Showing posts with label Punk. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Punk. Show all posts

January 20, 2013

2. Moooooose! : Tales of a Female Music Enthusiast



I attended Wandell Elementary in Saddle River, New Jersey. I was among the tallest girls in my grade and had earned the unfortunate nickname of Moose because of it. The irony is that to this day I am only 5 feet 3 but when you reach nearly that height at light speed before the rest of your class, you are a circus freak in a training bra. Throughout all of grade school I bordered on preppy (Hey, it was the ‘80s and there were whole handbooks dedicated to us) but also a total jock. Like so many kids at this crossroads age between grade school and high school, I could have easily gone in a couple of different directions (See the Breakfast Club for character references).



I could have remained an athlete who wore docksiders and popped collars off the field but once I discovered punk rock, that part of me was erased. For those of you who have seen the movie Valley Girl, I went through a transition much like the lead Julie was heading towards thanks to Randy. Only my Nicholas Cage gateway drug to counter culture was a slender Goth behind a record store counter. If we want to talk true confessions of a music obsessed woman, the movie Valley Girl made me fall even more deeply in love with being an outsider during a a time where I when I was easily influenced. I mean this "Melt With You" montage is teenage girl catnip on par with flavored lip gloss and folded notes that say "Do you like me? Circle yes or no". If I had to pick a side, Randy and Fred win. 


Our story moves to Crazy Eddie, a popular consumer electronics chain in the Northeast that also happened to stock music. The closest location to my home growing up was on Rt. 17 in Paramus and it was there that I purchased my very first LPs, cassettes, and various stereo gear*. It was this one store among the chain with an absurd ad campaign led by a man in a turtleneck no matter what season, and two very thoughtful employees, that accidentally directed me down a path of a lifetime obsession with music.  




Picking up where I left off in my last short story, I had stumbled across the band Midnight Oil via a late night TV show. I didn't know where one would find a band that wasn't played on the radio so I coyly asked the two offbeat looking characters behind the store counter to help me. One of them was an incredibly tall and lanky goth with a hypnotic bird's nest of black hair. His name was Athan and at the time he played in a band called Fahrenheit 451. Every time my Mom or Dad drove me to Crazy Eddie, I prayed that Athan might be working so I could bask in his beautiful, new romantic, Bahausian shadow.

My recollection of the second employee is much less vivid but this can be attributed to the fact that my focus was entirely on Athan who had become my adorable grade school crush. Unfortunately gentleman number 2 has been pushed to a sidekick roll in my memory. My imagination has painted him as Pretty in Pink’s Duckie so while I was mostly star struck by the tall glass of doom and gloom, he was still charming and important to this story line.

During the middle part of this decade I had yet to fully understand what alternative meant or that it carried a distinct wardrobe / ethos / soundtrack. If we agree that the world can be broken down into two sports teams, the normal people verse the not so normal, these two Crazy Eddie employees were captains on the freak side. I approached them with my desperate need to own a Midnight Oil record and they didn't cringe or laugh. Instead they leaned in a little closer to me and inquired further. “You like this kind of music?” I confessed that I didn't know anything about this style of music, but was VERY interested. I felt like a tourist in a foreign country meeting two people who finally spoke my language. We shared an interest in something I had yet to comprehend but there was a bond between us that they not only recognized, but took the time to develop. I believe this is why so many of us on the planet have a deeply personal attachment to record stores and their employees. I know I am not alone in this experience and for those record store clerks who wonder if getting paid minimum wage has any sort of pay off, it does. You help shape young ears who in turn discover who they are through the music you direct them towards. 

Athan and store clerk #2 found me the album 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 by Midnight Oil but then they went one step further. They turned over a bright yellow Crazy Eddie bag and with a magic marker in hand, they wrote down a list of bands they thought in their humble opinion I should check out. Before the internet this handwritten list meant really only one thing. In order for me to take any of the bands on their list for a test drive, I would have to purchase them one at a time. And purchase them all I did. Approximately once a month my Mom or Dad would drive me to the store (about 15 minutes from our home), and I would cross another band off their handwritten list. 



