It's never something known fully at the time - when you're busy living your life, the possibility of stopping to look around is mostly not an option - but there are times that shape and scar your mental landscape so vividly that their impact isn't fully realized until years later.
See, I embarked on something kinda new for me a few months ago (check the, um, reviews in the back of the pdf for my by-line on a few). It's been a challenge, but a good one, although nearly every time I rack my brains trying to come up with ways of describing what I hear (and wonder why I jumped at doing album reviews in the first place in the low points of the process), I discover more and more about the prism through which I see today's music.
1989: My family moves me from sprawling metropolitan Houston to small town Pennsylvania at what I felt was the worst possible time. Sixteen, missing my friends with every fiber of my being, I find some solace in watching MTV on cable - something I never had access to unless I went to friend's houses back in Houston - getting a subscription to Rolling Stone, and getting to know my dad's record collection better than he did. My parents, one New Year's Eve, watching The Last Waltz, were racking their brains trying to figure out which band was the main attraction. "Who are these guys?"
"Dad, you have their albums. It's The Band."
"They're right here, Dad," I say with teenage exasperation, yanking out the Brown Album and Stage Fright.
I go through the rest of my high school years convinced that, by and large, popular music is kind of a wasteland except for R.E.M., most early-'80's era music coming out of Athens, Georgia, Neneh Cherry, Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants, and early Violent Femmes. My suspicions are confirmed when I go to my first concert, a double-bill of Squeeze and Katrina & The Waves, after a friend urges me to go see a band that's still playing music, not one that's alive only on records, tapes, and posters like the Beatles or the Who. I admit that it was good to dance to but it didn't really speak to me any more than that. It's okay to dance, don't get me wrong, but man, did I want more.
This past Saturday, I turned on NPR and heard snippets of this interview. Later on, that same day, I saw this post, and could not believe how freaking old I felt. 1991? It's been that long ago? Don't tell me that. '91 was the beginning of the process of my busting out of the small town I'd been held in for two years, the home of those who expressed surprise that I'd actually made plans to go to a college outside of Pennsylvania. Yes, the world was bigger than the Keystone State, and it was certainly much larger than my parents' house. Location, location, location...
And if what I'm going to say next sounds like a cliche, well, it happens to be one that has truth behind it. Not much gets the kids into music more than location, and that goes doubly so for kids attending art schools. All-day studios three times a week, homework designed to make you nearly lose your head (you don't want to know about how horrible designer's gouache is), and terrible cafeteria food combined to make the freshman dorms a holding tank for all sorts of crazy doings at all hours. When clandestine underage drinking wasn't going on (all you had to do was look in the recycling bins in the trash rooms to see that it was, in fact, happening), all sorts of furtive sex, some drug use (and hey, wasn't it great that Spray-Fix, a relatively cheap high, was pretty much required in freshman foundation?), or random acts of public art and public annoyance (woke up to two of those: both the upper and lower quad covered with masking tape outlines of people, animals, and bikes one morning, and then sixty people drumming in the lower quad at 3 AM), the next best release was music.
If you could afford going to shows after blowing loads of money on art supplies for your courses, you went. If you couldn't, you got hold of albums wherever you could - if you hadn't already brought a ton of them with you - and you blasted them as you worked in the super-messy dorm studio spaces. The Doors would beat against Blues Traveler shouting down Bob Marley, melding into that Julee Cruise/Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks music my roommate would play ad nauseum when she wasn't watching my copy of When Harry Met Sally... on our VCR practically every time I walked into our room (I still can't watch that movie all the way through), folding into De La Soul, Public Enemy, the latest U2, and some Metallica screaming down another hall where, when two guys discovered they were in the room a rock star briefly stayed in during his time at the school, they somehow determined which side of the room his bed had been on and positioned their beds against that same wall to "pick up his vibes." Jane's Addiction vied for attention with Black Flag, Sonic Youth, the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, the latest R.E.M., the Flaming Lips, and Helmet. The effect of walking through the halls was sometimes schizophrenia-inducing; I wasn't entirely sure which music was out to get me more, or which I wanted to carry me off, for that matter.
Once I got hooked on glassworking, I didn't have much of a choice. If you had a blow slot for three hours, one of the best ways to cut the roar of the furnaces was to blast the hot shop stereo. Second or third year glass students would usually monopolize it - one trio would constantly get the Allman Brothers or the Pixies on; I liked the latter better than the former - but the default was always the local indie station, where so many more sounds were piped directly into our brains as we kept hot glass from falling off stainless steel blowpipes and got better at shaping it into vessels and other art works. It thus seemed much more than serendipitous when some of those sounds were coming out of one of the great studio glass Meccas of the 20th century. Seattle was it in no small part because one man with an eyepatch decided to establish a couple of Glass Wonderlands, one of 'em by Puget Sound, another 50 miles north of Seattle proper, where the first students legendarily braved the rain and the damp, raced banana slugs in what little spare time they had, and slowly, steadily built a school for generations of other glass artists.
I finally got to the Mecca to do mostly what I'd been doing up to that summer: work away with my favorite medium. The Pilchuck campus was beautifully isolated and very dry that summer, the only trip into Seattle was to see Chihuly's Boathouse studio, and the only music I remember hearing in the hot shop was Professor Longhair, Morphine, the Iguanas, and Ween. The imagined Pacific Northwest shone so much more brightly back at my art school on the East Coast - the reality was a gas station barista getting pissed off at me because I didn't order a cappuccino the way she thought I should. No wonder Kurt Cobain wrote the kinds of songs he did.
Life went on after that, as did the music. I found I liked Pearl Jam's second album much better than their first, that Nirvana's Unplugged was better than their regular albums in some ways because of their versions of great tracks by the Vaselines, the Meat Puppets, and Bowie, and that I really preferred Hole to Bikini Kill. My time with glassworking flamed out, but my love for music never did.
So, hey, bear with me as I try to decide whether to be shocked or pleased that some of these guys and gals are still making music - or not, as the case may be - and I find some new stuff that may or may not be to my liking. This is supposed to be fun, I'll tell myself as I rack my brains once again over how to put music into words. Fun - or obsession?
I'll get back to you on that...