Hey Wait I got a new complaint

I don’t use the Sirius XM radio on my own PC as much as I should, so today I thought I’d put it on.  I chose the Lithium channel, primarily because the song playing at the time was Nine Inch Nails’ “Down In It”.  And now I’ve been listening to the 90s all morning.

Yes, I know!  Me, the guy who’s posted about 80s college rock for far too long, finally moving forward in time?  Heh.

Seriously, the 90s was an interesting decade, looking back on it now.  I tend to think of it as a decade where we crossed a lot of lines that had drawn in the sand for so long that we kind of forgot why they were there in the first place.  A lot of interesting chances were taken in the creative world; some fell flat, but some were welcomed and became the norm.  College radio became modern rock became alternative rock became chart-topping rock.  It didn’t help that the 80s chart rock had become a sad caricature of itself, full of hair metal spandex and arpeggios, and bar bands with very few actual hits.  Something had to take over eventually, and alt.rock had been waiting in the wings since the early 80s.

The music of the 90s for me felt sort of like a light was finally turned on.  More to the point, it felt like I’d exited the dark cave of my bedroom and its 4AD/Cure gloom and entered the sunshine of the wider world beyond.  I could easily say that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was in fact the point of change, as it probably was for many others.  It wasn’t the first alt.rock song that broke through to chart radio (I’d like to think that honor actually belongs to Love and Rockets’ “So Alive”, which hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart two years earlier), but it was the most important one.  Rock radio wasn’t the same afterwards.

Yeah, sure, there were also the bands that weren’t grunge, weren’t Britpop, and didn’t quite fit into the already-standard ‘alternative’ format.  In retrospect they were chart rock’s New Breed.  They were melodic, catchy, and just mainstream enough to be played on pretty much any commercial rock station without scaring the parents.  They were just edgy enough that the kids loved them anyway.  You probably wouldn’t hear them on college radio (that avenue was being filled at that time with No Depression, math rock, slowcore, and the other decidedly noncommercial subgenres), but you’d hear them on the burgeoning Modern Rock and AOR stations.

These are the songs you’ll hear on Adult Alternative stations nowadays, tracks by Collective Soul and Tonic rubbing shoulders with James Bay and Elle King.  The slightly harder stuff will pop up on the alt.rock stations that have survived this long, sneaking in as ‘classic tracks’ next to new tracks by other 90s bands that have miraculously stayed together this long (Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blink-182).

*

I can pretty much divide the 90s into two distinct personal eras: the college/Boston years (1990-95) and the HMV years (1996-2000), with the yearlong entr’acte of ennui and deadend jobs of 1995-6.  Despite the personal ups and downs I was contending with at the time, I rarely missed an opportunity to follow the latest trends.  I may not have had the money to buy it all at the time, but that didn’t stop me from making radio tapes, dubbing cds from friends, or keeping my boombox set to the local alternative stations.

Or spending most of my hard-earned pay at the record store I worked at, for that matter.

Despite my personal and emotional ups and downs in that decade, I found it to be a lot more enjoyable than the previous decade when I was dealing with my gawkish teenage self.  My twenties certainly had their extremely frustrating moments, and I did make a lot of really stupid decisions, but by the back end of that decade, I had my shit together and knew exactly what I wanted to do.  That’s when I knew for a fact that I’d be a writer.  It’s also when I knew that this infatuation with music was going to be a lifelong thing and I was perfectly fine with that.

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.

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 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.

Walk in Silence: The Blog Series starts tomorrow!

Yes, after all these years of talking about it, doing all kinds of reading and note-taking and excavating my memory banks, I’m finally going to make this a thing!  Over the weekend I started making the posts, and will schedule them to drop on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.  Woo!

I’ve even made it a point to be a few posts ahead and want to keep it that way, so I’ll have a backlog.  This is a project I’ve had in my head for a good few years now, so I want to do it justice.

Hope you enjoy it!

The taste of youth, the taste of you, dear

Okay, I’m finally going to take the plunge.

Next week will be the first of many entries for the Walk in Silence blog series…and of course, I’ll be letting you know all about that over the next week and a half.

But that’s not the plunge I’m talking about.

When I was first planning out the WiS project, I always had the timeframe in the back of my mind: should I focus just on my own personal connection with college radio (1986-1989)?  Should I talk about its history (197? – 199?)?  Or should I just come up with an arbitrary time?  Eventually I chose the third entry, that way I could focus mostly on my own personal history, but also include the time before I connected with the genre, thus 1984 – 1989.

