In the grooves, part three

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In parts one and two, inspired by the exhibit “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” at the Oakland Museum of California History, I began revisiting the role that albums played in my life from my childhood in the ’60s until I stopped listening to the bulk of my music on vinyl in the early ’90’s. In the conclusion: Earthquakes, personal and geological.

College: 1975-79

I’d heard tracks from Bruce Springsteen’s first two records played on Boston’s FM station, WBCN, and I liked them. But, for some reason, I didn’t buy a Springsteen album until Born to Run, and even then, not until a year or so after it was released in 1975. But then something clicked and down I went into the rabbit hole of Springsteen fandom; I belatedly bought his earlier albums, and became enchanted by the cinematic story-songs and beatniks-on-the-beach vibe of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. I wore out “Rosalita” and “New York City Serenade” as I made up for lost time. So when “Prove It All Night” was released in the spring of 1978 as a teaser single for his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I was like a stick of dynamite ready to explode.

I remember my junior and senior year of college as a blur of Bruce. I saw my first E Street Band show in May 1978, then spent the rest of the summer counting the days until he came back to Boston in September. Darkness was the first record that I instantly, viscerally, understood — the narrator’s despair at living a small life, his desperation to be his true self somewhere else, spoke to me in my circumstances as a girl from a blue-collar family, filled with ambition but not much faith in myself. I parsed every word of Darkness reviews by Dave Marsh (Rolling Stone) and Kit Rachlis (the Boston Phoenix), pieces that approached the album the way we approached classic novels in my English Lit. classes, and I knew that I wanted to write about music this way. You know how people say, “Omigod, this album changed my life”? OMIGOD, THIS ALBUM CHANGED MY LIFE.

So Much Music: 1979-81

In senior year of college, I started writing record reviews for the free music papers that showed up in record stores around town. I met a kindred soul named Holly Cara Price, a Bruce fan, poet, photographer and aspiring rock writer. She persuaded me to start writing music reviews for an unlikely publication, a feminist weekly called Sojourner. Somehow, Holly convinced the editors that their definition of “women’s music” should expand beyond Teresa Trull and Sweet Honey in the Rock (no offense to those pioneering artists), to include all strong female rock and punk voices. So we wrote about Patti Smith, Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt,  Joan Jett, even — I swear — Donna Summer’s Bad Girls album, all for a Cambridge radical/feminist/lesbian audience. They drew the line, however, at our attempts to educate our readers about Bruce. But I did learn about some amazing traditional women’s music artists, including the charismatic Ferron, who was pretty much the Springsteen of lesbian folk music. So, all in all, I think it was a mutual broadening of horizons.

When we weren’t fighting the patriarchy one Blondie review at a time, Holly and I were obsessing over Bruce together. It’s because of Holly, and Bruce, that I made my first trip to New York City for the 1979 No Nukes Concert at Madison Square Garden. That’s when I first laid eyes on Bleecker Bob’s, the legendary Greenwich Village record store, where I bought this Springsteen bootleg. Geek details: It’s pressed on red vinyl, has no credits and lists then-unreleased songs we’d later come to know as “Thundercrack” and “Bishop Danced” under the titles “Angel from the Inner Lake” and “Mama Knows Rithmatic, Knows How to Take a Fall”.

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After I graduated college, I kept my job in the campus library (the journalism offers weren’t exactly pouring in), but I continued writing for the free music papers. I was paid in promo albums, which is how I accumulated a Who’s Who of “Who’s that?” Do you remember Moon Martin? How about Horslips?  Yep, if there was a record that nobody else wanted to review, give it to the new kid. I didn’t care. I was getting a byline and trading in the crap promo records for albums that I really wanted.

