[25 April 2010]
I got my first tape recorder during the Carter Administration. It was black and flat, about the size of a shoebox. With its stubby buttons at one end, and its speaker stretching nearly the full length in the opposite direction, it resembled nothing as much as a large robotic paw. My friends carried around lucky rabbits feet. I lugged around my tape recorder.
I have no idea where it came from. Did my dad pass it down? Was it a gift? I really don’t remember. I have a vague recollection of one of those microphones you could plug into the side. Not the ball-on-the-top-of-a-large-stick variety, the flimsy kind preferred by game-show hosts that looked as if you could break them like uncooked spaghetti. This was a hearty microphone. Thick-cabled. The microphone itself was long enough for me to wrap one fist on top of the other, like I was gripping a bat. This was the model that presidents used to record their memoirs.
The microphone was my dad’s. That I’m sure of. When I wanted to record something, and didn’t feel like dealing with the external mic, I had to place the recorder’s built-in microphone as close as I could to my source. My source was always some other kind of audio/visual machine. I wasn’t the kid who would secretly record around the house and then play the embarrassing footage for company. Nor was I a budding investigative reporter, trying to figure out how my sister climbed out of her crib or where the cat went at night.
Instead, I’d turn the volume down to reduce the ambient noise and then put the speaker of the recorder as close as I could to the speaker of the television. I’d hush people when they came through. “I’m recording”, I would mouth. They’d mouth back “Sorry” and then tiptoe away.
I had two cassettes filled front to back with Grease. It was in heavy rotation at the time on the then fledgling Home Box Office network. Save for the few seconds that I missed when I had to turn the tape over every 30 minutes, I used to know every word of that movie. Pop it on right now and I’ll still know most of them. I didn’t understand why someone would just want the songs. I wanted it all.
* * *
Around this time we had a competition at school. I was in whatever grade at the time, and in order to keep us all tuned in to current events we were encouraged to bring in clippings from the paper about recent goings on. These were political times, even in Richmond, Kentucky, where a classmate, T.J. Mansfeld, would walk around singing “Because Jimmy Carter has a way of mucking up the U-S-A” to the Oscar Mayer wiener song.
Bad things were going down in Iran. I don’t remember why, but American hostages were being held there. Someone called the Eye-a-tola kept me up at night, with his long beard and skin as pale as a canvas. One of the prisoners launched a hunger strike, which happened to coincide with our current-events project. It was down to me and some other kid. That Friday—the last day of the project—my mom wouldn’t let me take in the clipping about the hunger strike because she hadn’t read the paper yet. I never remember her reading the paper once before that day. Apparently, my classmate’s parents either got up earlier or didn’t care about what was going on in the world because he brought in the winning clip from that morning’s edition. I lost. He was gracious in victory. The teacher told me “Good job” in front of the whole class.
That night we were at (I want to say) Target and my mom could tell I was still smarting from the day’s defeat. She took me to what was surely the scant music department—though it felt like a city block at the time—and told me I could pick out any tape I wanted. I chose Hall and Oates’ H2O. I wanted “Maneater”, though “Family Man” eventually became my favorite song.
On the way home, I asked my mom, “Do you know what ‘H2O’ means?” She said, “Water”. I said, “No”. She said, “It doesn’t?” I said, “It means ‘Hall and Oates’”.
H2O added a whole new layer of mystery to my tape recorder. Unlike the safe models that included completely separate “play” and “record” buttons, my recorder featured a small red “record” button that was embedded in the “play”. This design was intended to make it easier to record, but the last thing my inexpert hands needed was to be able to record more easily. With the “play” and “record” buttons fused, I ran the risk of over eagerly hitting them both when I only meant to hit the one. The splayed “play/record” feature would have forced me to make a concentrated effort. But even that wouldn’t have solved all of my problems. Too easily I fell victim to accidental interruptions with my homemade soundtracks. John Travolta would be in the middle of scolding his dance partner in Saturday Night Fever, and then whoosh, my brother would come storming in. “Ryan!” I’d whine. “I told you I was…” and then by the time I had shuttled him out I had missed half a Bee Gees song.
But H2O was different. Even if I tried to push the record button it wouldn’t go down. One of the older kids on the block, Todd Something (he had a brother named Tad Something), told me it wouldn’t record because of the two hollow spots on the top of the cassette. He said if you put tape over them it would record just like any other tape. I didn’t believe him, but that didn’t prevent me from trying. That night, I covered the hollows with tape, found some extra space at the end of Side 1, and sure enough I was able to push both buttons all the way down.
