Showing posts with label The Beatles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Beatles. Show all posts

October 23, 2012

1. Combative Rock : Tales of a Female Music Enthusiast

* Disclaimer : I have had a few music blogs over the years and I have posted variations of some these stories before. While this version is 100% new, if you know me or my blogs, you might be hit with a wave of deja vu. You aren't crazy. This is re-worked material mixed into new stuff.*

My three dollar allowance as a ten year old didn't warrant me the fiscal opportunity to purchase records and tapes regularly. Instead I would sit for hours in front of one stereo speaker waiting for a favorite song came on the radio. When one finally graced the airwaves I placed a hand held tape recorder up to the speaker panel and hit record. The stereo in my bedroom didn’t have a built in cassette deck yet so if I wanted to hear my favorite song on command (and with a little rewinding or fast forwarding), this was my only option. 

My recording technique a s a half pint was sloppy. I always missed the first few seconds of each song and then my arms would get tired from holding up the recorder. Eventually they would weaken, causing me to move my hands around impatiently for the second half of a song. You can actually hear the sound of my little arms failing me through the hits of the early ‘80s. I desperately wanted to own these songs and get to know them better so Presidential Fitness arm strength failure aside, I continued to record the songs I liked best using this ridiculous DIY style for years. 

These cassettes were my first real attempt at collecting and organizing music. I didn't know I was preparing myself to be a record collector nerd but this obsessive behavior certainly helped nudge me towards that path at a young age.  

T he sound quality on my tapes may have been subpar but to my credit, I was a superstar at playing the name that tune game since I spent so much time with the radio on and my Panasonic recorder ready to be sprung into action. Note: you may want me on your '80s music trivia team.

My clumsy mixed-tapes of Billboard hits were not intended for public consumption. I typically hoarded them in my bedroom and then continued to play them over and over again in private. I memorized each of them from front to back. To this day I still expect the song “Gloria” to always be followed up by "Shadows with the Night" or Nena’s “99 Red Balloons" to have a shout out to the NYC radio station Z100 mixed into the opening verse when I hear them. 

I knew every melody. Every word. Every tempo shift and dynamic swell. I studied every breath and the space between notes. I was training my ears to pick apart the various layers in a song and understand how they work together without knowing I was doing it. This unique ritual of listening to music as if it was under an audio microscope is something I still carry with me to this day. 

My personal library of black case-less tapes were left at home in the Fall of 1982 when I was asked to sleep over a new friend’s house and bring music. This girl lived one town away which meant we didn't go to school together. We both played on a local girl’s soccer team and she had invited me to stay over house for the first time ever. This was uncharted territory for me. I wasn't 100% positive girls from other towns were like the girls from my town AND I had no clue what music to bring. I panicked. My parents trying their best to help without spending any money loaned me their Beatles collection (1967–1970 – The Blue Album) cassette. They were certain this would be more than adequate. The Beatles in my parents defense have proven to be timeless and enjoyed by many different kinds of people of all ages however at Jennifer’s house in 1982, it wasn't adequate.

For the first time in my young life a peer made me feel lesser about who I was because of the music I listened to. I showed her my Beatles cassette of which I knew every word to every song and she wrinkled up her face only to finish off her look of disgust with a snort. She passed me her Clash tape and told me this was the ONLY music worth listening to. 

The Clash? Is that a band? The horror! I had no idea what she was talking about. (“Rock the Casbah” wasn’t in constant rotation on the radio yet). I squinted at the pint sized cover art and tried to examine it as closely as possible. They looked a little like the Stray Cats according my inexperienced eye but what was this? One of the members wore rings on nearly every finger and had a funny looking cigarette tucked between them. Men could wear rings too? I had no idea and concepts of gender roles were beginning to crumble. At age 11 my innocent mind didn't know about pot no less what a joint might look like so the illegal and wild aspect of a band member holding and presumably smoking weed flew right over my head. I was more concerned that the band posed for their album photo on railroad tracks. We were taught as children to avoid playing on or near tracks so a rough and tumble looking group of lads stopping for a picture practically on top of them clearly proved to me that they were rebels living dangerously. I hadn't even heard a song by them yet and already my mind was blown.

The Clash were totally new to me and I felt stupid as well as embarrassed for living in my parent’s shadow. I held Combat Rock in my hands for the first time that night and pondered the door this record had opened. I wasn't just listening to music unlike anything I had ever heard before; more importantly it was the ultimate lesson that the kind of music you listened to said something about the kind of person you are. It could also reflect how worldly, individual, and cutting edge you were. Defining yourself by the records you listen to, no less making or breaking friendships was a startling revelation. I didn't appreciate feeling vulnerable about my limited knowledge of music by a girl my own age but it further proved that there was a world of music for me to explore. We started off as equals  when I arrived at her front door 
(white middle class tomboys from Bergen County, N.J.)  but by the following morning I was the loser and she was coolest girl on the planet.

The only redeeming aspect of that sleep over night (besides learning about The Clash) was that her mom's idea of a craft for us was to make a Holly Hobby type doll out of a wooden spoon. She may have been more advanced musically but building a spoon doll was way more pathetic than listening to The Beatles. I was never invited back to her house for another sleepover but shortly thereafter I began asking my mom to help me explore the world of music I didn't know. The goal was to obliterate my musical ignorance. The spell of top 40 radio was broken. 

I delivered this news back to my parents and my Mom was especially understanding. She was a retired Greenwich Village beatnik with an ex husband who was (still is) a Jazz drummer so she seemed to appreciate my yearning to investigate the world of counter culture. It as almost as if she was expecting that day to come. 

She then offered and began taping a weekly late night music video program for me called  Friday Night Videos.  Since my town  wasn't  blessed with cable TV or in turn MTV, this major network show was my singular outlet to watch music videos . Although this show mostly played videos for the same songs I heard on the radio, occasionally something left of the dial would make an appearance. FNV wasn't ideal for discovering new music but it did allow me to see the artists I had only heard on the radio before no less get a visual sense of the style and attitude attached to each kind of music. A morsel of perspective was an improvement over none at all. Some kids grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, I watched Friday Night Videos.

My mom was an insomniac so this really was fate working in mysterious ways when she fell asleep recording one night. This meant that whatever was aired after Friday Night Videos accidently made its way onto the videotape as well. I couldn't help myself but watch every minute of that tape. It was the closest I could come to staying up late like a grown up. This was a window into the adult world of late night television and it was this one completely random and rare event that altered my life forever.

For a brief time period of time in the mid '80s after Friday Night Videos there was another music video show that featured mostly underground music and weirdo skits. I can't recall the name of this show for the life of me but this is where I discovered the Australian group Midnight Oil and their 1982 single called “Power and the Passion”. 

Fuck The Clash. This band not only sounded unlike anything my little girl ears had heard before, the singer was an alarming freak of nature. I mean this in the best way possible. He was bald, 7 feet tall and he danced like a stiff jointed zombie having an epileptic seizure. He sang about important political things in an artful manner. I was in awe. No, I was found. This band looked and sounded like the complicated oddity I felt I was. Sure every kid feels insecure about themselves at this tender age but I had found a band that empowered the fragile me. I wasn't alone. There were more misfits just like me. Now all I had to do is find them. It felt like an eternity but a few years later, I did.

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.