Sunday, May 24, 2009


Do you remember the first record you ever bought? Well, I guess that I’m already dating myself here by referencing vinyl—in this case, 45 rpm recordings. But, I was given solace recently on a field trip with my son to a restored Victorian home nearby. We were touring with a couple of other families with children about his age who were around 8 or 9, when we entered what in the 1890s was called the “salon” and what we know today as the living room. Inside, the importance of music and conversation were in clear evidence with numerous chairs, settees, a large couch, a Steinway square grand piano that had made it by boat from New York and around the tip of South America, and an Edison Wax Cylinder Phonograph.

When the docent started explaining how this device was used, one of the kids who was inspecting its parts rather intensely asked with a shrug, “Where does the CD go?” It made me smile, but also feel better because he hadn’t asked where you would click to get downloads. The technology and instruments that humans have developed to capture sound and its organized form that we know as "music" may change, but whatever the manner in which we first hear and understand its existence is only matched by the musical entity who introduces it to us. And in a way, that primary experience can say a lot about us as individuals as well as initiate a trajectory for our musical futures. The extra step that we take when we actually consume music as a purchaser—whether on vinyl or digital format—may also serve as a sort of musical version of carbon dating, since music is distinguished as an art that lives by and in time.

In my case, my first acquisition as a consumer was at the age of seven and was Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”, released in 1960. I don’t remember where I bought it or what led me to buy it in the first place—though, when in doubt about my early music history, I usually blame an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. But, I still remember that it was on Cameo Parkway Records and that the red and black label had an actual gold lined, cameo image of a refined lady in profile on it. This visual element is one that I grew to associate with music—and 45 labels were nothing once I graduated to albums, which arguably had already become an art form—if often a kitschy one—in their own right during the 1950s.

MTV added motion video to music, which to my mind often held the artist and audience hostage to a music video director and record label marketing department’s “vision” and “interpretation”. In the world of the download, we’ve now gone full circle. Once upon a time, it was the packaging that made opening a new record “album” like Christmas every time you went to the record store—even though you couldn't always judge a record by its cover. Now that has all but disappeared. More important, packaging was not only a marketing come-on, but also influenced music discovery.

I remember haunting my local record store as a teenager and seeing certain album covers that lured—and even frightened me into buying them. When a friend told me in 1967 that there was this band from England that were louder than The Mothers of Invention, I went and asked for “Are You Experienced”. When I saw the cover, adorned by a leering trio splashed in psychedelic finery, beckoning out of a fisheye lens with a look that dared me to enter—I had to think twice, but am forever glad that I didn’t hesitate too long. The first several bars of the opening song actually flicked a navigational switch on in my brain that has been setting a course for the heart of the sun ever since. It was also a record that was to rear its surrealistic head in a book I did with rock critic, Dave Marsh, who I collaborated with on the long out-of-print, The Book of Rock Lists published by Dell and Rolling Stone in 1981.

Part of the book included a year-by-year breakdown called “Top of the Pops” which codified our own version of the Top Forty Hits in Rock and Roll from 1955 to 1979 and we described as, “For the authors, one of the great incentives in a project like The Book of Rock Lists is the opportunity to inflict on the unsuspecting reader personal opinions about the greatest and most essential records of all time.”

Another series of lists set about codifying the greatest “Top 40 Chartmakers” or forty albums from each year (beginning in 1963) that made Billboard’s Top 100 Chart. There were many conversations about ranking these records. But, when we came to the seminal year of 1967, we had a lot to consider with The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, The Mothers of Invention “Absolutely Free”, “Otis Redding “Live In Europe”, “Fresh Cream”, The Doors’ debut album…and “Are You Experienced?” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Ultimately, Jimi won out, though in retrospect, “Sgt. Pepper” would seem the logical winner over time as classical rock music. No matter—it was all meant to provoke friendly debate just as Dave and I had experienced in its creation. And rock and roll doesn’t suffer academic treatment very well. I always cringe when I see it offered on some over-reaching college syllabus. It seems like the last nail in its coffin (see my earlier post, The Vampire Theory of Rock and Roll) to stuff Rock Music like some taxidermy object to gaze and wonder at, if not dissect for hidden meaning.

