This is a slightly overdue flashback.
In the fall of 1990, I was a sophomore at Bowling Green State University, and my friend Dave – whom I’m pretty sure I’ve known longer than anyone who’s not related to me – was a sophomore at Miami University. Prior to the start of the school year, James Taylor announced a concert date at Miami U. shortly after fall classes started, and Dave got tickets for me and my friend Jennifer.
Something came up, though, and Jen couldn’t make the trip, so she loaned me her car (Bob – for Bucket Of Bolts), and I invited my high school friend Amy, who had just started her freshman year at BG.
It was about a three-hour drive from Bowling Green to Oxford, a great concert, and an all-around fun trip. I have a few snapshot memories of specific songs – “Never Die Young”, “You’ve Got A Friend”, and the show-closing “Steamroller” – and remember having a really good time seeing Dave and catching up with Amy on the drive. Looking back, I realize what a bridging sort of night it was, where faces and voices of high school past and college present and future swirled and collided and ricocheted.
After the concert, Dave & his friends offered us each a place to crash if we wanted, but Amy and I both needed to get back for early classes the next morning, so we hit the road north again.
It was pretty cold, which I remember because Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” came on the radio, and both of us were all “VOLUME UP, WINDOWS DOWN!” To this day, when I’m alone in the car, that rule still stands, a quarter-century later. It’s been bent here & there, of course – but even in the dead of winter, I will blast the heat and crack the window just enough to get some outside air swirling through.
Twenty-five years ago this month, I started my freshman year of college at Bowling Green State University.
Tonight, I drove a few miles out on some of the narrow, field-lined roads here in Lake Township. The sun hadn’t completely set, and there was an unusual (for early August) bit of coolness to the air, even though the corn is tall yet. Perfect night to put the windows down and crank the CD I burned a few years ago and labeled BG 89-91. It’s a mix of songs that take me back the most powerfully to my favorite years at BGSU. The songs are not all from those years, but they’re definitely among those that I listened to the most, and which still dig up the deepest memories and impressions of the friends and the places and the times.
My drive wasn’t long enough to get through the whole CD, but I had a few in particular that I wanted to hear, and as always, they mixed heartbreakingly well with the smell of the fields and the lingering pink-orange clouds.
Here they are, in the order they appear on the CD:
New Order – Blue Monday
Real Life – Send Me An Angel
Depeche Mode – Strangelove
Pixies – Dig for Fire
Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart
Depeche Mode – A Question of Lust
Yaz – Only You
Don Henley – The Boys of Summer
The Cure – A Few Hours After This
It’s John Williams‘ birthday today.
He was the first composer whose name and work I recognized – and who wasn’t dead. He benefited, of course, from having his name attached to Star Wars, which, when I was a kid, made just about anything interesting.
Back in 2010, Rob Wainfur of The Bearded Trio website asked if I’d be interested in writing a guest post, so I contributed a piece exploring some of John Williams’ lesser-known musical creations. Here’s an excerpt:
It turns out, for instance, that Williams’ music was tucked into corners of my brain long before I knew it, thanks to three classic 1970s disaster movies: The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake. I really have only the vaguest recollections of these – I think I had an ear infection or something when my parents went to see Earthquake (in Sensurround!), and I don’t know if I saw the other two in the theatre or on television, though both left impressions on me. That Towering Inferno scene where Jennifer Jones’ character falls from the elevator on the outside of the building scared the bejeezus outta me, and come on: what little kid wouldn’t love a movie where a giant ship turns upside-down?
A few years later, Star Wars had turned me into a space-adventure nut, and for a time, one of our local TV stations aired Lost In Space reruns every weekday in the after-school hours. I wouldn’t learn until decades later that the show’s theme was another creation of John (then credited as “Johnny”) Williams. Of the two versions he composed during the show’s run, I prefer the original since it’s the one I most associate with sitting on the floor with a snack and looking up at the television, though the fuller composition for Season 3 in 1968 sounds much more like the John Williams signature works to come in the next decade.
I had a lot of fun writing this. check out the whole thing – which also goes on to reveal my all-time favorite piece of Star Wars music – at The Bearded Trio.
Five years ago, I saw the Police on their reunion tour. My friend Natania recently asked on Twitter: “What band/musician/songwriter/album changed your life?”
My immedate answers were 1) The Police – Synchronicity; 2) Pet Shop Boys – Please 3) New Order’s “True Faith.” I’m sure there are others.