While exploring the record racks on my own, there was little I recognized. I didn't really know what “light wave” or “heavier wave” meant but I was instantly compelled or repelled over the album art and the names of songs. I would pick a record or tape that best appealed to me through the tactile / visual experience. This technique of judging a record by the cover is one I know most people my age once relied upon. Our early record collecting ways depended on it. Pre-internet or access to music magazines and fanzines, cover art was the bait that lured a potential listener like me in. Colors, images, patterns, fonts, band photos, song titles, and credits were more important than the music itself because if the record failed to interest someone on the visual level, people were less likely to buy it. Unless the band toured and you had seen them to know what they sounded like, their album art was as important as the music itself. It’s entire purpose is to sell a listener on a band before even one note is heard. Once you spent your hard earned allowance on a record and brought it into your home, your were more likely to give it as many chances as it took to grow on you. Again, this is not an experience unique to me and because I still work at a record store and see this happen first hand. Even with all the bells and whistles that a band can use via modern technology to sell themselves, great cover art or packaging can still lure a person towards making a purchase without a customer having a clue as to what the artist sounds like. 

My favorite part of this story isn't however about the music these two guys exposed me to or how it led me to a lifetime love of underground, underdog music. It is the fact that one of these two people has reappeared in my life multiple times. The Duckie character is someone I will never forget however I still don’t know his name nor did I ever get a chance to thank him for this small gesture that has a long lasting, massive effect on me. Athan and I however have crossed paths many times since Crazy Eddie shuttered its doors in the late ‘80s

The first time we reconnected was when I illegally drove into NYC with my very new driver’s license to buy records. Buying records was that important to me and at the time I didn't know where else to find the kind of music I had decided I liked. I drove 40 minutes to the Tower Record’s in the Village (The Broadway location near where Other Music still stands) with my tattered Crazy Eddie bag in my jacket pocket. I was still buying records off the list. I selected an Elvis Costello LP and carried it proudly to the counter. The man behind the register without looking up at me replied that the record was I was about to purchase was brilliant. I replied that I should hope so because he was the one who picked it out for me. He looked up in shock. The little girl he once knew was now in her late teens and still buying his recommendations. My heart nearly exploded. I never knew what happened to Athan when the store in Paramus closed down but there he was. We caught up briefly and then parted ways. He still confined by a counter and I still being a dedicated kid customer. I was too young to get how important his list was to me at the time so I stupidly never thanked him for what has turned out to be a relief effort on par with emergency rescue. I had been a lost teen and he and his cohort not only supplied me with a map but highlighted which roads to follow.

I still aspire to write at least one song as lyrically poignant as this one by Elvis Costello.


A decade later I was working at Caroline Distribution as an entry level sales rep. One of our exclusive record labels Cleopatra Records was in the office for a meeting and in walked Athan to represent the label. It is funny how nearly all this time later, he still managed to make my heart explode with nervous energy. He wasn't just a handsome, well dressed man, he was my musical guru. It hit me like a hammer as I sat in a conference room listening to him speak about the label’s upcoming priorities in 1997. I wouldn't even be in that room working for one of the best independent music distributors (at the time) if it weren't for Athan. My passion for non top 40 music took off with the help of  those two guys at Crazy Eddie and I have spent every day of the rest of my life expanding on that original list they fed me. After the meeting we caught up on the fire escape out the office’s back door as he smoked a cigarette. I reminded him of who I was and he didn't seem all that surprised that we had found each other again. The music business is filled with many people but it often behaves like a small, private community defined by just a handful of people. The joke is you will work with the same person at least twice during your career and I still find this to be very true of the music industry. 

