The Music That Propels My Life
This essay is a companion piece to the list of books that influenced my life, Damage Control, and also
Amazon.com -- the links take you to listings on their site. (You could probably get most of them cheaper at YourMusic.com, where every CD is $5.99, but there are gaps in their available selections so my individual links are still to Amazon.) The whole thing was inspired by a Pink Floyd concert and a series on MTV.
The Floyd concert I saw in 1994, on the Division Bell tour. It was intense. Pink Floyd are that in general, at least on my favorite albums of theirs. And at the time I was just starting to confront being an abuse survivor. So a stadium full of people shouting "Leave those kids alone!" was a validating experience like no other, which got me thinking about the role of music in my life, the dozens of "mood mix" audiotapes I compiled, the thousands of song quotes sprinkled throughout my diaries, and all that.
The MTV series I saw in October 1997; it was a bunch of "Top 10" shows on various subjects. Top 10 videos featuring Puff Daddy, Top 10 "Epic" videos, etc. Two of them got me quite angry -- the Top 10 Hair Band Videos and the Top 10 Cheesiest Videos. I disagreed with their assessment of what constitutes a "hair band," and I was very annoyed that almost all the "cheesy" videos were from the early 1980s, as if just being out of style made them worse than all the crap that's come out this decade. So this exploration of my musical past will point out all the stuff I'm not ashamed of liking, instead of the repudiation of the past just because the fashions are different now.
Baby of BoomersI was born in 1973, to parents who were both 25 years of age at the time. (That's scary -- I'm 25!) My dad had played bass in a Jefferson Airplane cover band in college, and my mom plays the piano, and both are very into music (even more so at that age, before the other complexities of life started to crowd into listening time).
My dad loves to tell this story (which is the only way I know it; I certainly don't remember this far back): I was a toddler, and happened to be within hearing distance when my parents were trying to remember the source of a particular song lyric: "Goin' insane/And I'm laughin' at the frozen rain..." They were flummoxed, and apparently I toddled up to them and pulled on someone's pant leg to get some attention and said, " Steely Dan, Mommy, 'Bad Sneakers.'" My mom was prepared to ignore me, but my dad says, "Wait a minute, I think she's right!" And they checked it out, and I was. (I used to find this story very odd in that I can't remember even liking Steely Dan until I was in college.)
So as that anecdote illustrates, I grew up with my parents' music playing all around me. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Eagles, Rod Stewart, Jefferson Airplane, my dad singing Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" to me as he played his guitar, my German-descended Catholic mom playing Irish folksongs and Baptist hymns on the piano. Music almost equals books in the number of childhood memories it turns up in. Hand-me-down records and tapes (The Sound of Music and West Side Story soundtracks, Tonight I'm Yours by Rod Stewart, a mix tape of Beatles stuff ranging from their earliest stuff up to Revolver) made up as much of my personal collection as the Disney compilations and Strawberry Shortcake story records that were actually aimed at people my age. In 1987 when I was 14 and all the retrospectives about "20 years since the Summer of Love" were all over the media, I was surprised to find how many of the songs being mentioned or played I knew, though they had been popular six years before I was born.
Child of the 80's: Puberty and Shortly Thereafter1984, when I was eleven, was when I started seriously caring what music was new and cool. Or even not quite new -- I pretty much soaked up the music of the previous few years without trying as well.
It was the time of CDE, I noted then: Culture Club, Duran Duran, and Eurythmics. I was coming in on the tail end of New Wave, I suppose, and I liked it. The mystery and otherworldliness of synthesized sounds as they were used then (my brain sings a wonderful example, Missing Persons' "Destination Unknown"). The way they dressed, that Cyndi Lauper freedom to look however the hell you pleased. I admired it, though I wouldn't get into fashion for several years yet myself.
The first pop album I chose for myself was Culture Club's Colour By Numbers (and shortly thereafter, its predecessor Kissing To Be Clever). I had my big poster of them on the wall, and vehemently defended Boy George when classmates called him a word I didn't know the meaning of yet, "gay." I didn't have a crush on him (if anything, that would have been Roy Hay) but their music and their look was just so fun that I would let no one say things meant to insult.
And then there was Duran Duran, who I will forever think of as a five-piece containing three guys named Taylor (though they are now a three-piece containing no guys named Taylor). My first famous crushes. (That would be John, Simon, and Roger, specifically). Music with lyrics you could write down like poetry and analyze. Videos portraying exotic places and fantasy worlds (no, keeping my feet on the ground has never been a big preoccupation for me, why?).
My first concert was the Go-Go's, with INXS as the opening act. I still have mix tapes made in '85 and '86 from the radio, songs you probably forgot existed, such as "Valotte" by Julian Lennon and "A Love Bizarre" by Sheila E. (I'm thinking of having them put onto CD in case the tapes break.) Despite all the music I've loved since then, I'll probably always hold on to the early 80's as the time when the Top 40 was at its most listenable.
Born Too Late: A Love Affair with the SixtiesAs I said, I'd always been exposed to music that was older than I am. But for a few years I was only interested in what was on the radio and MTV right then, so all I saw was the occasional "Closet Classic" video with Blue Cheer or Donovan performing in black and white.
