Essential Criticism

Cole has taken our nostalgic reflection on pop music into new realms.  Great post.

So I move into this next installment a bit like a warm-up band that showed up late. And my sense of feeling warmed over is connected to what Cole and Matt address in their recent commentaries—that we find our love of pop music through friends and social networks we develop when we are young, as teenagers and college students.

I make this observation at just about 54 years of age, fully aware that my guitar hero days are behind me. But I still love the music, continue to crank it up on my iPod when I am at the gym (despite the hearing loss I’ve already endured), and look forward to our Friday afternoon show on WRMC. One of the benefits of the WRMC gig is (as it always has been) is the ready access to new music. However, the music in a college radio station is of a certain variety, and to get beyond what’s on the shelf—whether it be indie, hip-hop, electronica, or whatever—you have to look elsewhere.

So where do you go?  I mention three sources below, but want to encourage readers to chip in with suggestions, because I know how limited this list is.

1) Metacritic

I am a huge fan of Metacritic, and have been for several years. It assigns a grade to new music (and films, tv shows, and video games), based on an average of ratings given to published reviews of just released albums. For me, this is the best of both worlds: you get the general (meta) assessment, plus you can drill down for specific reviews of a given album.  The range of music on the site is impressive, and recently they’ve taken to highlighting the best albums of the month. I’ve also used their database to load my Netflix queue with all those great films I would never knew about if not for Metacritic.

2) The New York Times Popcast

This downloads to my iTunes account every week (you can subscribe, and it’s free), and includes conversations with Times reporters about the latest music. You get reviews, interviews, and the occasional music performance. I enjoy the critical discussion—how does one talk and write critically about pop music?—and I have picked up some great suggestions from listening to it. Plenty of variety and always informative.

3) Paste Magazine

This online magazine is pure pop, and the site speaks for itself. Lots of reviews, lists, and other good stuff (not just music).  Thanks to Matt for suggesting it a couple years ago.