Anyway, that got me thinking about the Police tour and the essay I wrote afterwards, and I figured I’d move it over here to Cornfield Meet to mark the five-year anniversary of the show:
When MTV was new in our house, I used to record songs onto blank cassette tapes by balancing our family’s boom box (also new) on the corner of the table where our TV sat. Genesis’ “That’s All” was on the first of these tapes, which I usually bought in cheap three-packs at the Hartville Flea Market. So were “It’s A Mistake” by Men at Work, and The Cars’ “You Might Think.”
And there was “Wrapped Around Your Finger” by the Police.
My friend Jacob, who had moved to Cincinnati after fourth grade, introduced me to the Synchronicity album on a trip to Florida. It was the early 1980s, and we drove through Cincinnati to pick Jake up on the way to Madeira Beach. He and I each took along a boom box, chunky headphones and a few cassette tapes. Mine were all those homemade compilations, but Jake had brought along a couple real tapes, which was impressive to a kid living on a buck-a-week allowance.
That trip was the first chance I had to listen to Synchronicity in its entirety. I was fascinated by everything about the album, from the lettering on the cassette, which looked so authentically handwritten that I asked Jacob if he’d put it on there, to the liner-note lyrics, which didn’t always match up with the songs as recorded, to the cover collage of black-and-white photos of the band behind those iconic red, blue and yellow swaths of color.
I fell in love with “Synchroncity II” on that trip. It’s still my favorite Police tune, from what I’ve always thought of as its “laser-gun” opening notes to its screaming guitars and Sting’s somehow apocalyptic vocals. (It was a frustrating thing for me, back in those MTV years, that I never succeeded in seeing the “Synchronicity II” video in its entirety. I watched a lot of awful videos in the hopes that maybe it would be the next one shown.)
Back home in Ohio, on a Sunday after-church trip to Gold Circle, mom and dad and my little brothers and I were in the music section of the department store, and dad agreed to buy Nick and Adam a tape they’d been begging for: Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
I saw my chance and asked if he’d buy me the Synchronicity cassette. It was the first album I owned, and I played it incessantly. I even managed to find bright spots in “Mother” and “Miss Gradenko”, which to this day I have a soft spot for only because I know that soon after that final harmonized vocal fades, the high-pitched opening of “Synchronicity II” is going to pierce my eardrums and start an adrenaline surge. I’ve never heard such a golden moment of anticipatory silence on any other record.
The next summer, I visited Jake for a week in Cincinnati, and I remember sitting in his room, each of us reclining on a bed with a boom box on our knees and headphones on, cranked to near-pain thresholds. We tried, once, to set the stereos beside each other and start the tapes at the same time to see if we could get a cool, doubly-loud opening to “Synchronicity II,” but one of the tape decks played slightly faster than the other, so by the time that song came around, they were way out of sync.
Although the only other Police tape I owned was Ghost in the Machine – at least, I think I owned it. Maybe I just remember listening to Jacob’s copy a lot during that visit – my fandom saw me exploring other aspects of the guys’ careers over the next few years. MTV introduced me to more of their older work. I was excited to see Dune in part because Sting was a villain, and I got Dream of the Blue Turtles right after it came out because it was the former Police frontman at work. I saw him in concert on his second album tour partly on his own merit and partly because I hoped he’d play some Police tunes. (He did just one, performing “Roxanne” in an encore.)
Similarly, I was enthralled by Summers’ rendition of the introduction from “Also sprach Zarathustra” for the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and I shelled out cash for a Copeland album of instrumental work like the theme from the TV show The Equalizer. I also went out of my way to watch an episode of Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert’s Sneak Previews because they were going to talk about Copeland’s movie The Rhythmatist.
I remember being intrigued enough by the concept of synchronicity to look up a little bit of information about Carl Jung. Heck, I even got a little fan-joy out of seeing Kevin Illyanovich Rasputin Kubusheskie wearing a Synchronicity concert t-shirt on You Can’t Do that on Television.
The Police’s Synchronicity tour ended in spring 1984 (they played Cleveland in late July 1983, when I was just 12 years old), so by the time I was really into the band, it was too late for me to see them perform live.
I lost my Synchronicity tape (or maybe it got ruined or eaten by a stereo) a long time ago, and even though I replaced it a few years back with a vinyl LP I found in Mad Hatter Records in Bowling Green, I don’t have a turntable any more, so until earlier this year, I hadn’t listened to it in an awfully long time.