Another record that I saw on and off for months at my local record shop was Dr. John’s first record, “Gris Gris”. I was actually scared by the cover, which dripped with Voodoo talismans and trimmings and an image of a somewhat diabolical looking madman in shocks of red and green like some New Orleans Halloween hallucination. Somehow, I knew that if I bought that record, that my ears would never be the same. When I finally put my money down and listened to the spooky likes of “Croker Courtbullion” and “I Walk On Gilded Splinters”, this wasn’t just music—it was theater of the mind—and it was also introducing me not only to mojo roots, but to Mac Rebennack’s musical roots and opened up a lexicon from Huey Piano Smith and Duke Ellington to the weird, ethnographic swamp soup of Voodoo chants and Afro/Yoruba trance dance. Again, I’d never heard anything like it and my brain was imprinted with coordinates for future navigation to the Mississippi Delta and points east across the Atlantic and beyond to the so-called genre of “World Music.” It’s a journey I’ve been on ever since.

The other thing that Dr. John’s album came with was liner notes, a sub species of the album as an art or non-art form that is now all but disappeared with virtual music consumption. I’ve delighted in showing my daughter the liner notes from Bob Dylan’s many early albums written in his e.e.cummings mirror style of lower case, West 4th Street stream of consciousness. Dr. John’s liner notes were also written with a voice that echoed and added detail to the musical phantasmagoria within.

Liner notes were long established in the world of classical music and jazz, where the “seriousness” of the exercise inspired, no doubt, the necessity of anatomical dissection and explication. But, rock and roll was a late comer—I mean, what can you possibly dissect about “The Who Sell Out”, Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols” or even “Sgt. Pepper” for that matter—but as the music developed a history and became more popular and recognized, the addition of liner notes made more sense depending on whether a musician could actually write or if an eager rock critic was available. A rare few, like “Freak Out” , provided a bonus map of an artist’s musical DNA. By citing his artistic influences at some length, Frank Zappa added to my future discoveries and not all were restricted to music.

How do digital music consumers discover new sounds today? The retail store has gone the way of the dinosaurs with the large chains going under from lack of relevance, but thankfully, with hearty, last of the independents like Amoeba Records flourishing as beacons in the wilderness. But, downloads and ringtones now have overtaken the brick and mortar market. According to Techcrunch, in 2006, music downloads were increasing at a pace of over 50% a year, while CD sales declined in that year 20%. More recent stats would certainly reflect this trend.

Collaborative filters like the iTunes Genius Bar are only as good as artificial intelligence can be in making associations between individual personal taste and similarities of potential interest. Peer-to-peer sharing of music is still a huge factor, even in the post-Napster universe, with Limewire and others still booming. Sharing lists of favorites on social media networks allows another view into personal taste that speaks to music as first and foremost a community of specialized interests. Music may have actually been the impulse behind the first human communities when their members invariably gathered around a campfire on the African savannah to sing for the hunt to go well and rain to abound—but that’s another story. The affording of samples on services like CD Now and Amazon are likewise helpful, but all of the above tactics still miss some of the mystery for me that exists when you enter a place like Amoeba in LA.

Usually, I am looking for something specific, like a digitized version of an old record—yesterday, for example, I was searching out a copy of The Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request”—their characteristically dark answer to “Sgt. Pepper”. But, what I usually come out with is anything but what I originally thought I’d be buying. My friend, Jeff Elmassian, a brilliant composer and virtuoso in his own right and CEO of Endless Noise, a premiere music design firm for commercials spoke of an interesting experience while taking his teenage daughters on a pilgrimage to Amoeba.

On finding a certain record she was looking for, one of them told her father that she only wanted one song on the album and didn’t want to buy the whole thing in order to enjoy it. I remember the feeling many times myself when I had to fork up the dough for an entire album in order to claim the one song I liked. Not all albums were created equal and quite often, the hit single was a teaser that was the loss leader for an album that disappointed. We’ve come a long way in the universe of the singular download and shuffle mode mentality.

Singles were another method of music discovery back in the day when they were often pre-releases for albums by new artists as well as established ones like The Beatles, who would lead off with a taste of what was to come. Sometimes, singles had added value when they didn't appear on a follow-up record or when they did, only on a record several years later. The world of digital downloads has put the model of releasing singles on steroids—but now, the consumer has a choice to not buy an entire “album” and very often, there isn’t even a long form version to follow suit. My daughter was telling me last week about a new band whose “album” of four tracks she really liked. I crankily responded that we called a record with so few songs on it an “EP” in my day, and that it didn’t really qualify for the designation of “album” at all.

I forgot how polarizing and magnetic music is until a recent post which elicited a great response of emails and comments for which I am grateful. One such comment came from Kevin Henry, who inspired this present post. He described buying his first single, The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “a simple song at best and not earth-shattering my any means”, as he describes it, but one with the inherent power to inspire him remembering “clearly my father yelling to turn that crap off.” He goes on to say: “Today, when I look in the mirror, I wonder who that old guy is and I always sing a little to myself…’hope I die before I get old’...feeling a little sorry for myself and then a magical thing happen the other 17 year old daughter picked up my iPod by accident on her way out the door and when she walked in that evening she said with a smile...’who are these guys...this stuff is incredible’...and at that moment a connection took place between us as told her the story of my youth and realized that the revolution lives on.”

I’ve had similar cross-generational experiences with my teenage daughter who has embraced a lot of music I grew up with, some of it out of curiosity, some out of enforced listening, and some organically out of her own path of discovery. It’s inspired conversations over the years with younger co-workers at various places I've worked about how great it must have been to experience the 60s and whether “my music is better than your music.” I never quite got that line of attack. If, as Kiki Dee once sung, "I've got the music in me," then what we don't like may result from the fact that the music hasn't connected to where it plays to a harmony inside us.

To me, it’s all a continuum as Kevin Henry's anecdote above reflects so well. But, our first records put a stake in the ground, a tent pole like a clef which affixes music in our memory as the soundtrack to our lives that sets up thematic mileposts made up of sound. They have a way of intersecting our life stories at critical points where music can speak to us as if it were written just for us. Certain records entered my life in this way almost as if they were chapter titles—“Meet The Beatles”, “Absolutely Free”, “Muddy Waters: The Real Folk Blues”, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”, Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, several classical music albums…and the list goes on.

It’s interesting to me that my very first record was a dance song. I had no idea at the time what a cover record was and that Chubby Checker was experiencing success with a number that was originally written and recorded by Hank Ballard. I also had no real idea what sex was at the age of seven either—“To make (beautiful) music with someone or to ‘have sexual intercourse’ is cited by the Online Etymology Dictionary as arriving on the scene in that “seminal” year of 1967. The more recent euphemism of “The Mystery Dance”, may be the more useful expression here.

But, on a primeval level, I guess we're all genetically wired to understand sound as rhythm first, whether it’s the pulse of our blood that steps up with excitement of different kinds, the rhythm of language before we know what words mean, the different kind off beats in the cries that a baby makes depending on her hunger, pain or want of company, the consuming, inspirational sounds of the natural world, the clickety-clack made by toy trains, the delight of tapping out rhythms with a pencil on our school desk to annoy the teacher—or as discoveries in what quantum mechanics has verified in what the Vedantas and the mantra tradition have known for thousands of years—it’s all vibration, man.

Bassist Victor L. Wooten describes it succinctly in his book, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music: “A-440 means that a note vibrates four hundred and forty times per second…if you keep cutting that number in half, 440, 220, 110, 55, etc., you will eventually get beats per minute. At that point, it’s called rhythm.” The oldest musical instrument that has been documented in the archeological record may be a bone flute from the Upper Paleolithic, but my money would bet that percussion was the original featured instrument of our furry, low browed ancestors. Click sticks like those used by the Aborigines in Australia most likely have forty or fifty thousand years of use. Banging on so-called “ring rocks” or using stones hit against each other seem like another natural movement.

