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The Thomas Edison of College Rock

September 17, 2014

I’ve been thinking about college rock, indie rock, whatever you want to call it, this thing that defines the listening habits of over-sensitive young white people, this entity that makes us feel superior to the person sitting across from us on the F Train who looks like they listen to Maroon 5.

I was reflecting on bands from the 1970s like Tin Huey, Pere Ubu, Sneakers, the Shoes, even Suicide, who toured and released non-major label vinyl before there was a clearly delineated college rock touring, radio, and indie label circuit. But around the early-ish 1980s, college rock/indie rock seems to have become a more-or-less recognizable and consistent concept. Can we pinpoint a moment when a loose amalgamation of non-mainstream artists independently releasing records became this thing we readily identify as college rock and indie rock? Surely, there had to be a eureka moment, some kind of invention of the alt-rock wheel, probably around, oh, 1980.

And I think I found it.

His name was Sal Locurto. And if there was a Hall of Fame for College Rock, Sal Locurto has to be in the first class of inductees.

Sal Locurto (upper left) circa 1981, pictured with (clockwise) New Afternoon Show DJ Mike “Pablo” Dugan, Buzzcock Pete Shelley, and Buzzcock producer Martin Rushent.

In early 1980, an NYU student named Sal Locurto took over the college radio station WNYU. Specifically, Sal reformatted a slot of programming between 4 and 7 PM, which he dubbed “The New Afternoon Show.” I should also note (this is very important) that at the time WNYU had a giant signal; it could be heard clearly throughout the entire metro New York/tri-state area (i.e., a circle of about 50 – 75 miles in diameter, with Manhattan at the center). But WNYU’s power was not solely responsible for its’ influence. Sal made a commitment that the New Afternoon Show on WNYU would play only alternative music that could not be heard on any commercial radio station in New York City; the New Afternoon Show would play new alternative music and nothing but new alternative music, no exceptions. This meant that virtually all the music played on The New Afternoon Show would be import-only British music not available on American major labels (this was everyone from New Order to Department S to the Specials and about 800 more), or independently released American music (Lyres, Neighborhoods, Bongos, ESG, Liquid Liquid, Our Daughter’s Wedding, Dead Kennedys, many etceteras).

You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal about that? The college station in my town in 1977 was playing really cool shit.” True, but Sal and WNYU did a couple of things very differently: first, the “old style” college radio station would spin Elvis Costello and the Jam, then they’d play the Allman Brothers and Cat Stevens; you’d be listening to a DJ playing Wreckless Eric, then when you tuned in an hour later, some guy would be playing nothing but Jaco Pastorius and Coltrane. The traditional college radio station had zero consistency. Sal changed that, and changed the definition of college rock dramatically, turning WNYU’s core afternoon programming block into an outlet exclusively for new music. Secondly, Sal passed down the edict that although the music might be highly unconventionally, the mode of delivery wouldn’t be: DJs were to back-announce (i.e., say the name of the songs played and identify the station) after every second song, no exceptions, and DJ segments were to be taut and informative, as opposed to the bong-laced indulgent blabbering heard on other college stations.

Soon, something remarkable happened: Sal’s commitment to exclusively playing new music and presenting it with a professional veneer led to publicists, clubs, and labels recognizing that WNYU could be used to promote their shows and their bands. You could fill a local show by a touring British alternative or American independent act just by getting the record played on WNYU, and the band showing up on air to plug the gig. I honestly believe that the model for new music promotion that existed throughout the 1980s (and into the ‘90s), and new-music marketing groups/conventions like New Music Seminar and CMJ (College Music Journal), owe their naissance to Sal Locurto and WNYU; Sal was literally the first person to create a radio outlet solely for independent and import-only music that was strong and consistent enough to be used as a promotional tool.

Black Flag, doing their thing, around the time Henry Rollins threatened to kill me, but that’s another story

Now, around the same time, Black Flag started touring endlessly with no concern for label support, proving that an independent act could keep themselves afloat and create a legend just by beating the crap out of a van, sleeping on fans’ floors, and selling a lot of t-shirts and vinyl at the venue; certainly, other bands had done this, but Black Flag made it a ceaseless way of life, and the model they created lasts until this day. Also, in late 1981-ish, R.E.M., by following the touring disciplines created by Black Flag, Minutemen, et al and adding the charismatic marketing touches that had been introduced in the wake of the promotional model invented by and for the New Afternoon Show, became the first non-hardcore band to use-the-tour-to-death/visit-every-college-radio-station-to-death/sleep-on-floors-until-you-want-to-die model and combine it with a charm and niche-filling sound that had the potential to one day go entirely mainstream; in other words, R.E.M. were the first post-SST/post-WNYU act to take all the lessons of the new way of doing business as an indie/college rock act, and ride it to the toppermost of the poppermost.

Chandrakirti, who lived about 1350 years before Henry Rollins

I’ve run out of a will to type further – a fairly academic but compelling commentary on Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning is calling my name. I mean, “Living beings are seen to be transient and empty of inherent existence, like a moon in rippling water.” That doesn’t have anything specifically to do with this piece, but I’ve moved on to the Chandrakirti. Oh wait it doesn’t have to do with this piece but it has to do with EVERYTHING ELSE.

