Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Confessions From The Living Room Floor

As has been clearly established without meaningful rebuttal in numerous episodes of  CHIPS, Hill Street Blues and Law and Order, when attempting to solve a crime it is useful to understand the origins and motivations of the criminal you are seeking.  This frequently involves talking to the former high school teacher, the neighbor across the hall who never really saw the suspect because he mostly kept to himself, the cheerleader's best friend who insists that "she was just a normal girl, like everybody else" or the junkie on the street corner who reflexively tells all to anyone with a formidable squint.

But just what causes an otherwise unremarkable and mostly-law-abiding middle-aged woman's sudden and unforeseen crime spree against all that is good and holy in the world of rock 'n' roll may never truly be understood or explained.  Still, perhaps if we retrace her steps, canvas the neighbors and menace the junkie, maybe we will find the hidden clues that were there all along.  Maybe if we can deduce the faint trajectory of deviancy early enough, if we can spare other friends and families the embarrassment and despair -- if we can save just one life -- perhaps, just perhaps, the bits and bytes of the grizzly MP3 carcasses that have been tossed so callously onto the shoulders of the Internet superhighway where any unsuspecting tender soul might inadvertently come upon them, perhaps they won't have died in vain. 


I remember the stereo cabinet my parents had when I was a kid in the '70s.  It was a big, long piece of furniture that must have been all in vogue at the time with it's burnt umber finish, California meets Baroque styling and deftly concealed hinged opening in the center of the top that revealed the secret compartment for the record player.  The speakers were cleverly ensconced behind the mysterious mesh that peaked through the flourished, doily-like wood carvings that comprised the doors on either end of the cabinet.  To my mind, the secret stereo cabinet was on par with Maxwell's sneaky shoe phone on Get Smart, except the cabinet won out because it was actually a real thing in my very own house.  Plus, you could tell it was fancy just by looking at all the swirly carving involved.  While the console pictured below isn't the way I remember ours, it gives you the general idea of the kind of craftsmanship we're talking about.


In no way aware of or deterred by the abundant design sins committed by a single piece of living room furniture, my favorite thing to do was to get a pillow from my room and lie on the ochre-hued shag carpeting in front of one of the speakers so that I could hear the music as loud as was possible in the days before Walkmans and iPods.  I felt the vibrations in my head and belly and it was easy to get consumed by the sound.  And, before I got older and developed that relentless self-consciousness that unfortunately seems to be part and parcel of getting taller (not that "tall" is any place that I've ever been),  I used to sing along.  Judy Collins, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Lettermen, the Kingston Trio and The New Christy Minstrels were in regular rotation and I loved them all.

But my all-time favorite, bar none, was John Denver.  I knew all the songs, even the sad ones that made me cry, like the one about the young lady who somehow got killed when the horse she was riding tripped.  ("Darcy Farrow" is the song, in case you can't immediately bring it to mind.)  I sang that song holding back the tears like a stoic Bette Midler sending Johnny Carson off forever with "One More for the Road."  (Sometimes, in my more emotionally unguarded moments, I let the tears out a bit; sort of like John Boehner giving a speech about anything to anyone.)  I loved "Grandma's Feather Bed", "Rocky Mountain High", "Calypso" and, of course, "Take Me Home, Country Roads":

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I belong
West Virginia, Mountain Mama
Take me home, country roads

Wikipedia: Take_Me_Home,_Country_Roads

As it happens, I had a case at work a few years back that required me to go to West Virginia on four separate occasions.  Each time I went, I contemplated the sentiment lodged in my brain by Mr. Denver decades earlier that somewhere out there it must surely be "almost heaven" - - just not where I happened to be.  I was prepared to trust John about the heavenliness and leave it at that when I discovered, ahead of my last excursion in the spring of 2010, that The Hold Steady would be playing in Morgantown during my stay.  Conveniently, Morgantown happened to be just 2 hours away from where I was camped out in Charleston -- nothing a rental car, caffeine and Mapquest can't get sorted out in short order.  So, I bought tickets online, hit the road and made the show.  Morgantown, being the home of the University of West Virginia Mountaineers, had the expected energy and character of a college town, which must be why THS chose it as one of the first stops on the tour for their then new album,  Heaven is Whenever.  There were maybe 125 people in the tiny bar and, frankly, it was pretty darn close to heaven if you ask me.  See, John Denver knows his shit.  I'm just sayin'.

