30 Songs in 30 Days: day 06 – a song that reminds you of somewhere

Like most colleges, mine had a radio station. WHRB served a large audience in and around the Cambridge and Boston area, with a variety of news and music, ranging from classical to jazz to rock. Like many popular campus activities, if you wanted to work at the radio station, you had to “comp” – which I suppose was short for “compete” to get into the area you were interested in. I don’t know what the requirements were for all the departments, but I knew about two of them: Engineering and Rock.

My friend Steve was really hot on the Engineering department, and I was interested as well. At the time (shortly before the end of the Cretaceous Period), the radio station had turntables for vinyl records, and reel-to-reel tape players, and forty billion knobs, buttons and lights. To become a member of the Engineering department, you had to study for and pass the Second-Class Controller’s Test or SC2T. This test was a high-pressure hands-on simulation of running the studio – cuing up tapes, hitting the right buttons and turning the right dials at the right time, etc. I trained a bit for it, but really basically sucked, so I never took the test. (Steve flew through it and joined the Engineering department.)

As tough as the SC2T was, as hard as it was to become a studio engineer at the station, the Rock comp – which was where my interests really lay – was worse. Others have commented on the pretentious snobbery of college music reviewers. Well, let me tell you, those proto-hipsters had nothing on the Rock department. This was first and foremost a club, and clubs are meant to be exclusive. To comp into Rock, you had to sit for a 50- or 60-question written exam, which essentially consisted of the most obscure music trivia you could imagine. Several of my freshman dormmates were so steeped in the history and arcana of rock music that they breezed through. I listened to a lot of good and interesting music – even some obscure stuff – but I hadn’t made a study of it. I suppose it made some sense to have a high barrier – after all, if you’re on the air, you have to be able to say something about the music you’re playing other than the name of the song and the band – but the snobbery of those in the department to anybody who couldn’t identify the lead singer of the Seeds (hint: Sky Saxon) was palpable and intense.

But I really wanted in. So I took the test, probably two or three times, and finally got into the department. Whereupon I became a raging snobby asshole about music. No, not really. In fact, I had barely scraped by on the test, and I think the rest of the department looked at me like a special-needs charity case. On the plus side, my abortive efforts to handle the engineering stuff meant I was able to operate the turntables and microphones in the studio without too much of that bane of radio stations everywhere: Dead Air. I got good enough that I was able to start a 30-second song, cue up the next song, check levels, and segue the songs without missing a beat.

The Rock department had a regular late-night show – called either “Plastic Passions” or “Record Hospital” at the time, I can’t remember when it changed – and for one summer, I had a shift (shared with another DJ) one night a week. I would ride my bike to the studio and do the show and then ride back to my crummy apartment at 1:00 or 1:30 in the morning. I muddled through the shows as best I could, trying hard not to embarrass myself, particularly since the girl I shared the time slot with knew a boatload more about music than I did. (I still remember one gaffe when, after playing a song by the Descendants, I referred to them as “local,” despite the fact that we were about 3,000 miles away from anywhere they could be deemed local. I tried to cover by pointing out that I had spent the previous year living in Los Angeles. I’m not sure it worked, and I still bear the scars of the scorn in my partner’s eyes and voice. That may be a slight exaggeration, but I do remember the incident.)

Our show took requests, and for a while we had a regular caller, some kid asking us to play Institutionalized by Suicicidal Tendencies. Since we didn’t get a ton of requests, I played it for him whenever he called in, which was every week. The song itself is a shouty emo rant peppered with power-punk guitar and drum riffs, and I can see why it would appeal to a certain type of angsty teenager. I am not sure why he needed to hear it every week – maybe I was the only DJ willing to play it when he asked. After several weeks of this, I was instructed by the head of the Rock department that I shouldn’t fulfill that request any more. Apparently we were giving the song too much airplay. Maybe the song was too well known – it had featured in the movie Repo Man – so it didn’t fit the show’s image of being on the bleeding edge of the rock (especially punk) music world. In any event, I had to ignore those requests. Fortunately, the summer was almost over, and with it, my career as a radio personality. I was still a member, but I don’t think I did much at the station after that, other than use its facilities to record the one and only episode of Time Patrol, an hilariously bad, yet good-grade-garnering, project Steve and I put together for a seminar. Perhaps I’ll tell you more about that another time.

30 Songs in 30 Days – day 05: a song that reminds you of someone

I suppose it’s in the nature of this kind of meme to cheat a little bit here and there. This is one of those posts. This is supposed to be a song that reminds me of someone, and it does that – my friend Michael – but it is equally a reminder of something: Michael’s 1984 white Volkswagen GTi. 


Not Michael’s actual car, but an incredible simulation.

I met Michael in college. I had taken a year off after my freshman year. (A long story. Suffice to say that when you are on academic probation in your second semester due to what was most likely undiagnosed depression in your first semester, you’re probably better off not trying to take an advanced math course and a difficult physics course at the same time.)