101 Middlebury Music Memories

  1. 28-29-12 (WRMC-FM mail drawer combination)
  2. Discovering Nirvana via a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” CD5 in the ‘RMC office discard pile
  3. Hardcore fan Jon D. only listening to Quiet Riot and The Cars when drunk
  4. A pair of size infinity white men’s briefs tacked to the wall in the ‘RMC office
  5. The guys from mid-Atlantic shoegazing outfit Smashing Orange chasing each other around McCullough in a snowball fight before their show
  6. Jesse C.’s black, high-top Reboks
  7. David A., AKA Wishus, performing Q-Tip’s rap during TBA’s cover of “Groove is in the Heart”
  8. A summer job at ‘RMC that in practice consisted of sleeping off the previous night’s errors in judgment on the station lounge couch
  9. Pocket Monster, LOUD, in the basement of the Mill, with future star Kid Millions on drums
  10. “Dis iss Entombed. You ahhr lissening to W-AHH-MC, de sickest station in de nation!”
  11. The mixtape from Matt H. that first introduced me to the Wedding Present and other strains of MattMusic
  12. Despite my newfound immersion in college rock, picking the Stones’ Sticky Fingers as the best ever all-around rock album for a Middlebury Campus story; on 20 years’ reflection, it would still rank in the top 5
  13. Watching the blizzard of ’92 from my top floor Voter window, soundtracked by Galaxie 500’s On Fire, esp. “Snowstorm”
  14. Walking down to Sound Source to buy Nevermind, then ripping it out of the cardboard long box and turning it over in my hands as I returned to campus
  15. Taking a sad field trip to the local classic rock station to help pick up their turntables after they “upgraded” to a satellite feed and 100-disc changer filled with greatest hits collections
  16. Falling in love with the Mancini soundtrack to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil
  17. Playlists, with a request to spin at least 30% new music
  18. A bag of vacuum-packed cow meat sent as a promotion for the Eugenius album Oomalama; seeing it tacked to the office wall and watching it turn blue with rot over the course of a semester
  19. The blue eyed soul of ‘RMC Classical manager David S.
  20. Staring at my lava lamp to the tune of “Higher Than the Sun” by Primal Scream, on repeat
  21. Absorbing everything by the Replacements and Red Hot Chili Peppers in Dave A.’s room in the Allen pit
  22. Gordon Gano in the UVM gym bitterly complaining, during the set, on the injustice of the Violent Femmes opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers
  23. The 10 seconds it took to figure out that the new, anonymous white label 12” we were playing was in fact “Gett Off” by Prince
  24. Jane Voss & Hoyle Osbourne’s “Sparkle and Shine”
  25. Being called at 2 AM by Shawn H. to get up, come across campus to drink with him and listen to Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss; doing so
  26. Putting the final Replacements EP Don’t Buy Or Sell It’s Crap in the studio new bin only to see it stolen within 2 hours
  27. Hearing the Indigo Girls “Closer to Fine” everywhere I went, despite all efforts to avoid it
  28. Memorizing the lyrics to Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise”
  29. Sa-Sa-Samantha Fox, in a chain mail minidress on a memorable office poster
  30. Fulfilling my responsibilities as ‘RMC Rock Manager by listening to 30 seconds of two tracks on an album before declaring it awful and using it as a Frisbee—times 1,000
  31. Making out with a girl on the studio lounge couch after getting caught in a rain storm together
  32. Damon H.s’ hip hop show
  33. My post-Rattle & Hum disdain for U2 slowly melting before the undeniable power of Achtung Baby
  34. Dickie Barrett of Mighty Mighty Bosstones starting their McCullough show by sneering that he liked playing for real people, not college kids
  35. Jon D.’s punk rock friend Tim from Boston, who loved the band The Cows so much he had a Holstein tattooed across his entire back
  36. Hevvy Haig
  37. Campus hardcore band Viet Nun playing “Breed” by Nirvana in the student center
  38. Jesus Cricket’s “I’m In Love with the Phone Mail Lady”
  39. Giving records a 1/3 turn back to cue them up
  40. Dan H. in the ‘RMC lounge, debating whether he’d prefer a tattoo of the Underwood Deviled Ham devil or the Fresca logo (that’s not him in the photo, BTW, just proof that this is a big, big world)
  41. The Goo Goo Dolls concert in the SDUs; openers Jesus Cricket covering Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” complete with camera sfx, and “Step On” by Happy Mondays
  42. Three years on the air with David A., in progressively more humane time slots
  43. My first baby steps into jazz appreciation
  44. Being impressed that classmate Bill O. quit football for rock and roll
  45. Getting a 5 lb bag of soil from the band Alice in Chains, and only realizing weeks later that buried inside was their new album Dirt
  46. Embarrassing clothes worn to dance parties in McCullough; trust me
  47. My first CD shelf, made for me out of pine by Shawn H.
  48. Matt H. DJing dance parties in that awful bunker connecting two of the New Dorms (before the renovations)
  49. Watching in astonishment as the guys from Phish bounced on trampolines while playing in perfect time
  50. Guy from Fugazi biting down and singing through the pickup in his guitar, at a road trip show to Bennington College
  51. Playing Gene Pitney’s “A Town Without Pity” as the last song on my last undergraduate show at ‘RMC
