Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reunion Mix

My next class reunion is coming up in July of next year, and the woman organizing it has given me the assignment of coordinating the music. The concept is we’ll save a ton of money by not hiring a professional DJ, and I can pull together a gigantic mix of 70s/80s/beyond favorites that’s bound to be just as if not more accurate than what any paid DJ could come up with. Either her husband or son will man the laptop that night and throw the mix of tunes together, as I don’t want to, simply because it’s my reunion, and I’m there to see people again, not work the board.

We did the same thing for our 20th reunion a decade ago, just as MP3s were ascending into the acceptable media format, and it went a bit rocky at times. The laptop would skip/freeze up occasionally, and one of the issues with someone not "of that era" running it is they have no idea what key songs will register with the crowd. I can still recall the hostess pulling me aside and saying, “No one’s dancing. We need a good slow-dance song to get more guys on the floor.” I suggested “Love Hurts” by Nazareth – a ballad, but heavy metal-leaning, so all those guy who normally wouldn’t dance, would dance to something like this. And sure enough, they did. Most of the night was more modern dance/party music, which wasn't my bag, but plenty of other people surely enjoyed it.

I went all out back then, and I’ve gone all out now, too, and surely have a much larger/more complex collection than last time. It’s been 10 years of digital music since then, and to give you an idea, back then I was worried about filling up a 16 GB MP3 player, and now I’m on the cusp of filling up a 160 GB iPod. That’s why I love these massively hard-drived players and am disappointed as hell that Apple seems bent on never again making a player this large or larger. That extra space encouraged me to branch out and really fill in all my musical blanks, which is an ongoing project for the rest of my days.

They seem to think “the cloud” and “streaming” is the answer … but I’ve used streaming the past few months on my laptop due to my living situation (no cable, using a Virgin Mobile Broadband USB plug), and I can assure you, streaming is not the answer (data caps, too many drop outs and freezes, unusable in areas where reception is choppy). It’s an addendum, and some enterprising/large media company would be doing themselves a favor to come out with larger hard and flash-drived players instead of forcing “the cloud” down our throats. I like the cloud, but it’s no substitute for having your own, hand-picked, cherished tunes at your disposal at all times.

It’s an odd process, because I can’t visualize any one type of person and go with that, as I recall certain kids liked certain kind of music back then, and wouldn’t be caught dead listening to any other kind. What do these people listen to three decades on? I’m assuming hardly anything, for most. But I’m also assuming that when they go to something like a reunion, they’ll want to hear music from that time period, mixed in with newer popular songs that they’ll occasionally grab onto via their kids and such.

The quibbling aspect of all this is I have a very large, detailed collection of digital music, but I’ll often skip the most obvious hits by an artist for more obscure album cuts. Why? Because the originals were played to death and I never had any urge to buy them again digitally. But, given this context, I found it prudent to double back and get these huge tracks. Even more painful is that I’ll have either greatest hits packages or the actual albums/CDs these songs were on … save they’re back in my apartment, still waiting for me to move back in after the fire! It makes sense to do this now as I have more time on my hands, so I’ve simply re-downloaded about two dozen tracks like this. (All told, I’m just under 2,000 tracks for the whole project.)

Two great examples are “Dancing Queen” by ABBA and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Rhapsody is one of my all-time favorite songs, and I was shocked that I didn’t have it in my digital collection. Whereas most ABBA has now been done to death over the past two decades. I can still recall not being able to find one ABBA CD, greatest hits or catalog album, back in the early 90s when not everything was making the jump from vinyl to CD. There was rumored to be a 3-disc Italian import floating around, but I never saw it. A year later, ABBA Gold, the first CD compilation came out in the UK, and I scarfed it up, later getting all their back catalog, despite the fact that I’d never owned one ABBA album in my youth. (This was way before the Mamma Mia musical or any of the Australian, ABBA-based movies; ABBA was essentially dead in the early 90s, which was why I was looking for them.)

And then there’s bands I didn’t much care for at the time, but recognize most kids did. I’ve already dealt with this as a fan throughout the 90s and 00s, realizing I had nothing against these bands, save they were constantly in my face as a teenager while I was scouting out more rarified new-wave and indie music, thus feeling obliged to shun this more popular stuff like the plague. Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Def Leppard. I always begrudgingly liked a lot of this stuff, but as time went on, I doubled back and made sure I had at least one solid hits compilation, while digitally cherry-picking album tracks around the web that I remembered from the radio.