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R.E.M. Were the Band of Our Time

August 27, 2014

This past Sunday was the 32nd anniversary of the release of Chronic Town by R.E.M.

I tried writing about this event with some objectivity, wit, or erudition, but failed.

That’s because

R.E.M. were the band of our time.

However, here’s what I did come up with:

R.E.M. were the band of our time.  They weren’t necessarily the best band, or the one we loved most or longest, but they were ours, ours, ours, ours.

If the college rock revolution had a July 4, 1776, it was August 24, 1982.
(And like all revolutions it featured many strangely hot girls who owned Big Star records and didn’t shave under their arms)

My generation were the little brothers of punk rock.  We were four, five, six, seven, eight years younger than David Byrne, Pete Shelley, Tom Verlaine, David Thomas, Colin Newman, Andy Partridge, and all the 89.1 heroes whose vinyl filled our lives; even the (slightly) more recent objects of our alt-passions (like Julian Cope, Ian Curtis, or Ian McCulloch) were still notably older than us.  This left us prone to seduction by the inferior tribes of ska and hardcore simply because they were closer to our age.   As we sluiced even further into the 1980s

(like we were riding a subway car full of pink and gray neon posterboard-people trampling on the bluefiush-blue down jackets of the ‘70s, accompanied by the bleat of Ed Koch’s bloated boasts and the confusing wobble of 45’s warped by the flaking bone-colored radiators of our first post-dorm apartments)

We were eager, terribly and beautifully eager, for a user-friendly form of college artrock we could call our own, one that felt like it was made by us and for us, but had the potential to exist on a far greater stage.

When R.E.M. entered our lives between 1981 and 1984, we immediately sensed

they were us, they were ours;

right away, we recognized them from our time spent standing in front of the mirror miming to Velvet Underground records, tossing our hair like Lance Loud, and dancing like Vanessa from Pylon. The discovery of R.E.M. was our Ed Sullivan moment (whenever that moment came, whether it be the indie release of “Radio Free Europe” or their masterpiece, the mushroom-laced kudzu gothic of Fables of the Reconstruction, or the deep, melancholy sweetness of Murmur or Reckoning); much as an entire generation wanted to grow their hair moppishly and pick up guitars after seeing the Beatles on TV in February 1964, when we

First heard R.E.M

we sensed that our time had come and the art of our heart’s desire, formed by cliquish devotion to dBs and Byrds and Big Star and Love and Beach Boys and Kinks and Move and Patti and Brautigan and Groovies, had suddenly found aggressive, physical, charming, and public voice; someone had formed the band we wanted to hear, someone had beaten us to it, and we couldn’t have been happier.  We had found the band we had theorized but perhaps never believed could be realized, the band that blended art and tradition better than any band of our time.

In those years (specifically ’82 through ’85), to us (those of us who were 18 to 25 at that time), R.E.M. became the friend at whose house every party started, that party where we would talk with abandon fueled by coffee and Heineken about all our favorite books and films and records and poets, and where we would meet every girl or boy we would instantly fall for (for at least eight days).  R.E.M. were us, in a way no other band had ever been us

(Us: shifty, sassy outsiders born in the years of JFK and LBJ, now entering the heartbeat of our 20s and shaking off the idea that we were a footnote to someone else’s past.)

R.E.M., and the friends we made through their fandom, were us, sharing our influences, our literary and musical and artistic and social and political interests, our beliefs that music could be popular without apologies. R.E.M. was the first band we loved who were the best versions of us, the first band who we could look in the eye and just know they came from the same place as us, the first band who would know just what we meant when we made a sly reference to Kimberly Rew or Chris Bell or Robert Frank or Wim Wenders and who would agree that the redhead sitting over there who drank John Courage and loved the Wooster Group looked very good indeed.

Some of you will scoff at these strong, romantic, childish words; but I suspect there are many of you out there who will know exactly what I am talking about.  We have to recall that feeling, that love we felt for those rich enchanting arpeggios and those sexy, enigmatic mumbles, and not feel any shame; we were right, right, right. They were the first band of, for, and by generation college rock, and the first band of that generation to get it all right.

(Oh, and by the way, Layne, if you don’t own that first EP and the three albums that followed — once again, that’s Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables of the Reconstruction — I have ZERO hesitation in stating that NOTHING you have to say or think about alternative music has any value, and I would be better off talking about Nick Drake or Tim Buckley with  Mayim Bialik or even Allison Mosier, the girl on the Cami Secret commercial.)

Eventually, we would recognize that we were not the youngest child, but the perennial middle child of the alt revolution — too young to be David Byrne, too old to be Kurt Cobain. But there was a little while when our age was perfect: for a shimmering time in the 1980s when we were drunk on youth’s true perfect years

(Youth’s True Perfect Years: the early/mid 20s, when a person is finally old enough to know how to have some genuine fun yet still too young to know better),

everything was right, and R.E.M. was our soundtrack, and R.E.M. told our story better than we could tell our own, and made us believe that our dreams that the words “art” and “commerce” were not necessarily oxymoronic could actually be true.

Thank you Peter, Mike, Michael, Bill, and Jefferson. Somewhere in my heart it is always August 24, 1982.

(And thanks to Glenn Boothe, a great friend and a legendary Triangle club booker, for reminding me of the date).

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