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 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:
One of the things I love about reading Adam‘s ongoing series of music recollections is the sheer avalanche of quick-hit memories and images and emotions they trigger.
His latest entry, on Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane,” for instance, includes this bit:
I remember discovering the The Trinity Session wasn’t their first album when I stumbled upon Whites Off Earth Now!! on vinyl at Madhatter Music Co. (another independent music store now gone) in downtown Bowling Green.
Now, it’s entirely possible that I knew Madhatter was gone, but the last time Adam and I visited our old college town, it was still there. According to its Myspace page –
Madhatter Music Co. was founded in 1988 by Billy Hanway and Ed Cratty. Its first customer was a madman by the name of Jim Cummer, who became manager and eventually bought the store. For 18 years, Madhatter has stood for good music, flying under the radar of a diseased popular culture, communing with fellow like-minded freaks and lifers, and rocking out at all costs.
In October 2006, PB Army drummer and local music journalist/heart patient Keith Bergman took the torch and attempted to lead Madhatter from its recalcitrant teenage years into the murky waters of young adulthood. Sadly, he’s packed his bags and inventory, never to return. The store is officially closed.
Now, I remember Billy Hanway. At least inasmuch as he was “that guy Billy” who owned Madhatter.
And while I’ve lost track of which CDs of mine may have come from Madhatter – They Might Be Giants Flood, I’m pretty sure is one, though – I know for certain that I have two flawless LPs I got there when I still had my first stereo system, since it still included a turntable. One is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which I have still never owned in any other format, and the other is The Police, Synchronicity, which I picked up to replace my cassette. I think I paid maybe three bucks each for these.
But what really socked me while reading that blurb was that Madhatter was founded in 1988, meaning that when we started our freshman year at BG in the fall of ’89, the store was only a year or so old. The thing is, it felt like the sort of place that had existed for decades, sandwiched in that dingy little building between bars and gas stations and alleys. Frankly, I figured Madhatter had in all likelihood, been there since the one year my Dad attended BG back in the late 1960s. I would have at least figured the place dated back to the ’70s, but man, I’m telling you: It felt like it could have.
I mean, if you’re what, older than 30, you know this kind of store. You walk in, and there’s a rack of local music rags and a wall that’s been tacked over with countless layers of band flyers and bar show announcements. And there’s one glass case layered with stuff like “Corporate Rock Sucks” patches and anarchy logo buttons and bumper stickers, and another case filled with CDs from Europe and rare reissues and B-side collections and concert bootlegs. The walls are covered in posters and lined with racks of CDs and LP records – and one sadly-neglected bin of cassette tapes is over in a corner – and you go in and start flipping through stuff that you’ve seen before, but maybe something new is out this week, or maybe someone traded in a collection you’re looking for.
Odds are the place smells like someone’s basement that you know – like an old couch and a candle and patchouli and a bit of mustiness that never quite congeals into “rank,” but still kind of encloses you a little bit claustrophobically. It’s not anything you’d call a pleasant smell, but recalling it, by association, puts me in a mood of remembering an important and special time in my life.
Suck it, iTunes. Bite me, Amazon. Yeah, you’re convenient and wondrous and I can’t live without you, but you’ll never be my Madhatter, you hear me?
This recollection – which I’ve had in mind for awhile but was recently jumpstarted by something my friend Adam wrote – is likely to wander and be a bit nebulous (yeah – surprise, right?) because it’s not focused on a single anecdote or event, but more on feelings and associations and tangents.
See, 1989 was the year that I changed my music.
Maybe not changed, really; maybe it’s more like I finally really felt what sort of music I liked.
And though I’m thinking about 1989, I’m going to start further back because a) I feel like it and b) it gives a little background.
I think the first time I was really hit by music that sounded different from “regular” pop music was in spring of 1985 when I was a freshman in high school and “West End Girls” was all over the radio. I associate it very strongly with a weekend class trip to New York City, and the long bus ride and staying up late in a hotel in New Jersey consuming pretty much a whole package of Oreos.
Synthpop was, of course, a real flavor-of-the-moment thing, but this song struck something deep, and I was hooked on the Pet Shop Boys for long after the tune fell off the chart.
That fall, when I was a sophomore, I gave community theatre a shot and auditioned for a North Canton Playhouse production of The Passion of Dracula. (A possible branching moment: There was also a Junior Achievement introductory meeting that night, which I was interested in, and I had to choose between the two.) To my genuine surprise – this was my first theatre experience, outside my freshman year drama class – I landed the role of Dracula. This wound up starting about a year-and-a-half of solid community theatre involvement, including dating a girl I met in Dracula who not only encouraged my Pet Shop Boys listening, but introduced me to Depeche Mode’s Music for the Masses and The Cure’s Standing on a Beach. (Oddly enough, the latter did very little for me, which is funny in a way, considering what’s coming up later.)
