There is a thread on Twitter asking people to comment, “What’s the most GenX thing you did?” It’s a riot — check it out.
These are my responses:
Photo credit: By Chris Sansenbach (Kurisu) from Huntington Beach – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=118826
Happy New Year, everyone! I hope that 2018 brings health and happiness to you and all who you love.
Regarding the song — the various interpretations of its lyrics make for some pretty interesting reading. They range from an allegory to the Book of Revelations to the story of a man contemplating suicide after the death of his lover. My own favorite is that it is a description of Russia’s Eastern Front during World War II, told from the point of view of a soldier in the Red Army. (As strange as that sounds, it appears remarkably well supported in the song’s lyrics. Google it.) I’ve read that the boy on its cover is actually a Russian guerrilla in a Soviet propaganda film.
This is a shot of the red clay found around the Roanoke area. It’s an acidic soil that’s common around the southeastern United States; sciencey types call it a “ultisol.” The rust color results from … actual rust, if I understand correctly. It’s full of iron oxide.
I don’t think my camera phone does it justice — it’s actually redder than it appears below. I have no doubt Roanoke natives hardly notice it, but it looks strange at first to a carpetbagger.
I didn’t think that compact discs were such an outdated format that they’d be the subject of a nostalgic Facebook meme like the one you see below.
But I guess it makes sense. I actually own a portable CD collection case exactly like the one pictured, but it’s been in storage for years. Today’s digital music is absolutely more convenient.
I always thought of CD’s as a 90’s phenomenon, but I was surprised to learn that they’re definitely an 80’s technology. The first CD released commercially, according to this Internet thingamijiggy, was Billy Joel’s “52nd Street” waaaaaay back in 1982. (For a little perspective, that was the album that featured oldies like”Big Shot” and “My Life.”) But that was released in tech-savvy Japan — the first CD released commercially in America was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984.
They didn’t sell so hot right away. They were far more expensive than cassette tapes, which peaked in sales in the late 80’s, and a lot of people weren’t sure the medium would take off.
I myself first laid eyes on one at a party during my last year at Longwood High School, in the spring of 1990; it was a gift from one guy to the classmate whose birthday we were celebrating. Then I remember seeing CD’s in stores, sold in a separate section from tapes. The packaging was weird. They came in slim, 12-inch “longboxes” like those you see in the second picture. I always thought manufacturers did that to make the product visually seem larger, like LP’s — but apparently the stores just preferred that packaging since the boxes could fit in the same racks used to sell records.
It was only at the start my sophomore year at Mary Washington College when it seemed like a lot of my friends owned them. My roommate had a 5-disc CD player in which you inserted the discs onto a turntable the size of a record player — the “random play” function would select from those five discs, and I remember thinking that was pretty damned elaborate technology.
The discs themselves had a slight mystique. They were shiny. The bottoms were … lasery and kind of iridescent. They just looked … high-tech and a pretty fancy, compared to the beige or white plastic cassettes every kid remembered since early childhood. (I myself can actually remember my parents having 8-track tapes when I was a tiny tot, but those weren’t something that belonged to me.)
CD’s really were the first computerized format for music. Hell, we were still watching movies on VHS tapes back then. (Except for that one weird time when a hardcore collector in my dorm was showing off a rare, LP-sized video “laserdisc” of “The Monkees.”) And again, CD’s predecessors were ordinary tapes.
At first, college kids occasionally erred a little too far on the side of caution in caring for CD’s … Yes, they would skip or break if they were scratched or if they accumulated dust. That indeed sucked when it happened. But a few kids treated them as though they were made of priceless, eggshell-thin medieval spun glass — as though they would be rendered useless even if a single hair fell across them.
And one student I knew got CD care entirely backwards … he kept advising everyone that it was the top of the disc — with the artwork, band name and songlist — that actually contained the readable music, and not the shiny bottom. (Retrospect suggests he might have been high.)
I owned only a couple of discs at first — I remember having Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Ravel’s “Bolero” and Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” I also was the owner of … God help me … “I’m Breathless,” Madonna’s tribute to the bizarre 1990 “Dick Tracy” feature film in which she starred. (I was *19,* okay?! I didn’t know what good music was yet!!) I also routinely borrowed my mother’s “Glory” (1989) soundtrack; I remember loving that during the summer of 1992. Hot damn if James Horner didn’t sound fantastic on compact disc, especially when I was stuck at home on a sweltering summer night in a new small town in Virginia.
I did like more mainstream music … but I continued to listen to my U2, Depeche Mode and Def Leppard on tape. My tapes still worked just fine, and CD’s were more expensive for a college kid.
Mp3’s eventually arrived, of course. I was very, very late to the party, as I always am with cool things. I stuck with my CD case; the idea of “downloading music” seemed oppressively techy to me. (Would I have to know code? Would I have to type stuff?) My first mp3 player was a gift — it came with a personal (and punk-heavy) music selection already on it. My subsequent iPod broke disappointingly early. Do those damn things just stop working as some kind of variation of planned obsolescence? Because their shelf-life sucks, and it makes it ironic that people worried so much 25 years ago about their CD’s being scratched.
There is a larger point that I am trying to make here … I feel like we really did lose something in the switch from disc to digital. Look at that case in the meme below. That’s … a music collection. You could hold it. You could organize it with your hands, and then hand it to the person next to you as sort of a document of your aesthetic personality. If you’re at home and your CD’s were in their cases, you could examine the cover art.
