Man vs middle age cliche

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I admit it, I’ve become a big cliché.

Yes, I’m yet another fortysomething man who become a vinyl record aficionado.

See what I mean? Cliché.

It’s hardly a new idea. I mean, read High Fidelity or see the movie. Or read any of the news articles from a few years ago, the ones that insist most record store customers are middle aged loners.

Thanks, Obama.

My blog so far has been a lot about my memories – a memoir with music in the background. It will continue to be that, but a big chunk will now also be about my observations about the wonderful (and weird) world of vinyl.

There’s a lot that’s got me interested about this world, so I’ll be writing about it.

I’ll try hard not to become an even BIGGER cliche, a bigger middle aged hipster than I already am!

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Christmas and the World of Plenty

Sometimes, the perfection of youth shows its cracks upon closer inspection.  What seemed lovely at the start is a bit more problematic in the bright light of day.

No matter how much good the effort may have done, no matter how much money it raised, there’s still a bit of a flinch when a major pop star sings “Well, tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you!”

The social justice warrior of 2015 kind of wants to slap the well meaning new waver of 1984 over THAT one.

And yet, in its imperfection, the affection and the memory is still a beautiful thing.

This remains one of my favorites. I was deeply into all things British musically, and for a young gay boy, it was like a parade of my crushes. Paul Weller. Jon Moss. Tony Hadley.

And my hero – or dare I say, heroine – Boy George. His voice here is just magic, every note.

I still love this song so. Even hearing it now brought tears to my eyes.

I wish such a song wasn’t still necessary. I wish so much of today’s world could be fixed so easily. That which seemed so possible in 1984 feels but a distant memory in 2015, with the brutality and disregard for humanity we swim in every day.

But for a few moments, I am reminded.

PS: I always love to see the extended Band-Aid clip. My favorite moment (at around 20:00) again, courtesy of Boy George, who hears a voice in the mix he believes is Alison Moyet and then is told is George Michael. 

Performance of Masculinity

I was six years old, in a red brick schoolhouse, starting first grade. I’d been assigned a desk in a row of desks near the windows of our classroom.

Bad idea, lady. Too many distractions.

The boy in front of me was perfect, in every way. It could be said that, at six, I had a crush on him. Not a romantic one, certainly not a sexual one, but the kind of crush I would have many times in my life.

I wanted to be him.

He was thin, with perfectly tufted hair, and every day, he wore a shirt and pants that looked like they were made for him. Perhaps they were.

I would sit near Rob, the boy in question, all throughout grade school. His collared shirts would have pens in them, and yet no one so much as snarked in Rob’s direction. He was performing the role expected of him, and doing so beautifully.

Contrasted with me, of course.

I was smart, but sheltered as a kid. I’d failed a psychological test the year before, one that would have allowed me to enter school early, because (according to my mother) when I was asked to draw a body, I drew a head only and told the school official: “Well, if you have a good head on your shoulders, you don’t need a body.”

Undoubtedly snarky even at five.

In first grade I entered a power of wills with the teacher. I was often daydreaming, constantly sketching things and writing on my desktop. My teacher figured she’d nip it all in the bud by taking away the desk.

I wrote on the floor.

I didn’t look like the other boys, me, in my ill-fitting shirts and pants. I certainly didn’t act like them, me, inside clapping the erasers while all the little boys ran around the playground.

I did not perform the role expected of me. I didn’t then, and I feel that on most days, I haven’t come much closer to a convincing performance of it now.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, wedged between two steel towns. Our fathers and their fathers went to work, came home in darkness and grunted once for “good night” and twice for “good morning.”

They were smart men, but emotional IQ wasn’t a priority for us guys.

It may sound like a stereotype from a bad pulp novel, but the men around me seemed so similar: gruff, blue collar guys who watched football, drank beer and occasionally bet on the horses.

I don’t think “Free To Be You And Me” reached my hometown, or at least not the men in my inner circle.

And I failed at every test of masculinity that I was asked to perform.

I had (and still have) no interest in sports, either as a spectator or a player. I failed at nearly every sport I tried, though I was able to passably play golf.