This time I took the time to thank Athan. I tried my best to explain to him how he helped shape me as a person but there really isn't a cool, articulate way to explain that to the catalyst in person. We have worked together for many years after that day and we are still loosely in contact. We may be middle aged now but when I think back to the first albums I purchased, the neon yellow bag I now have framed, or Athan and the other record store employee, I am still a confused teen looking for members of a tribe I had yet to define. 

Athan has gone on to play in many bands over the decades but here is a look at his most recent band, Black Tape for a Blue Girl. 


This post is a humble dedication to those who take the time to share their knowledge in a thoughtful way to strangers. I have lived my life trying to give back to others in a way that has shaped me for the better. For every action, there truly is a reaction. 




*My scores at this Crazy Eddie also included this super ridiculous Sony turntable. It was vaguely portable and I recall dragging this thing on a plane with me and trying to play records on the fold down table in front of me in the late '80s. This is just further proof that my obsession with vinyl started young.

October 15, 2012

An Introduction : Tales of a Female Music Enthusiast


In 1982 the town of Saddle River, N.J. didn't have cable television. It is hard to fathom how a town ranked with the second highest per-capita income in the state couldn't work out a way to bring this technology to our collective living rooms but regardless, we lived in a world without MTV and commercial free films. 

I was raised near the end of a  cul-de-sac on three acres of a retired apple orchard. Home was a five bedroom house that my father had designed himself with cedar shingle siding and it featured not one but two book libraries. They were divided up by his and hers collections and were contained at opposite ends of the house (looking at the picture - his far right, her's far, far left). 

People wonder why I won't combine my record collection with the men I love and live with but my parents happily kept their books quarantined. I always appreciated their carefully curated selections that highlighted their own interests and personal acquisitions living apart in two distinct spaces. They were separate but equal. This kind of segregation may sound unhealthy to some but to me it represented two individuals who maintained unique identities under one roof.  If there is one message to pull away from this paragraph, it is that collecting pieces of art (written, painted, or other) was a great source of pride in my family. Culture in our household was a core value and a collection of items reflecting that value was integral to our genetic making. Throw in a grandfather named Frank who post Depression Era could never bring himself to throw anything out and loved telling stories, and there you have it; collecting stuff was practically hard wired into my soul. It was only a matter a time before I started to write about it.

The second thing I should make as clear as possible is this. Your record collection will never commingle with mine.

Before I knew Northern Jersey had indie record stores or that magazine racks dotted with music publications could have possibly existed in the region, my exposure to music through the early '80s came from all the traditional sources. There were my parents, television/ film, radio, older siblings, and friends. But the problem was my grade school friends were as ignorant and naive as I was. My parents were, well my parents. Plus they liked music but they LOVED books. My big brother was the enemy and I barely grew up with the other siblings so that left me with film and cable-free television to show me what the world had to offer. It is hard for me to image life before the internet as I write this now but I promise you there was one and it was a dark, lonely, and confusing place.

But before I get into the significance of  me at age 11, here is a little more back story. We will get back to 1980s, I promise.

My great grandfather Frederick Keats wrote and published poetry as well as music for the piano during mostly the 1920s. Growing up we had a handful of Frederick's sheet music framed and hung up neatly in a row along our foyer's wood paneling. They now lovingly reside in my home, still trapped under glass waiting for someone to free them who also happens to read sheet music and can play the piano. 







Frederick Keats is the closest my family tree has come to to fame in the world of music. My grandmother Irma (the daughter of Frederick) had a piano but by the time I was born she was no longer playing it. It stood like an enormous out of tune end table in the front room of their home, adorned with family photos and unopened mail. No one except for me as a bored grade schooler ever paid much attention to it. I should also add that this piano and I were acquaintances at best. Armed with some basic skills passed down to me by one very patient grandmother, I poked and prodded its keys seasonally. During extended holiday visits or summer vacations (and only after we had played every card game known to mankind), I would try to figure out how to play one handed versions of songs I had recently heard. While visiting the bubble world of people in their 70s that meant Nadia's Theme, the schmaltzy opening song from the soap opera Young and the Restless. This is not exactly the stuff music prodigies are made of but it was the first hint that I had a thing for music.






