Forgotten Years

[This is the latest in a periodic series in which I write about some of my all-time favorite albums and the memories that shall forever be attached to them]

Album: Blue Sky Mining
Artist: Midnight Oil
Year: 1990

March 1990. I’m on an airplane flying south, and very frustrated that it’s not a flight winging its way east. I’m on a family vacation, you see; my family, and my aunt, uncle, and cousins, all winging their way south of the border, down Mexico way for a week-long vacation at an all-inclusive resort.

Where I want to be going is several hundred miles east, across the Atlantic, across Europe, to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A.k.a. The U.S.S.R. A.k.a. Soviet Russia

[AK-47. An Eastern block assault rifle which saw great use in Afghanistan. Vietnam and countless Golan-Globus schlock of the 1980s, usually involving Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and in the case of The Delta Force, a shirtless Robert Forster playing a middle-eastern terrorist.]

Bob, you’re only about thirteen years from Jackie brown. Hold tight.

The reason I wanted to be on that trip and not this one, is because my best friend (then and now) is going. His school, three hours drive away from mine, was planning this trip to the Soviet Union since September the previous year. A lack of overall interest led to an offer to me to accompany. I asked my parents and expected them to say yes as I was, as I am now, a student of history, and to see the Soviet Union, to trod Red Square and see Lenin’s corpse was a dream of mine.

I was a weird kid. But in my defense, he was the walrus.

Goo goo ga joob

So I was hopeful. Being a teenager with little sense of just how much things like this cost, it seemed a no-brainer. Of course those hopes were dashed on the rocks when my parents told me no, I couldn’t go, that it was too much money, and anyways they’d decided to surprise my sister and I with a vacation in Mexico with them and my aunt and uncle and cousins. “Surprise!”

I was not happy. But I was also possessed of some sense of appreciation. I couldn’t just sniff at a week in Mexico, drinking Pina coladas, eating tacos, and sunning on a private beach. Then I learned my friend’s school was partnered with an all-girl Catholic school’s history class, so it ended up being my friend, two other guys, and about thirty gorgeous girls in catholic school girl uniforms my age.

So there I was; the most miserable teen ever to be found on a plane to Mexico.

But fortunately I had my walkman. I had my tapes. I had AA batteries in reserve.

And I had Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining to keep me company.

I think my love – my Animotion-esque obsession – with music began in the mid-80s. I was still a kid then, but entering an age where G.I. Joe and Transformers and Star Wars were on their way out, and MTV, Friday Night Videos, and Top 40 rock radio were in. A traumatic move to the US south found me more often then not sequestered in my bedroom, reading quietly and listening to the local radio station. Mostly Top 40 nonsense, but on evenings I had more success pulling in radio-waves from the smaller campus radio stations further east. That was how I first heard R.E.M. and Talking Heads and Love & Rockets – tiny pinprick sparks of light amidst the endless spin of Whitney Houston, Loverboy, Dire Straights, Billy Joel and other mainstream music. This was the era of the resurgent Boomer – legacy acts like Paul Simon, the aforementioned Mr. Joel, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Chicago – who was taking the radio back from the post-punk new wave, new romantics era of the early to mid-80s – Soft Cell, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins and The Human league. Sure, there was great new stuff out there – 1986 saw the debut of Come on Pilgrim, from The Pixies after all. But you had to hunt for that stuff.

But starting around 1987-1988 music began to change. More socially conscious. Bands like UR, singer-songwriters like Bruce Cockburn and Tracy Chapman and Cowboy Junkies. Amidst all of this “Conscious Rock” was a little band from Down Under that scored their first big North American hit with a little song called “Beds are Burning” which notched heavy airplay on MTV and on the radio.

And still rocks hard, 34 years later …

Australia was cool in the 80s. Don’t ask me why. Well, obviously, it’s a fantastic, fascinating country, albeit one I’ve never visited. But I feel like I at least know Australia. This is the land down under! The land of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, of Razorback and The Cars That Ate Paris. Of INXS, Crocodile Dundee, and Jacko … and a little trilogy of car-crash post-apocalyptic movies that pretty much launched a sub-genre from a former doctor turned filmmaker named George Miller

Ride eternal, shiny and chrome little pig …

So there I was, heading into my deep teens, becoming interested in the world around me and its problems. Artists against Apartheid weren’t gonna play Sun City, and neither would bands like Midnight Oil. They’d been kicking around since the 1970s, releasing a string of commercially middling (for North America that is – they were huge down under), but really solid albums. They’d flirted with mainstream US success on albums like Red Sails In The Sunset and 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 (scoring the minor hits “U.S. Forces” and “The Power And the Passion”). The Oils weren’t interested in getting drunk, Scoring chicks, and driving their cars; they were interested in stopping nuclear proliferation, curbing the world’s petrochemical addiction, and educating dumb suburban kids like me about colonial treatment of aboriginal people the world over. They were anti-capitalist, anti-corruption, and anti-greed. They toured the outback; they spoke out against their government and businesses. They walked the walk, talked the talk, and put their money where their mouths were particularly in erudite, shaven-pated singer Peter garret, who eventually became a sitting member of the Australian parliament, and named minister of the environment.

They also rocked hard. And that was just why this kid needed to hear.

Where it all began …

Naturally I scooped up 1987’s Diesel and Dust. I rocked out to Beds Are Burning and The Dead Heart, but he found that top-to-bottom Diesel and Dust was a tight rock album with barely a weak link in the chain. I was a fan, and I was hooked on the Oils, on U2, on all those bands and those issues facing the world I was going to become an adult in.