Ditto, 80s bands that came into play when I was already into young adulthood and in no way had any interest in these bands. Think hair metal. Bon Jovi, Poison. I absolutely hated this stuff at the time. But can see now it was simply well-structured if extremely surface pop, with an image thrown on top of it to sell to kids. And I’d wager a lot of my classmates unironically liked hair metal and still do today. Nothing wrong with that, and there are a handful of songs for each artist I’ll gladly throw in the mix.

My “80s Pop Rock” folder on the iPod has become a bit of a mess, because that’s where most of these “hated them at the time/have since made space for them” discrepancies are in my collection. There are times when a track comes up for this time period where I’ll just zap right by it. But I got it in there for just such a circumstance as a class reunion mix, knowing some people out there could like it. Think Whitney Houston, or any slick 80s R&B act. Lionel Richie. Stuff it’s not even fair to say I hated at the time … I simply ignored it all together, as much as I could when it was on MTV 10 times a day. Ditto newer stuff like Lady GaGa. Just not my cup of tea. For these, I’ll relegate them to that one hit track everybody knows them for. Period. If a fortysomething classmate approaches me at this reunion and castigates me for not having more Lady GaGa, I’ll have to ask them what they’re doing even listening to music aimed squarely at prepubescent girls.

Country music? Here’s the thing. It was a rare kid who liked country music in high school back in the early 80s. I wasn’t that kid. I fucking hated country music back then, as did most of my classmates. Of course, times change, and I’ve written about the doors slowly opening for me as time went on, as there is so much great country music out there. But in the context of a reunion, would anyone but me really want to sit and listen to half a dozen Hank Sr. or George Jones tracks in a row? I doubt it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of my classmates now like country, especially the women, as so much of what came out in the 90s was geared towards an adult female audience. I relegated a few dozen tracks to country, nearly all of it more poppy material, think 70s Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, The Dixie Chicks. And only a song or two for each. That’s my least favorite kind of country, but recognize a song or two does register with me. A vast majority of the off-the-beaten path country I listen to, think The Gourds or any other longstanding alt country band, would be totally lost in a reunion situation.

Jazz? Classical? Man, forget it. NOBODY in my class back then was into either. I’m sure you’ll find a few now. I’ve surely listened to a lot more jazz and classical in the past few years. But that’s not the stuff of reunions. No one’s going to pound beers and high five to Glenn Gould’s interpretation of Bach’s Sinfonia No 9 in F Minor. Or snap their fingers to an old Charlie Parker track.

The 70s? The 60s? The 50s? As kids in the 70s, we were raised in the shadow of the 60s, thus listening to a lot of what was popular then, via the radio or older siblings. And a lot of 70s music is “our music” as our teen years bridged the gap between the 70s and 80s. (When younger folks ask me what it was like to be a teenager in the 70s, I tell them to put on “Rebel Rebel” by Bowie or “Surrender” by Cheap Trick. Although my reality was more like “Telephone Line” by Electric Light Orchestra.) We had “disco dancing” classes in gym class. I still remember the metal kids standing off to the side, muttering, “This is so fucking gay.” It was a painful thing to watch them do half-hearted disco moves with the rest of us. It was even worse than square dancing, which we did every year, too. That’s what “country music” amounted to for most of us back then: square dancing in gym class.

The 60s were almost as second nature as the 70s in terms of music. At least for the most popular stuff, like The Beatles, Stones and Who, all of whom were still cultural icons when we were teenagers. AOR radio served as a sort of rock school for us, playing all the classic 60s and 70s rock, heavy rotation, in big rock blocks of four songs, and King Biscuit Flower Hour concerts, so that we all knew this stuff like biblical passages. 60s soul music, not so much – it just wasn’t passed on to white kids in the same way rock was, although many of us later developed strong appreciations for it.

Even the 50s had a minor presence. Remember that we were raised watching Happy Days, thus feeling nostalgia for an era when we weren’t even alive. Fifties music was all over 70s pop culture, particularly on oldies radio, which I’d love listening to while driving around at night – just as much an education for me. Fifties music for us then was as country probably is to a lot of us now: a music that wasn’t “ours” in any sense but we learned to enjoy on its own terms anyway.

