09 August 2009

A Personal Soundtrack

Having explored the iTunes Essentials collections, and been particularly reflective (if not outright nostalgic) of late, I have recently begun sequencing mixes based on the music of different phases of my life. Currently, there are five discs in the collection. The first three cover music from my childhood through high school; the remaining two discs collect music that I recall hearing a lot while working at Cracker Barrel.

It's been kind of a fun project for me. When my brother and I were kids, we had a biweekly ritual where our mom would take us to Louisville on Sundays. Sometimes we'd go shopping, often to a mall where the idea wasn't so much to actually buy anything as it was to while away an afternoon and get birthday and Christmas gift ideas. My mom is one of those people who began Christmas shopping on December 26th, so she would take notes all year long. Sometimes we'd go see a movie, though it was always something marketed toward families with young children. I still have a distinct memory of being taken to Showcase Cinemas to see E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial during its original run, and I remember feeling left out of conversations at school because classmates had gone to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (which was not presented as something my mom wanted to see, nor did she want us to see).

Regardless of where we went, we took a portable cassette recorder deck with us. I know today's kids won't believe there was a time before satellite radio and cars that sync with iPods, but we had a Ford Fairmont and the only music it played was the radio. Nothing against radio, but we as a family really weren't that into mainstream radio. I grew up on 50s and 60s oldies (mom thought music took a turn for the worse in the 70s), and it was actually my younger brother who brought country music into the mix. We got cable around the time of our parents' divorce, and I recall many an occasion when he would turn up the volume on our TV as far as it would go whenever the music video for Dwight Yoakam's "Honky Tonk Man" came on throughout 1986 and 1987.

It was in 1986 that I first owned music of my own. Mom surprised me one afternoon with the cassette release of The Transformers: The Movie - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Many a Sunday afternoon found us playing that tape on our portable deck in the car. Perhaps I should be impressed by my mom's tolerance for indulging me, but instead I look back and I'm impressed by her good taste. Hey, Stan Bush rocks!

The Transformers started my lifelong interest in soundtrack releases, even though it would be another three years before I would feel compelled to own another. It was 1989, and Batmania swept the nation (if not the entire world) and I was no exception. I had to have Prince's Batman - Motion Picture Soundtrack. At the time, I enjoyed "Partyman," "Trust" and "Batdance," and the other six songs did very little for me. I have since come to value it as something of a guilty pleasure. The Danny Elfman score release, though, was an eye-opener for me. I had enjoyed Vince DiCola's instrumental tracks on Transformers, but I had never considered that anyone would want to own an album of just instrumental music from a movie before. Of course, I had to have it and so began a love affair with scores.

By the time the 90s rolled around, I'd largely gotten out of country music. I can't say why, necessarily, other than to say there was very little that interested me at the time. (Odd, given that the fabled Class of '89 was just underway with its inauguration of a new aesthetic, and given how big a fan I have since become of most of those artists.) During my middle school years (late 1990 through early 1993), I favored MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. To this day, it remains a personal victory that I managed to get my openly racist dad to give me Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em on cassette for Christmas 1990. Mom objected to several of the lyrics to Ice's songs, but I somehow managed to own not only his To the Extreme debut, but the now-forgotten Extremely Live and even the soundtrack to Cool as Ice.

The rest of those years were marked, musically at least, by soundtracks. In fact, aside from Hammer and Ice, the only mainstream release I owned at all was Bryan Adams's Waking Up the Neighbours--and the truth is, I only wanted that because it contained "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Sure, I owned that soundtrack, too (Michael Kamen's score is good, and I've always hated the way it was presented on the soundtrack release).

In 1991, I saw a teaser poster for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and decided I wanted to see it. Being the person I am, I boned up by going back and renting the previous five Star Trek movies and watching the TV episodes. Naturally, I had to have the soundtracks, and I remember distinctly that I got my first CD player for Christmas 1991. It was a Sony boombox, and the first CD I ever owned was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.

CD technology fascinated me. For the first time, I could hear an entire album all the way through without having to switch sides, or even wait for the auto-switch feature to finish playing one side and begin the other. I could play any song I wanted by going directly to it and, best of all, I could shuffle a disc and hear songs out of sequence! So began my fascination with mixes, which take songs out of context and put them in a new one.

Throughout my high school years, most of my music listening was confined to soundtracks. In 1995, we finally got a movie theater in my small hometown and what had previously been a flirtation with films became a full-blown affair. That same year I discovered James Bond (just in time for Pierce Brosnan's debut in GoldenEye), and more soundtracks found their way into my library. Eric Serra's score doesn't hold a candle to the John Barry years, but I've always had a soft spot for it because it was my first. Plus, I loved Tina Turner's title song.

My senior year of high school, a friend introduced me to George Strait's Carrying Your Love with Me at a time when I was struggling with insomnia. I found I was able to fall asleep listening to the album and immediately bought a copy for myself. He then challenged me to go out and buy all of Strait's discography. Strait's debut album came in 1981 and he maintained a release schedule of an album a year--plus a few hits collections and a Christmas album along the way. It took me a while, but I eventually did it and I have maintained a complete George Strait library ever since.

I was always somewhat fascinated by Garth Brooks, dating back to my brother playing his eponymous debut album as an excuse to sing along with "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" so he could cuss. I'll never forget watching This Is Garth Brooks! on TV with my brother at our dad's house. Other than baseball, I can't think of anything the three of us were all interested in watching. After Strait brought me back to country music, my first visit was to check in on Garth and I was caught up on his (admittedly much smaller) discography in time for the release of his Sevens album in November 1997.

As I mentioned, there are two volumes of music collecting songs that were predominant when I worked at Cracker Barrel (from April 1998 through August 2000). The "Front of the House" disc contains country music; the "Back of the House" disc is comprised of Top 40 pop/rock stuff from the stations that played regularly in the kitchen. There is currently a gap between the high school years and the Cracker Barrel years, from June 1997 through April 1998. I'm not sure if I'll do anything with that sliver of time or not; I did work at Wal-Mart for six or seven months during that stretch. Maybe I'll do something with it later.

Ultimately, it's just been fun for me to revisit my youth in song. Even though the songs might be playing on my iPod, when I hear "The Touch," I'm back in that Fairmont with the tape deck on my lap in the passenger seat. "U Can't Touch This" makes me smile at my victory over my dad in 1990. I'm still excited at having unwrapped my first CD player when I hear "The Mountain" from Star Trek V. There are countless other memories, and it has been something of a catharsis to work on this personal project lately.