Around the Dial

You know already that I have music playing nearly 24/7 in my life.  While I’m working, while I’m writing, even when we’re in bed reading and falling asleep. My life has a soundtrack and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, what do I listen to, anyway?   Good question!   I’m always open to listening to stations from different parts of the globe if they’re available online, and I’ve found some really interesting stations while on vacations.  Here, though, are my usual haunts!

Internet Stations

It depends on what I’m in the mood for.  Lately I’ve been listening to Sirius XM, specifically the 1st Wave (80s alternative), Lithium (90s alternative), XMU (more obscure indie rock) and Alt Nation (current indie) stations.  These channels tend to be a bit more adventurous with their playlist, though they do tend to stick with certain heavy rotation tracks as well.

Or I might listen to RadioBDC, an internet station run by former WFNX deejays and hosted by Boston.com.  They’ve retained the commercial alternative sound that ‘FNX was known for, but they also infuse their playlist with a lot of local sounds.

 

College Stations

Yes, even after all this time, I’m still a college radio listener.  I tend to switch from one to the other to keep things interesting, as some stations are more obscure with their playlist than others.  Sadly my favorite college station of my youth, WAMH, has pretty much become an NPR feed station…but there are numerous other stations I still listen to.

KSCU out of Santa Clara University is my go-to for the local college radio sound.  [Santa Clara, as you probably know from our NFL team’s recent move, is down near San Jose.]  They keep a somewhat thin deejay schedule, but they do have some great shows (the 80s Underground is a great Wednesday afternoon treat, and they post their show as a two-part podcast later that day).  Their ‘robo-deejay’ plays an interesting mix as well when no one’s on the air.

UC Berkeley’s KALX is quite eclectic in its schedule, but there’s always something interesting playing.  Same with Stanford University’s KZSU.  I still connect with Boston College’s WZBC every now and again, for the same reason.

 

Local Sounds

Our commercial stations here in the Bay Area can sometimes be a bit thin on the excitement and thick on the heavy rotation, but that doesn’t keep me from tuning in while driving.  A number of stations have changed over the last decade since we’ve been here, but a lot of them are still fun to listen to.

Radio Alice is our Adult Alternative station, where the playlist is a bit laid back — it’s something you’d probably have playing quietly in the background at work, natch — but it’s just alternative enough that it keeps my interest.  KFOG is a bit more alternapop (and their newest deejay is a recent transplant, one Matt Pinfield) and tends to be our go-to station.  Live 105 is our most commercial alternative station, complete with nutty morning chat (which I can do with or without) but a very cool playlist.

 

Night Music

Since we moved out here, nearly every night we put on the local classical station, KDFC, and listen to a symphony or two as we read and eventually nod off.  The night deejay tends to have a bit of a silly sense of humor, as he’ll often have a theme for his show.  One night he played all string quartets and called it “there’s always room for cello”.  They also do replays of live recordings of our local symphony — sometimes playing events that we’d been at just a few days previous!  And each Christmas they’ll play SF Ballet’s wonderful performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

 

And of course, there’s my mp3 collection, which is still expanding on a somewhat weekly basis.  But that’s another post entirely…

This is how my mind works.

jonzbox

The Jonzbox, acquired Christmas 1983, last used…2004?

So I’m listening to KSCU online this morning, and one of the deejays is playing stuff that’s catching my interest.  I have a few titles written down for further research and possible downloading.

And I’m thinking…back in the day, I used to have a blank tape at the ready inside that mini boombox you see above there, Record and Play already down, the Pause button ready to be hit as soon as a cool song comes on.  I have a good handful of tapes full of stuff I’ve taped off of college radio shows from the 1988-1989 semesters.  One or two of those tapes are almost complete shows.

So after that show finishes, I’m thinking…it’s all fine and dandy that I can write down the songs that I like and download them, but what if I want more than that?  What if I want to retain that bit of college radio atmosphere, some deejay patter, and so on?  How would I go about doing that?  I mean, aside from downloading questionable software that may or many not even work?