The tricky thing with finding a new band (or in my case discovering one that had been around for a while) was waiting for their next one. This was still the 80s. Music wasn’t cheap. Finding obscure albums from Australian bands while stuck in N. America was a challenge. The Oils’ early albums wouldn’t be re-released stateside until 1990. Waiting for a new Midnight Oil album, like waiting for a new U2 or Depeche Mode one, was interminable.

There were rumblings in ’89 that a new album was on the way. I was a regular consumer of Rolling Stone magazine. In fact it was Rolling Stone that published an early review of Blue Sky Mining, giving it 5 stars out of 5 and calling it the band’s Joshua Tree.

Needless to say, I was excited. I just needed to get my hands on it. Blue Sky Mine, the first single and video, was getting heavy airplay on MTV, like they were tempting me to madness.

Wikipedia will tell you Blue Sky Mining was released on February 9th, but owing to where I was living and the odd quirks of record distribution, the album didn’t make it to me until early march. Three days, in fact, prior to the family’s departure to Mexico. I needed this album in my sweaty little hands, and I needed it before a week-long vacation. What was I supposed to do? Converse with my family?

And so, on a cold Wednesday in March, the call came, and I made haste to the local record store – the only record store, in point of fact – and was handed my cassette copy (because I did not own a CD player) of Blue Sky Mining (MSRP $10.99, or roughly $22.00 in 2021 dollars – thanks inflation!). Into the walkman it went, and after the audio level test (remember those?) it began.

Now, being familiar with Blue Sky Mine, the lead single, The Stars of Warburton was the first “new track” I got to hear. Stars is a propulsive, melodic song that starts slow and just builds and builds and builds to something transcendent, which is typical of the Oils. Despite being in a frigid northern cline it felt like the outback must have; hot, dry, desolate.

Bedlam Bridge was next. A slower, more mournful track with one of my all time favorite bridges of any rock song;

So how stands the city on this winters night
The city on the hill or so they said
The snow is falling down around the armoury
The city’s closing in around my head

Forgotten Years. This song bangs, to use the modern nomenclature. Here’s the video. Watch it and we’ll get back to things.

Pretty good stuff, huh? A great album closer, if it were one. Definitely a high point of any Oils show. This is the fourth song on the album.

Mountains of Burma. Another slow burn, and one with lyrics seemingly more tornfrom the year 2021 than the year 1990.

Pack your bags full of guns and ammunition
Bills fall due for the industrial revolution
Scorch the earth till the earth surrenders

Were the Oils prophets? No, they were singing about present day issues. It just took us thirty damn years to finally notice.

King of the Mountain. Another banger in the FY mold. Not a complaint, and a great way to kick off side B, same as they kicked off my first time seeing them in concert later that year.

[As a side note: does anyone else miss album sides? If the cassette had one small advantage over the CD it was that it replicated that switch of sides. Eject the tape, flip it over, pop it in, press play. You don’t get that with CDs. You don’t get that with streaming. Maybe that’s why vinyl made a comeback in recent years; for that pause in the action.]

On a whole Side B of Blue Sky Mining is a much slower, much more mournful mirror to the harder rock of Side A. River Runs Red is practically a ballad, only one of the good ones 1990 gave us, at a time where seemingly ever hard-to-mid-rock outfit was whipping out the acoustic guitar like that sensitive ponytail type you saw at every suburban house party.

But Midnight Oil’s ballads are as propulsive as their all-out rock tunes. Shakers and Movers, and One Country following next are practically operatic as they build and build. Have I used “propulsive” enough times in this entry yet to convince you otherwise?

Antarctica rounds out Side B, and it feels like the comedown after a really strong workout. you’ve pushed yourself and pushed hard and now you just need to sit and breathe.

Some albums take time to hook you. Call them slow burns, call them whatever. Blue Sky Mining, for me, was not one of those albums. It dug its hooks in and pulled almost immediately. By the time Antarctica was finished I was flipping the tape over to hear it all again. I knew then, that this was going to be one of those musical experiences I would never forget. that in years to come I might not like the band as much, but that album would always be a part of me.

And I was right.

By the time our plane to Mexico lifted off I was getting familiar with Blue Sky Mining. Over the week that followed, I listened to it over and over again. When I got sunburnt on the second day there – they take afternoon Siesta for a reason, amigos – I spent a lot of time in my hotel listening to it. The vacation was certainly a fun time, and probably preferable to Leningrad in March, and part of that enjoyment was that music swirling through my brain.

Though to be fair, the view was pretty nice too …

Funny thing is I think that vacation actually deepened my appreciation for the album more than it would have otherwise. Because there wasn’t much else to do but listen, when I returned home I found to my surprise that my friends weren’t as into it as I was. Maybe because I spent so many hours recovering in my hotel room from that wicked bad sunburn I had nothing to do but listen to it over and over and over again.

I saw the Oils later that month. My first “real” rock concert. Memorable for all the right reasons and the wrong ones too, I suppose. Blue Sky Mining marked the apex of my fandom of all things Oil. By the time 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon arrived, I was on my way out with Midnight Oil. The music didn’t have quite the same snap. Of course this being the era or grunge, of Nirvana and Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the RHCP and hosts of other alternative rock bands crashing the mainstream, a band like the Oils was only going to have a limited shelf life but in a way I think the Oils success in 1987-1990 paved the way for bands like Nirvana; underground artists given a chance in the mainstream and reaching millions of angry, disaffected teens in the process.

Though for my money, Earth and Sun and Moon has aged MUCH better than a lot of early 90s rock

That diminished interest in the Oils was also an ending of sorts to the world I knew, even though I didn’t know it at the time. My parents’ marriage, already rocky, was showing its first real fissures. By Christmas 1992 they’d separated. By late 1993 they were divorced, the relationship crumbling like the Soviet Union had. The divorce cast a long shadow over that decade and over my life, that extends to this very day.

