June 16, 2015

Chapter 9 : These Boots Are Made For Listening : Tales of a Female Music Enthusiast

Written by a fellow student in my yearbook. 

Part One

It took nearly three years but my friendship with Nick Forte was forged with Bad Brains' Quickness on cassette. The record store had been sent an advanced copy of it for promotional purposes and I passed it along to him in the lunch room. It was my olive branch. Nick and I started off on the wrong foot three years before when I walked into to study hall wearing a brand new Agnostic Front shirt. He proceeded to grill me on the band and hardcore music. I failed his test instantly and in turn I was deemed pathetic and fake. Admittedly, when I purchased the black bleached splattered tee at age 16 from Bleeker Bob’s, I wasn’t entirely sure what the band sounded like but I thought the bold messaging was worthy of owning.

That day I learned you never should wear a band shirt unless you mean it. 

Early on at Ramsey High, Nick was a skinhead (and for a brief time also starving himself to be the lightweight on the school's wrestling team) but by senior year, he was focused on his new band Rorschach. They were hardcore but something different was layered in. It was metallic, dissonant, and would go on to spawn an entire sub-genre of music in the years to come; metal-core. I considered Rorschach a better than average high school band at the time but I could have never predicted their relevance in the timeline of heavy music or the incredible influence they would have on so many bands yet to be formed (Converge I am looking at you).

It was Nick who introduced me to Melissa. She was dating a member of his band at the time. He was very adamant that we meet because there were so few girls interested in music to the degree we both were. She too collected records. She was willing drive to record stores or shows anywhere but most notably however, she was a drummer. She was the first female musician I knew in person and it was Melissa that insisted as a music fan that I should consider playing music too. I couldn’t play an instrument yet but I loved singing. It would take me a few more years to build up the courage to play music live with others but it was Melissa York who planted the seed and was the first person I played guitar with in a practice space. Over the past two decades she has gone on to play with so many incredible bands and people: Born Against, Vitapup, Team Dresch, The Butchies, and more recently with Amy Ray from the Indigo Girls.

Nick and Melissa are both respected musicians. Their various bands are still adored by thousands but they hold a legendary status in my life. They taught me that all these bands I worshiped were comprised of people just like us. These band members were not an elite group of people, they were mirror images of ourselves who were also interested in expressing themselves and their ideas overtly. The DIY music scene they were a part of was so hidden from the mainstream population that you really needed someone already involved in it to bring you in and show you the way. They acted like accidental sponsors to me and for this introduction I am humbly indebted.

This very active underground community was practically invisible to the outside world. It was not on TV or talked about on the radio. The publications that wrote about them were hard to come by. There was no internet to troll for this information or befriend like minded people. These do it yourselfers were not old enough to get into clubs so they didn’t depend on traditional music venues to book their bands. They were remarkably self sufficient and put on their own all ages shows at houses or non traditional spaces like small town lodges, ABC No Rio (a squat at the time), and their local church basements. Before event pages and texts, homemade handbills and posters were made for these shows and passed along to their friends in person or left on record store counters. Even more amazingly, this network was not exclusive to our county or even our state. They were a busy ant farm with interconnected tunnels all over the Unites States. This multitude of self created channels made it possible for bands to tour and play for others much like themselves in nearly any other state.   

Just as important to this world was the non musician participants. The fans were just as active, just as outspoken, and because of this the boundaries between band and fan were blurred. Without one side, the other would not exist. The energy exchanged between the two sides at these shows acted like a self charging battery.

Some created their own fanzines on Xeroxed paper and either handed them out for free or sold them for a nominal amount of money at shows. They wrote about bands, their political beliefs, and personal experiences. These folded pieces of paper were blog pages before there was such a thing. Their wordy tributes were dotted with nearly impossible to distinguish images, usually blurry live band photos or images cut from papers or bigger magazines (proceeding retweets and regrams). They are comical to look at now but at the time, their immediacy connected them to strangers and in turn, made us feel less strange to each other. 

Photo from my personal '90s zine collection.
Other show goers sold or traded records from folding tables and crowded car trunks. They built up a small distribution network and created traveling stores that represented their regional scene. Some meticulously photographed each event as if it was their job. Often there was someone serving vegan food to help spread the word that meat was murder and offer us a taste. There were political group pamphlets exchanged like trading cards for a sea of issues, concerns, and collectives. We behaved like a small pioneer town of Little Rascalers that had circled their wagons. We were relatively self contained and our backs were turned from outside society.

These young people didn’t need the corporate music industry’s help to be seen or heard and that is incredibly intoxicating information for an impressionable teen to discover. The message was received loud and clear. Not only could I do this too but I could bring the records of the bands I was discovering back to the record store and sell them to others. I was like a religious zealot ready to spread the DIY word.  

Part Two

My parent’s dire financial situation had proven that a college education would be impossible for me. Rather than jumping into a plan where I would request aid or seek scholarships, in 1989 my parents talked me out of college all together. It was too expensive to go and unless I wanted to start life with an immense debt, I should seek a plan B. My parents were among the last generation that believed their daughter’s certain future was a temporary office job that would quickly be replaced by marriage and becoming a stay at home mom. It wasn’t that they didn’t think I was capable of a career, but especially to my very traditional father, he felt the more comfortable life for his daughter was one that was focused on home and family. Why worry your pretty little head with big world problems when you can have a man provide for you and manage the smaller world of the home instead? I did not agree.