So it occurs to me: I could set up a tape deck, just like the old days…plug some wires into the Audio In jack in the back, plug the other end into the speaker jack or the headphone jack of the PC. I think I still have a few blank tapes kicking around, and I know I can still find new blanks if take the time to look for them.  And then I can use my audio software to convert the tapes to mp3 later on.

An extremely Rube Goldbergian setup to be sure, but I would actually go that far if I really wanted to.  Because I’m that much of a music nerd to go THAT old school to tape stuff off the radio.

 

[As an aside, there’s one show on KSCU, The 80s Underground, where the deejay records his entire show, patter and all, and puts it up as a podcast later in the day.  He’s got excellent taste, knows his obscurities, and it’s well worth checking out.]

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.

Why can’t you see, you’re fighting a million and me

God’s Favorite, “(Hurry Hurry) Sunday”
(not to be confused with God’s Favorite Band…different group entirely!)

Well, this is certainly a surprise!  This has been hiding on YouTube for almost a year and I never noticed until just this moment when I was doing a bit of Walk in Silence research.  This little gem of a track was the first song I ever taped off a college radio station (WMUA 91.1 at UMass Amherst) — the same taping session on 11 November 1986 that introduced me to The Go Betweens, Felt, and This Mortal Coil.

I listened to that tape so many times I pretty much wore it out, and it wasn’t until about a year ago that I had Jeff Shelton play it on his KSCU show The 80s Underground and finally heard it again after what seemed like decades.  I downloaded that particular podcast just so I could finally have the track in my collection again.  I was never able to find the vinyl anywhere when it was out, and as I currently do not have a turntable (yes, I am a heretic!), I can’t go on Amazon and buy it.

I remember hearing this track and thinking the vocals were a little too earnest (in that 80s indie way we’ve all come to love in retrospect), but there was that gently sweeping melody that kind of reminded me of early REM, who I was getting into at the time.  It also hinted at that pastoral walking-through-the-woods-in-autumn mood that I would get from a lot of the college rock I loved then.

Flying Bohemians Trivia:  This song is one of three that inspired me to write “Lift Your Heart Up (In Your Hands)” in 1991 (the others being Love and Rockets’ “Welcome Tomorrow” and Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians’ “Swirling”).

[WiS] I started something…

About a year and a half ago, I’d decided to take a few days off writing to get all my writing (and other things hiding away in file boxes) sorted and arranged.  It took much longer than usual, I think I kicked up enough dust to give me allergies, and I was sore afterwards.  But I had a much more organized bookshelf and filing cabinet in the process.

The best part?  On Saturday when I was looking for all the printouts, outtakes and notes for Walk in Silence (and pretty much every other project related to it dating back to 1988 or so), it took me all of a half hour.  Boom, done.  Which gave me even more time to actually sit down and read through some of these things this weekend.  Bonus!

I’m also returning to my beloved 80s album collection again.  As you can probably guess, I’m listening to the Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come from 1987 as I write this.  I always found it kind of sadly amusing that I finally got into the band just as they were breaking up.  Also, I’m enjoying the weekly radio show The 80s Underground (which I listen to via KSCU.com, but is also available via podcast) which plays on Wednesday afternoons.  It’s a great show because the DJ does what he can to play the less-familiar tracks from great bands instead of the same ‘hits of yesteryear’.  Worth checking out.

You might have guessed that I’m looking forward to getting this project done, even despite all the other writing projects I have surrounding it.  I have all the resources at my fingertips now, and most other things I can easily find online, so it’s mostly just a matter of keeping focused and knowing the trail I need to follow.  It’ll be tricky, but I think I can do it.

More to come!

On College Radio vs Progressive Radio in Massachusetts in the late 80s

I’ve been thinking about this subject lately, partly due to the way I’ve decided to frame the text of Walk in Silence in book form.  I did not want to write just a memoir, nor did I want to write a simple book about alternative rock. I decided to make it a hybrid of both, and in the process I wanted to do a bit of research on radio history in general.  I not only want to go over some of the highlights of great alternative rock of the time and talk about my favorite songs and albums, but I want to explain the genre itself–how it formed, how it got there, and how it related to other music (and points in history) at that particular time.  It’s not just enough for me to say why “Under the Milky Way” is my all-time favorite song; I wanted to explain that the Church’s Starfish album was make-or-break for them after years of not-quite-success.  There’s also the fact that in the 80s, the lines between pop music, rock, and “new wave” were a hell of a lot more defined then.

On a more professional note, however, there were two different kinds of stations playing this kind of music at the time as well, and that’s what I want to speak about here.

There was the college radio station: the longtime home to the alternative, the free-form, and the not-quite-professional.  Ratings didn’t matter to college radio, only that they had the funding from wherever it happen to come from, be it fund drives or grants or the listening audience.  For most college stations, especially for colleges where it was more of an extracurricular position rather than part of the curriculum, the student disc jockeys may have at the least been instructed to vary their playlist or play a few core tracks, and at most been given stern reminders of FCC rules and regulations.  Other than that, you could get away with playing whatever you liked.  For the most part, the quality and style depended on whose shift you were listening to.  Some disc jockeys would play hardcore punk or EBM (Electronic body music, a danceable subgenre of industrial rock and championed by many European groups like Front 242), or maybe even that new post-punk influenced rock stuff coming from the UK, like the Smiths and the Cure.

On the other hand–or should I say, up a little higher on the dial–there were the professional radio stations.  Short version: by the early to mid 1980s, there seemed to be a shift in popular radio, and a lot of stations were starting to feel the crunch.  Slightly longer version: considering that popular FM radio was pretty much still in its teens at this time (it sounds weird, but it’s true: popular FM radio as we know it today really didn’t come into wide popularity well until the mid to late 70s), the FM stations that tried to cater to all sounds and styles were beginning to flounder.  Listening habits changed and people wanted to hear more of their favorite styles rather than a wide and often weird mishmash.  The wildly successful pop stations of AM yesteryear were now the wildly successful pop stations of FM now.  The rock stations did well, but they were also splintering, often due to their listenership; some like Worcester’s WAAF 107.3FM with its younger fanbase continued to follow trends to play the latest hard rock, while others like East Longmeadow’s WAQY 102.1FM began to drift with its older fanbase towards classic rock.

Of the latter, a newer subgenre emerged.  Partly inspired by the more adventurous free-form sounds of 70s FM radio, the arrival of Album-Oriented Radio (AOR) in the late 70s and early 80s catered more towards the connoisseur radio listener, the avid music listener who wanted more than just the throwaway pop or the mindless party rock.  True to its name, its playlist prided itself on featuring non-single album tracks, providing the listener with a much wider experience.  As the 80s wore on however, it was found that while AOR had its diehard fans, it was not a moneymaker.  A number of stations reverted back to a rock format, or were sold and completely changed formats.  Those who stayed were often extremely localized, such as Turners Falls’ WRSI 95.3FM (sold in 1996 and moving to Northampton at 93.9) and Peterborough NH’s WMDK 92.1FM, and placed in small but artistic-minded communities.  They may have been small, but they had the upper hand–they were run by music fans who knew their stock in trade, and knew how to sell it locally.

These two local stations never really sold themselves as “AOR” but more as “progressive radio”.  This term may have confused some, considering the word ‘progressive’ often went hand in hand with ‘rock’, and together ‘progressive rock’ often meant twenty-minute hyperbolic workouts from bands like Yes, early Genesis, and ELP.  But by the 80s, ‘progressive radio’ actually meant something different–it was almost a taunt, a term that said ‘we’re better than you–we play music for smart people’, and in its own way it was true.  The passive radio listener just wants background noise, but the active radio listener wants something that will stimulate the brain.  And it just so happened that post-punk sounds coming out of the UK and the collegiate sounds emerging in the US fit the bill at that point in time.  If there were no college radio stations nearby, or none with the wattage strength to reach long distances (especially over hilly central Massachusetts), these progressive stations would offer up the most radio-friendly of it.