Where was I? Oh yeah. So I’m back in school for my sophomore year, living in a tiny single room in a dorm about a mile from the campus where all my classes were. I was lazy back then – I know, can you believe it? – so I would often take the shuttle down to campus. One day, I get on the shuttle and see a guy reading Byte Magazine. I’m sort of interested in computers – heck I was taking Applied Math, which is what we had in the old days before the phrase “Computer Science” was invented by a secret cabal of MIT and Caltech grads – so I start chatting with him about it. I noticed he bore a vague resemblance to one of my cousins, and decided to mention it. “You remind me of my cousin,” I said. “He’s kind of an asshole.”


Yes, I’ll get to the car. Keep your pants on.

So Michael and I became good friends. He was the first person I knew who had a personal computer in his dorm room. (Did I mention I’m 4,000 years old?) He and another buddy and I would sit in front of it for hours playing Wizardry, cursing ourselves every time our characters would die and we’d realize it had been an hour since we’d last saved the game. Michael also had the first Macintosh I ever saw.

We shared a bunch of classes – playing cards in the back of large lecture halls – and skipped a lot more. He managed the grill in his dorm (next door to mine) one year, and we worked there making milkshakes and pizza for stoned students and laughing at the red-headed kid from Georgia who played pinball incessantly, screaming “RIPOFF!!!” every time he’d lose a ball. (There may have been something not quite right with that kid, come to think of it.) We played games in the common rooms – Michael’s philosophy of Monopoly was “Any deal not expressly prohibited by the rules is permissible.” I’m not sure, but I think he arbitraged the railroads.

And of course, we hung out with each other’s families. Michael was from a big Sicilian family in western Massachusetts, and we went out there a couple of times to visit. His mom was everybody’s mom; his dad was gruff and solid; his sisters were smart and funny; and all of them immediately treated me like one of the family.

My mother had moved to Vermont when I started school. (I tracked her down, hyuk hyuk.) As a result, Michael decided I had grown up in Vermont, and still tells people that whenever he introduces me to someone. Usually, I would take the bus up for school vacations or long weekends. But then Michael got the GTi.


I told you we’d get to the car.

At the time, my mom lived in a big, drafty black house in the middle of the small artsy town of Putney, Vermont. Michael’s car made the journey to Putney at least a dozen times during and after our college career. Most of the time, I was there as well, though there was at least one occasion when Michael was driving around New England with his then-girlfriend and they stopped in to say hi to my mom.

On one particular trip – a spontaneous road trip with my other friend Mike along – the car was given a theme song. We had planned to leave in the late morning to head up and visit my mother and hang out for a couple of days, but Michael needed to put an oil cooler on the car, so Mike and I sat around with varying degrees of patience while he did so. Eventually, we got on the road and made our way northward. I watched out for state police in case Michael’s radar detector wasnn’t enough. Michael put in a cassette and the boozy rounded tones of Warren Zevon’s voice poured out. I wasn’t familiar with the song at the time, but it didn’t take long for me to get the lyrics. We ran through the whole album a couple of times, but this song was the one that really stuck.

Every time Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner comes around on my iPod, I am instantly transported back to a sunny day, bombing up Route 5 in Vermont, with the music playing loud and Michael and me singing “He blew Van Owen’s body from there to Johannesburg” at the top of our lungs.

Michael ended up being the best man at my wedding. Turns out he wasn’t an asshole after all.

30 Songs in 30 Days: day 04 – a song that makes you sad

This is yet another hard one. I suspect this is going to be a common refrain throughout this meme, but interestingly, the reasons they are difficult are different from one to the next. This one’s a hard one not just because I try to avoid things that make me sad, but because I don’t associate music with any especially sad moments in my life. Music is kind of constant with me, but for some reason – I’m probably emotionally stunted or something – even my strongest memories generally don’t get associated with music. (This may make future posts in this meme difficult as well, when we get to the “a song that reminds you of…” entries.)

Musically, this song hits me right between the eyes, especially at the bridge. It’s beautifully crafted, the chord changes, the tempo, the modulation and crescendo at the bridge, the whole package. I have a friend who talks about the “oh wow” spine tingle you get in the presence of something awesome. I often get that feeling, or something close to it, from different chord progressions. When I am singing along in the car (admit it, you do it to) and he gets to “I whisper ‘I love you’ each night as they sleep, but no one hears me when I speak,” it breaks both my voice and my heart.

The upshot is that this song doesn’t really make me sad, really, but it is a sad song; and it resonates with me: lyrics like “I just miss being young, and I grew old so fast,” and the themes of suppressed emotion and foregone opportunities, strike closer to home than I would probably care to admit. (Yet here I am admitting it, so go figure.) There’s a wistful sadness to the whole thing, and I’m sure it’s my age talking, but I feel it. Completely.

But don’t tell anyone. I’d hate for this to get out.