My parents were enthusiast of the arts but they were not record collectors.Their first date had taken place at a piano bar where adults throw back cocktails in the presence of a piano player. They took turns singing along to whatever was played or requested with the lubrication of copious amounts of alcohol. They weren't professional musicians or songwriters, they just adored a good sing along. Even more annoyingly, my mom and Dad sang to just about everything in respectable two part harmony as if cast members from the musical South Pacific for all of eternity. When they didn't know the words to something, it didn't matter. They mumbled random ones until a melody would prevail. I suffered through hundreds, maybe thousands of car rides, trapped in the backseat, as they sang Broadway musical versions by the Rolling Stones to The Beatles. Sinatra to Bette Midler.





As a young girl being raised a mere 30 minutes from NYC, my parents regularly dragged me to the theater, operas, and classical music performances but I can't say I deeply connected with any of it. The endless exposure to music and art was there but when parents force you to attend these things, they become a chore rather than an interest. I was a prisoner not a fan with free will. Sure I shamelessly belted all the songs from the musical Annie but by the late '70s, every little girl my age was obsessed with the orphan in the red dress with the adorable dog. A little part of me dies as an adult when I hear these songs now (correction, ALL show tunes) but at the time Annie represented the promise of a happy ending involving a classic rags to riches storyboard and a locket that saves the day. Little girls love that crap.





My mom and dad were 17 years apart in age and brought children from previous marriages with them to their blissful union in the late '60s. I had a total of 5 half brothers and sisters growing up but they were all so much older than me that I don’t recall too much about their taste in music other than the occasional record they accidentally left behind at our parent’s house. Pink Floyd’s “Careful with that Axe Eugene” (Ummagumma -1969) literally scared the hell out of me when I put it on the turntable for the first time, so I avoided most of their orphaned records after that traumatic listening experience. (At 3:09 to be exact)




The snippets I do remember is this:

My older half brother Robbie and his girlfriend once showed up to our parent's house with every item they were wearing on their body cut to pieces and put back together with safety pins. I was told by them that it was “punk” but I couldn't have guessed what that actually meant at the time, no less that it had ties to a youth based music movement. I knew visually this punk thing pissed my parents off (“You ruined perfectly good clothes why?) but they looked like pimply puzzles with stiff troll doll hair and one black eyeliner pencil between them. If there was music fueling their fashion, they never talked about and they certainly didn't share of those records with me. Then again I was under the age of 10 so I can't be sure I would have appreciated The Sex Pistols quite yet anyhow. Music sometimes works like a book. You can be exposed to a later chapter but unless you have made it through all the earlier ones first, reading the final chapter solo can come across like gibberish. Listeners to a new kind of music sometimes need the related stepping stone chapters to have the most recent one make sense. Context is key and at that young age, I had none.



I had another older half brother named Peter who basically was Bill Murray. He looked a lot like him. He was unbelievably funny and utterly brilliant in the curious ways he expressed himself. Everything out of his mouth was delivered in an upside down comedic kind of way. He was the oldest and in turn he seemed to me the bravest of all the siblings because he didn't live in fear of our parents. He openly cursed, smoked, drank, talked back, and yet did so with such glee. 

Pete and I didn't know each other well because he was literally 25+ years older than me but I have tiny slivers of memories of him. I recall his arrival back from serving in Vietnam and his interest in making pottery. He lived in a tent in the back yard during this time period and then seemed to just vanish until the holidays cycled back around. What I remember most is a few Christmases  we spent with Pete. He usually gave ridiculous gag gifts to us but one year I was blessed with a UX-S90 mixed tape. There was no artful cover. It came bare bones with the classic lined paper insert and a handwritten the tracklisting filled with band name misspellings.(Not to mention a few missing song titles) I was in awe of this mysterious collection of nothing but new to me music. It was my introduction to Nick Cave, B-52s, R.E.M., Human Sexual Response, and Blue Cheer among others. A seed (Nick Cave joke intended) had been planted. I was beginning to understand and appreciate that there was music outside of the Billboard top 100 realm just waiting to find its way to my hungry ears. And to be fair, I know some of these bands eventually entered the top 40 charts but in the mid '80s, this was not the case. 

