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Thursday February 02, 2006, 03:24

I often find myself in the fairly unenviable position of sitting with my friends trying to explain that I don't seem to have musical influences the way that other people do. That is to say, I'm fairly certain I didn't have the experience of having music shape my upbringing, having music tied to certain events in my life, and having ever made a mix tape for anyone else. I've heard that there's an art to making a mix tape, and it sounds like the experience has brought many people joy over the years, but I can't say that I'm able to relate. There are large chunks of the musical landscape that remain not only unfamiliar, but completely unknown to me - like the Beatles, say. I don't think that I could have identified a Pixies song a couple of years ago, and these days it'd still be questionable. But it goes beyond pure identification and gets into something deeper. Something that I've never been able to touch on.

I suppose it's not quite as bleak as that. There are certain songs that I connect with my senior year of high school (though thinking back, I can't actually remember what they are). They are tied to the experience of driving my friend home from school, crisp autumn days in the suburbs, the family station wagon snaking through streets lined with the color of changing leaves. But for the most part, my high school and junior high afternoons and evenings were filled with the sounds of the local oldies station playing background music. I never had a proper stereo growing up - instead, I used an old tube-filled amp and tuner combo hooked up to cabinet-sized speakers. The tape deck I had was an old silver box that sometimes worked and sometimes ate tapes. I'm pretty sure it belonged to my uncle and lived in my attic until I freed it to record songs off the radio. The number of tapes I owned could be counted on two hands, and most of them weren't even mine - they were castoffs from elsewhere in the family that didn't really mean anything to me. I think there was a Journey album in there, but I can't be sure. No. I can be sure. There was a Journey album in there. I can't tell what's worse: the fact that I know that it was there, the fact that I knew it was there but never listened to it, or the fact that I never listened to it, but still felt the need to hold onto it in my collection. In fact, it's probably sitting in my closet at my parents' house.

So there went my formative musical years, when my ears were to be finely tuned, when my basic musical education was supposed to happen. Down the tubes with a collection of tapes that never even made it into the deck.

Enter the Discman.

The Discman was almost as useless as the tape deck, but it represented something of the beginning of my interest in music. Somewhere towards the end of high school I ended up with a Discman that my father had brought home from work, and I put it to use, connecting it to the AUX input of my still-kicking tube amplifier and watching the needles jump to, wait for it, Billy Joel's River of Dreams. I actually listened to that album, though looking back I can only imagine that my ear was so retarded that it needed to go through a couple of major missteps before finally finding its stride. Coming quickly on its heels was an eclectic mix of albums containing songs that I heard on the radio, generally late at night as I was sitting up at my computer, chatting with friends flung far and wide across the country. In these days before the Internet really gained popularity among those outside the egghead community, my computer dialed up local Bulletin Board that was in turn connected to other boards slightly farther away that were in turn connected to others and the next thing I knew, I was sitting up all night chatting with folks halfway across the country, reading community conversations, writing my responses, dialing-up, uploading messages in batches by the dozen and waiting for responses. Generally I would get a couple of these cycles in every night. Back then, the speed of communication was hampered by the technology itself, and you knew that you wouldn't get a response for a couple of hours, maybe even a day, and this probably led to some more thoughtful conversations that would have happened otherwise.

You really had to make your words count.

My radio was no longer solely tuned to the local oldies station. One of the top 40 stations gave their DJs some more wiggle room after their target audience went to sleep, and I soon found myself buying the self-titled Murmurs album after hearing "You Suck" one late night. I'm fairly certain it was actually a gift from my mom and sister. That might have been one of the first times I heard a song and was so struck by it that I felt the need to start exploring the music - to hear what else a band could give me. Next came Robert Miles' Dreamland album, which I ended up buying in Canada on a family vacation, which taught me that albums released in different countries often contain completely different tracks. Thus my introduction to the notion of the "Import," though I don't know that I would make that connection until I was well into college.

My interest piqued, I soon joined BMG's music club, which led to some happy musical purchases, including some Madonna, Cranberries and Sarah McLachlan, and some unfortunate ones, like Hootie. Hootie! Well, everyone else was listening to it, so I figured I should be too. And along the way I learned something else about not being a follower, though I think to this day I'm still trying to figure that one out completely. An Ashley McIsaac album found its way into my collection in a discard pile from a relative, as did some Bis. And so, having still never been to a used record store, or really anything other than a big chain, I headed off to college, where I was promptly chastised by my new roommate for having zero knowledge of jazz. For my birthday freshman year, he bought me a Thelonius Monk CD which I continue to listen to this day when I want to feel happy.

I popped in a Morphine CD this evening as we were cleaning up from dinner. My original copy of Yes has a deep scratch running from the second-to-last track out to the edge of the CD, and I'm always wary of playing it, knowing that I will really be getting into it when it starts skipping, killing whatever connection I had started to feel to the music. Morphine was my first concert experience, so where I feel I got off on a rocky start with the Billy Joel thing with my CD-buying, Morphine seems like a perfectly respectable entree into the world of live music. Everyone has a friend (or friends) who just seems to have impeccable taste when it comes to music, or restaurants, or movies, and it was this friend who has introduced me to some of my favorite bands over the years. The Morphine concert was his fault. He was my introduction to They Might Be Giants as well. The Elastica concert may have been my idea, but he dragged me to Ministry and Yo La Tengo and introduced me to Sterolab and the Talking Heads. After that, with my mind and ears newly obliterated with sheer possibility, I discovered ska, techno and whatever bucket you want to dump Soul Coughing into. It really was as if someone finally unplugged my ears and showed me what I'd been missing.

All's well that ends well, right? Well, not quite. Since college I've discovered some great music, through recommendations, through stumbling into bars and hearing something that just hits me just right at the right time, or just picking up the right album in the 88 cent bin at the used record shop (yeah, I discovered those, finally, as well). And I really do like music. It helps me work, it helps me relax, and it even does trigger memories sometimes. But given an opportunity to play whatever it is that I would want - to find songs that work well together, to build a mix for family members for a Christmas present, to watch my friends DJ at the local bar and think "could I do that?" - I realize that I have an incredibly shallow understanding of the music that I know, and absolutely no knowledge of the music I don't. For the latter, the answer will inevitably be "no, I haven't heard of them," and more often than not, the music I do know, that has been a part of my life, isn't at any given moment, actually with me. When an earworm strikes, I will often have nothing to replace it with, and when I do decide to start singing on the street it will inevitably be from a musical from my past (most recently it's been the opening number to "Little Shop of Horrors").

I do feel like there's something missing - that there's a part of my brain that never really developed - and that I have been irrevocably harmed in some way, by not having this foundation, this appreciation from the start. No, I'm not completely useless; I can still make a connection to music, I can have an emotional reaction to a song, to a band, to a moment in time punctuated with a few, finely placed notes. But I feel like there's something there that I can't grab hold of, and when I talk to my friends who get it, whatever that intangible "it" is to me, I admit to feeling a twinge of jealousy that I'll never really know what it is that I, still, am missing.

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