Monday, December 15, 2014

Movies Made Me #4: Firsts

A few months ago, a friend introduced me to a mix tape club—a group of people who routinely exchange mix CDs, just for the hell of it. Intrigued, I spoke to the guy who organized the group and he told me that it all started in 2003—after the music industry was undermined by Napster but before the age of Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes—because he was having a hard time discovering new music on his own. So he pulled together some friends who agreed to make one mix each over the course of the next year, and share it with the group.  Eleven years later, the mix tape club is still going strong… and I wanted in.

First, however, I had to submit to a kind of initiation ritual.   I had to answer two questions with complete honesty: (1) What was the first album you ever purchased? (2) What was your first concert?

I hesitated, wondering if I was going to be judged for my musical past.  Something about these two questions reminded me of the way small towns in the Mid-West claim to be "the birthplace of" someone famous.  People shouldn't be held responsible for where they were born, should they?  It's not like we get to pick the spot.  And, really, should an adult be judged by the very first song(s) that made an impression on them?  There's a certain amount of luck or fate at work there.  And yet, in much the way that a hometown can shape a person, such early musical influences start a kind of dialogue between us and the universe.  The real question is: What was it that made you start listening?

My buddy Rob G. recently posted a blog about his answers to these two all-important questions—he even broke the first question down by media format, naming his first album on vinyl, cassette tape and CD—so, in the interest of solidarity, here are my answers:


Records were on the way out when I started buying music, so I didn’t buy an album on vinyl until I was in high school, when I saw a copy of The Doors compilation album Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine in a used record shop.  I was enough of a Doors fan to know that the album had never been released on cassette or CD, and that it had two songs that couldn’t be found anywhere else, so I promptly bought it.  Then I had to get a turntable.

Having said all that…. My first music purchase ever was a couple of 45s.  At age 6, I was a huge Ghostbusters fan, so I had to have the Ray Parker theme song.  I also had to have “Heart of Rock n Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News… which I had heard in my 1st grade gym class, of all places.  I hated gym class, but I could have jumped rope for hours to that song.


I didn’t start buying a lot of albums on cassette until 7th grade, when I got my first Walkman.  That year, Metallica’s And Justice for All... and the eponymous Black Album were in constant rotation.  But before that… 

The very first cassette I ever bought was Michael Jackson's Thriller.  My dad had rented the Making of Thriller video for me, and then I had to have the album.  Of course I loved the title track, but I also really liked "Wanna Be Startin' Something?" (still an ideal way to kick off just about any mix tape, in my opinion) and "Human Nature."  I quickly followed up with Bad and Off the Wall. 

I’m not sure it would be possible for me to overstate my enthusiasm for Michael Jackson at that point in my life.  His music was a kind of refuge for me.  While my mom was battling a life-threating illness, and when my family moved to a new town... I could always lock myself in my room, turn on the music and try to dance like Michael.  I couldn’t do it, of course (who could?), but I promise it wasn’t for a lack of trying.  I found it impossible to listen to any of those albums without moving.  And as soon as I started moving, I pretty much forgot about everything else.  Now, really, what more can you ask for?


I was a somewhat reluctant convert to CD culture.  I stubbornly held out until 1994, when the BMG Music Club’s promise of 11 free albums won me over.  What were those eleven albums, you ask?  Well, I know Nirvana: In Utero was one of them.  And Counting Crows: August and Everything After.  The Cranberries: Everyone Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?  Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral.  (My taste in music was all over the place.)  The rest is a blur…. But it doesn’t matter because, while I was waiting for BMG to send me my free stuff, I had to go to the nearest music store and buy something to listen to in the meantime.  So, technically, my first CD was Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell. 

