Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Vehicle.

I've written so much about music one way or another over the years that you'd think that I'd have nothing much left to say. It has all landed in some piece somewhere before, right? I mean it has to have. I remember interviewing for a newspaper job years ago and the managing editor saying to me, "So you've come to terms with the fact that you're a writer and that this is what you're supposed to do with your life?" and I thought before finally saying yes. His response, "It's devastating isn't it?" just completely leveled me in hysterical laughter (which then equally leveled him). I made a friend for life that day because it actually IS devastating. I've set myself up for a work-life filled with rejection- and that's if you actually make it! If you're established editors will take the time to reject you and if you're not... you'll pitch and submit pieces until your fingers fall off with absolutely no response. 

It's soul-crushing, ego-killing, and whatever else until it's finally just not. You go through the motions with this little glimmer of hope that someone will crack a door open for you to have an opportunity to prove that everything that you type doesn't suck. What's that saying- if you throw enough crap at the wall you'd be surprised what sticks? 

That.

Music has always been like a homecoming for me. I can babble about all kinds of things but nothing else is quite the same and I owe that to dad. I was five the first time I was in a radio studio. Mom was teaching exercise classes at night and one of dad's friends had just started a new nighttime radio show and so we had to visit. I can still remember dropping mom off in dad's big old Buick Skylark and then driving to this studio. 

I did not want to go. I wanted to go jump around with mom but instead, she crammed me into my Holly Hobbie pajamas and told me it would be fun at the studio. I didn't believe that and I can still remember dad ringing the doorbell of what looked like a pitch-black building. I mean I was sure no one was even there and kind of thought that maybe I'd get out of this field trip to boredom. Then his friend George unlocked the door and let us in. He led us down a dark hallway and brought us into his studio.

The room was all dark wood, very dimly lit with a whole bunch of lit-up controls that looked like something from Space 1999. It looked like an otherworldly spaceship to me and the sound was so clear. "Vehicle" by Ides of March, "Kid Charlemagne" by Steely Dan, and other things that I knew dad played all the time. I was in a chair off to the side while they talked about woofers, tweeters, new turntables that were coming out and God knows what else. At that point, dad was entertaining either a job in radio or opening up his own record shop and George seemed to be giving him a crash course in on-air life.

I don't know if I dozed off at the station or in the car coming home, but it was another night falling asleep as the music washed over me. The bits of memory that I have from that studio has always been so clear, yet I'm positive I'd never have recognized that studio in daylight. I'm sure it would completely lose its' luster and might have even been much more forgettable for me. Instead, it's like catching a lightning bug in a cup. It's a flash I couldn't miss and will never forget.

Years and years later I was offered an evening live radio shift, something I'd never done. For years I've always been a morning radio voice because I've learned to talk about everything and nothing all at once. I'm also sharp with the banter and kind of shameless so whatever kind of bit gets thrown at me, I can always find a way to make it hilarious. I'm proud of that because it's a skill. But night radio? I found myself accepting the job over the phone while shaking my head no. 

How the hell was I going to literally talk to myself for 4 hours a night? 

The first night there everyone left and the studio was lit up like an operating room. I figured I was going to have a headache while talking to myself on air, so I started playing with the lights. I mean rows and rows of light switches, some were like spotlights and others were really dim. I kind of figured out what switches went to which panel of lights and then all of a sudden I was there- back in George's studio. 

Dark wood blending in with the shadows, soundboard, and computers lit up like a command center while the rest of the room was kind of lost in the blackness. I had not thought of that first studio in years, if not decades yet I was standing in it all over again and this time the "vehicle" was all mine. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Passion.

My dad had the most enviable record collection but of course, there was conflict along the way. My mom didn't exactly love his hobby and she blatantly disapproved of a lot of the artists that he brought in the front door. He got away with a lot but it was fairly well known that dad was expected to keep a close eye on what 45's I wanted. The only problem there was that because music is such a subjective thing he just wasn't inclined to tell me no, thankfully. 

