Ever since I could remember, music has been a constant in my life. I realize that music is probably a constant in everyone’s life, in one form or another, but for me it’s actually been more than a constant – it’s been a total obsession. Some people become addicted to crack, some to gambling – at an early age I became addicted to music. It has been the one true love of my life, of which nothing else comes close. I have gone through some very painful relationships that didn’t work out, and periods of my life of extreme depression and loneliness, but music has always been there when I needed it most. Sometimes I’ve also, admittedly, used it as a crutch. Through the good times and bad, though, it’s the one thing I’ve always been able to count on to get me through each day.
Over the years, I have purchased about a thousand LPs, a thousand cassettes, and perhaps 7,000 CDs (just a rough estimate) – not to mention hundreds of 45s, thousands of homemade cassettes and CDs, and dozens of thousands of songs downloaded on Napster, iTunes and various other Internet sites. I’ve gotten rid of more albums over the years than entire neighborhoods will ever purchase in a lifetime. Yes, you could call me a music fanatic.
My parents say my love for music began when they would constantly play records at home while my mother was pregnant with me, and who knows, maybe that’s as good of a reason as any. They played many different types of music, as well, so perhaps that accounts for my extremely eclectic tastes. From about the time that I was 4 or 5, playing my Sesame Street album (with Oscar the Grouch singing “I Love Trash”) and a 45 of a song called “Robert the Robot” (that I would torture my parents with, by playing both repeatedly) on my red and white plastic record player, I seemed to be fascinated by music of some kind. Within a couple of years, I progressed to listening to my parents’ copy of Elvis’ Golden Records, that I played on a small turntable in the basement of our home. His voice fascinated me, and I played that album dozens and dozens of times over the next couple of years, sparking a lifelong love of his music. He was definitely my first true musical discovery – twenty years after rest of the world had already discovered him.
At the same time, AM Top 40 radio was a constant in our home and in the car, and I remember hearing many big hits of the 1970s on a daily basis – “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon, “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash, “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain & Tenille, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando & Dawn (which reminds me of being over my grandparents’ house as a child), “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” by The Four Seasons, and many other pop hits of the day – too many to name, in fact. Some I have special memories of, due to them recalling my childhood – people, places, moments – most of them gone, but none forgotten. Rancid swill, such as “You Light Up My Life” by Debbie Boone or “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, on the other hand, can still cause me to go into spasmodic fits of revulsion. What a cheesy decade the ‘70s were. Still, I miss those times.
It always amazes me how a song from your childhood can instantly spark certain memories when listening to it decades later. You can almost be transported back to that time and place when you first heard the song; almost remember what the air felt like and smelled like at that very moment in time. Even if the song is not particularly any good, you can still have a love for it, for the emotions it conjures up of your lost youth, of more carefree, innocent times. It also amazes me how you can remember lyrics to songs that you haven’t heard since you were five years old, and yet you can’t remember the lyrics to a song from last week. I guess we just pick up the lyrics to songs as a child without even trying.
Being that I grew up during the 1970s and ‘80s, and listening to AM, and later FM radio stations, I just seemed to absorb all the music genres of the day – rock, disco, pop, new wave, heavy metal, oldies, jazz, etc. Plus, hearing everything from Hank Williams to Frank Sinatra to Jerry Vale to Boz Scaggs in my parents’ and grandparents’ homes, I just absorbed it all without even realizing it. It never really occurred to me what genre anything was – it was simply either “good” or “bad” – and I never thought about whether a song was old or new. The only songs, to me, that become “old” are the bad ones. If it’s good, it’s good forever.
Some of the first (non-children’s music) albums that I remember owning were a greatest hits album by Chic (given to me on my 10th birthday – Dec. 13, 1979 – by an aunt and uncle), The Grand Illusion by Styx, and Glass Houses by Billy Joel. Then soon after that, I got the debut album and Women and Children First by Van Halen (my first favorite group). Over the next several years, I owned everything from Back in Black by AC/DC (which my grandmother bribed me with, if I agreed to go to my little cousin’s dance recital) and Wild Planet by The B-52s, to Led Zeppelin’s first album and Ozzy Osbourne’s first two solo albums, as well as the We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll compilation by his former group, Black Sabbath.
Around the age of 12 or 13 I had the next big musical discovery of my young life. It was at that time that my father introduced me to the world of Jimi Hendrix. I still recall him handing me his vinyl copies of the Woodstock soundtrack and an album from the Monterey Pop Festival, with Otis Redding’s concert on one side, and Hendrix’s on the other. For some reason, he didn’t tell me anything about Otis or any of the other Woodstock performers – he simply told me to listen to Hendrix’s performances from both albums, informing me that what I heard would blow my mind. Hendrix could play guitar in such a way, he informed me, that you would swear there were 3 or 4 guitarists all playing at once. He handed me those albums like they were sacred texts to be absorbed and deciphered. To my young mind, I was certainly intrigued. Obviously, I couldn’t wait to play each of them. And needless to say Hendrix turned out to be everything my father said he was, and then some. I don’t think I’ve ever quite gotten over that first time I heard him.
I lost count how many times I listened to those two sides of vinyl – from Monterey, his hot-wired rendition of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and (“the combined English and American national anthems”) “Wild Thing” (complete with his infamous and star-making pyrotechnical and guitar-smashing display which ended the performance); from Woodstock, his mind-blowing, iconic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” of which Prince once famously noted that all guitarists should practice, “like learning your scales,” which then segued into his classic tune, “Purple Haze.” To say that Hendrix contained all the rage and fury that signaled the Vietnam era in that one performance of our national anthem is to put it mildly. It may be the single greatest guitar display of all time. It has never lost its power to blow me away, or anyone else who hears it for the first or hundredth time.