Mom and Turk
My mother while fiercely independent and bright, dropped out of college to marry and start a family. My mom’s first husband (not my father) was named Turk AKA Robert Frank Pozar and now goes by the name of Cleve. He is a Jazz drummer and revered enough in the music community to have a documentary in the works about him. This relatively recent discovery came as a total shock to me. This “news story” ended up in my Facebook feed. The mystery man who vanished from my mom’s life in her early 20s and left her a young single mother could potentially have a whole film dedicated to him. He took off to dedicate his life to drumming and she was forced to move back in with her parents with a new born while waitressing evenings to get by. She never went back to college and her career path was derailed for decades. Her depression bloomed from here.

My mother spent her next 25 years as a remarried stay at home mom. She further distracted herself by remaining very active in the community but while some women are content with this role, my mother was not one of them. She finally began a desk top publishing career in her early forties but it was growing struggle as her MS symptoms worsened. My parents monstrous debt continued to grow and eventually it caused the collapse of both their individual home businesses. Within a few years the house my father designed and built himself would be sold off to help recover some of their losses.

When a major health issue enters the picture, there are money troubles, and you have older siblings in need of some sort of bailing out regularly, I quickly became the non issue. With all these family tree distractions I flew under the radar and out of the house as often as possible. When people wonder how I could see a band at CBGBs at 2am on a school night, it was because I was the least of anyone's worries. Home was where the hurt was so I avoided it best I could. I looked at my parents life and didn't want any part of it no less repeat an inch of it.

I picked up a second part time job through the record store. My allowance had dried up and I didn’t want to add to my parent's financial burden. Now that I could legally drive I was given the opportunity to become an assistant to a gentlemen who specialized in selling, let’s call them rare records. They were unlicensed live recordings or rare unreleased studio material. He also sold Rock related jewelry, stickers and posters but the "rare records" were the bulk of his business. We would meet up at a designated place and then I would sit guard in the passenger seat as he drove around NYC to pick up and drop off product. We checked in with about 20 different small indie stores all over Manhattan and New Jersey every few weeks.

Early on I kept an eye on the station wagon as he ran in and out of stores. If a cop pulled up to the car because we were double parked, I would hop in the driver’s seat and circle the block until the police were gone. Then I would double park it again somewhere close to the store’s entrance. I don’t recall ever being in fear of being busted for what was in the car, I was just terrified of driving in NYC. You get over that fear pretty quickly though when the pressure is on and a police car is megaphoning at you and everyone in a block radius to move your vehicle immediately. Sink or drive!

Over time as I built up trust within this community of dealers. I got to know the all store’s employees, the back rooms to the back rooms, and talked to members of this underground supply chain about trends in tape trading circles (often what was used to create these rare record). Eventually I was running in alone for pick ups or drop offs. If you don’t think there are a lot of women in music now, there were definitely zero teenage girls in this circle in the late ‘80s. I was it. These were all older guys who didn't know anything about this new alternative music trend so I became invaluable. I was their link to the new generation of customers and whatever this not quite metal but weirder than classic Rock / Pop was.

Live and studio rarities on tape from my personal collection.
It is almost impossible now to imagine a time when tape trading was nearly as popular as record collecting as everything today is done with a click of a button through computers. Up until the early ‘90s, you were either buying or trading tapes for this unreleased music or you purchased bootleg records if by some minor miracle, someone decided to press one of these rarities to vinyl. These boots were rarely copies of real studio records, they were typically unreleased material with varying degrees of quality that ranged from soundboard to a dude in the last row of an arena with a handheld tape recorder. Music fans were so rabid to own this hard to come by material that there was a genuine demand for these expensive, wink wink, imports. Before bands could easily share a demo or live recordings through social media, this black market was the only way to hear most of this material.  

I made these quick runs to the city for about a year and was always paid in cash. I was shown parts of NYC that I had never had the opportunity to explore before and was given the equivalent of a backstage pass to nearly every indie record store in the city. I learned so much about music, store operations, and the underbelly of the industry. I had the occasional beer at lunch and being that this was New York in the ‘80s, nobody raised an eyebrow. I recall so many random bits of conversations with this record store community. I learned about Nick Drake’s unique picking technique, which pirate radio stations played the best stuff, and which city neighborhoods were on the rise or way out. They predicted of the death of Manhattan, the rebirth of Brooklyn, the return of coffee shops, and they made sure I was hip to which bars in town didn’t water down drinks in case I was ready to move on to the hard stuff. In this network I was 17 going on 50.

The tattoo on my left ankle is the bottom of this skateboard design.

By Bergen County standards I was a freaky 12th grader with L7 style matted dreads and possibly the only Ramsey High School student with a tattoo (a Tommy Guerrero skateboard design). I was the first to wear a Nirvana shirt ("Fudge packing, Crack Smoking, Satan Worshipping, Motherfuckers") and mocked for it mercilessly. I had a pictures of bands like Mudhoney and The Lunachicks in my locker. My college dream was dead but I was at the ground floor of the music industry and about to take my first step up from store clerk to indie music buyer. I would be graduating in 1990 but my future had already started. I mentally traded in classmates for co-workers. My new friends worked at Sub Pop, CMJ, Revolver, C/Z, Dutch East India, SST, and Caroline.

Some people went to prom, I went to Prong at CBGBs. Suck it seniors.

The handwritten notes posted here are all taken from my senior yearbook and written by classmates. I recently applied for a job at Sub Pop and part of me feels like I should have attached these to my resume. In 1990 I had an entire high school turned on to bands that the rest of the world had yet to discover no less aware of the key record label behind them. If that doesn't reflect some serious marketing skills, vision, and a life long dedication to Sub Pop Records, I don't know what does.