Dad suffered through several spins of "Disco Duck" before being happy to watch me move on to ABBA. He might have been a classic rock kind of guy but he had no problem suffering for the greater good and encouraging my love of disco, at least until I discovered Pat Benetar. I asked who she was and he bought me Crimes of Passion the next day. Anything to make sure that disco was finally dead in our house.

I still can remember this one Saturday afternoon when he and I drove to a record store in a strip mall next to a Kmart (back when the blue light special was alive and well). There were several record stores that we would frequent and if you told me that they wouldn't exist a few decades later I would never have believed it. Anyway, the Saturday afternoon deal was always that I could get a 45 or 2 if it was a really good week. I looked and looked, knowing exactly what I wanted, Rod Stewart's "Passion". It was probably 1980 and not exactly appropriate for a 9-year-old. Dad actually said no, probably because he envisioned my mom's reaction if he bought it for me.

The next weekend I had a plan. I had 179 pennies in a sandwich bag because if it was my money he probably wouldn't stop me. I was always thinking a few steps ahead and a bit on the enterprising side. I walked up to the counter with "Passion" in one hand and the pennies in the other. The shop owner made me count them out and then he scooped them up and dumped them into his register drawer. The look on his face meant that dad secretly liked how nervy I was, but warned me that my mom would be pissed & he would likely get blasted too.

I don't remember her words exactly but I do remember him defending me and saying I probably just loved the music (true story it was all about the keys) and he wasn't going to stop me if I had the nerve to bust my piggy bank for it. Needless to say, "Passion" got thrown in the garbage but about a week later my dad bought it and magically gave it to me after he was done with it. For years afterward my dad would buy 45's, put them on tape & I'd inherit the vinyl. It killed 2 birds with one stone. He could hide "debasing" cover art from mom (so sad), retain the music, and then put the vinyl in a plain sleeve so that I could keep it too.

Forty years later and I still have that well-played single in a frame in my office. An early victory of sorts worth hanging on to.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Holiday.


 know exactly where I was on the second weekend in July back in 1985, and it was not in JFK Stadium in Philadelphia for Live Aid. I mean, a lot of other fourteen-year-olds weren’t in attendance either, right? But I was in the freaking parking lot of JFK on July 13th, 1985, and that’s what makes this all pretty ironic for me. My mom’s church would have these huge meetups a few times a year, and for reasons that never made sense to me, having tens of thousands of people gather in Veteran’s Stadium in the July Philly heat seemed like a good idea to them. So… there we were at Live Aid. Almost.

As a kid, I was just as music-obsessed as I am now, and so the buildup for Live Aid made it a larger-than-life event for me. I’d cut out every tidbit in the newspaper. I can remember having my dad bring home Philly newspapers so that I could save all of the promo and interviews that they were doing to ensure that 100,000 fans would show up.  


We were actually in the city from Thursday through Sunday, with Live Aid, of course, happening that Saturday. Our hotel near the airport was filled with concertgoers, and I remember finding excuses to stay in the lobby so I could eavesdrop on any conversation pertaining to Madonna, Duran Duran, and whoever else these complete strangers were excited about seeing. 


Right before Live Aid, Madonna’s naked photos had been sold to Hustler and published. That meant more coverage for her, so I smuggled every newspaper article about her scandalous behavior back home with me too. That was a real task because Madonna was not allowed in our house. Not with those crucifixes and blasphemous outfits. But I absolutely loved her. Mom didn’t realize how many of my fashion choices, like the big bows, jelly bracelets, and lace gloves, were inspired by her. Madonna couldn’t be out in the open in my house, but she was plastered all over the inside of my locker all through middle school. 


The morning of the event itself, I can remember being stuck in traffic literally forever, which was fine with me. I didn’t want to die for hours in the heat, even if it was “God’s will” (or something). I wanted to instead die in that same heat while wearing a bow in my teased-out hair, lace gloves, and a few crop tops layered to complete the visual coolness. Sitting in traffic was a comfort because I was surrounded by my people, at least until we turned towards the Vet. I sat in my seat, hoping that by the time we got out, I’d be able to hear something, anything from the parking lot. Philly venues have always been close enough for that to be a reality.  


Leaving the parking lot to go back to our hotel will probably forever remain my very favorite traffic jam because Dad’s big old Buick Skylark didn’t have A/C, so the windows had to be rolled down. Off in the not-too-far distance, I could hear Ashford & Simpson’s “Solid,” which eventually turned into a set by Kool & the Gang. Who followed them? The Material Girl herself, with extended versions of “Holiday” and “Into the Groove.” Honestly, I don’t think I heard all of that second song by Madonna, but I did hear enough to feel like I was part of some sort of musical magic. I couldn’t imagine ever getting to go to a real concert. My best friend Carrie had gotten to see the Jacksons’ Victory Tour the summer before and had told me all the details, so I could almost imagine what it was like, but it wasn’t real enough. This at least felt real because I could hear it myself.  


When I reflect back on this event, it’s a bit of a Twilight Zone experience to me. My dad and I never discussed it, but it must have killed him to be in his thirties and so close to all those artists but unable to attend! I can’t even imagine how cruel that must have felt to him, because I’m sure whatever I felt was only a fraction of his reaction. Mom’s church was an environment of programmed, do-as-you’re-told type thinking, and so they did for fear of the ramifications of doing anything else. But it must have killed him! 


Maybe it explains why concerts are my happy place. Maybe being left out of something so big and so close planted the seeds for me to make sure that once I was old enough, it wouldn’t happen again. A concert with the magnitude of Live Aid hasn’t happened in years, if not decades, but you better believe that the next time one appears on the horizon, I’ll be there. Not just in the parking lot either, but through the gates and somewhere near the stage. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

The Time Warp.


For the record, I’m not so old that I remember The Rocky Horror Picture Show when it first rolled into a limited number of theaters. No. But it does take me back to my freshman year of high school. Up until then, my knowledge of Rocky Horror was limited to the fact that our local shopping mall movie theater showed it every Saturday night, and honestly, I only knew that because it was listed on the big sign out front. It was the very last thing listed, and the name on the marquee always seemed to be missing a letter. 

Anyway, in 9th grade, my homeroom was in one of the main high school art rooms, and it was like nothing I had ever seen before. While I’ve mentioned my dad’s love/obsession with music and how that influenced me, my mom’s creativity also rubbed off. She was always an artist of some sort. I remember her being in art school when I was in preschool and going to the library with her every week. She would check out books on commercial art while I got stories about little girls in bright-colored dresses that carried magical purses that were the little girl equivalent to a genie bottle and then we would go for lunch at a little drugstore luncheonette nearby. I still remember looking at copies of our daily newspaper to find my mom’s drawings. Way back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, any store advertisements were drawn by hand, and she used to do the ads for women’s wear. She also had a perfume ad that was used for a major campaign, and I remember her working on a greeting card line that featured a little girl with a magical purse. 


I was raised surrounded by art supplies and creativity, so walking into this classroom was surreal. Real talk, it was probably gross if you weren’t into art. It was the size of about three classrooms put together, and we sat at huge wooden tables that seated eight people each. The tables were coated in paint, pastel, and every other medium available. There was artwork from floor to ceiling, no lie. Mr. Kingsley put things up high to dry, and while it looked like a disaster, I don’t think he ever actually lost anything. I ended up taking his class as an elective, which meant I spent ninety minutes twice a week in that room. 


It was in his class that I got to know a girl named Kim. I had known her for a few years but never spent any real time with her until 9th grade. She and I were the only girls at our table, and as luck would have it, all eight of us were really into art, so it was cool right from the start. It was early 1986, and after a few months together, we had all really bonded. Mr. Kingsley—well, he was a trip. Super quiet and always wearing a layer of guyliner. He smoked in his closet and let the guys chew (remember when THAT was popular???) as long as they hid their spitters if the principal walked in. As long as we did our work, he left us alone and encouraged us to talk from bell to bell, and so talk we did.  