Now, not having the Internet and blink-twice-to-hear-similar-artists like these damn kids today, I really didn’t expand my horizons in what we used to call “progressive” or “alternative” music. The next song I really really remember stirring my gut was New Order’s “True Faith,” in 1987 – and it’s still one of my all-time-favorite “windows-down-and-crank-the-stereo” songs when nobody’s around.
So, if you look at my cassette collection in spring 1989, there’s not a lot of “progressive” in there – two Pet Shop Boys tapes, The Art of Noise In Visible Silence (almost solely because of the Peter Gunn theme – or as we called it, The Spy Hunter Music) and the aforementioned Standing on a Beach, which I actually sold to Adam for nine bucks, I think. (Also funny because he had found it in my car when I’d bought it a couple years earlier and totally made fun of me buying it.)
As previously discussed in my 1989 memories, I began dating a girl from Germany early in the year, and as summer kicked off and her inevitable departure neared, I wanted to do something really amazingly cool before she left, so I bought us tickets to the New Order, Public Image, Ltd. and Sugarcubes show at Blossom Music Center. (Because, you know, a rock concert. That’s big when you’re 18.)
Adam, having recently undergone his own change in music tastes, asked if I’d get a ticket for him, too, so the three of us went together.
Mind you, I had no freaking clue who PiL and the Sugarcubes were. And since I had never bought an entire New Order tape, “True Faith” was still the only song I really knew, though if pressed, I might have recognized “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
But “True Faith” still hit hard and deep, and I knew it would be awesome to hear in concert.
It was. And because it was the only song I knew at the time, it’s the only one I can remember, although I do know that I wore an old beat-up fedora that I found in the trunk of someone’s car and that we danced the entire night on the lawn and had a ridiculously good time with all these oddly-dressed and strangely-made-up people the likes of whom I had never seen en masse, but whose company I enjoyed nonetheless.
This was July, 1989: My first – what would you call it? Punk? New Wave? “Progressive?” “Alternative?” – concert. (Yay Internet: Most of the show can be found, badly recorded but totally appropriate for the era, on the series of tubes.)
A little more than a month later, then, Adam and I started our freshman year at Bowling Green State University, which is really where my thing for alternative music exploded. Adam had a kick-ass stereo system (which, back then, kids, meant having monstrous speakers that took up almost as much space as our refrigerator) and a massive CD collection, and he was also good at meeting people and making friends, so basically, simply by having Adam as a roommate, I found myself round-the-clock immersed in the sounds of Xymox and Alphaville and Bauhaus and Erasure and even more of Depeche Mode and The Cure, and when I want to be there in Chapman Hall again, with those friends and all the ridiculous cliched-but-true freshman year drama and heartbreak and anger and love, that music takes me there.
Music has never again played as big a part in my life as it did when I was in college, and it started that fall.
Another aside to The Cure Standing on a Beach cassette that Adam bought from me secondhand: Until recently, it was, I think, the only place to hear a song called “A Few Hours After This.” I couldn’t have told you the name of that song or even described its sound until the past few years, when Adam cued it up to jog my memory and the damn thing put a lump in my throat the size of a tennis ball because it yanked me so hard and fast back to freshman year.
An article in the campus newspaper about a comedy show on the university’s FM radio station (88.1 WBGU – The Shark!) led me to get in touch with its creators, and the rest of that year, I joined its weekly broadcast, which, in turn, hooked me on the idea of spending more time on the radio and started me on the path to discovering even more music over the next few years, when I was a disc jockey at the station.
And now we come to the end of 1989: I am home on Christmas break, and since my Dad is working New Year’s Eve, my Mom stays home and allows my little brothers and me to invite some friends over for the night.
Some of my close friends from high school, along with my new best friends in the whole damn world from Bowling Green, came over, and we had a freaking blast, the details of which are mostly irrelevant here – except this one: Adam has this tape, right? It’s a new tape that some semi-local musician brought into the CD store where Adam had worked, and we all need to listen to it right now.
So we cluster in the living room of the house where I grew up – and I’m not going to lie, there has been some imbibing, though Mom being Mom, there’s plenty of crash room in the house and nobody’s driving home impaired – and it’s me and my best old friends and my best new friends and we’re all a little wound up and goofy and it’s fantastic and awesome and it’s New Year’s Eve and this is what’s going on in my world the first time I hear Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine on my parents’ tape deck.
And it is effing incredible.
I remember smiling and I remember laughing at things like “…did he just say he wanted to fuck the devil?” (Answer: No. He did not.)