And that’s the big distinction to make for me as a compiler: the difference between music that was intrinsically “ours” at the time, as opposed to music that wasn’t “ours” and we assimilated along the way. It’s about an 80/20 split for something like a reunion, although the reality in my life has those proportions reversed. Most of what I listen to has very little to do with my teen years, and is an ongoing exploration to hear new sounds, figure out what I like, develop some kind of taste for all these different kinds of music, and bring it into my life in some sense. I can lay this out for people my life in terms of gift mixes (like the kind I do for Christmas every year), but a lot of times, I gather I’m giving music to people to have little or no interest in what I’m giving them, which is why I shoot for the best/most appealing music when I do something like that in hopes of opening a door for somebody, or at least entertaining them when they put on the disc.

No opening doors for a reunion mix! I’m sure these people know what they like and know what they want to hear in a situation like this. I’ll surely be “stumped” more than a few times with song requests. And I’ll surely have some people wonder why I don’t have a certain album track from Sammy Hagar or some 80s metal band that even metal fans are vaguely aware of. But that’s part of the deal. If I can have at least one track for an artist that someone requests, mission accomplished.

I realize that what I listened to at the time wouldn’t go over so well: mainly 60s rock and new wave. I do have quite a bit of new-wave in the reunion mix, but am aiming more for the “greatest hits” effect than a catalog exploration. Because most kids didn’t like new wave in my class at the time! That seems to be a shock for following generations to grasp, but new wave just didn’t sell all that well teenagers in the early 80s. When they first hit, these bands would play colleges when they got into the hinterlands, and it would take a few years of heavy MTV exposure and solid albums to break through to that larger teen audience. I knew two other kids who liked Elvis Costello and The Clash, and we were weirdos. And even with The Clash, I don’t have “Rock the Casbah” in this collection, because I never liked that song and never will. Some songs, I just can’t fathom why they were hits, and that’s one of them.

In a way, this project makes me feel like a ghost, floating down the hallways of our old school, noting who was on the fold-out posters on the insides of lockers, over-hearing stoners in the boys room talking about their favorite tracks on The Wall, girls in the cafeteria explaining how they knew the boyfriend fast-forwarding the cassette to “Keep on Loving You” meant he wanted to make out.

And that world is gone. A few weeks ago when I was back in PA, I went out to the high school to pick up some tickets for that weekend’s football game, which was against old rival Mount Carmel, a huge game as both teams were undefeated, thus the ticket pre-sale at the school. It was the first time I had gone back there since the fall of 1982 (then to pick up my yearbook). Looked the same. Walked up to the front door. First one I tried was locked. Next one, too. And the next one. I glanced over to my left. There was a camera looking at me. And a wall plaque stating I had to hit the buzzer at the far left door, announce my name and intention, then be let in.

It was all a bit unnerving. Back in ’82, we’d just walk into and out of the school, unencumbered by prison-style nonsense like this. But I guess with the advent of kids shooting up their schools over the past few decades, this was now reality. When I got in, it looked the same, but some officious type guy, probably not the principal, immediately told me they were sold out of tickets when I asked. I took one look around then got the hell out of there.

I don’t doubt kids are still going through the same things we once did and will one day feel just as sentimental on occasion, and just as snake-bitten for the bad memories. But that sort of cold, 1984ish reception I got set me straight on nostalgia and any urge to “go back” in time to that place, now that it was in lockdown in anticipation of someone going nuts with an automatic weapon. At least there weren’t metal detectors and security guards, which are standard procedure in most city schools.

Still, doesn’t mean we can’t all get together once a decade and see how we’re all doing, which isn’t the chore or negative experience I had expected it would be before I went to the first one two decades ago. If there’s on thing I learned at both previous reunions, it’s that the music was secondary, not the main attraction at all, just something playing in the background while we all chatted amicably, occasionally ran into old friends, and just as often found ourselves laughing and having a good time with people we never though we would have back then. That’s the attitude I’m taking towards the music and like to think I’ve accomplished. Getting re-acquainted with old friends, meeting some new ones, and discovering I like some people I thought I’d never like at all.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Positively Union Turnpike

Well, by this point, I thought I’d be back in my old apartment. Insurance company did its thing. Architect filed building permits. Contractors came in and took the one/two days to fix my place. But two months later, and I’m still waiting!