30 Songs in 30 days: day 03 – a song that makes you happy

I discovered The Apples in Stereo in 2007 through the magic of the South by Southwest annual Showcasing Artists song collection. For those not in the know, every year, the SXSW Music (and now Film and Interactive) Festival releases a giant Bittorrent file containing one song from each of hundreds of bands. Gigabytes of fresh music, gratis for free, costing zip zilch zero nada. Heaven!

Of course there’s a ton of stuff I will never listen more than once (and some I never even get to at all), but every once in a while, I find something like a nugget of pure gold in a pan full of silt. The track in the video above – Can You Feel It? – was not one of those nuggets, but this one was:

I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it, and I went out and dug up whatever information I could find about the band. That led me to their album New Magnetic Wonder, which in turn introduced me to the track at the top of this post. That summer, I think I played these two songs as loud as possible every time I got in my car, singing (or screeching, as the case may be) along with Robert Schneider’s way-out-of-my-register voice to the point where my throat hurt.

These two songs are incredibly simple – musically, lyrically, thematically – to the point where they have both been used to sell things to people. (I know Energy was used in a Pepsi commercial, and I swear I once heard a local Chicago radio station playing Can You Feel It? in a Cubs game promo.) And you know what? I don’t care. Some people take great umbrage when a song they like winds up in an ad. The band “sold out, man.” I say fuck that noise. If a song I love, from a band I love, gets exposed to a million new ears because somebody somewhere thinks it will part people from their hard-earned cash, that’s a Good Thing. These songs makeme happy, why shouldn’t they make more people happy?

So, yeah, pop anthems with fuzzed-up guitar, high-pitched vocals. Perfect summertime, top-down, highway shout-alongs. Damn right they make me happy.

How about you?

Now this is an interesting approach


The Kaiser Chiefs’ new album drops today, but you can make it your own. Given 20 tracks, you get to pick 10, arrange them in the order you want, design some artwork (again, based on elements provided to you) and voila! You’ve got your album. You can buy it and make it available for others to buy… and you get a little kickback any time someone buys yours.

Just when you think the traditional music industry is slowly dying… something like this comes along and you realize its demise might not be quite so slow after all.

30 Songs in 30 days: day 02 – your least favorite song

Yeah, it turns out this one’s harder to figure out than my favorite song. With that one, the hard part was picking one out of the myriad songs I really really (really) love to call a “favorite.” The problem with this one is that I don’t really listen to songs I don’t like – certainly not enough to decide if one is worse than another. And unlike some people, I don’t have a massively negative period in my past I can look back on and associate with a song. (Now if it were “least favorite soup,” I’d be all over that, because in 2003 I suffered a medical crisis that, while not directly soup-related, is forever inextricably linked in my mind to gazpacho, which is too bad because I really used to like gazpacho, and now it’s time to put the brakes on this digression before it gets out of control.)

Anyway. Where was I?

Right. Least favorite song. I could say that this one’s my (current) least favorite because of the vapidity of the “party party” mentality that it espouses; because of the pop blandness that renders it virtually indistinguishable from any of a hundred other songs that have wafted through the air and airwaves over the past couple of years; because it epitomizes the rampant hypersexualization of teen girls that I, as the father of a preteen girl, find disturbing (and at times, terrifying); because its success derives entirely from the cult of celebrity surrounding Miley Cyrus, not from any actual musical virtue … but really, this one made the cut for one simple reason: my kids keep singing it. All. The. Time. Sometimes they just hum it. Sometimes they make up their own words. But it’s still the same freakin’ song. So you can thank my children for my inflicting this on you.

(OK, full disclosure. My kids don’t actually sing this one very often any more – it’s a couple months out of date. I think they’ve moved on to “The Lazy Song” from Bruno Mars. But they aren’t nearly as incessant as they were with “Party in the USA.”)

30 songs in 30 days: day 01 – your favorite song

OK, if I’m going to do this… thing… I might as well start now, with Laphroaig-induced boldness and time on my hands.

So. Maximo Park became one of my go-to bands a couple of years ago, and this song is one that I go back to again and again. (Don’t be surprised if more Maximo Park songs pop up in this meme. Not sure it will happen, but it might.) I’ve played this one so much over the past two or three years that I think it gets the title of “current favorite” by default.

Why this one? Hard to say. The jangly guitars and harmonizing vocals (in a British accent) are right in my wheelhouse these days when it comes to loving music. There’s a frenetic energy that revs me up every time the track comes on. Like a lot of Maximo Park songs, it becomes a couple of different songs as it progresses from beginning to end, structurally and thematically, and that appeals to me more than the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus that characterizes most songs. “What happens when you lose everything? You just start again; you start all over again.” That doesn’t directly apply to me (thankfully), but with the world as precarious as it sometimes seems to be these days, it resonates. It seems like the right attitude to have just in case.

But I guess the strongest argument in favor of this one being my favorite song (at least for the moment) is that I have listened to it at least a dozen times in a row while I’ve been struggling to write this entry. And I could listen to it a dozen more times without a second’s hesitation. Hard to top that.