Yes, it’s a damn dark raging album, but the thing was, it was so much freaking fun to listen to. I never became a full-on NIN fan, mostly because nothing else has ever hit me the way Pretty Hate Machine did.
It came along at the right moment; the right crossroads; the right ending to a year.
I know it’s only August, but I hereby nominate the following online comment (posted under an alias at Cleveland.com and shared here in its entirety) for 2009’s Dumbest Things Awards:
Science fiction like the other expressive arenas of music, art, poetry even comic books are bastions of the left propaganda. Is it any wonder that few movies are profitable?
…I’m going to write it anyway.
Look: I don’t stand a chance in a musical debate with Adam. He knows his stuff inside and out while I tend to write about music – on the rare occasions that I do – from a very “in my gut” standpoint that’s rarely defensible through means other than, “I dunno, I just like it.”
Here’s the thing, though: I’m not saying Jackson was culturally insignificant, and I’m not saying that he wasn’t, infact, at his peak, probably the most powerful popular culture force on the planet. I admit that I never understood the weird, panting, teary-eyed throngs of devoted admirers, but I’m not denying that he shaped pop music and the music video like nobody else.
All I meant in that Tweet was that I think U2 is a better musical force and in the long run, matters more in a bigger sense. (Also, for what it’s worth, I don’t think being relieved by the fact that more people wached Barack Obama’s inauguration than Michael Jackson’s funeral counts as “poo-poo”ing the latter’s legacy. If anything, doesn’t it just bolster the importance of the former?)
Here’s the U2 disclaimer: I’m not even a huge U2 fan.The only albums I own are The Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum, and Achtung Baby, and the second two were freebies. My wife owns How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
And yet I have said for years that I think pound-for-pound, U2’s long-term importance and impact surpasses most other rock bands and rivals even The Beatles. (My wife, a huge Beatles fan, will have none of this, of course. My argument in that case rests almost solely on longevity, but it’s not one I’m making here. That’s another day.)
As it happens this year marks 29 years since U2 released its first album, Boy, and coincidentally, Jackson’s solo discography spans 1972-2001, also a 29-year period.
The way I see it, nobody ever touches the way Jackson’s popularity spiked in the 1980s. For some reason, I keep visualizing this concept like icing spread on a cake, with the thickness of the icing at a given point representing popularity and influence. In Jackson’s case, the piece from the 1980s is just freaking smothered in it. Nobody else’s cake is ever going to have a piece so monumentally buried in this icing.
But after Bad, Jackson’s relevance starts its law-of-diminishing-returns cycle: His music becomes less important even as the sideshow aspect of his life takes over, and while that keeps him in the spotlight, I don’t think it keeps him culturally relevant.
U2 will never have that much icing on a single piece of its own cake. But then, neither does their presence and influence wax and wane as severely. Theirs is a cake with a moderately thick layer of icing, but far more uniformly spread, and frankly, it’s over a bigger cake, since their nearly-30-year album career is a cohesive band effort, while Michael’s first solo albums were still done within the context of the Jackson Five, and it’s only with Off the Wall that he comes truly into his own.
U2 released 12 albums from 1980-2009; Jackson ten albums in 29 years (and I’m not counting compilations and similar repackagings). And while Jackson’s Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987) without a doubt represent the domination of a decade, they also serve as a reminder that at best, Michael Jackson was truly and expansively relevant for roughly a single ten-year period.
The U2 music catalog, by contrast, is far more consistently meaningful and impactful over almost three full decades. Thematically, the group has almost always tackled far more difficult issues through its music than Jackson did, and stylistically, its members have never shied from drastic changes in sound and approach. (What knocked Thriller from its #1 album spot on the UK charts, by the way? War.)
Jackson was a genius at writing and performing and crafting pop, no doubt whatsoever. I’ll even say he may be the best ever in that regard, because despite my never having owned a Michael Jackson album, his songs will spiral up in my brain out of nowhere and sit there for DAYS. I will find myself whistling “Dirty Diana” for no reason, though I know maybe three words in the whole song. I’ll hum random segments from “Bad” when I’m in the car, though I haven’t heard the song in months.
But I’ll also say this: I’ve never heard a Michael Jackson song that really moved me. Never had a Michael Jackson song put a lump in my throat. Never got that gut-punch, heart-racing oh-my-God-I’ve-got-to-listen-to-that-again-RIGHT-NOW from a Michael Jackson song. I’ve never cranked the volume, rolled down the windows, hit the gas and sung along out-of-tune and at the top of my lungs because it felt so damn good to a Michael Jackson song.
Again, not even being what I’d call a U2 fan, I can name songs that hit those emotional notes without even thinking hard: “Bullet the Blue Sky”, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, “Desire” and “All I Want is You”, right off the top of my head.