  52. Getting lost for hours in the ‘RMC record library’s 25,000+ record vinyl collection
  53. Returning to campus to teach a J Term class in 2006, and getting a weekly slot at the station
  54. Heartbreak in ’06 upon learning that most of the station’s vinyl collection had been thrown away the previous year
  55. Joy in ’06 upon discovering—and ripping to my computer–dozens of fondly remembered CDs that had mercifully not been thrown out, in the station library
  56. Serving as ‘RMC Fashion Director (I was tasked with making a station tee shirt, which I did, badly) just to hold onto an office key
  57. Matt H.’s epic 80s shows at ‘RMC during finals weeks, which could stretch for many hours as he took requests and played obscurities
  58. Using my cheap double tape deck to mix the end of “Purple Rain” into the intro of “Alphabet Street” on the fly
  59. The fall of ’91 when Nevermind spread from room to room and dorm to dorm like an STD
  60. Seeing Robyn at Higher Ground with Tim and Nancy Spears in 2010
  61. The minor wonders of the ‘RMC record library’s 7-inch shelves (mercifully, among the only vinyl not tossed during the vinyl purge, although the studio no longer had a 45 adapter for the turntable)
  62. The D8 singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
  63. Getting put in the wrong line with comp tickets to see Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and RHCP in Burlington; getting in just as Vedder was wrapping up his last song and climbing down from the rafters
  64. Hiding from campus security in the dark under the ‘RMC studio soundboard, alongside Matt H., on a night when many mistakes were made
  65. Thinking that the guys from Buffalo Tom, who lugged their own gear, were really nice and down to earth—particularly after the Bosstones fiasco
  66. Believing that Loveless would be the future of rock and roll
  67. Screwing up on air regularly
  68. Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) in Mead Chapel
  69. Having a strong opinion about Pearl Jam
  70. Going to Starr Library just to read Billboard
  71. Walking out of a Rollins Band/Beastie Boys show in the UNH gym because the sound was so goddamned terrible
  72. Keeping certain CDs in the station office in an attempt to keep them from being stolen; titles included Wish by the Cure and Between 10th and 11th by the Charlatans UK
  73. The glee upon the arrival of the monthly Rockpool Rock Box, filled with glorious indie CDs and records
  74. The Replacements on their final tour, in Boston
  75. The Vermonstress festival in Burlington, headlined by Beat Happening
  76. Putting a big WRMC sticker over the cover of The Dwarves’ Blood, Guts and Pussy album in a moment of censorious anxiety; getting lots of shit for it
  77. Being instantly smitten with the lead singer of Burlington band Hover, and getting up the nerve to ask her out on the spot, which she actually accepted
  78. Matt H.’s 37-foot by 37-foot Kitchens of Distinction poster
  79. Josh B. regularly calling into the show for his Juliana Hatfield request fix
  80. Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine double bill at Avalon in Boston
  81. Dinner in Lower Proctor with Stephanie J. and other radio station folks following staff meetings
  82. Renaming my friends’ band Adhesive X, after the super glue invented by the evil Baron Zemo in Avengers comics
  83. Banging my head into my roommate’s concrete floor while spazzing out to “Monkey Gone to Heaven” just before a party
  84. Dave A.’s little sister’s friend getting hit on by Ice T’s DJ Evil E at a show on the first Lollapalooza tour
  85. Realizing it must be past 3 AM and the beverages were almost gone whenever The Pogues came on, usually via Tom L.
  86. Monster Magnet at a tiny little bar in western Mass; Blake Babies on the deck in Jon D.’s hearse late at night on the way home
  87. Being told in all seriousness by David F. that the live album Hard Rain was inappropriate listening for a Bob Dylan novice
  88. Finding comments from me and my friends on CDs in the station library on my return in 2006
  89. Riding with Jon D. when he picked up the town’s Elvis impersonator and gave him a ride down Rte. 7; Elvis thanked us kindly and explained that the Colonel had his Cadillac in for service, he said that Vermont had been a wonderful place to lie low since the 1970s; hearing incredulous workers in the dining halls insist that he couldn’t be Elvis because they went to high school with him
  90. My mild-mannered freshman year neighbor Tim’s starry-eyed crush on Natalie Merchant: “She’s so frumpy” he sighed longingly
  91. Lusting over the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz box set carried around by students in the Jazz class
  92. Making unfortunate but all too often accurate snap judgments of people based on the presence of Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits and Bob Marley Legend in their collections
  93. The ancient ‘RMC studio soundboard with pots instead of sliders
  94. The reel to reel machine (and piles of tapes) in the back studio
  95. The colored vinyl decorating the ‘RMC lounge walls
  96. Helping to hide a secret time capsule behind the bulletin board in the ‘RMC offices before graduating
  97. My Black Crowes cassette
  98. The two heavy-set guys from dining services who played in a local hair metal band
  99. Puzzling over the utter enigma that was the band Pavement in the wake of Slanted & Enchanted
  100. Late nights rewatching tapes of MTV’s 120 Minutes recorded on VHS at home during breaks