Or, if you were dating someone new, in that getting-to-know-you stage, there was a subtle ritual in which you examined each other’s music collection. It was a conversation starter, or maybe even a handy icebreaker when she first saw your place.
Digital music doesn’t do that for us. I don’t think I know anyone who has ever handed over a palm-sized gadget to a new friend or sweetheart, and asked them to scroll through the song list to “see what I’m into.” And … you just don’t get the same sense of “having” the music, or owning it. The different feel of digital is further increased if you can purchase individual songs … the entire concept of “having an album” is just different.
But I’m just bitching here. I probably sound like one of those overly nostalgic post-40 guys who used to lament the passing of LP’s.
Hey, you kids … GET OFF MY LAWN.
A couple of Facebook posts last night cheerfully proclaimed the 30th Anniversary of The Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill.” That’s mostly right, I guess … the album was released in 1986, although it came out on November 15, not the end of February.
I remember “Licensed to Ill” being a phenomenon when I was a freshman at Longwood High School — reverence for it transcended a lot of high school subcultures. (And at Longwood, I think those subcultures overlapped considerably more than your typical John Hughes film would suggest.) The preppie kids loved the album, the jocks loved it, and a lot of the honors kids were into it too — not to mention just mainstream kids and random weirdos like me. My favorite song was “Brass Monkey;” I was thrilled whenever it was played at parties. (I can’t feature it here, as there are no authorized videos of it online.)
This album had what I remember as a unique vibe to it in 1986. People online call the Beastie Boys “the first white rappers.” I don’t know if that’s true. (Some people said the same thing about Vanilla Ice only four years later). And I’m guessing such a distinction shouldn’t be important. But the Beastie Boys were different.
Previously, rap was perceived only as a kind of counterculture art form for disaffected, young, urban African-Americans. The Beastie Boys were a rap group specifically with which suburban white kids could identify. I hope I’m not saying anything politically incorrect here — of course we all realize that any music can be appreciated by anyone, according to their tastes. (People are occasionally surprised when I myself can recite the Geto Boys as easily as W. H. Auden’s poetry.) And all sorts of kids in the mid-80’s liked Run-D.M.C. and The Fat Boys — they just didn’t have the huge, visible mainstream appeal that the Beastie Boys had.
The Beastie Boys had a wider appeal. Their music was irreverent — they sang about “Girls,” liquor, and the “Right to Party,” in a manner suggesting that they’d probably never been altar boys. They were drunken, pot-smoking malcontents, and expressed some not terribly progressive attitudes toward women. Yet it was perfectly natural, or culturally expected, to hear them blasted at a parentally approved, non-alcoholic party for young teenagers at a suburban, middle class home. The same preps who wore “Ocean Pacific” and played with hacky sacks also played the Beastie Boys. So did some kids in Key Club and the honors classes. A couple of cheerleaders I knew had crushes on Mike D. And it never seemed unusual or ironic, like that time when a nearly all white, suburban crowd chanted along to Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx” at a Longwood Junior High School dance.
For some reason, the Beastie Boys’ broad fan base was never really evident among the student body at Mary Washington College — although The Jerky Boys and the Geto Boys both had their share of fans there. I don’t remember them being played once. I think maybe it was because that small southern college subculture leaned so heavily on classic rock and the new “alternative,” with new wave and punk having strong, visible minorities of fans. (Man … if I had a dime for every time time I heard The Allman Brothers in college, I could have paid off my student loans a day after graduation.)
Strangely, I wound up listening to “Licensed to lll” the most often about two decades later, when I was in my mid-30’s. I was going through two weird phases in my life. The first was a newfound love of hip-hop and rap, because I am a weird guy, and I’m always late to the party with these things. The second was a bizarre, temporary sense of financial responsibility. I was constantly saving money. (I think maybe I wasn’t eating right or something. It didn’t last.) But I was constantly listening to old or cheap secondhand CD’s, instead of buying new ones or one of those newfangled mp3 players. (At the time, the iPod’s antecedents seemed just too high-tech and opulent to me.) So there was always a leather case of 80’s and 90’s music CD’s riding shotgun with me in my 1992 Ford Taurus.
I was driving frequently between Whitestone, Queens and my girlfriend’s apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, rocketing up and down “the 278,” the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The Beastie Boys were my miscreant co-pilots; “No Sleep till Brooklyn” was both a kick-ass song and situationally apropos. I played the album constantly, along with L.L. Cool J.’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and the “MTV Party To Go Volume 2.” Then I’d swap those out with Toad the Wet Sprocket’s more mellow, sensitive “Fear,” just to remind myself that I really was just a softspoken college boy who’d grown into a nerdy thirtysomething (“nerdysomething?”).
I found out recently that Adam Yauch (the Beastie Boys’ member “MCA”) died of cancer. This happened four years ago, I just hadn’t heard. For some reason, it was especially unsettling to learn that a rebellious entertainment figure from my teen years had died from an illness that I usually associate with people older than me. I never loved the Beastie Boys as much as I loved U2, Depeche Mode or Tori Amos, but I found it more troubling than I would have expected. I’m not sure why, but I’ve decided not to dwell on it.
At any rate, if you still love Ad-Rock, Mike D. and MCA, you can play the embedded videos below. But you absolutely should pull up “Brass Monkey” on Youtube to get your full 80’s vibe on.