Because you can’t. You won’t. You shouldn’t. To really consider the variable I’s that you inhabit throughout your years is just too much to handle at any one moment. We coalesce around a version of who we are saying we are, and project backwards and forwards in an effort to create continuity, and we are lucky to have this tool – language – that comes built in with narrativity, all used as a means of describing ourselves. So much is stacked against us that we have to consider the self with a three-act narrative arc.
But the thing that is not discussed – this notion of identity, or being and self – are not described by a narrative arc. More appropriately, there is a stuttering, stammering quality to the way identity is truly expressed. Every moment we are reforming who I is, and who I will be in the next iteration, each time drawing on the versioned elements of our personas that stretch forward and backward in time. There are so many things about ourselves that are difficult and complex to keep in our own consciousnesses, that in many ways it is easier to grab onto cliches and uniforms to help create visual and mental shortcuts.
I look at the me of today, and I wonder if I would be recognizable to any other me that I’ve identified with. I don’t know what I thought my future would be like, and it is not something that I necessarily spent a lot of time concerning myself about when I was younger. The work I wanted to do was more clearly defined, but the “me” that I thought about when the future occurred to me was once so ill-defined that in many ways I didn’t exist. There was always a name attached to a novel, but who that name was supposed to represent was never clear to me. I can only imagine what this ghostlike perception of self has led to as time has marched on.
I haven’t turned into a horrible person, or at least, I don’t think I have. I can be difficult and neurotic and hard on myself, but I don’t think I’m particularly awful. But I can see the compromises that this me doesn’t feel bad about, but I may have once taken issue with. At 19, there are certainly things I never imagined I would ever do, in spite of not having a vivid impression of this future life I might live. The problem with tomorrow is that it comes so quickly that you often don’t realize that you are there, and have even moved on to the thing after that, and that, and that, and that.
Firmly in middle age, it isn’t that hard to find where things went wrong. It is the natural state of the middle aged man to find fault with everything – himself especially – and I can very easily look at the man I have been and lay out a dissertation on the missteps and failed calculations. But this blurring of identity – this realization that we have dynamic mes that shift and chance from day to day – suggests that this person I remember is someone else completely.
A past me. A me that cared deeply about keeping everything, a me that smoked cigarettes with a passion. A me that worked for six years in a bookstore, who considered the hobby of “musician” to be an occupation at one point, in spite of the fact that it was anything but. This person loved punk rock and chasing women and thinking deep thoughts and being self-righteous about half-formed bullshit.
An uneducated me. An awkward me. A scared and lonely me.
It isn’t that I have become someone I would hate. Rather, it is that I wish I could be friends with who I once was, because he seems like someone I could relate to.
The path I’ve chosen is fine. There are no great opportunities that I was offered that I virulently turned down. If anything there were things I pursued that I soon realized I was never suited for, and I was better off, in the end, never becoming the person I briefly imagined I might have been.
The problem I have now is that I want so badly to find out who the person I am, now, actually is. I can only look in the mirror so many times before the image looks foreign again. We are, if anything, defined by what we do, and waiting for inspiration and pacing back and forth is not exactly something I want to be known for.
Nostalgia is powerful, and the me I once was has an allure and a charm that I am often very attracted to. Who doesn’t want to believe that something you can’t have again was secretly better than anything you can have now? At least that way, you never have to worry about happiness again.
But, just suppose, we had to be happy now. Is is possible? Could we find something in the present that isn’t backward or forward looking, but is content with the me of the present? And, does my own future now look so ill-defined, so amorphous and dim?
More importantly, how will I reflect on this, years from now, when the person I’ve become looks back, and wonders, “What the fuck is this guys thinking?”
Or, perhaps, all of this is another mental exercise, a way of framing identity in an altogether different way, so I can continue to avoid addressing the underlying issue that is at the heart of all of this, the question that really wakes me up in the middle of the night, that sends me to the keyboard so I can hammer out something else, this urge that makes me anxious and confused most of the time:
Why is it so hard to be happy?
I am reminded of a comment made about (or, possibly, by?) Sarah Vowel, on the subject of They Might Be Giants, and how they had such a vast back catalog that there was a song for every occasion, that could be used in any episode of This American Life. I’m sure, at this point, I’ve mangled the memory so badly that I’m quite a ways off my mark, but suffice it to say I often feel that there is a similar relationship to holidays and my own radio output. Over what has almost been 20 years I’ve been on the radio a lot, and sooner or later, I will come across a situation where we have an appropriate show for this time of year. And, for Valentine’s Day, this is no exception.
If you subscribe to our VD Feed – you’ll have to manually paste this one into your podcatcher of choice – you can check out a slew of old Valentine’s Days shows, going back to 2006. This includes a handful of What’s This Called? episodes, and all of the old Blasphuphmus Radio holiday jams, too. This will give you a chance to listen back to all the romantic radio you can fill your device with, and woo the radio nerd of your choosing.
In these fast paced times, you might be asking for a recommendation, on the off chance that you only have time for a small slice of the many offerings available. If that is the case, then I would recommend that you pick either one of the two shows I have selected below, depending on your interests:
1.) The Future of Love. In this Sci-Fi audio essay, I explore the story of Lulu, a spaceship that has some designs on one of the occupants of its very own hull. This is largely built around an episode of the X-Minus One radio program from the 1950s, and some other experimental / jazz music that speaks to the theme of the show.
2.) Isosceles Diego’s Valentine’s Day Special. In this episode from 2007, my old roommate Isosceles Diego – who first guested on the show in 1998 – drops by the show to deliver his favorite songs from around the world to help put us int he holiday spirit. There is a lot of really great music by artists that you’ve probably never heard before – save for the brief excursion into ’90’s Olympia Indie Rock – and a ton of Eastern Block Rock.
There’s other great shows mixed in with those links, and I do suggest that you check them out. While I never really enjoyed Valentine’s Day the way other’s have, I did some pretty decent radio here and there, and that is something of which I am proud. Hopefully you can dig it, too.
Most likely this interest stems from the well known (and well loved) Chuck Jones cartoon, Duck Amuck, where it becomes very clear as the cartoon progresses (spoilers for people who haven’t seen a cartoon from 1953) that Daffy is being tortured by the artist illustrating his cartoon. The antagonistic relationship continues until the very end, where it is finally revealed that the cartoonist is none other than… (spoilers for the spoilers)… Bugs Bunny himself. (An almost Lost-ian ending, if I ever saw one.)
This cartoon was so unlike anything else I had seen as a child that I couldn’t believe it, and I tried to imagine some huge force outside of me that was dictating the world in which I lived, changing it on me randomly. (As a child raised by what you could ostensibly call atheist parents, I had no idea that most people were living in a world where this was true for them.) And while Chuck Jones might have introduced me to this world, when I sat down to study the animated oeuvre every Saturday, I started to realize that there were other guys who tackled similar subjects, but in other ways.