And the very best one of all:

  1. Catching Bill O’s band downtown at Woody’s just before heading off unknowingly to my date with destiny where I first fell in love with (my wife today) Anne

Just don’t ask me anything about my classes.

Necessary Spinning

Here’s what’s doing it to me in my earhole these days:

Los Campesinos!—Hello Sadness

This record has been getting mixed-to-positive reviews, which I can’t fathom. It’s a brilliant leap forward in an oeuvre of consistently brilliant albums. Whereas previous LC! records have functioned as exhilarating, overstuffed collections of killer songs, Hello Sadness is a proper album, even a concept album, with a clear direction…straight downward from the first blushes of doomed romance to the bleak wreckage of the breakup. As such, the track sequence progressively unwinds from the impossibly catchy, gang-shouty, hand-clappy, tribal-drummy “By Your Hand” (possibly the band’s best-ever single) to the stark funeral marches and elegies of the record’s back half. I fell for these guys hard back in 2008, and while they continue to mine the ins and out of broken romance, my love affair with them is stronger than ever. Key tracks: “By Your Hand”; “Hello Sadness”; “To Tundra”

Real Estate—Days

I never catch up with the rock and roll until after the cool kids are already over it, which means for this and the next two entries, album #2. I’d chalk it up to my being an out-of-touch old man, but I’ve been this way forever. Nevermind, Doolittle, Loveless, etc. were the entry points to my favorite bands back in college. Perhaps this is why I’ve always been slightly confused by the myth of the “sophomore slump”—so many of my favorite bands saved their strongest work for their second go-around. Real Estate certainly have their sound figured out for their second full-length, Days. While there’s not much here as instantly memorable as their early single “Beach Comber”, the shiny, slinky production on the new release does this band all kinds of favors. Chiming guitars, loping beats and mellow harmonies want clean, clear sound to shimmy around in. Not experimental, neither adventurous nor challenging, just impossibly pretty, slightly hazy late-summer indie rock. That’s way more than enough. Key tracks: “Easy”; “It’s Real”; “Younger Than Yesterday”; “All The Same”

Wavves—King of the Beach/Life Sux EP

Brash and bratty, surf-inflected guitar rock that sounds like it didn’t take much longer to write than it does to bash out or listen to. (Which, perhaps I should explain, is a compliment.) Again, the guy has considerably cleaned up his sound from his distortion-drenched debut only to reveal some amazing hooks. “King of the Beach” from the 2010 album, and “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl” from this year’s follow-up EP are the reason I listen to rock music—that moment when you first hear a song, and it tricks you into thinking: This is the best thing I’ve ever heard. I want to hear this forever. I live for those songs, those brief bursts of irrational exuberance that are inevitably killed by the fifth or sixth listen, but man, while they’ve got your head turned….Key tracks: see above; “Take On The World”; “Bug”

Dum Dum Girls—Only In Dreams

Not a lot to say about this one, except that lead signer Kristen “Dee Dee” Gundred’s uncanny Chrissie Hynde impersonation works completely. Lyrics are a little dumb, but the music takes a satisfyingly straightforward approach befitting its obvious inspiration. “Caught In One” and “Bedroom Eyes” are both “in-an-alt-universe-this-is-a-smash-hit” songs. Key Tracks: see above; “Coming Down”

Mr. Muthafukin’ eXquire—Lost In Translation mixtape

Because I am such an old man, I only recently discovered that there is such a sea of brilliant hip hop and R&B being released online for free (I suppose both to avoid the hassle of clearing samples and to get music straight to listeners instead of chasing down Jay Z or Kanye to beg an audience for your demo tape.) In the past year I’ve swooned over Das Racist, The Weeknd and others. Lately I can’t get enough of Mr. Muthafukin’, a Brooklyn-based MC whose album recalls the very best of East Coast rap from the past 30 years. A big, confident Chuck D voice meets super-raw lyrical content rooted in eXquire’s lower-to-working class surroundings. This isn’t champagne-sipping millionaire hip hop looking back on a childhood in the projects; this music rooted in tenements, food stamps and 40s. The music is hungry, bristling with ideas and attitude like Jay Z a long, long time ago on Reasonable Doubt. The album-ending remix of paean to drinking “Huzzah” featuring El-P, Das Racist and others plays like a modern-day version of De La Soul’s “Buddy” remix featuring the whole Native Tongue posse. And the Das Racist verses are stronger than anything on their recent album Relax. Key Tracks: “Triple F”; “The Last Huzzah!”; Lou Ferigno’s Mad”

Life’s Rich Pageant

I have a distinct memory of the first time I heard of a band called REM. It was a Saturday morning in 1984, and I was standing around with some friends after a youth league soccer game. One of my buddies who had an older brother said that he was going to a college (!) concert that night to hear a band called REM.