Looking back, I feel really bad for my father, who tried to reach out to me, and really tried to a very long time to make some connection via sports.

I remember him trying baseball, softball, tennis, fishing and golf with me. He really wanted me to succeed in my efforts, but I just couldn’t connect. It was like asking me to walk on a broken leg — painful and not even remotely graceful.

Wood shop, and the projects I tried to help him with in the garage, didn’t fare much better. My dad could MacGyver the shit out of almost anything and make it work or fix it, but aside from maybe putting a plate on a light switch, I missed those genes.

(I was no better at cooking; to this day, I burn water.)

At a few different points in my life, I wondered if perhaps I was transgender. I seriously considered this possibility for a time.

I know gender is complex, and I don’t want to reduce it to binaries, or assign any gender a specific meaning or behavior (e.g., women are more emotional, etc.)

I also know that for transgender people, their journeys to realization and becoming trans are also complex. But for me, the question was: Do I feel like I’m in the wrong body? That answer, when I’ve asked myself, is ‘no.’

I expected this conundrum to go away as I got older, or at least recede into the shadows. But I don’t know that it has.

When I turned 30, I discovered a community of men who liked bigger, stockier men like me. It was their THING. Finally, there was a place to meet new friends (and maybe a boyfriend!) that wasn’t a nightclub filled with really skinny guys looking for other really skinny guys.

But I didn’t quite fit into that template, either. Those guys were hoping for a big, burly lumberjack type, a guy with a big beard or a flannel shirt or a slew of tattoos, a big “bubba” that would be the strong guy, take the lead, be in charge.

They would meet me, excitedly, only to be totally disappointed. Bookish, nerdy, obtuse me. They wanted flannel shirts, and instead got a guy who wrote about soap operas and had all the seasons of Maude and Mary Tyler Moore on DVD. They found a guy who had a framed picture of Dawn Davenport from Female Trouble on the mantle.

Reply hazy, try again later.

Hazy is what it still feels like, sometimes.

For many years, I thought I had a profound lack of esteem when it came to competition. I am one of the least competitive people who ever lived; it’s just not in my nature.

I thought it was low self-esteem, but I’m beginning to reconsider that idea. I think it’s really more that it’s unclear who my peer group should be. Am I being compared apples to apples? Oranges to oranges?

I don’t know if being gay has anything to do with my perception of all of this. I’ve had an adult “crush” on a guy that didn’t really have much to do with sex, or sexual attraction. It was just swooning, of sorts, at how brilliant they seemed to be, how well their whole performance of masculinity was executed.

Nine point nine from the Russian judges!

When I’m compared to other men, perhaps it goes back to the boy with the cleanly pressed shirt and pens. I still can’t really express it, but I don’t know that I belong in his bracket.

I have my own approach, and my own gifts, and they need to be measured for their own merit, need to be taken at their own face value.

Musically, the best way I can illustrate this post is with one artist: Boy George.

The arrival of Culture Club was refreshing to me. Seeing the genderqueer Boy George (as well as an androgynous Annie Lennox) was validation for a young teenager that there were others who didn’t fit into the mainstream.

It was also a very early lesson about the true cost of difference, and the ultimate toll that publicly acknowledging difference would have on me.

It may be just a few pop songs we’re talking about here, but it’s all currency and oxygen to a teenager.

A few years earlier, I’d received the proper albums for a young man: AC/DC. Ozzy Osbourne. Those who were about to rock saluted me.

I remember the day that I said, out loud, to the kids that I was hanging out with that I liked Culture Club.

I remember the feel of the duct tape that my ‘friends’ put in my hair, while I sat, staring stonefaced. That was the last moment I acknowledged them for years, and in a day, I lost an entire social group.

And of course they, in turn, shunned me. A complete Arctic tundra kind of thing.

Colour By Numbers was my favorite album for many of those teenage years. I had to buy a second copy after wearing out the first. (At some point, my poor mother – who loved George, too – offered me $20 to not play it for a week.)