Bob Clampett‘s Porky In Wackyland is a tour de force of animated spectacle, with plenty of moments where the characters are just crazy enough to address the audience (a schtick he would deploy as needed in many of his cartoons). Tex Avery was also very good at throwing in gags that revealed the cartoon was being played in a theater where characters from the audience would stand up to offer advice or help. Avery loved to break other aspects of the fourth wall whenever he could, and used these gags as much as any other. As an avid cartoon fan, there were no other shows that did anything like this, and part of the genius of the Warner Bros. animated world was that, unlike Disney or other production companies, there was a manic insanity that was shared by the creators and the audience that you did not get from, say, a Pluto cartoon. (As cute and inoffensive as they might have been.)
Over the years I have come to realize that the golden era of Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies were head and shoulder’s above the competition, and Happy Harmonies, Color Rhapsodies and even Disney’s own Silly Symphony’s could compete with the overall form of the Warner Bros. work. The insanity and the brilliance of their shorts so completely synthesized “cartoon” as a visual format, and their sense of satire and caricature was leaps and bounds above the others. And I largely point to their sense of metatext – of being able to jarringly draw attention to the artifice of the work at hand – that made them far superior. They made jokes with tongue planted and cemented into cheek, and they felt that their own medium not only set them apart, but could be exploited to take audiences into places that other animation studios just couldn’t be bothered to visit.
It isn’t that I believed a child of the ’80’s could have been the first person to consider the meta-textual qualities of the media around him, and certainly I would have been a fool to consider that this kind of interplay didn’t exist in other mediums, either. But I was shocked when I would mention that it was these moments that I longed for, it was the instant Yosemite Sam turned to me and made a comment that took us both out of the story for a second, that I thought were the funniest moments. I didn’t have a name for it then, and most of my friends and family seemed to thing those scenes were usually boring. (This is like when you meet people who don’t like Holodeck episodes of Star Trek: TNG, or who found the mythology episodes of X-Files to be boring.)
The underlying idea that the artist and the audience could wink at each other and share a joke or a moment between only the two of them was very clearly a powerful tool, considering how much it affected me as a kid. Seeing the edges and peering through the reality that seeped through was always my favorite part of anything I saw around me, and it began to be the way in which I would look at TV and film, too. But I also noticed how it did not seem to have the same kind of effect of other. When most people were confronted with a meta-joke, they frown and shake their head. It just isn’t for them, no matter how funny the joke might be.
When I discovered comics as a teen, I was immediately attracted to the “funnier” and more comedy-inflected writing styles that was big business in the late ’80’s. DC was having a field day with style, largely influenced by Keith Giffen and his series, Ambush Bug. A lead character that is aware he is in the DC Universe, and plays with dead (or forgotten) bits of continuity that blew my mind as a 13 years old kid, (who, at the time, hadn’t been lucky enough to find Steve Gerber‘s work yet, who Giffen seems influenced by). Again, I seemed to be in the minority, but I would scan the racks at comics stores, looking for something that scratched that itch at a time when most comics had gotten very dark and “serious.” This led me to finding Giffen’s run on Justice League, which is not only one of the funniest comics produced in the late ’80’s / early ’90’s, but to this day stands as a source for much of my sense of humor, if not references and jokes that no one else around me seems to get.
And then, there was The Blasters. Where do you even begin with trying to tell that backstory? In the late ’80’s, Giffen had been given a number of books to work on as one of DC’s rising stars, and with his Justice League book a hit, he was allowed to expand his influence to a number of titles. This also led to him getting to write 1989’s annual all-company cross-over Invasion! Giffen used this end product as a way to cause his various Sci-Fi / outer space story lines hinted at in Omega Men, Justice League International, and Legion of Super-Heroes to converge in this company-wide event. DC’s goal (like it is for any event like this) was to launch some new titles, shake up some old titles, clean house elsewhere in the universe, and move some of the action that is usually contained entirely on Earth into outer space, thus opening up the DC Universe so that the word “universe” was actually on point these days. This was Giffen’s attempt to not only ape Marvel’s Cosmic titles that were doing very well over there (with stuff like Guardians of The Galaxy and Silver Surfer selling like gangbusters), but to try and do a modern version of Kirby’s Fourth World books from the ’70’s.
It also helped that in the old Justice League comics, there was a tendency to have to fight off an alien menace every other issue, and the one thing that “dark” and “modern” comics of the late ’80’s had been lacking was a good alien invasion. And with any good war story, you needed a band of mercenaries. To this end, Giffen organized a group of new and old characters to work as the catalyst for the Invasion! storyline. This group was loosely known as The Blasters for an actually terrifying reason (their powers all emerged when aliens lined them up and fired upon them, scaring the team senseless and causing their metagenes to activate).
In the wake of the Invasion! series, DC took chances on several new titles, one of which was a one-shot featuring this new team, to see if it might be a book they could add to their publishing roster. Being a Giffen property not only meant that the book had to be funny, but helmed by someone who got Giffen’s take on comics. He not only picked the team to write and draw it (Peter David and James Fry), but set the tone for the book with the comedy and meta-text that followed his particular interests. It also so happened that Peter and James like to produce the same kind of stuff, too.
Since almost none of you have even heard of this title, I’ll spoil everything now and save you the trouble of Lycos-ing or tracking down this story: there has been only one Blasters comic book published since 1989, a special release in the Spring of that year (that was panned by critics and very quickly forgotten). The story, typical of Peter David’s writing, is a mish-mash of Sci-Fi references (largely from Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy… yes, vogons appear in this comic), and meta-textual references and gags where the captions for the book are destroyed and flown through by various space ships. (The lead character, Snapper Carr – have fun with that particular comics k-hole – finds out what to do next in the story by glancing at the panels that are ahead of him.) If I haven’t done a good enough job of describing what The Blasters is like to read, just imagine something that was written for nerds, and narrow the focus so incredibly that within their own ranks, only a small sub-set will find it up their alley. No matter how much I raved, and no matter who I loaned that book to, it always came back, largely unread, with a comment like, “I tried, but it just isn’t my thing.”
I have often wondered why I heard this phrase so often when I tried to get at my interest in this subject. “It just isn’t my thing.” It seemed like such a ripe area for reflection and narrative complexity to my young mind, and yet it was the element in every story I read that others seemed to skip over. The thing I learned from Warner Bros. cartoons growing up is that, unlike most schlock that is played straight and is absolutely saccharine with predicability and well-worn stories – ahem, Disney, coff coff – you can often get bigger reactions from something if it is unlike everything else around it. Even at a young age, television brought home the idea that there are basically two kinds of stories, and they are each the reverse side of the other. (Summarizing Jorge Borges, one is “A stranger came to town,” and the other, “Someone went off on a long journey.”) Repetition absolutely bred familiarity with me, and the welcome intrusion of characters and references that pointed to the artificiality of this repetition became the attractive element that I looked for in art and culture.
Let me pause my own story a brief moment to say a few words about Spaceballs, a film that spent many years on my list of favorite movies, and my very favorite by Mel Brooks (until I became more familiar with his other work as a teen and twenty-something years later). While all of his films use metatext as a platform to layer joke after joke (see, for instance, the last third of Blazing Saddles), Spaceballs was very close to home for me. I loved sci-fi (and Star Wars, of course), I loved comedy, and they had packaged both with a huge swath of self-awareness that I had not seen in a film before. This movie had my sense of humor written all over it, so much so that there is a sort of chicken-or-the-egg quality regarding which came first. If you had to distill an aspect of that film that moved me, pulled me aside and said, “kid, this is for you,” then I would have to point to Rick Moranis turning to the camera asking if, “Everybody got that?” It went so directly to the core of my being as a kid that it still works on me, even as an adult, and I am sure I quote this movie accidentally without realizing I am. It is possible, if one were so inclined, to make a Bowfinger-style recreation of Spaceballs without my knowledge, provided you followed me around long enough and waited for the appropriate scenes to play out.