What is music and where does it come from? Wooten refers to its unique origin as a word comprised of an ancient term for “mother” which is “Mu” and “sic” which he attributes as an abbreviation of “science”. Traditional etymology would cite the word's origin as a tribute to the Greek goddesses known as the Muses who are known to have served up a variety of artistic elements for humans to play with. Regardless of its meaning, music is unique in existing in both space (in memory and physical vibration) and time. Its very existence points us to the place that Dizzy Gillespie so eloquently describes as “place between the notes” and as memorialized in John Cage’s famous piece, “4’33”. It is the place where we literally catch our breath, our heartbeat, and where music is created out of the void, out of the great expanive silence, out of that Big Bang of Original Compressed Sound where the first note of song reverberated the original vibration as the Music of the Spheres and frequency that we all carry with us regardless of our preferred musical tastes. Or as the great classical composer of the 20th century, maestro Frank Zappa once said, “Music is the Best”.

I am very interested in readers sharing stories of how their first records impacted their lives and welcome all submissions to the comment section below.


Liz Gebhardt said...

cant remember first song, but first non-classical records purchased were from Moody Blues, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Doobie Brothers

thepicklebarrel said...

Neat topic, Professor Stein!

First, I enjoy the many doors opened by the following, quoted situation; “…“Where does the CD go?” It made me smile, but also feel better because he hadn’t asked where you would click to get downloads.”

Very upsetting that CD’s too are now an archaic format that will soon be euthanized. Even more so in that I have many contemporaries that welcome the demise of the CD… and the DVD for that matter.

The tactile experience of thumbing through a library (be it book, record, cd, dvd, etc) is one that I believe will hurt the art forms that these formats offer. It’s almost as if social ‘word-of-mouth’ will completely replace one’s ability to explore for one’s self. If for no other reason, how will one know what or where to look for unknowns? The only way I see the word being spread on a massive level is 100% BS marketing on a grand scale. It’s almost as if this scenario dares consumers (especially youths) to venture beyond the beaten path in a very negative way.

I will concede that Amazon has created an exceptional forum in the “Listmania” area of their site that allows the consumer to ‘thumb’ through the opinions of like minded individuals for suggestions and related explorations. I suppose that other collaborative filter, the iTunes Genius Bar simulates that forum, however, it’s less organic.

As you point out from the 1960s, the packaging was an extension of the artists themselves and was an incredible conduit for their work and it’s consumer. It helped not only to get your attention, but it gave you perspective on what the material was about. I agree in the assessment that album packaging can be deceiving, especially in this corporately helmed era of music. However, I also believe this only goes to show once again how the creative decisions have been stripped from the artist and hijacked by the executive.

This leads to my first records…..FINALLY!


thepicklebarrel said...

It was “A-B-C” song by the Jackson 5. For obvious reasons, a youngster would gravitate towards a song that repeats the daily mantra of one preparing for lift-off into the skies of society. I was repeating “A-B-C, 1-2-3”, pretty much every day in early education.

The great part about music, or any art form for that matter, is the meaning changes with age. The music itself was absolutely incredible. The Jacksons were an amazingly talented group. But, it was the performance of the lyrics that captured my attention when I was a young pup. An excerpt:

“Reading, writing, arithmetic
are the branches of the learning tree.
But without the roots of love everyday girl,
your education ain’t complete.
Teacher’s gonna show you (hes gonna show you).
How to get an A! (na,na,na,na,na,na)
How to spell me? You? Add the two
Listen to me baby that’s all you got to do!”

All I can say is, wow. That song is one hellava raunchy ditty wrapped in a sugar coated package. And I still love it to this day.

