How do you find the music you love? Maybe it’s still by word of mouth, accidentally seeing an opening band at a local concert, reading an enthusiastic review or getting a hey check this shit out! video link. Maybe there was a staff pick at your local record store (if it still exists) that you took a chance on. Or a movie that had a killer soundtrack. Just like meeting lovers or wives or great friends, there’s a moment you know you will never be the same person again, that this sound, these chords, that voice, will stick with you for a long time on a deep, to-the-bone level. Like love at first sight, when you hear a band that breaks open your head, a song that nails you to the floor, you remember where you were, what you were wearing, who played it for you.
Funny thing is, unlike love at first sight, much of the music I deeply love, I hated passionately at the start. I told my father The Doors sounded like bad elevator music at a carnival. In college I thought Tom Waits sounded like a drunken homeless guy who hijacked a recording studio with a bunch of his buddies from the local halfway house. The more I think about this, the more I question my own safe tastes, my petty prejudices and wonder how they got this way. Sure I can sing (and have been conditioned to love) every song on The Eagles Greatest Hits (Volume I and II) but why can’t I stand Radiohead or most hip hop, rap, metal, punk or country no matter how hard I try? Maybe there is no right answer. But sometimes, I think, shit, maybe I have to start to disregard my own instincts.
Growing up in Chicago there were lots of music zines around, hand-pressed things with names like Super Squirrel, some of which my friends and I helped write and would distribute at local record shops—Reckless Records, Dr. Wax, Virgin, Tower (RIP). You’d see the names of groups in rival zines and remember them so you looked smart later. You liked bands—Rancid, NOFX, The Offspring—more as a communal show of faith than anything else. In retrospect, I played bass in a band called Labyrinth, churning out muddy, rambling punk that I didn’t even really like.
As a kid you listened to what your friends listened to. One day I heard “Come Together” at my friend Will’s house, maybe age 10. I liked it because he liked it. I went home determined—get me some of that Beatles stuff. My Dad obliged, then gently told me to go earlier—he gave me Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, Chuck Berry, Benny Goodman. While now I tend to have a worshipful attitude to these godfathers, I resisted almost all of it at first—plain and simple it was old people music.
I distinctly remembering telling my poor father how Bob Dylan was a undecipherable hack who couldn’t sing, had an out-of-tune guitar and played the worst harmonica I’d ever heard—I was in our bluebird-painted kitchen, doing the dishes for my allowance. He sighed, went to the front room and turned it off. I said thanks and put on Green Day.
But in college, something changed. A friend loaded this new thing called an iPod with all sorts of songs I had never heard. Just trust me on this, he said. Freshman year I found myself under a bell tower in Michigan, walking to class through the driving rain—and thanks to the life-changing kismet we call “shuffle,” I was suddenly listening to “Visions of Johanna” for the first time. I was feeling low; totally in love with the girl across the hall and couldn’t figure out how to talk to her. She was out of reach, I thought to myself, a shining being from an exotic foreign planet. Then I stopped under the tower and listened to the music—Dylan sang “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” A thousand alarms went off in my skull. That was it. Now Dylan has nine records released just of bootleg tapes. I have them all.
A childhood friend I met in a summer improv camp used to give me a record for my birthday every year—usually a burned copy with her crude handmade album art. At barely 14, she was somehow way ahead of everyone. One time it was a new group from Texas with a singer who seemed to spit into the lights at every show. You could almost hear it in the recordings. He was passionate, maybe half crazy. I told her that their band name sounded like a bad dessert cookbook. Spoon. I put it in. I hated it. It was stark, full of empty spaces. A year later, with a bit more space in my skull, I thought Girls Can Tell was genius. Seeing them at the small and dingy Metro club in Chicago soon after, I found that yes, he did spit every syllable into the dusty, shining air and many of us in the front row were more than happy to wipe off our cheeks every few songs and keep on dancing.
The next year she gave me a local Chicago band with an album called, oddly: Summerteeth. The first track “Can’t Stand It” was too loud and had weird bells in it; the second track, ‘She’s a Jar” was too soft and whispery and seemed to be about beating your girlfriend. One minute it was easy going folk-pop, the next moment it was screaming static and electronic fury. No way. It sat in my room for a year. I was going to throw it out with my mom breathing down my neck to clean up my desk—but I popped it in again to make sure. I let the first track go into the second, the third, the fourth. I was frozen to the rug—unable to move for an hour. I started Summerteeth over and listened again. When the record finished the sun had gone down. I had missed dinner. I was hungry. I had blacked out. Overnight, I became a Wilco fanatic. I called my friend and said thank you, thank you so much, a year late.