And there was so much music to want in 1979 and 1980. This was as formative a period as 1970-1971. One part of me was all about Bruce. The other part was in an Anglophilic swoon over British new wave. Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces and Get Happy!!!, with their dazzling wordplay, sealed the deal on a deep admiration that has lasted through Costello’s many changes of persona and genre. The Clash’s London Calling launched a passion equal to that of my Bruce fandom; I remember buying their Sandinista! on my way to a December 1980 Springsteen show at the Boston Garden, stashing it underneath my seat and feeling like my musical worlds were colliding.

Ah, Sandinista!. This is what albums could do that CD’s and MP3’s can’t. The Clash packed an entire world, a movement, a community inside that album sleeve. Not only did the package contain three records for the price of two (including one side of dub reggae and electronica that sounds startlingly contemporary now), there was a tri-fold, punk ‘zine insert with lyrics, credits, notes and hand-drawn cartoons crammed onto every inch of its six pages. Sandinista! was a manifesto and a world-music party that you could hold in your hands.

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And then there was Chrissie Hynde . . . When I first heard the Pretenders’ debut album,  it was Tapestry all over again;  I felt like Hynde was speaking to women who loved rock and roll in our own language. Although she fronted a male band, she wrote from an aggressively female perspective, about sex, love, pregnancy, birth control, rape. The melodies were swervy and the rhythms jagged and hard, but Chrissie’s achingly beautiful voice, her singular phrasing and cooing vibrato, put her femaleness front and center. She didn’t wear dresses, though, and she didn’t flirt; she played a rhythm guitar as sharp as her cheekbones and bristled at being included in the condescending “women in rock” stories that filled the media in ’79 and ’80. Chrissie was everything I wanted and needed her to be. And the album cover shot of her in a bright red leather jacket, her kohl-rimmed eyes staring defiantly out from under Carnaby Street bangs, was, to me, the epitome of cool.

 

Rock Critic: 1981-1987

In 1981, I landed my dream gig — I was on the roster of regular music writers at the alternative weekly the Boston Phoenix. And one of the first lessons I learned there about writing rock criticism was this: Do your research. Don’t worry about looking stupid in front of a colleague for asking a question about a band or record. It’s better than looking stupid in front of your readers.

I hate to be all “Back in my day …” about it, but, do you know how hard it was to do your homework on an unfamiliar artist or genre before the Internet, before Wikipedia, You Tube, iTunes, Amazon and Spotify?  Your fellow critics were your Wikipedia and record stores were your iTunes. If the LP gods were kind, you could find the pertinent albums of any artist’s back catalog in one of the many used record stores in Boston and Cambridge. The juicier my assignments got, the bigger my record collection grew.

I loved research (still do). Artists and records that had been just names in Rolling Stone became indispensable favorites the deeper I dug. If there was a buzz around the office, I wanted in. That’s how I got turned on to Richard and Linda Thompson. I bought a last minute ticket to their show in 1982 at the tiny Paradise in Boston, knowing almost nothing about them except that they had a new album called Shoot Out the Lights and my editor was high on it. (It turned out to be their last tour — their marriage was pretty much dead at that point.) I came out of that show ravenous to hear more of their dark, droll British folk, which led me to their back catalogue, which led me to Thompson’s previous group, Fairport Convention, which led me to Sandy Denny, which led me to British folk nerd heaven. A depressing ballad elates me. A hurdy-gurdy throws me into a frenzy. I once counted up my souvenir ticket stubs and, to my surprise,  it turns out that I’ve seen Richard Thompson in concert more than any other band, more than Bruce, more than Elvis Costello. And it all started with this record.

A pile o' British folk.
A pile o’ British folk.