Kim’s obsession was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. She talked about it nonstop and was super excited because her mother was allowing her to go to the midnight showings at the mall each week. When she went, Kim dressed up as her favorite character, Columbia. Back in the ‘80s, not only did people go to the movie every week, but they also dressed up and reenacted the entire movie in front of the screen, and Kim had been picked to be our theater’s unofficial official Columbia. 


She would take pictures every weekend and bring them to art class on Monday to show us. I have to wonder if she still has a stack of those photos, and if so, does she crack them out to show her kids now? Anyway, after months of hearing about Columbia and Magenta and Riff Raff, a few of us decided to go to the show with Kim. That was a one-time thing because none of us really saw what it was that kept Kim running back for more, but Rocky Horror gave this girl life all the way through high school. 


I shared a lot with my tablemates in that art class. On the good days, we won the coin toss and controlled the radio, dissected Heather Locklear’s marriage to Tommy Lee, argued over whether Vinnie Vincent Invasion was any good, and counted down until we weren’t freshmen anymore. On the bad days, we cried over things like a classmate’s death in a car accident, fought over art supplies, and vented about real-life problems at home. On one particularly bad day in January of 1986, we, like the rest of the school, had our classroom television tuned to the live launch of the Challenger Space Shuttle. It was the first time that a teacher was chosen to go into space, making it a groundbreaking mission. When the Challenger broke apart a little over a minute into its launch, our whole class screeched, a sound that seemed to echo through the entire school. 


That old art classroom may have been the messiest place in the school, but looking back, it kind of feels like one of the most valuable spaces in the building. To this day, those walls hold an awful lot of personal history for thousands of kids that have passed through over the years. Make-ups and break-ups, secret revelations, historical moments in American history, oh, and of course, tons of creativity and the birth of a few very successful artists as well. I used to think that Mr. Kingsley was just flying by his ass and doing the bare minimum to keep his job. Now I get what he was probably doing decades ago. The very best thing that he could do was to create a space for kids to come and just “be” for a while. A space where we were not only accepted for our differences but encouraged to explore them. 

 
 

Raised on Radio.


This past Saturday afternoon was spent, like so many others before it, in one of my very favorite places on earth: an old record shop. I left the car and walked down one of the most idyllic streets on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in what has been dubbed “The Coolest Small Town in America” thanks to a national contest a few summers ago. There was an excitement bordering on anxiety running through my veins. I couldn’t quite reach the front door fast enough, yet once I was three steps from the shop, I instinctively slowed down because I didn’t want to seem too anxious. I opened the door, stepped inside, and immediately calmed down. I could smell musty old vinyl records and incense burning and hear the old floorboards shifting beneath my feet. It could have been a hot summer day in 2017, or one back in 1987. Time was irrelevant because either way, I was home. 

When I was a little girl way back in 1970-something, I would spend plenty of time hanging out with my dad while my mom worked nights. He worked for an up-and-coming rock radio station, and so much of my time with him revolved around his musical career. We would visit his friends while they were on air. We sat on the floor and opened big boxes of brand-new albums by artists like Aerosmith and listened to them on the spot. Then there was the early evening trip to a newsstand every Friday to grab one of the few copies of Billboard Magazine that they would get in each week.  


Saturday afternoons were spent in a record store—at first, the little hole-in-the-wall variety where everyone knew everyone else, and then eventually in a bigger chain. The smaller shops were always the best, and before I could even read, I was flipping through albums and analyzing cover art. Dad would be talking music with his buddies, and I would be running stuff by Blue Oyster Cult over to him because I loved the colors and visuals on their latest ventures. These trips went on for years until I was way too old and far too cool to be caught dead in public with a parent.  


