Rows. Endless rows. This is how I occasionally spent my Saturday nights in Los Angeles, scouring the new and used sections of Amoeba Records on Sunset Boulevard. While others met with friends at local establishments, or dazzled strangers on first and second dates, retiring at the end of the evening in the confines of one’s master bedroom, I combed for music in one of the greatest record stores still in existence, a one man search party flashing the light through the woods for the next great band. At times, this seemed to be all the therapy I needed to combat the loneliness I often endured but did very little about.
As great a city Los Angeles can be, it can also be an extremely isolating one. You’re in a box with a glass roof watching as rocks fly overhead. Some of them pass by. Some hit, chipping away at the fort you've built to protect anything honest about yourself from escaping. This was entirely my doing, of course, and all in my head. I spent way too much time creating the shadow of an individual while neglecting the mass that's made to precede it. I moved to L.A. in 2001 to pursue a career in screenwriting but instead pursued the idea of it; a master plan isn’t effective if your audience primarily consists of the four walls that surround you. I wrote, but not nearly enough. Music wasn’t necessarily the escape from this more than it was a healthy distraction, though one I’ve lived with now for quite some time.
You Are What You Share
Music has always played an integral part of my adult life. I would stay up nights tunneling through the pages of magazines reading about bands that I had never before heard of, whether they were reviews of new releases or articles on up and coming artists. There was something enormously fulfilling in buying an album from a band with which I had no prior history and sliding the disc onto the tray only to relish in what emitted from the speakers. I’ll admit, I took pride in this, in knowing that I had discovered something new and would soon introduce to my friends. I can recall one evening in 2004, shortly after I moved back to San Jose when my friend Matt and I were on our way to a party.
For weeks, I had been obsessed with New York based outfit The Walkmen’s newest album Bows And Arrows. The conversation began, as it always did, with me saying something like “dude, you have to hear this band.” I waited for the speaker system of my 1993 Ford Escort to gasp to life, and watched as my friend’s face transformed before me. He kneeled forward in his seat, ogling the stereo as the organ that kicks off the album’s opener What’s In It For Me eased its way into singer Hamilton Leithauser’s gravely vocals. It could have easily taken a wrong turn, with my dear friend forcibly stomping his foot on the break and kicking me out of my own car for exposing him to such a big pile of shit. But it didn’t. I anticipated these moments. And still do.
Like most people, I took my first steps toward a proper music education in High School. I was a sheep at that time, if sheep wore Z Cavariccis and horribly designed cardigan sweaters, following the herd of what was currently popular. It wasn’t until midway through my senior year, when the pseudo depression started to kick in, that my taste became more experimental, though not always well executed. I still remember the day I approached a Tower Records employee carrying three CDs in my hand, Dead Can Dance’s Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun, Fugazi’s Steady Diet Of Nothing and Sepultura's Arise.
The clerk, looking just as puzzled as I did, uttered only two words: “interesting mix.” Responding with a painfully uninspired ‘yeah’ I just stood there as he rang them up, immersed in one of the most uncomfortable music buying experiences of my entire fucking life. My eagerness was obvious, my lack of knowledge even more. After listening to those albums, Fugazi being the clear standout, I realized that even though the guidance of others was necessary, I needed to explore the road on my own to discover what it was that I liked, not what others felt I should. It all started with a little band from Manchester, England called The Smiths.
The Romance Begins
I was born in 1974, a good year to provide one a relatively decent introduction to the music of the 80s. The Smiths formed in 1982 but still a decade would pass before I would ever hear an album of theirs. The first time I was played Louder Than Bombs, a compilation of singles and B-sides, was in my best friend Adrian’s bedroom.
Here was a band whose success could be measured solely by the audience’s ability to relate to the stories of which its front man, Stephen Morrissey, sang. For me, they couldn’t have been shared at a better time. And although the album was released 6 years prior to my knowledge of its existence, the music still connected. Every song had a place; they plucked the veins in my arms and made me feel something at a time when I felt nothing.
Even the saddest of melodies such as the album’s closer Asleep, a beautiful piano ballad that could easily bring a man to tears, inspired a certain level of comfort. And just as Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine tore through the walls with its manic declaration of misery, the Smiths assured me that being different wasn't just acceptable, but rewarded. It wasn’t angry music. It was just unapologetic. The combination of Morrissey’s sharply composed lyrics and songwriting prowess of guitarist Johnny Marr cemented their future with me, and would be re-visited years later in a parked car as four men, piss drunk, would recite line for line the entire track list of Hatful of Hallow.
As I advanced the bridge of the The Smiths’ entire catalogue, arguably one of the main driving forces behind the birth of the Britpop scene, I steered toward a much heavier Goth/Industrial phase. I had already been listening to Pretty Hate Machine regularly but it was Trent Reznor’s brooding The Downward Spiral that became an instant classic to me. The album became a soundtrack to that particular chapter in my life, fanning the flames of the depression and self-hate, as bullshit as said depression eventually revealed itself to be.
