7. Joining the Grand Conversation

I was having a beer with a friend of mine who is my junior by about 20 years or so, and as usual, much of the conversation was devoted to discussing music.[1] At one point he looked at me and asked in all sincerity, “How exactly did you find out about new music before the internet?”  The implication was that this was the type of activity that was hard to fathom because it was so far removed from his own experience, perhaps comparable to building your own housing, properly storing root vegetables or making canoes out of animal skins.  Indeed, in an age of ubiquitous and relentless interactivity and music streaming services that build personalized algorithms around your choices, it almost seems like the situation has reversed itself – now music finds you, rather than the other way around.  But that is certainly not how it was and it makes me wonder if this recent generational shift has created a gap in the historical record or popular memory worth exploring.

Circus      I don’t want to generalize about my generation, so I will only speak for myself.  How did I discover new music before the internet?  When I was in elementary school, rock and music magazines seemed to be everywhere.  I can remember flipping through titles like Circus, Creem and Hit Parader in the drugstore, but I didn’t like most of the bands they covered so I don’t think I bought many issues.  In some ways, it seemed like it covered music for older kids with different tastes.  For example, this random sample of Circus from 1975 includes cover stories about KISS, Bad Company, Queen, The Doobie Brothers, Wishbone Ash, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull and (oddly) Bette Midler.  That’s 0/8 if you’re keeping score.

CreemAs another example, this random issue of Creem (also from 1975) features acts like Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Grand Funk Railroad and Better Midler (again!), but intriguingly it also includes articles about Brian Eno and Divine.  Although I would come to really love Divine[2] and be sort-of lukewarm on Eno[3], sadly, fifth-grade me has no claims of being hip to their work. Later in life I would read Creem for information about bands like The Replacements and come to understand the legacy of music writer Lester Bangs (who was a Creem contributor for a while), but at the time I was not a part of any conversations about what was bubbling under the surface in the counterculture.  Rather, me and the few friends that I did have at that time were talking about the things we heard on the radio.

Indeed, I listened to the radio a lot.  Not only did my parents always have it on in the car and during picnics, I had my own transistor radio.  In this way, I fit with every cliché of the era – I often brought the radio to bed at night, listening to it after lighTransitor Radiots-out with the crappy little single earplug in.  Though they were plastic, somehow all my earplugs always had a distinctive patina, presumably from earwax and exposure to the elements. I’m not sure what brand I had, but it looked something like this GE.  It was convenient and could probably withstand the abuse an elementary school student could dish out, but I’m sure the sound quality left a lot to be desired.  I have absolutely no idea what stations I listened to at the time, as it wasn’t until later that such things would become part of my identity.  When I was in fifth grade my family moved from the Boston area to southeastern Connecticut, and I got my own room for the first time.  My town was almost equidistant between Boston and New York, but it was the powerful New York AM stations that were easiest to pick up regardless of the time of day.  By this time, I had graduated to a clock radio that looked something like this

Clock Radio

(GE again).  It was basic and the control knob was a blunt instrument, so you had to have a gentle and steady hand to be able to find certain stations, almost like cracking a safe or getting the shower temperature correct.

By the time I was in junior high school I was already a night owl, and having my own room meant I could spend time late at night listening to the radio[4].  This is always the best time for terrestrial radio, as the AM signals from far-away cities bounce all over the atmosphere. I can’t pinpoint the first time I heard stations from places like Baltimore, Cleveland or Detroit, but I do remember the joy of discovering random audio slices of life.  I would try to imagine the stores whose ads I heard and was fascinated by traffic reports that referred to bridges and tunnels that I knew the locals took for granted.  I still get a kick out of this when driving in the car late at night.  All these AM stations generally played the same kind of music, if they played music at all, so my interest in finding these far-flung broadcasts was the information rather than the music.