As I got older and discovered a love of writing, my stories became full of characters that were my own in-narrative proxys. (A Grant Morrison kind of move before I even knew who he was. In fact, reading The Invisibles was painful for me only because periodically I would yell out, “That was my idea!” a problem that would recur when I started watching Lost.) As my big literary influence in those days were comics, and to another degree the DC Heroes Roleplaying Game that I’d gotten for Christmas one year, most of my early writing is littered with a thinly-veiled versions of myself in some sort of elaborate conceit or costume that made me into a superhero. I am fortunate enough that most of this material is still in either a hand-written form, or on typing paper (predating my first computer), and therefore I can’t share these stories with you as easily. (You’re welcome.) Suffice it to say, my Hitchcockian cameos in my own text began very early, and has continued ever since.
My first foray into my own fiction began with a story I wrote in High School, and was serialized in my zine A.C.R.O.N.Y.M., which was made and distributed between 1994 and 1995. In issue #2, the first installment of naaaaaahhhhghahahhk!!!!!!!! (oR, tHE rEALLY wEIRD sTORY tHAT i cAN’T rEMEMBER wHAT tHE tITLE iS) sees print, and I wish I could say nicer things about it considering I know the author fairly well. I made the decision to typeset the entire thing in what I called the “fIREHOSE” format, which made the story largely unreadable to most people save for myself and those with the highest constitutions when it comes to textual form.
The idea itself was fairly bland: I had written the story my neighbors appeared in, but they find out, get worried, and I have to stop them from learning more, and eventually give up and crumple the story, destroying their universe. Corny, yes, but it illustrates where my mind was in High School. Super heroes appear in this story, and I fight them, even. Most of the writing groups I would attend in the early days had people hashing out their fantasy novels, creating cryptic and impenetrable poetry, or just wanted to turn their journals into creative prose so we could all experience their pain. I was looking to do something that was sort of in-between all of these things, and would read stories like naaaaaahhhhghahahhk!!!!!!!! to puzzled audiences who didn’t know what to think.
When I settled into Eugene properly after High School, and started to immerse myself in the ’90s culture that surrounded us, I became the center of my own writing again. Between 1996 and 2005, I wrote a ‘zine called I’d Buy That For A Dollar. While this occasionally contained fiction, the bulk of it was an outlet for my incredibly solipsistic and emo ponderings, where I made my best efforts to made sense of life as a lonely young man. While I will cop to have written it all – even the awful bits – with hindsight it is not only unseemly at times, but as my friend Cheryl once said to me, “this is a little too revealing.”
I don’t regret it, because it was so much a part of my psyche at the time that I needed to get that out of my head, even if it wasn’t exactly helping. When I read it back, I don’t know if I feel the same way about the events this person was writing about, even though I am sure we are the same person. Of course, it is easy to say that when almost 20 years separates the earliest issues from now, but I think I let my own misery drive my creative impulses a little too much then, and with hindsight, I wish I had let other motivations steer me toward other material.
But even this reflectiveness was being shaped and molded by metatext. My roommate at the time, a tall linguist we called Sierra, introduced me to Flann O’Brien, an author who plays with the boundaries between literature and reality for fun and sport, in both his novels and his newspaper columns (which blur the line between journalism and fiction). Discovering Fight Club and Charlie Kaufman movies at this time did me no end of good when it came to plumbing the depths of this well. The Princess Bride was an obsession that started harmlessly enough when I saw it, but led to multiple re-readings and viewings where the genius therein was full revealed. And, let’s no forget re-reading Endgame over and over, which eventually led to a nice and comfortable interest in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a film that not only rewards with multiple viewings, but might be the funniest thing that has ever been written.
While I’d Buy That For A Dollar was far from metatext in intent, it became an ongoing story about my own life, and one that I recognized less and less as the years went on and I started changing and evolving, personally. Having been steeped in this world of reality and fiction blurring, my reality now read like fiction to me, not because the events hadn’t happened, but the lens through which I was seeing those same events was filtering for something entirely different. Already, even in offering context for this interest of mine, I have to relate to my own life and past through the narrative text I wrote, a breadcrumb trail that offers clues as to what was happening when, and where I have been, but in a form that seemed strange and unfamiliar to the adult I had become. Around 2005-ish this kind of personal writing migrated entirely to this blog – the one you’re reading now. I had been a character in this printed story that now seemed foreign and made up, and if my own life was going to sound that way anyway, then I should probably become comfortable with just making things up from the start in the first place.
It isn’t that my life changed or that things shifted dramatically in 2005. I was going to college, yes, and outside of radio and writing fiction, my only other interest at the time was girls. But something more subtle was going on that only made sense to me years later. The “me” that I had been writing about for my whole life was gone. I was an adult, interested in different things, talking about life in a different way, and looking for something that I could get excited about that wasn’t informed by my childhood. In many ways, I had become a Sci-Fi trope, where I was living in the body of someone else, a body that carried memories of someone that seemed familiar to me, but also seemed unrelated to the life that I was living now. The 30 year old I found myself being then was not only confused by the life I had led before, but it felt like a life I would have lived differently, had I known how most of it would turn out.
It was around 2005 that I started writing fiction again, much more of it than I had before. Short stories, yes, and very inspired by Borges and Calvino and Brautigan and Flann O’Brien, and some other material I’d absorbed through being on a college campus and having access to the larger world of ideas. And yet, in nearly all of these I insisted in making myself a character in the narrative, a gimmick that my influences were all very good at, true. But for me it seemed motivated by a different impulse. Since I had written the truth and it felt like fiction, inserting myself into fiction felt like a new way and defining truth for myself. Why did I see this other life as someone else’s, when it was clearly my own? Perhaps, if I wrote about another version of it enough, I could crack some of these puzzles that no amount of booze or girls or writing about it seemed to allow me to do.
Most of my work since 2005 has been centered around amplifying the idea that I could live comfortably within the stories that I write. And, to be fair, these fictions have been quite enjoyable to try on and waltz around within. I made a 2008 collection of these stories, Naked Trees Point To The North Star, and to this day, it remains the best collection of my written work that I have been able to get in print, and has re-defined who I was, both to myself and to the people who read it. The idea had been gestating since those earliest days at PSU: DIY publications and ‘zines are the perfect form to create experimental pieces of prose, and I envisioned that Naked Trees would look and feel like a ‘zine, would have a personal / journal-like quality at times, but the entirety of the package was a work of fiction, written and made by a version of myself that is almost, but not at all remotely, like the me that had been writing previously.
The reaction to this was, of course, mixed. Meta is just not for everyone, and while I felt that these stories really got at the heart of struggles that I was going through, I had a hard time talking about the work with anyone else, without resorting to the worst quality in every writer, making the statement, “So, did you ‘get it’?” While it remains the best written work I have produced in any format to date, and I have come to terms with how, in spite of my best efforts, it is more journalistic than fictional, in that it marked a serious shift in my own view of the universe. It was clear that once I imbued my text with any amount of reality from my world, the reality itself seemed further and further from the truth. After publishing that collection all I had left of my former live was this written collection and half-trusted memories to guide me. Something was about to give.
