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Five Years Ago

Micheal Clark Sweeney


I remember the first time I ever went into the store. I had just heard from a friend the new Ton-Loc single, “Funky Cold Medina.” I actually went into the store, with my mom of course, and bought a tape by a man with a name that sounds like a cough syrup. And it gets worse. I proceeded to buy more rap tapes, Too Short, Geto Boys, and the infamous 2 Live Crew. I know, I know, you’re wondering, “but I thought Michael had good musical taste.” Well, musical taste, like anything else, requires a certain amount of honing. Thank God I’ve lived long enough to outgrow my obligatory “rap phase.” Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. 
I’m really not sure how my musical taste began to take shape. I guess it’s Darwinian or something. I just didn’t want to be like every other person whom I secretly felt sorry for after they bought the newest Garth Brooks CD or one of these so-called new “soul” bands. “He’s no Al Green,” I would say. But it was to no avail. They still bought it. Damn. This is one of the things I never got over. Every shift, without exception, someone came in and asked something like if the new Cooder Graw album was good. In my head I’m thinking, “Hell no. If I had the choice between buying that album or listening to BeeGees albums for the rest of my life, I would probably go the BeeGees route.” But what I usually said is more like, “I listened to a little bit of it the other day and it sounded very promising.” Promisingly nauseous. It’s the hardest part of the job. How am I supposed to recommend music to the other, less enlightened mass consumers? Should I just allow this musical tragedy to happen? Every fiber of my being wanted to jump from behind the safety of the counter, wrestle the musical infant to the ground and beat some sense into his now-ignorant brain. This would be tough.
I was 17 years old and I had the ever-present need for some change in the pocket, so I decided to look for a job. I asked my parents to be on the lookout and, sure enough, they came to me with the opportunity of a late-teen’s life. My dad is an insurance agent and as luck would have it, he happened to handle the insurance of the owner of Impact Sound. You see, I had frequented the center of Stephenville’s cultural district for a good 4 years now, and I felt that I was ready to enter the life of my dreams. I could just picture it now: beautiful high school and college girls asking me what the coolest new single was. They would come in single-file—it was the only way they could all fit through the door—and gaze deep into my musically gifted mind with the look of women who needed something they just couldn’t put their finger on. In her mind, she’s wondering what a beautiful, 21-year-old cheerleader with a perfect body and a big, good-looking boyfriend is doing fantasizing about a 17 year-old skinny music clerk. But it is beyond her control. It is beyond every girl’s control. They would accept my advice as the gospel truth; after all, I was a music store clerk. Wait, more than that. A modern day pied piper. I would lead them with my music and they would follow. (Mental note: buy a stick to beat them off with.) The big men on campus would all look up to me as the guy that knew what was cool and what wasn’t, a sort of social barometer as it were. The big, monosyllabic football center that had always wanted to pound me just for the secret fantasies he knew I was having about his girlfriend was suddenly in awe of the musical encyclopedia that graced his presence. Sure, maybe I didn’t play football, but I had something else. Something he needed. Knowledge of the cool. I would be talked about in the “certain circles” that John Waite sang about.

I’d be stupid not to do this.

So, I did it. I became a clerk at Stephenville’s only music store at the time. Wal-Mart didn’t count. They couldn’t sell the really good stuff. By now, the most popular music was in the middle of a controversy. Almost every album that was big had a few questionable words. Wal-Mart was a family establishment. They sold edited versions. We banked on that. I think it’s only fair to say that by this time my musical tastes had changed considerably. I had somehow moved from Easy-E to something in the mainstream rock category. Instead of rap, I was now into Stone Temple Pilots (STP) and the Toadies. These songs had deep, Zepplinesque lyrics. (For those less enlightened souls, look up “The Greatest Band Ever” in Webster’s and there will be a picture of Led Zeppelin next to it.) These lyrics reached an unknown region inside of me. Somewhere that I hadn’t even found yet. “And I feel when the dogs begin to smell her.” Scott Weiland sang this line with such raw emotion that he had to have really seen the dog’s nose wrinkle when it sniffed the woman’s sweat-drenched skin. This was much better than cussing and words that I was unclear of the meaning. Now it was cussing and words that I was familiar with their meaning, just maybe not the context. This was a step in the right direction. Wasn’t it?

Hold on. I’m moving too fast.

By this time, I had begun to see that girls liked some music that didn’t talk about “bitches and money.” The first time I realized this was in Junior High when a girl asked me if I had heard the new Dino song. I said, “Who’s Dino?” The look of disgust on her face said it all. “You know, Dino,” she replied. I had to act now or risk doing some serious popularity status damage control later. “Oh, Dino. I thought you said Bean-o.” He shoots he scores. She bought it. Later, I decided to find out just exactly who this Dino cat was. Hmm, what’s this section called pop? I wonder if this is the kind of music she was referring to? It was. The girls went crazy for it. They wanted to dance to it. It didn’t have cursing. The lyrics were softer, more accessible for small-town kids. They seemed like to like its subject matter. It was sometimes slow, sometimes more upbeat, and it talked about perfect love. Guys asked for one more chance and got it. I became infatuated. The foreign sex seemed to really love this idealized, unreal kind of love. Maybe if I listened to this stuff, I could get some ideas.