From singing Denver on the living room floor, I eventually stood up and moved on to my own room with my own record player proudly purchased at Sears with my very own money.  My first records were the ones I saw on t.v. advertised by K-Tel.  One of the early purchases I still remember was called Expressions. It was a collection of love songs and break-up songs and I played it constantly.  It had a swirly, misty cover of pink and blue with "Expressions" in a curlicue font across the front.  What's a fifth grade girl not to love?


Then there was the teen idol phase of Shawn Cassidy and Andy Gibb that ran simultaneously with The Captain & Tennille phase that overlapped a bit on the Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever soundtrack stage that gave way to the Breakfast in America period.  Grease and Olivia Newton John were, of course, paid their due as well.

I also remember making lists in 6th grade of my top-five favorite songs and passing them to my friends in class with the understanding that I would get their top five in return.  Ring My Bell  made the list as did Eddie Money's Two Tickets To Paradise.  That was all well and good until the subject turned to boys (not at my suggestion, I might add).  Having successfully passed notes on numerous prior occasions, I dutifully penned my "Top 5 Cutest Boys" as requested and deftly passed it to my neighbor.  Or so I thought.  In what I have come to refer to as the "Horrifying Boy Incident of 1978," my list of the five cutest boys got intercepted by the teacher and read aloud to the class.  The reverberating and profound mortification from that experience still registers on my mental seismograph even today.   Jeff Simpson, Mark Sayer, Matthew Brown, Jamie Gilmore and a mysterious fifth boy that I have never been able to recall, I hereby, though quite belatedly, apologize for any objectification you felt as a result of my careless and insensitive note-passing.  I fully respect the unique qualities and complexities of each of you as individuals and never intended, in any way, to demean you or your gender by ranking you in order of physical attractiveness.  Really.  I think it was Stephanie Engler's idea anyway.

Being the first-born, I had no older sibling to show me the ways of hip or cool or "in" and "out" in terms of music or anything else, really.  My clothes were from Sears, my bruised shins from my younger brother and my haircut and wheatgerm-infused lunch from my mother.  Musically, I just took what I could find and was happy to have it.

By junior-high I graduated to the Columbia Record Club, as many of us did, which involved moving into the slightly harder drug of cassette tapes.   (Small, portable, playable in automobiles, the cassette-tape opened-up whole new vistas for music consumption and surreptitious, parental-free listening)  Of course, the 10 records (or cassettes) for a penny part was pretty easy, but that $17.99 price tag that followed immediately upon the failure to return the record of the month card  -- which, without any irony whatsoever, was how you were meant to tell them you did not want the record of the month -- was really hard to take.  ("If you want the selection of the month, do nothing and we'll send it to you in 14 days!")  Especially for a 13 year-old in 1980 dollars.  (This practice, by the way, is fondly referred to by the Federal Trade Commission as "negative option billing."  FTC: Negative Option Plans)

Needless to say, this "club" was the subject of many disputes with my mother, though to be fair, just about everything was the subject of many disputes with my mother.  Still, in this one instance I can see that she had a point.

I hit a heavy metal phase briefly in 7th and 8th grade.  I flirted with Molly Hatchet, ZZ Top, Van Halen, Pink Floyd and ACDC.  Back then, there were dueling metal stations in L.A.  Metalheads could choose between 94.7 K-M-E-T or 95 1/2, K-L-O-S.  KLOS had these cool bumper stickers with an oblong shape and bands of color around the edge and they could be seen all over town: 


KMET's stickers weren't quite as cool, though it was the more hard-core of the two stations:


But all of that changed toward the end of 8th grade when I was introduced to the up-and-comer from Pa-sa-de-na: K-R-O-Q:


KROQ (pronounced K-ROCK) was a phenomenon that shaped a generation of Angelinos.  It was L.A.'s very own Sputnik that shot into the stratosphere and dared others to follow.  Dr. Drew got his start there as did Adam Carolla, and Jimmy Kimmel.  Heck, even Elvira had a gig on KROQ.  But aside from the line-up of future late-night TV personalities, revolutionary format, and ground-breaking willingness to find and play music on the edge, what this station really offered was a chance to be part of something as it was happening.  It was a busted fire hydrant of music and energy that gushed into our heads unabated.  To me, it confirmed that I was not alone in my belief that music really was a door to another world.  Without a steady income or even a reliable allowance and with a mother who frequently displayed the same willingness to accommodate burgeoning individualism as, say, Stalinist Russia, KROQ was revolution delivered to your door -- free of charge.  I learned about bands like The Clash, Dramarama, Black Flag, The Alarm, The Dead Kennedys, The Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies and X when they were just breaking out.  And I was a nice girl from Pasadena who did her homework. 

