|Side 1 – What Makes a man Start Fires?||Side 2 – The Politics of Time|
|The Smiths – Bigmouth Strikes Again||Violent Femmes – American Music|
|NIN – Terrible Lie||Social Distortion – Story of My Life|
|Descendants – Suburban Home||R.E.M. – Texarkana|
|Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – Happy||Pavement – Here|
|Bad Religion – Entropy||Minutemen – Do you want new wave…|
|Lemonheads – It’s A Shame About Ray||Pixies – Planet of Sound|
|Sex Pistols – EMI||Fugazi – KYEO|
|Firehose – Caroms||Jane’s Addiction – Ocean Size|
|Dead Kennedys – Trust Your Mechanic||The Cure – Inbetween Days|
|Replacements – Unsatisfied||Smashing Pumpkins – Siva|
|Nirvana – In Bloom||Teenage Fanclub – December|
|Joy Division – Disorder||New Order – Perfect Kiss|
|The Clash – (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais|
|Throwing Muses – Him Dancing||Made: August 13th, 1992|
When I was thirteen years old, I was incredibly cool. (Ahem.) So, naturally, I went to Boy Scout camp at a place called Wah-Tut-Ca in Northwood, NH. It was something to do, and I didn’t really mind all that much. To be honest, I didn’t really have a lot of friends, and it really beat hanging around the house with my mother. Because I went on a week that my troop wasn’t there, I had to stay in “Provo” – the provisional camp made of people gathered from other troops. (Sadly, though, this proposition is often about as exciting as the Utah town that bears its name. No, I’ve not been to Utah – but I’m pretty sure I don’t need to venture to the moon to know that it’s not “all sticky.” The reports I’ve read are pretty sound.) In one of those bizarre moments of cosmic alignment, this week would be special for two reasons. Apart from receiving my mix, I met a young, Dr. Who fan called Andy Hicks. As Andy is bound to get his own entry in this series, I’ll leave off talking about him overmuch. Suffice it to say, it’s a rare thing when you meet two people in a week that you will eventually go on to idolize.
The first was Mike. He ran the Discovery area, and was the coolest guy I’d ever met. Though he was a college student of nineteen, and I was a dork of thirteen, we actually got on very well. I became an unofficial member of the staff there, and would eventually become a part of life in the cabin. The first thing I remember about entering Discovery was the amazing sound of a live version of Green Day’s “Going to Pasalacqua” roaring from the speakers. I hadn’t really heard music like this, and I instantly fell in love with its hooks and fierce dynamic shifting. I felt a little awkward, but I just kept moving into the living area of the cabin so that I might get closer to the sound. It’s hard to explain really, and I feel silly when I think about it, but it was positively hypnotizing. Pushing aside the curtain after a polite knock, I found myself alone in the company of Green Day and Mike’s enormous wall of cds. (About 700, I think.) There were a few I recognized from my own collection, and a few from my Dad’s, but there were so many unknown names. Smashing Pumpkins? The Smiths? Joy Division? No idea. Being a bit of a lonely child, it didn’t really bother me to hang out in the back of the cabin and listen to songs while thumbing through an issue of Rolling Stone. I’ve never been cool, but I had the profound sense of being in the presence of things cooler than myself.
You know, like how it must’ve felt centuries ago in Greece when some lucky shepherd stood next to the first guy who looked at a goat and saw a book? Revolutionary and cool.
Eventually, the tape ended, and the second deck began to whir into activity. In that next moment, my life ended. The first few notes of “Mayonaise” by the Smashing Pumpkins came from the speakers. Another live recording (indeed, more than a year before the album’s release). I was positively mesmerized. Once the distortion kicked in, that was it. I had never really thought of distortion as beautiful. Of course, this was the Golden Age for that sort of thing, but it was simply beyond my experience. Sure, I’d heard Zeppelin, but it just wasn’t my thing. I preferred R.E.M., or the Beatles (though, technically, there’s distortion on Revolution #1). What it was about this moment, and what has captured me ever since, was the perfect merger of sound and feeling. The sense of the lyrics was the distortion was the essence. It was perfect and beautiful and I loved it. Of course, as with all young love, it was short-lived. A staff member called Brian – who, in order to give you a better idea of how we all loved him, was once referred to as “the most expendable member of the human race” to the objection of none, including his parents – came in and ordered me to leave the area. When he switched off the music, I thought I might die.
