My three dollar allowance as a ten year old didn't warrant me the fiscal opportunity to purchase records and tapes regularly. Instead I would sit for hours in front of one stereo speaker waiting for a favorite song came on the radio. When one finally graced the airwaves I placed a hand held tape recorder up to the speaker panel and hit record. The stereo in my bedroom didn’t have a built in cassette deck yet so if I wanted to hear my favorite song on command (and with a little rewinding or fast forwarding), this was my only option.
My recording technique as a half pint was sloppy. I always missed the first few seconds of each song and then my arms would get tired from holding up the recorder. Eventually they would weaken, causing me to move my hands around impatiently for the second half of a song. You can actually hear the sound of my little arms failing me through the hits of the early ‘80s. I desperately wanted to own these songs and get to know them better so Presidential Fitness arm strength failure aside, I continued to record the songs I liked best using this ridiculous DIY style for years.
These cassettes were my first real attempt at collecting and organizing music. I didn't know I was preparing myself to be a record collector nerd but this obsessive behavior certainly helped nudge me towards that path at a young age.
The sound quality on my tapes may have been subpar but to my credit, I was a superstar at playing the name that tune game since I spent so much time with the radio on and my Panasonic recorder ready to be sprung into action. Note: you may want me on your '80s music trivia team.
My clumsy mixed-tapes of Billboard hits were not intended for public consumption. I typically hoarded them in my bedroom and then continued to play them over and over again in private. I memorized each of them from front to back. To this day I still expect the song “Gloria” to always be followed up by "Shadows with the Night" or Nena’s “99 Red Balloons" to have a shout out to the NYC radio station Z100 mixed into the opening verse when I hear them.
I knew every melody. Every word. Every tempo shift and dynamic swell. I studied every breath and the space between notes. I was training my ears to pick apart the various layers in a song and understand how they work together without knowing I was doing it. This unique ritual of listening to music as if it was under an audio microscope is something I still carry with me to this day.
My personal library of black case-less tapes were left at home in the Fall of 1982 when I was asked to sleep over a new friend’s house and bring music. This girl lived one town away which meant we didn't go to school together. We both played on a local girl’s soccer team and she had invited me to stay over house for the first time ever. This was uncharted territory for me. I wasn't 100% positive girls from other towns were like the girls from my town AND I had no clue what music to bring. I panicked. My parents trying their best to help without spending any money loaned me their Beatles collection (1967–1970 – The Blue Album) cassette. They were certain this would be more than adequate. The Beatles in my parents defense have proven to be timeless and enjoyed by many different kinds of people of all ages however at Jennifer’s house in 1982, it wasn't adequate.
For the first time in my young life a peer made me feel lesser about who I was because of the music I listened to. I showed her my Beatles cassette of which I knew every word to every song and she wrinkled up her face only to finish off her look of disgust with a snort. She passed me her Clash tape and told me this was the ONLY music worth listening to.
The Clash? Is that a band? The horror! I had no idea what she was talking about. (“Rock the Casbah” wasn’t in constant rotation on the radio yet). I squinted at the pint sized cover art and tried to examine it as closely as possible. They looked a little like the Stray Cats according my inexperienced eye but what was this? One of the members wore rings on nearly every finger and had a funny looking cigarette tucked between them. Men could wear rings too? I had no idea and concepts of gender roles were beginning to crumble. At age 11 my innocent mind didn't know about pot no less what a joint might look like so the illegal and wild aspect of a band member holding and presumably smoking weed flew right over my head. I was more concerned that the band posed for their album photo on railroad tracks. We were taught as children to avoid playing on or near tracks so a rough and tumble looking group of lads stopping for a picture practically on top of them clearly proved to me that they were rebels living dangerously. I hadn't even heard a song by them yet and already my mind was blown.
The Clash were totally new to me and I felt stupid as well as embarrassed for living in my parent’s shadow. I held Combat Rock in my hands for the first time that night and pondered the door this record had opened. I wasn't just listening to music unlike anything I had ever heard before; more importantly it was the ultimate lesson that the kind of music you listened to said something about the kind of person you are. It could also reflect how worldly, individual, and cutting edge you were. Defining yourself by the records you listen to, no less making or breaking friendships was a startling revelation. I didn't appreciate feeling vulnerable about my limited knowledge of music by a girl my own age but it further proved that there was a world of music for me to explore. We started off as equals when I arrived at her front door (white middle class tomboys from Bergen County, N.J.) but by the following morning I was the loser and she was coolest girl on the planet.
The only redeeming aspect of that sleep over night (besides learning about The Clash) was that her mom's idea of a craft for us was to make a Holly Hobby type doll out of a wooden spoon. She may have been more advanced musically but building a spoon doll was way more pathetic than listening to The Beatles. I was never invited back to her house for another sleepover but shortly thereafter I began asking my mom to help me explore the world of music I didn't know. The goal was to obliterate my musical ignorance. The spell of top 40 radio was broken.
I delivered this news back to my parents and my Mom was especially understanding. She was a retired Greenwich Village beatnik with an ex husband who was (still is) a Jazz drummer so she seemed to appreciate my yearning to investigate the world of counter culture. It as almost as if she was expecting that day to come.
She then offered and began taping a weekly late night music video program for me called Friday Night Videos. Since my town wasn't blessed with cable TV or in turn MTV, this major network show was my singular outlet to watch music videos. Although this show mostly played videos for the same songs I heard on the radio, occasionally something left of the dial would make an appearance. FNV wasn't ideal for discovering new music but it did allow me to see the artists I had only heard on the radio before no less get a visual sense of the style and attitude attached to each kind of music. A morsel of perspective was an improvement over none at all. Some kids grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, I watched Friday Night Videos.
My mom was an insomniac so this really was fate working in mysterious ways when she fell asleep recording one night. This meant that whatever was aired after Friday Night Videos accidently made its way onto the videotape as well. I couldn't help myself but watch every minute of that tape. It was the closest I could come to staying up late like a grown up. This was a window into the adult world of late night television and it was this one completely random and rare event that altered my life forever.
For a brief time period of time in the mid '80s after Friday Night Videos there was another music video show that featured mostly underground music and weirdo skits. I can't recall the name of this show for the life of me but this is where I discovered the Australian group Midnight Oil and their 1982 single called “Power and the Passion”.
Fuck The Clash. This band not only sounded unlike anything my little girl ears had heard before, the singer was an alarming freak of nature. I mean this in the best way possible. He was bald, 7 feet tall and he danced like a stiff jointed zombie having an epileptic seizure. He sang about important political things in an artful manner. I was in awe. No, I was found. This band looked and sounded like the complicated oddity I felt I was. Sure every kid feels insecure about themselves at this tender age but I had found a band that empowered the fragile me. I wasn't alone. There were more misfits just like me. Now all I had to do is find them. It felt like an eternity but a few years later, I did.