There’s something special, something unique, about finding the right album at the right moment in your life. It’s a rare thing to discover something in the moment that speaks to you in a way it wouldn’t if you’d discovered it ten, twenty, thirty-one years later. Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining is my 1990 album; the one I’ll pull out and listen to when I want to remember what I was going through at that time.

Listening to Blue Sky Mining now – even as I make final edits to this entry – it still brings me back to that year and vacation 31 years ago. It makes me think of hot Mexican weather, bookended by the arctic chill of our northern airport and the long drive to and from there. I remember my friends; most of whom moved on with their lives and left me behind. I remember the Russia trip I never got to go on but became the stuff of legend. I remember the world that was, and was changing all around me without my realizing it. The decade that lay ahead would be one of the most memorable of my life; possibly the most memorable. Everything changed in the 1990s, for me. They may be long ago years, they may be long gone years …

But have not, and will never be forgotten years.

[Have an album in your life with as much meaning as Blue Sky Mining has for me? Let me know in the comments below.]

An Open Letter To Generation X

Twenty nine years ago this day some friends and I packed into my battered, four-cylinder 1983 Toyota Camry and drove three hours to attend the first Lollapalooza Festival.

The lineup was eclectic. The Rollins Band. Butthole Surfers. Ice-T and Body Count. Nine Inch Nails. Living Color. Siouxie and the Banshees, and headliners Jane’s Addiction. It was the beginning of a new decade, and our generation, Generation X, was at the forefront.

We didn’t realize at the time but the world – our world – was about to change. Because later that month an unknown band named Pearl Jam released their first album, “Ten”. A little over a month later another band from the same rain-soaked corner of the Pacifi Northwest, Nirvana, released their major label debut. Neither album was expected to do much business.

Of course, they did and then some.

You couldn’t give tickets to Lollapalooza 1991 away back then. But come 1992 you couldn’t find them anywhere because Alternative Rock had become mainstream. The weirdos became the force to be reckoned with. That carried over into film; 1992 saw Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi and Gas, Food, Lodging. The lunatics had taken over the asylum.

I’ve been writing about music and the 90s and the alternative era pretty much since this website began back in 2009. I created a comic book series about those years; one currently on hiatus that I really hope to jump back on soon. I had planned on kick-starting the next phase of Mixtape this year but COVID-19 had other plans.

When researching what was to become Mixtape, I spent a lot of time watching old concerts and old music videos on YouTube, rereading old books. Some were videos of concerts I myself attended. I saw lots of kids my age back then; the kids with day-glow pink and orange and white hair. The kids with dreadlocks. The guys with long hair, sideburns, and goatees. The girls with shaved heads and nose rings. I would watch these videos and wonder what became of those kids? What became of them as they moved from their teens and twenties into their thirties and now forties.

What are they doing now?

Well GEN X? What the fuck are you doing these days, and why?

I’m looking at you, Karen, you old riot grrl, calling the police on a black or Latino man just trying to get into his apartment. I’m looking at you, Ken, who attended every Ministry show they could, throwing a Trumper-tantrum because the Starbucks barista making minimum wage asked you to please wear a mask when entering the shop to pick up your triple vente with extra whipped cream.

Come ON guys and girls! You used to slam-dance and skateboard, you lined up for Pixies and Depeche Mode tickets. You made mixtapes to profess your love, you plastered a Reservoir Dogs poster to your dorm wall and blasted NWA while doing it. You moshed in the pit, you head-bopped to Hip-Hop. You were the end result of a childhood of roaming around and exploring your neighborhood un-tethered. You made your own fun. You hung out at the arcade, you worked at McDonalds. You bought Batman on VHS, you saw all the Indiana Jones moves in the theater. You had MTV, Much Music, Friday Night Videos, and Top of the Pops. You had Star Wars and G.I. Joe, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony.

Now look at you. Yelling at kids to get off your lawn. Asking to see the manager, yelling and cursing people out on Twitter and sharing racist memes and fake news on Facebook.

You are disappointing the shit out of me.

What happened to you between then and now, between Nevermind and “never mind that, I’d like to speak to your manager” ? What changed? You used to Rock The Vote and boast you were Born to Choose. Now, you’re aligning yourself with the people and ideologies you would have turned your nose up at. The asshole establishment types. These guys:

Don’t tell me you’ve “matured”, that you’re not some “snot-nosed teenager who doesn’t know how the world works.” You’re complaining that U2, a band that has never shied away from politics is now “too political”. Newsflash: they didn’t change – you did.

You call it “growing up”, but still you act like a bunch of spoiled toddlers throwing tantrums.

You’re suffering from Paul Ryan Syndrome; where you claim Rage Against The Machine is your favorite band, while voting to defund social security. You’ve become The Machine, Paul, and your favorite band thinks you suck because of it.

Look, I get it; people change. I mean, look at Morrissey. I can barely listen to The Queen is Dead or Strangeways Here We Come and not reflect on what a bitter, racist prick he’s become (as opposed to the earnest vegan prick he was back in the 80s). Change is the natural way of things. Change is good. But the change you claim to embrace stops when it comes to creating a more equitable society. Your freedom ends when you would deny that same freedom to someone else.

Face it; you’re not the heroic nerds anymore. You aren’t the cool misfits either. You’ve become the villains in those teen movies you used to watch and adore. You’ve become the slime-ball preppy golf and country club assholes you used to rail against and cheer when they got their comeuppance.

