Friday, August 22, 2003

Language is a Virus

It’s new student week at UC Berkeley. Packs of roaming freshmen have been clogging Telegraph along with the occasional baffled parent. I’ve noted a couple things. 1. That fashion trends, especially amongst young women, have remained stagnant for almost a decade now. The reigning trend continues to be the 70’s melded with a mélange of early 90’s hip-hop/rave/urban influences. This year it’s been all about hip-huggers and tank tops. 2. Milk crates and trash bags are still a great way to move your stuff from home to college.

Ahh, freshmen year! Such giddy potential! I remember walking into my dorm room at Ohio State (I had two other roommates along with a view, for what it's worth, of the Columbus skyline) and being horrified to see Budweiser cheesecake posters commandeering the walls. And one of my roommates was prone to playing classic rock mix tapes with unfortunate frequency. I remember opening my flimsy chest full of tapes (I would finally buy a CD player at the end of the school year, the Spring of 1990) with my two roommates standing before me to gage the all important collection.

I began holding up various cassettes. Had they ever heard of The The? Lloyd Cole and the Commotions? Love and Rockets? Siouxsie and the Banshees? The Smiths? The Cure? New Order? Big Audio Dynamite? Dead Can Dance? Laurie Anderson? This Mortal Coil? Cocteau Twins? The Pixies? Echo and the Bunnymen? Art of Noise? Wire? The Replacements? Kraftwerk? Depeche Mode? (though, “Violater” would enjoy cross-over success that Spring, thanks to the popularity of “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence”) Joy Division? Book of Love? The Jesus and Mary Chain? Nitzer Ebb? Cabaret Voltaire? Xymox? Shriekback? XTC? (If it was part of the late-80’s “Alternative” cannon, there’s a good chance I had it.) No, they hadn’t heard of any of them. My alternative rock credentials were firmly entrenched (I had stopped listening to the radio, more or less, by 8th grade and I wore that fact like a badge) thanks to the steady flow of interesting new music that trickled down through two older brothers, while my roommates were both heavy into the likes of Eric Clapton, Zeppelin, Bad Company, Queen and Aerosmith. I was sonically brutalized by murky mix-tapes featuring stunning feats of guitar froth wankery. It made me a more tolerant person. Of course, I’d never want to live through it again. I mean, my god, Bad Company?!

Winter quarter I attended a stunning Laurie Anderson concert (her Strange Angles tour) by myself, unable to interest anybody else on my floor to go with me, even after I played them O Superman , half expecting its hypnotic minimalist apocalyptic grandeur to act as a siren, luring them to the concert hall for more. I came back to the dorm positively flipped-out and made my roommates sit and indulge my inchoate attempts to explain the unexplainable. How do you, at 18, explain Anderson’s “voice of authority,” her sing/song elegance, her multimedia savvy, her haunting and hilarious and heartbreaking monologues, her dream logic? How to explain when I had been so affected by her highly palatable avant-garde abstractions that I felt nearly boundless, coming down from a post-show high and feeling as though I had been transported by the spectacle of something rarefied and utterly rich and strange. How to explain all that, without the context of her voice, her movements, her video and her music? Well, my roommates were kind enough to listen.

In high school I had listened to all of her albums religiously. She was one of my heroes. With my high school buddies, we practically wore out a video copy of Home of the Brave (the one with Adrian Belew and his bending guitar, the one with Anderson and William S. Burroughs dancing on stage, the one with White Lilly) and I couldn’t get enough of my treasured copy of her masterpiece, United States I-IV, which I had finally found my junior year of high school in a crappy mall record store. She was a making a living as a glorious freak and that definitely inspired us.

So freshman year was, in good part, about musical evangelism. The album I probably succeeded in turning the most people on to was Peter Gabriel’s Passion, his brilliant soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s much-maligned The Last Temptation of Christ. This may sound like a shallow achievement and in the grand scheme of things, there’s no doubt that it is, but then, to have half the floor marveling right along with you to the thrilling vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was pretty terrific. In between there were classes, drinking, dancing (at Mean Mr. Mustards, the infamous and now sadly demolished alternative music bar on High Street, where one could hear Front 242’s Headhunter followed by the Cocteau Twins’s Lorelei) letter writing, late night conversation about Big Questions and Santa Barbara, the cheesy soap-opera that more then half the floor got hooked on and would pile into our room to watch each afternoon from 3:00 to 4:00. We gave it a couple months before our attention wandered off to making plans for returning home for summer.


laura walton said...

Do you have any photos of old campus? espc. magnolia thunderpussy or mean mr. mustards?

Chris Breitenbach said...

I wish I did. I don't remember ever having a camera with me. Looking on Flickr, somebody has posted what looks to be a recent picture of Magnolia Thunderpussy, though I have no idea if it's in the same location. (I remember there being two Magnolia's on High Street in the early 90's).