And for a good couple of years, probably from around 1984 or 1985 up to 1988, these stations could get away with playing the not-quite-commercial rock.  These bands weren’t being played anywhere else except on college and progressive radio stations.
While college radio was much more open-minded and adventurous in its available playlist, it had its own shortcomings as well.  Part of the whole alternative music scene in parts of the US was its exclusiveness–it was music for the nerds and the geeks and the people on the fringes of society who didn’t belong in the popular cliques.  Morrissey may have sung and the music that they constantly play / it says nothing to me about my life / hang the blessed DJ in response to a UK radio personality who tastelessly followed up coverage of the Chernobyl disaster with Wham!’s “I’m Your Man”, but in the US it took on a slightly different meaning.  For those of us here in the States, it was simply a rebellion against the tired, creatively vacant mainstream.

But what was mainstream, anyway? Especially in the last few years of the decade when more ‘modern rock’ songs were showing up on the Top 40 charts? What was there to rebel against when the keys to our rebellion were now becoming mainstream?  By the early 90s, many college radio stations were refusing to play anything by the Cure or Morrissey or Depeche Mode or REM, simply because they were being played on commercial radio.  They would need to start looking elsewhere for their alternative fix.

On the other hand, progressive radio could still get away with it.  Perhaps it was that, as professional stations, they had to constantly keep an eye on shifting tastes.  Progressive radio is where I first started hearing Britpop, back in 1989 with Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, well before a lot of other stations played it.  They also kept an eye on other subgenres of rock that fit into their playlist, like the folk rock sound of Tracy Chapman, Tanita Tikaram and Indigo Girls, the blues rock of Jeff Healey, or the new funk of Lenny Kravitz.  They were able to balance the commercial with the alternative, and that kept their stations alive much longer.  It also kept the alternative sound in the spotlight, making way for newer “adult alternative rock” stations such as WXRV (The River) 92.5FM in Haverhill.  It also helped usher in more “new alternative” sounds–bands that may lean towards the mainstream, but are decidedly not intellectually vacant pop.

 *

Over two decades later, I’ve been noticing a slow but significant return to departmentalizing the different genres of rock on FM radio.  It’s partly due to the advent of the internet, and it’s also due, as it always has been, to the shifting tastes of its listeners.  For a brief time in the 90s, alternative rock became so polarizing that on the one hand we had all-commercial rock radio on one end and very anti-commercial rock radio on the other.  Now, however, we’re starting to see specific subgenres again, and they’re being played on both college radio and on indie rock stations, sometimes within the same hour.  We’ll hear the bizarro tUnE-yArDs alongside the catchy pop of Capital Cities alongside the folk rock anthems of Frank Turner.  Listeners can access the sounds not just on FM radio but on satellite stations, online-only stations, streaming sites and even playing their mp3 library set to “random”.  But thanks to these same things, we can set our listening preferences so we’re only listening to weird left-field rock or synthpop or folk rock.  We’re not just bound to the FM dial anymore, but we can bound ourselves to just how wide or how narrow we want our music to be.  Radio may continually shift in its never-ending search for new sounds and higher earnings, but as always, it comes around and settles in new and more interesting ways for us to listen.

Throwback Thursday: Spring 1989

Ah, twenty-five years already, then? A quarter century already since I was a pimply, music-obsessed, self-proclaimed nonconformist and budding writer, twitchy and moody and waiting for my senior year in high school to be over and done with so I could go out and live in the Big Bad World. My senior year felt like a badly scripted, unwanted denouement, to be honest. I really should have been a year ahead. I say this now, well after the fact, because after twenty-five years of contemplation, I realize it wasn’t that I was lazy or had any learning deficiency, it’s that I was bored. And boredom begets distraction. And distraction begets so-so grades. And I never quite got out of that slump, not really. I think if I’d graduated in 1988 instead, it would have forced me to put more effort into it, made me work to my potential. It would have made me mature a hell of a lot quicker. As it happens, I ended up coasting for the rest of my education years instead when I should have excelled.

But that’s a different post altogether. This is a music blog, isn’t it?