Ironically, the most recent album I purchased was The Endless River—a followup to The Division Bell.   OK, maybe “followup” is a bit generous.  The Endless River is basically a collection of discarded intros and outros from The Division Bell… something that only a die-hard fan of David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd could love.   Because I actually like Gilmour-era Pink Floyd (I don't agree that the band was a "spent force" after Roger Waters left) and because I’m a sucker for nostalgia, I don't mind so much.  If nothing else, it reminds me of 1994... when I used to go running every day with the B-side of the album ("Take It Back," "Coming Back to Life," "Keep Talking," "Lost for Words," "High Hopes") blaring in my headphones.

I remember one day I went running in the early morning.  The way the sunlight reflected off of a dew-covered field--at precisely the moment when I had gone far enough to achieve that famed "runner's high"--forever changed the way I listened to this album.


First, a word of explanation: I grew up in the Piedmont region of Virginia.  It was a three-hour drive to the nearest major amphitheater.  Still, all things considered, there are worse places to start than with a Sting concert.   At the time, I only owned one Sting album—Ten Summoner’s Tales—and that one only because the song “Shape of My Heart” had been featured in the movie The Professional, and because it sort of reminded me of a girl I liked.  But anybody who grew up in the 80s, and had a radio, was bound to know a lot of Sting songs.  The highlight of the show was an encore of Police tunes. 

After that, my best friend and I made it a mission to see as many big-name rock bands in concert as we could.  We continued to be limited by geography… but over the next few years we did manage to see The Rolling Stones, The Who, Aerosmith, The Allman Brothers Band, U2, INXS, Page and Plant, etc.


My answers gained me admittance into the mix tape club for 2015.  In the meantime…. Anybody want to exchange mix tapes?

Monday, December 08, 2014

Stephen King Revisited #3: THE SHINING

This is part of a series of short essays written by a fellow traveler of Richard Chizmar, who in October 2014 resolved to read and blog about every single Stephen King book...  

Shortly after I finished reading Joe Hill’s first novel, I started re-reading Stephen King’s The Shining -- which is dedicated to “Joe Hill King, who shines on.”  Fittingly, it’s a novel all about a father/son dynamic. 

Jack Torrance is, in some ways, a perpetual child.  The first scene, his interview with Stuart Ullman, shows his instinctive contempt for authority figures, hinting at his own deeply rooted sense of inadequacy.  This instinctive rebelliousness is accompanied by shame and remorse, and also self-destructive pride.   As the story develops, we learn why.   Jack is a product of a troubled father/son relationship.  His father was an abusive alcoholic.  Jack was his favorite son, but that truth didn’t spare him any hardships.   Jack loved the S.O.B., in spite of his fear, but the physical and emotional abuse ultimately left him feeling worthless (though his sense of pride serves as a conscious means of keeping that subconscious truth at bay), and the ingrained feeling of worthlessness has turned him into a hot-tempered, violent drunk who feels unworthy of redemption.  Watson, whose ancestors once owned the Overlook, says: “A man can’t help his nature”

Jack might as well believe in original sin… and yet the author has not predetermined Jack’s fate.  (I’m reminded of something Somerset Maugham once said about how giving up on one’s narrator was a writer’s way of giving up on himself… Jack Torrance faces the same dilemma in the play he is writing: “Ordinarily, he liked all of his characters, the good and the bad” - but things are changing.) “He had always regarded himself as Jack Torrance,” King writes, a really nice guy who was just going to have to learn to cope with his temper someday before it got him into trouble."   He is a man who has “unwitting stuck his hand into The Great Wasps’ Nest of Life," but he is not beyond hope.  He is desperately trying to write his way out of a corner.  King suggests that, under different circumstances, he could have turned his life around.  But the influence of the Overlook proves too much for him to overcome.

Danny is, in many ways, Jack’s opposite.   He is innocent and pure, not guilty and corrupt.  He is adaptable and open to the future, not haunted by the past.  Accordingly, he is defined by the gift of foresight (“the shine”).  He has a kind of super-human wisdom, an extra-sensory gift.  Something like grace.  Jack may have had it once, but it is long gone…. Or maybe not gone so much as warped.  When Dick Hallorann meets Jack, he observes: “It wasn’t like meeting someone who had the shine, or someone who definitely did not.  Poking at Danny’s father had been… strange, as if Jack Torrance had something - something - that he was hiding.  Or something he was holding in so deeply submerged in himself that it was impossible to get to."  Since Jack proves susceptible to the ghostly influence of the Overlook, it might be suggested that he “shines” darkly.

