October 15, 2012
An Introduction : Tales of a Female Music Enthusiast
In 1982 the town of Saddle River, N.J. didn't have cable television. It is hard to fathom how a town ranked with the second highest per-capita income in the state couldn't work out a way to bring this technology to our collective living rooms but regardless, we lived in a world without MTV and commercial free films.
I was raised near the end of a cul-de-sac on three acres of a retired apple orchard. Home was a five bedroom house that my father had designed himself with cedar shingle siding and it featured not one but two book libraries. They were divided up by his and hers collections and were contained at opposite ends of the house (looking at the picture - his far right, her's far, far left).
People wonder why I won't combine my record collection with the men I love and live with but my parents happily kept their books quarantined. I always appreciated their carefully curated selections that highlighted their own interests and personal acquisitions living apart in two distinct spaces. They were separate but equal. This kind of segregation may sound unhealthy to some but to me it represented two individuals who maintained unique identities under one roof. If there is one message to pull away from this paragraph, it is that collecting pieces of art (written, painted, or other) was a great source of pride in my family. Culture in our household was a core value and a collection of items reflecting that value was integral to our genetic making. Throw in a grandfather named Frank who post Depression Era could never bring himself to throw anything out and loved telling stories, and there you have it; collecting stuff was practically hard wired into my soul. It was only a matter a time before I started to write about it.
The second thing I should make as clear as possible is this. Your record collection will never commingle with mine.
Before I knew Northern Jersey had indie record stores or that magazine racks dotted with music publications could have possibly existed in the region, my exposure to music through the early '80s came from all the traditional sources. There were my parents, television/ film, radio, older siblings, and friends. But the problem was my grade school friends were as ignorant and naive as I was. My parents were, well my parents. Plus they liked music but they LOVED books. My big brother was the enemy and I barely grew up with the other siblings so that left me with film and cable-free television to show me what the world had to offer. It is hard for me to image life before the internet as I write this now but I promise you there was one and it was a dark, lonely, and confusing place.
But before I get into the significance of me at age 11, here is a little more back story. We will get back to 1980s, I promise.
My great grandfather Frederick Keats wrote and published poetry as well as music for the piano during mostly the 1920s. Growing up we had a handful of Frederick's sheet music framed and hung up neatly in a row along our foyer's wood paneling. They now lovingly reside in my home, still trapped under glass waiting for someone to free them who also happens to read sheet music and can play the piano.
Frederick Keats is the closest my family tree has come to to fame in the world of music. My grandmother Irma (the daughter of Frederick) had a piano but by the time I was born she was no longer playing it. It stood like an enormous out of tune end table in the front room of their home, adorned with family photos and unopened mail. No one except for me as a bored grade schooler ever paid much attention to it. I should also add that this piano and I were acquaintances at best. Armed with some basic skills passed down to me by one very patient grandmother, I poked and prodded its keys seasonally. During extended holiday visits or summer vacations (and only after we had played every card game known to mankind), I would try to figure out how to play one handed versions of songs I had recently heard. While visiting the bubble world of people in their 70s that meant Nadia's Theme, the schmaltzy opening song from the soap opera Young and the Restless. This is not exactly the stuff music prodigies are made of but it was the first hint that I had a thing for music.
My parents were enthusiast of the arts but they were not record collectors.Their first date had taken place at a piano bar where adults throw back cocktails in the presence of a piano player. They took turns singing along to whatever was played or requested with the lubrication of copious amounts of alcohol. They weren't professional musicians or songwriters, they just adored a good sing along. Even more annoyingly, my mom and Dad sang to just about everything in respectable two part harmony as if cast members from the musical South Pacific for all of eternity. When they didn't know the words to something, it didn't matter. They mumbled random ones until a melody would prevail. I suffered through hundreds, maybe thousands of car rides, trapped in the backseat, as they sang Broadway musical versions by the Rolling Stones to The Beatles. Sinatra to Bette Midler.
As a young girl being raised a mere 30 minutes from NYC, my parents regularly dragged me to the theater, operas, and classical music performances but I can't say I deeply connected with any of it. The endless exposure to music and art was there but when parents force you to attend these things, they become a chore rather than an interest. I was a prisoner not a fan with free will. Sure I shamelessly belted all the songs from the musical Annie but by the late '70s, every little girl my age was obsessed with the orphan in the red dress with the adorable dog. A little part of me dies as an adult when I hear these songs now (correction, ALL show tunes) but at the time Annie represented the promise of a happy ending involving a classic rags to riches storyboard and a locket that saves the day. Little girls love that crap.
My mom and dad were 17 years apart in age and brought children from previous marriages with them to their blissful union in the late '60s. I had a total of 5 half brothers and sisters growing up but they were all so much older than me that I don’t recall too much about their taste in music other than the occasional record they accidentally left behind at our parent’s house. Pink Floyd’s “Careful with that Axe Eugene” (Ummagumma -1969) literally scared the hell out of me when I put it on the turntable for the first time, so I avoided most of their orphaned records after that traumatic listening experience. (At 3:09 to be exact)
The snippets I do remember is this:
My older half brother Robbie and his girlfriend once showed up to our parent's house with every item they were wearing on their body cut to pieces and put back together with safety pins. I was told by them that it was “punk” but I couldn't have guessed what that actually meant at the time, no less that it had ties to a youth based music movement. I knew visually this punk thing pissed my parents off (“You ruined perfectly good clothes why?) but they looked like pimply puzzles with stiff troll doll hair and one black eyeliner pencil between them. If there was music fueling their fashion, they never talked about and they certainly didn't share of those records with me. Then again I was under the age of 10 so I can't be sure I would have appreciated The Sex Pistols quite yet anyhow. Music sometimes works like a book. You can be exposed to a later chapter but unless you have made it through all the earlier ones first, reading the final chapter solo can come across like gibberish. Listeners to a new kind of music sometimes need the related stepping stone chapters to have the most recent one make sense. Context is key and at that young age, I had none.