It isn’t that I decided to make my life reflect these vague and perplexing Sci-Fi and Fantasy tropes to add some spice or flavor to my own experiences. In observing my own interactions with the world – and the interactions of others – it is clear to me that you cannot capture the complexity of this existence, and the strangeness of the mundane, in anything but fantastic language and conceptual thinking. Is it possible to illustrate these kinds of experiences if you haven’t been through them yourself? You’re sharing some wine with some friends, and you’re quickly gobbling every snack you can, because of the night ahead of you.
Gathering everything you can imagine needing, you trundle en mass, passing fellow travelers and enemies, until you arrive at the bar. There is music and magic and libido and peacocking and every manner of horror and excitement on display, charging you, filling you with magic until you are casting conversational spells in every direction. You are filled with an experience you can barely explain, as your friends are performing and watching and drinking and fucking and exploring all manner of joy and pain in one dramatic and perplexing night. And, exhausted, wasted, with a kiss on your cheek and a song in your heart, you perform your last few tricks, produce a cigarette from somewhere, and zig zag through the alleys, to find yourself at home, the next day, perplexed and confused, but itching to do it all over again.
Is that not some sort of fantasy, full of the kind of strangeness and confusion that the best fiction fills us with as we turn pages? At what point does our own life contain a kind of importance that we choose to add it to the cannon, so we can romp through uncharted waters side-by-side with Odysseus? Are we all content to wallow in the banality of brushing our teeth and making lunch?
Three things happened in 2010 that had a huge effect on me. First, I finished college, a banality that I had put off for too long, and was only causing me to spin my tires and was getting in the way of my next phase in life. I moved in with a friend of mine (second thing), and when all of that was said and done, I had an experience that is difficult to explain, which I attempted to document in 2013’s acronyminc.blogpress.new.
Essentially, I lost 10 years of my life, and in processing that event, realized that not only was I living in a future that made little sense to me, but that the memories I did have were absolutely those of someone else I no longer connected with. It wasn’t exactly a sudden experience, and it didn’t come on over-night. But the span of time between the Millennium turning over and my own academic leveling-up had become dreamlike, and waking up on the other side of it created a world for me that was now actually full of technology and behavior that was ten years ahead of who I felt I was. Without intending to, the world around me began to fully resemble something straight out of my own fiction, and now I was the character who was just enough aware to question what kind of Duck Amok world of which I was now a part.
The best part about living within your own fiction is that, on the whole, things tend to work out okay. In spite of being a temporal mess, covered in magic and confusion, I managed to meet someone who has become so central to my own life, and we have found a place we can call our own. My efforts to capture this reality I’ve been inhabiting and communicate it to others has become a steady routine, a rhythm that I can count on to keep me focused and aware of what may lie ahead. And you get to enjoy these efforts, too, which is no small thing, I imagine. And usually, the hardships we face are handled together, so that neither of us has to take on too much of the burden this world presents us with.
But this doesn’t ease the strangeness we encounter every day. We look at TV, and it barely resembles the things we remember knowing. These computers in our pockets are straight out of a novel I read as a kid, and the social changes our world has gone through not only seem unreal, but were absolutely unobtainable when I was a child. (Open homosexuality? Gluten free restaurants? Reality TV Politics? Legal weed?)
For better or for worse, this world reads as more fictional than anything I can have come up with, at any time in my life, and for that alone I will continue to define the borders of this made-up universe, flesh out the parts that I can see and understand, and hope that when I hand it over to you, trembling, nervous, that the things I see are like what John Nada’s sunglasses reveal, that, hopefully, you can look at it, take it for what it is, and remember that this can’t be any crazier than the religious world most everyone else lives in, too.
The only difference is: I know I made this one up, and I’m absolutely willing to admit it.
For many years now I have been urging friends and family to donate to the radio station I happened to be volunteering at when I made that year’s particular request. And, it is easy enough to see this as yet another plea to add to the many I have made in the past. Combine this with NPR’s regular pledge drive’s, your kid’s trying to raise money for band, the homeless guy that hits you up for change, and you are pretty consistently being asked to donate money to something where you are not getting a nice tasty treat or some new gadget that you can play with.
I understand. You are strapped for cash, and we are thankful that you listen at all. For those of you who are not doing that well, financially, this message is not for you. We urge you to keep listening, and we promise to continue to deliver incredible programming the way we do normally. And, during Pledge Drive, you can expect even more great radio than normal. Everyone goes the extra mile to make great radio during the drive, and this is a great time to listen, no matter what.
But, for those of you with a little extra money, please, consider donating to KMUZ and keep Community Radio funded.
KMUZ’s Winter Pledge Drive is February 6th – 12th, and if you enjoy community radio made in the mid-valley here in Oregon, then we urgently need your help in keeping this station on the air. Not only do I volunteer in the office at KMUZ, but I’m a regular panelist on their Geekly Update program, that airs every Sunday at 2 PM, where we talk about nerdy topics and a host of other subjects that appeal to the nerd and geek in us all. KMUZ also offers a number of great music programs, as well as unique talk shows that you can’t find anywhere else.
Unlike most entertainment, community radio is entirely funded by listeners. No one pays us to come in and do this. No company is coming in every month to keep the lights on. We don’t have wealthy donors to help us stay in business. The only time we get any money is because people like you decide to offer your help directly and give us the financial support that keeps community radio going. There is no well of money beneath our station, and no celebrity philanthropist offering to make our dreams come true. Instead, we turn to the people who count on listening to community, and rely on us to give them shows that they can’t find anywhere else.
These days, between a Netflix subscription, the comic books you pick up weekly, the movie you see with your partner every so often, those expenses add up. We realize that even a small donation is asking a lot. But, consider putting us on your list of expenses, next to Gas and cable. Not only will you be keeping community radio up and running in an area that gets no other funding, but you will be making a difference to the lives of us, our listeners, and the very idea of community radio as a whole.
If supporting KMUZ Radio sounds like something you’d like to do, please consider following this link and make a donation. You can also call us at 503.990.6101 during the drive itself – February 6th – 12th – and support us directly in a way that means so much to those of us who give our time and energy to this kind of endeavor.
Radio has been an important part of my life, so much so that I’ve dedicated the better part of 20 years to it. If you have been touched by any of it, and would like to help out, then this is the way you can do it, now.
Please, donate to KMUZ, and keep Community Radio in the mid-valley on the air.
As a kid, my parents listened to what has come to be referred to as, “Classic Rock” in the radio world. Little did I know that, as I was growing up, this was a relatively new format on radio. I had no knowledge of the history of formats at the time, and couldn’t tell you the difference between AM and FM back then. All I knew was that my parents liked The Who and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and stuff like that, and where we lived, the place to hear that kind of music all day, everyday, was on KZEL-FM, which you could hear just about everywhere in rural Oregon between 1980 and 2000, when I moved out of range of the station.