And then the Police said they were reuniting for a tour, and Jake and Florida and MTV and the heft of my old boom box and the weight of the headphones with their springy, coiled cord and the slow crescendo of “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and the opening riff of “Message in A Bottle” and man-oh-man the laser-gun opening and the hard-charging rhythm of “Synchronicity II” all flooded back over me.
My wife Jenn, being four years younger than I am, understood my excitement even if she didn’t share it, so Jim Carchidi – also a former 1980s kid – made the trip up to Ohio for the July 16 show in Cleveland.
We’d each bought two tickets online the morning they went on sale, figuring we’d be able to unload the extra set. No dice. The day before the concert, then, my wife asked if she and our 10-year-old daughter could use the extra tickets, just so they didn’t go to waste. (My daughter didn’t really want to go, but by the time we’d had dinner at Tower City, across the street from Quicken Loans Arena, she was at least excited to be going to what was her first real rock concert. Sorry, but Hilary Duff doesn’t count.)
The four of us split up – Jim and I, being the Police fans, sat together, and took the higher-up pair of seats because heights make my wife want to freeze up and barf at the same time.
So we have a beer and toast to the fact that we’re seeing the freaking Police, and the warm-up wraps up and the stage guys do their thing and the lights go off and the place gets loud and the show starts.
Sting is singing “Message in A Bottle” and Andy is playing guitar and Stewart – it’s his birthday, as it happens – is bashing the drums and over the course of the show will have more fun, it seems than anyone in the arena and quite possibly the greater Cleveland metro area.
Next, they play “Synchronicity II,” and even though I don’t recognize it right away because they didn’t do the laser-thing, when I do realize what song I’m hearing (thanks to a nudge from Jim), I refuse to blink and I try to open my ears as wide as possible so I can drink these moments deep enough to make my nerve endings thrum with the memory for years.
In the months leading up to the show, I had avoided all concert reviews and set lists of previous shows so that I would be surprised, and I’m glad for it. They played a version of “Walking in Your Footsteps” that I couldn’t stop grinning through, and that was a surprise because I’d always felt it was kind of one of those personal, offbeat favorites and with all the big hits to choose from, I never expected to hear it live. Bonus: Sting including the lines “Now they live in a museum/ It’s the only place you’ll see ’em!” – because while those were in the printed album lyrics, they weren’t on the recorded track, and hearing them was fun, like catching a fleeting background joke in a movie.
Too soon, the show ended, but it had been too fantastic to be even remotely sad that it was over. (Hard to frown on a moment that ends with Stewart Copeland running off the stage and pausing over and over to throw his hands up and just let out whoops and hollers and yelling, “Best birthday EVER!”)
When Jim and I met up with my wife and daughter afterwards, they couldn’t stop talking about how much fun they’d had – they both had frog-voice from screaming so loud, and as a geek dad, I can’t help but think how cool it is that I have a 10-year-old who has seen the Police, loved it, and also knows how to properly employ Star Wars quotes in everyday speech.
You know how you get home from a long-anticipated vacation and it’s good to be back, but at the same time, there’s that melancholy gut-tug of “Where did it go?”
The concert was a week ago, and that feeling hasn’t shown up yet.
I was 15 when I bought my first concert tickets, shelling out my hard-earned summer job money for lawn seats to see Mr. Mister at Blossom Music Center on July 23, 1986. It was the second stop on their Welcome to the Real World tour. (Oh, shut up, and Don’t. You. Judge. I played the hell out of that cassette and don’t regret it for a second.) Opening act: The Bangles.
I bought one ticket for me, one ticket for my then-girlfriend, and one ticket for her dad – who brought a lawn chair and sat himself at the top of the Blossom hill – since we needed someone to drive us to the show.
My parents had taken me to a Beach Boys concert before then, but the Mr. Mister show was the first time I paid my own money to see one of my generation’s current pop bands. I remember how it changed the way I their songs sounded in my head after that, because my mind would overlay the regular recordings with the much louder, slightly different concert version of the music, with the crowd noise and everything mixed in.
This weekend, my daughter – age 15 – bought her first concert ticket. She and a friend will be heading to Columbus next summer for an arena show – and yes, Kels had to buy a ticket for her mom, who has the driver’s license. (Of course, unlike my girlfriend’s dad back in 1986, I know Jenn’s excited about going. And hey, I’m not judging.)
