The Two Weeks That Music Died
In the past two weeks, my music-loving life has lost two music legends, a radio station, and a record store, all which shaped how I listened to music from my earliest childhood to present day. True, music appreciation is a deeply personal experience, so please allow me the indulgence of remembering each loss in turn. I’m sure each one of you has your own memories, and you’re more than welcome to share them below.
I was in Allston yesterday afternoon when I saw the headline on my smartphone: “Disco legend Donna Summer dead at 63.” The news hit me hard, not only because it surprised me — I didn’t know she was ill, to be honest — but because she still seemed to be going strong professionally, was a genuine legend, and also was the latest in a series of sad endings in music. Now that she’s gone, I’m not going to pretend now that I was her biggest fan, but she was one of the first people I recognized as a hit recording artist. While I learned about her death as a 40-year-old dad with WiFi, I learned about her music as an elementary school kid with a transistor radio. Every day after school, my older sister Liz and I would come home and most often hang out in the kitchen with some rock or pop station on. And every Sunday, we’d bake cookies or do something craftsy (basically, so our parents could be set free, as I understand it now), and we’d take notes on the Top 40 — and this being the late ’70s, Donna Summer owned the Top 40. Just think: “Hot Stuff,” “Love to Love You Baby,” “Bad Girls” … it’s just the tip of a very large iceberg of songs you can just play in your head. By the time I was six years old, I think I knew about half a dozen recording artists by heart: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Santana (Mom was a fan), ABBA, and Donna Summer. As I and others argued two years ago, Summer is second only to Hall of Famer Madonna in terms of dance hits. Inducting her now would be a nice addition to her legacy, but hey, wouldn’t it have been nice to do it when she was alive?
Beastie Boys’ MCA (aka Adam Yauch)
Speaking of Hall of Famers, it’s sad that it’s already a forgotten news cycle ago, that the Beastie Boys’ MCA, aka Adam Yauch, died last week. But I want to pay tribute to him as giving me one of the next steps in my musical appreciation from those innocent days listening to Donna Summer fake orgasms on the kitchen radio. Most people cite Paul’s Boutique or Check Your Head as the quintessential Beastie Boys album — and they are still the best — but for me it will always be about Licensed to Ill. I and everyone else in New Haven listened to that album ad nauseam on the school bus, and it was a point of pride for to emulate our heroes by riping VW and Benz hood ornaments off cars and wear them around your neck.
In short, for a dumb pubescent ass like me and most people like me, male and female, the Beastie Boys were kind of like our Sex Pistols and Licensed to Ill our Never Mind the Bollocks. Back then, when they came to play at the New Haven Coliseum (torn down, now a parking lot), all our parents refused to let us go…and indeed, there were fights and rioting at the show. But what’s more rock than a bit of danger?And now that MCA is gone, it feels cheap to say now that he was my favorite of the group, but he really was. When they first came out, I loved the snottiness of Adrock, but soon it was the raspy flow and versatile tones of MCA that always caught my ear. Most of all though, all reports seemed to indicate he was a truly good person, and not just in a humanitarian way. Perhaps because of my full-on fandom of the Beasties, and perhaps because I’m a new dad, I thoroughly choked up when the Web was filled with this picture of MCA and his daughter Tenzin Lozel. For every reason, MCA’s death at age 47 was just too young, and this one felt close to home.
Then there’s WFNX. Ugh. Where to start here? Could the best possible, locally owned radio station be sold to the worst possible, soul-sucking conglomerate? When it was announced this week that Clear Channel bought WFNX and immediately the staff was fired — including legends like Julie Kramer and Henry Santoro — it truly felt like life went out of the city even more than when the slowly fading WBCN closed its doors. I mean, for someone my age and younger, has there ever been a better commercial radio station than ‘FNX? In New Haven, we didn’t have a station like it and I always envied Boston whenever I visited the city.
It was only when I moved up here after college in the early ’90s that I woke up to ‘FNX on my clock radio, listened to it at work, and even fell asleep to it at night. It’s near impossible to be an alternative rock station and find that sweet spot where you take risks with new music, don’t play the hits to death, and yet still shape popular taste … but ‘FNX did it year after year. And even if you can now tailor your Spotify playlists or just use your iPod, there’s so much cultural value in sharing new (or classic) challenging rock music with anyone who has access to a cheap radio — especially in Boston, the city that spawned the Cars, the Pixies, the Blake Babies, Throwing Muses … There’s a rumor that it’ll become a country station. Nothing against country music, but if that’s going to be the case, then Clear Channel is sticking a big middle finger right in the middle of our radio dial.
My last loss this week, though, is the most personal, even if it has little to do with any Boston audience. A friend of mine in New Haven emailed me yesterday with the news that Cutler’s Records announced that it’ll be closing next month. This 64-year-old store on Broadway in my home town has been a fundamental part of my entire life. Even back in those Donna Summer childhood days, my parents would take me when they shopped there, and I would be fascinated by all the album covers and the seemingly so-cool people that worked there, that I knew even then my life would be consumed by listening to music. By junior high, I spent about two or three hours two or three afternoons a week just exploring the big warehouse-like store, with its vast array of postpunk imports, eclectic cutout bins, and classic rock. The store was always packed, and was a cultural force in our part of the state.
By my obnoxious Beastie Boys days, I worked there, and even used one of my first paychecks to buy Paul’s Boutique when it came out. I sold the hiphop cassettes, learned all about jazz there (spent another check on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, then available only on a Japanese-import CD), and generally felt totally badass that I worked in the biggest and one of the coolest record stores in New England. Bands like the B-52’s and R.E.M. came into the store, and when the Rolling Stones played a warm-up gig at nearby Toad’s Place, they gave us all passes to get inside. (Too young, I had to watch from the street.)
Over the years though, as anyone knows, independent record stores have crumbled to dust. The seemingly impregnable Cutler’s moved out of its big space with the huge neon-turntable sign to a boutique-sized storefront, basically so that Yale University could tear down the building and replace it with a J. Crew and Urban Outfitters. Smaller and smaller, this business owned by three generations of the same family still drew me back long after I’d moved out of town and was back merely on visits. I’m not a musician, and I certainly didn’t go to a conservatory. Instead, my music education comes from record stores, and my grade school, high school, and university was Cutler’s Records. It deserves such tribute, even as it joins a long line of compatriots around the country that have also shuttered.
So there ya go. A wonderfully depressing two weeks in the life of this music fan. Of course, life is impermanent: People pass, and so do things. The Pollyanna in me can always say, “It’s the music and the memories that are immortal, man!” Maybe. But in these cases, we have two very talented people that left behind families, friends, and fans, as well as many potential years to create more memorable work. And we have two businesses that also functioned as cultural institutions that are being obliterated, literally. In each case, we may mourn now, but a year from now they’ll each be part of a fabric of the past, and that doesn’t feel right today. In each case, the loss now feels far greater than the legacy later.