Not that I listened all the time. I started to loose interest around 1992, when I discovered music that was outside of my parents influence. To me, KZEL was the soundtrack to my childhood. My mom would record her favorite songs off of KZEL broadcasts, and it was the station our cars were always tuned to. Every time there was music on in the yard, or the stereo was blasting and wasn’t playing an LP, the sounds we heard were always KZEL. No other station would do. In fact, my mom won a listener contest when I was in High School, and she got to host a show with some of their DJs as part of the contest. (This led to her interest in, and eventual minor career in radio.) KZEL was where I learned to love listening radio, to ignore the songs and to listen for the DJs and the commercials and other produced bits. It was, through osmosis, my first radio station.
But it played music that, while clearly my parents music, did not speak to me personally. “Classic Rock” is an interesting format, because it was developed around the time that the “Oldies” format came to be (that is, Rock and Roll music from the early ’50s through the early ’60’s). “Classic Rock” itself mostly defined itself as being of music from the late ’60’s through to the early ’80’s, and even then, focused on big acts, well known songs, and music that fell into a particular “70’s Rock” vein. (I used to call it, “Music you can’t drive 55 to,” or, “Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock And Roll”.) “Classic Rock,” by definition, was trying to plant a flag in the ground, staking out the territory for a generation of radio listeners who felt that a very narrow range of sounds and styles spoke to their lifestyle and their interests, and by labeling it “classic” on the radio was stating – for the record – that these songs and bands would last for generations, and would define rock music for the future.
But none of this music really spoke to me as a kid who was 10 in 1985. While I came to know and even appreciate some of the music I heard, it always sounded as if it was out of place, out of time, and of someone else’s childhood. I didn’t understand the excesses of the ’70’s, and in my own childhood, with ’80’s pop culture and my TRS-80 feeding my brain, I didn’t understand the bong-rattling importance of Grand Funk Railroad. I never got to hear much current “popular” music in my house growing up, aside from my mom’s interest in ’80s hair metal and the occasional “new” B.B. King / Eric Clapton release. (And even those are extensions of “classic rock” motifs, that of partying and rocking and finding a good woman that will treat you right, etc.) We grew up with Classic Rock in our heads. Songs like “Smoke On The Water” accidentally became associated with my childhood, in spite of the fact that I was at least 20 years too young to have any idea what that song was about, why it was important, or who the band even was.
Let’s Get Some Of The History Out Of The Way.
The first Classic Rock station was, of course, born out of Cleveland in 1980. Radio had long since been dominant in Cleveland, and many big name DJs had made names for themselves there in the ’50’s and ’60’s, cementing on-air style and patter that was copied by other DJs across the nation. But the fork in the road really happened in the early 1960s, when FM Radio hit the airwaves, leaving the monophonic and “tinny” AM Radio sounding like some archaic dinosaur from the Antique Radio era being tuned in on a crystal set. Stations that had made their name on the AM found themselves competing with the improved fidelity and superior quality of FM, and many stations bought FM signals so they could simulcast their programs and stay competitive.
The FCC eventually mandated that FM stations couldn’t just re-air the same stuff that their AM counterparts were playing, to the distaste and frustration of radio station owners and programmers. This left American with a huge swath of FM stations that had 24 hours a day to fill with new shows and DJs, and being locked out of their tired old AM formats, they had to innovate, fast. In a rush to get programming on the air, DJs were given the chance to have “freeform” and “progressive” formats, something unheard of before 1964. A DJ could play anything, even songs that were not hits, if you can imagine it. The cut that takes up all of side b could finally be played on the radio, where old programming rules would forbid something that wasn’t a nice a peppy four minutes. Freeform and Progressive radio of the mid ’60’s was a place where DJs could really cut loose, and with the improved sound of FM, listeners could really appreciate the music on these records that DJs were playing. FM stations all over the country switched to this new format so they could keep on Rockin’ in the Freeform world.
Of course, station managers hated these changes in the cultural climate. Radio was a very good way to make money in the old days, and the way stations made money was to sell ads against a show that listeners loved. Station managers knew listeners loved the shows because of a consistent format, where the same set of personalities delivered the news at the same times, where hit songs were played in a more or less random order, and where every minute of every hour – including the ad that was being played – was micro-managed. Sure, certain DJs would attract more listeners than others as they became engaging personalities, but that was largely because the DJ was well known over time, or their time-slot was ideal (like, drive-time, or early evening commute.) Using the old way, station managers could guarantee that a show would be successful merely by packing their playlists with hits and guaranteed programming the sponsors could count on. Sooner or later, the advertisers would start calling if they wanted to be associated with a hit show.
The switch to FM and Freeform radio was the first huge fragmentation of the way money was made in the music industry, a kind of disruption that is on par with home cassette recording, or the iPod. Allowing DJs to do whatever they wanted made it difficult for stations for sell advertising they way they were used to it, and old-fashioned radio listeners found the new music that was popular on progressive radio stations to be too “wild” and “strange” for their tastes. (FM comes on the air in the early ’60’s, just in time for the British Invasion and the Garage Rock / psychedelic explosion that followed in its wake, of which DJs loved.) Genre was largely out the window on Freeform stations, yet another difficulty when trying to sell the station to advertisers. While this led to a host of non-commercial, listener-supported stations that enjoyed being contrary to conventional radio standards, Freeform became an f-word in the radio world, especially when it came to money, and when the naiveté of the ’60’s developed into the cynicism of the ’70’s, something had to change again.
First, radio stations lost money. A lot. Most of them cut expenses by laying off staff, reducing the size of their studios, and selling off late-night or early morning broadcasts to run syndicated programs, not as popular or well loved, but at least consistent enough to generate a little dependable revenue. When that wasn’t enough, stations switched to “Album-oriented rock” – or AOR, as it was known at the time. It was clear that rock music was changing yet again, now that singles were no longer the dominant form of music and bands were getting louder, heavier, and raunchier. As new technologies like computers began to take over marketing, Station managers and programmers became enamored with research-based approaches to what they would play on the air.
Taking cues from listener requests and the kinds of information they could gather in each region, stations began to make an effort to find out what music and artists were hits with their own specific listeners, and in some cases ignoring Top 40 trends. Stations began to create playlists and structure their broadcasts around albums that were getting the most traction with their regional audience, which could now be tracked in ways it had never been in the past. Whole albums were now allowed on station playlists, hence, the AOR name, and this generated a whole new generation of stations that each created a unique identity in the minds of listeners. Some stations played lots of Beatles. Some played a lot of Stones. No two stations curated the same kinds of playlists, and station rivalries in competitive regions were common, the way sports rivalries developed between fans.
Of course, a side effect of all these white station managers and white DJs polling their white audiences about the white artists that they loved the most created a huge backlash against the AOR format – now referred to by opponents as MOR: Middle Of the Road. As hard rock and psychedelic trends began to mellow out, you encountered a much “softer” kind of radio in the mid-’70’s, dominated by The Eagles & Fleetwood Mac clones, changing radio from the exciting and “loud” place it once was – hosting Summer of Love concerts and outdoor festivals – to a mellow, relaxing place where listeners could put it on in the afternoon and would barely notice the radio on. It became clear, as black artists were being excluded from any of this, that other kinds of formats were just around the corner.
