An Unbiased History of My Awesome Musical Taste

–Steve Wright

Providing an unbiased history of my awesome musical taste is not as easy as it sounds.  One might think that such ability is an innate trait, sprung fully developed from the womb along with other vital functions like breathing and whatever, or that it would be easy for a person blessed with awesome musical taste to be able to explain at least its basic principals to the novice, in the same way that Einstein or Hawking could explain… uh… space, I suppose.  To begin again, let’s “keep it simple” as Kool Keith says and recognize that neither explaining nor arriving at awesome musical taste is easy, but that such feats are possible as our existence and history below will show (note gratuitous musical references and the occasional use of plural pronouns often signify heightened musical acumen).  In cherishing, developing, and occasionally sharing our incredible insights over the years we have often paused to reflect upon and pay thanks for our good fortune.  Like Jesus or Buddah, a life spent in studious exploration has brought me to a transcendental perspective from which I may now humbly and impartially share this story and the truths they reveal [Bible-length version in the works – ed.].

The unbiased history of my awesome musical taste begins with dancing around the living room, pooping my diapers to John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”  I don’t quite have a memory of my own about this, but I’ve heard the story enough times that I can form a likely scene in my head – a fuzzy buffer for the trauma that gets rehashed every Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The musical cradle that powered this performance was my dad’s stereo, a Sanyo that sat inside a great cabinet hewn from the hulking base of a mature redwood tree.  Three-foot brown mesh speakers stood guard at each side.  Inside the crevasses lurked big slabs of gear with weighted silver knobs and smooth black buttons.  Fake wood grain wrapped up any blank face that wasn’t bristling with switches or warning lights.  A tinted glass dome hid the turntable.  The silver metal tape deck sported some kind of ironwork reminiscent of a pair of brass knuckles and was reluctant to open its drawer.  The receiver glowered emerald green from a behind shaded canopy brow.  One had to engage in an elaborate ritual involving a lever in order to coax the arm to drop the needle onto a record.  Underneath these components and behind a pair of heavy wood doors lay a trove of albums from the late ‘60s and early 70s:  Stevie Wonder, Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Aretha Franklin, CCR…  The inside had a deep brown smell, a musky combination of shoe polish, cardboard and unlit tobacco.  I recall it almost like a family pet:  the fun we had together, the messes we made, the quiet moments in between.  I spent entire days listening to records and reading the covers.  I wasted hours twiddling the stereo’s knobs and dials.  I discovered how to plug a pair of headphones into the input jack, sing into an earpiece, and have my voice come out of the speakers all gritty and buzzing.   Once I managed to prove that the diamond-tipped needle couldn’t really be made of diamond, and felt the consequences of my experiment.  When I was twelve I hatched a mail order scheme to sell cassette tape copies of all my dad’s vinyl albums and make a fortune.

In 1975 when this behemoth was properly tuned to a nugget of ‘70s gold like John Denver’s “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” I’d stagger to my feet and shuffle about, clapping and drooling.  Soon the music would overpower me and I’d squat behind the sofa for the grand finale, a signature move dubbed The Poo Poo Prance:  a physical manifestation of the very force of rock itself as it blazed through the limbs and bowels my toddling body.  It was a perfect movement of air and sound and bodily function, a force that rushes over you, sprouting goose bumps when a particularly killer part of a song plays on the car radio.   At the concert it’s the rush of hundreds of people jumping up from their squats on the arena floor as the house lights drop and the band spikes the murmuring air with a chord of electric guitar.  On stage it’s the roar of the amps blasting through your backside and up into your guts, your lungs, and out your mouth into a spit-soaked mic, then through the speakers and into the atmosphere.  The urge to dance, the runner’s high, flooring the accelerator, the pleasure of turning the stereo up way too loud – melt these down into a shot of loud music and off you go.  Somehow that rockinest of rock dudes, John Denver, provided the spark.