Pathetic.

Hey, maybe I’m wrong; maybe deep down you always were an asshole. A latch key generation sandwiched between BAD BABY BOOMERS and FECKLESS GEN Y. Maybe you did what you had to to survive a harsh world. Maybe the world broke you down. Maybe we did it to ourselves. We were always told we’d never earn as much, live as long, have as much success as our parents generation, and maybe we embraced that too much. Maybe we believed it so much it became self-fulfilling. We set our sights low because we knew we’d at least hit that mark. We got mortgages and credit card debt, we watched our dreams slowly die and, as punk-rock sage Henry Rollins (who I first saw at that Lollapalooza and to this date 29 years later remains THE artist I’ve seen in concert and in his spoken-word shows more than anyone else) sang/bellowed in “Low Self Opinion”;

You sleep alone at night
You never wonder why
All this bitterness wells up inside you
You always victimize
So you can criticize yourself
And all those around you

Thing is, GenX, I see a lot of the latter; not so much of the former. No self-reflection, no introspection, no “wait a second, I’m in a Starbucks raging about wearing a fucking mask; maybe I’m the asshole” thoughts. No, you’re blundering through life so convinced you’re right and the world is wrong, that you’re becoming what Raylan Givens from Justified also wisely said;

“You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

Raylan Givens was never wrong about anything. Not even Boyd Crowder.

Let’s circle back to something Henry also said/sang/yelled in the same song;

If you could see the you that I see
When I see you seeing me
You’d see yourself so differently
Believe me

Well GenX – I see you. I see men and woman looking at their shitty world, their miserable failed lives, and see disappointment. Not that life dealt you a hard hand, but because it did and you accepted it rather than smack it away. You became the person who complains to the manager, who calls the cops on a neighbor’s barbecue, who literally yells at people to get off your lawn because you work in a bank or sell cars or perform office drone work when you once dreamt of being a musician, a filmmaker, a sports star.

Your dreams crumbled and died, and rather than find the grace that comes with a life of kindness, and fairness, and neighborly cares for the people around you, you sit at home, watching TV, not talking to your wife or husband, not paying any meaningful attention to your children.

I’m disappointed. That a generation raised on Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood could grow to become adults possessing no kindness, no want for making the world a better place just by being an active part of it. The generation raised on John Hughes and Steven Spielberg movies. Every generation wants to change the world, and every one does, but not always for the better.

People ask me; “Brad, as a writer, what is the most important tool in your toolbox? The one thing you feel every writer, every artist needs?” And I reply; “Empathy. Empathy is the most important thing an artist can have. You can be outraged by the behavior of a character, but if you can’t see that sad, scared child that awful teenager or adult once was, you’re losing a little piece of yourself. You’re not being honest. You’re not looking inward.”

But GenX, I’m telling you it’s not too late. You can still change your bitter, disappointing life.

How to start?

Well, you could always try listening to music again. Trust me; all the “classic rock” stations out there are playing the music you listened to in high school and college. The music you grew up with. The music of today that’s influenced by that era where music meant everything. So I implore you, stop listening to talk radio, stop watching Fucks News; in fact, stop tuning in to AM radio entirely. You can also ditch that Facebook account of yours – a technology meant to “bring the world together” but has only driven people apart. A place that thrives on your anger, and your outrage. Remember there’s a reason you lost touch with those high school and college assholes, and that because that relative of yours posts racist shit on their feed, their Thanksgiving invitation must be rescinded until they see the error of their ways and smarten the fuck up, and be that person you used to look up to again.

Seriously. You’ll be glad you did.

If you frequent news websites, get a good comment blocker for your web browser (I recommend “Shut Up”) and use it. Don’t waste your time going down the rabbit hole of uneducated shitheads with too much time on their hands and too many opinions to spew. You miss absolutely nothing by refusing to engage with these 21st century baubles designed to waste time that is becoming more and more precious with each minute, each day, each year we have left, just so some tech billionaire can make even more money. Remember; every problem we face in the world today can be directly attributed to rich assholes who decided they need to make even more money than they already have.

Want a good substitute for all the doom scrolling? Here’s one: it’s called picking up a book. Preferably one on paper, but digital will do ya just fine. Did you know roughly a quarter of Americans claim to have not opened let alone read a book within the past year? Of course you do! Look who’s president if you don’t believe me. Do you want to be associated with those people? If you’re still that cool, hip Gen X-er you think you are then you know the answer. Read. More. Books.

I recommend this one.

My main recommendation in moving forward is to try and channel that person you were, ripped jeans and nose rings and all. The person who’d look at the adult you’ve become and ask “what the hell happened”? Become the person that 20 year-old version of you aspired to become. Be your best self.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll change the world for the better.

Play us off, Henry …

You Spin Me Round

Growing up, our family were generally late-adopters of new technologies. While I remember having a color television throughout the 1970s and beyond, we also had a small B&W set in the kitchen that pre-dated it. We didn’t have to get up and tune the dial to get our 13 channels on the main set; we had a converter box, but that was hard wired to the TV set. For a time, my parents had an 8-track player in the station wagon, but for the most part long car rides were accompanied by Light FM/AM stations that to this day gives me a reflexive dislike for the music of John Denver, The Carpenters, and Jim Croce.

Though I will confess I’ve been coming around a little on ABBA.