At the Phoenix, I became friends with a twinkly-eyed elf named Mark Moses, who was a computer programmer by day and one of the finest rock critics of his generation by night. (He eventually wrote the pop music column for the New Yorker.) Mark and I both loved bad puns, wicked gossip, lost 45’s from our childhoods and the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. We never thought of ourselves as collectors. We combed through used album stores because we were completists, hungry to hear more. We couldn’t leave a copy of a record we loved to sit unappreciated in some suburban discount department store bargain bin, even if we already owned it. It’s because of Mark that I started to appreciate Gram Parsons, Luther Vandross, Gladys Knight, the Mekons. He also introduced me to the enriching, sustaining beauty of Aretha’s gospel records and Al Green. He came up with the single funniest rock and roll pun I’ve ever heard: “Little Richard Thompson, the manic-depressive R&B-folk singer”. He died of AIDS, 25 years ago this month. I wish I had a photo of him, but who went around taking pictures of their friends before cell phones? I have the music he gave me, though. And it makes me laugh every time I look at that copy of Dusty Springfield’s A Brand New Me and see the price sticker  — he liberated it from a going-out-of-business sale at a New Bedford Zayre’s.

 

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1987-now: California Soul

In 1987, I was offered a job as the daily TV critic for the San Francisco Examiner. My husband and I figured that we’d move out to the Bay Area for a few years, make some real money, then move back to Boston and have a kid, settle down. We pruned the record collection, sold some, gave away some, but still loaded more than 1,000 records onto the moving van for the trek west. I was uncertain, having never lived anywhere but Greater Boston. The records (and my washing machine — don’t ask) were like a security blanket. I really believed that we could just pick up our lives in one place, set them down intact in another and carry on, just as if we were still living in Boston, but, you know, further west.

For the first couple of years, we lived in a kind of limbo, rooting for the Celtics from afar, hanging out with people we knew from Boston, making frequent trips back. But as much as I resisted, California got under my skin. I loved looking into the horizon and seeing mountains, not gray flatness. I loved the dreamy quality of the sunlight on the green Pacific. I loved the unfamiliar flowers and the trees that never went depressing and bare. I was weirded out at first by the friendliness of the people, who actually said hello on the street, but that, too, grew on me. As did National League baseball, the lack of weather extremes, real Mexican food and (gasp) the Grateful Dead. Gradually, the East Coast ties loosened.

One October day, I got home from the office in the late afternoon, looking forward to watching the Giants and A’s World Series game. I puttered around with Kate Bush’s The Sensual World on the stereo. And then the earth began to shake. I ran under the doorway between the living room and kitchen and hung on, while the rented, wood-framed ranch house shook around me like a chew toy in a dog’s mouth. I closed my eyes and listened to dishes rattling in the kitchen, the top-heavy album shelving thudding against the walls of the living room, and the needle bouncing on the record. When I opened them, the first thing I saw was a pile of albums, hundreds of them, all over the living room floor. I keep the ruined Kate Bush record as a souvenir of the day I really became a Californian.

Because I wrote occasional music reviews for the Examiner, I was on record company mailing lists for a long time, but by the early ’90s, they had nearly all switched over to sending CD’s. Which was fine with me, because, by then, I’d had my son and portability of music was crucial if I was going to ever have time to listen at all. We bought a house (never moved back East after all), pruned the record collection again, stored the rest in boxes in the closets. I framed some of the artier album covers — Layla is now hanging in my bathroom. (What? I never claimed to be a decorator.)  A few times a year, I would get an urge to hear something that I only owned on vinyl, but I had long since stopped buying albums.

I never considered selling my remaining records, though — too many memories. And I’m glad that I didn’t. My son has claimed a good chunk of them for his own. His generation is buying vinyl again, making their own memories to the warm sound of (to quote Elvis Costello) “every scratch, every click, every heartbeat.” The circle is unbroken, the turntable spins.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

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The Boston Phoenix, the alternative weekly newspaper that played a crucial part in the cultural, political and journalistic life of the Boston area, announced that it is ceasing publication today, the victim of shrinking national ad dollars. That it lasted 47 years as an independent, well-staffed, progressive political voice when so many other alt-weeklies have been either gutted, mainstreamed or fallen victim to soulless corporate takeover, is something like a miracle.