R&B has always had a rocky relationship with radio before the ’60’s came around, and while Motown and Stax helped improve the image of black music in white America, rarely would a black artist break on the white charts. While some DJs would play black artists – often against station policies – smaller stations near large black populations where the places that played this kind of music, and sometimes, only in very large cities with diverse radio markets. But as Funk music crept into the national consciousness in the ’70’s, it became clear that there was a world of popular music that was largely being ignored by commercial radio, and culture clashes between the old-fashioned radio racism and the changing formats found black artists as pawns in the chess game of radio programming. Stations that were willing to incorporate “acceptable” funk acts that complemented their current sounds were often considered “edgy,” and gained younger audiences.
The ’80’s saw two big artists enter the popular culture that required radio to change. When Michael Jackson and Prince made it clear that the kind of institutional racism radio had been guilty of could no longer be tolerated, radio formats were revolutionized. AOR stations began to die off, as advertisers found the selections to be boring, and generated little business for them. R&B stations were loud and bombastic and fun, began to fill the musical and advertising void that radio had been lacking during the “mellow” years. What few stations were left that needed something new switched to either a talk or country format. (Both talk and country had existed before, of course, but in the ’80’s radio had fractured so much that these became viable format that could actually compete on a scale as big as anything else at the time.)
In the old days, radio had largely been created at the station level, and perhaps some stations would package one of their popular shows as syndicated content, that they could send that to other stations if they wanted to expand their own programming (in those days, the show was a scripted and recorded program). Networks eventually popped up, and these independent stations became associated with a larger network. For many stations, the network was just a different way to get syndicated content; they still created a number of local shows, but they ran some of the big-ticket shows from their parent company (either NBC, ABC, CBS, etc).
The ’80’s saw radio going national in a very big way, and other companies wanted to get into the act, too. New businesses would buy up as many stations as they could, and would generate new syndicated content on a huge scale, making radio sound uniform across the country, but through music formats rather than through specific syndicated shows. A company that excelled in one kind of music – soft rock, for example – would create a cookie cutter playlist format that they could teach to any station, and transfer this to the stations they bought up.
College Radio Stations took the country by storm in the ’80’s, clinging to the freeform idea in spite of the fact it had virtually disappeared nearly everywhere else. And with punk rock and DIY music beginning to build a network of their own, the college stations became the backbone for keeping that music alive in the public’s mind. NPR took of in a huge way in the ’80’s after getting improved funding and more national attention. When all was said and done, it seemed as if the old fashioned rock and roll radio that had been derailed by AOR might come to an end in the ’80’s, and for a while, “Old Time Rock And Roll” seemed out of place in the modern era.
Bringing It All Back.
WWWM 105.7 in the Cleveland was the first station that decided it was time to bring back “Classic Rock” music in early 1980, and that is the year that ’70’s nostalgia officially began. (Sorry Dick Vaughn.) Classic Rock as a format was fairly straightforward: use the lessons of Top 40 and research-based radio, but narrow the focus to albums and artists that encompass music that would appeal to people who had been in High School during the last years of the ’70’s, to some, when “the best” rock music was being made. At the times, this usually included music from the mid to late ’60’s through to the late ’70s, and pretty much nothing else. The emphasis on Rock and Roll of that era served a two-fold function: teenagers who lived through this music were now adults making radio-listening decisions, and this music spoke to nostalgia and adolescent desires that wasn’t being tapped into elsewhere. Secondly, the Classic Rock format was intentionally exclusive; there were no black artists included in this original incarnation of the format. There was no country. There was no talk. There was none of this modern college radio bullshit or that lame jazz crap you hear in cities, just loud guitars and a healthy disrespect for authority. Yes, Classic Rock comes from Cleveland, but it wasn’t that many years later that the format swept the country.
In the ’80s, for the most part, you could tune into a Classic Rock station almost anywhere in the US, and while you would think that the years Classic Rock covered could uncover a huge number of songs to play, usually listeners would hear the same 50 songs being rotated through all day, every day. This was, in many ways, the McDonald’s-ification of radio, where you could go anywhere and hear the same things you were used to hearing back home. This was great for people who traveled a lot, like truck drivers, but left little to the imagination if you wanted to hear a cut from side two, or a song that wasn’t necessarily a classic “hit” in your area. (For example: try finding a single Classic Rock station that will play anything from Led Zeppelin III. Unless that station is doing a “Zeppelin Weekend”, you will never hear any of those songs on the air.)
Need I drive the point home any more, Classic Rock was a coded form of racism on radio in an era that was supposed to be post-racism. It was a way for people who grew up in a sheltered white childhood to pretend that black artists and country music was not part of their musical landscape, and even the lack of news, sports or weather – save for occasional, 15 second updates near the top of the hour – makes a Classic Rock station a perfect way to isolate their listeners in a world that is not difficult or complicated. Here’s another rock song, another twofer-tuesday, another chance for the production manager to edit “I Love Rock And Roll” or “We Built This City” into their station ID. When you listen to Classic Rock, the passage of time is irrelevant.
Now, Let’s Tune In to 96.1 FM in Eugene, OR
This brings us around to the Classic Rock station in question – and the one of which I have the most first-hand knowledge – KZEL. The station that became KZEL was first known as KWFS, which went on the air by the end of the ’40’s. (There had been plenty of radio stations in Oregon going back to the ’20s, but there was a huge surge of new stations in the Eugene area just after WWII.) KWFS continued until the ’60’s, when an FM signal was launched at 96.1. (KWFS almost immediately abandoned AM in favor of the 96.1 signal.) However, the owners of KWFS found managing a station to be too much work, and sold the station in 1967. The new owners changed the call letters to KZEL, and the KWFS call letters were adopted by a new station in Wichita Falls, TX.
KZEL – in its new form – first hit the air that same year, but again, was a bit much to handle as the freeform format wars began to change the landscape of radio. The big competition in those days was Wolfman Jack, which you could hear almost anywhere in the US, and unless local stations got hip, kids would flip over to him at night. By 1971 KZEL changed hands (and formats) again, where the new owners were happy to adopt a progressive format to stay competitive with Wolfman. But the ’70s and early ’80s made it difficult for any station to turn a profit, and many advertisers pointed to the progressive format as part of the problem. (“We like some of the music you guys play, but not all the time.”) In danger of changing hands yet again, in the early ’80’s the station managers at KZEL began to take notice of the Classic Rock sounds coming out of Cleveland. Most of the KZEL staff already loved that kind of music anyway, so almost overnight, KZEL switched to “Oregon’s Classic Rock.”
By the time I was growing up and listening to the station with my parents in the ’80s, they were just like any other station you could hear anywhere that played “Classic Rock”: the same 50 songs, every day, every week, keeping listeners suspended in their High School and College days, just the way the late-Baby Boomers liked it. Of course, I had no understanding of this history, or how the radio I was listening to got to be the way it was. I was just some kid being raised by hippies, and this was the music we listened to in our house.
I received a cassette deck / radio with a built in microphone for my 10th Birthday in 1985, and using that I began recording my favorite songs from the radio onto tapes. Pretty soon I found myself more interested in the commercials, and I began editing together my own voice overs (impersonating my favorite DJs) with my own songs and commercials recorded from KZEL. There were nights when I would have the radio on, quietly in my room, letting the sounds wash over my childhood mind. I would surf stations often too, and listen for a while, but I would always return to 96.1, just like everyone else in my family.