The first song I remember liking on my own without parental influence was Supertramp’s “Rational Song.”  I’d be strapped into my carseat in the back of the station wagon, watching the burnt grass of the Texas flats blur by, and a profound melancholy would pinch my chest as I listened to the spooky, high-pitched singing over proggy keyboard boogie.  Elvis died during my time in Texas and I recall my friend’s mom crying in front of the TV, watching some fat guy dressed up like Evil Knievel shaking around, warbling and huffing.  The guy was pretty silly – certainly not rock and roll.  Real rock and roll had action figures and comic books.  Real rockers looked like Japanese monsters or Nordic warriors, like in the KISS vs. Led Zeppelin comics.  Note these basic pillars of awesome musical taste:  an innate disdain for early 50s & 60s rock, the truth of Kiss & Zep, and a sublimated predilection for prog.

Next my family moved to London in the late 70s and early 80s.  From my backseat vantage Gary Numan’s “Cars” seemed to direct the streams of the rain-slickered pedestrians as they filed out of underground stations, an automated mass of black and grey marching to regal mechanized sound of Numan’s synth lines.  Other times they were marching to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” as my dad tried to convince us a helicopter was chasing us or that we were about to get hit by a bomb when the various sound effects came through the speakers.  The neighbor kid Simon had a bidet in his house and we’d always dump stuff and pee into it as we sang our own words to the tune from Queen’s Flash Gordon Soundtrack, “Flush – Ahh-ahh! Saivor of the toilet bowl!”  My little sister and I would perform a tasteful bit to Olivia Newton John’s hit song, “Physical”, where we’d point our asses to our audience, sing “I wanna get physical / Let me hear your bottom talk,” and make farting noises.

On the school bus all the grades and age groups rode together, kindergartners and high school seniors.  This arrangement afforded the older kids an endless source of amusement and us first graders a jittery mix of fear and awe.  We envied their portable radios that were always propped so jauntily on their shoulders, yet had to duck when they swung them through the air at our heads.  We were excited by the Combat Rock of the Clash that infuriated the bus driver, who in turn elicited jeers from the back.  We were amazed by the green Mohawks, ripped plaid pants, and studded leather jackets that these guys wore to class.  The older kids were so cool that the bus would stop at the store on the way home so that they could all get off and smoke fags on the street corner.  I’d watch these punk rockers from the little clear patches of bus window I’d mittened away, forever biased toward any kind of British music.

When we moved back to the States, I found the cool kids on the bus were playing Def Leppard, Prince and Nucleus; Adam Ant and the Boomtown Rats were out.  Field trips were inevitably set to “Material Girl” and “Lets Go Crazy”.  My older cousin who often was mistaken for Madonna also got me into Duran Duran and The Cure.  This didn’t really jibe with what my friends’ older brothers were into – the “really classic stuff” like Zeppelin, the Doors, the Dead – but I didn’t notice and obligingly followed the dudes into that stuff, the attendant late night D&D games, smoking doob provided by the middle school janitor, the whole package.  Omnivorous and untutored listening led me to make a number of stinker tape purchases (Jefferson Starship, Mister Mister, Tears For Fears) along with a few lucky accidents (Bad Brains, REM).  In fourth grade a friend gave me a tape for my birthday of a bunch of freaky dudes jumping on trampolines and mooning the camera.  It was the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Freaky Styley, produced by George Clinton before they got lame or sold out or whatever, before “alternative” was a concept.  Once I got over the cover and actually started listening to it, whole other realms of possibility opened, those that weren’t “popular” or “classic” or even ever heard of.  I was knocked into a new understanding, as if I’d been hit by a small meteor of highly addictive material.  The combination of punk and funk – two forms I had never before heard – was pretty radical in 1985 and I was soon forcing everyone off the dance floor whenever the band teacher / “dj” would give in and play a RHCP cut I insisted “was totally danceable”.  I breathed the rarified air of the aficionado-martyr walking amongst yet apart from the unenlightened heathens.

