Monday, December 15, 2014

Music 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?

1 comment:

  1. Hmm... Seems like we must be around the same age...

    Awesome that you broke down the questions to its intended purpose but decided to answer the questions anyway. For me though, it was an interesting exercise to explore the technical answer and the disparity between it and what I consider my aesthetic to be.

    So my answers:
    First vinyl was Wham!'s Careless Whisper in 45 since I couldn't afford a full album with my allowance.
    First tape was also a single: 2 in a Room's Wiggle It.
    First tape album was Nirvana's Nevermind
    First CD was a promo compilation from a used CD shop that featured the Butthole Surfers track, Who Was In My Room Last Night

    First concert was 92 Lollapalooza (with Ministry and Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Primus from what I recall)

    The thing about it is that the answers make me cringe in that I think they'd be better suited for someone into kitschy tunes and mystery science theater but that doesn't feel like me.