Credit: flyerize.com

Credit: flyerize.com

Spring 1989 was right about the time when that beloved radio subgenre of mine, college rock, finally emerged from its late night perch and started making its presence known elsewhere. Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s a lot more to it than a wider audience. Consider the following:

–In late 1988 (the September 10th issue, to be exact), Billboard acknowledged the subgenre for the first time with a “Modern Rock Tracks” chart.

–The Top 40 of the late 80s was in flux, with all different kinds of pop music gaining traction. Top 40 rock was giving way to Top 40 dance music. Many production-ready sounds had emerged as well, thanks to production houses like Stock Aitken Waterman. This was especially embraced by the poppier end of the MTV playlist, thanks to heavy rotation as well as shows like Club MTV. This let the occasional unexpected hit sneak into the charts now and again, giving other subgenres an opening for success.

–The rock sounds of early in the decade and the one before it–the arena rock, the LA glam metal, the Michael-Mann-approved, Miami Vice-ready mood pieces, and the last dregs of 70s bar band sounds–had begun to age, and age badly. Harder, more serious rock like Guns n’ Roses and Metallica became the accepted norm. [Come to think of it, this is probably around the same time many FM rock stations divided between “current rock” and “classic rock” formats.]

credit: discogs.com

credit: discogs.com

–Several British subgenres of rock emerged or were noticed in America about this time as well: shoegaze, Madchester, Britpop, etc. Many were noticed and release by major American labels at this time. They may not have made high chart placement, but they were starting to get noticed. Several local US scenes were gaining traction as well: Seattle, Boston, Athens, and so on.

–Even the American punk scene was in flux, many of its major late-70s/early-80s players (Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Black Flag, et al) either having broken up, evolved considerably, or on their way to self-destruction. There would always be the hardcore punk in its many sounds and guises, and it would remain in the shadows where it wanted to be, but the newer sounds were more steeped in the post-punk sound–equally as emotional in its delivery, but more melodic and adventurous in its sound. This sound was less influenced by the DIY punk ethos and more by the UK post-punk sounds of just a few years earlier.

credit: thequietus.com

credit: thequietus.com

–Two years earlier in late 1987, we also saw an influx of uniquely college-rock bands releasing highly lauded albums, elevating them past the college-radio-only playlists and onto commercial radio: The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode, REM, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and so on. Many of these were on Warner Bros-related labels, and a number of them had the backing of Sire Records head Seymour Stein. [Seriously, we need a bio of this man, STAT…he was such a big influence on the New Wave scene.]

By 1989, for this music nerd and self-proclaimed nonconformist, I felt both liberated and a little saddened by this change in the weather. On the one hand, I was thrilled that the music I had so loved since that fateful evening in April 1986 was finally getting its due…but at the same time, it felt like it was losing its mystique in the process. After all, this was the music I listened to on my own. It was my music, the songs that spoke to me. I tried to take the high road with this one, though…I felt it was high time my peers stopped listening to the prepackaged crap that radio was feeding us and listen to music with substance.

Credit: discogs.com

Credit: discogs.com

Style versus substance…that was the big debate of the 80s, wasn’t it? Do you want something pleasing to the eyes and ears but superficial, or do you want something of deep meaning but not exactly pretty to look at or listen to? I’d like to think that’s why New Order chose Substance as the title for its 1987 hits collection (and by extension, its Joy Division collection as well); they may also be making sequenced dance music, but put “Blue Monday” side by side with “Never Gonna Give You Up” and one can definitely hear the difference. One was destined for status of classic dance track that’s still embraced today, the other the subject of a hokey (yet admittedly amusing) internet meme. The genre could be similar, but the quality couldn’t be any more different.

Then there’s also the change that comes with the change in decades as well. It’s often been noted that the last few years of a decade tend to show a decline in the interests that once defined them–the flower power of 1967 gave way to the high-octane politics of 1968; the blissful haze of the 70s gave way to the discontent of the late 70s. The paranoia and the wackiness of the early 80s was giving way to the more serious and reflective late 80s. There was also the fact we were coming in on the last decade of the millennia as well. We wondered what the 90s would bring us–the promised jetpacks? World peace? Information at our fingertips? The possibilities!

