Saturday, April 05, 2008

1987: That Space Cadet Glow

Aside from the psychotically-high volumed playbacks of "The Happiest Days Of Our Lives" that I had continually endured at home when Dad was showing off his new stereo to his friends, chanting along like any good fifth grader did with "Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2" on the school bus, some insanely boring WWII-era newsreel videos with shots of some guy's mug in the shadows, and an abortive attempt to record The Dark Side Of The Moon from my uncle during my stay in Pennsylvania in 1985, I was largely (some might say "blissfully") unaware of Pink Floyd as an artistic entity until the tail end of 1986. Two decades later, I still can't believe that I got by so long without ever having copped a feel of this brilliance until the middle of fucking eleventh grade, but I had other stuff on my plate that had occupied my attention.

It was on a cold, snowdusted December night that I was over at Brian Harnak's place with Rob and Mike. We were really just hanging around and doing a lot of abject teen nothingness (probably deciding whether or not to play Axis & Allies again) when Brian suddenly handed me his Walkman and told me to listen to the music he had cued up.

Though I had heard it before on a far better sound system, the music and sound effects I heard were transfixing for whatever reason that evening. The music was "On The Run" from The Dark Side Of The Moon - three minutes and change of panned sound effects and throbbing, ancient VCS-3 synthiers. To these Britsh synth-pop attuned ears, this sound collage was somehow like manna from heaven through those little earphones. What I had experienced in the Buhl planetarium the previous summer was merely a fun night out with my uncle and Brian's kitchen while in the company of my best friends, this music somehow became mindblowing.
Following the shocking, cacaphonous intro to "Time" (which scared the living shit out of me that night), I knew I had to have a copy of this record. Of course, having no job yet (and no record player) made this a rather insurmountable problem at the time. It was back to the old ninth grade solution of - "can I borrow this overnight and tape it?" Brian agreed, and within three hours, The Dark Side Of The Moon was in my rather considerable collection of dubbed albums. Side two of the tape was a bit of a problem, though a hastily-assembled collection of older mellow "psychedelic songs" (that is, if you consider A Flock Of Seagulls' "The Border" and Jan Hammer's "Evan" to be "psychedelic," as we insanely did) filled the 45 minutes of free space just dandy.
Luckily, The Wall presented a different (and far easier-remedied) solution. With a seven year-old vinyl copy moldering away in my parent's record racks, it was a cinch to dub a decent sounding copy from the downstairs stereo. Even more so than Dark Side, The Wall was great Walkman theater for that winter. The propulsive, occasionally snappy rythyms and huge, wide-open production were just dandy for walking through the school hallways. And of course there was that old lyric "We Don't Need No Education!," which every good school student and ultra-right wing populist hack knew how to misinterpret. Oh, I'm quite sure that I was one of the unwashed faceless multitude of idiot swine know-nothings that dear old Roger Waters railed against back in the '70's...but fuck him, this was high school.
Incredibly as it seems from this standpoint in time, the Pink Floyd experience was pretty much restricted to those two epochal albums for about five months after I'd first taped them. I knew vaguely of other albums by the band, but I knew nothing of the titles or quality of their deep catalog. Aside from Roger Waters, I didn't even know who was in the band or who did what. As far as I was concerned (and according to The Wall's sleevenotes), Waters wrote, sang, and did everything -- in short, he was Pink Floyd (I'm sure he'd love to hear that now). For a long while, Dark Side and The Wall were pretty much in my "sporadic rotation" tape pile most of my senior year -- for night time listening and the odd loud blast in the daytime. That's about it. They were just two cool old albums from (eek!) my parent's age that I happened to like.
During those following five months, I had begun riding to school in the morning with a few different people than before. The car I rode in was driven by a casual acquaintance of mine named Dennis Wylie -- far more desirable than more rides with Ted Kozenko and his merry burnout band, who had turned going to high school into a 45 minute, second-hand smoke-laced nightmare every damned morning. What's more is that Dennis had a primo stereo setup in his car -- top-of-the-line tape deck with the radical mustard-yellow face and liquid crystal display plus a twelve-band graphic equalizer mounted on top. While I didn't care much for the musical fare on most mornings -- the omnipresent Led Zeppelin got more than a little grating after a while (I only really knew two songs by them : "Stairway To Heaven" and "The Song Remains The Same") -- old school Rush was interesting for a kick, and the odd Van Halen album passed the time nicely.
On one beautifully clear early spring morning sometime around the end of April or the beginning of May as Dennis was crusing along the Hopkins Road curves on the way to school, he switched tapes from another Led Zeppelin fists-in-the-air anthem to a song that literally poleaxed me in a way that Dark Side never had at that point. It was another Pink Floyd track called "Welcome To The Machine," and it was unlike anything that I had ever heard before. The experience of those wailing, pitch-bent synthesizers and remorselessly throbbing bass lines at the approximate decibel level of a small jet plane taking off just floored me.
