Soon after I checked the index of Real Life Rock, the new compilation of Greil Marcus’s “Real Life” columns from 1986 to 2014, I started reading it. Good idea. I’m fifty pages in and it’s already blown past Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces as valuable cultural history.
I might pull that judgment back a bit later, but since I’m still in the Reagan Years and he’s only fallen into the “I’m so edgy” trap a few times (my usual peeve with him…No Greil, Laraine Newman’s nose job was not more tragic than John Belushi’s death), I won’t be surprised if it sustains. We’ll see if I can stand up to the inevitable “Bill Clinton made me feel like an American again” tongue jobs as well, but, for now, I have high hopes and look forward to many happy reading hours.
But speaking of cultural history, one of the things the book is reminding me of is the great CD vs. Vinyl debate of the late eighties. Of course that debate still goes on, albeit in much more muted form, and, by now, I’m pretty much comme ci comme ca. But I was a fierce defender of vinyl back then and a very slow convert to the new order.
There was a reason beyond nostalgia and the fact that CDs were clearly a means to jack up prices, a decision that, following along with the entire eighties-and-beyond approach to the political economy, prized short term profit over not merely long term profit but long term survival. (Worked like a charm, incidentally. Record companies and their multi-corp overlords made out like bandits for about fifteen years. Another fifteen years later, the music industry is toast.)
That additional reason was simple and good: early digital mastering and re-mastering was highly variable in quality. At best, which was seldom, it didn’t improve anything. At worst, which was often, it dispersed sounds that were meant to be fully integrated and sucked the life out of everything it touched.
Over time, this problem was addressed and, if there’s still nothing quite like virgin vinyl, the distance between that and a well-mastered CD (of which there are now many) has long ceased to be any kind of deal killer for me.
But it was tough hump to get over there at the first. Marcus brought the memories flooding back because, in the first part of the book, he frequently writes about the lifeless nature of the wave of poorly conceived and executed oldies’ packages that accompanied the rise of digital technology. I can well remember hearing “Kentucky Rain” on a radio station’s CD player for the first time and saying: “Never!”
I was still young then (how young you’ll find out if you stick with me another minute). I did have a vague idea that never was a long time. CDs were the coming thing, even by 1986. I managed to hold out for four whole years.
Somewhere in there, I accumulated a CD ready receiver. It didn’t mean much at first because, well, I didn’t have a CD player and I certainly didn’t have any CDs.
If you’ve been around here a while, or just know me from the outside world, you probably won’t have any trouble guessing which I bought first.
Ah, but which CD? Which CD made me cough up a few bucks, knowing good and well it might be months yet (or, in my fevered imagination) even years before I actually possessed a CD player?
Don’t even bother guessing. No matter how well you know me, you wouldn’t get it. I wouldn’t even get it myself, just by knowing me.
I had to be there.
There used to be a southern record chain called Turtle’s. In the late eighties/early nineties, something, maybe the CD boom itself, helped them expand beyond their Atlanta base and they opened an outlet in Tallahassee. As record stores went, it wasn’t anything special. Better than the mall stores. Not as good as the old Record Bar. Nowhere near as good as local legend Vinyl Fever.
Still, just about every record store has its merits. At Turtle’s they had a pretty good bargain bin. Along about 1990, I don’t recall if they were carrying any vinyl or not. But I was in there for some reason, maybe just because it was handy to the town’s good video store at the time (both to be shortly subsumed by Blockbuster, may it rest in shattered pieces…in one of life’s rare good jokes, the video store survived by moving to a new location and actually outlasted the giant by some years, though it, too, is now gone).
Whatever the reason for me being there, I happened to start browsing the bargain bin for CDs.
Well, not really browse.
It was more like I stood there, asking myself if it was any way humanly possible that some good could come of just stepping over there and going back to my roots, shuffling through cheap CDs the way I used to shuffle through cheap records. Did I still have the endless patience required to find the occasional nugget among the dross? If not, could I re-acquire it?
Were there any nuggets among this particular pile of dross?
Not much new stuff was getting released on vinyl by then. Maybe nothing was. The memory hazes.
So I stood there, hooked on the horns of a classic dilemma. Not much of a way forward. Certainly no way back.
Then my eye fell on something in particular, sitting up at the front of the bin, and I gave myself a little shake, like I was dispensing with a haint, and took the fateful step that brought me within arm’s reach.
What I saw was this:
Who remembers the cost on the shrink-wrap’s price tag? $3.97 maybe? Sure, let’s go with that. Anyway it was remaindered. Its one big hit hadn’t been enough to keep it from the very large cutout bin at Turtle’s.
Once I determined the hit was on the CD, I tried to put it back. Honestly.
But it kept sticking to my hand, probably because that one big hit kept sticking in my head.
I think I was still sweating when I exited the place, my first CD purchase in hand.
I had paid money, for what I was pretty sure was going to be one song (about that I was right), that I couldn’t play for God knew how long because I didn’t have anything to play it on.
A line had definitely been crossed.
Twelve years later, when the great CD selloff of 2002 occurred, I held back exactly three items. One was the Shangri-Las’ Myrmidons of Melodrama. I’m sure you don’t need me to go on about that. One was a beach music comp that had Billy Ocean’s “Love Really Hurts Without You” on it. I missed it on 45 in 1976 and spent more than twenty years tracking it down. That one I wasn’t letting go.