I’d like to think that this calmer introspection was yet another piece in the puzzle that led to college rock, and in effect other rock subgenres, becoming more acceptable. Yes, I know, it might be a stretch, but think about it–when you’re thirteen, things you dislike are stupid (or in the 80s New England parlance, fucken retahded), but when you’re hitting eighteen and about to head off to college, these things aren’t as important on your popularity scale and you start accepting different things easier. Where Metallica was once only listenable to those long-haired smoking weirdos who wore denim jackets and drove to school in Camaros, in 1989 they had a massive hit with the song “One”–a song based on a 30s war novel at that. By 1989 we had chart hits from Faith No More, Fine Young Cannibals, Love and Rockets, REM, The B-52s, Nine Inch Nails, and more.

Credit: discogs.com

Credit: discogs.com

In early May, just as I was finally winding down my educational years in my small hometown, The Cure released what would be considered their best album ever, Disintegration. It was prefaced by two different singles: in the UK, the slinky and creepy “Lullaby” reached all the way to #5, and in the US the darker and angrier “Fascination Street” became their first US chart hit, hitting #1 on the new Modern Rock Tracks list. This was new stuff for those unfamiliar with the band, and for those like me and my close friends, this was definitely new stuff. The Cure had always retained a darker sound since their inception, but after the much brighter sounds of 1985’s The Head on the Door and the poppier, more psychedelic sounds of 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Disintegration was an altogether different affair. It was epic not only in scope but in sound, “mixed to be played loud so turn it up” as the liner notes suggest. It was as dark, it was moody, and it was absolutely, stunningly gorgeous.

This album fit perfectly as a final step towards the end of the decade, and it was the soundtrack to the last remaining days I spent in my hometown. I’d spend the summer working for the DPW in the town cemeteries, and I’d be listening to this album on repeat on my Walkman while I pushed lawn mowers all over the place. I’d listen to it at night that summer, now that WAMH out of Amherst College was off the air for the season. I’d been writing a gloriously doom-laden teen roman à clef and several poems/lyrics at the time (you know how it is when you’re that age), and used this album as a soundtrack as well. And when August rolled around and my buddy Chris had his first of a few “fiasco” parties as his grandfather’s cabin out on Packard Pond, this album got heavy airplay both on our tape players while we laughed, played cards and did other silly things, and again on my Walkman as I finally climbed into bed later that night.

On the last day of that party, after we all cleaned and straightened up and headed back to our homes, I sat on the front porch at my parents’ house and listened to it one more time on my headphones, composition book in hand in case inspiration arose. “Homesick” came on, and I latched on to the lyrics: “So just one more, just one more go / inspire in me, the desire in me, to never go home.” It was the perfect ending quote to my life up to that time–not that I don’t like it here, but PLEASE give me a reason to move on. It was the end of summer, I’d be heading to Boston for college in a month, and I was just itching to get started with the new chapter of my life. And to add to the bittersweet end of the season, the last track, “Untitled”, came on with its slightly-offkey melodica intro, creating a melody that would repeat ad nauseum until all the instruments left again, leaving the offkey melodica drifting way. The lyrics to “Untitled” were the polar opposite of “Homesick”, a last tearful goodbye delivered with such a mortal finality it felt like heartache. While the former was “okay, time to move on and embrace the future”, the latter was “oh, and by the way–you can never return to the past.”

Indeed, I could not, no matter how much I may have wanted to.

*

I’ve returned to my past many times over the years, mostly with writing works in progress, song lyrics and poems, and quite a few blog posts, but I understand that I can’t stay there indefinitely. It took me little while in college to understand that, but I eventually got over it. Now, I enjoy heading back to the days of the late 80s, especially with my overly large music collection. I like to listen to what came out back then and compare it to what’s out now. I can see and hear the cycles now, the songs of yesterday hidden in the songs of today. I talk with many of the same people in that circle of friends online now, even though a continent separates us. I might not be the twitchy self-proclaimed nonconformist anymore, though I am still that writer and music nerd.

So I think after twenty-five years, it’s a good balance.