In the fall of 1981 my older brother went off to university to study fine arts. He came home with blonde highlights and only the flimsiest facade of still being straight. He also brought home three mixed tapes. Somehow, these cassettes – whether through loan, theft or forgetfulness – ended up staying behind with me.
It was like hearing angels sing. Really cool angels.
Listening to “London Calling” for the first time.
Thrilling to the opening chords of “Rough Boys,” a song that launched a decade-long obsession with Pete Townshend and The Who but mostly Pete Townshend.
Whistling along to Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers,” convinced that the words were “she’s… so pop-ular…”
Kraftwerk, The Ramones, Talking Heads, “Fa-fa fa-fah fa-fa-fa-fa fah fahh!” What did it mean? Who cares? I loved it!
Some of these songs were two, three, even five years old. But you have to understand that I was a 16-year-old living in an AM wasteland of Kenny Rogers, pina coladas and fiddle music. If I was lucky, on clear nights I might be able to pick up a Halifax FM station whose idea of pushing the musical envelope was Dire Straits.
The music on these mixed tapes, on the other hand, mattered. I could just tell. Even the older songs resonated with me, including two by The Beatles: “Michelle,” because I had a terrible, doomed crush on a girl named Michele; and “The Long and Winding Road,” because I had slow-danced to that song with a girl named Deirdre Mackay that one time at violin camp. She claimed she was a punk and, if encouraged, would thrash about on the ground shrieking “Anarchy in the U.K.” She wasn’t a punk; she was from Pictou. But, oh, that miniskirt…
You’d be safe in assuming I was an angsty teen – forlorn yet so wise, sensitive but clearly a misunderstood genius. No surprise, then, that I felt profound melancholy in David Bowie’s “Quicksand” with its ego-deflating lyrics: “Don’t believe in yourself / Don’t deceive with belief / Knowledge comes in death’s release…”
I devoured it all. I played those cassettes over and over.
And then I did a foolish thing: I taped over them.
So long, Soft Cell. Adios, OMD. Seeya, Squeeze.
What was I thinking? It gets worse. I taped over them with jazz. Off the radio. Because that’s the kind of misunderstood genius I was.
This all came back to me this past weekend while reading Mercenary Researcher’s story about the importance of David Bowie in her life. When “Quicksand” popped into my head, I called it up on YouTube and, whoosh!, I was back in my childhood bedroom, headphones on, filling my journal with deepest insights. (“Maybe Michele would like me if I listened to more jazz!!!”)
Once this nostalgia had its hooks in me, there was no resisting the urge to try and recall the rest of the songs on those cassettes. Some were easy to remember because I’ve rarely heard them anywhere else: “Mirror Star” by the Fabulous Poodles; “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” by The Slits; a highly unnecessary remake of “Dead Man’s Curve” by Nash the Slash.
I emailed my brother to see whether he remembered the cassettes and could fill in the blanks of my nostalgic playlist (he did; he couldn’t). I even created an Internet stream and spent Sunday morning listening to it, bathed in the sweet, low light of hindsight.
I heard in that music my 16-year-old’s awareness of future possibilities: new tastes, new ideas, new me – “just a mortal with the potential of a superman.” My brother had returned from the frontier of adulthood with cassettes, and I claimed them as tokens for self-reinvention, just as he was bravely and honestly reinventing himself, although it would be a few years before he’d officially come out, at which point we would collectively reply, “Well, duh!”
When I left for university (perhaps not surprisingly the same university), I too reinvented myself, though not as dramatically as my brother (my brief jazz phase and unfortunate ponytail notwithstanding). My musical horizons continued to expand. But I don’t think music will ever again throw open the windows of possibility the way those cassettes did to that 16-year-old, back when everything was so important!
So here’s to the kids wallowing in their rooms, worrying about their futures, maybe agonizing over college applications and wondering who they will become. May they find some token for safe voyage to this new frontier and feast on the buffet of life’s vast choices – musical and otherwise. Just never, ever record over your old music, kids.
Update 20/02/13: Just remembered two more songs not in the playlist above [no longer available; thanks for nothing, Grooveshark] – “She Loves You” in German by The Beatles and “Why’d You Do It” by Marianne Faithful. Talk about caustic!
Update 03/09/13: And the hits just keep on coming! “Nyet Nyet Soviet” and “Metropolitan Life” by BB Gabor and “High School Confidential” by Rough Trade.
Update 26/06/15: “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” – The Clash