And one was Jane Wiedlin’s Fur.
Which I held on to for some of the same reasons I had once held on to vinyl for so long that Fur ended up being my first CD.
I had missed “Rush Hour” on 45 in 1988. Assuming it was even on a 45. In any case, I had found it there in Turtle’s in 1990, by which time I had already decided “cassingles” would not be any kind of long term solution to my burgeoning problem–How to get hold of that one song that will drive you crazy if you can’t play it when you want to?
I had missed out on “Rush Hour” and then found it a mere two years later.
On a cheap CD.
Good thing. Because vinyl-wise, I had a better chance of tracking down “Love Really Hurts Without You.”
So I gave in, there in Turtle’s in 1990, and, really, I know it was for the best.
When the old battles finally can’t be won, you develop new strategies. Or let the kids do it. (They have, which is probably why vinyl is still around. Heck they even sell it in places like Books-A-Million now, where it tends to cost more than the CDs.)
Out of my then-new strategy one very peculiar phenomenon arose.
I developed a habit of getting up in front of my speakers whenever I played “Rush Hour” and, more or less, dancing.
The only other song that ever occasionally made me want to do anything similar was the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” The dance I used to do to that–very occasionally–was long past me by 1990. I mean, I turned thirty that year. Unless you’ve stayed in top training, you can’t run in place and clap your hands between your knees when you’re thirty. At least you can’t do it in perfect time for three choruses.
You might still be able to just do the running in place bit, though. Hence, was born the Rush Hour Dance at the Ross apartment.
It went something like this: You run in place for about the first three and half minutes, varying your toe-tap speed in time with the music, but gradually gaining intensity throughout. Then, with about forty-five seconds to go, you move out of “place” and start moving around the apartment in a circle. Short up-and-down steps at first, then longer strides as the record nears the final climax.
Then, if you are at the Ross apartment (as you’ll see in a moment, this should never be tried anywhere else), you come up behind the solid oak table with the slate top that sits between your two recliners, leap into the air and land on the beat, preferably with a windmill or two from the right arm.
And when the song is over, you hop down.
I’m not going to pretend this was some every day occurrence.
But every few months or so, for a few years, it did happen. Mostly it was for private consumption. I have a sterling reputation as a wallflower and I generally prefer to uphold it. Too much pressure, I’ve found, in leaving the world with confused and exalted expectations if you start hinting at previously hidden possibilities.
I can therefore swear that the only time any portion of the Rush Hour Dance was witnessed by other human beings was in 1994, at Doak Campbell Stadium, after Florida State scored a touchdown to tie Florida at 31-31 in the waning minutes of the game.
There was plenty of room to run in place on the row in front of me, because the people sitting all along it had shown perfectly good common sense and departed twelve minutes earlier when the score was 31-3.
If we had gone for two and made it, who knows? I might have added the leap.
As it happened, the leap was not long for the world and neither was the Rush Hour Dance.
There came a day in 1998 (or so), when I realized I hadn’t done it in a while. In fact, I hadn’t really done it since I moved to my house in 1995.
So it began to bug me a bit. Could the Rush Hour Dance be transferred?
It was one of those questions that could not go long unanswered.
Punch in Track Two.
Start running in place. Play air guitar. (Oh, did I forget to mention that? That’s important. You have to play air guitar. Otherwise you just feel stupid.)
Keep it up for three minutes plus. Feel the music. Feel the need to break out.
Start running in your circle.
Move out to the left, around the second recliner, just like always.
Become lost in ecstasy, as though time has stood still.
Realize that time has not really stood still, because your legs never used to burn like this.
Sing along. (Oh yeah, did I mention that while you’re running in place, and then just running, and playing air guitar, you have to sing? Otherwise what’s the point?)
Run along behind the recliner. Move toward the table.
Don’t look at it.
No fair looking.
Judge the leap. Get in perfect time, with “Rush Hour” and the universe.
Leap and turn at the same time.
Rise into the air.
Reach the peak.
Smile as it comes back to you that this elevation you somehow achieve during the Rush Hour Dance is at least a foot higher than you can jump normally.
Recall at that very instant, that your solid oak, slate topped table, has been replaced by a cheap piece of plaster board and plastic tubing that will be crushed like a grape if anything larger than a marble lands on it from your present height.
Imagine yourself in traction.
Think fast, at the hyper-speed which, in fact, only the Rush Hour Dance permits.
Point your toe like a freaking ballerina.
Continue soaring through the air.
Skim lightly over the surface with a single skip you could never repeat in a thousand years and land safely and squarely on your feet in front your speakers.
In perfect time.
Fall into one of your recliners, who cares which one, laughing hysterically like a man who just escaped being shot at.
Take ten minutes to fully catch your breath.
Resolve to retire the Rush Hour Dance. Forever.
Know that you, and the dance, went out on top, with Jane Wiedlin whispering in your own ear, and that of every Rio-t-t-t Girl and Pop Tart ever born: “We’re still the Go-Go’s. And you’re still not.”
Have a nice weekend. I have to get back to reading.