Then I went to the record store by myself to buy a mixture of hairband and freestyle dance music on cassette. Everything from Whitesnake to Exposé was bumping through my Walkman, and I never left the house without some sort of music on me. MTV’s Nina Blackwood was my favorite VJ, because not only did she get to meet all the artists that she played, but she also seemed more than capable of holding her own in what was already an obviously male-driven industry. 


Any way I looked at it, music was my happy place, my escape, and my salvation all wrapped into one four-minute-and-thirty-second song after another. Music was my normal, and for years, it never really occurred to me that it was actually a gift and a language that not everyone else spoke. 


Standing in front of tables full of vinyl on this sweltering Saturday afternoon, I’m at peace. The kind that my dad must have felt all those years ago. The kind that you can’t talk yourself into; it’s either gut level there, or it’s not. As I pour over bin after bin, all my real-life problems seem to know better than to cut in. I’m left present in the moment and somehow connected to all the positive things that come from melodies, harmonies, and deep lyrics. Things like hope, faith, connection, joy, and a reminder to my dark little heart that there is still an enormous amount of good in this world.  


My dad taught me how to dig for album gold, and how to find comfort in something that is always, without fail, there for each one of us. That need to belong and fit in somewhere—it’s always in the music. Most importantly, he showed me the natural connections that form while looking for that elusive record. The reality is that anyone hanging over a bin of vinyl for more than five minutes will intuitively understand how at least part of my brain works, without us ever having a conversation. So why not have that conversation? Music solidifies things before people even exchange first names. 


I know that vinyl has become the “cool” thing again, and I love the fact that my teenagers are spinning records even more than they’re using streaming services. I just hope that once the trend cools off, and Urban Outfitters stops pushing the same record player in twenty-five colors, the love of vinyl continues with a bunch of beautiful young faces to nurture it. 


As a parent, you instinctively understand that it’s your job to provide for and teach your kids the things that they need to be decent and successful adults. As an older parent who has settled into life, I understand now more than ever that the biggest gifts I have to give generally don’t include a monetary price tag. When I watch my kids flip through albums now, I wonder if years from now, they’ll really “get it.” Have I unknowingly led them towards a lifetime of emotional understanding, just as my father did for me? He always seemed to think that no matter what your heart needs, you’ll find it in the music and I tend to agree. No matter what your heart needs, it’s in the music so you might as well dig in. 

 
 

I Can't Wait.

 I can still see the look on the woman’s face when I sat down on one of the crappy folding chairs in her over-stuffed office, looked her straight in the eyes, and told her that I had been popping eating Xanax all weekend long and lived to tell about it. Sherry or Mary or whatever her name was looked at me in confusion and, in spite of supposedly being a counselor of some kind, she seemed to have absolutely no idea what to say to the eighteen-year-old sitting in front of her. I would have thought that it was her first day on the job, but she was older than dirt, and the sentimental stuff hanging on her corkboard looked to be from 1979. I guess that suicidal people are expected to fit a certain profile, and the profile didn’t include a ninety-five-pound blonde that appeared to have her shit together, even if she was a little bleary-eyed. The fact of the matter is that I had no idea how I’d ended up in her office. Sure, I vaguely remembered realizing that I was out of pills and not just alive, but goddammit I was awake. There was nothing left in the bottle. I was in a heap on the floor, not in my bed where I had curled up and calmly waited for sleep to turn into a permanent state of non-existence. I cried huge tears as my hazy brain started to take stock. No pills, no guns, and too afraid to open up a vein. That just seemed like it would really hurt, and I was already in enough pain, so I reached for the phone book and called a helpline.  

The woman on the other end of the line somehow convinced me to “come in,” and so I did. Not only did I go in, but I was also allowed to go home again. I walked in fully expecting to be tossed into a nut bin for at least seventy-two hours, and maybe, just maybe, a little part of me was hoping for that. Instead, I seemed lucid and functional enough not to want to harm myself, even though I had just made a gallant effort. 


