When we enter the world of art, we are at war and our choices can either be an act of brilliant heroism or pathetic cowardice. When you look back at the music you have listened to, are you filled with the pride a veteran might have for the medals he’s won, or do you quietly brush off your associations with the bands you used to listen to?
I first saw action in the summer of 1989 at a Kmart. My mother said I could pick a CD to buy since I had been less dickish than usual about buying school clothes that year, trying on all my trousers to make sure everything fit and enduring a seemingly endless inspection of each pair from my mother. After doing my time in the boy’s department, I went by myself to rifle through the CDs, which were warehoused in long cardboard boxes in the middle of the store. After looking for a few minutes, I soon found myself standing there with two CD’s in my hands — The Cure’s, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and Milli Vanilli’s Girl You Know It’s True – and, at that moment in time, I could have gone either way.
Now, how can I explain how a boy could hold these two CDs in his hands and value them equally? At fourteen, I was completely self-taught and naive. My parents were not cool or artsy or anything. My dad had a reel-to-reel tape deck with some early 60′s pop rock that he turned on once a year while we put up the Christmas tree and my mom listened to Crystal Gale, Kenny Rogers and The Oak Ridge Boys on an 8-track in our conversion van when she ran errands. Although I fondly remember all the words to The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira,” I was not satisfied.
The previous Christmas, “Santa” (I was the oldest of seven) brought me a wonderful present that would later prove to be the most influential gift I have ever received — a JVC boom box that had a CD player on the top and a tape deck that could record music off the radio. I lived in the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania and I was only able to get two stations. One was WNNK 104 FM, a top 40 station that introduced me to Milli Vanilli, Bobbi Brown and Poison. The other was a college radio station from Dickinson College that played bands like The Trashcan Sinatras, R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction. I spent hours listening to and taping songs from both stations. And, so it was that at the critical moment in Kmart, things could have gone either way — safe and predictable with pop music or towards something darker, mysterious and dangerous. By then, I knew that conforming to norms would make for an easier assimilation into my small rural high school, but somehow I acted with great courage and put down that Milli Vanilli CD and, without any malice towards Rob and Fab, decided the prophet I would follow would be Robert Smith.
Nothing was further from the realities of my life in farm town USA than the exotic sounds of English music like The Smiths and anything from the NETWORK industrial label. The bands that really captured my imagination were The Cure, The Dead Milkmen, The Smiths, Nitzer Ebb,Skinny Puppy and Jesus and the Mary Chain. Listening to college radio made me feel inspired and moved me to acts of musical heroism. I weathered teasing from my classmates and spent my weekends searching record stores for CD’s to buy, venturing hours away from my hometown to big cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia in search of college music. Without older siblings or friends to guide me, I bravely took risk after risk, buying any album put out by certain labels, or just going with my gut. I found myself the champion of obscure bands and unpopular choices, bands that imploded after a few albums or went unloved by the masses. In the battle for my soul, college music won and I found my cause.