It is fall, 1989, and I am a freshman at Bowling Green State University. When I begin the year, REM is on my radar only as that band who sang “The One I Love” and “Stand.” Although I am introduced to piles of amazing new alternative music that year, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” is the only REM song that comes into heavy rotation on my all-time favorites list, and I buy Document on tape at Madhatter Music Co. just for this song. Several years later, after my dad died, I got behind the wheel of the 1982 Corvette he had bought when I was a senior in high school, not long after he’d lost a kidney to cancer. It was the last time I drove that car, and I removed the T-tops, put this song on the tape deck, headed out between the cornfields and sang at the top of my lungs while the wind pulled drops from the corners of my eyes.
It is my sophomore year at Bowling Green, 1990-91. A girl I know introduces me to the beauty of Reckoning, with its Harborcoat and its Seven Chinese Brothers and Don’t Go Back to Rockville, and she lets me make a copy of her CD onto a cassette tape. These songs are tied to memories of my single-occupancy dorm room in Rodgers Quad and parts of the summer of 1991 where I’m living in an upstairs apartment with my friend Ivan and driving my beat-up Mazda station wagon around northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan, and this is my second-favorite REM album.
That same year, I become good friends with a girl who loves Out of Time. We also hang out in the summer of 1991 and go dancing a couple times at the local alternative nightclub. On one trip, we wind up bouncing around to “Shiny Happy People”; on another visit, I try unsuccessfully to convince the DJ to play “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” She smiles and makes it happen.
When Automatic for the People is released in October of 1992, I am submerged in the Dark Times and am in an unhealthy, destructive, alienating relationship. She gets pissed off because I go and buy this album the day it comes out, while she is at work. Over the next year and a half of my early twenties, this album will sit in my bloodstream, brooding and slow and angry and sad. When I move to Florida with this girl, Automatic keeps me company on those beautiful nights when she is at work and I sit on the back porch of our crappy apartment with a chemical-smelling mosquito repellent coil burning next to me on an overturned bucket while I try – and fail – to become an alcoholic writer who doesn’t write very much.
Somehow my Out of Time friend and I remain in touch, and when she visits me once on a trip to Florida, we talk about how great Automatic is, and how “Nightswimming” is the best, best, best REM song ever, and that’s the last time I see her alive, and this is the last REM album she will ever hear.
No other album hits me like this ever again. It occurs to me now that it is very likely none ever will, given how closely I associate it with that time of the chaotic tides of life and emotion – and of course, I am still in its grip when I emerge from the dark times and meet Jenn. When we listen to Automatic together, the world gets better.
REM releases Monster in 1994, I am working in the composing room of The Orlando Sentinel. I associate this loud, feedback wail sound with working the second shift and staying up to go to Denny’s until 3 a.m., and Jenn and I sharing our first home – half a duplex with a 1950s kitchen and a scrubby front yard on a busy street. Nearly a year later, we get up one morning at 3:30 a.m. to drive to the nearest Ticketmaster outlet and camp outside the doors to await the sales of REM tickets to a show in St. Petersburg. We are the third or fourth group in line. Months later, we attend the only REM concert either of us will ever see, on the band’s last tour with Bill Berry. “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” is the show-opener, and hearing those chords still gives me memory-induced goosebumps, and that song will never sound the same to me again. Jenn and I dance and scream and smile uncontrollably and get married eight months later.
There are other albums, and songs which make me grin kind of sadly (“Electrolite”) and others which beg me to roll down the car windows and say the hell with hearing loss (“Let Me In”,”Living Well is the Best Revenge”), but none which pull at me as completely as those I listened to almost 20 years ago.
Which is why, last Wednesday, after hearing about REM calling it quits – and I love, by the way, The AV Club’s description of Automatic as “the Pet Sounds of the alternative era” – I was glad to have an evening appointment which meant a half-hour drive each way out on some dark, quiet roads. Perfect for cracking the windows and singing along: The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder…
Because memory association is what I do, on this Father’s Day, here are five songs that always bring my dad immediately to mind:
Harry Chapin, “Taxi” –
I remember my parents talking about the news when Chapin died, but more vividly I remember being in the car with my Dad, and this being a song for which he specifically turned the radio up and told me he liked it. After the song’s narrator talks about his old flame telling him to keep the change from the “twenty dollars for a two-fifty fare” come the lines:
Well another man might have been angry/ And another man might have been hurt,
But another man never would have let her go. / I stashed the bill in my shirt.