As a regular listener, I started to get familiar with when the hosts would take calls and requests, and once I broke through that barrier, I became a regular on the air. Usually in the afternoon and evenings, and soon I was pretty proud of the fact that I could get my name on a show almost any time I wanted. (I would regularly ask the DJs to give birthday shoutouts to my friends and family, and if nothing else was going on, make a request for my song de jour that day.) Of course, radio stations are notorious for contests, and I was consistently able to win new tapes from these giveaways because I was quick on the phone, and knew their habits well. This is how I discovered Tesla (the band), .38 Special, both of the Use Your Illusion Guns ‘n’ Roses albums, and got my very own Led Zeppelin tapes. But I didn’t listen to the tapes as much as I thought I would, and why not? I could just turn on the radio.
I remember vividly the first time my mom drove me to the station, to pick up an album I had won. There was a well-known commercial for KZEL on TV, where the DJ was running through a maze of LPs to get the next record to the booth in time for the next song, and I absolutely believed that the station must be like that. My mom has thousands of LPs, so it made sense that they would have even more. But arriving at the front counter was a very disappointing experience. All these voices I was familiar with, reduced to flesh-and-blood bodies that were just like everyone else I knew, looking at this gawky kid, they sort of rolled their eyes. A cheap cardboard box was produced, and inside were a ton of cassettes, some mangled from typical radio station neglect. Even though I had specifically won the live Tesla album, the girl at the counter said, “Just take any one you want. There’s plenty in the back.” The fun and mystery of listening at home ruined by the bland reality of fluorescent lights and the work-a-day lives of these people who were just punching a clock. It was a revelation, in a way.
As the years wore on my relationship to this station changed. When I got to High School I started meeting people who listened to modern music, stuff I’d never heard on KZEL, ever, and this music was absolutely fascinating. But this was the early ’90’s, and I wasn’t the only one going through this identity crisis. I remember listening to KZEL one night when one of the DJs mentioned a band that everyone was talking about – Nirvana. The DJ was convinced the song couldn’t be as good as the hype, but decided to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” anyway. I remember being non-plussed at the time, until I heard the song again, and later, saw the video. By the fourth time I’d heard it, I was hooked, and suddenly anything else KZEL played seemed tame and boring.
I won Nevermind on KZEL in a listener contest, but even when I showed up to get the album, I could tell that my time as a KZEL fan was limited. The girl at the counter laughed when I asked for it, and I could tell they didn’t like the album as much as I did. They would dabble a bit in new music in that year, but the Classic Rock format always dominated in the end. Sooner or later, they would return to a block of The Who songs, and back to their old format. And by then, friends had hooked me up with Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, and my interest in Classic Rock and KZEL was on the way out. I pretty much stopped turning on the radio at all by the time High School was over, and I never heard the station once in the six years I lived there.
In 1997 the Cumulus Media group was formed, and made an effort to buy up as many stations as they could, KZEL being one of them. By this time, I was living on my own, and hadn’t tuned in for years. The Cumulus Group began to popularize the AAA format (adult album alternative), a new iteration of Classic Rock that included all the old “heavy” albums, with “new rock” hits from the “alternative” era. (A lot of stations call this format “New Rock.”) This made sense; as demographic groups age out of listening to their father’s rock and roll radio, the younger groups have different tastes that need accommodation, too. And let’s face it, “alternative” music is absolutely the Classic Rock of Generation X. Essentially, the same kinds of people are listening to KZEL now than they did then, just with a slightly different 50 song playlist and a bigger chance of having a Soundgarden tattoo.
And why not? Radio has often been for the middle class, and there is a who swath of bros who are looking for something to get pumped up for as they try to remain comfortable with being in their 40s. They want the music that spoke to them in High School to insulate them in a place where they understand what “cool” and “hip” is. New music is scary and hard to find, and it is much easier to ignore the culture and the world around you when it doesn’t make sense to you. Coded in two levels removed from the racism it once was, Gex X Gym Rats can listen to very while music in their small towns and never have to question the way they fell about it, ever.
It isn’t that The Cumulus Media Group is trying to be horrible. They’re trying to make money, and that is largely the motivation behind any tired old ineffectual dinosaur clinging to the radio dial like some monster from a bygone age. But even the remotest scent of that kind of radio turns me off, instantly, and these days I’m looking to the generation after mine to hopefully clue me into something that doesn’t feel old fashioned and too “white.” But even I fall into this trap; I listen to music with guitars and live drums and it is hard to think of Black Flag or Bad Brains as anything other than “quaint” when you think of the brutal music that kids like these days, or the electronic harsh noise that is also available. And I’m still trying to break the color barrier in my own collection, as I have noticed an abundance of while men among my 12 Inches.
But at least I’m aware of the problems inherent in my playlists.
When I was a kid, I never thought that the music I was immersed in was boring. It was the music I was immersed in. It WAS music. But now that I can see it from outside, and see it for what it is, I’m glad I moved on.
I’m just wondering how much longer the vestiges of Classic Rock Radio will need before they move on, too.
Here’s a radio special from six years ago, addressing the rarely-discussed subject of Groundhog’s Day, or in some cases, music about Hogs, the ground, and shadows. In this show, we ask the question: where have all the Groundhog songs gone? This one won’t pop up in the podcast feed, but as always, you can either stream or download this one to your heart’s content.
I was absolutely shocked at how little Groundhog music there was to play for this show. Any musicians out there looking for something to write about, now’s your chance! This holiday is largely unclaimed, and you could be the one to release the very first Groundhog Day Rock Record.
About halfway through the program I offer a rambling and disjointed history of Groundhog Day. Most of the information was culled from several passes over the Inter-Web-A-Tron, so it’s as reliable as anyone else is these days.
I have always had a fascination with holidays like this, and when I was growing up I really felt the need to celebrate as best as I could in whatever way relevant. I was the kid who was planting a tree on Arbor Day, coloring images or our President’s on President’s Day, and reading about the various ceremonies surrounding Flag Day. But with control over the weather, Groundhog Day seemed absolutely magical as a kid.
The irony of Groundhog Day is that it is intentionally set six weeks before the official start of Spring, a sort of joke played on kids who really think the groundhog is special. But there is something nice about being forward thinking in that respect anyway. After a long winter, we sometimes need a little prognostication regarding what is ahead of us, if for no other reason than to feel that we at least know when we’ll see the sun again. Given our atypical weather this year in Oregon, and the drought last year followed by a mind winter, I can only imagine that the next six weeks will actually be cold anyway, to finally deliver the winter we deserve.
But I’ll be happy just to know the little guy popped out of his hole for a moment or two.
[Insert weather report.] If you want to know how things turned out in your area, here’s a very handy website.
Anyway, enjoy this program from the past, and hopefully you are excited about your particular weather report this year.
Post-Groundhog Day Special!
