Through my early childhood, I was all about listening to my parents’ music, mostly because it was always there. I went through my dad’s tapes a thousand times over and over again, annoying my sister with playing Genesis for the thousandth time on the way to or from school. The Police. Genesis. Phil Collins solo. The Eagles. Poco. Toto. The Pretenders. Janet Jackson. Michael Jackson. Too many to remember. It was all there. So these single digit years, the ones before I lived in Arizona, and later California, were times when the music I knew was the music my parents listened to. I had not found my own thing just yet.
Our first Christmas in Arizona, as I recall, was a fruitful one. As our “signature gift” that year, my sister and I got really nice matching boom boxes, which were actually also freestanding shelf stereo systems with both detachable speakers and a handle, so one could either coil the speaker wires behind each speaker on the included hooks, plug batteries into the back (it took eight D’s as I recall) and carry it around like a gigantic ghetto blaster with surround sound, or they could do what my sister and I did and start your own miniature stereo system in your room. Since the speakers were indeed surround sound, I was always trying out different places to put my speakers to make it sound just right. This was in the early 90s, you you’ll understand that these units had two tape players, with one being a stereo recorder. So, one could quite easily tape songs off the radio with the pressing down of two small buttons. No “hold the radio up to the recorder” mess here. I could make a tape and then duplicate it to my heart’s desire, even. Napster had nothing on my tape making potential. I became a faithful customer of Maxell soon after. So naturally this was the beginning of my own musical journey and much time was spent enjoying local radio and making mix tapes of favorite songs.
But one other gift my parents bought that year also proved to be a game changer, and this was a gift they had bought themselves. For years my father’s gigantic, complicated and old console stereo system complete with the gigantic floor-standing speakers had been a part of our household, usually in the room with the nice furniture and the console TV. Our first house in Arizona was no exception. He even still had a turntable even though by then all the records had been sold off. But our first Christmas in Arizona would be the year our family joined the digital music world with my parents’ purchase of a CD player, and a few CDs of old music they hadn’t owned since their record collection went away. After Christmas day was over, after the dinner was eaten and cleaned up, and after we stopped playing with our new toys long enough to finally go to sleep, my parents fired up the player, unwrapped some CDs, and began playing, which I woke up and heard instantly from my darkened bedroom. The first song I ever heard on digital media? “Too Old To Rock ‘N Roll, Too Young To Die” by Jethro Tull, from the Original Masters compilation album.
Compact discs, for all the scorn they get from audiophiles now, were a revelation in 1990 to a kid whose only exposure to music had been FM radio and tapes of scratchy, old and beat up records. I never knew music could sound so clear, so crisp, and for the first time I was hearing stuff not on the radio, stuff not part of my parents’ tape collection. I’m not sure what made my parents choose that Jethro Tull CD to buy when they had no Jethro Tull anywhere else in the collection to that point, at least not that I saw, but hearing that song opened a door for me. It was formative. It’s a simple song really, just a screed about defying age and staying committed to rocking and enjoying oneself, both in music and in life. One might say “Too Old To Rock ‘N Roll…” is autobiographical, a declaration on the part of Ian Anderson that his music would always continue on no matter what his chronological age. But something about the whimsy of it, the song craft, the fact that it was just slightly different than the mainstream stuff I had been listening to for most of my life, it opened my mind just slightly and woke me up a little. That sounds slightly lame but there it is. I was nine years old, nearly ten, and I was changed forever.
The next Christmas brought me my own first CD player, which I was able to wire right into the back of my still fantastic stereo with standard red/white wires. My sister did not get a matching one for some reason. Now, I’m to this day still not sure why I was the only one who got a CD player, but it might have something to do with the fact that I had spent the entire previous year messing with my parents’ player and asking to play their CDs over and over. Maybe they figured this would keep me out of their hair. Whatever the reason, I now had my own platform for my own CDs. My first CD? The soundtrack to The Jacksons: An American Dream miniseries. Do you remember that one? Where the guy from Welcome Back, Kotter played Joseph Jackson? Yeah, more music that I didn’t choose, but it was my first CD! I was enthralled and played it endlessly. It had a really killer live version of Who’s Loving You on it.
From this point on, the entire point of every dollar I got in allowance, or from odd jobs I would do for neighbors (dog walking, house sitting, mowing lawns) was to buy music. Or at least that’s where a lot of it went. After I finished buying some of my parents’ music, the stuff they didn’t already own on CD that is, I became more and more driven to seek out my own likes, to find my own style. This was 1991. What really famous and game changing CD was released in 1991? What style of music did it make popular? Yeah. No one should ever wonder why I am, have been, and always will be, a devotee of Seattle style grunge music from the early-to-mid 90s. That era and my new thirst for musical expression collided like a freight train and a dump truck facing head-on.
What was “finding and buying music” in the early 90s? First it was listening to radio all the time. All the time. Which was really not much different from how my parents, or their parents, found music “back in the old days.” My favorite station in Phoenix was 103.9 “The Edge,” which always played the latest grunge/alternative stuff and had equal parts of both Seattle and Phoenix. People seem to forget how relevant Phoenix also was in those years between the Gin Blossoms, Meat Puppets and Refreshments. We were on the map, too. It was an exciting time. Anyway, once you had favorite songs and albums in mind and some money saved, it was off to The Wherehouse, or Wal-Mart, or sometimes Target, or if you had a gift card Sam Goody or Tower. I never went to the latter two without a gift card because they cost so damn much. Not that The Wherehouse wasn’t just as high as the rest, but they did seem to always have the biggest and most plentiful used CD section, and those were $10 and under, as opposed to new CDs that were upwards of $18 or $22. Yeah, most of the time you were buying stuff that was somewhat ragged looking, or that wasn’t very good, or whatever, from the “reject pile” but then sometimes you found a gem too. I still have the used copy of Superunknown I scored from a Wherehouse in Chandler somewhere in my archives. Wal-Mart was still decently priced back then, and had not started secretly scrubbing curse words from their CDs yet. Who censors a CD and then sells it as if it’s the same as CDs found elsewhere with swears included? Stupid. But I digress.
Buying a CD, especially one that was particularly “hot” at a particular moment or one that you’d waited and worked and saved money to buy, was always an exciting time, like a Christmas that happened during the regular part of the year. Getting home and ripping into the cellophane, pulling the CD out and putting it into your player, thumbing through the CD’s booklet and smelling the unique scent of the ink and paper they used to print it, reading the lyrics and singing along, it was all part of the experience. It excited me. Pretty soon a few CDs I could store on one plastic standing rack became a few dozen that I needed a cabinet with little CD-sized drawers to hold. I was hooked. Hooked on music.
One more note about the 90s: we still had Walkmen. So what was “portable music” back then? Well, when I bought a CD and had listened to it thoroughly as a CD, I would place a blank tape in the stereo, queue up the CD, hit play and play/record at the same time and voila. Portable music. The trick was to know where to stop the CD and turn the tape over. You had to be ready with 60 and 90 minute tapes too. Some needed more room to copy than others. Some albums were over 90 minutes and if that happened, “filler” songs were left off. It was a crude system but it worked for me for years afterward, well after portable CD players and cassette adapters were common. I’m used to them now but every now and then, I am amazed at the sheer idea of an iPod that has an entire closet full of CDs, indeed a veritable store-full, all in the palm of one’s hand. Ten year old me would have had a fit seeing such a thing back then.
Most of the reason I play music now is my nostalgia and attachment to those first fledgling days of musical discovery. They remain a part of me and will always.