I’ve never been able to decide on one thing. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking jobs, food, travel, books, or movies. There has never been one of any style or genre to which I can fully commit. I want it all. Or, at least, I want to know part of it all. I want tastes: the full spectrum.
And when it comes to music — it’s the same deal.
My first musical awakening came via cassette when I was thirteen. My family was freshly back in Michigan after three years of Tennessee strangeness that had left me with dangerous reserves of angst (something about being derided by my eighth-grade history teacher for being a “Yankee” that I could never wrap my head around). I was hanging out with Doug, my new best friend. His buddy in Florida had recently sent him a simple black cassette. One side was labeled “Dead Kennedys,” and the other side “Agent Orange.”
If you’ve ever said, “What? You’ve never heard of them?” and then had the pleasure of immediately turning someone on to something you knew would blow their mind, then you can imagine the look in Doug’s eye when he placed that tape into the stereo and pressed play.
When the sound came out of the speakers my whole body expanded. It was as if I had taken my first deep breath after years of taking only shallow puffs. I’m certain my eyes must have dilated and my pulse surely quickened. An image formed in my mind of a basement or a garage or a concrete cube tucked far beneath the surface of conscious thought. Shadowy figures manipulated instruments I vaguely understood, in ways I couldn’t comprehend.
A year before this turning point I had a brush with a similar sentiment when my copy of Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil arrived from my family’s cassette club. In that case, however, my fascination had more to do with the imagery on the cover of the leather-clad rockers all dolled up, shouting at the devil and helter skeltering. But when I listened to it the music was too produced, the distortion too thin, and the shtick too cartoonish, even for my twelve-year-old mind.
No no no. This was something different. This was something that came from dark places. The lo-fi cassette with its hiss and warble only added to the magic. For the first time I understood that low quality could mean better output. I understood that people made music with absolutely no intention of reaching a wide audience. It even seemed to me that they were actually saying, “Don’t listen to this!” And by drinking it in I was defying their wishes and also giving them exactly what they wanted.
It was a heady mixture for me to handle. I didn’t know people were allowed to sing like that. Initially I couldn’t fully figure out if they were serious or not. But it didn’t matter. I felt sweaty and swoony and like, “Oh my god, why am I only discovering this now? What else have I been missing?”
For the first time in my life I was hearing music that I wanted to play at maximum volume. I wanted my parents to hear it and tell me to turn it down (they were actually pretty cool about it), I wanted the neighbors to hear it and bitch about the racket (that may have happened).
I wanted to know every word. I learned every word. I realized I could harmonize with Jello Biafra and Mike Palm because I had learned how to sing from the gut.
The music fueled our reckless skateboarding ambitions and armed us against the witless normals, and it was liberating to such a degree that all music since has essentially fallen under its umbrella. That cassette is the original compass point.
Occasionally, I get out in public and play records. And when I do, I’m all over the place from folk to rock to jazz to noise to railroad sounds to the odd sonata and always something a little funky and often some of the boom boom boom. If people get to dancing, and I feel they’ve arrived at that total surrender moment, there’s a record I’m always slowly reaching for called Murder was the Bass. It’s big room techno at its finest and guaranteed to get people moving and provide for that hands in the air moment.
But personally, in private, when I’m weary of sifting through the endless digital catalogue of all music ever created, when I must take a break from expanding my horizons or filling in knowledge gaps, when there is only one longing left to be obliged, I reach for Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death and Living in Darkness, and all tastes are satisfied.
Kirk McDavitt is a writer on sabbatical from teaching writing, currently residing in Bucharest, Romania. In addition to writing short fiction and nonfiction, he is working on a novel (a fictionalized account of his experiences in a Vipassana meditation course). It will incorporate fifteen of his original songs.
NOVEMBER 16, 2018 / MUSEPAPER ESSAY PRIZE #14 / MUSIC