This freaked me out, so I pushed “stop” pretty much immediately, but not before my sense of wonder had crashed this otherwise professionally recorded tape, the tape for which my mom had paid six whole dollars. I hit “rewind”. I hit “play”. “Cool”, I said back to myself.
The black-box style recorder served me well all the way through the beginning of Reagan’s second term. By this point, we had moved cross-country from Richmond to San Diego. It was fall. My birthday was coming up. It was bound to be a good one on account of the guilt my parents felt for moving us so far away from our friends. I was not disappointed. The guilt paid off.
For my birthday that year I got what was then known as a “box”, which was short for a “boom box”, which was another name for “ghetto blaster”, a term that always had more than a hint of racism for me, or maybe it was that the people who used it were more than a hint racist. The box set my parents back $60. Even now, this seems like a lot to me.
Not that it wasn’t worth it. This bad boy was silver, with a tape deck that was flanked by two speakers that gave the mutha wheels, I tell you. The range of radio frequencies stretched along the top. A switch let me choose between AM, FM, or cassette, but best of all, if a rad song came on the radio, I could hit record and have the song for all time. The record feature was of the splayed variety, but I only had to push down the “record” button and the “play” would magically follow. What’s more, if I hit “pause” (!) after hitting record, I could suspend the recording process. Three buttons would be depressed until I hit “pause” again and released them all. This enabled me to record songs with only the slightest touch. I would listen to 103.5 (five songs, 103 times a day!) and wait for “Mr. Roboto” or “She Works Hard for the Money” or “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (still a favorite) and in as much time as it would take my hand to react I would be recording. The quality was light years beyond my recording-from-the-television method. I was creating my very own Now That’s What I Call Music.
The box loomed large in my room. It was the biggest thing I owned. There was no room for it anywhere other than on my windowsill. On days when I was listening to music and Dad was in the yard he would holler “turn that thing down, you think people want to hear that when they’re trying to relax outside?”. It was the aural equivalent of “shut that window we don’t need to air condition the whole neighborhood”.
My ghetto blaster was not allowed to blast.
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.
I always thought that this was rap’s genius: taking the sounds of the street and turning them into art (says the white boy from the Heartland). While walking the streets of New York, however, albeit Manhattan, I realized that the relationship between the sound and the city was more complicated than that. These sounds were less to be incorporated and more to be overcome. Strumming your gee-tar is one thing if your audience is the well behaved and attentive bunch that frequents coffee shops, but if your audience uses the street corner as their living room (with a nod toward The Wire for crystallizing the point), then your sound better rise above. Strumming isn’t going to cut it.
This is how in those grid-walking days I found myself consumed with Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, Jay Z, the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Clipse, Ludacris, the Beastie Boys, and Run DMC. Curiously, I eschewed the West Coast rap I had grown up with. I wanted no part of Dre or Snoop or Ice Cube. Fairly or not, I associated that with car culture. Impalas and hydraulics. Dragging Crenshaw. I mean, I saw Boyz n the Hood. I understood the scene. What I wanted was city music. Nothing smooth. Big beats. Something to cut through all of the shit.
I thought about my boom box abandoned years ago I know not where. It’s state-of-the-artnesss stubbornly refusing to decompose somewhere. I realized that, as bombastic and overwhelming as it seemed to me at the time, it was really just a tame version of the beasts that roamed the street. Beasts/beats. The box’s ancestors are the sound of community. The version in my room a stunted incarnation of the original, damned to record the filler between commercials. If it was a Pixar movie, the story of my boom box would have been its escape from the confines of my bedroom and the freedom it felt back on the streets where it belonged. I was ashamed of myself for not defying my dad. The least I could have done was turn it around in the window.
The irony, of course, was that now that I was closer than ever to the source of the beats that gave purpose to stereos across the land, I was listening to them through earbuds. Here I was drawing grand conclusions about the symbiotic relationship between the city, the technology, and the music, and I was bypassing the streets themselves in favor of pumping the music directly into my own ears. This social experience monopolized. Those irrepressible beats domesticated.
I’m a house party of one.
I’m loathe to admit where I’ve gone from there and in such a short amount of time. Earbuds for me are already as much a part of the past as those Walkman that would let you play side two without even flipping the tape over. In their place are these headphones that make me feel like I have two pillows strapped to my head. They’re Bose. Padded with the first locks of a newborn’s hair. Silver like a car James Bond would drive. Together with my 80 gig iPod Classic, they are the sexiest things I own. What can I say? Even Nation of Millions grows stale when it’s been out too long.
