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.