I’VE LIVED IN suburbia my whole life. Suburban New Jersey, to be precise. I mention this not as something to be waved as some lame badge of honor, but as a mere fact, and one that has undoubtedly shaped my aesthetic sensibilities over the course of my 38 years. People often describe suburban landscapes as cultural deserts, and those people are usually correct. There are some cultural touchstones of life in suburbia, however, that simply do not exist in the city, or least not quite the same way. If we leave work pissed off, we get to pull out of the parking lot with tunes blasting, something that people who walk to work simply don’t get to do.
Suburban Northern New Jersey has its own special kind of aesthetic aridity, but then its treasures, however deeply hidden, are more golden than all of El Dorado. The voluptuous hills and valleys may be lush with the verdant limbs of a Transcendentalist’s wet dream, but beneath the canopy lay mounds of Tupperware, Avon, and the kind of complacency that turns hope and dreams into dried-up prunes kicked idly by the roadside. We who have survived with some of those hopes and dreams intact have known something about holding on to whatever treasure we were able to find with claws of steel, clutching jealously. The Internet may have leveled the playing field somewhat as far as the average person gaining access to previously obscure art and culture is concerned, but there are those of us – and I speak of people roughly 35 and older – who remember what it was like to have to really scour the landscape in search of something cool.
No, I am not using quotation marks there, because I believe that certain things are actually cool, beyond reasonable debate. And certain things pre-Internet – let’s say 1993 – were very difficult to come by. Example: Driving from Ringwood, NJ, to Kim’s Video in the East Village (at least an hour, pre-287) to rent a copy of Eraserhead because literally no video store in Northern New Jersey had a copy, with no intention of returning it and instead just paying them for the “lost” copy. What else can you do when you’re eighteen and you love David Lynch? Now we can search and find pretty much everything within seconds and watch it for free.
I have used YouTube to find early Eighties McDonald’s commercials which, to my surprise, had actually been uploaded by some other weirdo who remembered and wished to commemorate them. Now that the cultural world is relatively flat, what determines what is cool? When what was once cool was mainly dictated by obscurity, where is the treasure? Where do we dig, now that nothing is buried? Sometimes we need to dig up old treasures in order to remind us of what it was like to feel cool, whether or not we actually were. The end of a trying work day at age 38, especially when dealing with teenagers, can certainly make one feel old and uncool. But feeling uncool goes with the territory when you grow up in and around Bergen, Passaic, and Morris Counties, unless of course you have music to make you feel otherwise.
Living a mere but substantial twenty miles from the George Washington Bridge had its pros and cons. For one thing, growing up in New Jersey means that most people will never let you forget it, especially people from New York, and even more especially people who have recently moved to New York from somewhere in the Midwest. Haters gonna hate. This will never change. Hate New Jersey, but please do so for the right reasons. And by the way, I’ve never lived anywhere near the Parkway. Think more along the lines of The Shire of Middle-Earth, only with taller people who are college-educated and/or small business owners, and you’re getting there.
Yes, people drank in the woods that began at the end of our street. And yes, I was among the handful of people who simply would not accept the music and culture that was handed to us during that particular time (Color Me Badd and Kirk Cameron?), so our music and art of choice became like a bomb shelter against the poisonous fumes of mediocrity. Music blasted out of basements, much to the dismay of some parents and, thankfully, with the consent and indulgence of others. Some of it came from amps turned way up and some of it came from stereos. Eventually, some of these stereos were in the cars that we drove.
I drive to work. I always have. It is impossible to convey to a non-driver the incredibly satisfying sense of freedom one feels from playing the music that you want when you want to hear it in your car. Remember all those years as a youngster trapped in the backseat hearing songs like “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” as you felt your lifeforce being slowly drained from you? Well, now you are in charge of the music. And it is no exaggeration to say that this is worth more than having a license itself. If life in suburbia has given me little else besides that chip on my shoulder whenever words like “bridge” and “tunnel” make their way out of snarled lips, then I’ll take it, because appreciating this freedom has taught me to cherish music on a daily basis, whether I am coming or going.
Most city dwellers miss out on the experience of pulling out of a parking lot at the end of a bad day. Yes, there are some who may drive to work from their apartment in Manhattan, but does their place of business have its own parking lot? Rural folk drive to work and park in a lot dedicated to our place of employment. There are moments we share while shuffling in, coffee in hand, ready to spew out whatever banal and tired greetings we’ve already written and performed thousands of times. “Hey there.” “Another Monday.” “One more day ‘til Friday.” I am often horrified at my own lack of originality during these moments. We do, however, have more control in how things go on the way out. When we leave work, we get to choose the soundtrack of our flight.