At this point Dad gave me one of those eyebrow-raised “that’s life” half-grins and said, “Yep – Harry’s no fool.”
Sheena Easton, “Telefone” –
I remember when Dad bought Best Kept Secret on cassette. It was the first current pop album I remember him buying, and I seem to think he told me it was one of the albums they listened to at the hospital where he worked as an anesthetist. It’s funny how many fragments of the other songs on the album popped into my head when I read through the track listing for the first time in at least 25 years, but “Telefone” is by far the most prominent in memory. (I think Dad had a little thing for the early/mid-1980s Sheena – neatly balanced , of course, by mom’s little crush on Harrison Ford.)
Lionel Richie, “Hello” –
Because the song came on the radio once in the car, and for some reason, Dad began responding out loud to the lyrics:
“I’ve been alone with you inside my mind …”
“And in my dreams I’ve kissed your lips a thousand times.”
“Lionel!” (This was preceded by little gasp of faux-prudish horror and sent me over the edge into laughter.)
My wife never got to meet my Dad, but I told her this story a long time ago, and I’m not sure we’ve ever heard “Hello” and failed to insert Dad’s comments.
The Beach Boys, “Sloop John B” –
Well, I mean, it’s got my name – which is also my Dad’s brother’s name – right there in the title, which Dad always pointed out, and it’s a Beach Boys song from arguably their best and most influential album, so there’s that, too. My parents graduated from high school in 1965, so the The Beach Boys were a big part of the music I heard when I was little, and they later became the first musical act I saw perform live when I went with my parents to Blossom Music Center in my early teens.
Don McClean, “American Pie” –
I remember hearing this song for the first time because we were in the car and Dad made a point of telling me all about how long the song was, and how parts of it were about Buddy Holly’s death and other parts Don McLean had just explained as having no meaning at all.
The song stuck: When I was old enough to drive, I went to the mall and bought a $2 cassette version of it from a bargain bin at Camelot Music (look it up, youngsters) and was disgusted to find it included the cut-in-half “part one” and “part two” single versions. And when I took to hanging index cards with quotes and song lyrics on the inside of my high school locker door, verses from “American Pie” were there.
It’s still a favorite – an absolute gotta-turn-it-up in the car, and if I’m alone, crank it to eleven, sing along, get those adrenaline shivers and remember my Dad.
Summer, 1991: Chuck Treece visits WBGU, thanks to the connections of my pal Ivan, the station’s metal director:
The year that Chuck Treece released his Dream’n album, Ivan and I had stayed in Bowling Green for the summer after our sophomore year. Ivan was the metal director at 88.1 fm WBGU, and had managed to bring Chuck to town for a publicity visit. We drove to Toledo to pick him up, and he crashed at our apartment for a couple nights, did some on-air interviews, recorded some show promos, and just hung out. Nice guy. Fun couple of days.
This snapshot is quite the little slice of college flashback pie, from the Nine Inch Nails shirt I’d gotten at a show in Columbus in January that year (1991) to the flyers for Howard’s Club H and a few bands which featured friends of mine – Gone Daddy Finch and the Escaped Fetal Pigs. (What? You’ve never heard the Pigs’ rock anthem “Oompa Loompa Love?” You. Haven’t. LIVED.)
“Violin” was my favorite Chuck Treece song – the sound is good in this 1990 clip of his band McRad performing it:
– but this one’s better for watching him play:
Friday night, my younger brother came over and hung out for a bit. Then I dove into my first play of Dead Space: Extraction.
After lunch Saturday, Jenn, Kelsey, Kels’ friend A. and I all headed north for a long-planned get-together. Things kicked off with a ten person, nearly four -hour marathon Rock Band 3 session with excellent friends who accommodated a last minute upheaval in plans and did not throw sharp objects at my neck when I requested lead vocals on “Through the Fire and Flames.” Also, there were chips and salsa and Skittles. Lots of them.
With same friends, TACO NIGHT IN AMERICA, followed by several hours of general goodtiminess, including introducing my daughter and her friend to Better Off Dead. From 1:45-5 a.m., a four-man game of Castle Ravenloft in which a timely roll of 20 brought our party from the brink of doom – seriously: the Rogue who rolled it had just used a healing surge to go from “Mostly Dead” to “Leveling Up and Unleashing Hell in Dagger Form” at the toss of a die – to a zombie/skeleton/gargoyle/kobold sorcerer-crushing victory.
And have I mentioned that it’s sunny and close to 80 degrees here in Ohio today?