Pine the black circleWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
Once upon a time, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and people huddled in caves at night, I was all about pop music. From about 1978 to 1994 or so, I reveled in new music — rock, country, soul, rap, oldies — just about anything with a melody and lyrics.
Back in the mid-1980s, there were several treasure trove record stores in Toledo. There were giants Peaches and National Record Mart, but more importantly, there were Boogie Records at Westgate and Southwyck; Abbey Road on Woodville Road and in Portside; Seligman Brothers on Sylvania Avenue; and Nick’s on Broadway in the South End. There was also a funky little record store on the corner of Central Avenue and Douglas Road, which Keith Bergman reminded me was Special Records, run by Arnold Sells and his wife. Seligman Brothers and Nick’s were my favorites because they stocked local juke boxes, and when the records were off the charts or played so many times the black vinyl showed white grooves, those store would sell them for 5 or 10 cents each. I could take $2 into Nick’s and go home with half of that week’s Top 40.
I had a decrepit old record player in my bedroom, hooked to two salvaged speakers and an ancient pair of old headphones which unlike the ridiculous earbuds the kids use today, enveloped one’s entire skull, shutting out all sounds and reality. Those headphones were a sanctuary and safe haven and to me, they sounded like $10,000 studio-quality equipment. I used to play my records under a free poster given away by WOHO that listed the “top 1,000 singles of all time,” lost in the tiny print as the music hid me from that day’s rats.
It is difficult to explain to today’s raised-on-digital music fans just how wonderful those crackling old discs were. I sound like an old man reminiscing about antiquities, but — excuse me for a second, I have to put on some black stretch socks and chase some damn kids off my lawn.
Anyway, records rocked, and for more reasons than the music. Back in the day, album covers were a canvas for creativity; the CD era shrunk that canvas, and the iPod era has reduced the album cover to a thumbnail. That does not affect the music, but it diminishes one of a band’s outlets for expression. Even many 45 rpm singles, the suns around which my music life revolved, utilized picture sleeves that illustrated an artist’s ambition.
Even better, many of the era’s most successful artists, including Prince, Bruce Springsteen, The Police and U2 released a B-side with every single that was not contained on any album. Almost all of those rare tracks can now be found on CD or iTunes, but back when both of my knees still worked and my circumference was less circumferential, the only way to hear some of the best and quirkiest music was on vinyl B-sides.
Other artists could have made a career on the tracks Prince (“17 Days,” “Erotic City,” “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” “I Love U in Me,” and “She’s Always in My Hair”) and Springsteen (“Pink Cadillac,” “Shut Out the Light” and “Stand On It”) threw away on B-sides.
The Police used B-sides for instrumental experiments (“Behind My Camel” won a Grammy) and such dark topics as Machiavellian manipulation to achieve fame (“A Sermon”) cannibalism (“Friends”) and intfanticide/homicide/patricide (“Once Upon a Daydream”), a tradition Sting carried well into his solo career.
Add to this B-side-only gems and oddities from Tom Petty (“Heartbreaker’s Beach Party,” “Girl on LSD”), Tears For Fears (“Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”), Simply Red (covers of “Grandma’s Hands” and “Drowning in My Own Tears”) Billy Joel (“Elvis Presley Boulevard”), Bryan Adams (“Diana”), John Cougar (“Under the Boardwalk,” “Pretty Ballerina”) and others, and it becomes more clear why so many people cherished those fragile black circles.
I used to study each week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart like a weekly compass, whether it was a copy taped on the wall at Abbey Road or the actual magazine slipped across the counter to me at Nick’s. I eventually co-hosted an ’80s music radio show on UT’s campus radio station (this weekly nostalgic trip for ’80s music took place in 1995) and kicked major behind at the Damon’s music trivia contests on Saturday night. My constant co-conspirators in this effort, Will Nicholes and Randy Monnin, with an occasional assist from Matt McCollum, would stroll into Damon’s and double or triple the score of the teams who took the contest seriously enough to register names and join official leagues. We won the entire national network game at least twice, and if you ever had your ass handed to you by “Team Falco” or “Team Big Dog,” congratulations, son; you were beaten by the best. Ah, youth.
But sometime during the mid-’90s, I started to lose track. I no longer checked Billboard or listened to pop radio. Looking at today’s Billboard Hot 100, I recognize several artists’ names, but do not own one solitary song from the chart, even in digital form. I wouldn’t go near a modern music trivia match any sooner than I’d step into an Ultimate Fighting ring.
I know the changes are in me; that the music marches on even as I return to that 16-year era for songs of solace and comfort. And that’s OK. I do not pretend my music is better than the music of any other era. It’s just mine, and even if I no longer spin those black circles, I am still enriched by their memories. I can close my eyes and still see the long rows of 10-cent singles at Nick’s, still smell the light dust, still feel the thrill of finding a new favorite.
It’s closest I’ve ever been to an addiction that involves a needle, and I will never, ever, recover.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.