Danny, as it turns out, is the true hero of the tale…. though it occurs to me that King may not have known that when he started writing.  He clearly had high hopes for Jack’s redemption, but over the course of the novel Jack keeps doing things that the author must have regarded as unredeemable.  He is corrupting his son, the same way that his father corrupted him… destroying innocence… the most unforgivable “evil.”  At the same time, he lets Jack off the hook somewhat (and/or preserves Danny’s core innocence) by making it clear that it is the Overlook, not Jack, that caused these things to happen.  (“It was Jack and yet not Jack.”)  Jack is simply weak, at least until the moment when he bashes his own face in to save his son’s life.  The Overlook, on the other hand, is… evil?  Is that the right word?  King never uses it.  He simply talks about the cumulative influence of the place, and makes vague references to the Overlook's "manager" (Randall Flagg, perhaps?).

The author once summed up the theme of all of his horror novels with one sentence: “Death is when the monsters get you.” The Shining is all about Danny’s dawning realization that monsters are real.  It questions his ability to cope with this reality.  Will he become the type of man, like his father, who suppresses and denies reality?  Will he become the type of man who can face life without going mad?  Only time will tell.  And, as King reminds us constantly throughout the novel, the clock is ticking...

Monday, November 24, 2014

Music Made Me #3: Birth of a Mix Tape

1935: The German electronics company AEG (Aus Erfahrung Gut) invents the first reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder. They call it the Magnetophon.

1958: RCA Victor introduces the first quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape cartridges.  But almost nobody buys them because they're bulky and expensive.

1963: The Dutch electronic company Philips introduces the first "compact cassette" for audio recording. 

1966: The first music albums are released on cassette in the U.S. by the Mercury Record Company, including Eartha Kitt's If You Go Away, Nina Simone's Wild is the Wind, and John Mathis's The Shadow of Your Smile

Early 1970s: In-car cassette decks are a boon for the new format.  This is the beginning of the time-honored tradition of "road testing" new albums, and it revolutionizes the way people listen to music. 

Late 1970s: Re-recordable cassettes arrive, followed by the ubiquitous Sony Walkman (in the year of my birth -- coincidence?).  DJ Grandmaster Flash pioneers the making of "party tapes" (a.k.a. "mixtapes"). 

1987: Alan Sugar develops the first twin-cassette deck for the mass market, infuriating record labels and ushering in the dawn of the mix tape phenomenon.

1988: This was the year my family moved to a new town and I discovered MTV.  It was also the year I realized that love is a mix tape.  I used to sit up late at night listening to a local radio station's "all request hour": an endless stream of popular songs requested by teenage listeners and dedicated to their current flame or recent breakup.  The songs were predictable (Aerosmith's "Angel," Van Halen's "When It's Love," Def Leppard's "Love Bites,"  INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart"), but the on-air dedications were heartfelt... and that sometimes changed the way I heard a song.   

1991: The peak year of cassette culture.  My family moved again and, on my first day at a new school, I became infatuated with a girl in my seventh grade homeroom.  In my old town, I could have professed my love on the all-request hour... but that didn't seem to be a thing in my new town.   So I became friends with her friends, to learn more about her.  (It would have been too obvious to befriend her directly, right?)  Then, by some glorious stroke of luck or fate, I was paired up with her for a science project.  I spent every single minute of our time together trying to make her laugh.  Her friends told me they'd never seen her laugh that much, and encouraged me to ask her out.  But, of course, that would have been too risky...

