In those days, I mistook what was popular with what was good.
In those days, I mistook what was popular with what was good. I had a paper route by now, and that $40 per week funded a music-buying addiction that would rival the intensity of any drug fiend. I would ride my bike to Gemco and buy whatever was at the top of the charts. I figured if it went to #1 with a bullet it must be good. This is how I ended up with Huey Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, the Footloose soundtrack, the Flashdance soundtrack, Don Henley, and Prince. If I liked it well enough, I would chase down the other albums of certain artists—1999, for example—but for the most part I stayed strictly with contemporary Top 40.
Then I met Dwight.
Dwight’s apartment was at the end of the alley that provided a shortcut for our cul-de-sac. His dad drove a Frito-Lay truck. He parked the truck on the street in front of his house on weekends and holidays. He was in Vietnam, Dwight’s dad was, and one Christmas my brother and I were riding our new bikes when we drove by Dwight’s place. He was sitting in the driveway. We asked him what was up. He told us that he had gotten his dad Billy Joel’s greatest hits for Christmas and that he, his dad, was listening to “Goodnight, Saigon” over and over again and crying.
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I told Dwight that I didn’t have the greatest hits but that I liked The Nylon Curtain a lot. My dad played The Nylon Curtain around the house. It had registered with me because one of the songs was called “Laura”, which happened to be the name of a girl I had a crush on in fifth grade. Dwight didn’t know that one, but it got us to talking about music, and the next thing I knew he was pressing into my hand a dubbed off copy of the Cure’s The Head on the Door.
I still remember listening to “Push” for the first time. I don’t remember what I expected, but whatever it was, it wasn’t that. It was jangly. It took a long time for Robert Smith to start singing. I had never heard of the Cure before, but somehow I knew their lead singer was named “Robert Smith”. When Smith finally did sing, the lyrics were repetitious and without clear meaning. His voice was at once softer and more aggressive than I expected. But most of all the structure. The songs on the radio all had a very specific way that they were constructed. Verse, chorus, verse. They were carbon copies of one another, manufactured. But nothing about what I heard on the radio had trained me for this. I couldn’t get my bearings. At no point was I sure of where I was in the song. It could have gone on forever, and I would have been just as happy if it had.
Around this time I met Dana, who has been my best friend ever since. We have plenty in common, but ours was a relationship forged through music. His tastes also trended toward the mainstream when we first met, but he too was soon to undergo an awakening. He always claimed that music sounded better at my place; I always claimed it sounded better at his. We weren’t talking about acoustics. We were talking about discovery. We’d stay up all night listening to music together, playing tracks for one another. XTC, the Godfathers, Siouxie Sioux, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Subhumans, Beastie Boys, ABC, Howard Jones, Sonic Youth, Depeche Mode, Violent Femmes, and mostly Public Image Ltd.
I was introduced to PiL by Mike, a guy who lived up the street. He knew I liked the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols had become an early favorite. My adolescent mind was unable to resist the combination of lasciviousness and violence that their name suggested. I was drawn to their neon album cover, the random-note style font. Mike thought that the transition from the Pistols to PiL would be natural. But that chasm is wide. I remember nothing else about Mike other than he gave me a dubbed cassette and that he stayed on his bike when he rang my doorbell. The quality of the cassette he passed along was shit. You could hear the tape hiss between songs; you could hear it hiss during songs if you listened carefully enough.
When he gave me the tape he said, “This is wild stuff. It’s jungle music”. He was right. If I thought the Cure was strange, this was downright exotic. On the most out-there songs, the beats were tribal. Johnny’s voice cut through them in such a way that I couldn’t tell if he was the one being sacrificed or if he was doing the sacrificing. Even the most straightforward songs were hard to like. PiL filtered their audience. I liked that. The tape had half of the album title written on side 1, the other half written on side 2. In Mike’s boy scrawl, Side 1 said “This Is What You Want”; Side 2 said “This Is What You Get”.
* * *
Dana and I would spend all night listening to music. My mom would stagger into the kitchen the next morning. Teepees of plastic cassette casings littered the countertop. Thin paper sleeves with lyrics and credits un-accordioned. “You’re up early,” she’d say, and then she’d wonder why we slept all day.
We weren’t made to feel like criminals. We didn’t think we were depriving anyone of their livelihood.
Yet, make no mistake about it: stealing Grease and Saturday Night Fever from the TV, discovering how to overdub a store-bought tape, recording my favorite songs off of the radio, Dwight, Mike, Dana—this was the beginning of my life as a file sharer, even if back then the files came in spools.
Bush I, Clinton, Clinton, Bush II, Bush II.
I’m in New York now, the home of Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, the New York Dolls, Run DMC, Blondie, the Ramones, Television, Yoko Ono, and the Strokes, among hundreds of other artists who have shaped my life. Why wouldn’t I want to be here?
Oh, yeah. Because my wife of 10 years is still in Pittsburgh. It’s the stupidest thing we’ve ever done. She’s there with the house, the cat, the job, and the insurance. I’m here trying to make it as a playwright (how’s that working out for you?). I’m sharing a place with a professor of mine from school. He divides his time between here and Pittsburgh. I’m paying a pittance but it’s still too much for what I have to endure. The apartment is in a building in a neighborhood I could never afford otherwise. I sleep on the couch. I cling to a coffee cup I can call my own. When he’s in town I can’t even watch the World Series. I’m miserable. I have no idea what I’m doing with my life. Everything feels wrong. But I have tens of thousands of songs in my pocket, and at least I can walk to work.
The apartment is in Chelsea. My part-time proofreading job is near Central Park. It’s four stops on the subway but only a 30-minute walk. No matter how cold, hot, windy, or wet, I choose to walk. One of the great joys of my life continues to be uninterrupted time to listen to music. In the Midwest, I would take drives that were long enough to complete a full album. I’d create detours if necessary, take the long way around, less ideally sit at an abandoned four-way stop until a car that was going my way appeared, then wave him on by and sit a little longer. Here I have no car. Here I walk.
Pittsburgh had a fantastic public radio station, WYEP, that introduced me to a crop of singer-songwriters who were emerging at the time: Josh Rouse, Josh Ritter, Ray LaMontagne. Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born had recently been released. The Shins were new enough. Patti Smith’s Trampin’ was at the top of their year-end list. Morose stuff, I know. But what can I say? I was hundreds of miles from everything I loved, in a new city, questioning every decision I had ever made. These were morose days. I indulged it.
Only the city wouldn’t let me indulge it for long.
My friend Dan says that he knew he was acclimated to New York when he was telling a story to an out-of-town friend and he paid no attention to the jackhammer pounding away across the street. You just don’t realize how noisy the city is until you try to make a three-minute phone call. I dare you to get through it without being interrupted by sirens, horns, and construction. It’s a fool’s bet. You can’t do it. Just imagine what Chutes Too Narrow sounds like through earbuds on these streets. Here’s a hint: It doesn’t. You can’t hear it. The cacophony of the street swallows all melody. In the elevator, I’d settle on one of my mopey albums. By the time I was two blocks uptown, I had forgotten what I was listening to.
As I pinwheeled through my music collection, I soon realized what kind of music did play well on the street: rap. The Bomb Squad, the production team behind the all-out assault that was Public Enemy’s early recordings, famously included street sounds into the mix. Man-on-the-street style commentary would fill the space between the verses. Vocals would run through speakers that might as well have been perched atop police cars or campaign vans. Whole songs were built around air-raid sirens. I didn’t know whether to raise the roof or duck for cover.