When the Phoenix and other alt-weeklies began in the 1960s, they were the media voice of the counterculture. Alt-weeklies were the place to read muckraking anti-war journalism, long, scholarly reviews of the latest Dylan album or Truffaut film, and to comb the classified ads for student apartments, bands in need of drummers and, of course, BWMs seeking GBMs or SWFs for BD/SM. In the pre-Craigslist days, the classifieds paid the bills and the salaries. Yes, staffers got paid for their work. Imagine that.

The Boston Phoenix began life in March, 1966 as a four-page entertainment listing paper called Boston After Dark, which was given away free on college campuses around Boston and Cambridge. It eventually included theater and film reviews. In 1972, publisher Stephen Mindich bought the rival alt-weekly the Cambridge Phoenix, renamed it the Boston Phoenix and kept the name Boston After Dark for its entertainment and listings section;  it was still given away free to boost circulation and ad revenue. The staff of the Cambridge Phoenix then founded a new alt-weekly called The Real Paper, which continued as the righteous alternative-alternative weekly. But the Boston Phoenix eventually won the circulation war, and the Real Paper folded for good in 1981.

I watched all of this drama unreeling as a high school student who dreamed of being a rock critic for the Real Paper. But it was the Phoenix that finally gave me my shot. I was fresh out of Boston University with a journalism degree and a fistful of rejections. I sent my clips to Kit Rachlis, the very cool Phoenix music editor.  For reasons still unknown, Rachlis assigned me an album review on spec (Kim Wilde, if you must know). Whatever the test was, I passed it. I started writing pop music reviews for the Phoenix in 1981, eventually also taking on TV reviews before I left to join the San Francisco Examiner in 1987. You know that line in Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” — “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school”?  That’s me and the Phoenix.  I learned more about writing criticism, about thinking critically, from Kit Rachlis and his successor Milo Miles than I ever did from my journalism classes.

And when I say “criticism,” I don’t mean 250-word blurbs or glorified press releases. I’m talking about long, thought-out, 2,000-word epics. And if my draft didn’t hang together as an argument,  my editors would sit there with me, for hours if necessary, making me rewrite, rethink and polish until it gleamed. I covered Live Aid for the Phoenix. I wrote think-pieces about (among other subjects)  Springsteen’s Born in the USA tour, “Papa Don’t Preach”-era Madonna, Led Zeppelin’s enduring adolescent appeal and Elvis Costello’s King of America. I covered the local music beat, and I have the hate mail to prove it. I wrote a parody of People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful Women” issue, with a “Most Beautiful Men on TV” list that included Tony Randall, Gene Siskel and Robert “Chief” Parish of the Boston Celtics. My Phoenix editors were open to pretty much anything.

The competition for the cover of the arts section was fierce, the arguments as hilarious as they were edifying. And the roster of critics whose bylines appeared in the Boston Phoenix is almost ridiculously stellar. Tom Carson, Dave Marsh, Ken Tucker, Janet Maslin, David Denby and Stephen Schiff came before me;  Ariel Swartley, Mark Moses, Doug Simmons, Deborah Frost, Howard Hampton, classical music critic (and Pulitzer winner) Lloyd Schwartz, film critics Michael Sragow, Owen Gleiberman, Scott Rosenberg and David Edelstein were some of my contemporaries.

I’m immeasurably sad that the Phoenix ended with no warning (and no severance for its staff). What did it mean to me to be a part of its history?  Everything.  I was about 10 years too young to have participated directly in the cultural tidal wave that was the ’60s and early ’70s;  I had to watch from the sidelines and wish I was an adult already. But when I got to the Phoenix in ’81, I found a tattered flag of idealism still stubbornly flying. I found a tribe, and we shared a language and we tried to share it with our readers in the most readable and elegant way we knew how. We were in a dying profession, but we acted like it was going to last forever. The Phoenix was my Summer of Love.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape 2013