I waited for the middle school dance.  I knew that music would help me make my case.  Once the dance was underway, it was just a matter of waiting for the right song.  The right song, as it turned out, was Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters."  I summoned my nerve to leave the safety of the wallflowers corner.  I asked her to dance.  We slow danced.  All was right with the world.  Then the song ended, and I returned to my corner.  Sometime later, one of her friends approacheded told me that I should go ask for another dance.  "If you ask her," the friend said, "she'll say yes."  I decided to wait.

The last song of every dance was always "Stairway to Heaven."  That was the song every lovestruck guy in my middle school waited for, whether you liked Led Zeppelin or not, because it was the longest song that would get played all night (at least, until GNR's "November Rain" was released as a single).  It represented eight full minutes of potential bliss with the girl of your dreams.  So I waited.  And waited.  Finally, I heard the world's most familiar opening chord progression.  And I started across the dance floor.

I was stopped short by a girl from my art class who asked me to dance.  The next eight minutes were excruciating.  I tried to slow dance, but I was just too busy kicking myself.

That failure strengthened my resolve, at least briefly.  I bought a dozen roses, and I brought them to school early one morning, before anyone else had arrived.  I didn't have the nerve to present them directly, so my plan was to put them on her chair in homeroom, and hope that she would figure out who they were from.  (It's official.  I am an idiot.)  But I couldn't do it that first day, because I almost had an anxiety attack just getting the flowers to my locker.  One step at a time, folks.  And I couldn't do it the second day, because, well... you know, people might see me.  A week passed, and the roses started to wither inside my locker.  Then I couldn't give them to her at all, because who the hell declares their love with a dozen dead roses?  So I had to come to school early again one morning, and throw the roses away before anyone saw them.

The only person who ever even knew they existed -- and this is the really embarrassing part -- was my mother.  Of course, my mother thought it was all very sweet.  But I knew better.  Who the hell declares their love with roses anyway?  Might as well write her a sonnet.  That's so archaic.  I needed something subtler.  Something cooler.  Something that could convey the exact emotions I wanted to convey in a way that I couldn't possibly express in words.

1992: My friend Anne introduced me to the art of mix tape.  I don't remember what prompted that glorious gift.  One day, she just handed me a Memorex cassette of her favorite songs.  The song titles were written on the label in purple ink, but most of the names didn't mean anything to me at first.  After a few listens, I was pretty much infatuated with Anne.

Mind you, I didn't fall for Anne because of her taste in music or her ability to make a perfect mix tape.  Actually, that first mix tape was kind of schizophrenic.  It got off to a rocky start with a couple of country songs.  Anne was convinced that I didn't like country music because I hadn't heard the right country songs.  The truth is that I grew up in the mountains of Virginia and I'd already heard far more country songs than I ever wanted to.  

But there were some surprising gems on the tape, like Otis Redding's "Dreams to Remember" (which I had somehow never heard before), Jimmy Soul's infectiously silly "If You Want to Be Happy" (which was an ironic song for a really pretty girl to put on a mix tape) and The Rolling Stones' "Almost Hear You Sigh" (which is not a great song... until a really pretty girl puts it on a mix tape for you).  The best part was the way the tape ended, with back-to-back arena rock ballads: Journey's "Open Arms" and REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling."  There was something so stupidly romantic about those two songs that I couldn't help wishing that the tape represented some kind of implied intimacy. The B-side ended abruptly, halfway through the last song, which was annoying (and more accurately symbolic of the level of implied intimacy encoded in that tape)... but it left me wanting more.  And, lucky for me, Anne kept making tapes that got better and better.  Her third mix tape introduced me to Oasis ("Wonderwall") and Sarah McLachlan ("Hold On" - the alternate version on the 1993 No Alternative compilation).

I reciprocated, of course.  My first attempt at a mix tape wasn't anything worth writing about -- check out the Billboard End of Year Charts for 1991 and 1992 and you'll have some idea of how bad it was -- but, hey, I was just getting started.