Explain the current soaring Jackson music sales? Doesn’t the spike almost, in fact, prove how much his relevance had faded? Where was his relevance in April? Everybody’s getting their fix because the last time they bought a brand new Jackson album was in 2001, and their Thriller cassettes and first-release Bad CDs are long gone.
There’s also this: Our generation, the one which grew up on old-school MTV and fueled the Michael Jackson ’80s, is one well-noted for its obsession with that decade and the pop culture of our youth. We flock to VH-1’s parade of retro shows, and we carry touchstones of that age into today’s realm. I point you to the fact that my daughter and her friends all know the words to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’“, and this was before she even knew I had the Greatest Hits CD in the car.
Again, I’m notnotNOT a music scholar, and when I try to write things like this I always feel like I’ve jumped around and not supported myself very well, especially coming up against Adam. And again, I’m not saying that at his peak, Michael Jackson wasn’t a pop song revolutionary and spectacular presence who just about ruled the freaking world, and I’m not saying that his death isn’t awfully damn tragic, especially given his musical magic and his troubled roller coaster of a life.
But I think that life will wind up casting the longer shadow. And that’s sad.
It’s been more than a decade and a half since I even pretended to have any sort of musical talent, and that last time hardly counts, because it was a brief period in college when I bought a used saxophone and taught myself to play it one summer. And even then, the stuff I’d learned in four years of playing clarinet and then bass clarinet at Lake Elementary and Lake Middle schools – fifth through eighth grades – was pretty well gone and buried.
My daughter’s in fifth grade now, and she plays the viola. Practices four or five nights a week in the back room of the house, but the sound carries easily through the kitchen and into the living room. Her first orchestra concert was a little over a week ago.
The mental trips between past and present began as soon as I got home from work at six that evening. It’s December, so it was already dark. My daughter had eaten her supper already and was upstairs getting cleaned up and dressed, and my wife and I had a hurried dinner so we could leave by six-thirty. I caught a faint pull in my gut of that “something special on a
school night” feeling, like the little thrill of seeing that old CBS “Special Presentation” logo spinning on the television screen that meant it was time for a Charlie Brown or a Rankin/Bass holiday show.
The school district – yes, we live in the same school district where I grew up, and my daughter has actually had classes in some of the same rooms I did, and being back in those halls on meet-the-teacher nights is still a fun and kind of a surreal experience – has a real community theatre these days, just a few years old. In my band years, we played in the middle school gym, two bands on the floor and the oldest group of kids up on the stage.
Watching my daughter file in with the other fifth graders and take her seat on the stage, I thought about the half-hour before our band concerts, how it was weird to see kids from school but not actually in school, and everybody a little dressier than normal. (The next day, you’d see a lot of us wearing those same outfits in school, minus maybe the ties and jackets if we had them. We had sensible moms, I guess, and an outfit worn for a couple hours during a band concert clearly doesn’t count as being worn at all.)
I remember being in fifth grade and thinking how OLD those eighth-graders looked. My God, that guy had a beard! And those girls – they were, uh, shaped differently than the ones in our band.
In sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, about a week or two into every summer vacation there was a weekend band festival in the parking lot behind the high school. Seeing kids there was even more odd than seeing them at night, but it was also more fun because we didn’t have to dress up, and when it wasn’t your turn to play, you could run around and play all the goofy carnival games like Chuck-A-Luck and the ones where you threw ping-pong balls into miniature goldfish bowls.
My daughter’s up on stage and the orchestra’s tuning up, and the kids are plucking their strings while the teacher goes around and makes an adjustment here or there, and I remember the utter dread that came with playing a woodwind: The fear of SQUEAK!ing on concert night. Solos were never for me, thanks very much, I’m happy to sit here in the second clarinets with my buddy Mark (we’d both take up the bass clarinet in seventh grade – the only two basses in the band – and get to move back by the tubas) and let others run the risk of public SQUEAK!ing.
The fifth graders played their songs (all plucking, no drawing of the bows at their first concert), and I watched my daughter’s
concentration and her fingers and her chin tucked onto her viola and I wondered if I ever looked that serious, because wow, do I remember band as being a place to really goof off. (Which would probably explain why I never really considered my playing a ‘talent.’) Maybe the strings just come with a little more class than I had between the ages of 10 and 13.
After they finished, they left the stage and sat in a few rows of seats down front, and the other three orchestras played their sets, and eventually, the concert was over and we wedged our way into the narrow halls behind the auditorium, wading into the chaos to find our kid. And here she came, music folder tucked under one arm, viola case in hand, winter coat on, shuffling
through the packed and noisy hallway.
Outside, it was easy to breathe, and cold, and it was a quiet ride home.