I had never heard of the band, but my friend made them sound like everyone who was cool knew who they were and if this band was playing at W&L, then the college kids certainly thought they were cool, which legitimized their coolness…so, it goes. I feigned coolness—“Of course I had heard of REM”—but I wasn’t allowed to go to a college concert, said. (To be honest, I don’t know if this was the case or not, but it was a convenient excuse. There was no way I would have stepped foot in a “college” concert at the age of 13, for the same reason I never trick-or-treated at college fraternities on Halloween; college kids, en mass, were scary. Of course, some of my friends had no such fear. They were cool, and I was not.)

In any case, after that one episode, REM slipped from my consciousness for a few years, until my sophomore year of high school. That previous summer, Life’s Rich Pageant had been released, and during the waning days of summer and the first days of autumn, my friends and I listened to that cassette tape non-stop. From the opening riff of “Begin the Begin,” I was hooked, transfixed by a sound that was addictive and unlike anything I had ever heard.

Now, for context, I was a relative novice, music-wise. My listening experience had been limited to listening to my parents’ record albums (ranging from The Beatles to Flatt & Scruggs, Scott Joplin to Mussorgsky . . . great, eclectic, quality stuff, yes, but The Ramones and Velvet Underground, they were not) as a kid to the stuff popular at middle school dances (think Journey and “Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine…”).

REM spoke to me, spoke to us, in a way that Morrissey and The Smiths have spoken to teenage angst across the decades. A blogger for the New York Times Magazine has described this sound as “mysterious, self-effacing, earnest, hopeful, yearning, humble.” Yes, exactly.

To me, that album remains REM’s quintessential work—because it was the album that introduced me to them, to a world I had never laid eyes (or ears) on before. And while I would come to appreciate other albums more (Murmur and Reckoning, the band’s first two releases, became the “classic” REM albums in my eyes, the ones every aficiondo appreciated best) Life’s Rich Pageant was the gateway drug, the album that screams “REM” to me more than any other.

Yet, with all that said, it was their first commercial hit, their first album to go platinum, that still delivers the strongest emotional wallop. The release of Document coincided with the clichéd but oh-so-real coming-of-age year. It was the year of driving, of going on real dates, of going to parties and all that entailed—under-aged drinking, parents out of town. It was the year a friend attempted suicide at one of those “home alone” parties.

Add to that the soundtrack of “The One I Love” and “It’s The End Of The World…” and, well, you have a combustive, emotional brew. (And as much as those two songs have become standard bearers bordering on musical chestnuts for that album and REM at that time—and no doubt contributed to how I recall those years—lesser know tunes such as “Disturbance at the Heron House” and “Lightnin’ Hopkins” instantly return me to that time and place, as well.)

With the announcement that REM is no longer, it prompts flashes of all these emotions—discovery, exuberance, possibility, young love, young heartbreak, even shock and horror.

When I was in college, I used to see Michael Stipe from time to time. He was (and I presume still is) friends with the artist Sally Mann, who lives in the town where I grew up and went to school. For a year or so, I had seen him around—walking down the street, driving in a car—but I never had the occasion to speak to him until I literally bumped into him at a big college party called Fancy Dress. I apologized before I even realized who he was; in my hazy recollection I believe I spilled a drink on him. And then I noticed that Sally, who I’ve known since I was a child, was the companion of this slight, bald, and, for W&L, unconventionally dressed guy who happened to be Michael Stipe.

I think I mumbled something to him, some platitude about how I loved his music, and that was that. Looking back, I can’t imagine anything else I would have said or done at that time. But now, with the benefit of hindsight and wisdom and sentimentality–age and time, really—I think it’s appropriate to offer a word of gratitude, of thanks, to not just Sipe, but Peter Buck and Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Thanks, not just for the memories, but for making the memories what they are.