An aversion toward conformity and commercialism also began to grow, which ironically, would later find itself snuggling warmly under the flag of MTV, as the video for the song Closer, brilliantly directed by filmmaker Mark Romanek, would see an endless rotation and inspire ridiculous T-shirts promoting the wretchedness of those who wore them (mine was on exhibit until it ripped). However, The Downward Spiral offered a refreshing contrast to some of the more popular music that was out at the time. While The Smiths provided a sense of doleful comfort, Nine Inch Nails validated the anger I felt (the result of an agonizing break up) and would create a hole that I would stay in for the rest of 1994. I was 20 years old, and as impressionable as any young man at that age could be.
Weekly trips to San Francisco soon became the norm. My friends and I would attend live shows of obscure bands my friend Rudy would read about in weekly publications or strip directly from the Cleopatra label’s arsenal. Drugs and alcohol became more common in the group at that time, which wasn’t due to the music, mind you, but more so just to torment the beliefs we had that very little in the world was of any worth, except what we shared with one another through, well, music. My friend Shawn, an artist I met while working in the ‘Tiger Shop’ department at Macy’s, turned me on to another staple of the scene, Tones On Tail and their album Night Music, a project for English musician Daniel Ash in between the seminal Bauhaus and more new wave inspired Love And Rockets.
Tones On Tail was a heavy departure from the music of Bauhaus, pioneers themselves, which relied heavily on guitar soundscapes that merged perfectly with Daniel Ash’s hushed vocals. I fucking loved that album and listened to it constantly, the song Movement Of Fear being one of the more favored during long drives. Shawn and I would remain quiet just to hear the faint strum of a guitar at the beginning of the song, and spend hours debating the meaning of the album’s lyrics. The words were everything and sometimes made an even stronger impact than the music itself, which created a hunger that would need to be fed constantly. It was then that I came across one of the most important discoveries of my youth: Joy Division.
There’s almost nothing further that can be said about Joy Division, or more specifically, its captain Ian Curtis, that hasn’t already been expressed. The lyrical mastery that Curtis was able to achieve at such a young age was astounding. He was only 23 years old when he committed suicide in May of 1980, just days before the band was set to embark on their first ever U.S. tour.
I can’t help but imagine what would have become of him if he had kept on, if the physical and emotional toll had released its grip for a brief enough moment, but I’ll never know. I suppose Heroes are better to us dead and gone on their own terms than on someone else’s.
This should not suggest that I am a supporter of suicide as a means to cope, but who the fuck am I to argue otherwise? I’ve never felt suicidal, only sad and pathetic. It were as if I wore a poster of a movie called Depression with the names of old friends and girlfriends as cast and crew. "Coming This Summer" would adorn the top alongside film critic excerpts such as:
“He’s doing this just to be cool.” –Poser Nation
“What the fuck does he have to be sad about? His parents just gave him a car.” –Bullshit Monthly
Or quite possibly:
“His girlfriend left him because he couldn’t get it up. Meanwhile, a soldier just lost his arms and legs in a war so fuck him.” –Boo Hoo Gazette
But the feelings remained. Even though I ripped the poster from my body, I still felt a hard spike tickling the area surrounding my heart. Depression always shows its ugly head at the most opportune moments, when you least expect it but fail to realize you’re actually summoning it. What followed was a new gear that steered me closer to a resolution I had yet to envision.
A Different Road
While my interest in Goth music still remained intact, I started getting heavily into the Britpop music scene where bands like Pulp, The Charlatans U.K. and Blur, among others, were gaining massive amounts of attention. One band in particular would stand atop the fence, and if we’re keeping score, mark another one for England for Manchester’s The Stone Roses. Like Morrissey and Marr before them, The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown and guitarist and chief songwriter John Squire were a combination of raw talent and pure attitude.
Although it could be argued that the lyrics were nowhere near as sprawling as Morrissey’s, the manner in which Ian Brown delivered them on stage was piercing. He was an imposing figure who displayed a level of confidence that was staggering. Although his voice couldn’t reach the notes of some of his peers, he carried himself in a way that removed the need. He was a star and beckoned everyone to take notice.
Other than the obvious pop gems The Stone Roses were best known for (I Wanna Be Adored springs to mind) one of the fondest memories I have of this band was singing them at peak volume in the backyard patio of my friend Carlos’ parents’ house. This went down while they were on vacation, the specifics of their retreat I can’t recall, and Carlos was appointed the man of the house. He earned the title immediately as he invited a small group of friends over on one special evening to basically get fucked up and listen to music all night. As expected, the drinks flowed heavily. My close friend Rudy had accompanied me, and one of Carlos’ old high school buddies, Jason, a fellow music lover, was also present.