This all changed when I discovered an FM station from Providence.  I don’t remember the call letters, but I wonder if it was WBRU (now sadly only online) or another college station of the time.  I couldn’t always find it due to the basic nature of my radio and the vicissitudes of the atmosphere, but I would search for it every day because they always played songs that I didn’t hear elsewhere.  Figuring out the names of the songs or the bands was not easy since I would often lose the signal before the DJ would talk about the tunes they had just played.  When I could, I would write down the names I things I liked and look for them in local record stores.  Invariably, they didn’t have them.  Instead, their bins were filled with KISS, Queen, Led Zep and Bette Midler (I can only assume).

In addition to listening to a lot of radio, I also watched a lot of TV.  A lot. When I was soultrain1in elementary school, I would watch Soul Train on the weekends (never American Bandstand – blecch).  One of the reasons I loved this show was it gave me a chance to see the bands I had heard on the radio, especially since I don’t remember finding groups like the Stylistics, Blue Magic or MFSB and the Three Degrees in magazines like Circus.  Since these were popular acts, I could also go to the record store and get 45s of the songs I liked.  At that point, it had not occurred to me that sometimes you might hear something that you could not actually get your hands on.

The Midnight Special         By the time I got to junior high school, the fact that I was the only night owl in the family gave me control of the television after hours.  In addition to countless episodes of the Twilight Zone, I watched programs like Midnight Special (featuring Wolfman Jack) and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.  These shows typically featured pre-recorded concerts of bands that were not that exciting (e.g., UFO?), but I watched nonetheless.  This download-1paid off in the end because at some point Don Kirshner’s program started running videos, as well.  I think (though I can’t be positive) this is where I first saw the videos for Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Oliver’s Army and the Pretender’s video for Brass in Pocket.  I was immediately transfixed.  I had heard about Costello before, but I wasn’t prepared for the song itself.  It didn’t sound like anything I knew at the time, and it seemed so vibrant and now.  The Pretender’s song was also good, but to be honest it was the presence of Chrissie Hynde that sold me. Whatever the show was (if it wasn’t the Kirshner one), I started watching religiously each week to see if I could catch those same videos.[5]  I managed to see the Pretenders video several times and when I went to the record store I was happy to discover they had their record in stock.  They also had the Costello record.

From a slightly different angle, I cannot recount my younger days as a music fan without mentioning Playboy.  I say this with no irony or sense of embarrassment.  For some reason, when I was in 7th grade my mother told the local pharmacy guy (where I bought my comic books), that it was OK for me buy Playboy on my own.  I have no idea why she came to this enlightened decision, but I ran with it, using my paper route money Playboy Streisandeach month to get the new issue. I still remember buying this issue with Barbra Streisand on the cover, since I had a thing for her at the time. (No, she didn’t pose).  Being allowed to openly buy and possess Playboy certainly gave me some cachet amongst my few friends, as it meant that I had easy access to pictures of naked women (“Hey, how did we manage that before the internet?”).  And while I most certainly did look at those, I also read every single article every month.  Seriously.  The pieces about high-end consumer goods (e.g., stereos, whiskeys, etc.) were boring and altogether too bourgeois for a kid on reduced lunch at school, but the political stuff was interesting to my developing ideology, and the cultural stuff was essential.  I still remember a short blurb in Playboy about the up-and-coming Elvis Costello (claiming that was his real name rather than a stage name) that primed me to look out for the video.  Playboy was certainly the first place where I read reviews of jazz and modern music, and while a lot (perhaps most) of the discussion was beyond me, I remember reading these articles over and over again, trying to figure out the lexicon and the discourse.  It didn’t bother me that I couldn’t afford some $1,000 stereo for a bachelor pad that I would never have – reading Playboy allowed me to believe I was part of some kind of grand conversation about music, culture and politics.  For a kid in suburban Connecticut, it felt like a lifeline.

