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) and 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 1992 and 1993 and you'll have some idea of how bad it was -- but, hey, I was just getting started.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Stephen King Revisited #2: 'SALEM'S LOT

This is the 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...  

August 16, 2006

Re-reading Salem’s Lot for the first time since I was a teenager… I’m struck by similarities to IT, which I also re-read recently.  In both novels, a writer returns to his hometown (Jerusalem’s Lot as Durham / Derry as Bangor) to face ghosts from his childhood.  Today, I visited Durham and Shiloh Chapel and tried to imagine what it must have been like for King to visit those places as a teenager, how he must have seen "Sticksville" and the house on haunted hill… how did they first become part of his own personal mythology, which later became part of my own coming-of-age? 

I stood on the stage in King’s high school gym – which smelled just like my own high school gym – and thought about the husky, carbuncular outcast with coke-bottle glasses who left Durham after his high school graduation and, once his mother died, never looked back… except in fiction.  It’s hard to go back.  The place is still there, but the perspective that colored the place is long gone… This “passing” is true not of the place, but of the person.  The place is, more or less, the same.  The person has changed.               

There is no mention of Stephen King at the school – no memorial library or honorary writing contest.  The halls that he walked, also walked by the real-life inspiration for Carrie White, belong to today’s students.  The gym where Carrie’s prom was held (in King’s imagination) is just like my high school gym… and my high school gym isn’t mine anymore.  The building is the same, but my perspective has changed.  My perspective of it is entirely memory – not of a specific day, but of a time period that I spent there.  The perspectives of students at the school today do not relate in any way to my nostalgia, though I can imagine that they do.  I can imagine that they see that place the same way I did… and that, in ten years, they’ll see it the same way I do now.  

I was a latecomer to Stephen King’s work, so I actually read IT before I read ‘Salem’s Lot. As a result, this one has always seemed to me like a test run for the author’s greatest monster story. What I love about both novels is the sense of place… They make me curious and nostalgic for towns I’ve never been to…. towns that don’t even exist! That’s the power of Stephen King’s writing. He has a remarkable gift for creating a universe that feels absolutely real.  Exploring Maine with his work in mind, it’s not hard to believe that one of the back roads could actually lead to the places he has written about. In one way or another, I *know* that the author has been there and back. I’m grateful to have his travelogues.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stephen King Revisited #1: CARRIE

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

I must confess I wasn’t really excited about re-reading Carrie. I read it for the first time in middle school.  In the car, actually, on a family vacation.  It was a fast read, spellbinding at times, but I preferred the movie.  (I can’t remember if I saw the movie before or after I read the book.)  I still prefer the movie.  From what I've read, even Stephen King prefers the movie.

King noted in Danse Macabre that Brian DePalma’s film presents high school as a matriarchy -- something he wishes he had done in the novel.  The novel presents Tommy Ross as “a socially conscious young man,” and Billy Nolan as a sadistic son of a bitch.  Tommy does what he wants, not just what Sue tells him to do.  At first, Chris Hargesen has Billy “tied around her finger,” but that changes after he gets the pigs blood. 

The biggest difference between the book and the movie is the final act.  In the movie, Carrie just wreaks havoc on the high school prom.  In the book, she destroys the entire town of Chamberlain.  During the bloodbath, several of the townfolk seem to have some kind of psychic connection with her.  They know what she’s doing, and in some cases why.  I believe this is the section that King is thinking of when he compares Carrie to the 1957 sci-fi movie THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS.  (I wrote a bit more about that connection in Beyond Fear...)

When it’s all over, the town is effectively dead.  King writes: “The over-all impression is one of a town that is waiting to die.  It is not enough, these days, to say that Chamberlain will never be the same.  It may be closer to the truth to say that Chamberlain will simply never be again.”  Of course, this would not be the only time that King created and destroyed a fictional Maine town.  Personally, I've always wanted to know more about his fictional places.  How much of them did he imagine, and how much is based on actual places?

King writes that Chamberlain is adjacent to Durham, near Lewiston and Weaver.  As far as I can tell, Weaver is a fictional place too, but the proximity to Durham (the author's hometown) and Lewiston would put Chamberlain more or less in the vicinity of Lisbon Falls, where King went to high school, and where he knew a couple of awkward teenage girls who later inspired the character of Carrie White.  Is Lisbon Falls the "real" Chamberlain?  That's a simple-minded conclusion... but it didn't keep me from visiting Lisbon Falls a few years ago and taking some photos of the high school gym where Carrie's prom night *might* have happened, in an alternate universe.

A few other easily-overlooked details piqued my interest this time around -- mostly connections to King’s other work.  Carrie’s mother works at the Blue Ribbon Laundry (from "The Mangler").  The owner of the local Amoco is the son of the late Teddy Duchamp (from “The Body”).  When he first sees the devastation that he has caused at the prom, Billy Loomis says to Christine Hargensen: “We got it on, Charlie. We really got it on.” -- an oblique allusion to King’s novel Rage.  The author explains it by saying that Billy “called her Charlie whenever he was pleased with her,” but the reference seems clear to me: Billy is talking to Charlie Decker.

Today, I see Carrie mainly as a point of entry into the vast Stephen King universe.  Enter and roam.