I’ve since learned it takes an inordinately long time for building permits to go through in NYC. Weeks, often a month or two. I don’t know when they were filed, but I gather it’s the usual runaround. At first I thought it was insurance company hijinx, but they really stand nothing to gain by letting the process get drawn out. The longer people wait, the more they find wrong/needing to fix. Of course, it’s killing me because I know my place is so minorly damaged and will be ready to go in a matter of days once they start working.

So, in the meantime, as last posted, cooling my heels in suburbia on the far edge of Queens. Doesn’t feel like far edge of Queens. Feels like Long Island. Walk in any direction, save west, and you’re in Long Island. And, man, have I been doing a lot of walking. Just in terms of getting around – essentials like grocery store and laundromat are spread out – but it’s also a good way to burn a few hours on a weekend afternoon, just go for a long walk.

Later today, I plan to head back to the apartment, pick up a travel bag (headed to PA for a few days later this week), a comforter (this place retains cold like a freezer), and a few DVDs (mainly fall-type horror movies). And on the way back, take the bus to Main Street in Kew Gardens, get off, and walk the seven miles back here, as that will constitute my workout for the day. It’s a straight shot up the beautiful Union Turnpike, which I’m learning like the back of my hand as I peer out the bus window on my daily commutes.

It’s a strange feeling seeing the apartment now. The few times I’ve been there since the fire, virtually nothing has been done, and I can’t stand the abandoned feel of the place, the strong whiffs of smoke that are still emanating from the landlord’s apartment. I’m sincerely hoping no one breaks in as we go along here, with all my stuff is still in there, just waiting to be useful again. If this goes on long enough, into early November, I’ll have to get back there on Sundays just to get leaves off the sidewalk; the sanitation department will most likely ticket the house, regardless of the fact that no one’s living there. Not unlike the time they ticketed the landlord because I forgot to peel off the mailing label from a UPS cardboard box set out for recycling.

The one thing I’ve dealt with since then is the usual conversation with someone who has never been through a house fire: they would have put the fire out when they had the chance. In pitch blackness. At 3:00 in the morning. With fire burning in the wall. Even if that was all I had to contend with, I probably could have figured it out somehow. What they’re not getting is the amount of smoke generated in a house fire. Literally could not see more than a foot in front of me, even in the lit hallway leading into the kitchen Movies and television shows do not convey this properly. This is why firemen have enclosed helmets with strong searchlights on the crowns and breathing apparatuses on their backs. When they walk into a fire, it’s a pure wall of black smoke.

This is what I walked into. And got the immediate vibe this would have knocked me out in less than a minute or two without proper protection. (And I would have fallen down, into that bar of clean air beneath the wall of smoke, and presumably been able to crawl out of there, assuming the carbon monoxide effects didn’t kick in too hard.) If I had walked in and seen an open flame, great, let’s run back downstairs, get a bucket, and try to douse it out. But you have to realize, even if the fire wasn’t behind the refrigerator and in that wall, I still would have had to wander around in that smoke until the fire was a foot away to identify it. It’s not like these Hollywood scenes of someone dashing through clear, open air to pick up a passed-out child. Maybe in the first minute or two of the actual fire. But after that, the smoke billows and intensifies … to the point where a fire will not be seen until it’s more than likely too late to put out without the right equipment.

Hindsight being 20/20, first thing I’d do now, upon the landlord yelling down the stairs that there was a fire, would be immediately dial 9-1-1 to report it, THEN run upstairs and see if I could put it out. I probably could have cut off 2-3 minutes from the fire department’s arrival time and isolated the fire completely to the kitchen extension, as opposed to creeping through the hallway and touching into the rest of the house.

The ordeal now is passing time, and how fucking long this thing will take to play itself out. I gather my landlord won’t live in her place for at least a few months. Since her apartment received the most damage and will require serious construction, it’s going to take a considerable amount of time to get things right there. And it would be to her advantage to get her tenants back in and paying rent as soon as possible, which will not be long once the permits come through. Just the whole, obscene process of waiting for these things to come through! You’d figure there’d be a special division just for emergencies like this: fires, floods, situations where a homeowner has been rendered homeless. But it seems like they get thrown in the same bin as some guy who wants to McMansionize his two-story rowhouse … chances are his request could go through faster if he knows someone on the inside. Just tiresome stuff.