Don’t, stop

So, the news that The Stone Roses are getting back together for a “world tour” and new recording has thrown me for a loop. The Roses loom large in my musical imagination; nearly as large as singer Ian Brown’s outsized ego. Their 1989 self-titled debut album, which I first discovered in a friend’s room in Battell Hall in the spring of 1990, essentially soundtracked my life at Midd from that moment forward. A clue to its impact is that I can actually still remember that moment, hearing “Fool’s Gold” for the first time, with the Pollock-inspired CD art in my hands. My mind’s eye may have embellished the gorgeous amber light suffusing the room and rising chorus of angels. Still, love at first listen.

In the days before Nevermind swept the campus in the Fall of ’91, the Roses album was the one record that everyone I knew could agree on—from indie rockers to my pal who swore by Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss. (We all also agreed that the backwards-tape-loop dirge “Don’t Stop” could have been left off the album with few complaints. I’ve grown to like it.)

It’s fortunate the album is so good, because that was pretty much it for the band, aside from a b-sides collection and a couple of stray singles. A dispute with their label kept the group out of the studio through the rest of my college career and beyond. Finally, in 1994, the legal clouds lifted and their follow-up Second Coming was released to inevitable disappointment. There were a few good songs, but during the forced layoff their tastes had clearly morphed from lush, Byrds-inspired guitar pop to warmed-over Led Zep riffs, half-hearted rave tracks, and worst of all, the jive pseudo-funk practiced by so many of the lesser “Madchester” bands they had helped to spawn. By ’96 the band was no more, and it seemed like a mercy killing.

Now the Roses are reunited, seemingly ready to right the wrongs of their awkward, bitter implosion, boasting that they’ll finally live up to their promise. I’m not holding my breath—at least not in anticipation. In some respects, this reunion comes at just the right time, as R.E.M. gracefully folds their tent and Kim and Thurston are about to make daughter Coco’s future Christmas plans twice as complicated. There’s something nice about one of my favorite old bands burying the hatchet just as many of their 80s-era peers finally call it quits. I look forward to the chance to see them live, despite Brown’s erratic (to be charitable) voice in concert. In other respects, however, I’m 83% convinced that this isn’t going end any better than the last time around. I’m wary of having perhaps my strongest music nostalgia monkeyed with. Not every band has it in them to pick up where they left off live, like the Pixies, or even better, release more classic albums like they never skipped as beat, as with the amazing Dinosaur Jr. We’re about to find out if lightning can indeed be put in the bottle twice. If they can make some money, fine. But I don’t need them to do this. That first album doesn’t need them to do this. It’s taken on a life of its own.

In My Room

It seems to me that Cole’s post would be incomplete without the lyrics to the Beach Boys’ 1963 song “In My Room.” Written by Brian Wilson, along Gary Usher (Usher was not in the Beach Boys, but was part of the surf-music scene in Southern California), the song captures the emotional intensity of being a teenager, alone and cocooned in a private realm.

Few singer/songwriters do such fantasies better than Brian Wilson.

In My Room

There’s a world where I can go
and tell my secrets to
In my room
In my room

In this world I lock out
all my worries and my fears
In my room
In my room

Do my dreaming and my scheming lie awake and pray
Do my crying and my sighing laugh at yesterday

Now it’s dark and I’m alone
but I won’t be afraid
In my room
In my room

Only The Lonely: Post by Cole Odell ’93

Technically, this is a guest post, but once we get Cole his log-on privileges, he will be a regular contributor to Music at Sixty-Eight Degrees. We also hope to get him up to Middlebury from his home in Brattleboro for a turn on the radio show.


In my personal experience. fandom can be a lot like masturbation: a solitary pursuit, often done in the privacy of your own room. Maybe that’s because I first came to fandom through comic books, not sports, well before geek culture conquered pop culture. Also, I grew up in a small, sleepy Vermont town. The idea that other actual people shared my interests took a long time to present itself to me. I now make regular treks to Comic-Con in San Diego with my best friend from Midd and tens of thousands of other fans, but no matter how big the crowd gets, part of me still feels alone in it.

This attitude has bled into my experience with music. Did I mention I grew up in small-town Vermont? That meant a radio dial filled with 90% static and 10% classic rock, top 40 or country. No college stations. A cable system that didn’t pick up MTV until 1987. A cohort whose collective musical tastes ranged from the Doors, Rush and the Stones, to Led Zep, the Who, and…not much else.

