Sunday, May 22, 2011

My life in music, part two

As I got older and supposedly more sophisticated, I was pretty much glued to the radio.  Due to my limited music-buying budget, I used to lie in wait on Saturdays with my portable tape recorder (a birthday gift from my folks).  Whenever a favorite song would come on, I'd pounce, hitting "record" and "play" as quickly as possible.  No high-tech recording in my world; I certainly had no intention of doing anything illegal with those songs.  I don't remember if I ever listened to those tapes. I think the point of them was simply having the songs in my possession, so to speak.  In fact, I may still have a box of them.  I'm sure they're as full of static and the sounds of me telling my sister to shut up as they are of the music I was so obsessed with.

This was also the era of the K-Tel collections, which were mostly sold on TV.  As I discovered when I bought one, they were indeed crammed with current hits (much like the Now That's What I Call Music series).  Of course, there were 20 songs squeezed onto a 12-inch vinyl LP...which meant that all the songs lasted about 2-1/2 minutes, whether their running time was actually that long or not.  The thing I remember most about that collection was Rod Stewart's version of the Sam Cooke song "Twistin' the Night Away."  I'd never heard the original at that point, so I had no way to compare, but I liked it then and still do.

I became a devoted fan of the American Top 40 program, hosted by Casey Kasem, which aired on Sunday mornings (usually winding up about the time we got back from church).  What fascinated me in particular was hearing songs that were never played on radio where I lived.  Since the Top 40 was meant to represent airplay on a national level, it was yet another way I was able to discover new music. It was weird to find that a song I'd never heard on local radio was in the Top Ten nationally.  And it was exciting, every week, to witness the rise and fall of various songs, some I loved, and some I probably haven't heard or thought of since.

When I was in middle school, I had a peculiar habit: I kept a notebook in my locker with song lists.  If you're on twitter, you know how occasionally people will post their song of the day?  I've always found that amusing, like it's a new thing.  Well, that's what my notebook was, a listing of my songs of the day.  I figured, my head was already filled with music; why not allow myself to concentrate on one particular song all day long, which would be the background in moments not occupied with other thoughts (like those pesky school assignments)?  It's almost like I was trying to create a soundtrack for myself in those pre-portable-music days, kinda like when people say they'd want a certain track as their "theme song."  (We obviously have a pretty inflated view of ourselves nowadays.)  

I had no such opinion of myself; I simply lived in my own head quite a lot, so, just like my room, I wanted it to be filled with my favorite things.  Had they existed, I definitely would've been one of those kids who'd be attached to an mp3 player, wearing my earbuds during passing time and in study hall.  As it was for me, my greatest pleasure was listening quietly with those great big headphones (known as "cans" in recording studios) if I was down in the living room, or lounging in front of the record player if I was in my own room.  I recall having my friend Susan over one weekend.  She was a pretty quiet girl, not unlike myself, and I smile even now to think of the two of us, reading and listening to music, not really talking at all, or feeling the need to do so.

Speaking of reading, one of my obsessions with music meant that I had to know all the words.  It drove me insane when I wanted to sing along and didn't know what to say.  This is the kind of evil that spreads those infamous "misheard lyrics" far and wide, causing unintentional hysteria amongst the masses. Of course, part of the power of music that you like, and that your parents don't like, is that they can't understand the words either.  You have the power if you know the words, both for singing along and for the joy of getting it.  And as we all know, getting it is everything.  And so Hit Parader magazine became my new best friend.  Not only did it feature lyrics for all the great songs I'd hear on the radio, but it had amazing articles by Lisa Robinson, Legs McNeil, and even Wayne County.  (If these names don't mean much to you, you're too young to be reading this and should move on to something else.) 

Talk about living vicariously: Lisa Robinson was a denizen of the NYC downtown scene, hanging out at places like the fabled Max's Kansas City, and later, CBGB's; Legs McNeil was a gonzo reviewer cut from the same cloth as the late Lester Bangs; and Wayne County was...Wayne, and was later Jayne.  She was originally he, and from the South, where they apparently didn't cotton to boys who dressed like girls.  This was mind-blowing stuff, but it also opened my eyes to a world I could only hope to join.  Lisa...I wanted to be her: the first Aerosmith interview I ever read was by her.  The article started out, "Aerosmith is a punk rock band."  This before punk was an actual form of music.  Legs: I wanted to meet him (and Lester Bangs, for that matter) and listen to him talk music.  And Wayne/Jayne...I would like to have seen her perform.  The love of all those people and what they stood for came to fruition when (years later) I happened upon an LP called New York New Wave, which featured the song "Max's Kansas City", performed by Wayne County and (his) Backstreet Boys.  Wild shit, and an entree into the music I'd missed by being so young then.

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