Do you know the Menards jingle? Two options:
- Of course I do!
In other words, you’re either from the Chicago area or you’re not. I am, and as we’ve been visiting my parents this week I’ve had many chances to revisit that particular aspect of my childhood.
More importantly, though: here are a few of the CDs and tapes that are hanging around in my childhood bedroom.
Bridges to Babylon, The Rolling Stones – I don’t know how old I was, it could have been anywhere from 8 to 12 years old, so let’s say that I was 10. I told my mom that I wanted to get a CD, so she drove me to the local Blockbusters — one of those Blockbusters that carried music. She trotted me in front of some salesperson who I was totally intimidated by. Then the Blockbusters guy asked, “So, what sort of music do you like?”
How didn’t I understand that I would need to prepare an answer to that question? I had no plan. None. I thought that I would walk into that store, ask for Music, and then be granted Music.
“Uhh…I like music where you can hear the words,” is what I said, which is stupid because there is lots of good music where you can’t hear the words, and in fact some of the best music exists in that sweet spot where you are 60% sure of what the singer is saying.
(Until a week ago, I definitely thought the Magic School Bus theme had a line that went like this: raft a river of blood!)
So Blockbusters guy handed me two CDs, and we bought them both. The first was The Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon.
The second was freaking the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which means that Blockbuster guy saw this little kid asking for music where you can hear the words and decided that he either wanted (a) one of the best albums from the best band of all time or (b) an irrelevant late-period album from one of the best bands of all time. What was that thinking? I wish I could talk to that guy, but I can’t because that Blockbusters isn’t there any more, so that guy probably had to get a new job.
Everclear, So Much For the Afterglow
This is from a few years later, and I was definitely getting closer to finding my musical tastes. I have no idea where I would have heard of Everclear, though my main sources of access to music were MTV, VH1 or the radio. Actually I have vague memories of the “Father of Mine” video on VH1, so that’s probably where this came from.
I remember spending whatever pre-teen money I had on the CD, bringing it home and putting it in the boombox. At first I really liked it. But after a few tracks (yeah) I realized (yeah) that every song (yeah) eventually turns into a chorus of yeahs (ye-ah). To the record with only one pop idea!
Various Artists, Wild Wild West Soundtrack
I swear, I can still do it! Let’s see how far I get…
Wild Wild West! Jim West! Desparado! (something), no you don’t want na-doe(?)…
…that wasn’t nearly as much as I thought I could do. Damn.
This CD was huge when I was at summer camp, which I think was when I was going into 8th Grade. I remember this one was on heavy rotation on our bunk stereo.
And it’s not bad, honestly. BLACKstreet, Dr. Dre and Eminem, Enrique Iglesias, let the rhythm take you over. 95% of the time when a bunch of 8th Graders get into a group they make worse decisions than any single individual would, but I’d have to say that this is the exception. Ridiculous as it is, this was my route into rap/R&B.
David Gray, A Century Ends, Lost Songs, White Ladder, A New Day at Midnight
My David Gray fandom as a teen is…not flattering. Here’s how it happened: starting around 8th Grade I started playing music with friends, i.e. in bands. I played keyboard/piano — at first a dinky one, and then a proper instrument. And this was terrific — I met a lot of people who liked music and played music with them.
This, though, I don’t know. Here’s what I’ve found: just because you are excellent at playing an instrument does not mean you have good taste in music. In fact, some of the most insufferable listeners of music I know are musicians because they’ll like a band that makes “interesting” but terrible music.
Anyway, David Gray is not “interesting” in any significant way, though he was recommended to me by a guitar player friend with terrible taste. (At least he did as a kid. Maybe he is reformed from his jammy, hippie ways.)
The only thing embarrassing about liking David Gray as much as I did was that, for a few years, I was a child whose favorite artist was charting only on Adult Contemporary. But, look, the guy has some good songs.
Most importantly, though, David Gray was probably the first artist who I liked partly because I knew his story. His first few records underperformed commercially (presumably critically also given the songs he wrote). He then, as a sort of last ditch effort, married his extremely acoustic balladeer sound with some simple synthy things and had a surprise hit (“Please Forgive Me”). The video involved a piano crashing, I think. Then he released Lost Songs, which gave his new fans a chance to hear all of his unpopular music — I dug it.
I remember an extremely embarrassing conversation with my father, on our way to a hockey game. Usually on our way to my hockey games we listened to one of the following dad-approved artists: Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Meatloaf, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan.
(All first-round inductees to the Dad Rock Hall of Fame, and to my heart. Except for Rod Stewart. Forget that guy.)
Anyway, the embarrassing thing I said was “You know Bob Dylan sort of sounds like David Gray.” And my dad sort of huffed and said, “No, that guy sounds like Dylan.”
Which is mostly embarrassing because, no? They don’t? The only thing they have in common vocally is that it’s sometimes hard to make out the words that they’re singing. As established, this was a major concern of mine as a young listener. Presumably that’s what I was getting on.
Matchbox Twenty, Mad Season
Do you remember at big music stores (which is what I was mostly frequenting) they had those CDs with headphones dangling and you could preview a CD but only while standing next to a pole that was also a CD player?
I do. I bought this at Barnes and Noble after hearing “Bent” on VH1.
Papa Roach, Infest [non-explicit version]
Man, so this is precisely the kind of kid I was. I was watching MTV and I saw the video for “Last Resort,” the hit single from Papa Roach about suicide. Now, I didn’t care about the lyrics — surprise, Blockbusters guy! — and I just knew that I didn’t have riffs like that in my life yet. Plus, it’s catchy, so sue me.
The pickle I was in was this: there is a lot of cursing on this album, and that was a no-no in my parents’ home. So…the intensely non-cool compromise was to order the non-explicit version from the internet, maybe the first purchase I ever made from the internet, come to think of it.
What’s sort of funny is they reword the lyrics insert so that there are no curses there either. Which means the lyrics page reads like this:
Cut my life into pieces / this is my last resort
Suffocation, no breathing / don’t give a (bleeped) if I leave my arm bleeding
This was the way my childhood was. I did all these things that should have been cool, and they even sort of sound cool if we speak in general terms. Once we get into the details, the details are never cool.
So for instance it’s true, I did play in bands all through high school, and we even got gigs. Cool!, you say. But then, ruining a perfectly good thing, I go on: yeah, we were a Jewish band, mostly playing on Purim or Channukah, mostly dancing music for classmates and our rabbis. We played a bar mitzvah once. We were a pretty big deal.
And also I played keyboards, the single un-coolest instrument you can play in a band. With conventional rock instruments, here is the ranking:
- Vocals (controversial ranking, but this is my experience)
- Are there any other instruments in the band?
- Piano keyboard
The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan
Here is where I start to get my act together.
I remember where I was when I first heard “Seven Nation Army,” which is not on this album (this is Jack White’s piano album, which I liked for obvious reasons). I first heard it in the dorms at my yeshiva high school (it had a dorm for the dormers) and I was with my friend Shmuel in Ariel’s room. Ariel wasn’t there, but he had a radio.
The radio was on and we heard Meg White’s drums come in. Boom boom boom boom. Steady, icky thumping, one after the other, relentless.
I just want to be clear: I never danced, but I swear to it — we were dancing around Ariel’s room. In the scene in my memory, we were just drumming on things, yes, yes! This is the stuff. Mainline it, please.
Goodbye, Everclear. So much for the afterglow.
And much more. That’s what I called music. This is volume 1. There is much more.