Geographic isolation also meant no rock concerts nearby. And to my parochial thinking, rock towns like Boston or even Northampton might as well have been the moon. Instead, being a music fan for me meant staying up until 1 AM on a school night hoping the radio would play my request for “One Night in Bangkok”; learning everything I could from the occasional copies of Rolling Stone; perusing my parents’ neglected record collection, or hanging around the record store.

Things changed over time. First, there was my high-school pastime of driving endless loops around town with my friend Todd, and Prince. Our mutual admiration for Sign ‘o the Times and Lovesexy marked my first instance of shared music interest. When MTV finally hit our area, it became a huge, if halting topic of conversation, as I found I spoke in Cure, P.I.L. and Love & Rockets, while Todd conversed in Crüe, Ratt and Winger. But at least our enthusiasms were within spitting distance.

Then my first concert, when I yielded to Todd’s hair metal devotion for a “99 Rock FM Party Bus” pilgrimage to see Skid Row and Bon Jovi in all their leather-pants-wearing, fireworks-exploding glory alongside, for the first time, thousands of genuine screaming fans. Still, as guilty-pleasure catchy as “Runaway” may be, I knew I wasn’t one of them.

Finally, Middlebury College remade me, especially my experience at WRMC. The station exposed me to a huge amount of music new and old, and providing regular access to live shows, shared with fellow fans I still consider some of my best friends—people with whom I still swap Spotify playlists, go to occasional shows, and have endless “have you heard this band” conversations. That said, today I live in a slightly larger Vermont town, with a spouse who’s a passive music fan at best, kids with little interest, and very few local friends who kept paying attention past their 20s. Most of my time spent with rock and roll is the same as it was when I was ten. Just me and the music.

Being There

Matt’s post about being a fan called to mind the first rock concerts I went to as a teenager. I purchased my first record—a 45—when I was in sixth grade (“Grazing in the Grass” by the Friends of Distinction) and my first album shortly thereafter (by Blood Sweat & Tears).  But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I went to a concert on my own.  I remember going with my family to see Judy Collins at the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Fall, Ohio, about 30 miles outside Cleveland.  I must have been fourteen or fifteen, and this was a pretty tame affair: lawn seating, blankets, and white wine (for the adults).

My next concert was much different, and marked my first real outing as a rock fan.

The big event was something called “The World Series of Rock”—one of several all-day concerts held in the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the 1970s. Torn down in 1996, the Stadium was a cavernous structure that held over 80,000 people and served as home for the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Browns.

For the management of the Indians and the Browns, the World Series of Rock must have been a questionable proposition, regardless of the revenue opportunities, since the concert brought thousands of people on to the field and chewed up the turf. But for concertgoers—at least for me, a sixteen year old—it was a kind of delirious mayhem.

The first World Series of Rock concerts took place in the summer of 1974, and I attended two of them. The first included the Beach Boys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Walsh, and REO Speedwagon. The second featured Santana, the Band, Jesse Colin Young, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

The crowds that attended these concerts were huge and rowdy (drugs and alcohol had their effect), and I remember feeling exhilarated—and a little fearful—when I ventured onto the infield and was engulfed by a mob of people.  It turns out my apprehensions had some merit since several people ended up getting seriously hurt when they jumped or fell from the second deck of the stadium.

There is nothing like a live concert to drive home the sensory pleasures of rock ‘n roll. It’s a full body experience, especially if you are an adolescent male.  I remember hearing Lyrnyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” for the first time (in the smoking lounge of my high school) and thinking of it as some kind of revelation (just short of “Stairway to Heaven”).  Seeing/hearing it performed live at the Cleveland Stadium—with dual guitar solos—did not disappoint.

The fact that I saw this concert with thousands of other people raises a question that Matt suggests in his post.  Can you be a music fan by yourself?  Or does being a fan necessarily mean being part of a larger collective?

Being a Fan

I would like to take a second to discuss this photograph. And, yes, I can hear you: “Here he goes again. First, procrastination and now college hoops. What, exactly, does this post have to do with music.”

Well, I’ll tell you. It has to do with being a fan, specifically how being a fan of something or someone when you are a kid is impossible to replicate in adulthood.