About the one thing I’ve grabbed onto in this time is the Union Turnpike, that long stretch of beat-down, strip-malled, auxiliary to major roadways that cuts straight through Queens like so many of those other miles-long boulevards. It’s my lifeline straight back to the subway system, which in turn takes me to Manhattan. I gather people out here don’t care at all about Manhattan. Even in Astoria, you’ll find people who never set foot there, whether out of intimidation or disdain. Hell, I tend not to go in there on weekends unless I have to (which I do for boxing on Sunday mornings).

But it seems to me like the farther you get away from Manhattan around here, the stranger life gets, at least for someone like me who works there every day and has that sense of “New York City” in his head. The suburbs don’t cut it for me: surprise! It just seems like a disjointed way of life I’ll never warm up to. I understand small towns and major cities. There’s an underlying obnoxiousness to a lot of people out here that I just can’t get around. Related to money and status, and the total emptiness that each entails when that’s all people have to distinguish themselves. God knows, you get it in spades in Manhattan. But there, you can always walk around it. Here, it’s everywhere you go, all the time. Which is why I have such disdain for spoiled brats moving into Astoria: they’re bringing that awful sense of the suburbs and entitlement with them, to a neighborhood that was middle to working-class for years. They would have shunned my neighborhood like the plague as little as a decade ago.

I can even sense, waiting for the bus that takes me down the Union Turnpike, the turned-up noses and smirks in the passing cars, you know, the millions of cars packed in the eternal traffic jams around here, filled with miserable, honking bastards having breakdowns as their meaningless urge to do 75 mph down the road to nowhere is impeded. They’d never be caught dead taking the bus! And down the Union Turnpike? Man, just get I-whatever and you’ll be there in no time. (Thing is, when I catch glimpses of the interstates through the trees, they’re usually bumper-to-bumper half the time.)

The bus surely leaves a lot to be desired – it gets unbearably crowded the closer it gets to Kew Gardens. But I’m lucky enough to be on the first stop and always wrangle a window seat, which allows me to listen to music and take in this blemished roadway, the King Yum Chinese restaurant, The Sly Fox Inn, the frat-boy bars down by St. John’s University, the Indian Palaces with $9.99 buffet, the ubiquitous 99-cent stores, the crazy Irish-Peruvian pub down by Springfield Boulevard.

It’s not so much the land that time forgot, as the land that people don’t like to admit is just around the corner and just as much a part of their lives as the perfectly-manicured lawn. That’s what I see as I gaze down the sidestreets along the turnpike. Very much the vibe that you have these ugly, strip-mallish arteries extended all through Queens, but between each, these safe havens of severely over-priced houses, each with lawns of varying sizes, some houses full-blown mansions, others humble bungalows. And I can’t knock that at all. If anything, it’s a relaxing vibe to know that such sedate living environments are so relatively close to Manhattan. The kind of places people go to “raise their kids.” Although I’m not sure I’d want to raise a kid with the kind of monetary values people have drilled into their heads around here … it’s pretty depraved in that sense.

Still, you look at the faces on the bus – mostly Indian and Asian, mostly women – and get the sense that these are the people who are pushing Queens forward, the ones who quietly get on the bus every morning and take that hellishly long ride into Manhattan to earn their daily bread. It’s a whole different vibe from the subway lines, which are rougher in some senses, but as noted recently in Astoria, also filled with too many spoiled white jackasses who bear the vibe of tourists more than neighborhood people. I can see it on the bus, too. The closer you get to Kew Gardens, the more you get that privileged twat vibe from people getting on the bus. I’m just as guilty in a sense – I was totally unaware of what people who lived beyond the end of subway lines did to get to work in New York City – but I’ve been at it a lot longer, have lived in much harder places, than most of these folks, and have the gravitas to back it up. New York City used to be a place where you earned your stripes: now it’s like instant jello.

I can’t help but feel at home on the Union Turnpike. These kind of no-frill roads exist everywhere in America. You can latch on to the Dunkin Donuts, or Subways, or McDonalds, that invariably line these roadways in-between the smaller local businesses, but it’s the road itself. It will take you longer to get where you’re going, stopping at every other red light. But at least for me, it opened the door to another side of Queens I knew existed, but had never experienced. When I think back years from now on these crazy few months following that horrible house fire I survived, I can guarantee you the one crucial piece of real estate that will come to me then, the lay of the land, will be the Union Turnpike and what I saw looking out the bus window every work morning.