Have you ever had a rough day on the job? A day when you were so done that you couldn’t leave fast enough? A day that called for a dramatic exit? Well, here is where life in suburbia with cars in work-specific parking lots has an advantage over life in the city, where I can only imagine a briskly-paced walk to the elevator doesn’t have quite the same resonance. You can’t slam a revolving door (no Chuck Norris jokes, please), but you can, with the utmost confidence, blast your way out of a bad day with exit music of your choosing. Here are three songs that have come in handy on just such occasions:
1. “Devil’s Haircut” by Beck
When Beck released Odelay mid-1996, it was quickly clear that he was not to be doomed as a one-hit wonder, or “that ‘Loser’ guy.” I was 21 and a year from graduating college. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but it was very validating that this music was so widely accepted then. I had little or no interest in MTV by this time. I was two or three years into Stereolab, discovering older post-punk bands like Wire and newer indie singer-songwriters like Edith Frost. The ubiquity of Beck’s humor and stylings was very refreshing during a summer that rang with Oasis and Alanis Morrisette.
There is something so obviously joyful in the construction of catchy pop from junk and noise in Beck’s music. I immediately recognized something in it as genuinely interesting and not just magpie bullshit. It’s almost impossible to hear a song like “Devil’s Haircut” without being caught up in the process that went into creating it. It’s pretty badass right from the opening riff, which I would shortly thereafter learn is basically an MC5 riff transposed to a different key, which still does not bother me at all. The best of Beck’s music seems to celebrate music and the creative process itself.
By 1996, Nirvana was long gone. I was never really that into the whole grunge thing. Maybe I was too old, a senior in high school the fall that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” first hit the airwaves. I did like the apparent irreverence of it, and the songs were catchy, but I never dove into the whole scene. I liked that it meant the Eighties were truly over, but to me it just became yet another set of clichés. When Odelay came out, I probably felt like I wished I had felt when Nirvana released Nevermind. Here was a guy willing to do pretty much anything, as long as he created a hook somewhere. Not only was it a whimsical mixture of genres, but the songs themselves jump from style to style at any given moment. It was really pure fun and probably not meant to be taken too seriously. Sure, it was basically Paul’s Boutique seven years later, but that’s too easy. And yes, the album owes much to the many different artists that influenced it and who are sampled on it, but it still mainly holds up on its own merits.
It was probably the last time I felt proud of what the American public had elected to be popular in mainstream music. These days I sporadically hear something popular that I actually like, but it seems increasingly rare. Everything had to be aligned a certain way in the popular culture for a song like “Devil’s Haircut” to gain such exposure. Let’s be honest. The mid-Nineties were welcoming of oddball talent, and having a cool president may not have hurt. I remember being envious of kids in high school at this time, imagining what it must be like to buy an album like Odelay as a young teenager. Unfortunately, I was in high school during what I consider three or four of the worst years in mainstream music history – 1988-1992 – and I still have nightmares about hearing Milli Vanilli, Vanilla Ice, and Bell Biv Devoe while trying to convince people that The Beatles were the greatest band of all time. By 1996, there was finally something cool that was popular, but I had missed out on being young enough to grow up with it. Oh, well. At least my college years were interesting.
High school should be the beginning, not the end, of one’s cultural education. I now teach freshmen in high school, and I guarantee that none of my students are familiar with “Devil’s Haircut” or even who Beck is, for that matter. There is something gratifying in blasting a loud, riff-based song with lyrics that make little sense, especially by an odd artist my students likely aren’t old or hip enough to know about.
It all comes together in the last verse:
Something’s wrong ’cause my mind is fading
Rock ‘n’ roll, know what I’m saying
And everywhere I look
There’s a dead end waiting
It is interesting to note that the word “devil” crops up regularly in Beck’s lyrics, with “garbage” and “jail” probably coming in second and third place. A song this ridiculously hard-hitting and catchy can afford to leave the listener with no explanation of what, exactly, a “Devil’s Haircut” is. And really, who the hell cares, anyway?
2. “Ricans” by Oddateee
I am not remotely Puerto Rican. In fact, I am one of the least ethnic people you are likely to meet. Yet somehow the opening and subsequent chorus lyrics, “Do you like it? (Yeah!) Do you want it? (Yeah!) And if you had it would you flaunt it? (Hell, Yeah!),” are perfect for bolstering your mood behind the wheel, especially when accompanied by the driving classic 808 beat.
While “Devil’s Haircut” is more of an angry song, “Ricans” is celebratory and uplifting, right from the first notes of the opening gypsy violin sample. Oddateee is an primarily upbeat guy. Go to one of his shows, or better yet talk to him afterward, and you’ll know what I mean. He can own a crowd, and he can make you feel like you’ve known him for thirty years after five minutes of casual conversation. There is buoyancy to his songs that comes from his personality and sense of humor. It is no coincidence that Ricardo Galindez chose “Oddateee” as his moniker.
“Ricans”, like Oddateee himself, is Union City, NJ, all the way. Not the awesome-but-sad blue version a la Blondie, but a pure, unbound love letter to a neighborhood, an ethnicity, and a culture. This is a shout out song. Among the honorable mentions are “Spanglish,” “The Streets,” “Arroz con Pollo,” a brother whose name is “Manny,” and “Disciples of Abuela’s Cookbook.” There is even a lyrical that tribute to U.T.F.O’s, “Roxanne, Roxanne,” an early rap favorite of mine, with “Was it February, or was it January?”