In addition to the up-to-the-minute music that KROQ provided, I also embarked on a home study course in The Classics throughout high school.  Together with my best friend, Melissa, (though I called her "Mel" and she called me "Bob") we spent innumerable afternoons in my room, with the same record player purchased at Sears years before, exploring The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Don McLean, and Neil Young to name just a few.  Somehow, we felt obligated to fill in our ignorance of the original revolutionaries as best we could.  I remember literally listening to music for hours, pulling records out of their sleeves and trying to get the needle down on the favored song of the moment without any skipping or scratching.

The records themselves were acquired slowly and steadily in many pilgrimages to perhaps the greatest record store there ever was.  Poo-Bah's Records occupied every square inch of an old Pasadena bungalow on Walnut Street.  It was Mecca for music lovers, except without all the kneeling and praying and facing East part.  It was open late, had every kind of music ever recorded, encyclopedic staffers, and intriguing and obscure music playing in the background, all in an atmosphere of your uncle's attic -- creaky floors, posters on every surface, and the sense that if music really was a portal to another realm, then Poo-Bah's was the mother ship that would get you there at warp speed.  A genuinely independent record store, it essentially did no marketing, other than selling t-shirts like the one pictured below, and relied on the exuberant proselytizing of its extremely loyal patrons.  Some days you had to wait in line to get at certain album stacks.  Plus, they sold new and used, which was particularly helpful to those of us with six bucks to spend on a Friday night. 



[Note: this is a photo of the old Poo-Bah's from the Internet.  I don't have any idea who this guy is.]

Transportation to Poo-Bah's was most often provided by my friend Tom, without whom our egregious ignorance of rock's forebears likely would have gone unchecked until college.  (This may be the time to note that both Mel and I were young for our grade, meaning that we were literally the last two people in our class to get our driver's licenses.  Tom, you're the best!)  Once inside, the evening's entertainment was at hand -- a maze of albums through which to wander, posters to peruse, conversations to overhear and people to watch.  Cap it off with a midnight run to In-N-Out or Tommy Burgers and it was Pasadena perfection.


There's not much more to the story after that really, officer.

College happened which took me to Minnesota and right into the sweet spot of the Minneapolis sound.  So much has been written about the bands coming out of the Twin Cities at that time that its pointless to try and say anything more.  Bands like The Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum and The Wallets were just lying around all over the place like snow in the Minnesota winter.  (Not to mention that purple dude who was pretty big at the time too.)

I don't really know why we all like music so much, or at least most of us do.  Music loving varies, of course, not only by preferred genre but also by frequency of listening and depth of response.  Still, you don't come across many people who say, "I don't like music."  Whatever it is, it seems at its base to be a secondary communication system.  A way of evoking passion and contemplation that unaccompanied words struggle to equal.  Now, truth be told, I am not illiterate and I love books and reading.  I have been brought to tears reading a book and I have laughed out loud reading a book, but it's not quite the same.  Music, when done right, reaches its invisible hand right into the middle of you and grabs your guts -- usually in three minutes or less.  (It should be noted, however, that with some bands this can result in nausea and vomiting.  Once you have identified the bands that have this effect, however, they can usually be avoided without much difficulty, except, maybe, when one of their songs becomes the popular anthem for, say, the San Francisco Giants in their bid for the World Series championship.  I'm just sayin'.)

Now, I know after all of this you're wondering what the thing is, so here's the thing: it seems to me that our ability to access and respond to music or [insert the passion from your youth here] too often gets pushed aside as we grow older.  Our sources of optimism and inspiration get boxed-up and put away with the other tokens of childhood and adolescence in the name of even-keeled maturity.  Goodbye Kool-Aid, no more Nancy Drew and see ya later air guitar.  And while I like red wine, The New York Times, and a nice salad of beets and blue cheese over organic micro-greens just as much as the next liberal, urban professional, I think it is a mistake to discard so much of what made us who we are in the belief that things loved in childhood must be childish.

Like most of us, I have worked hard to hike to the top of Mt. Middle-Age, but I've found that while the view is very nice and certainly shouldn't be missed, the air is a bit chilly and there's mostly just a lot of standing around and looking at things.  I, for one, think it ought to be o.k. to hike back down every now and then and splash around in the stream where its warm and sunny and there are picnic tables with jugs of Kool-Aid and an iPod blasting someone's idea of good music.  Because, frankly . . .

I can't fight this feeling anymore
I've forgotten what I started fighting for
It's time to bring this ship into the shore
And throw away the oars, forever