It’s unclear how it started, but at some point following the normal devouring of the fat, we found our way onto the backyard patio as The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut began to play. Before long, the four of us were chanting I Am The Resurrection as it wailed from the speakers, dousing one another in beer, a sort of impromptu christening amongst music fans. As complaints from the neighbors began to stockpile, this led to us sitting in a parked car just outside the house singing along to The Smiths’ Hatful Of Hollow in its entirety. We had clearly consumed too much alcohol, or simply not enough. I will never forget that night; it’s one of those moments that stay with you even if the friendships between those involved gradually begin to fade, creating an adhesive in your brain that never seems to weaken. A moment like this will always be referenced when talking to someone about music or writing a slightly long-winded blog about how you became a fan to begin with. But that’s the point of it all, I suppose.
So where do we end this thing? It’s 12:03am on a Friday and I can’t seem to figure this out. Some of you may have already signed off and are not even reading this sentence. Trust me, I wouldn't blame you. I could probably write an entire blog on Radiohead alone which, to my amazement, I haven’t even covered. Those who know me well know that to be very true. But I’ll save that for another day.
There was the move to San Diego in 1999, one of the more significant chapters in regard to total music immersion. I bought albums frequently and discovered some true gems such as Super Furry Animals, Stereolab, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Broadcast, Yo La Tengo, Belle And Sebastian and The Beta Band to name a few. The list could spread like wildfire. Some had already been out a while but they were new to me. This was also the period I became more familiar with older artists like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, The Kinks and The Velvet Underground.
I could talk about the night I dropped ecstasy to see Bis perform at The Casbah and ended up gabbing it up with a complete stranger until 3:00am while an ex-girlfriend waited patiently near the car. Or the night I watched Damon Gough AKA Badly Drawn Boy kick a fan in the chest for bad-mouthing Bruce Springsteen, one of his childhood idols. My wife Josephine and friend Jenn were also there.
There was the time I passed on the opportunity to meet Elliot Smith at Amoeba Records in L.A. I was shopping when I saw him enter the building, this frail wire of a man encircled by a concrete band of admirers - music lovers saluting an impossibly gifted musician. All I wanted to do was tell him how much his music meant to me. But I couldn’t find the courage to approach him. He committed suicide three weeks later.
There were the shows. So many shows. From the lightening rod that is PJ Harvey at The Warfield to the always-spectacular Radiohead at the Greek. From my wife and I catching an in-store performance of Badly Drawn Boy at Amoeba to The White Stripes that same night at the El Rey, the result of a very generous scalper. From my one and only Cranes show at the Trocadero Transfer in SF to the weekend long frenzy of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival with my buddy Todd, an orgy of performances in and of itself.
I’ve long considered shows to be an extremely intimate experience and one which I have shared with very few lovers. The shows that I have taken my wife Josephine to have been some of the most memorable to me, even if over the past few years they have proven to be few and far between. A growing family will do that. We recently went to see Gruff Rhys perform at The Chapel in San Francisco. While the stage was being prepared, my wife and I had a discussion over beers about the growing dynamic of our two boys, making guesses on what types of people they would become. Would they travel? How old would they be when they did? Which son would visit us more after having moved out? The times have certainly changed and are so much better because of it.
The Digital Leash And Last Words
Now that technology has invaded our lives with convenience, long are the days of the explorer. The rows have dwindled as some record stores have closed their doors and moved on to become a Starbucks or just another link in a chain of restaurants. Sampling music nowadays is as easy as pressing a button from the comfort of your own home, in between cat videos (which I have been known to watch) and clever Vine contributions. I write this well aware of the links I've chosen to riddle this blog with.
My friend Jim and I frequently share music with one another, a tradition that I enjoy greatly but one that’s not without its drawbacks. What it’s created is an ever-bloated library with little to no digestive system. There have been times when I'd be browsing though my iPod and would come across an album that I forgot I even had; I would look at album titles from some artists and not even know how the first track began. This made me sad. We seem to be at a stage where excerpts are what we value - samples of things we used to love experiencing in full. There are so many music streaming services to choose from that it makes listening to an album from start to finish a thing of the past. Our attention spans have diminished so significantly and music, among other art forms, has suffered as a result. But I still have hope. I always will.
As I look at this blog, I can't help but see an over saturation of words. I don’t expect everyone to read this. This is something that just spilled out onto the floor over the past couple of weeks. I’m still very heavily into music and excited to have witnessed just how much it’s grown since purchasing my first CD ever: Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. It continues to amaze me to witness the dynamic between people that it inspires and how much everything we do has changed because of it. This is something that will never end. So wherever you are, play your favorite record, CD, MP3, cassette tape, whatever. Rupture the silence and bask in the noise. It just might be the reason why you’re even here.