And I remember a hellish bus ride back from a field trip. The bus driver had the radio blaring, and it was a two-fer Thursday (yes, I remember this). On the way back, the “twofer” was two Culture Club songs. It was a sociological exercise to see how many times forty kids could call me “faggot,” scream obscenities and throw things at me in eight minutes’ time.

I survived it all. And I still have the music — which has come with me from vinyl to cassette to CD to MP3 and now, back to vinyl.

I’ve loved Boy George’s body of work, with and without the band. And I think his work, particularly with Culture Club, is under-appreciated.

It’s often dismissed as lightweight pop music but I think it’s due some reconsideration. Like the best of ABBA and the Carpenters, many of the best Culture Club and Boy George songs have heartbreak and melancholy wrapped in big candy wrappers.

As much as I love all his work, Colour By Numbers has something that really touched me, touched my heart. It is every bit as classic, in my eyes, as Dusty In Memphis, as Court and Spark.

(And I say this as a fan who isn’t terribly enamored of That Chameleon Song.)

I wasn’t completely sure at the time what I was about or what George was on about, but I knew he was, in some way, singing about a very essential truth, something I recognized.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but when it became clear years later that Colour By Numbers was essentially a huge love letter from George to Jon Moss, it made sense. I think I’d understood that on some level.

The high energy highs, and the ache for love, was in every note, especially in “Victims,” the breathtakingly beautiful ballad that closes the album.

Boy George didn’t have an easy time of it after Culture Club became famous. His life imploded in a rather public way, more than once.

But he has survived and thrived, renewing and reinventing himself, finding his spiritual center, and remaining as relevant as ever.

I’m happy to see George looking well, doing well.  His life and his talents are in clearer focus these days.

It’s all any of us can really hope for, isn’t it?

2013: The Electric Lady

Janelle-Monáe-The-Electric-Lady-2013-1500x1500

A few years ago, I did something relatively crazy.

I left a steady job – one that had taken me forever and a day to land after a Christmastime layoff during the pit of the financial downturn – to return to school.

I thought it would be relatively easy for me – easier than work, right?

Hell, no. It was one of the most challenging times in my life. I was roughly twice the age of most of my fellow students, taking the traditional class route.

That’s right, none of this night-class, expedited class schedule for me! I had to do it the hard way.

I always regretted leaving college. I had an opportunity to fix it and live that experience and I said, HELL YES.

I went all in on the experience. I became a staff member of the student newspaper, and took a shift at the college radio station.

******************

2013 was as stressful as any time frame of any job I’ve ever had.

I was heading into my senior year, wrapping up some research projects and an independent study.

The summer before my senior year began, I started to feel fatigue, then a sharp abdominal pain. I soon learned that I needed minor surgery.

It added more urgency and more stress to a time that was already full of plate spinning. In addition to a full class load, I’d taken on the role of news editor and online editor for the student newspaper.

Did I mention I was also commuting by train from twenty miles away? Unlike my fellow students, who only needed to stumble out of dorms in pajamas to get to class, I was on the train at 6:30 a.m. many mornings for a full day.

And even adding those things together, the most intimidating part wasn’t the learning. That was the joy.

It wasn’t the professors. My professors were uniformly interesting, smart people who appreciated my work ethic and my interest, and some of them treated me as a peer.

No, it was the fellow students. Because nothing is more intimidating than getting side-eye from a whole bunch of people half your age.

And believe me when I tell you that no boss, no angry co-worker has ever intimidated me as much as some of these fellow students.

I mean, there was so many of them. And so few of me.

****************

I can’t think of this time without thinking about Janelle Monae’s Electric Lady. The lead single, “Q.U.E.E.N,” was released early in the summer, and when the whole album dropped in early September, it was the soundtrack of my life for most of the rest of that senior year.

I’m a pretty low-key, mellow person, so I needed to ramp up my attitude and my armor when I went to class. Music will do that for me; I used to get hyped up with PJ Harvey before facing the crowds at the clubs, to get myself in the right mindset.

“Q.U.E.E.N.” was my armor song, the compass for my mindset.

So many fantastic things in this song, so many texts and subtexts — being an individual vs groupthink, the queer subtexts, the end rap essentially proclaiming Black Lives Matter in its own way and in its own voice before it was ever tagged on Twitter.