Obviously, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I went in search of the owner of the music, and was referred to Mike who, at the moment, was feeding snakes over by the terrarium. The area kept a variety of creatures for the benefit of kids doing various nature-related merit badges, and this tank held turtles and garter snakes. I introduced myself, and lamely asked what the snake’s name was. I was told that it was “Jane M Doe.” (1)Â “Why that name,” I asked. “Because she’s the most annoying person I know, and this is a pesky snake.” Fair enough. I mentioned the music, and Mike began to tell me about where the tape came from, and what he thought about the sound. He asked what I thought, and all I could say was: “I like it. I’ve never heard stuff like that before. (beat) I wish I could again.” And then he said: “I’ll make you a tape.”
Now, up to this point, I had never made a mix for anyone other than my friend Garen. At some point, we agreed that it was the sort of thing you should do for girls, and that it wasn’t really a “friendly” gesture. Still, there was something about the way Mike said it – and, of course, the fact that I was going positively insane to hear it again – that I instantly thanked him.
Poor Mike. I asked after that tape every minute I could for the next three days. Finally, once he said he had finally “struck a balance,” the tape arrived. We christened it by playing it in the Discovery area while sitting on the front porch to listen.
The first memory I have is this: On Mondays, it was customary to hold a fire drill at 4:50 p.m. At 4:43, on August 17th, 1992, the Econo Mix arrived at “Unsatisfied.” (On its second trip through.) There’s a siren towards the end, and it was great to watch everyone scatter out of the area and down to the meeting areas. I was just about to run when Mike told me to wait. He said he liked to play that song on Mondays, or, sometimes, “Kitchen” by The Lemonheads as it afforded the staff a chance to leisurely wander down to the meeting area once Discovery was free of scouts. Very clever, I thought. (Even if I had failed to remember the siren from before…) From that moment on, I took a profound interest in timing music to events. (Anyone who’s driven with me will attest that I often have songs end just as we arrive places – indeed, I measure driving distances in song lengths. Weird, but there we go.)
After the fire drill, and dinner, I got to talking to a staff member called Chris (whom everyone called Chico) from the Rifle Range, and he asked me about the mix that Mike had made. I showed it to him, and he said: “If you like that, then you’ll probably like this,” handing me another tape. It was a live bootleg of a Pearl Jam concert from L.A., and I was positively awed by it. “Black” will also have its own entry, and so I’ll set that aside. Nevertheless, this day was the beginning of a new life for me. I’d finally found entrance into a strange new world, and all of its paths were there for the taking. So very exciting to my young, naive self. Of the list above, I would say that I have a great love for the majority of artists represented – with special deference to Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure, R.E.M., Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, The Smiths, and Joy Division. Which, of course, is beautiful. Though, sadly, not without some serious consequences.
I’ve had the belief for some time, and my play is largely about this phenomenon, that a significant portion of the alienation and isolation that teenagers feel – particularly with respect of their parents – is the result of changes in their inner language. This being the product not only of usage, but of the aesthetic and artistic things that they encounter. Until the moment that I wandered into Discovery, I was largely the same as my father with respect to my musical vocabulary. As I’ve said in other posts, I had a pretty good handle on his thoughts simply by observing the music that he chose. And I suppose the same worked in reverse. (I recall a moment when he cheered me up just by playing Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up.” Being just the right thing for the time and place, I was instantly cured. I do miss moments like this more than anything…) This worked out in other ways, and we were generally able to exist in the same space without being uncomfortable as we shared a musical vocabulary. (Neither my father nor I could abide silence.) Sadly, my father didn’t warm to the Econo Mix, at least not all of it, and I was beginning to lose interest in much of what had come before. Our tastes change, and things come and go. Heck, some of my albums are specifically shelved until certain seasons of the year. (Ah, but when they do emerge… like “It’s A Shame About Ray” in April. Glorious.) I could sense, and it would later prove, that my father began to fear that he was losing me… and this changed our relationship.
