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.

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