Depending on your musical background, this entry may make you extremely happy/nostalgic or bored/alienated, as people usually love to read about cultural references they can relate to but get little enjoyment if they feel like they are not part of the club. If you are in remotely the same age group as me (I’m now 30), I hope that at some point while reading this you have a “yay, I remember that!” moment. Since I was quite young, music has always played an extremely important part in my life, and I’m going to now explain why that is. I hope music also plays an extremely important part in your life, or is at least somewhat significant to you. If music plays no role in your life, I pity you and would argue that your parents, siblings, friends and lovers have ultimately failed you. It was their job to introduce you to music, and by not doing so, you are missing out on one of the greatest gifts humanity has given to itself.
My earliest memory in life is of my third birthday. My present was a huge box, nearly the same size as me, covered in blue wrapping paper with little gray robots. I tore of the wrapping paper to reveal a Fisher-Price record player and the later half of the Beatles catalog on vinyl, from Revolver to Let it Be. For some reason, I was completely naked.
I cannot thank my parents enough for taking it upon themselves to introduce me to music at such a young age, and I’m not sure if there’s a better introduction than the Beatles. The Beatles will always be the greatest band in the world in my mind, and I still listen to them quite often today. I don’t think that there’s a single contemporary musician today that does not have the Beatles to thank in some way—they completely revolutionized music production, pop music, and pop culture. I’m getting all tingly right now just thinking about them.
At three years old, I did not understand that records were somewhat fragile, and that I had to be gentle with them and place them back into their sleeves after I was done using them. I left my Beatles records out on the floor, stepped on them, threw them like Frisbees, used pairs of them to make teepees for my He-Man figures, and all-in-all ruined them. Still, even when they were scratched and bent to the point that the music they produced was completely distorted, I listened to them nearly every day and had them all memorized by the time I entered first grade (except for Side 4 of the White Album, which included “Revolution Number 9” and thus scared the bejeezus out of me).
At some point I acquired a red Fisher-Price cassette player and my parents gave me cassette versions of the first 6 Beatles albums, from Please Please Me to Rubber Soul. They also gave me the soundtrack to The Big Chill and a Motown 20th anniversary collection. Combined with Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Talking Book and Hotter than July, which my parents kept on vinyl downstairs and would not let me listen to except under their supervision (they had seen what I did to my own records), I soon developed a taste for funk and soul.
Right around when I entered first grade, my main source of music shifted from my parents to my older sister. She was four years older, and obsessed with X100, the top 40 station in the Bay Area at the time. There are some songs from that era that I will forever associate with my sister—“Straight Up” by Paula Abdul, “Wild Wild West” by Escape Club, “Pure Energy” by Information Sociey”, “I Can’t Wait” by Nu Shuz, and pretty much anything by Madonna pre-“Like a Prayer”. As she got a little older, my sister grew bored with pop and got more into rock. She had early obsessions with INXS’s Kick and, of course, Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction when that came out. My parents wouldn’t let us watch MTV (which was on channel 15 at the time) but when they’d have date night at the book store we’d watch Martha Quinn and John Norris host Dial MTV with the top 10 countdown, keeping our fingers crossed that Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” would win for the 26th day in a row.
My sister quickly grew bored of mainstream music and started listening to Live 105, which played what was referred to at that time as “Modern Rock”, and included in its heavy rotation bands and artists like Depeche Mode, R.E.M., Devo and Billy Idol. Although these bands were not underground by any means, they were an alternative to the more popular (and poppy) artists of the time, such as Michael Jackson, Debbie Gibson, and a little later, M.C. Hammer, none of whom I was that into (it took me years to fully appreciate MJ; I didn’t really start listening to him until the Moonwalker video game came out). I listened to my sister’s copy of Out of Time and decided that R.E.M. was my favorite band. I wanted more R.E.M., but since they did not have any newer albums and I was able to get a copy of Green from a friend, I purchased a tape of Document from the Warehouse, a once-major record store chain that closed long ago. This was the first tape I purchased on my own.