Even so, I have to thank him for giving me the passion to care for and love the music that I now do. I have pursued my various interests, and plagued people like Mike (and later Eric at Cambridge), because I had those repeated doses of Bruce, Dire Straits, The Beatles, Zeppelin, and so on. And while we often diverged in our tastes beyond that moment, I like to think he was pleased to see his own passion take root in me. I knew, in a way, that I was walking a path he had gone down in his youth… and that this was a rite of sorts. Frightening, of course, but that’s the nature of chasing a muse.
I’m stopping there because I’ve realized something that’s hard to admit. When I had that first listen to the Econo Mix with Mike, I was sitting in my “Class-B” scout uniform, and wearing a baseball cap that sported Joe Camel. My mother had given this to me, and I never really thought about it because I liked the color blue. Also, this is still a point in time when your mom routinely bought your clothes, you know? Anyway, Mike said: “You know, that’s not a very good hat.” I asked him why, and he explained that it wasn’t the best thing to support tobacco companies. I thought about that, and the family members I knew who’d died from cancer, and I agreed. I was so incredibly embarrassed, but also possessed of an impulse to examine my life a bit further. The thing that’s hard to admit, I suppose, is that this was the first moment in my life that someone other than my father had caused me to really stop and look at everything. This was the first moment that I can recall where his hand wasn’t present in the way I grew. (At least, not directly.) The great difficulty in writing about this mix, then, is that it really is the crossroads between childhood and beyond. A real promethean moment, I guess. Once I had that Econo Mix, I had so much to learn… and I threw myself into this with a vigor I’ve almost never exhibited elsewhere. I was thirteen, and I knew I had found a true love in this strange, new music.
And now I sit here, wearing (by coincidence?) that same scout t-shirt and listening to, ironically enough, “Story of My Life,” and I’m forced to remember my first year of high school. Like everyone, I’d had a horrible time in Middle School. (Honestly, and I know this is controversial, I think you’ll find some people who lived under the Nazis that might empathize with the stuff middle-school kids go through.) Anyway, I felt nervous about what lay ahead, and so I brought my walkman and the Econo Mix. I thought that this would carry me through, at any rate. I knew that a couple members of camp staff would be at the high school, and I thought we might chat. The Mix proved a great conversation starter, and I began to gain some acceptance amongst the musical types. Luckily enough for me, the misfit ones. Anyway, it wasn’t long before someone said to me: “Hey, could you make me a tape?” I couldn’t believe it.
I didn’t really know what to do about the situation, as I was sure that any tape I would put together would be considerably inferior to good ol’ Econo. Still, I’d made a lot of purchases, and I was eager to try it out. Despite my shyness, I produced my very first mix that night (with the titles, admittedly, stolen from Econo). After that, I would go on to make and trade dozens. I loved thinking that there was a whole community that cared about music and the sharing of quirky, secret things. Pre-Web, the whole thing really was all about who you knew, and what their resources were. I made it a point to collect people from a wide variety of backgrounds for precisely this reason. The point is this: If I’ve ever given you a mix, and you’ve enjoyed it, then you should really be thanking Mike. He’s still out there. In fact, he’s teaching a course on punk, now. An actual university course in the Boston area.
The other thing that’s hard to admit? The one I hadn’t even mentioned?
Mike was my first hero.
It wasn’t my dad – even though he’d saved my life. (In hindsight, of course, this changes. When I was thirteen, it was just “his job” as dad. Lovely, but standard. Sigh… youth.) It was Mike. He rescued me from the boredom of suburbia. He gave me the urge to learn and explore, and to make my choices meaningful. He made me want to start a band, and we all know how that turned out… (count yourself lucky if you don’t – you never had to listen to the demo). And he showed me the beauty of distortion, and the truth about music: That it’s not merely for the ears, but the heart. And that if you’re listening right, it can take you right out of space and time to any place you’ve ever dreamt about.
And so, I leave you with this clip. It’s not perfect, but it feels like that long ago song. May it devastate you…
- Edited by Personal Request. [Back]