I absorbed every song on those two sides of vinyl, including Hendrix’s weird, acid-enhanced between-song patter (something about fat mattresses and golden underwear – and is that Bob Dylan’s grandmother on the drums?). For about a good year, I listened to them continuously. Then I went out and bought everything else I could find on Hendrix – his studio albums being a whole other ball of psychedelic wax – and I have my dad to thank for lending me those two albums. It was one of the best musical educations I ever received. Nothing else would ever blow me away on quite the same magical level.
By this time in my life is when I began to really immerse myself in music in a big way. I began reading, first the heavy metal mags of the time – Circus and Hit Parader – and then a couple of years later, Creem, Rolling Stone, Musician, Guitar Player, Guitar World, Crawdaddy!, and anything else I could get my hands on, including the music section of my local newspaper. Fran Fried, who wrote for the Waterbury Republican, is who I first started following, as far as music critics were concerned, and was turned on to many great obscure bands of the ‘80s because of that column.
Over the next couple of years, I began to follow David Fricke of Rolling Stone, and then later on all the greats – Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Paul Williams, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Robert Palmer, Ralph J. Gleason, Jon Landau, Nat Hentoff, and so on. All of them, in their own way, turned me on to every type of music imaginable, and inspired me to write about music myself, even though it took me many years before I finally began to do so.
It was during those teenage years, as well, that I realized that music was something that would never let me down – it was always something I could rely on when I was feeling lonely, depressed and sad, as well as happy. I have always been able to get lost in a music biography or a website devoted to music more than anything else. I have read just about every biography on every major artist or band you could think of – and have always poured over, in great detail, the liner notes of every album I’ve ever purchased. Somehow, I’ve always been able to remember most of what I’ve read as well. It’s the “music geek” in me, I suppose. It’s perhaps sad that I can remember every useless detail and fact about obscure musicians and albums, and yet I have trouble recalling important information that I’ve learned in school or at work. For me, music was my real schooling though.
Once I began reading Rolling Stone and Musician in my late teens, my tastes exploded, and I started buying everything from reggae to jazz fusion to Bob Dylan to old blues records to classical – anything and everything. There was simply nothing that was off-limits, or that didn’t interest me in some small way. I kept tracing music back and forth, finding out who my favorite artists’ influences were, and then buying albums by those artists, and so forth. If I liked an artist enough, I would buy every album they came out with – even the bad ones. I would simply want to experience everything by that particular artist.
I remember going to a local record store, Brass City Records, when I was 16 and I purchased a Jimi Hendrix album and one by hardcore speed merchants D.R.I. The owner, of the store, Walter Quadrato, said, “Wow, your tastes are very eclectic.” In one sentence, he had me summed up forever. I bought hundreds of albums at that store over the years (and spent countless hours simply hanging out there) but his initial assessment has held true.
There are certain artists that have never failed to give me pleasure – U2 (my favorite band of all time), Prince, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles (still the most innovative band that ever existed), Van Halen, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M., The Replacements, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Flaming Lips, Jimi Hendrix, and many, many others, right up to modern artists like Amy Winehouse, The Strokes and Vampire Weekend. They have all added a little something to my life, each in their own way, and made life worth living.
Another artist who impacted me greatly when I was a teenager was Brian Wilson. Discovering Pet Sounds when I was 18 years old was another mind-blowing experience. It touched me deeply and profoundly, and, after The Joshua Tree, is my second favorite album of all time.
For many years, not a week would go by that I didn’t purchase at least 3-5 albums. I am afraid to even think of all the money I have spent (some would say wasted) over the past 25 years on music and music-related items (books, magazines, concerts, T-shirts, posters). Between Waterbury’s Brass City Records and Phoenix Records (both of which are still in business) to New Haven’s Cutler’s Records (also still operating after 40+ years), to many chain record stores that are long out of business (Coconuts and Strawberries), to Turn It Up in Northampton, MA, and places like Best Buy and Borders, I can’t even begin to count how many thousands of hours I have spent pouring through racks of LPs, CDs and cassettes, and that’s not to mention the additional thousands of hours spent on music-related websites. It’s a hobby that has brought me immense pleasure and gotten me through many nights of excruciating boredom.
Over the last few years, though, I have bought fewer and fewer albums. First off, because I basically own everything worth owning (or it seems that way anyhow), and secondly, because it’s getting harder to find records that I don’t have. There are basically no more record stores – at least not any chain stores – and places like Borders and Best Buy have a much smaller selection these days, because everyone is just downloading off the Internet, including myself. Then again, most of what I have downloaded is stuff that is either extremely obscure, hasn’t come out on CD (as far as I know), or is something that is out on CD but very hard to find or way too expensive to purchase. Hence the thousands and thousands of songs I have downloaded. I have discovered many rare, previously-unheard groups this way.
Another reason why I buy fewer albums nowadays is due to the fact that most of the newer stuff coming out is simply not that good, and therefore, not worth paying good money on – and due to financial restraints over the past few years, it’s just as well. I can’t afford to buy 4 or 5 albums a week, like I did for so many years. It had certainly become an addiction, of sorts, and I had to ease up on that.
I guess I have also become jaded in my listening tastes. Many newer bands and artists are either not that good or just sound like something that I heard from someone else years ago, and not even done nearly as well. It’s getting harder and harder to find something new that blows me away like The Beatles, Hendrix, Brian Wilson, etc. did all those years ago.
Still, music has just as much of a hold on me as it ever has. Relationships have come and gone, including a marriage, and yet music has continued to fascinate me and be the one thing I can count on in this world. I couldn’t imagine life without it.
So here’s to that beautiful art form we call music, in all its various strains and genres. As R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe once sang, “music is the light you cannot resist,” and that still holds just as true for me today, as it did all those years ago, spinning that Elvis record in my parents’ basement. May it always hold true.