We got our first VCR in, I believe, 1983. It was a Betamax. Recommended to as the superior format (which it was), but made finding movies to rent a little difficult as the decade progressed. We didn’t get our first VHS player until 1988 or 1989. Though to be fair, the Beta player lasted well into the 90s, and ended up being used, for the most part, for recording TV shows (because, yes, the picture and sound quality of a Betamax tape was noticeably superior). The Beta resided in the rec room downstairs, hooked up to a 19 inch Sony Trinitron. It sat in an entertainment unit built by my uncle, along with our stereo and record player. There were more than a few jokes around my home in the early 90s, mostly from friends who said descending into the Abraham rec room was like taking a trip back in time to 1981.  

So what does all of the above have to do with Vinyl? Keep reading.

Pictured: $42 in music

Our music collection was, for the most part and for a very long time, strictly Vinyl. It was my parents’ record collection from their formative years. My dad’s Beach Boys and Chicago and Billy Joel albums; my mom’s Beatles and Ray Charles ones (and my then and still-favorite, the American Graffiti soundtrack album). Our home stereo had a tape deck, and both our family cars – Volvos, natch – had cassette players, so most of those vinyl records were recorded to tape to be played in the car. If there was an album we wanted to listen to in the car and at home, we bought the vinyl and made a copy to listen to. This was how I experienced Purple Rain and Seven And The Ragged Tiger, and the Miami Vice soundtrack. This always meant the sound quality was lesser than what you got on the radio tuner, so by and large pre-recorded music was saved for when you traveled outside the range of any decent radio stations, and had to choose between static and crazy-fire-and-brimstone religious radio (we preferred static).

We never made the transition to CD though, and through my high school years and into college, I was still buying cassettes. This was for a number of reasons. Portability for one, cost for another. In the early 90s a CD would run you close to 20 bucks. A cassette could be had for half that. You could score two cassettes for the price of one CD. Were I to buy a CD I’d have to take it home, copy it to cassette, then listen to it on my Walkman. A cassette I could pop into my Walkman outside the store or in my car tape deck, and be listening to new music before I was out of sight of the store.

I didn’t transition to CDs formally until 1995, when I got my first Laserdisc player, which could play CDs as well as LDs. Once hooking it up and running the audio through a roommate’s stereo system was I able to start buying/borrowing CDs and making my own copies on cassette.

I still buy CDs, though my new music purchases have dropped off in the last five or so years, picking up one, maybe two new-release albums a year. Yes, there’s MP3s and streaming audio, but I prefer to have a solid, non-digital backup of my albums of choice. Yet coinciding, roughly, with the beginnings of a global pandemic of which, right now, there is no end in sight,  I began to take a deeper dive into Vinyl records and Vinyl collecting.

If your music collection doesn’t include Cheap Trick at Budokan what are you even doing with your life?

Why Vinyl? There are arguments for and against. Most audiophiles will tell you it’s superior sound-wise to CD. It’s warmer, you can pick up nuances with vinyl you can’t with digital downloads. For me though it’s a little more complex, and gets to the heart of my long preamble to this post.

Example: I own Jack White’s Lazaretto on both CD and Vinyl. And I will concede that side-by-size, I can’t quite hear much of a difference. But with the Vinyl, if I want to listen to Lazaretto the album, I have to commit myself to spending the next 40 minutes or so doing just that. I can’t skip tracks, I can’t pause, I can’t do dishes or make dinner, or do work while spinning the vinyl. I have to L I S T E N to it and nothing else. I make a tea, I sit in my comfy chair, I drop the needle, notch the groove, and just sit there and listen to it. Side A. Side B.

Usually I won’t stop at just one either. As one album is nearing the conclusion I’m already flipping through my collection and deciding what comes next. Do I keep with the Third Man Records theme and put on The White Stripes: The Peel Sessions next, or do I backtrack to one of the White Stripes (and Jack White’s) bigger influences – the garage rock pre-punk sounds of The Kinks?

A band whose work I only own on vinyl.

Another band whose work I only own on vinyl (outside their Greatest Hits collection from 1985 and one of the first albums I bought for myself with my own money – cassette, natch), is The Cars. If I want to spin their self-titled debut it’s pretty much a given I’m going to be at it for a while. I’ve more than once killed a weekend afternoon spinning The Cars, followed by Candy-O, Panorama, Shake-It-Up, and Moving In Stereo (I don’t yet own Door to Door; I’m working on it). If I want to listen to the Cars or The Kinks, I need to listen to the Vinyl. As a result they’re both in my top pantheon of favorite bands, despite only really “discovering” their back catalog in the last couple of years. To listen to either requires a commitment of time. I can’t do anything else but listen.

Shake it up …

It’s quite easy to collect vinyl these days too. I’ve scored some great finds at yard sales, at Church fundraisers, and at used bookstores. And eBay has also been a great source for affordable copies of some classic (and not-so-classic) albums. While you will pay through the nose for The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, I scored Preservation Act I and II together for eight bucks with shipping. Big bands and big albums will command big dollars wherever you look, but there’s always going to be some more interesting stuff lurking in the margins if you know where to look.

The other thing about Vinyl that draws me to it, is because it’s not a perfect format. There’s always going to be a hiss, a crackle, a pop, maybe even a skip. I’ve been able to restore some 50 + year old records with a cleaning kit, but they’re never going to sound pristine, which I kind of like. Those little imperfections are what makes vinyl such a better listen, particularly used records. Used albums have a life to them. Those little crackles are signs of a long life. They may be well into middle-age, but they have lived their lives. How many times were they spun on some bedroom briefcase turntable in the 60s and 70s? Did they have a long life of use, or did they spend the intervening decades sitting on a shelf, waiting to be played again? Old vinyl can be magic; the simple act of playing one releasing its music to fill your room and your heart. The little flaws in them are just that bit of grit or sand in the gears of a machine; the imperceptible flaws that give its engine a unique thrum that can be recorded but never duplicated.