In 7th grade, all that changed. First, MTV started running episodes of The Monkees. I thought Peter Tork was so adorable, and the show was so neat and the characters said things like they were aware of being on TV, so I promptly acquired three hand-me-down Monkees albums (The Monkees, More of the Monkees, and Headquarters, although later when I got it Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd. would prove to be my all-time favorite.)
I don't know if the Monkees inspired it or maybe the big parade scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but I also started listening to my mom's Beatles records -- the later ones, not just the ones from the mop-top era that I had liked as a kid. Seventh-grade psychedelia, reading John Lennon's writings and listening to "Tomorrow Never Knows."
The love affair with the sixties continued even while other music trends caught my attention. In 9th grade I discovered the Doors and acquired the big black-and-white poster of the band which has hung on my bedroom wall through four dorm rooms and three apartments in addition to the bedroom at Mom's. The men don't know, but the little girls understand...Lennon and Morrison were my tortured gurus, conveniently dead so they couldn't embarrass me by turning into sedate old farts. But at least I learned from their mistakes and didn't bother trying to reach enlightenment via the chemical path.
Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution: Heavy MetalThe summer between 7th and 8th grades, we moved from South Carolina to Florida. Between spending some months in a radio-less efficiency in Redington Beach (which got me out of touch with popular music) and changing from a suburban school in the Bible Belt to a much more cosmopolitan school in St. Petersburg's Gulf Beaches, my music tastes underwent a sea change.
It was the year Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet came out. Anyone who was anyone, and even those like me who weren't, owned that and the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill. Sure, we listened to Madonna and Janet Jackson on the radio, but the cool people at Madeira Beach Middle went to see David Lee Roth and Cinderella in concert, lip-synched to Poison in the school contests, and had their ear pierced with a needle during lunch in the school cafeteria. (Me, I just bought the albums.)
The year after that, I went on to high school with only three people who had been in my middle school class, and concentrated on the Doors, the Rolling Stones (whom I had rediscovered), and oddly enough, Jimmy Buffett, who my dad took me to see in concert a year before. Not metal, but not exactly teeny-bopper music (at least not in 1987-88). All the while, a few other bands were kind of creeping up on me. There was this band called Faster Pussycat who were compared to Poison in Star Hits, my music bible, and of course there was this song "Welcome to the Jungle" that showed up on DialMTV, by this other L.A. metal band called Guns n' Roses.
By the start of 10th grade, I had bought both bands' albums and was rapidly expanding into Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and scariest of all to my friends at school, this "thrash-metal" band called Metallica. At my high school, in my IB and AP classes, it was substantially more out of the mainstream to listen to heavy metal than what was still somewhat accurately at the time called "alternative." The battered copy of No One Here Gets Out Alive got interested comments from my classmates, but the copy of Rip magazine with Slash on the cover cuddling one of his huge pet snakes got much more surprised responses, which I enjoyed.
And unlike many adolescents, I had my mom listening to it all with me. She bought her own copies of Cinderella, Britny Fox and Great White albums; we used to joke that she dressed and acted much more like a teenager than I did. We still fought about me playing my records too loud, but it was nice to have something to agree on. (My dad even tolerated it; when I went to visit him in the summers he took me to see David Lee Roth with Poison opening.)
I went through all my teenage experimentation in my head. Read everything from The Golden Bough and 1000-page volumes of Nietzsche's collected works to everything on the local library's science fiction shelves. Was titillated by song lyrics and the lives reflected in magazine interviews of the bands. I recall with amusement the review in Rip which cited Jane's Addiction's Nothing's Shocking, Warrior Soul's Last Decade Dead Century, and Love/Hate's Blackout in the Red Room as "the premier albums of the drug culture in the late '80's," since I owned and loved all three of those but at the time had never even drunk alcohol. All sorts of music so weird but heartfelt that it was its own mind-altering drug.
The Great Transition: College YearsI graduated from high school in June 1991. If you listened to the right rock stations my senior year, you were already hearing some newish sounds: Alice In Chains' "We Die Young," possibly even Mother Love Bone's "Stardog Champion" even though Andrew Wood had O.D.'ed in March 1990. (I bought the MLB album Apple two days before my 18th birthday in January '91. First time I ever got carded buying music, though the saleslady was willing to let me slide, being so close to the big birthday.) Soundgarden had gotten some scattered Headbanger's Ball play for a couple of years.
But then, in the summer of '91, Alice in Chains had the much bigger hit "Man in the Box." Mutterings started about all the other bands, friends of Soundgarden, MLB, or Alice In Chains, and all from the same place: Seattle. I moved into a dorm room in August, with a roommate of much more traditionally "alternative" music tastes, and in her collection of the Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and the Smiths, I discovered Mudhoney. Promptly acquired two of their albums and went to see them in September '91 (with Superchunk and Gas Huffer as the opening acts). I came home with bruises across my chest because I had squirmed up to right in front of the stage and the mosh pit behind the first row or two had pushed me up against the barrier in front of the stage. But I enjoyed the hell out of myself.