The wife got the headphones for me for my birthday a couple of years ago. She’s in the city now, after only a year of that other ridiculousness. When she gave them to me she said, “If you get hit by a car because of these I’ll kill you.” Her logic is a little faulty, but her point is well taken. These things void the city completely. I no longer miss a word of “This American Life” when the train pulls into the station. What’s more, I wear them constantly. I’m the asshole who keeps them on when he steps onto the elevator. If I was on the elevator and I saw me get on, I’d hate myself.
* * *
Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes. Sensitive boys with guitars and beards. What breakthrough story have you heard in the last year that didn’t start with “Well, we just took a bunch of songs with us to a cabin in the woods and when we came back out we had a record”? I guess you could listen to this stuff in the car, but not with the windows rolled down. I guess you could listen to it in the living room, but not if you wanted to talk about it. I love that new album by the Antlers, but unless I’m mainlining, I can’t hear half of what that fucker says, and even then it’s only every fifth word. In all of those nights listening to music together, Dana and I never once said, “Hush!”
These bands demand that the listener matches their introspection. They don’t want to sing to you as much as they want to whisper into your ear.
* * *
As if this isn’t bad enough, I’ve also recently been told that my disappointment with a number of high-profile recordings is the result of me not listening carefully enough through my headphones. As if the headphones are a prerequisite for truly enjoying the album. I’m as bad as the people who saw Avatar in 2D.
When I dare balk at the genius of Animal Collective or the Dirty Projectors or the new Flaming Lips, I’m told, “You really have to listen to it through a good pair of headphones. It sounds so much better that way.” The sad thing is that they’re right. Embryonic is a perfectly fine listen coming through my speakers at home, but it’s downright symphonic when I get it one-on-one. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a fair amount of intense headphone scrutiny during last year’s mono vs. stereo debate with the Beatles re-issues (the audiophiles are right, the mono is better).
Yet I still can’t shake this sense of loss. Unless I go to a show, I don’t listen to music with people anymore. My 18-month-old son and I usually do a slow dance before bed—“Tender”, by Blur, is as soporific as any lullaby—and my wife and I will crack a bottle of red with the latest Dylan or Andrew Bird release, but otherwise it’s just me and the music.
The cruelest part of all is that music has never been more available. I have bands on my iPod that I’ve never heard of. I don’t even know how they got there. I land on them twice a year, consider deleting them, then think No, what if I like them, and then forget about them until I discover them again six months later and start the whole process over. But can you blame me if stuff gets oozed ached over and then forgotten? There’s scarcely time to digest the Next Big Thing Before the Next Bigger Thing comes along.
But there’s a difference between sharing files and sharing music, a difference that had never been starker for me than it was last Thanksgiving.
My wife and I took our son out to San Diego. Dana had never met Jonah. I had never met the second of his two boys. Simply put, it had been too long.
We were there for five days. The time was packed with family, yard work, preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, going to the park, playing Wiki. One night we did get out to Soma for some live music, which was cool. Every time we sat down to listen to some music, however, we were interrupted or it just didn’t take for one reason or another.
Then, on the last day, my bags were packed and by the door. Dana fires up the computer and says, “Here”. He accesses an external hard drive, scrolls through, and tells me what’s worth it, what’s not, and what he hasn’t heard yet. The volume is astounding. Everything the Rolling Stones ever recorded. Everything by the Kinks, the Ramones, the Beatles, Metallica, AC/DC, Zeppelin, the Cure. Albums by Holly Golightly, the Muslims, Preston School of Industry, Daft Punk, the Jam, A Tribe Called Quest. He’s into this ‘70’s rock thing right now, so there was some Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, Boston, Seals and Croft. I can’t tell if he’s being ironic or earnest. I think earnest. He’s embraced his role as a family man, and I think it’s of a piece. Family man. Somehow in the end it all comes back to Hall and Oates.
As I faced all of that music, I couldn’t help but think about those all-nighters from before. What we wouldn’t have given for such access. Back then, victory was hearing your favorite song on the radio. We’d coerce our parents to drive us 20 miles for a rare recording, an import. And now it was all here, right in front of me. Just a click away.
A click and a drag.
Then I could listen to all of this music all by myself.