Though a little cleaning care goes a LONG way …

That’s why I limit myself to used vinyl. Records with a history. They may hiss and pop and skip, but they have a life to themselves. I also won’t spend more than $8.00 on a single record album. I haven’t splurged on those deluxe vinyl reissues with bonus tracks and booklets and the like. If I may use a cooking metaphor, a good used vinyl record is like a good cast-iron skillet you’ve been using for ten plus years. It will retain the flavor of everything ever cooked in it, and and if you take care of it, it’ll last forever.

Collecting vinyl, also, gets to the heart of Why We Collect Things. Why? Why do we keep old books, old albums? Why do we still buy DVDs and Blu-rays? Why do we collect old toys? Why do we (okay, just myself) create a comic book about mixtapes? I think it’s because these things, these objects, possess a meaning beyond their physical form. Toys are just wood and plastic and metal. Mixtapes are just recordings on tape. Records are just grooves carved into vinyl disks. Books are words on wood-pulp wrapped in a slightly sturdier cover.

But a box of old paperbacks isn’t just words printed on slowly moldering paper. It’s the aged creases in the spine of that Stephen King you bought brand new. It’s every time you read that book and re-read it. It’s the smell. My copy of Different Seasons pictured below isn’t just a paperback; it’s the Caribbean vacation I took it on and read cover-to-cover. It’s the ocean breeze, it’s the sandy beach, and it’s the sea-salt from the waves crashing to shore. 

Yes, I collect these too …

Same thing with old comics. It would be easy to sell off my old collection and just repurchase them digitally or in trade paperback form. Yet I have seven or eight long-boxes full of comics taking up space in our storage unit. As a semi-regular contributor to the G.I. Joe: A Real American Headcast comics podcast, once a month or so I get to pull another issue out of the long-box, slide it out of its Mylar bag and hold, in my hands, the very same comic I bought at the corner store spinner rack 35, 36 years ago. I still own it, but “it” isn’t just the story. It’s the slowly fading pages of artwork, it’s the creases in the spine and it’s the old ads I used to gloss over but now instill a nostalgia for things I never appreciated at the time.

Ten bucks from a local thrift store. They gave me the Conan comic for free.

We collect things from our past, from our childhood, for many reasons. But I think it’s during times like the ones we’re living through at present that make collecting, that make nostalgia and its pain of remembering all the more essential. There’s a tangible quality to those things that made us happy a long time ago. The 60s had Vietnam and civil unrest. The 70s had the oil crisis and national malaise. The 80s had the cold war and nuclear saber rattling and exploding space shuttles. The 90s had the Spice Girls (sorry). Every era has its ups, it has its downs. It has its struggles. We’re currently in the middle of the next one. And I think if you look around you’ll find people are pining very strongly for a time when things felt simpler.

You can dig through your memories for those seemingly happy moments, but that dig is a lot easier having something tangible tying you to that point in your life. It’s why when I sold off my collections of old Transformers and Star Wars and G.I. Joe toys, I made sure to keep a select handful of items from each line. I wanted to retain something of that old era; something I could pick up in my own hands, and feel beneath my fingertips.

Vinyl is the same thing. It’s not sequences of 1s and 0s on a CD. It’s not music recorded onto ever-deteriorating magnetic tape. It’s not an internet-connected audio stream. Vinyl is a tangible thing. It’s grooves carved into vinyl plastic creating vibrations that are translated into music, and from music into feeling and memory.

So as we enter month three of this uncertainty I think we’re all trying to find things to distract us, to keep our minds off the current predicament by submerging them in the memories of a time and place when we felt safer. Where the world felt like it still made some sense. So I can be expected to keep spinning my vinyls until this current crisis ends and probably beyond it too. To the day when, years from now, I’ll give my by then VERY old records a listen and remember a time when they became a life-raft and kept us all going while we waited for the tide to wash us back to shore.

No word of a lie these JUST arrived as I was proofing this post.

How about you? What was/is your favorite album, Vinyl or otherwise and why? Sound off in the comments below!

Delete Facebook

Let’s talk about online life, shall we? When the clock rolled forth on January 1st, 2000, none of us knew what was coming. As an avid Sci-Fi fan, creator, and reader, I can say that nobody in the genre ever predicted what Social Media would become. It didn’t even predict social media, let alone the internet. Seriously; in the grand scale and scope of speculative fiction, NOBODY ever predicted the world-wide-web accurately. William Gibson likely came closest with Neuromancer. While the internet was a thing in the 80s we just didn’t hear about it.

The Internet. It could have been beautiful. And had kung-fu.

We do everything online these days. Much of it we do through mobile technology. Through phones that carry more processing power than your standard-issue desktop computer circa 1998 did. The internet has changed our way of life, but it’s also changed the way people think and relate to one another.

It hasn’t been pretty. Especially, it seems, in the last five or so years. Reducing people to names and profile pictures on Facebook or Twitter has done more to dehumanize each other than was probably intended. Or maybe that was the point

Pictured: Twitter. Where the cruelty IS the point.

I don’t really get involved online anymore. Not with debates, not with “being in a community”. It just holds no interest for me. Because I used to get involved. In debates. In “community”. I used to spend much more time online in the morass of social media than was probably healthy. I told myself it was for work; as a writer, you need to engage with your audience, you need to promote, you have to hustle. But doing all those things felt empty. Like it was just work. And it was just work, only the kine that largely gave me back little in return. So, in 2019 I said goodbye to Twitter (I said goodbye to Facebook in 2013, though I do maintain an author page though another administrator runs it). I’m still on Instagram but I’m only really there to follow art and travel and photography accounts. Comments are generally closed on my posts, I don’t allow strangers to drop in and spam me with promo. It’s “anti-social-networking”.