I can't stress how exotic and exciting these bands were to my green ears. Hearing them was like being given the keys to an invisible world that nobody else I knew had . A grown man who I really looked up to and only saw once every few years had confided in me this tremendous group of hand picked gems in a cassette form. I never listed to mainstream music the same way ever again. The secret was out. I didn't have to listen to what everyone else did. There were options. 



My half brother Chris was older than me by 6 years and was nicknamed "Psycho" in high school. He was a stereotypical artistic bad boy with a genius level IQ. During his teenage years he favored metal and punk but later in life he listened to truly every kind of music possible. He taught me that music used in movies was worth listening to on their own as a score or soundtrack. (Repo Man, The Shining, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to name a few) This makes up for the year that he tortured the whole family by wearing a banjo around the house for a year, all day every day as he tried to learn how to play it. Try to image Tom Cruise's character from The Outsiders with a bluegrass instrument strapped around him but with no clue or talent to play it. It looked and sounded as terrible as you might imagine. 

Chris was the only sibling left in the house by the time I was born so most of my childhood featured him as the lone role of a traditional big brother. He rarely shared his music with me but at this point in my life I wasn't quite ready for any of it either. In fact when he played me The Ramones "Beat on the Brat", I was convinced it was written with a kid sister in mind AKA me. Call me sensitive but I received his passive aggressive message loud and clear. His music was his.

Chris once brought me back a white and blue quarter sleeve shirt from the Judas Priest "Screaming for Vengeance" tour but not because he was being kind or even that I requested it. Our mother made him buy me something when he went to see them perform at the Meadowlands Arena without his kid sister. His choice of this particular album art shirt was his little fuck you to me knowing I didn't like the band nor would I ever want to wear a metal eagle upon my undeveloped chest. It wasn't that the bands he liked were bad, but they were his bands. By Chris liking them first, he owned them in my mind. While some people grow embracing the music of their older siblings, I was repulsed by the very idea of being a copy cat. Now, I would kill to have that Maiden shirt.




Oddly I have almost no recollection of my half sister's musical taste at all. 

I remember Susan being disgusted with me because I didn't know who Robert Plant was when Big Log was charting on the radio. I apparently needed to show more respect for this ex Led Zeppelin vocalist but after hearing this particular single, could you blame my lack of interest? At age 40 I still find this song sleepy and disinteresting. Sorry Sue.



My sister Jennifer upon discovering I loved Prince during the Purple Rain time period (1984) gave me a long winded speech about the beauty and sexuality of Sade, an artist she considered more talented then my purple royalty. Needles to say this rambling was totally lost on me and I stopped paying attention to anything she had to say to me about anything from that point forward. She could keep her saxophone Jazz and sex talks. Ick.  



By the early '80s I began a personal journey to find a soundtrack of my very own. I had just requested my kiddie rainbow themed room be painted over to something a little more adult that reflected the new transitional me. Good bye childhood, hello awkward puberty steamrolling towards the teenage years.

Some families pass down from generation to generation recipes or silverware but I have the deep appreciation for music, words (printed, spoken, or in song), and almost 150 years of family history helping pump it through my veins. I am enormously proud to carry on the tradition in my own small way as a musician and writer but most of all as a person who has carried a life long obsession with music. My parents, grandparents, Chris and Peter are all gone now but their passion for the arts had been embedded in me from an early age and now it owns me. I don't have children of my own to pass along this history to so I am extremely grateful to the internet for giving me a place to share it so it won't be totally lost.