And the lyrics were on point for my experience: Walk in the room // They throwing shade left to right.  

I loved this entire album, but the song that really came to mean so much to me was “Victory.”

A few weeks into the semester, complications from my surgery were keeping me out of school and in the ER.

I was heartbroken. So close to graduation, and yet it seemed like my goal of finishing my long-delayed education might just fall back out of reach.

It was harder than anything to keep the plates spinning — do the classwork and write the articles and edit the work of other writers, to keep all of that going and yet also address my health issue and get treatment.

Victory is a love song, but some of the lyrics hit me in a different way.

Today I feel so troubled deep inside
I wish the tears would roll back in my eyes
Will I rise?
Oh I’ll keep singing songs until the pain goes

And so it became my mantra, as I put one foot in front of the other, and slowly got through that semester, and the next one.

To be victorious
You must find glory in the little things

And so I did. I graduated that May, with a 3.93 average, and over 80 articles for the newspaper during that academic year.

One of those articles was a review of Electric Lady. (It was a positive one. Shocking, I know.)

I still spin Electric Lady and Monae’s previous album, The ArchAndroid, almost every day.

I’ve said it before and will say it again: it mystifies me why Janelle Monae isn’t at the top of every chart.

I have to look back to Prince and Erykah Badu (both of whom appear on Electric Lady) to come up with artists who bring the whole real deal like Monae does.

I’m so proud of my accomplishment, though I’ve been spinning my wheels a bit since graduation, trying to get back on the moving train known as my career track.

Maybe I need to meditate with the mantra that got me though before. It couldn’t hurt, right?

To be victorious
You must find glory in the little things

MIXTAPE: A bit of Pride

Some stories don’t fit neatly into a single song, album, or year, so I’ll be making a “mixtape” for those entries. Like this one…..

It’s June, which means it’s LGBT Pride Month.

Which means any corporation worth their salt (or stock price) will trot out a pride flag in their imaging. The hot Maytag guy was holding a rainbow cake on Facebook, so hey, I’m all for that show of support.

And it also means that the inevitable discussion about Do We Still Need Pride and Why Is There Pride and Why Must We Be So Loud and Flamboyant all bubble up to the top.

A few years ago, there was an article in a now-defunct Canadian magazine, The Grid. (ONTD has a mirrored link here.) It was called “Dawn of a New Gay,” and it spoke to a number of twentysomething young gay men about all the things they were so over. Gay bars were on everyone’s list.

I understand that things have changed. I just know that the bar scene was an important place for me to figure out who I was, and how I related to other people.

I wrote about this particular era of my life in another blog. “Formative years” is accurate enough, but seems insufficient.

Music was an incredibly important part of that scene, and R&B and dance were the DNA of it all.

The whole 1980s hybrid of pop and R&B, which came together in the form of Michael Jackson and Prince, was just a few years in the rearview mirror.

Bars and nightclubs could be really cold places, with knives out (metaphorically and, occasionally, literally), but I loved dancing and loved the music I heard there. It felt warm and alive to me.

The Jam/Lewis sound was especially warm and fun, a throwback to late 1970s disco music, and no one personified that sound more than Janet Jackson.

Somehow, despite living in a dreary corner of the Rust Belt, I had friends and enough cash in my pocket to go on adventures every so often. One of our favorite trips was to Cleveland, where the clubs and bars always seemed much friendlier.

I remember the club Keys, in downtown Cleveland, one of the first places I remember being where black and white men were side by side, no borders. No boundaries on the dance floor, as long as the DJ kept things moving.

We were living in a rising queer sensibility – or so all the crucial gay magazines told us – where we tried to smash gender lines, racial lines and every other box and boundary possible.

I was political and aware as the next guy, but also, sometimes? We just wanted to catch a buzz and get laid.

I stopped going to clubs when I had to be up at 6:00 a.m. for the start of a boring corporate workday, and that, as they say, was that.

But I still dream about it from time to time….it’s a beautiful place to lose your inhibitions, to make a beautiful fool of yourself and revel in the joy of it all.