This kind of tongue-in-cheek nod to a relatively obscure line from a largely forgotten 1984 classic – a classic which helped make this white suburban child appreciate hip hop in the fifth grade – brings a broad smile to my face every time I hear it. It reminds me of hearing “Roxanne, Roxanne” for the first time and being blown away by it, having never heard anything quite like it before. By 1984, hip hop culture, however watered down, finally made its way into the rolling hills of suburbia. It became so pervasive that by spring of 1985, my fifth grade elementary school production of Alice in Wonderland featured, not one caterpillar, but five breakdancing caterpillars in parachute pants.
But nostalgia can be dangerous. I am positive that I love this song for the right reasons. At its core, it is pure ass-shaking party fun. Besides being overtly positive, there is also an inherent naughtiness to it that makes it fun for an adult to listen to while leaving work, like you’ve got a dirty little secret waiting in your car for you. Put it on at the end of a tough day and it’s like you suddenly have 50 people in your car bouncing and chiming in with you. This “Child of the ‘70s Outlook,” as he describes himself in the song, kicks it old school but in a way that still sounds fresh in 2013.
3. “Soon” by My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine is one of a handful of bands that I can say literally changed my life. They changed the way I hear, think about, and write music. Long story short: they were the primary influence behind a fairly lame garage band completely changing their style and then going on to do something much more interesting and contemporarily relevant. This band was mine. We were teenagers. It was the early Nineties.
In keeping with the theme of interesting things taking longer to wind their way over the rivers and through the woods to reach the suburban landscape, especially in pre-Internet 1992, the music of My Bloody Valentine was no exception. In this case, the music had to cross the Atlantic. Now we may not have been hip kids, but we were lucky enough to have hipper friends, friends who by 1991 had already introduced us to the likes of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth.
What most people under thirty do not realize about the pre-Internet era is that finding out about cool music took a lot more effort, or even blind luck. Unless you heard something on a college radio station and hung in there long enough for the DJ to tell you what he or she had been playing, and you happened to have something to write with at that particular moment, you were out of luck. The most common way of gaining access was through personal interactions. You had to come into physical contact with the music, whether it was blaring out of a friend’s car, sitting atop a stack of records in someone’s basement, being performed live as an opening act for a band you went to see, being promoted at a local independent record store, or simply being worn as a t-shirt by some acquaintance you knew to have good taste. My friends and I were very lucky to have been accepted by a fairly small circle of such people who had somehow gained access to this vibrant world of music, art, and culture that was new to us. We were no longer in Kansas.
How these hipper friends knew about these things remains a half-mystery. MTV’s 120 Minutes may have pointed some people in the direction of a few things, but in hindsight a lot of what they aired was still pretty mainstream. I suspect the local punk hangout, Flipside Records, in neighboring Pompton Lakes had something to do with it. The guy who owned the shop occasionally did sound at local VFW Hall shows put on by local young bands, and employee Tracy Wilson (of soon-to-emerge influential band Dahlia Seed) was my very first punk rock girl crush.
At some point in the Eighties my parent bought me a subscription to Rolling Stone, which by 1992 I had waning interest in but did not have the heart to tell them not to bother renewing. A January or February issue contained a postcard size review of Loveless, My Bloody Valentine’s masterpiece which has been so widely covered and discussed that I won’t even bother here, sufficing to say that the description intrigued me, as did the nonchalant expressions on the faces of the band members in the accompanying photo. They looked simultaneously cool and very non-rockstar-like. I headed to Flipside Records and bought the CD. Lives were changed. Little did I know that at precisely the time I had made what I thought was a very personal discovery of musical treasure, my bandmates saw My Bloody Valentine open for Dinosaur Jr. It was like we all stumbled upon their music at the same time.
We were all between sixteen and eighteen, and we had no clue that this band had already made a tremendous impact in the U.K. Although Loveless was released in November of 1991 and distributed by Sire/Warner, it made relatively few waves over here in the U.S. The popularity of the shoegaze genre began around 1988 and peaked in 1990, with My Bloody Valentine’s Glider EP topping the British charts. It was unfathomable to us that a band this great could make such strides overseas while very few people had even heard of them where we lived. Then again, we lived in the mountains of Northern New Jersey, so there was that.
“Soon” was the song that propelled Glider, and thus My Bloody Valentine to popularity. It remains arguably their most commercial track and provides an epic ending to an incredible album. I first heard it this way, as the album’s closer, so I will always remember it as being the last treat of a very new experience and something that was staggeringly different to me at the time. From the opening reverse-gated break beat, to when the heavier Manchester-ish beat kicks in, to when that wall of guitar noise knocks you over in the first verse, it is an amazing way to begin a song.
To me, this song is completely triumphant. When it’s playing in my car, everything melts away. No matter how many problems I’ve dealt with during my day, they no longer matter.
All music has its baggage. We associate certain songs with parts of our past for a variety of different reasons. Maybe my way of coping with the frustrations of dealing with teenagers is to blast music that reminds me of being one myself. We can remember, if only slightly, what it once was like to be cool, whether or not we actually were.
So, my advice to you is to arm yourselves with playlists of awesomeness as a buttress. Have those songs ready for when you need them and be prepared to pull out of that parking lot with confidence. Or at least walk quickly down the stairs to the subway with steely-eyed resolve.