While most of that day is a blur, the drive home is crystal clear. Nu Shooz was following me still. Okay, not really, but it seemed like everywhere I went, their song “I Can’t Wait” was playing in the background, and sure enough, there it was again on the car radio. I vividly recall being on a city street for probably the millionth time and thinking about how everything is always the same, and yet, on this particular day, it all felt different. Nothing and everything had changed in perfect unison. It was all exactly as I had left it, but this once familiar road felt completely foreign. 


Now, many years later, I fear death. When someone passes, I do the math on how old they were when our lives first intersected. I’m very aware of the crushing reality that I’m at an age where people get sick or die suddenly. The thought of what comes next coupled with imagining my kids without a mother is really too much for me to grapple with now. But back then, I wanted to die. Plotted my demise and found peace in my decision. It was no attention-grab or ploy to make my family feel guilty. I was done. Except that I wasn’t, and it was pretty obvious that no one was going to help me figure out how to be okay. 


I drove around for hours because I really felt like I had nowhere to go and nothing to say. I had tried getting help from a complete stranger who was paid to help and failed. There was no way in hell that I was going to confide in anyone that was close to me. I’m not sure what embarrassed me more: that I seemed to suck at life or the fact that I most certainly sucked at death. I couldn’t get anything right, and yet here I was facing the toughest task ever: figuring out how to live. I wasn’t sure how to do that either, so I just drove because, for my dad, that always seemed to be the answer. Drive when you’re mad, drive when you need to clear your head, and for the love of God, if you hear sirens or see a plume of smoke, then it is most definitely “time to take a little ride,” as he would say. 


Driving seems like the perfect way to escape, but the irony of the situation was that the thing I needed to run from most was right there in the car clutching the steering wheel. I started to think back to all those moments in my life when being in the car with my dad seemed pretty perfect. Like when I was five and dancing around the back seat to “Copacabana,” because back then no one seemed to think that buckling up was a true life-or-death decision. Or all those Saturday afternoon trips to a mall twenty miles away. I used to sit on the righthand side of his old Buick’s big backseat and wait for the good songs to come on the radio. How I loved that ride, which began with music and ended with a book, a 45 record, and a piece of pizza from Dino & Francesca’s mirror-covered restaurant.  


There were also those two-hour drives to get to Mom’s religious conventions. Believe me when I tell you that the time spent in the car was by far the best part. My mom’s “Assembly Hall” was in the middle of nowhere and seated 1,200 people. The die-hard conventioneers would gather for a 10-hour day to hear various church elders remind them of the laundry list of things that would get them sent straight to hell, or worse, shunned by the congregation that agape loved them conditionally. They would take notes and highlight scriptures while I methodically counted the itty-bitty ceiling squares, daydreamed of boys, and sang complete albums to myself in my head. The ride home from that torture was the best gift that my dad could give me. 


On this day, basically the first one of my real adult life, I would have given anything to be a passenger in the comfort of Dad’s car. Even if the destination was lackluster, there was never any doubt that we would arrive in one piece. I could sit behind the wheel and crank the radio, but the truth of the matter was that I had absolutely no idea how to drive myself from the cliff-like ledge of self-loathing back onto an open road filled with possibilities and reasons to live. I could see that the journey back to the real world, one where people weren’t vilified for wearing a skirt above their knee or kissing a guy that was hot (without him being marriage material) was going to be a long one.  


Sure, I made it out of religious imprisonment, but I was so messed up by the ten-year ordeal that I had actually convinced myself that death would be better than trying to unravel the collateral damage my life had become. I was no longer sure if death would have been better, but it was most certainly the easier of the two. Not only was I broken, but I was also missing the tools to fix things. It was just me and my radio, as it really always had been. I was alone, but not really, because I had Foreigner, Def Leppard, and Nu Shooz to keep me company, and for the first time, no one could take them away.