Pride’s the same way for some people, be they old or young, L or G or B or T or any other identity that isn’t in the binary system.

A few weeks ago, I found out that someone I knew as a kid – someone who lived a few streets over, someone who was a pretty steady presence in my young life – was murdered.

I can’t accurately call him a friend, but he and I were both gay, and we served as confidantes to each other, sharing notes. We had a few awkward teenage experiences together (fill in the blanks, kids).

And then we got macro-awkward, about everything, for no good reason, and drifted apart. What? Who knows. We were hormonal teenagers, and drama queens to boot.

We caught up years later at a gay bar, and I think we may have talked for all of five minutes, but it was pretty clear that at that time, he wasn’t out to his family. I don’t know if that ever changed.

Two things hurt my heart; one, that he was murdered. And two, that they were talking around him and who he was. He was referred to in one article as “unmarried.”

The details of his death are being hidden, but the between-the-lines message that’s been implied is that he may have been the victim of a hookup gone wrong.

Coming out may not seem important to some people. But if I died tomorrow, I know that people would talk about me and about everything I am, and everything I was.

They would talk about my partner, and how he’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and the reason my world turns.

There would be no hiding, no shame, no abrupt end to a life that never got to completely emerge from its shell.

And I’m sad, and angry, and hurt that my former school mate didn’t get that chance.

You should read Joe Jervis (of Joe.My.God) and his essay, “Watching the Defectives.

The last line gets me every time.

“They wish we were invisible. We’re not. Let’s dance.”

1995: Exile in Guyville

It was 20 years ago this summer – 20 years ago this month, I think – when I first moved to Chicago.

I’d only seen a bit of Chicago when I’d visited as a teenager, during a trip with a DeMolay youth group. But as a bored suburban kid, I loved the vibe of the cities, the late night energy.

I was still, to some degree, under Jay’s spell. He’d moved to Chicago a few months earlier with a mutual friend. She moved out to deal with an intense personal issue (giving up a child for adoption) and Jay needed a roommate. And so off I went.

Unfortunately, June of 1995 was NOT the ideal time to land in Chicago. That summer eventually had one of the harshest heat waves in history, killing over 700 people in the city alone.

Jay and I shared a one-bedroom apartment in Ravenswood, a north side neighborhood near the Brown Line. At that time, Ravenswood was middle-class and middle of the road, not particularly ritzy or blighted.

I loved riding the CTA, loved all the little markets and stores, loved the mixture of faces and cultures I was seeing every day.

I worked during that first Chicago stint for a big chain bookstore, one of those big superstores. I’d started to work for them a year earlier, back in Pittsburgh.

After years of working at every fast food restaurant with a name tag and a uniform, smelling of grease and sweat at the end of a long day, I was lucky to land the book selling gig.

I had a love/hate relationship with that job. I loved being around books, but I felt like a bull in a china shop. My sweaty, big head and fat neck never felt at home in the dress shirt and tie we had to wear.

I regularly developed crushes on my male co-workers, especially my managers. Well-dressed, competent, and smart, and in a snazzy shirt and tie, too? Yes, please.

In Pittsburgh, the manager was tall, fiercely intelligent and handsome, with a laugh that made you want to pop up in the midst of wherever he was holding court. (And great penmanship, too!)

In Chicago, our manager was an almost comically relaxed, confident man with a flattop, big bushy facial hair and a body that looked great in form-fitting clothing. His assistant manager was Hollywood handsome, and looked like Central Casting had sent him to be in the cast of an NBC sitcom.

And then there was me, looking like an unmade bed, wrinkled and sweaty even in the middle of December. And now, it was July, and the temperatures were over 100 degrees.

The Wikipedia article (linked above) indicates that July 12 to 16 were the worst days, but I can remember the heat being oppressively bad even earlier than that. Just a few days after the Fourth of July, we had brownouts in our place, and I would take a cold shower every few hours just to keep from getting dehydrated and going completely batshit crazy in the heat.

It was hot inside, hot outside, hot in public places and hot on the buses and trains. CTA cars were a possible source of relief, but more often than not, the strain on the system would blow out a train’s AC.