This all began in earnest last spring, as I was in the early stages of outlining my next book. It takes place in the 1980s; a pre-internet era. And I decided to be method in my writing in that I wasn’t going to use social media at all while drafting. I could use the internet but only for research. If I needed to know for example what the Top 10 songs in the US were the third week of April 1985, I could do that.

Pictured: a scene from my next book

But the minutia of checking Twitter or Facebook or whatever went away. And after finishing my draft four months later, it kind of stayed that way. I got used to not having social media around, and I have to say I like it not being around. I like not knowing what everybody’s up in arms about, or arguing over. I like being out of the loop. In fact, in the process I rediscovered what we’ve all been missing; the fine art of Not Knowing.

If you’re of a certain age, you remember Not Knowing. You didn’t know what was going on the next town over, or the next suburb. Heck, even venturing to the other side of your small town was a trek. Here you encountered people you’d never seen before and never would again, unless you went back. You had friends, you made friends, and when you moved away, you lost touch with them. I can look at my old school photos, from Kindergarten to pretty much Eighth Grade and only recognize a couple names, and only few faces beyond those. When I got older I thought things would change; that I’d remain closer to people I knew in high school, and college. And for a time – the early, generally non-evil Facebook years of 2007-2010 – I did remain close; re-establishing contact with people I’d lost along the way.

Even then, by 2012 I was getting tired of keeping up. I realized that these people I knew once upon a time weren’t the same people. And the thing is I wanted them to be those same people, and knew that wasn’t possible. they’d changed, and I’d changed, and shortly thereafter – as in seven years ago today – I logged into Facebook one final time, to delete my profile.

Was losing touch better? I hate to say it, but yeah; it kind of was. Because knowing those places, those moments, those friendships were impermanent is what made them special. It’s what made me cherish those moments and my memories of them.

One other positive aspect of walking away from social media is I can enjoy things on their own merits now. It seems that in the last five years or so the culture wars have migrated over into entertainment in a big way, to the point where who you are as a person is judged by the art you consume. If you like X you’re a bad person. If you didn’t see XX you’re the reason XX failed and that makes you a bad person. There’s no middle ground anymore; you’re either with the mob or against it. It’s almost like you can’t be indifferent to anything anymore.

Because we ALL have opinions …

Being outside that bubble has been liberating. Not that I ever cared what people though of me because of the things I enjoyed, but being sidelined by choice has been an eye opener as to how people related to one another now. It’s no longer enough to watch X, listen to Y, read Z. You have to declare allegiance to your tribe, you have to wear the colors, you have to gather on the field of battle and face off against Those People.

My motto is simple: enjoy the stuff you enjoy, ignore the rest. Don’t let anyone dictate what you should/should not entertain yourself with. As long as it isn’t something horribly offensive you aren’t hurting anybody by watching or reading or listening to it. And if you truly love something, love it. Don’t let the naysayers tell you “it was crap, it was terrible”. And likewise don’t tell them the same with something you didn’t like. You have the power. The world won’t stop turning because you did or didn’t express your opinion or share a thought.

My advice? Find your happiness, embrace it, and never let it go. Likewise, anything that makes you miserable, sets you on edge, get rid of it. I know that’s not always possible. Your boss could be an asshole but you need that job. But there’s always another job, another town, another place.

My life has improved in many ways because of this. Just in the case of time. Because don’t realize how much of your life you can waste in a day by hitting “refresh”.

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s December 1993. I’ve just returned a car-load of film equipment to the Film Building at my university, where I’m a student. I’m in a contemplative mood this day and with nothing else on tap for the afternoon, decide to take a little drive.

The car is mine. I was home for my mother’s birthday at the end of November and decided to drive back to school seeing as I’d be coming back after exams a few weeks hence. I’m renting a house in the city’s west end with five other film and theater students so I have free parking for the month.

I drive without any real destination, but when hunger pangs hit I decide to drive up to my old neighborhood – the one I lived in ten years before, which would become, in my memory anyway, the happiest time of my life. There’s a burger joint near there I used to frequent, one of those old-school 1960s establishments that hasn’t changed in the fifty years since it was started. I go and grab my favorite meal – steak on a Kaiser with pepper and a little bit of BBQ sauce, onion rings, and a chocolate shake.

I park, I eat, then I keep driving, the car smelling of my lunch. I drive north. I cruise past my old house; I swing through crescents and side-streets where I used to play with the other neighborhood kids. I swing past the house of my best friend, who’s still living there, but is at work that day. The memory tank has been refilled, but I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

I pull over and park at the edge of the local park, get out, and climb a slow sloping grade of landfill that’s been turned into a hill. We used to just call it the “toboggan hill” because that’s what we did on it in the winter. There’s a bench and a couple lonely pine trees at the summit, and when you sit there you have a view of the playgrounds and baseball diamonds, and elementary school below.

This was my old school. The one I attended for only a few short years – April 1982- to June 1985 – but it still looms large and casts a long shadow over my life then. 1993 has been a rough year for me, and December of that year marks the one year anniversary of my parents announcing they were separating. I’m so devastated I nearly flunk my first year of university, but I manage to pull my grades out of a nose-dive and pass. Barely.

So that’s my frame of mind as I sit on that bench and stare out over my old school. It’s just before 2:00pm. I know this because the recess bell rings a minute or so later, and the kids come streaming out. To play four-square. To throw the ball around. To jump rope and play on the playground equipment – the same I played on ten years before.

What does all of this have to do with GI Joe? Everything.

It’s April, 1982. We’ve just moved to this new city. Moves have been a fact of life for me. By 1982 I’ve lived in six different cities. I just turned 9 years old. By this point I know the drill; my dad comes home to say “we’re moving again” because he got another job transfer and promotion to go a long with it. A move means excitement and sadness in equal measure. Excitement because it’s a new city, a new house (our new one will have a swimming pool), and new friends. But a move also means saying goodbye to old friends. In this pre-internet era, goodbyes really do mean goodbye. It means never seeing those familiar friendly faced again. You move away, they move on, and pretty soon you forget what they looked like.

We move just before Easter, which means I and my sister are starting at our new schools nearly through the end of the year. I have two months of Grade 3 and then summer. Will that be time enough to make friends? So the spring as I remember it is cold, dark, and lonely.

I can’t remember the actual date, but the specifics of it, I’ll never forget. It must be some afternoon after school I first see the commercial. It’s slick, animated, and trumpeting what looks like a new cartoon series. But it’s not a cartoon series, yet. It’s not a movie either. It’s this:

Now let me paint a picture for all of you here in the year 2018. In the 1980s, things were slower. The pace was different. Your average hour long TV show ran 52 minutes. There were only a handful of TV channels. Music was on the radio. There was no MTV outside of a few small outlets in the US. If you wanted to go shopping, you went to a mall. Movies? The theater.

And Star Wars movies were released 3 years apart. Three years to a 9 year-old may as well be a lifetime. But fortunately you have the toys – the action figures, the vehicles, the play sets. You have the comics and newspaper strips – al of which is designed to keep you interested in the property until the next installment.

But there was something else these little pieces of molded plastic were important for – something the designers didn’t anticipate. They were how you made new friends in new cities. Just the act of bringing a Star Wars toy to your new school was enough to get other kids to come over and talk to you. Several friendships (short lived ones, but friendships nonetheless) began that way. I’d bring a Bespin Han Solo or Hoth Luke to school; some kid would ask what other Star Wars toys I had. I’d tell them, they’d tell me theirs. They’d invite me over to play, and vice versa. Toys were how you got to know others. They were how you found your new tribe.

By the time I moved  it had been two years since The Empire Strikes Back. Five since Star Wars. Time moves slow as a child but it moves really slow when you’re a Star Wars fan. You need toys to fill the gaps between films. Between Star Wars and Empire alone there was Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole. Between Empire and the third installment due next year – Revenge of the Jedi – there’s been Smurfs, and Indiana Jones, and a lot more I’ve forgotten. But they’ve all been peg-warmers and gap fillers. By 1982 nobody is playing Battlestar Galactica. They may still be playing Star Wars, but the wait between films is so long to a 9 or 10 year-old. You need something else.

Something different.

And so it was, one evening in April, when my mother was taking my sister to the local mall to do some clothes shopping one evening after school sometime in April. I begged off to browse the toy aisle, and when I get there the first thing I noticed were the colors of red, white, and blue on the floor display.

GI Joe: A Real American Hero.

The packaging was the first thing that lept off the shelf at me. Whereas the Star Wars figures featured the toy in a plastic bubble and a photo of that character (no matter how minor) from the movie, these featured a beautiful painted image of the character in action. The back of the card featured smaller paintings of the other figures in the line, and below those, a file-card with the character name, code-name, rank, specialty, and place of birth. With nothing else to go on but the packaging you had a psyche profile of what that character’s personality was like.

I begged my mom to buy me some. She ended up relenting and getting me three: Breaker, Grunt, and Snake-Eyes. I took them home, took them out of their packages, and plated with them until bed-time. But the real fun came the next day when I snuck Snake-Eyes into my book-bag and took him to school. Come morning recess, I brought him out and it was like moths to the flame. None of the other kids had seen a GI Joe up close before, though they had seen the commercials. So here was the new kid with the hottest new toy. And from that moment, friendships were born.

That was just the beginning though. See, I didn’t really get “in” to GI Joe beyond those first three figures. They were just three tots if many, and my heart still belonged to Star Wars.

In 1983, we were on vacation in Vermont, and on the first day I broke my leg skiing. That vacation became a three-month odyssey of traction and body casts and being stuck at home. And while some school friends did visit me (and I did have a tutor so I could keep up with school) it was a very lonely time.

Then my dad came home from work one night with a gift for me. Well, two gifts anyway. One was a new GI Joe called Snow-Job, the other was a snowmobile called the Polar Battle Bear.

Which I still have, by the way.

Maybe he picked those because he knew our ski vacation had been cut short and I blamed myself, maybe it was just because he wanted me to have some fun while I was bedridden, but it did the trick. By the time the cast came off I had acquired more GI Joe toys. I. Was. Hooked. By the time September rolled around Return of the Jedi had come and gone, but I was fully on the GI Joe train. Joe became the linkage to my friends, and their interests (including the aforementioned best friend who I met that September because he was talking about James Bond, another of my childhood touchstones).

And for a GI Joe fan the hits kept on coming. That September saw the release of the 5-part miniseries A Real American Hero, which aired on a local station after school Monday-Friday. That Christmas I added a whole slew of new GI Joe toys to my collection – the MOBAT Tank, VAMP Jeep, Dragonfly Copter, the Headquarters Command Center, and more figures. Joe became my life, but in no bigger way than the following summer when visiting some old friends out west who introduced me to the Marvel comic.

The first issue I ever bought. Still have it too.

That span of years, from 1983-1985 were some of the finest of my life, and it was largely due to those little plastic men and women.

Then, everything changed.

[To Be Continued in Part II]