As "Have A Cigar" blasted off afterward, I immediately leaned forward and asked Dennis just what in the hell that last song was. Wordlessly, he passed me the cassette case with it's enigmatic robots shaking hands -- even more evocative than the prism and the wall put together. Wish You Were Here. 1975.
I was quick to the next point - "Hey, Dennis -- can I borrow this overnight and tape it?"
"Yeah, but I want it back tomorrow morning. And if you fuck it up, I'll fuck you up!"
Barely hearing the last part of Dennis' words (which I'd heard many times before), I was already busily examining what little information there was to glean from the tape. I wouldn't learn for months that Wish You Were Here was a shamefully empty packaging deal on cassette. Christ, those robots shaking hands wasn't even the real goddamned cover! No liner notes, no lyrics, no photos of any kind. Just that cover and the even more enigmatic song listings (only five songs on this tape? How the hell long are these tunes?). The whole album seemed like a mystery that had me intrigued hours before I even heard the bloody thing.
After school, I popped side two of my old Dark Side tape into my parent's stereo and dubbed over the mellow classics side while I watched some MTV in the family room. When I heard the tape drive click to a stop, I took the new acquisition upstairs and cued up The Dark Side Of The Moon on side A, thinking that I may as well presage this new recording with a replay of its apparent predecessor. To reiterate an earlier point -- until that evening, I had only heard "Welcome To The Machine" and most of "Have A Cigar." When I slipped on my headphones on and played Dark Side, I thought quite naively to myself : damned fine record. Probably would be perfect if only that "Machine" song was on here somewhere...
Remember the very first time you heard your favorite album of all time?
Flipping over the tape, I cued up Wish You Were Here in its entirety for the first time. Stupid as it may sound, my life has never been the same since. I believe my close friends will attest to this under oath.
After the intro silence, the eerie opening of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" drifted out of the tape hiss like the Northern Lights appearing in the dark skies over upper Michigan. Within two minutes, I was hypnotized like I had never been to any record before. The synth work was absolutely stunning! I had never heard such rich, shimmering, full-bodied tones out of a record in my life before. I was hearing waves and washes of sound so beautiful that I was breaking out in goose-flesh listening to it. Then came those soft guitar notes, spotlessly picked and perfectly at home in the mix while the synths appeared to rise like the tides, surging through possible resolve before fading into near-blackness.
Before the famous four-note mourning guitar phrase, I was nearly in a panic -- that couldn't have been all!
My panic was in haste -- from those ringing notes, the body of "Shine On" crashed into being between my ears, trading off languid guitars and keyboard leads with exquisite grace. I literally could not believe what I was hearing that night, and every shift in mood and tempo in "Shine On" had my complete and undivided attention. When the voice began to sing nine minutes in, I was almost disappointed in that the most wondrous music I had ever heard had to have singing to it. But the vocals were fascinating (though I had no idea at the time who Syd Barrett was), and the saxophone solo at the end was a welcome surprise underneath that waterfall-like guitar work and the suddenly peppy tempo.
When the song finally faded perfectly into the now-familiar forbidding drone of "Welcome To The Machine," I was literally breathless. Why had I never heard of this album before? How could this have escaped the attention of Brian, or Mike or anyone else that I knew aside from Dennis Wylie? Why didn't the radio ever touch this album? I almost breezed through "Have A Cigar" and "Wish You Were Here" just reflecting on "Shine On" and "Welcome To The Machine." Amazingly, "Shine On" started up again in radically different form in gusts of late-autumn winds and by the time the final notes of this "Shine On" reprise finally drifted off into the ether, I honestly knew at that very moment that my musical horizons had been unalterably changed. Pop singles and rock ballads suddenly seemed trite and silly compared to something of this magnitude.
Needless to say, I rewound the tape and played it again. And again. By the third airing, I was already trying to imagine the best way for Brian to hear this album for the first time.
That TDK tape containing Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side Of The Moon became my most-played cassette virtually overnight. There was little question of throwing anything else in to hear -- nothing else I owned could top the effect that sonic one-two punch had on me that night. Every evening would be the same...listen to The Dark Side Of The Moon while I was still trying to drift off, then I'd flip the tape and experience Wish You Were Here one more time. The images and moods suggested (and realized) on that album still work an indecribable magic on me to this day. Wish You Were Here was, and still is, the most magnificent album I have ever heard.

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