This weekend marks two decades since I finally managed to catch up with the times. Musically speaking, that is. After much mulling over, I ordered a new piece of technology, joining the ’90s just as they had begun. That last Saturday in February, I received a UPS shipment of an Aiwa CD/cassette player combination boombox, with AM/FM radio access to boot. It all came at a cost of $198, not including the five dollars for shipping and handling.
It was in the middle of a period of major growth for me as a person and as a college student. I started hanging out more, much more than I had in the past, going to concerts and clubs, going to movies almost every week or weekend, finding time to do more than just work or study. It helped to have a great group of friends who were willing to put up with me, as sober and as goofy as I could be.
But in the midst of all of that, I began the ’90s happy to see the ’80s go when it came to pop music. Heavy metal was at the tail end of an era of dominance, thank God, and serious rap from PE had temporarily taken hold. New voices of real singers had broken through, including Lisa Stansfield, Caron Wheeler (of Soul II Soul), and, by April of that year, Mariah Carey. Old and more recent standbys like Phil Collins and Richard Marx had new albums out, and Quincy Jones’ multi-genre compilation album Back on the Block was all the rage. Even new and less strange New Age music like Enigma had begun to reach beyond the Andy Warhol-weirdness of Philip Glass. Between that and my friends, I had finally recovered enough of myself to no longer feel like the outcast I was made into by my family and by my school during the ’80s.
Of course, it helped to be able to turn over the calendar in another state, a different city, with folks who knew next to nothing about my life before the second half of ’87. Folks who thought that being smart was cool, and being a bit weird wasn’t a turnoff. People who actually listened to more than just Prince, Run DMC, or Ready for the World in the midst of some alcohol or drug-induced haze. My friends by ’90 including serious jazz enthusiasts, fans of everything from The Beatles to PE, Frank Sinatra to Freddie Jackson, and were as eclectic in tastes then as I am now.
Let me not beat up too much on folks from my first hometown — they were in high school at the time, after all. But I must admit, I think that it’s ironic that so many of them ended up doing something related to music. A fair number started rap groups or other music projects. Some broke into the industry as producers of folks like The Tony Rich Project, or got to know up-and-comers like Groove Theory and Amel Larrieux. Some are in the TV and movie business, weaving music in and out of scenes for our emotional benefit over the course of watching movies like The Cell or shows like Medium. Still, most of these folks were without an eclectic musical side, and certainly didn’t tolerate folks like me, who was often a year behind the times when it came to music, and years behind when it came to technology that would’ve helped me be more current.
I guess that by the time anyone would’ve thought about introducing me to anything new, I was already too far gone into strange-land for my fellow classmates. I was behind for sure, though. First AM/FM radio, September ’84. No cable TV until September ’85, so my first MTV video was Heart’s “What About Love,” and my first BET videos were Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo” and Run DMC’s “My Adidas.” My first Walkman knockoff I bought in March ’86, and my first true Sony Walkman followed in June ’87. To this day, I’ve never seen a Soul II Soul, Doug E. Fresh or Grandmaster Flash video. I never got into the dress of the times, mostly because I never had the money to dress that cool back then (unless I borrowed my mother’s somewhat manly clothes).
But one thing I did do once I began to catch up with my musical side again was to join Columbia House in the summer of ’86, as I couldn’t constantly run down to the city every time I wanted a tape. Everything that I had missed between ’81 and ’84 I ordered, and everything that I thought I least needed to listen to, I ordered. That included Glass Tiger, Janet Janet, and Philip Glass, Thompson Twins and Sade. By the time ’88 rolled around, I decided to order these things known as compact discs. I knew a couple of folks at Pitt who owned a CD-based stereo system, so I tried out these discs on their equipment. The sound quality wasn’t as good as vinyl, at least that’s what they kept saying. These shiny discs were much smaller than albums, though, and had much better sound than even the chromium-coated cassettes that I had in my collection.
The bias in CD production toward classical music was obvious, but I knew that folks would have to adapt eventually and that the technology would get better. So I bought about a dozen or so CDs in all between ’88 and the beginning of ’90, just so I’d be ready when I finally got around to buying a CD system to play it on. The funny about all this was that I did this on my own, without any advice, and only because I wanted to take the time out to work this aspect of me. I had no idea that my all-over-the-place music tastes could also be a conversation starter, or that buying CDs a year before buying a CD player would lead to friendship. Moving forward in my own interests in music and music technology helped me find myself, and in the process, meet people more like myself.