28 June 2011

Nedstaglia: 20 Years Ago (in praise of the tastemakers)

I don’t know the exact date, but sometime during the last week of June in 1991, 20 years ago today roughly, I had a life changing experience. Now I’ve had plenty of life changing experiences – you could argue every experience you have changes your life in one way or the other. But I can look back at this specific one and say for sure that it laid the path for a lot of where the next 20 years of my life would take me. It was the first time I heard the music of Phish.

I had returned to the summer camp I had gone to as a camper after a two year “hiatus” now as a staff member. Still a green 17 years of age, I arrived a day or two early and there were only a couple other people already there. A friend quickly introduced a pal of his from college MJ and we quickly started talking about the Grateful Dead. I was a huge Deadhead at the time – well as much as a senior-in-high-school from Syracuse with 2 live Dead shows under his belt could be. What I definitely was was a huge Dead tape collector so I showed MJ my 4 racks of cassettes to get his opinion and scrutiny. He picked at it like a snobby record collector at a garage sale, finding a nugget or two in there that helped my ego along. Then he said it: “Have you ever heard of Phish?” “No.” “You’d like ‘em.” Innocent, clean, subtle. Later that afternoon we were tossing a Frisbee around on the grass and he threw a cassette tape into my “box”(I can’t remember – was the tape just in his pocket? Was he walking around with it, just waiting to run into some impressionable young sap? Waiting to change someone’s life?) I wasn’t really paying attention to the first song, but then he said “this is Phish” and my ears perked up (I had already decided that I was a big MJ fan, 4 or 5 years my senior, 100+ Dead shows under his belt and a killer story for each; I knew cool when I saw it).

As the next song started, my expectations grew: for the first time in my life I was open to truly new music only because someone recommended it to me. The idea was entirely novel to me. I already envisioned loving the band, of knowing about them before anyone else did. So I listened: “Bag it, tag it, sell it to the butcher in the store. Bag it, tag it, sell it to the butcher in the store.” There was definitely something different about it: it was fun, interesting… silly, very silly. I did like it, but I wasn’t sure I loved it. The song moved on. The Frisbee went back and forth, back and forth, the sun was shining in that perfect start-of-the-summer kind of way and the music swirled into a dreamlike fugue. I was listening I guess, but not concentrating, the whole moment was idyllic: no one spoke, just a Frisbee being tossed around by a few guys feeling each other out, the anticipation of a whole summer in front of us. A fully content moment, I was entirely lost in my own thoughts. Then something broke me out of this dream state – “Bag it, tag it, sell it to the butcher in the store…” Holy shit! That was the same song? The same band? I had completely forgotten that I was listening to this band that I was supposed to like. What was the name of that band again? Where am I, what am I doing, who are you and what is this plastic disc in my hand? (you know, for kids?).  My mind reeled backwards in time, the silly staccato lyrics, the twisting composition, the “jam” that was neither jazz nor rock nor anything I had ever heard before… certainly not the Grateful Dead. I’m pretty sure I ran back to my tent, grabbed a blank Maxell XLII, rewound the tape and just recorded myself a copy right then and there. By the end of the day I had Lawn Boy and Junta on cassette, live shows soon to follow. And even though my first Phish show was almost a year off due to the circumstances of being an internet-free kid in high school, the rest, as they say, is history.

But this isn’t really a story about Phish, per se, I’ve got plenty of those. This is a story about guys like MJ (whom I became quite friendly with), who taught me a lot about music and tapes (how to separate the kind from the shit) and how to drink far more booze than your body should be able to tolerate, whom I haven’t seen in quite a long time. Guys that walked around with a cassette in their pocket trying to turn people on to the music that turns them on. The tastemakers. (Fun to think about: I’m not sure how many people MJ turned onto Phish, but I know I paid it forward and I’m sure the folks I got hooked did their best to proliferate. How many tapes, tickets, miles, downloads, dollars, etc. trickled down from that first Reba?). Because there were two fires that got lit that sunny afternoon: the passion for the PH, yes, but one that burns just as hot in me is the joy of turning people onto music. New music. Shit you haven’t heard before. I’ve devoted a not-too-small portion of my life to it.

So praise to the tastemakers. I’ve been lucky to run into a few of ‘em along the way that have strongly influenced what I listen to today. I think most of what listen to today can be traced to a small number of people who’ve pushed me in the right direction at the right stage of my listening “career”:: my father, MJ above, EF in college, JM and AC in my post-Phish musical reawakening and constantly through the years my brother who has strongly yinned my yang and vice versa. I raise my glass and my headphones to you guys. Thank you!

So when I try to get you to check something out and verge on the obnoxious trying to convince you, I’m just trying to capture those all-important moments. There is little better praise than knowing I’ve turned someone on to something they end up falling in love with. Few things put a bigger smile on my face. I think of the guy who turned me onto Phish and turned me onto all the other music I listen to… I think of them every time I listen. I hope you’ll do the same. It’s the good stuff. Bag it and tag it.

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