Still, I was resistant to anything that pulled me out of my comfort zone. It was Classic Rock, 97.1 The Drive and a few rock aberrations and that was cool for me. But when I was in 10th grade, a schoolmate put on Manu Chao’s Clandestino on a boombox during a school field trip to a local soup kitchen. Though the album and its catchy Casio-folk hit “Bongo Bong” have become nearly ubiquitous a decade later, at the time I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I feverishly rushed out to buy it with my allowance money the next day. Its rootsy mixture of English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Portuguese politically-charged and good-humored lyrics still sounds fucking effortless and important and every time the album comes on, a little home video starts whirling in my head. A grainy, familiar scene comes into focus, all blues and grays: there I am, 15 again, my classmates are taking a break outside The Salvation Army, a ragged, artsy crew in baggy jeans and parkas, sneaking cigarettes and doing jumps off the snowy sidewalk on their skateboards. I remember the exact look of that soup kitchen parking lot, the graffiti-kissed dumpsters (we would tag with smelly markers when the teachers weren’t looking), and the rickety elevated train screaming around the corner into the ice-gray sky. I see the line of bundled up homeless folks shuffling towards the entrance like broken soldiers, the dead leaves eddying on the concrete behind them and the skeletal trees that let them go, shivering in another Illinois winter.
Though Clandestino has stayed the same, recently the tunes have taken on added weight of sadness to them. A few years back, a classmate I hadn’t talked to in years sent me an email. It was brief. Liz had committed suicide. When they found her, in a loft downtown, all her paintings, photographs, drawings, tapestries and mixtapes were in a smoking, charred mountain around her. Though I quietly asked around, nobody would say how she killed herself. Just that she had burned all of her work before she said goodbye and let it go up around her pale body.
When I try and trace back the origins of my music hunting, to that insatiable thirst for a handpicked, personal sound: it starts there, in that parking lot with Liz. Because those sounds out of that boombox were like nothing I had ever heard. Not like my dad’s blues and radio-friendly psychedelia. Not like my Mom’s easy-listening folk and my classmates’ punk, shoegaze, screamo and techno. They spoke to an elevated, worldly consciousness that I had not attained but could if tried. I had always wanted to travel and got my wish when I was sent to study abroad in Spain later in 10th grade. I blasted Clandestino on the plane ride over, rehearsing the phrases. I had to find more. It was like a bomb had gone off in my head—there’s cool music everywhere in the world. I needed to know about it, find it, and fast.
Grabbing hold of great new music is almost diabolically easy nowadays, thanks to furtive and kind-of-legal download sites, open-minded distribution and broadcast intuitions like CD Baby, Bandcamp NPR and the BBC, personalized streaming sites like Pandora and the plethora of erudite blogs (RIP zines?) that cater to every taste, genre and fetish imaginable.
And yet, homing in on new music can also be overwhelming. The media landscape has become increasingly jagged and multi-faceted—the democratizing force of the Internet has created an overload of available original content of indeterminable quality on video and audio platforms (The Rolling Stones and a local high school garage band can be side by side on I-tunes and Vimeo)—and it’s often impossible to know what is lovingly and calculatedly lo-fi or just some teenager recording in his basement with a loop pedal.
And kids recording in their basements and crooning into their laptops can get as big as it gets these days, can’t they—and real quickly too. Just ask Adam Young of the electropop phenomenon Owl City—a young Coca Cola warehouse worker in Owatonna, Minnesota who was living below ground at his parents place when he started recording some of the tunes he’d sing to himself while loading up those Coke trucks all day. After posting his musings online, his tune “Fireflies” became the most downloaded track on iTunes and soon after that he had a record deal, an international tour, and a headlining spot at Madison Square Garden. Before the tour he had—and this makes me cringe—never once performed live.
There’s a strange dichotomy in this system we’ve created in this blip-happy brand new world—that is, since the rise of the digital download and the YouTube clip: on one hand, anyone, anywhere can become a bankable star with first class production behind them—see the lovely Zee Avi, a Malaysian folk-jazz crooner who Jack Johnson’s folks snagged from her stellar YouTube clips alone. The stories are often hard to believe. Without meeting her, they flew Avi from Kuala Lumpur to LA to record at Jack’s studio by the beach. Then put her on tour with Pete Yorn.
Still, with so many people on a global scale believing they can be now seen and heard, for musicians and music lovers outside the pop-spectrum especially, it’s often just as perilous and tricky to get seen and heard in any sort of sustainable and lasting way. Fanatics, ask yourself, where will Owl City be in 10 years? Where’s Vitamin C? Or Da Brat? Sure, no one hears you scream when you are alone in the forest, but no one hears you either when there’re 80,000 people banging on guitars and ukuleles in that same patch of woods.
When I walk into a record store, I still feel this weird impulse: the need to find something that will blow Liz’s mind. Maybe somewhere, she’s listening. I want to ask her what she’s jiving to up there. Has she heard Hindi Zahra? Moroccan-French folk-jazz with some sinister backbeats—just about made me crash my car when I heard it on NPR the other day.
For those of us who still have stereos, still buy CDs and vinyl every week, still listen to those crackly low-numbered rural country and blues stations, still excitedly look over liner notes in the car at red lights—the hunt for new music is a life-long love affair. My comfort zones and prejudices still run deep, but I can only hope that I can broaden my horizons. There’s still nothing more powerful than a friend going hey, listen to this. And okay, I will try and listen to some Radiohead. I hear they are really awesome.