My sister’s last major contribution to my musical upbringing, before I really started finding music by myself, was introducing me to They Might Be Giants in 1990 when Flood came out. You remember Flood, the epic album that included “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, “Particle Man” and “Istanbul was Constantinople” (yes, from Tiny Toons). My sister managed to get the whole family into TMBG and we used to listen to their self-titled album, Flood, Lincoln, Miscellaneous T (the oft-forgotten but totally dope remix album) and, when it came out, Apollo 18, on our long car rides, replacing the old tapes of the Beach Boys, A Chorus Line and other musicals (tits and ass!), Dirty Dancing, and Huey Lewis and the News’ Sports, all of which had been our go-to for long car rides for a good 6 or 7 years.
Shortly after Flood came out, Nirvana released Nevermind, and my life was forever changed. Never before have I been as obsessed with an album as I was with Nevermind, and never again will I be as obsessed. I bought it, of course, because I had heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Live 105 and thought it simply kicked ass. In fact, I used to listen to Live 105 as much as I could, keeping my fingers crossed that I’d hear that iconic guitar riff, signaling my favorite song. We now live in an age of instant gratification, where if you want to hear a song, you can just enter its title on youtube and you’ll most likely find a copy, but recall that there was a time when, if you didn’t own the cassette tape, the only way you’d hear the song you loved was to tune into the radio (or MTV, which at that point still played videos) for long enough until it came on. As with most things in life, the waiting made it far more rewarding when you actually heard the song you craved.
But as I said, I did eventually buy Nevermind, and I listened to the tape over and over again until it went bad. That’s right—went bad. You may not remember, but cassette tapes actually went bad if you listened to them too much—first a little static appeared, then the sound became more and more distorted until eventually all that remained was painfully grating, awful raw noise (which is what my dad thought of Nirvana even before all the distortion, and which of course made Nirvana all the more awesome).
Of course, just a month or two after I got into Nirvana, they suddenly became the most popular band in America, including in my school, and I quickly had to switch to hating them for selling out, and constantly reminding everybody that I was better than them because I was into Nirvana first. I would do this with several more rock bands, including Smashing Pumpkins (I owned Gish before Siamese Dream even came out), Pearl Jam (I was a die-hard fan of the Singles soundtrack, and “State of Love and Trust” is my favorite PJ song), and Red Hot Chili Peppers (I still think Freaky Styley is their best album). This began my period of music snobbery, during which I actively disliked pretty much nearly any music that was mainstream and contemporary. This period, which is sometimes a short “phase” for some people, has now lasted for around 18 years, and shows no sign of relenting anytime soon, as popular music continues to decline more and more into suckitude. Now there’s a great word from the early 90s for ya.
Speaking of the early 90s, that’s about where we are in this narrative, when hip-hop was reaching its apex with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Of course, I still couldn’t bring myself to enjoy popular music, but when the less-popular Bizarre Ride to the Pharcyde came out, I fell in love with hip-hop for the first time. A couple of my middle-school friends and I memorized that whole album, and used to rap it from start to finish when we would hang out together, even through high school. Hell, I can still probably do it today.
Sublime’s 40. Oz. to Freedom came out in 7th grade, and was the soundtrack to California for the next 7 years or so. Seriously, ask any Californian between the ages of 27 and 33 to list his or her top 10 albums from growing up and I bet this will probably come up more than any other record. In fact, just as any American male in the 27-33 demographic knows that the Konami Code is up up down down left right left right B A B A (select) start, any Californian male in that age range can bust out “we sold some mushroom tea, we sold some ecstasy, we sold nitrous acid opium heroin and PCP” with perfect syncopation (note: this may actually be confined to white suburbanites—somebody please confirm).
My final musical obsession was with Phish. A counselor at my Jewish summer camp introduced me to them the summer before 8th grade, and I used gift certificates from my bar mitzvah to first obtain Hoist, and then Junta, Lawnboy, Rift and Picture of Nectar. When I was 14, I went to my first Phish concert and it remains to this day one of my best concert experiences. My sister was living in Israel at the time and I had her send me that shirt you get on Ben Yehuda street with “Whatever you do, take care of your shoes” written in English and Hebrew. I started collecting and trading tapes of old Phish shows, reading books on Phish and posting on Phish message boards (and this was before message boards got big).
