let there be music

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Those who know me might be surprised to learn that I wasn’t exposed to music at an early age. To be sure, my parents enjoyed the soothing tones of easy listening on the radio, but I have no tales of visits from future luminaries performing impromptu gigs on our patio that would inform the love of music I have today. I did have a few cool older cousins into the Beatles and folk music, but what really catapulted me into the world of music was getting my first radio for my confirmation at age 10. That was in 1970.

It was a Panasonic 4-band radio: AM, FM, a Police Band and a Weather Band, which I considered a rip-off because the weather was only on a single frequency, 162.55 MHz.

The song playing when I turned my radio on was “The Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles. That was on WABC-AM, at 770 KHz but with a signal nearly strong enough to dominate the left side of the AM dial.

I quickly became addicted to American Top 40, and would listen to Casey Kasem every Sunday afternoon without fail, writing down every song in a notebook. It was the heyday of bubble gum, and I had a sweet tooth. With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that music was carefully programmed and that underground trends were invisible to a pampered suburbanite like me. Nevertheless, I did hear many bands then that I love to this day: The Kinks, Sweet, Steely Dan, Argent and so many others.

A few years later those same cool older cousins introduced me to FM music, posters and black lights. DJs sounded so mellow I was certain they would nod off mid-sentence. A guitar solo would go on for twenty minutes, only for the record to end, requiring it to be flipped to side two to hear the dramatic conclusion. WNEW-FM dominated the New York progressive airwaves. I gravitated toward art rock, with all of its bombast and virtuosity, so it should be no surprise that the first music I purchased with my own money was a 45 of “Hocus Pocus” by the Dutch band Focus. I bought it for 99 cents from the record department of Pergament Department Store in Bethpage, NY. I was mowing the yard once a week for the lump sum of one dollar, so I had a penny to spare!

The very first LP I purchased was “Can’t Buy A Thrill” by Steely Dan. That was picked up at Mays Department Store in Massapequa. “Reelin’ In the Years” and “Do It Again” were played on AM radio, but some of the other tracks were more FM-friendly.

By the mid-70s, I started listening to Garden City, NY’s WLIR-FM. It had a format similar to WNEW, but in addition to art rock, it played a lot of fusion and southern rock. I disliked the latter, but had some notable discoveries in the former. Jeff Beck’s “Blow by Blow” became the first record I literally wore out with my cheap turntable, and “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” was my favorite song for years.

I’m not exactly sure when “Off the Boat” began, but it was a Sunday night show on WLIR that would feature only imported music, usually something no normal listener might otherwise hear. One night the show played Wire’s “Pink Flag” in its entirety, and I realized there was something not quite right in this world. Likewise I heard the Buzzcocks’ “Love Bites” and something began to twitch inside of me. It’s safe to say that around this time I made the transition from music fan to a man obsessed.

I started college in 1977 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. It was about 15 miles from Manhattan and had a fairly decent radio station that – as it turned out – had already been playing a lot of punk and underground rock. That made Hofstra within strategic striking distance of a vibrant music scene, and I made sure I took full advantage. In addition to classes, I had a full-time job I worked until 11 on weekdays, so it was very convenient to scoot into town after work. I often went to big punk clubs like Hurrah, The Ritz and Privates whether I knew who was playing or not, as the club frequently would play music paired with avant-garde film clips for trendy punkers to dance to, or – in my case – for fashion-indifferent music fans to soak in. This was my first real exposure to bleeding edge music. Another big find was 99 Records in Greenwich Village. They would play music not heard anywhere else, and I would often like and buy what I heard.

I parlayed a growing collection of vinyl into currying favor at the college radio station. I didn’t get to play music on the air, but I’d lend records to a DJ I had grown friendly with, and in return get turned on to other music. This worked out particularly well when a punk club called Blitz opened up right in West Hempstead. I often got free admission to shows, as well as whatever the late-70s equivalent of a high-five might have been.

And did I mention that I was painfully shy, still lived at home, and maintained a 3.5 GPA while going to school full-time? My brother also took a liking to this burgeoning music scene, and soon found himself working in the business with the likes of Jesus Jones and Blur. I give him credit for going out on a limb and making a career out of our shared obsession, while I remained ever-practical, eventually settling on the computer field. And while Mike is no longer directly in the music business, he still maintains close ties with some of the artists he’s met over the years, some of whom are great friends.

Instead, I settled down, married, started a family, and pretty much put music on hold for roughly ten years. Mind you, I wasn’t entirely oblivious to music during that time, but as much as it had been my only priority in the past, it took a back seat to starting a career and raising five great kids. In retrospect, that wasn’t a bad thing. Apart from R.E.M., whom I managed to catch live opening up for Gang of Four in ’81, I feel like the 80s were a bit of a mismatch for me. Come to think of it, I didn’t have a mullet either.

In 1993, my first marriage came apart. It was a tumultuous time that found me lonely and broke. My brother Mike was still in the music industry and living in Manhattan. I was visiting from Albany, NY. One night we were walking around downtown and he asked me if I remembered a singer songwriter named Tim Buckley. “If I Were a Carpenter”?

“His son Jeff is doing a residency at a little club called Siné. Want to check it out?”

Occasionally it happened like that. The rest of the time, I was broke, with few prospects. SUNY Albany did have a fairly good radio station, and I was a regular listener. I discovered some new music, while at the same time reconnecting with music I had shelved for a good long time. Some of it held up pretty well, some – not so much.

In 1994, I moved to Minnesota, which turned out to be somewhat of a renaissance for me, musically at least. On the one hand, I was putting a thousand miles between me and my children for a relationship. On the other hand, much of what had been missing in my life by marrying so young now opened up to me, and over the years I’ve grown to treat this two-year period as pivotal and essential. Among the many things I had put on hold during my marriage was music, which had changed dramatically in ten-plus years.

While the Twin Cities wasn’t a musical Mecca, it did have a powerful and influential independent radio station, which I believe was called “The Edge”. It consisted of two towers at the identical frequency on either side of Mississippi, so they shared the same call letters with the exception of the “W” or the “K”. They were a champion of post-grunge indie rock, and frequently invited bands into the studio to either play live or just chat with the radio audience. They also hosted many bands visiting premier venue First Avenue and its younger cousin the Seventh Street Entry.

Thanks to still being relatively young, I was constantly out at shows. I resumed my tradition of showing up to a gig early, taking in the DJ’s favorite tracks. Some were accompanied by videos produced by the band, but when that wasn’t the case, First Avenue would often show spectacular footage of race car crashes. This was a far cry from the avant garde film viewing at The Ritz in NYC, but I imagine the overhead was far lower.

Minneapolis and Saint Paul had a number of great records stores in which I could and would spend many an hour. I was fortunate enough to be there while Let it Be Records was still a brick-and-mortar store on the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. Some, like Cheapo Records, had portable CD players, in which used music could be previewed before purchasing. Since I was still quite broke, used CDs were always a preference. For new CD purchases, I started going to this new store called “Best Buy”. They would feature as many as ten new CDs at a station, and you could listen to every track if that was your preference. I would look for bands I had heard of but had not necessarily heard on the radio. And then, because it was a new CD and I was a cheapskate, I would listen to as many tracks as possible, fast-forwarding if I didn’t like a track, and then ejecting the CD if I had fast-forwarded 2 or 3 in a row.

One particular CD I had chosen managed to defeat this quick scanning technique by virtue of having 28 tracks. In most cases, the next track just picked up before I had a chance to “vote” with the fast-forward button. On the back of the CD cover, 5 haggard looking guys sat on or near a couch in what appeared to be a basement, a snare drum in the foreground. The same snare drum appeared on the front of the cover, with a vast desert landscape in the background. I listened to the whole CD and then purchased it, a changed man. The album was “Alien Lanes”, by Guided By Voices.

I managed to see GBV once at First Avenue while I lived in Minnesota. Considering how broke I was, it’s shocking to think of how many bands I saw live in the 20 months I lived there: Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg, Ivy, Orange Juice, Hum, Juliana Hatfield, Lush, Mohave 3, Cornershop, Stereolab, Madder Rose, Throwing Muses, Air Miami, Innocence Mission, and others I’m undoubtedly forgetting. I became very good at calling in to radio stations to win free tickets, and thought nothing of attending an all-ages show if meant getting in at a reduced price.

One big surprise I thought I’d mention. I saw Cornershop open up for Stereolab, and they were – in a word – horrible. They had not yet released their hit-laden “When I was Born for the 7th Time” album, but had a legitimate hit in “6 a.m. Jullandar Shere”, which they played twice in overwrought fashion. Lead singer Tjinder Singh stood motionlessly center stage and was surrounded by the equally listless band. The crowd couldn’t wait for them to leave the stage. By contrast, I had my reservations about seeing Stereolab live, as much of their unique sound seems a creation of the recording studio, and indeed their name implies as much. From their first note they electrified First Avenue – an infectious, energetic vibe that I found totally unexpected. Rather than attempt to duplicate recorded music, they breathed new life into each song, playing three encores and yet leaving the crowd hungry for more. A show like that was why I endured the crowds, the late hours, the second-hand smoke, and the inevitable ringing in my ears on the following morning.

Many bands I had “discovered” during this period remain revered favorites to this day: The Spinanes, Soul Coughing, Radiohead, Helium, Guided By Voices, and others. But I’m going to chose this Spinanes track to sum up my time in Minnesota in part because it’s layered and beautiful, but also because its inclusion of Elliott Smith on backing vocals foreshadows a change slowly approaching.

A lot happened during the brief time I was in Minnesota. The best thing to come out of it was an improved relationship with my two daughters, both of whom where living with their mother and three younger brothers in Latham, NY, just outside of Albany. While that relationship improved, my girlfriend and I had reached somewhat of an impasse, and my employer, fresh off of another round of layoffs, had managed to become acquired by another hardware company, signaling some further consolidation. With no family ties to Minnesota, my eyes turned to the Northeast; and given that I was in high-tech, the Boston area seemed a natural. A friend and former colleague put me in touch with a recruiter, and within a relatively short period of time I had not one, but two interviews lined up. Ultimately I chose a start-up company in the telecomm hardware business. I vividly remember my house-hunting trip taking place on the summer solstice, fittingly the longest day of the year.

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