A month or two later, two more songs by Seattle bands started getting airplay: "Alive" by Pearl Jam and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. By the end of the academic year, my 80-person dorm must have housed at least 50 copies of each of the albums those songs came from.
Heavy metal was still going strong, though -- at first the Seattle bands had even been promoted as metal. And there were people in the Honors Program with me who were headbangers too! They joked about my affection for everything from Seattle (but I pointed out that Jimi Hendrix and Queensryche were from the same city). And we went to see Kiss/Faster Pussycat/Trixter, Damn Yankees/Jackyl, Living Colour, Aerosmith/Brother Cane, and others, all in my first three years.
I was being exposed to new (to me) stuff by everyone else in the dorm, too. Mudhoney and Mary's Danish and R.E.M. I listened to because of Carrie, the freshman year roommate. I got 2Nu from Dylan, Billy Joel from Karl by way of Chris and Matt, They Might Be Giants from Brian by way of Crystal, Eric Clapton and Creedence Clearwater Revival from Gerry, Queen from Sean and Chris and Matt (not that anyone could miss Queen in 1992, the year Wayne's World came out), Enigma and the KLF from just Sean, Rush and quite a lot of jazz from Chris, at the same time as I was introducing Chris to Led Zeppelin and the other stuff that got played on the classic rock station. We weren't much for "college rock," but everyone got a musical education.
I felt that Top 40 had mostly been going downhill since about 1987, but 1994-95, my senior undergraduate year, was the year that heavy metal as it had been in the 80's ran out of borrowed time to live on. And grunge had lost its vitality entirely. The remnants of the two had run together and produced something too boring to listen to. That was when I switched radio stations from the rock station that played new stuff to the one that played nothing released since I was old enough to remember. But having by then discovered Pink Floyd through the same channels as Queen, classic rock was quite listenable.
Out of the pop songs so widely played that year as to be unmissable, I only became interested in Melissa Etheridge -- a woman singing the true rock'n'roll I love, like no one since Janis Joplin. But I retroactively discovered the Cranberries, k.d. lang, and most of all, Tori Amos. Several of my male friends had been Tori freaks for more than a year, but all I ever heard of her was muted background noise behind card games, so I figured they just liked her looks. Especially when Matt sent her flowers when she performed in Tampa. It took Wednesday quoting her in a memorable essay on Usenet to make me actually listen to "Precious Things," and then I was hooked.
Grad School and After (the year so far)I didn't pay much attention to new music in my two years of graduate school. I developed a taste for Public Enemy from my one boyfriend during that time, and the Presidents of the United States of America filtered in from my roommates, the only one I liked enough to buy an album by instead of just taping a couple of songs off the radio. I finally acquired a CD player, but most of what I bought was just replacing dubbed tape copies of old stuff.
So now I know the names of bands but can't put a song to them, even though I'd probably recognize the snippets from my friends' car radios if someone told me the titles. Haven't watched MTV in years. I found, in fact, during my visit to my dad and step-mom, that I found VH-1 much more palatable -- I'd have been aghast at that idea five years ago when most of the dorm was angry that our dorm cable channels were going to waste providing VH-1 instead of MTV. I only caught the Top 10 shows I mentioned earlier by accident, pausing because they were actually playing something good for a change.
So now, I will be catching up on buying more replacement CDs. Seeing Blues Brothers 2000 has got me thinking that I need to buy more blues than just the Robert Johnson and B.B. King I copied from my dad. I'm getting bored with the classic rock station (there's only so much Fleetwood Mac and Lynyrd Skynyrd I can take).
And it comes full circle -- as I'm writing this, I've switched radio stations so I can hear the Friday Night 80's show, and am dancing in my chair to "Come On Eileen." ( Dexy's Midnight Runners, of course.) Waiting for good songs to come on so that I can tape them off the radio, just as I used to when I was twelve. (Some songs from 1985 don't even sound right anymore without the bits of DJ patter and intros to other songs that accidentally got recorded onto those mix tapes I've been listening to for thirteen years.) "I'm too young for nostalgia of this magnitude," I keep thinking. But well, I'm way too old to think Hanson are dreamy, and just old enough to have the '80's disdain for all things '70's deeply ingrained in me.
In high school I cited Suicidal Tendencies as a band who helped keep my name off a gravestone. Now, I'm taking anti-depressants -- but still, I can bring my mood up much faster with the exhilaration of Peter Schilling's "Major Tom (Coming Home)," or the wry commiseration of Queen's "I'm Going Slightly Mad," the anger of Metallica's "Disposable Heroes" or the passion of Melissa Etheridge singing "Yes I Am," faster than any chemical. Sometimes all it takes is to know someone else has felt the same way as you do, and music conveys that knowledge much better than any plain spoken words.
So it will all go out of style someday; my grandkids will feel the same way I feel about my grandparents' Mantovani records. That doesn't change the effect it has now. I don't like things being maligned just because they aren't in style anymore -- I don't laugh at my grandparents just because their tastes were formed five or six decades before mine. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean it isn't deeply meaningful to someone else -- as long as no one tries too hard to convert me, I'm tolerant. I just wish MTV wouldn't call my fond memories "cheesy."