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Cassette (Re)collection: 7

Posted by NumberSix , 01 October 2009 · 387 views

My childhood allowance was $5 per week, just enough for a GI Joe action figure plus a little spare change. (Military toys were outside my purview, but all those groundbreaking points of articulation made those scintillating Star Wars aliens feel like paralysis victims. Also, Marvel's GI Joe comic book was immensely superior to their Star Wars comic.) As the son of a mallrat, I was up at the mall nearly every single week and over time amassed a considerable army of Joes. It was only a matter of time before the toy aisle at G. C. Murphy's would run out of Joe figures and I'd have to find other uses for that income.

Late in 1983, I discovered my next collecting opportunity, right within my price range: the Camelot Music at Lafayette Square Mall sold vinyl 45 singles 3 for $5. My mom still had her 45s from her own childhood, but they had, y'know, old music on them -- Beatles songs, music from Grease, the Archies, arcana like that. This was my chance to buy singles I wanted, and I'd avoid the mistakes she made, such as throwing away all the sleeves. I never understood that. Did they make her stacks too heavy? Did she like having chunks of dust gunking up her turntable needle?

I remember one of my first three singles was "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" by the Human League. I'm having trouble remembering the other two without running into the other room to peek. Many early purchases leaned toward what I would learn years later were the many genres and subgenres lumped together under the "alternative" label in retrospect -- household names like Duran Duran and the Cars, temporary successes like the Thompson Twins and the Fixx, and plenty of one-hit wonders like Icicle Works, Peter Schilling, and General Public. Then I let my compulsive list-making habit get the better of me by adopting a rigorous scientific method for determining subsequent purchases based on a simple determinant: Casey Kasem's American Top 40.

More on that next time. Time for this week's hits:

The Byrds: The 2½ years I spent at Butler University yielded little in my life in terms of long-lasting effects. I walked away from it with no small amount of guilt and regret, a slight respect for Milan Kundera's Life is Elsewhere, a second-place prize in a poetry contest I didn't enter, a few extra factoids about Vietnam, some light experience with the earliest known Macintosh computers, an autographed copy of Czeslaw Milosz' Provinces that I later eBayed to a Harvard professor for thirty bucks, exactly zero (0) friends, a couple of traumatic anecdotes about public speaking that turned into uncomfortable yet necessary life lessons, a couple dozen textbooks their bookstore refused to buy back, and one (1) cassette from their bookstore's discount rack -- a Byrds anthology called The Original Singles 1965-1967 / Volume 1.

Remember what I said about "old" music? The Byrds were among those many bands that never were and odds are will never really be my music. However, Spin once ran an article about the impact of the Byrds on artists I did enjoy (R.E.M. was a key example), so I felt obligated to give them a try. I was familiar enough with "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the Biblically allusive "Turn, Turn, Turn" (neither of which I knew were covers -- I only knew that the latter irritated me to no end after its use in an endlessly rerun Time/Life commercial), but the other tracks taught me, if nothing else, from where all those dime-a-dozen jangle-pop college-rock bands of the era stole their ideas. The stylistic debts weren't limited to the distinctive quasi-acoustic folk-rock sound alone -- beyond William Shatner's less-said-the-better "Tambourine", I was a proud owner of Hüsker Dü's remake of "Eight Miles High", and one of my long-longtime faves, Tom Petty, was practically a Byrds tribute act via album cuts redoing "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" and "Feel a Whole Lot Better".

Even ignoring the part where the sound quality of this cassette was only a shade better than the disposable TDKs I used for radio dubbing, this best-of never grew on me. I've kept it more as a historical piece than as an album I enjoy. A remastered CD version might or might not impress me more, couldn't really say.

The Cars: Speak of the new-wave devil! When I first encountered that strange new beast called "MTV" at my aunt's house (they had cable years before we did), the first music video I ever saw was "Since You're Gone". It was love at first note. Gawky four-eyed Ric Ocasek and his band of merry pasty-faced guys just so happened to have swingin' electronic beats, occasional flourishes of electric guitar, and a fine way with heartbroken self-deprecation. What was for a nerd like me not to appreciate?

Shake It Up was one of the first albums ever to appear on my Christmas lists, thanks to "Since You're Gone" and the mindless dance-a-thon that was the peppy, propulsive title track. My copy is covered with smudges but plays as well as ever. The album tracks can blur together because they seemed to use the exact same BPM...but that's where the diversity of the smash follow-up Heartbeat City learned a lesson and took a few more chances -- allowing more variance in the backing electronica, amping up the guitars and drums in unforgettable singles like "You Might Think" and "Magic", and even letting Ocasek pass the mic to bassist Ben Orr for "Drive", the mandatory ballad that every band has to perform in order to receive permission to become officially famous. Naturally they had to ruin it all a few years later and break up so Ocasek could go marry a model and create esoteric solo albums for no one to hear, but for a time they were among the few bands that I somehow weirdly identified with, or wished I could be. I may have idolized their conformist new-wave fashions just a little. I bet no one ever made the Cars wear flannel shirts and thermal underwear to school. Not that I'm bitter.

[Next entry: a hard-rocker turned Christian and a British jack of all parades.]

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