Friday, November 23, 2007

Of Jedi Knights and Mix Tapes

For a lot of people my age, mostly the boys, childhood was clearly divided. There was a Before and there was an After. When you saw Star Wars for the first time, you came out of the theater in a dreamy state, knowing that the world had changed, and feeling like you were a part of something larger than yourself. I had that same experience as a 17 year old, the first time I heard an Indigo Girls bootleg.

The one family vacation we ever took was in 1983. My sister had had a baby down in South Carolina, and on the drive back to PA we stopped at some family style restaurant in VA. I went to the restroom, and as I was walking through the dining area, I caught sight of myself in one of those big room length mirrors. It was totally disorienting because I was going the wrong way in the mirror. I was going the wrong way in the mirror because it wasn’t me. It was some other girl that was my dead ringer. Back in the car, my mother explained what a ‘doppleganger’ was, but that didn’t make the experience any less disconcerting. Hearing Amy Ray was disorienting in the same way- ‘what am I doing over there?‘

Now you think back- whether or not you like 'em, when you were a young lesbian, something clicked when you first heard the Indigo Girls in the late 80's. Something changed for you.

When I heard my first Indigo Girls track in 1988, it was the same kind of 'time standing still' moment that I had when I saw Star Wars in the theater. Now, keep in mind that this was before the rivers of information were brought to us by the internet. Things you really liked were hard to come by. In sleepy backward towns, even the most aggressive seekers had to rely on the record store clerk, mainstream radio and the card catalogue at the library.

I was lucky enough to have the complete radio station record library at my disposal, but who the hell knew what to listen to? The school had given up on the station years ago. The priest that ran it got disgusted with the students and gave the broadcast license and tower away to a neighboring school. We broadcast solely through the electrical wiring of the freshman dorms. No shit. That being the case, no one bothered with us. I never once saw a faculty member at the studio. I was willfully obscene every time I took the air, no one noticed. I once played Bruce Cockburn’s “Silver Wheels” back to back for three straight hours on my own "Organic Music Show." No one noticed.

The down side to this was that we were left out of the grand accumulation of power that College Radio went through in the mid to late eighties. The AP didn’t care what we played. CMJ didn’t call for our tracking numbers. No cool indi labels sent us promo copies. Everything was mainly major label top 40 stuff, still white label, still 12”vinyl singles, so the stuff we did get was largely anonymous. If it was a new artist, who knew what it was? Name and title only on the white labels. It could be R&B, it could be bluegrass. Who knew? Our entire Replacements catalogue was cassette tapes bootlegged off of a local townie drop out.

Another problem was: vinyl. Shit was still not portable. I spent a solid week before leaving for college transferring vital records to cassette tapes. You couldn’t take your stereo to school, no one did- they were still the size of foot lockers. The boys brought boomboxes, but most of the girls in my dorm had a clock radio, period. My cd player was still regarded as a novelty. Those of us that liked music too much traded carefully constructed mix tapes with each other and with friends from other schools. That’s how you found out about new music, and that’s how I, with the contrariness that’s been a theme throughout my life, met the Indigo Girls in a freshman boy’s dorm at an obscure Catholic College. A mixtape had arrived, I don’t know from where, other than it must have been from a bigger, cooler school.

This school, you know, well there was a joke at the radio station that every Freshman Orientation Kit contained a copy of Steve Miller's Greatest Hits V2 and whichever Billy Joel album that was that had Scenes from an Italian Restaurant on it, because that’s all you heard in the freshman quad. R.E.M. hadn’t reached the working class East Coast neighborhoods we came from. I was friendly with the kids that liked the Smiths and the Cure in highschool, but the music didn’t speak to me, so other than hard rock and 70’s albums that my sister left behind, my 'palette' was limited, to say the least.

Bill (damn me if I can remember his whole name, but it was Irish, we were almost all Irish.) and I had jammed some that fall, learned a couple of songs together, but it was hard. He played keyboards and was keyboard oriented, and since I was a girl in high school, there wasn’t anyone for me to jam with and I just didn’t know how. But we could listen together.

The anonymous mixtape maker had tacked what our AOR ears heard as ‘country’ on the end of the tape… two completely out of control acoustic guitars and a low, rough voiced girl.

"Is this you?” Bill squealed, like maybe I had recorded an album secretly over the summer but decided to start college anyways….

I don’t know what he thought, really, and I was too stunned, too Star Warsed to do anything but grab the j card to see what was written on it. It was unlike anything I’d heard before. I knew it was powerful, but I didn’t know if I liked it, and I sure as hell wasn’t thrilled that anyone might sound like me. Vocally, she had a lot more control and a lot more ability to project, so it was totally a compliment that Bill thought my voice sounded like her. The guitar, though, that was the kicker- if I hadn’t known it definitely wasn’t me, I would have thought it was me. Loud, hard, fast… the kind of strumming that wore holes in guitars. The way girls play who know they have to play acoustic 'cause they're a girl', but in their mind they are a Thundering God of Rock.

At that time, in 1988, our guitar styles were both heavy handed, fast and more focused on percussion than finesse- we both were just banging away and yelling, tearing through the song hoping that if we sang loud enough no one would notice we weren’t really playing the guitar.

I knew in my gut that we were both hanging onto our guitars like brick walls we were wanted to climb, using every muscle in our body, struggling to pull ourselves up, exhausting ourselves just trying to keep up and get over. I know she’s a better player now, and I think I am too, but in that moment in 1988, that moment of recognition changed my life in a lot of ways-

1) I wasn’t alone, there was another girl guitarist out there scraping the top off of her guitar, not lady-like-at-all. And she hollered like I did. My mom called mine ‘caterwauling.’

2) I might now sound like a copy cat. That was bad.

3) I wasn’t alone, and they weren’t that much better than me, but they were miles ahead-they had recorded something. You could tell from the vocals that they weren’t that much older than me. There was a whole new ball game to get in on.

4) We both sounded like we were taking buzz saws to our guitars, hers sounded good, so mine might sound good too. That was good.

5) If they were country, that means I was country too, and that was bad. (This was the indie release version of Land of Canaan…. It was a while before the Indigo Girls album was released nationally by Epic, promptly relieving my worries by turning up in the ‘college rock’ bin. Alternative hadn’t been invented yet, and definitely not Alt Country. Whew, I wasn’t country.)

I’m not a competitive person. In sports, I’m coordinated and I have a natural athleticism, but no killer instinct. I’m just having fun, I hit the ball because I like the sound it makes. I have a high IQ, in school, I sporadically did well, I mainly intuit stuff, if interested, I actually learn. It never bothered me when less talented kids did better. I never cared to be the best. I do my thing, that’s all I care about.

I heard these girls for the first time, and suddenly, I want to be the best at something. I feel threatened. Amy Ray sounds like a better version of me. I want to be the best version, I’m me after all, I should get to be the best at it. AND I’m NOT. She is BETTER AT BEING ME THAN I AM. I simultaneously hate her, yet am totally mesmerized. Jealousy, and awe combined with the new realization that there might be a place for me in the scene, changed singing and songwriting for me. With that one random turn of the tape, (and what turns aren't random at that age?) what was once simple therapy for an odd, lonely girl became the main metric against which I judged myself in the two decades since.

Amy Ray Kenobi, the Jedi need your help.

No comments: