And most of all, I remember it was channel 24.  Even before we got cable, I’d already made plans to park my butt in front of the television and soak in the musical goodness.  Any music I heard from about 1982 onwards was considered Something Awesome in my book, especially if it had a video.  But even if it didn’t, that one network opened up something within me that turned music from a passing interest into an obsession.

Around the same time, I had pilfered the radio that had been gathering dust in the kitchen (an old model I believe must have been purchased at one of the local department stores a few decades earlier), and it was now at my desk.  I’d made little marks on the dial where my favorite stations were.  I’d fallen in love with rock radio.

Was it different from the sort-of-occasional listenings of records from our family collection, or the albums we’d take out from the library, or whatever was playing on the car stereo during family roadtrips?  In a way, yes.  Even then I’d gotten into the habit of listening to certain radio stations, but not to such an obsessive extent.  I’d gone from ‘now and again’ to ‘every single morning’ to ‘pretty much all day long’.  Other boys my ages were probably watching sports or playing outside or whatever it was we supposed to do, but I was perfectly happy sitting right next to the radio and enjoying each new song that came on.

The obsession with countdowns started around this time.  That was the fault of one of my older sisters who’d taped various songs off the radio at the turn of the decade, and had recorded part of the year-end countdown on the rock station we all enjoyed, WAQY 102.1 out of East Longmeadow.  A year or so later the torch was passed to me (well, more like I snagged it as she headed off to college).  WAQY had a contest in which, if you sent in the correct countdown list, they’d pick a random winner and give away every album that was on it.  Who was I to turn that down?  With an insane amount of focus and intent for a preteen, I wrote each artist, song on lined paper and duly mailed it in.  Never won, of coure, but that didn’t stop me from listening with rapt attention.

Thinking back, that’s probably what fueled my music obsession the most — between the countdowns and MTV, as well as radio in particular, I was glued to my desk or the living room couch, wondering what song or video would come next.

That went on for most of that decade, really.  From about 1981 or so onwards, I would always have a radio on, or I’d watch a good hour or so of MTV, just soaking everything in.  I really wasn’t too choosy about what songs came up, as long as they caught my interest.  That was partly due to listening to whatever my sisters were listening to in the 70s.  I could take Chicago’s easy-listening comeback albums the grandiose prog rock of Rush, and the guitar jangle of early REM.  A lot of the rock stations back then were more adventurous in their playlist, mixing past and present genres without a second thought.  Within the span of an hour I could hear the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits, Van Halen, and maybe even an Ozzy or an AC/DC track.  In the early days of FM radio, there was always some element of free-form.

I was given a massive playlist to choose from, and I devoured pretty much all of it.