This picture was taken in December, 1982; I was 12 years old and a rabid fan of the University of Virginia basketball team. Growing up an hour or so away from Charlottesville at a time when the Cavaliers were one of the best teams in the country and featured the best player in America, Ralph Sampson, I lived and died with UVA hoops. Nothing was as important. And while I still follow the Cavaliers and consider myself a big fan of both their football and basketball teams, it’s not the same. I was reminded of this the second I took a look at this photo, which an old friend pointed out to me with the message, “Get ready for some serious nostalgia.”

As soon as I saw this image of Ralph battling with Patrick Ewing under the basket in what was then called “The Game of the Century,” I was hit with a wave of emotion that is near impossible to describe. Seeing that uniform, and not just that uniform but that uniform in that particular moment, frozen in time, made me feel for a nanosecond like I was 12 again, and there was no more important thing in my orbit than the fate of the UVA basketball team. And then the feeling faded, like a wisp of steam evaporating in the air.

Had I been a music nerd rather than a sports nerd at that time, I imagine that I’d have a similar reaction to artists who I first heard as a young adolescent, when one’s love for something is unencumbered by, well, real life. As it is, I still have visceral reactions to albums that I remember my parents playing at that time (The Beatles’ “Abby Road” and Lester Flatt’s and Earl Scruggs’ “Nashville Airplane” are at the top of the list), but the feeling is not as intense as it would be if I had wanted to be a musician or a music journalist.

So, what about you? What takes you back to adolescence and makes you feel like a kid again?

Procrastination Nation

I’m a procrastinator. A big one. And I don’t know if this is true about others who are prone to procrastination, but I am more likely to put off doing something if the task involves subject matter that I’m really interested in. Take the Sunday New York Times, for instance. I often read the sections I’m least interested in first, and “save” the sections I’m most looking forward to reading. This means that I am about 12 weeks behind in reading the Sunday Times Magazine and have fallen into the borderline (?) obsessive-compulsive habit of saving the Book Review and Formerly-Named-Week-in-Review sections for the following Sunday, at which point I read both right before I take a look at that day’s paper. (Yes, it can be exhausting being me. I’m sure it’s even more tiring living with me, but you’d have to ask my wife.)

Now, I’m sure you’re asking (that is, if you are still on this page): What does this have to do with music, specifically as it relates to this particular blog that Tim and I are starting? Well, for nearly two weeks I’ve been intending to write about REM, specifically the band’s decision to call it quits after 30-odd years of playing music together. I’ve put off this effort for a number of reasons—none of which have to do with the hubristic notion that I’ll be writing anything profound or different. Rather, I’ve put off this idea because I’ve been looking forward to it and because, well, I do have some things to say. I’m just not ready to say them yet. Because it’s something that interests me. (Again, exhausting.)

But, I don’t want you, dear reader, to go away empty handed. That is to say, I want you to come away from this post with something more than a handle on my neuroses, so I thought that since it’s the beginning of fall, now would be a good time to offer up a few recommendations for new music that has caught my attention. (And lest you worry that I’m not interested in this post, understand that I intended to do this last week.)

Matt’s picks

  • Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Hysterical
    These guys made a big splash in 2005 with their self-produced, self-released eponymous album (that was really quite, quite good), followed that with a mediocre second album a few years later, and have now atoned for their sophomore slump with this infectious, shimmery release.
  • Beruit, The Rip Tide
    Yes, this album sounds like just about everything else these guys have done, but that’s not necessarily bad, is it? Melodic, eclectic poppy fun.
  • Marsalis & Clapton, Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton Play the Blues
    I mean, why not? Two of the masters jamming together…what’s not to like?
  • Tony Bennett, Duets II
    Ok, I need to explain this one. I don’t really care for Tony Bennett (I’m a Sinatra guy) and I’m usually suspicious of these duet efforts (unless it’s, like, Armstrong and Fitzgerald), but after reading Gay Talese’s profile of Bennett in the New Yorker, I was intrigued enough to sample a track on iTunes, and damn if I wasn’t impressed with Bennett and Lady GaGa’s version of “The Lady Is A Tramp.” Out of pure snobbery, I had never listened to Lady GaGa before, but she can sing, really sing, and you can tell that she and Bennett hit it off. (And this was the subject of Talese’s piece.) Now, I’m not sure the entire album, is worth a buy recommendation, but this track certainly is.