The last day of school a band of cool 8th graders played a set of Zep and Halen covers at “Happy Day”, before the fire engine sprayed everybody inciting first a gropefest and then fistfights.  I solemly vowed to start a band and that summer began taking guitar lessons along with every other rising 8th grade boy.  My friend and I bought and learned the entire back catalog of Van Halen and Black Sabbath.  The logo for our first band “Skynd Pykl” was proliferating lockers and skateboards before we even had a lineup or a practice.  One of our first gigs was the PTA Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser, where after assaulting the dinner audience with our horrifically loud and tuneless hard rock covers for over an hour, our Jim Morrison / Robert Plant – wannabe singer pulled the coup de grâce by running across the cafeteria tables, spilling spaghetti on the outraged adults.  After a dressing down by the principal and dishwashing duty, my dad peeked his head in the kitchen and said (perhaps with some pride), “Well, if it’s worth playing, it’s worth playing loud.”

As the lowest form of life in high school – the 9th grade guy – my friends and I consoled ourselves with Guns & Roses, Slick Rick and getting wasted in the woods “camping”.  I still feel like breaking or burning something whenever I hear “Nightrain”.  Later some seniors took me to a concert where The Violent Femmes, The Indigo Girls, and Fishbone shared the bill (really).  The first two acts were interesting but unexciting, as most “college rock” was, but Fishbone was a revelation both musically and in terms of stage show (or diving, actually).  From there I was into Jane’s Addiction, My Bloody Valentine, high tide Sonic Youth, early Smashing Pumpkins and pre-Reservoir Dogs URGE Overkill.  I began to pride myself in being the first kid to get into a band, and I got snobby about “new” music that wasn’t new to me:  I was “kind of over” Pearl Jam when they broke, after loving it a year before on midnight college radio.  I found Nevermind boring after three listens.  Metallica was way better on Kill ‘Em All.  At the same time I had no qualms playing hippie at the ten Dead shows I attended, unable to connect the one lame show I saw to the fact that it was also the one show where no drugs were scored.  Growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, home to Dave Mathews and all the crunchy bands that inspired him, a bit of the hippie shake got into my system.  Fortunately long hair and shitty jeans allowed me to freely traverse all these disparate musical scenes in the late 80s and early 90s.  Seasons in the Abyss sat comfortably next to Aoxomoxoa in my Tape Logic carrying case.

College introduced me to the world of indie rock, which to my Alt-y, grunged-out ears initially sounded like a bunch of whiny dudes who couldn’t sing or keep their guitars in tune.  After a few more listens and incessant discussions with my “hippie and fag” peers who were apparently also developing awesome musical tastes, I became as enamored as they with the likes of Pavement, Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, Polvo, Superchunk, The Archers of Loaf, Royal Trux and so on.  A less enlightened acquaintance remarked somewhat incredulously but with a begrudging bit of respect that “music is like sports for you guys!”   This indie guitar-driven / lo-fi scene developed through the 90s, eventually becoming but one of many streams in the technologically-enabled nova of underground or non-mainstream music scenes, and I followed its initial waves until it all started sounding “the same” or “like but not as good as [band X].”  I found myself laughing my way through a Belle and Sebastian concert, then scowling at “the hippies dancing” at a New Pornographers show and forcing my friends to leave early.  The final straw was at the Merge 15th Anniversary festival where I suddenly found myself loudly booing Destroyer or The Essex Green or The Ladybug Transistor or whatever that shit was.  The place went silent with people just glaring at me and I realized that I no longer needed indie rock and it no longer needed me.  I retreated to the back of the club and drank beer and played Galaga for the rest of the night.

Done with trying to be intellectual but too jaded for the fluff, I returned fully to the harder-edged, punk-inspired music that I had always liked in high school but had only halfway followed during my indie days.  The path from Bad Brains to The Jesus Lizard to Drive Like Jehu to Unwound to Brainiac to The VSS and so on was always twisted and fulfilling, and picking it up again more recently with Breather Resist, These Arms Are Snakes, Converge, Gaza, Trap Them and their counterparts and progeny feels like a homecoming.  A really pissed-off, dystopic, refreshingly honest homecoming.  Less and less folks want to listen or go to shows with me, but I take it in stride as a gradual stripping away of earthly bonds on my way to musical martyrdom.  It’s not even worth trying to describe or convince anyone anymore; if you can’t follow the trajectory then you just don’t get it.  Winks to my fellow Cardinal Puffs, and I’ll see the rest of y’all at the pearly speakers in the sky, deleting your playlists so you can listen to something good for once.  Check this out…

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