An occasional series focused on cassette tapes I have found impactful.
I had a ticket to go see Thurston Moore speak at the Enoch Pratt Library this past week, a stop on a planned book tour to promote Sonic Life: A Memoir. Unlike most touring folks of his ilk and era, Thurston does not skip Baltimore for DC. He played Floristree one time, even! Due to some health concerns, he unfortunately had to cancel the tour.
I never know what to do or say when I am around Thurston. His band, Sonic Youth, did all the things that a band does in clichéd “rock and roll” stories: they changed my life, they saved my life, tale as old as time.
How did they do it?
They signed to a bigger label. No, not that one. Not yet. A label that also released Glam Rock albums by bands like Poison. That is a complicated story, well-told elsewhere.
At any rate, at Eastpoint Mall in Dundalk, Maryland in 1989, there was a branch of the chain Tape World. Not the one pictured above, but that is how they all looked. And that is how folks in my neighborhood looked when walking the mall in those days.
I had read about Sonic Youth in Rolling Stone, in a feature about the “100 Best Albums of the Eighties” in the November 16th, 1989 issue. The album clocked in at number 45, between Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan and the write-up lit up my brain. “This… band… seems… f’in… awesome!”
So, next time I went to Tape World, I checked the racks and racks of tapes, and there it was! The copy I bought was probably ordered and unsold from a year or so earlier. I used up my 13 year old chore allowance for the month and took a big financial risk.
There is a whole boring back story here about how music was distributed and consumed before the Internet that anyone my age can tell. We tend to sound bitter and pedantic, so I will skip that “In my day we had to walk up two hills in the snow to listen to music” sort of business. Lecture skipped.
I took the tape home and gave it a listen on an (off-brand) Walkman.
Something was wrong. Were my batteries dying? The guitars were all out of tune, kind of warbling all around. The person talking/singing was… flat? Sharp? “Spirit desire”, the singer eventually intoned, over and over again. I am the son of a music teacher, and my ears were bending way out of the realm of anything I had heard prior. Then, “Teenage Riot” kicked in and gave me something closer to what I could understand. But just barely.
The album was so long! Also so unlike anything I had ever heard before. I recall it made me feel nauseous at points, out of my mind, like I was sick and having a fever dream. When I read Drew Daniel’s masterful 33 1/3 focused on the album 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle, I immediately understood what he was getting at, when you are challenged and freaked out by music. I was fascinated by how it had this effect on me, puzzled as to why it did, and could not stop picking at it, like a scab.
As a 13 year old often does, I played the tape to my 13 year old peer group. There was a consistent reaction of mocking and ridicule. Basically, they thought I had been ripped off; buying an album that was not worth the money I spent. They can’t even tune their guitars! This is just… noise! Could you please put Skid Row back on?
It was clear that I was going to be going this one alone. So I did. And here I am. Thank you, Thurston, for your group’s decision to sign to a label that had the ability to put that cassette tape in the way of someone who needed to hear it, an entry point into an entirely new underground sound-world. I wish you well and the best.
Tape World photo by Michael Galinsky