Enter Kelli Brackens.

I sat by her in English class. She was gorgeous, a junior-high boys’ wildest dream. Long, crimped hair, a new Swatch watch, and of course, she had all the full line of Girbaud apparel to accent her well-developed femininity. I tried everything to get her attention. I was funny in class, I told her friends I liked her, I even wrote her name on my notebook cover about 600 times just in case she hadn’t yet received the hint. I was as subtle as a Hell’s Angel in grammar class. Finally, I overheard her talk about something that made alarms go off in my head: her new favorite song. Nothing else had worked yet, what did I have to lose? Janet Jackson’s “Escapade” was my key to victory in the battle for her heart. My birthday had just been thrust upon me and as luck would have it, I had received a CD player. I went to K-Mart, another CD haven at the time, and bought Rhythm Nation. I listened to it for a week straight. She would surely be impressed if I took her on an escapade. This is where the unrealistic love part comes in. I had not even the most vague notion of what an escapade was, much less the physical or financial means to actually embark upon one. This wasn’t giving me much to go on and it sure as hell wasn’t impressing Kelli. So, after a while, I gave up on pop and found another outlet. There was another more guy-oriented version of this music that a friend introduced me to. He told me I should come over and listen to a new album he had. He said it was harder than that sissy Janet Jackson crap. I was a little wary, but I decided to try it. He hit play and the aural tsunami hit my ears. By my youthful estimation, this could not be that different, but my male instincts told me otherwise. Something had just changed in my life without my even knowing it. The first time was free, but after that, it would begin to cost me.

And they call it rock and roll.

I couldn’t get enough. This happened to be right at the time when hair bands were just finishing up their 15 minutes of fame. But, some decided to stay a little longer. I found Def Leppard. I ingested hours of this stuff. I didn’t do drugs, but I’m certain the effect was the same. “Come on Eric, let’s just listen to it one more time, then I’ll go home.” I began to feel certain feelings only when listening to music. This was what I had been looking for. There was a middle ground between sappy girl fluff and rap. Days were spent ingesting the lyrics of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” I was unaware of the sexual innuendo, but I knew every word none-the-less. “Rock it baby, come on.” These songs talked to girls too. It was possible for guys to engage the opposite sex without the slightest hint of the love I had come to know through pop. I couldn’t wait for the next album from Whitesnake or Guns ‘N’ Roses. These guys hardly even talked about girls. Was it possible? Sure, there was the occasional power ballad, but even those wore the heavy armor of the rock warrior. Besides, if the guitars were hard enough, it almost made one forget the lyrics were even at the same party. Not only could these guys get along without girls, it appeared they needed no one at all. “Here I am again on my own.” It needed no explanation. In the music world, I could be a loner without abandoning my friends.

My world had been officially rocked.

This took me to the mid-nineties where something else filled the place of pop on my radio. It was alternative, literally. I dug it. Pearl Jam came into my life and told me about Jeremy. I had no idea what it would be like if one of the kids I made fun of at school suddenly came into class, said his piece, and put a gun in his mouth. This song took me there, with or without my permission. It was like the bad smell I couldn’t resist sniffing again just to make sure that it was really what it seemed. It was full of angst, a new emotion for a member of my small town’s Cleaver family. Soundgarden gave me Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. STP still kept the anger (or was it reality?) coming with “Interstate Love Song.” It still didn’t know what they were talking about, but that only made it more interesting. I remember being on a choir trip with my best friend, Josh, and just listening to the Purple album over and over. Some of my best memories became attached to that music. Every time I listen to that song I remember looking to Josh as he mouthed, “Interstate,” begging to listen to it just one more time. “Breathing is the hardest thing to do, with all I’ve said and all that stood for you….you lied. Goodbye.”

Music moved me.

Well, the years went by and I never met a girl that became madly enthralled with my musical giftedness. Guys didn’t like me more either. In fact, I may have become even more isolated and misunderstood because of my new love interest, music. Most people, it seemed, didn’t care about what I thought of their musical selections. They were content to let MTV or CMT tell them what to buy. They still are. Yes, there are the few who come by to chat about the newest obscure artist that has been totally ignored by the mainstream music industry and, of course, I’m just the guy to talk to about it because I haven't sold out like the big store clerks. I still have a heart. I must have some feelings on the latest release of the Gary Numan re-re-release of his third single on his fifth album. The three-hour conversations with the music literate are eminent because surely I must grasp the deep, social implications just below the surface. I have good taste, like them. All in all, it has not been what I dreamed. But I like it. The music still keeps coming. Some people stay the same, some are less static. Me? I still work there.