Oddly, I can also thank ABC News for opening up more of this world to me. In the Fall of 1979 (my Freshman year) their show 20/20 ran a segment about punk rock.  I don’t know that I intentionally planned to watch it, it might have just part of my daily diet of television.  Since there were so few stations broadcasting, I knew while watching it there was a good chance that the people I knew at school would have seen it, as well.  They had, in fact, and they were up in arms – they thought punk rock was a disgrace and the end of civilization as we knew it.  I don’t remember pushing back too much against the criticism, but I do remember thinking to myself, “Hey, I actually think these might be my people.  They are older than me, and live in NYC and England, and I’m 14 and living in suburban Connecticut, but I think they’re my people.”   The kids in my class used this opportunity to continue conversations they had been having for years about the value of bands like AC/DC, The Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Those were not my bands, and it was not my conversation.  I started tracking down stuff by the bands I had seen on the show, becoming a life-long fan of the Clash.  I never moved to England or New York City, but eventually I did find a group of friends to talk to about this kind of music, and we would pick each other’s brains for what we had been listening to.  We started to have our own grand conversation about music, culture and politics.

Of course, we drew on what we were hearing and reading outside our small town.  Music magazines that did not focus on KISS, Deep Purple or Bette Midler eventually came along.  Over the decades I pored over things like Tower Pulse (free at the store), Option, Spin, Boston Rock, Maximum Rock and Roll, Punk Planet and countless random zines to find out about new bands and styles of music.  The 1990’s were particularly fertile in this sense, with both professional and DIY music publications everywhere.  Someone hoping to do a survey of publications of the era has a large task before them, as consumers and producers would use different constellations of magazines and zines to identify themselves and their people.  The divide between mainstream and non-mainstream simultaneously ceased to matter and transformed into countless small communities.

BostonRockMagazine_47cover       rem-pulse

Mrr30        Option.

punk_planet_41 .   Spin nirvana-1_0

Though I no longer read Playboy, and though music magazines are harder to come by, I remain invested in the idea of the grand conversation.  Certainly, this newsletter is a part of that.  I still enjoy writing and reading about music, making and receiving mixtapes/CDs, and chatting with employees or fellow customers at record stores while we all dig through bins. And I truly enjoy talking with friends about music over coffee and/or beers.  I much prefer this multimodal, asynchronous and profoundly shambolic (Hey there, Lester Bangs!) human process over what seems to be the cold calculations of algorithms like Spotify or Pandora.  Perhaps I am selling them too short and need to experiment with them more.  I’m not anti-technology, and certainly I love having the ability to check out things on-line, but I don’t like it when a computer program tries to give me an answer for a question I have not even asked yet, whether it is about a song or about boots.  Indeed, I feel like stumbling about gives me the best chance to develop and ask new questions, which may in turn provide entrance into ongoing conversations, or opportunities to start whole new ones.

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[1] He was a drummer in a punk band (Spoiler NYC) that made a few records and he is now teaching Earth Science at the junior high school level. I sometimes joke that he has moved from one kind of rock to the other.

[2] If you don’t love Divine, I’m not sure what kind of person you are, but it is not a good one.

[3] Bring on the Lukewarm Jets? (A little Eno album title joke).

[4] In high school, I was listening to the radio broadcast of Monday Night Football when they announced that John Lennon had been shot.  The first reports were inconclusive, but by the end of the game it was clear that he had passed away.

[5] Of course, this is the tectonic shift.  Prior to the internet, you would be on other people’s time, sitting there waiting for a video you might like. We wasted hours upon hours in the summer watching MTV with this vain hope – “Maybe the next video would be better.”  It almost never was.  One day that I was home instead of at school (either actually sick or just skipping) I saw a video by the Church for Unguarded Moment. The next day I was home again (either actually sick or just skipping) and it played at the exact same time.  Eureka!  I figured out they were using pre-programmed blocks.  So, I stayed home a third day (this time certainly just skipping) so that I could have my tape recorder placed in front of the TV to record the song.  They played it right on time, and I taped it.  Don’t remember if I went to school the next day or not.


Links in Order

Divine – I’m So Beautiful                           https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UuE0DcJ1F0

Soul Train Opening (1976)                        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJOGos3jM9c

Stylistics – Betcha By Golly, Wow            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2NPJwZV4ag

Blue Magic – Sideshow                     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TscxLlhMiig

MFSB and Three Degrees – TSOP   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgDBQ6bS61g

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Oliver’s Army


Pretenders – Brass in Pockets             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7Hy7uAb_eU

The Church – Unguarded Moment    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_Sn0XgETfE

20/20 – Punk Rock Segment                       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVJAycREXqg


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