On a side note, I find Michael Jackson one of the most fascinating of characters . Without opening that messy Pandora’s Box, let’s just say a lot of his ‘issues’ sprang from this very song.

Here’s a ten year old kid, performing some fairly intense stuff, with a sexual gusto that, well, one wouldn’t expect from a ten year old. I mean, shit, watch his performance of this tune on the Ed Sullivan Show via You Tube sometime. Whoa!

It is possible that Michael exhausted a lifetime of sexual/emotional normalcy in just a few years as a performing child? A child that was selling a simulated sexual dynamic that catapulted him to heights unimaginable?

It’s interesting to note how Michael’s phenomenal solo career as an adult continued to market his faux sexual aggressiveness since then…it sorta served him well, but to a point.

We see now where that path has lead him. No amount of money, bleach, scalpel-wielding or fantasy indulgence can reverse the spent formative budget that was the childhood of Michael Jackson. Peter Pan’s getting’ older and well, members of the Peanut Gallery, it ain’t gonna be pretty.

That class, is the story of my first record! I gotta go pee now….

Kevin Stein said...

Thank, Liz, for sharing. Curious if you recall your first classical record?

Kevin Stein said...

Liz, thanks also for your suggestion about future post on form vs. function. I'm still trying to figure out what is form and function on my blog!

Kevin Stein said...

Jordan, thank you so much for taking the time in sharing your first record story as well as your various insights. As always, extremely articulate and worthy of its own home--you need to get a blog of your own at this point, pal. I for one would love to hear your perspectives on popular culture, animation, and world events. How can I encourage you to build the Pickle Platform?

As regards your discussion of Michael Jackson, it is beyond my professional expertise and clinical training to comment further!

thepicklebarrel said...

frightened to take on the subject, are we? ;)

Brian Olewnick said...

Hey Kevin,

First record: Bus Stop - The Hollies. Which I still think is a pretty good song.

Can't say it was formative, though. Up to a certain point, it's difficult to really pin down things that pointed toward future interests and obsessions though I've always felt that pop instrumentals like Classical Gas and (gulp) Love Is Blue (a guilty pleasure of mine, if ever there was one) helped get the idea through my brain that music needn't have words, a concept that still seems to baffle many a young person today.

Hendrix, Cream, Crimson, Soft Machine etc., sure, gradually opening up one's ears, exposing me to jazz ideas before I had any notion of the form.

But if I had to pick one, it was the fateful day I walked into that record store (Recordland?)on Main and Market and pulled the trigger on Beefheart's "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" (followed quickly by Trout Mask Replica) This one broke down the walls, and not just for Van Vliet's own amazing music.

Shortly thereafter, I read an interview with him in Rolling Stone where, when asked his favorite musician, he named Ornette Coleman. I dutifully went and purchased Ornette's "Science Fiction" and nothing was the same ever after. The range of jazz, Armstrong through Braxton and beyond, opened up along with contemporary classical, African, Asian, eventually on up through AMM, post-AMM electro-acoustic improvisation, noise, field recordings, found objects, you name it.

The funny thing is, the Beefheart purchase had been delayed by a couple of weeks. I'd gone in there before, thinking about getting it (big decision!) and opted instead for....Mott the Hoople's "Mad Shadows". To this day I shudder to think what course my music-listening life might have taken had this grievous error gone unrectified.

Kevin Stein said...

Thanks for your comment, Brian. Based on your personal tale of following a musicological genealogical path Capt. Beefheart and Ornette Coleman, we will need to revise our theory from my "first" record to first RECORDS--admittedly, I didn't really know where buying "The Twist" put me on any track at 7 years old when I couldn't drink martinis at the Copa Cabana.

As far as "Love Is Blue" goes, I think that it's safe to say that we all can confess to guilty pleasures--after all, that's the beauty of music to begin with--it's subjectivity is uniquely based on how vibration interacts with personal frequency. I guess where it gets interesting is when it starts to manipulate genetic structure and creates new forms like Polka, Punk, and "Progressive Rock"...

And I kind of like "Classical Gas", myself...