September 7, 2008

The LP -v- the Cassette

In 1986 there were two formats to choose between: the cassette or the LP.

There was only one record store in a 30 mile radius of the town I grew up in so my monthly trip to Crazy Eddies on Rt. 17 in NJ meant an enormous amount to me. I had just discovered my passion for music and without knowing what the genre was called, who else like the same bands, or what these bands represented, this "weird" music made the outsider misfit kid in me feel like, when I listened to these records , that I belonged somewhere. That is a powerful and addictive feeling to a lost teenager and in turn finding and buying these records became a very potent and important ritual in my life.

If I purchased new music on LP it meant I would have a very personal private bedroom experience with the record. I could spend hours not only listening to the record but also reading along to the lyric sheet and pouring over the art and liner notes. At the time it never occurred to me that albums could be collectible, that there were thousands of other kinds of music to explore, no less that there was a world of used records out there waiting to be browsed. I bought music for one reason alone, it comforted me during a time where I didn't understand who I was no less why I felt different from anyone else. Music was an important to me as food or air, maybe more important because it was the one thing in my life as I kid I had some control over. My parents didn't pick out these records for me, I did. These records represented the first hint of my taste as an individual and while I was picking them, they were also shaping me and introducing me to a world outside of the mainstream...a shock to the system for a kid who up until that point didn't know there was an alternative to the mainstream.

The catch however with LPs was the fact that if I purchased it, I would have to wait at least 15 minutes until I got home to play it on the record player in my bedroom and that was only if my Mother who drove me to the store went straight home. Usually we ran errands on the day we drove to Crazy Eddies and there was a good chance we would be in the car for close to an hour before I could break the seal of plastic around the jacket sleeve and introduce the wax platter to my turntable. As a kid 15 minutes felt like 15 days so as you can imagine, there wasn't a feeling of instant gratification when I purchased an LP. It was like giving a starving person who hadn't had food in over a month a Thanksgiving meal and being told that had to wait 15 minutes before they took the first bite. Those minutes with a new record sitting in a paper bag un-played were pure torture.

The solution to this was buying a cassette. I accepted this format to be a lesser one but the instant gratification of being able to play it in the car seconds after I purchased it balanced out the hiss and disappointing palm sized artwork.

My mom was a huge music fan so she was always amazingly enthusiastic to hear whatever I had purchased that trip. Even more incredibly she understood the importance of a new record to me and she sat in silence as I fed a tape into the player. We quietly waited together for sound to spill out of the car speakers and we didn't speak again until the car was in the garage and the engine was off.

The first time a new tape was played in the car we listened to it with the kind of sacred respect one has for a church sermon and I feel blessed that my Mom understood music was like a religion to me. I was never made to feel stupid for my music selections and during the span of time those tapes played her red Chevy I didn't feel like an awkward kid, I felt like a human being connecting to something bigger than me and more importantly something that didn't seem to belong to any age group. Music was this wonderful and alien other that allowed me to flee momentarily from being trapped inside a body of a 15 year old girl.

Tonight a friend and I reminisced about these early years of record addiction and the psychological impact it had on us no less how it helped to define the adults we have become. We both recalled very specific memories of these early records, where we were when played them and the feeling those records gave us. My strongest and earliest memory of listening to a brand new cassette on the drive home from the record store with my Mom involves The Smiths' The Queen is Dead.

I was raised on classical music, The Beatles, show tunes, and top 4o radio so anything outside of that realm was groundbreaking and earth shattering to me. I had approached a record store clerk about a band I accidentally discovered on a late night video program and he (being the first Goth boy I had ever seen or met) seemed delighted that this preppy clueless nubile was drawn to underground music...something at the time I had never heard of no less could pick out of an audio line up. He selected The Smiths tape for me as a starting place and if I liked it, I could come back and he would pick more music for me to check out. I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. At the time I was an empty page with zero expectations and it is nearly impossible as an adult to fathom that kind of openness. Once upon a time I was musically vacant and the ground floor of my passion for music had yet to be built. The Smiths, along with groups like The Cure and Depeche Mode were among the first lines in the epic love story that has become my life dedicated to music.

It was a summer night and the windows of the car were open. We drove on the highway for a short time but then the rest of our return to home trip was spent on the quiet dark back roads of Saddle River. In seconds flat of side A unfolding I didn't recognize what I was listening to. It wasn't a kind of music I had ever heard before.

The song begins with a group sing along that is clearly English - not American so to an American East Coast youngster this sounded strange, mysterious, and disconcerting. I had no idea if this was The Smiths and this was what they sounded like (oh the horror!) and waited impatiently hear what happened next.

I knew the song was called "The Queen is Dead" and even then I knew no other song titled like that to compare it to. Cyndi Lauper and Madonna didn't have songs named like this. As the tape was playing and I felt like I had been thrown into the deep end without the skill to swim. I was in uncharted waters and my ears were failing to grasp onto to something I could call familiar to grab onto.

Drums take over the song with a guitar feeding back and then the rest of the song storms in. I sat motionless and in what I can only describe as awe. There was no Morrissey like voice in my life before this moment in time. There had been no lyrical content to match this in my life previous to this record. There was no Johnny Marr, nothing so blatantly dark and was all new to the point of humbling. By the third song I was thriving on the fact that it was all 100% new and fresh to me. I owned this new sound and it was intoxicating to feel sole ownership of something at a point in my life when the world seemed to own me. It wasn't on the radio or at a friend's house or on TV, these groups only existed in my tape and record collection.

In an instant I knew a door had been opened that not only had been closed up until this point in my life but for fuck sake, I had no idea this door existed in the first place. It wasn't just love I felt, it was the sound of a home I was looking to move into and spend the rest of my life in. It doesn't get much bigger than that moment in time for me.

I bring you "The Queen is Dead". The song begins with a clip from the movie The L-Shaped Room - a bit of trivia I only learned tonight as I began writing this piece.

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