Fine Tuning

ramones

Music is my ground, my constant, the thread that connects my past to my present. I track my life’s journey to what I’ve listened to. It shaped me, influenced me, and still does, to this day. It’s how I see myself and through it, I gauge others.

Mom started it. She’d been performing on the radio since eight years old, eventually training with a teacher who’d develop her alto into a rich, full voice. Along the way, Mom picked up piano and the cocktail drum. She had a band, missed a couple of big opportunities, maybe regretted a few decisions. But she met my Dad in a bar, performing, and that ended her life in taffeta dresses on stage. That didn’t stop her from belting out tunes while tending house, or in the car, or pretty much anywhere. I grew up with her memorized American songbook, with a few arias thrown in for good measure.

Dad, for his part, was no musical slouch either. My parents listened to this incredibly annoying Muzak-ish station, WWSH. They played all those perky and melancholy wordless tunes, practically begging someone to fill in the lyrics. And Mom and Dad would, everywhere we went in that car, or in the living room, where our XAM stereo purchased from Korvette’s seemed tuned to no other station but WWSH. It drove me insane. I hated that station, but it’s pretty much all they ever listened to.

Enter the 45s and 78s.

My grandfather, great uncle and Dad had a business. They owned a string of jukeboxes, pinball games and vending machines up and down the Jersey Shore, all of them located in bars, diners and amusement centers. Records – 45s – played for as long as people put change in the slots, and when songs got bumped off the charts, Dad replaced them with new records. My sister and I received the castoffs: Beatles on the Capitol label, Elvis, Beach Boys, and just about anyone topping the charts in the 1960s. I was little, but I had the best musical tastes of any preschooler out there. Add to that a healthy mix of 78s with Big Band swing, show tunes, classical music, jazz and opera. I listened to it all, without complaint, loving every syncopated note.

Somewhere around 1976, right when I began voice lessons (I had convinced myself I’d become an opera singer), this new sound captured me. Fast, driven, angry, I couldn’t even describe it, except that I wanted in. “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Cretin Hop” sounded so different from anything I’d ever heard. Trouble was, no self-respecting radio station by me would ever play the Ramones or The Damned or The Sex Pistols or any of those bands I’d drool over. So I had to rely on my friends and connections to hear their latest. But I still hung onto opera, studying the music and a bit of piano, too.

I went to college and studied music. Majored in music business, still listened to everything, although now I was old enough to head out to clubs to catch bands now considered legendary: Dead Kennedys, PiL, Gang of Four, Generation X, Buzzcocks, Pere Ubu and Tuxedo Moon. Delta Five and Human Sexual Response. My Daughter’s Wedding and the Chameleons. The more obscure the band, the better.  My best friend at the time was a DJ on a radio station. We got in to shows for free, going to the front of the line and slipping in all sorts of clubs while others waited to get in. This DJ knew everyone. 

In 1981, at The Fast Lane in Asbury Park, My friend Lenny and I saw U2 on their very first American tour. They had one album. About 50 people turned up. After they went through all their songs, Bono broke out champagne, handed it around and said, “We played at the Bottom Line last night and that audience was nothing like you guys. So we’re playing until they throw us out of here. What do you want us to play?” And sure enough, they played “I Will Follow” once more, plus whatever else they wanted to, until the bar owner had enough, turned one the lights and threw us out. I’ve never seen U2 live again. What could top that?

Eventually, I had a career in music, although not as a singer, but as a producer of children’s shows that taught them about opera. By this time, I had a dream job at a major arts organization, touring around and presenting shows in theaters in four states. I began to develop something of a reputation. Was asked to give a speech at a symposium on children’s opera in Vienna. Was awarded a fellowship to teach at a university in Germany. People wrote me asking advice.

And then the man I’d marry came along. He liked the same music I did. We loved indie music. A member of his family worked for the opera. I figured he was perfect for me.

Circumstances intervened. I left my music job for a small museum in the suburbs, where we moved. Though I still managed to keep tabs on what played on college radio, I somehow drifted further away from the fanatic I once was.  Pretty soon it seemed I listened to hardly anything at all. Became too wrapped up in family life, married life, my aging parents and every possible, conceivable distraction. Things got so bad I couldn’t even tell you one single band on college radio.

We got a free deal with satellite radio with a car we bought. I discovered channels 33, 34, 35 and 36 on Sirius XM Radio. I felt as if a huge wave crashed over me and sucked me in. But instead of being unpleasant, it revived me. Woke me up. Got to hear my beloved bands from the very beginning – too many to name – plus caught up on all I’d missed. It’s no lie when I tell you I almost started crying. My God, why hadn’t I been able to hear LCD Soundsystem or The National before this? Or Belle and Sebastian? Arcade Fire? Guided by Voices or the hundreds of others who I shouldn’t have been able to live without, but somehow did, to my great loss.

These days, I kind of let go of opera. I still love it, but I haven’t been to one in years. But I’m still playing catch-up. I’m stuck on Car Seat Headrest, I have to admit, although Pedro the Lion or Strand of Oaks or Phantogram or Savages or Beach House or Sharon Van Etten or Run the Jewels or A Tribe Called Quest or Mitski or any number of bands seemed to have captured my attention too. I’m leaving out a lot of favorites because this blog might never end if I listed them all.

It’s funny. At work, lots of the backroom kid crew can’t believe my playlist. Most people my age gave up on the good stuff. They listen to what’s on top 40 radio or are stuck in the 1980s. Me? I can’t wait to see what comes along next. It might just be my next favorite.

 

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