The plunge I’m thinking of now is the college and post-college years.  They weren’t exactly the happiest years of my life, for various reasons, but they were interesting musically.  College rock, at least with American radio, gave way to grunge and Britpop as it became more popular, and changed genre names numerous times before deciding on the all-encompassing ‘alternative rock’.  A schism grew: those who felt alternative rock was selling out and followed the most obscure bands possible, and those who really didn’t mind either way, as long as the prefabricated crap currently in the charts went away.

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a sequel to Walk in Silence for quite some time.  There’s no name to it yet, nor is there any concrete schedule or plan for it at this time (all my focus is currently on posting WiS and publishing the Bridgetown trilogy), but I do have a few ideas floating around…it’ll focus mostly on the years from late 1989 (when I left for college) to late 1995 (when I left Boston and moved back home).  And it will most likely continue the WiS theme of both personal story and music history.

Some albums from that era still get heavy airplay on the radio: you’ll still hear tracks from Nevermind and Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Loveless and Definitely Maybe and Achtung Baby and Violator and so on.  But there are so many more albums I’ve ignored for one reason or another, forgotten about or couldn’t make myself listen to for personal reasons.  Songs that radio let pass into history, even forgetting to play them on Throwback Thursday.  But as with Walk in Silence and the 80s, it’s been nigh on twenty-plus years for most of these.  It’s well past time to revisit them again.

So starting today I’m going to start listening to some of these albums in my collection, give them a once-over they haven’t had in quite some time, and see where I can go with it.

Should be an interesting ride, to say the least.

News on Walk In Silence (the book)

Hey all,

Some news on the Walk in Silence book project.  I shared this on my LiveJournal a short time ago (edited for clarity):

I think I may set aside Walk in Silence, the book.

I’ll finish it of course, for my own reasons, but I don’t think I’ll be releasing it as a self-published book, at least not for the foreseeable future. It’s a tough decision, but it’s one I’ve been thinking of ever since the start of the year, maybe even before then.

There are a few reasons…one is that it started feeling less like a book worth publishing and more of a vanity project. On a more personal note, writing this memoir version really felt like I was really just trying to finally purge it from my system once and for all so I could move on. While on a personal and emotional level this can be a good thing, and I may even be proud of the end result, it’s not something I’d be happy with on a professional level. I wouldn’t be embarrassed about it…I just don’t think it would be something worth putting out there professionally. As I said, it’s become a vanity project — it’s a story I want to tell, but I’m doubting there’s a significant audience for it. Maybe I’ll put it out there as a serial on [this] blog at some point. It feels that would be the best home for it, when all is said and done.

Do I feel sad about this? Not entirely. A bit let down, of course. That nagging feeling that I’ve wasted a few thousand hours of writing time on something that may or may not see the light of day. But I’ve had a hell of a fun time reading all those music bios and reference books for research, and I’ve come to appreciate and understand music a hell of a lot more over the years. Totally worth it just for that alone. I may also feel a bit embarrassed, having bloviated the idea and everything else about it over the last three or four years online, much to your wavering patience and tolerance, but I think I’ll get over it.

But really…the main thing is that I think I’ve outgrown the project. My heart and mind have moved on, probably some time ago, and it was high time for me to accept that.

…so yeah.  At this time, it’s no longer going to be an e-book/physical book project.

On a more professional level, I think it would have been problematic as a book, especially a self-published one.  There’s only so far I can go with Fair Use in regards to copyrighted music, and I don’t think I’d have done the project justice (to my standards, anyway) if I had to hold back for legal reasons.  Doing it as a blog series would give me more leeway and make it more interactive, as I’d be able to provide links, audio and/or video.

SO.

What’s in store for this project?  Well!  Glad you asked!

I’ve already gotten a good ways into it (it focuses mostly between 1984 to 1989, and I’m currently writing about late 1988), so instead of trunking it and erasing it from my mind, I will use my collected notes and writings for it and do a serial much along the lines of my Blogging the Beatles series from a few years ago.  It may start out as a once-a-week entry, but if time permits and I get myself into the groove, I may post more than that.

Another plus for me morphing it into a blog series is that I get to return to my originally planned release date again!  Yay!  It’s still in the planning stages, but I’m thinking a soft start date of April 19 or thereabouts, to celebrate thirty years of me obsessing over this damn genre.

April vacation, 1986, when a dorky teenage kid from a small town discovered a college radio station for the first time, and how it completely changed his life.

Thanks again for sticking by, folks.  🙂