I had another older half brother named Peter who basically was Bill Murray. He looked a lot like him. He was unbelievably funny and utterly brilliant in the curious ways he expressed himself. Everything out of his mouth was delivered in an upside down comedic kind of way. He was the oldest and in turn he seemed to me the bravest of all the siblings because he didn't live in fear of our parents. He openly cursed, smoked, drank, talked back, and yet did so with such glee.
Pete and I didn't know each other well because he was literally 25+ years older than me but I have tiny slivers of memories of him. I recall his arrival back from serving in Vietnam and his interest in making pottery. He lived in a tent in the back yard during this time period and then seemed to just vanish until the holidays cycled back around. What I remember most is a few Christmases we spent with Pete. He usually gave ridiculous gag gifts to us but one year I was blessed with a UX-S90 mixed tape. There was no artful cover. It came bare bones with the classic lined paper insert and a handwritten the tracklisting filled with band name misspellings.(Not to mention a few missing song titles) I was in awe of this mysterious collection of nothing but new to me music. It was my introduction to Nick Cave, B-52s, R.E.M., Human Sexual Response, and Blue Cheer among others. A seed (Nick Cave joke intended) had been planted. I was beginning to understand and appreciate that there was music outside of the Billboard top 100 realm just waiting to find its way to my hungry ears. And to be fair, I know some of these bands eventually entered the top 40 charts but in the mid '80s, this was not the case.
I can't stress how exotic and exciting these bands were to my green ears. Hearing them was like being given the keys to an invisible world that nobody else I knew had . A grown man who I really looked up to and only saw once every few years had confided in me this tremendous group of hand picked gems in a cassette form. I never listed to mainstream music the same way ever again. The secret was out. I didn't have to listen to what everyone else did. There were options.
My half brother Chris was older than me by 6 years and was nicknamed "Psycho" in high school. He was a stereotypical artistic bad boy with a genius level IQ. During his teenage years he favored metal and punk but later in life he listened to truly every kind of music possible. He taught me that music used in movies was worth listening to on their own as a score or soundtrack. (Repo Man, The Shining, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to name a few) This makes up for the year that he tortured the whole family by wearing a banjo around the house for a year, all day every day as he tried to learn how to play it. Try to image Tom Cruise's character from The Outsiders with a bluegrass instrument strapped around him but with no clue or talent to play it. It looked and sounded as terrible as you might imagine.
Chris was the only sibling left in the house by the time I was born so most of my childhood featured him as the lone role of a traditional big brother. He rarely shared his music with me but at this point in my life I wasn't quite ready for any of it either. In fact when he played me The Ramones "Beat on the Brat", I was convinced it was written with a kid sister in mind AKA me. Call me sensitive but I received his passive aggressive message loud and clear. His music was his.
Chris once brought me back a white and blue quarter sleeve shirt from the Judas Priest "Screaming for Vengeance" tour but not because he was being kind or even that I requested it. Our mother made him buy me something when he went to see them perform at the Meadowlands Arena without his kid sister. His choice of this particular album art shirt was his little fuck you to me knowing I didn't like the band nor would I ever want to wear a metal eagle upon my undeveloped chest. It wasn't that the bands he liked were bad, but they were his bands. By Chris liking them first, he owned them in my mind. While some people grow embracing the music of their older siblings, I was repulsed by the very idea of being a copy cat. Now, I would kill to have that Maiden shirt.
Oddly I have almost no recollection of my half sister's musical taste at all.
I remember Susan being disgusted with me because I didn't know who Robert Plant was when Big Log was charting on the radio. I apparently needed to show more respect for this ex Led Zeppelin vocalist but after hearing this particular single, could you blame my lack of interest? At age 40 I still find this song sleepy and disinteresting. Sorry Sue.
My sister Jennifer upon discovering I loved Prince during the Purple Rain time period (1984) gave me a long winded speech about the beauty and sexuality of Sade, an artist she considered more talented then my purple royalty. Needles to say this rambling was totally lost on me and I stopped paying attention to anything she had to say to me about anything from that point forward. She could keep her saxophone Jazz and sex talks. Ick.
By the early '80s I began a personal journey to find a soundtrack of my very own. I had just requested my kiddie rainbow themed room be painted over to something a little more adult that reflected the new transitional me. Good bye childhood, hello awkward puberty steamrolling towards the teenage years.
Some families pass down from generation to generation recipes or silverware but I have the deep appreciation for music, words (printed, spoken, or in song), and almost 150 years of family history helping pump it through my veins. I am enormously proud to carry on the tradition in my own small way as a musician and writer but most of all as a person who has carried a life long obsession with music. My parents, grandparents, Chris and Peter are all gone now but their passion for the arts had been embedded in me from an early age and now it owns me. I don't have children of my own to pass along this history to so I am extremely grateful to the internet for giving me a place to share it so it won't be totally lost.