If you look carefully, you can see the scars where my ears used to be pierced. At one point, I had metal jammed through my conch and parts of my lobes, and the scar from the hole in my tongue is still there, though I doubt I could get a barbell through it anymore. While I was happy to shove metal into my face as a younger man, when I stumbled upon these piercings the other day I almost didn’t recognize them. I was never very good at being a pierced member of society, and the ones that I paid for seem like poor choices now, considering how little money I had back then. While it certainly hasn’t disappeared from the world as a whole, it is clear with hindsight that I got caught up in the piercing craze of the ’90’s. The fact that I don’t have saggy earlobes and tribal scarring on my arms is a testament to how much of a temporary dalliance it actually was for me.
Growing up in the ’80’s was complicated for everyone in a number of ways, but by the time I was in school one topic that came up often was that of piercings. Nearly all women were expected to have tasteful piercings of one kind or another, and there is often a rite of passage that young girls go through with their mothers when they are old enough. I remember my mom taking my sister to the mall, who returned in pain and with new holes in both of her ears. I was older than my sister by five years, and while it had never occurred to me that I wanted my ears pierced in a similar fashion, once I saw my peers all wearing them, I wanted it too.
However, once I made a comment about this out loud, the trouble started. “Boys don’t get their ears pierced,” I was told by my family, but I knew that this wasn’t true. I had seen men on TV and in public wearing piercings, and as much as I knew that men could do it, the subtext of the conversation was two-fold then: wanting pierced ears made me gay, and my parents would have nothing to do with it regardless.
It wasn’t until I started talking to my friends about it in Jr. High that I started to hear the, “Left ear, buccaneer; right ear, queer,” rhetoric Prior to this, I had no understanding of sexuality, or even that there was something other than the binary that my parents represented. All I knew is that I wasn’t yet over reading comics and playing with imaginary friends, and that girls were mysterious and not for me, yet. But as my friends started to show up to school with a single piercing on the left and budding facial hair in patches, they usually accounted for it with some sort of phrase like, “Left is right, and right is wrong.” I made a few attempts to ask my parents about this, and the awkward silences and shared glances between them meant that this likely fell into the territory of, “The Talk,” and I wasn’t about to let me dad load me into his truck again so he could drive for hours trying to explain to me something that he was very clearly not entirely comfortable with himself.
I dropped the idea until High School, that time when the venn diagram of self-destruction, boundary pushing and poor impulse control overlap into a fun-filled four-year period where everything sucks. Not only did I see a slight up-tick in the number of piercings I saw my fellow students – on men, no less – but the more I talked to people about it, I discovered that you didn’t really have to pay someone to do it for you. A collection of heshers on our campus accidentally taught me that if you sterilized a safety pin (aka, “burned the end with fire”), you could shove it through any fleshy part you liked, and it only hurt for a few days. I also discovered that, if you do this on your own without telling your mom, she’ll be a little horrified and surprised to see random scraps of metal hanging from you ears. While I was never asked to take them out, I could tell that this wasn’t exactly the best way to win her over as we became strangers to each other through the sheer act of growing up.
Boredom usually motivates much of what teenagers do, and by the end of High School I had removed all the safety pins, and more or less let them heal over. It wasn’t until I moved to Eugene, and more importantly met a dude named Ocean at an IHOP one night, that this began to change.
If you were of a certain age range in the ’90’s – and you were not the kind of person who had discovered alcohol as a wonderful way to enjoy your evening – then your destination when the sun went down was the nearest 24 Hour establishment that served coffee. On any given night, across the country, teens and 20 year olds would wander the streets in packs, looking for a booth to set up camp in and write your crappy poetry, or draw your unpublishable comics, or talk about the bands you would never actually start. I had several circles of friends that all did this, and one night as we were mocking up stuff for the newest issue of my ‘zine, we ran into Ocean, head to toe in piercings and tattoos, with his girlfriend Yannica, who had both just gotten to Eugene and thought John’s Skinny Puppy shirt meant we should all get to know each other. This not only inaugurated Ocean into our circle, but when we found out that he’d gotten a job at High Priestess – the first local shop in Eugene entirely dedicated to piercings – this soon became the place that we hung out at when the staff were between clients.
In those days, piercing shops were not at all common, and while you certainly met people covered in them, I was often left to wonder where this stuff was done. High Priestess was interesting in that it was below a tattoo parlor, and near a convenience store. A parade of weirdos and like-minded folks came into that building every hour, and hanging out there meant a good chance to meet people you knew, listen to music, and in some cases when the clients were into it, you could watch people get undressed as different parts of their bodies were being lanced. Between the watching various tattoos and piercings be administered, I saw a fair and steady string of naked men and women.
I ordered the two small hoops in the picture above, and against Ocean’s recommendation, used a safety pin and made a pair of mostly centered holes for them. One day, while bored and out of clients, gave me a $10 deal on my conch, and I put various items in it over the years. When I would go shopping for new albums, I usually dropped by so Ocean and I could check them out. We would regularly gather at the shop to plan our evening afterward, which sometimes involved dropping acid, or getting coffee, or hitting a party as a group. For a brief period of time, it was the center of our social group.
I had a job that I hated working in a factory at the time, which I got in the wake of being dumped and evicted from the place I was living. I piled everything into a storage locker and started staying with the aforementioned John, but working 12 hour shifts at night only separated me from my friends further, and made be a little bitter about the way it had all worked out. In a fit of anger, I walked out during a shift, quit the job, and cashed out every check and pending income I could find. I made one last stop by High Priestess and asked Ocean to pierce my tongue. Then I left town for a week to sort things out.
The tongue piercing was legendary among many people I knew, largely because it was supposed to improve your oral sex skills through the aid of this studded implement. I can’t really speak to that as someone who had the piercing. What I remember was the pain; it hurt. And continued to for days. Eating was a bitch, and as I tried to each noodles the day after I felt betrayed and horrified by the act that I’d been through. I almost took it out, but let it heal, hating the experience, and when all was said and done, found it to be in the way more than the sexy and alluring accoutrement that I hoped it would be.
As the years wore on, I found it to be in the way more than a bonus to my lifestyle. It would accidentally clack against my teeth, or would get chomped on by mistake. Occasionally it would feel a little sore, and the piercing required regular cleaning that I did not account for. I moved out of John’s place, and eventually moved away from Eugene entirely, and when it had been years, after I’d already removed all the other piercings and decided that was no longer for me, I still had this barbell in my tongue, impressing no one, occasionally causing me pain and getting in the way.
One day I took it out, and set it in a dish near my bed. And I never put it back in again.
I suffered in the long run. One of my front teeth on the bottom – where the piercing would regularly “clack” into by accident – is now gone, it causing incredibly paid one day from the damage it sustained over the years. Instead of the piercing, I get to wear a denture, a fitting end to a bad idea. I occasionally notice the scars these left behind, like memories from a friend you no longer see, lodged in there, waiting to be found by accident.
But so far, I have yet to want to get pierced again.
Our own past is the most challenging to deal with, because it has so many dead ends and so many unanswered questions. Like fads and trends, people and things and hobbies and habits move through our lives and disappear one day, and it can take years to notice what happened to they, or where they might have gone. I don’t think of myself as being pierced, and my own dalliance with the hobby was poorly formed, badly planned, and left me with real scars that I will have for my entire life. But I also don’t notice that I was one a pierced man either. The scars are small, barely noticeable, and wouldn’t even be visible if you didn’t know where to look.
Like all lost friends, these parts of the past might slip away like Ocean did, but the impact will last forever.