My Phish phase dissolved somewhat quickly, and by the end of high school I couldn’t stand them. I think part of is it that their music dropped in quality—Billy Breathes was worse than their previous five albums and Story of the Ghost was much worse than Billy Breathes. But also, I think I kind of outgrew them. When I was in middle school and high school I was very shy, especially with girls, and I think that one thing I liked about Phish is that they didn’t play any love songs that I couldn’t relate to; they were more into songs about lizards and mangos and whatever the hell “Scent of a Mule” was supposed to be about. Eventually, I was ready to listen to songs that dealt with more mature topics, and Phish’s nonsensical lyrics fell to the wayside, taking their 20-minute improvisational jams with them. I still occasionally listen to Phish for fun, but it’s mainly for a quick nostalgia fix. I have friends who are still die-hard Phish heads and it always boggles me that they’re still interested—aren’t you supposed to get over Phish by the time you turn 20?
When I got to college, I finally met a ton of people just as obsessed with music as me. Although our interests were different (I remained the stubbornly snobby one), I was exposed to a number of new musical genres and wanted to explore them all. Instead of listening to one album ad naseum until I had memorized every single word and note, I was content to listen a few times and then move onto the next one—I had too much catching up to do and there just wasn’t enough time to stop and smell the roses. Also, I think that as you get older, you don’t obsess over music and other forms of entertainment as much—you switch to obsessing over girls and eventually, if you’re unlucky, work and money. It’s not just music, but movies too—think about it, are there any movies you’ve watched more times than the original Star Wars trilogy or Princess Bride?
Although this new, more cursory approach meant that I was never able to re-create the obsessions I had with Beatles, Nirvana, or Phish, I still was able to go through a number of wonderful, life-changing musical phases. My aunt gave me John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme for my birthday and this began my jazz phase. I stumbled across a copy of the Clash’s London Calling and this inspired a punk phase. A friend clued me in to the soundtrack to The Harder They Come and this triggered a reggae phase that would carry me through law school. After going though most of life claiming that I hated country music (as so many from my generation do), I was introduced to Robert Earl Keen by a Texan friend and this led to a country phase. In my 20s, I expanded on the foundation laid by my parents with The Big Chill and went into a soul phase. There were more phases for other genres—Brazilian music, underground Japanese hip-hop, downtempo electronica, to name a few. I’m now reading The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse and I think it has inspired me to start a classical phase. Why the hell not?
I am always looking for more new music—or more precisely, music that is new to me. Discovering a new song, band or album that I love will always fill me with a sense of happiness unlike any other. I love sharing musical finds with friends, making mixes for people (I fear the day that CDs have gone the way of the cassette tape and I can no longer do this), and going to see live shows. And yes, I still have little interest in popular music for the most part, and am a little more judgmental than I’d like to admit when I meet somebody who is afraid to stray from top 40 radio. This is probably not changing—to quote Popeye, “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam.”
Although I love my jazz, soul, funk, reggae and punk from before I was born and think it’s better than any music made since, no music makes me happier than the music I grew up with, from the late 80s and early 90s. Then again, is it possible for any other music to have such a magical effect on us? If you haven’t done it recently, go back and listen to that stuff. Rock out to Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine or Downward Spiral (or, if you’re more alternative than that, Broken and Fixed). Pull out your CDs of Outkast’s ATLiens and Aquameni and remember how hip-hop was before Puff Daddy ruined it. Sing Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” at karaoke night and I promise you’ll bring the house down. Put Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” on the jukebox and watch as the eyes of that super-hot girl sitting two seats down from you at the bar light up and she says “oh my god I love this song!” Play the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” from your iTunes the next time you’re having a gathering of your friends and everybody will put their arms around each other and sing along, trust me. This is what happens. This is what our music does to us.
It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s why music always has and always will play an extremely important part in my life. Hmm, I realize that this post wasn’t as philosophical as I was planning for it to be. In fact, it was really just self-indulgent…but I hope it made you smile.
On that note of self-indulgence, or just indulgence in general, I will leave you with my favorite cover of the past 5 years: