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Charlie Hatton
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Howdy, friendly reading person!
I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
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The Day the Music One-Clicked Onto My Hard Drive

(Set your radar for science, peeps. Secondhand SCIENCE, as usual.

This week’s wonderment involves the Doppler effect. It’s not just a tool for meteorologists or a shirt for Sheldon any more! Check it out.)

It’s weird what modern technology does to nostalgia. As in, tech kind of short-circuits it. At least, the kind I usually have.

I’m not the nostalgic sort, mostly. I don’t yearn for the “good old days”. I’ve never eagerly anticipated — nor attended, nor sorely missed — any reunions that I can remember. And if I can remember when candy cost a nickel and gas was a dollar and the kids kept their pants hiked over their whippersnapping knees, then I keep my damned mouth shut about it. Nobody cares. Least of all me.

“And if I can remember when candy cost a nickel and gas was a dollar and the kids kept their pants hiked over their whippersnapping knees, then I keep my damned mouth shut about it.”


It’s a little different with music. But not exactly the way it is with most boring old geezers who use words like “whippersnapping”. (I hope.)

See, I’m not some cane-waving caterpillar-eyebrowed relic who thinks “all this new music is crap”. Sure, some of it is crap. Okay, a lot of it is crap. But a lot of music has always been crap — or at least really, really lazy and mainstreamified and boring.

To me. That’s solely my opinion; your musicage may vary. If you happened to enjoy gyrating pelvises in the ’50s, bowl-cut Brits in the ’60s, boogieing lapels in the ’70s, vamping virgins in the ’80s, pouting plaidgasms in the ’90s and the autotuned rap-rockers reigning since, that’s peachy. Pop music wouldn’t be “pop” if it weren’t popular, so you’ve got a lot of tunes to choose from. Bully for you.

(Also, I went through a plaidgasm phase. I get it.)

My point is, I don’t think music is worse now than it used to be. I’m not sure it’s any better — those One Direction hobbits look a lot like the Backstreet Boys to me, which were basically NSYNC so far as I could tell, and they were a takeoff on New Kids on the Block, and weren’t they just basically Menudo North? Or the Monkees West?

(I’m just saying, if you’re going to put together a boy band, why not try something different? Take t.A.T.u., for instance. There was a boy band with just two members, instead of the usual four or more.

Also, they were Russian. And girls. And pretending to be lesbians.

See? Different.)

Anyway, I do get nostalgic about certain music. I listen to “unpop” stuff now — Watcha Clan, Mike Doughty, Masaladosa, Jonathan Coulton, Midival Punditz, Beats Antique, DJ Click. Not exactly legends of mainstream radio, destined for elevator Musaking. Thankfully.

But my preference for fringe acts started back in my early teens, when music was one of the first “fringe” things I could get my hands on. Or ears. Youknowwhatimean.

I wouldn’t say the town where I grew up was culturally diverse, particularly. At least if it was, there weren’t many cultures diversing themselves onto me. I remember musical arguments among friends about whether Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd was better, or if Angus Young could kick Geddy Lee’s ass.

(Which, seriously, of course he could.

I mean, musically, I have no idea. But a Scot-Australian versus some gangly Canadian dude? That fight would look like Rhonda Rousey in the ring with Strawberry Shortcake. No contest.)

These debates didn’t concern me.

(They do now, because they date me old as hell. But that’s different.)

But the talk about music — and TV shows and sports and movies and video games — did make me uncomfortable. It felt like all of us, the handful of kids I knew in our sleepy flyover town, were essentially doing the same thing. We tuned in at the same times, all went to the same theater, picked one of the three radio stations, cheered for the local-ish teams and Kong’ed our Donkeys at the same arcade.

(Which was a place back in forever ago where cavemen and dinosaurs played together in public on oversized coin-operated Wiis. GIT OFFA MY LAWN!)

For whatever reason — personality quirk, social anxiety, bump on the noggin as an infant — all this sameness felt wrong to me. Too scripted, too predetermined, too easy. Why root for these guys when the other team has cooler uniforms? Why go after the Galaga high score, when I don’t much like the game? And why on earth listen to the same six bands they play on the radio station, when I’m not a fan of any of them?

So I didn’t. Gradually, I stopped doing all those things. I picked new favorite teams, based on how exciting they were on television. I started playing Xevious — which was totally more kick-ass than Galaga; I don’t know what people were even thinking. And I started listening to college radio.

That last one was the kicker. The arcade closed at 8 and sports are seasonal, but I could listen to music — glorious, oddball, weirdo music — any time I wanted. And I did. I fell in love with barely-heard bands like Not Shakespeare, the Spoons, Screaming Blue Messiahs, the Del-Lords and the Waxing Poetics. I caught snippets of bands tearing up elsewhere — like Husker Du, Robyn Hitchcock, Throwing Muses and X — that weren’t likely to visit my town, short of a lost bar bet or a wheel falling off their tour bus on our four-exit stretch of interstate.

Those songs let me glimpse a different world — really, dozens of different worlds — and I latched tighter onto the music than maybe, honestly, some of the music had a right to be latched onto.

(That’s the only way I can explain owning a Figures on a Beach album. That, or a lost bar bet. Take your pick.)

I’ve carried that fondness for unusual ’80s bands — very specific unusual ’80s bands; heaven knows I’m not looking for Weird Al bootlegs — with me ever since. And occasionally, the nostalgia will hit and I’ll go off in search of a song or album that I loved at the time, but could never find to buy.

This has happened many times over the years, and in the past it’s been an enormous pain in the ass. Every search for some beloved old favorite ended in a nightmare. Early on, I’d comb through every thumb-grubbed LP and CD in a local record store (when they existed), and usually come up empty. When I did find treasure, it was often on vinyl, because that’s all the band ever put out, which meant I’d have to convert it somehow to hear the damned thing anywhere away from a turntable. Which I didn’t own for most of those years because I’m not a DJ or my grandfather, so I couldn’t hear some of the finds at all.

Usually, I’d spend months tracking something down. I’d comb the backwaters of the internet (once it existed), searching out online catalogs of music stores all over the planet, hoping for a hit. Also, hoping the exchange rate into pounds or pesos or Papua New Guinean kinas wasn’t so high as to nix the deal. I wanted music, not math. But I was desperate.

I scored a few successes, but always with considerable time and effort. There were plenty of long hours to savor the search, the hunt, the nostalgia of the enterprise. It felt meaningful, if only to me, to track down a Frontier Theory EP, say, and finally hear a song that was first revealed via an old boom box in my bedroom thirty-odd years ago.

And also to hear it at roughly the same quality as through that shitty old boom box speaker, because my vinyl-to-digital transfer skills are terrible. A lot of the stuff I found and cherished and lovingly converted over sounded like it was being played through the mouth of a dead cat, with the band shoved up its butt. Not ideal for a music fan.

Or for that matter, a cat.

It’s been a few years since the “music search mood” has struck, but this week I went looking again. I made a list of a few albums I wish I had, or wish were in digital form that was actually listenable, and not ninety percent whalesong and white noise. I brought my list to the computer, and set off on an odyssey I knew would require patience, perseverance and probably a pallet of Pepsi. The journey began…

And within an hour, I had four albums.

Three were on Amazon, of all places. And the fourth on some music blogger’s out-of-print download site. These were songs I’d scoured the virtual globe for, just a few years ago. Nobody had them. Nearly nobody had heard of them, and then only ever on vinyl. Stores were out of stock. Ebay’d had e-bupkis. The shit was scarce, I’m telling you.

But other people are nostalgic, too, it seems. Old albums — and old, obscure albums, too — got reissued. Also remastered, digitally recombobulated, and sold as MP3s. Available on Spotify, too, and probably Pandora. But I wanted to see them on my hard drive, so I downloaded. It was a long time coming.

But not a long time searching. Or transferring. To be honest, the whole thing felt a little… easy.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m thrilled to hear this music again. Or to hear it better, and not as though I’m six miles from a speaker planted at the bottom of the ocean. But the nostalgia barely had time to kick in. Just as I was thinking how sweet it would be to find one of these… I found one. And another. And another. And another. I might as well have been shopping for tube socks:

“Thanks for your purchase! Would you like a limited edition Japanese-issue Beat Farmers bootleg with that?”

So it’s weird. It’s nice that I don’t have to “fight” to find this music any more, apparently. But I didn’t mind fighting a little. The struggle made it feel special, and gave me that thrill I remembered from hearing these oddball songs the first time around. Having them suddenly at my fingertips (or earlobes) seems somehow… wrong.

But I think I’ll get over it. Especially since I’m sitting on three hours or so of teen-hood soundtrack that I haven’t heard in decades. Turn up the volume and get the whippersnappers out of here; things are about to get a little weird and very old in here.

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