Our store closed on a few of the hottest days, but aside from the fact that I got to see Jay walk around in nothing but briefs for a few days, there was no silver lining.

My free time that summer was limited, and so were my activities; Chicago was more expensive than I’d expected. I usually hung out at home and listened to my Discman.

It was that first stint in Chicago when a co-worker introduced me to Liz Phair. Her album Whip-Smart had just been released a few months earlier.

Then I heard Exile in Guyville, and I fell down a rabbit hole where I listened to that album on a loop. I’m still listening, twenty years later.

People argue about Liz Phair. They often love her or hate her. Even her fans often hold up Exile as her only work of value. It is a masterpiece, though there’s plenty to love about her other work, too.

It was hard then to separate the music from the constant press debate about Women In Music, and how they were being rude and angry and positively…manly. Attempts to package a few similar artists as a trend or some kind of sociological statement were made, and Liz was usually in the middle of any printed discussion of that firestorm.

I can’t speak to any of that. I just connected with her work, especially Exile, Whip-smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg, because of its authenticity. It felt like Liz was telling you, personally, her story.

There was an element of humor, but also a thread of darkness and loss, and I connected to that in her songs.

Chicago and me, we were like a bad habit. The city of broad shoulders was a boyfriend I couldn’t quite shake. I left a few months after my first arrival, but came back in 1997 to take a job working for the phone company and, for the final time, to live again with Jay.

In that 1997 move, I was here for a few months and then – bam – was laid off from that call center job. And there I was again, at that big behemoth bookseller.

History repeats itself in unusual ways. In 2008 I moved here again, and have lived here since. I accepted a fabulous job, worked there for less than a year and then, as if to make the cruelest joke possible, was laid off. Again. After a move. Again, just a few weeks before Christmas.

The gift this time – the gift that kept me here – is that I met and fell in love with the man who became my partner. (Updated 5/2017: now husband!)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the neighborhoods have changed. Ravenswood is now filled with condominiums, and neighboring Andersonville has become one of the most sought-after addresses in the city. For most of this stint in Chicago, I’ve lived much closer to the Loop than I ever had before.

I loved this city, but I have to be honest, it’s starting to break my heart. My career has taken a merciless beating here. I took time off to earn a college degree, but in the seven years I’ve lived here, finding a job – and fighting for the job once I land it – has been really hard. I may have great experience and a willingness to learn and work, but I look too old and too expensive on paper.

The city vibe and the noise and energy I loved 20 years ago drive me crazy now. So my partner and I will move on, at some point soon, and try to land somewhere with less noise, and a little patch of green to call our own.

I still have Liz’s work on pretty heavy rotation. It’s the same music, of course, but it elicits a slightly different reaction in me now. It’s comforting and it resonates with me.

Recently, I attended the memorial service of a friend, a man who died entirely too soon. I was anxious and nervous, but he, too, was a music fan, and I played a lot of his favorites, including a Liz track, on my way to the service.

I’ll see you around // Every hollow has its favorite sound

Every rock and tree and leaf abound with your face

The music centered me and calmed me.

1985: Lay Your Hands On Me

The Thompson Twins were one of many British bands I liked in the mid-1980s. New wave music trickled into our neighborhood slowly, with a few songs seeping through on WYDD, a station that would play Pat Benetar and the Police, but sneak in songs like “Situation” by Yaz from time to time.

It was completely different from the gimme-three-steps, drinking-bourbon-out-of-the-Pepsi-bottle-in-the-back-of-the-van classic rock music that most other guys in my town were contractually obligated to like, and so I soaked up the new sounds.

YDD had “The 1260 Club,” an hour of new music every night where I learned about bands like R.E.M and Romeo Void.

They also had “Rock Over London,” a weekly show (hosted by Graham Dene) where I would often hear songs months or even a year before they’d ever be released in the States or played on the radio here.

These distances in time and sound have been rendered irrelevant by the Internet and technology, but at the time, London felt like it was a million miles away. To hear an hour of music, live from the source, was thrilling.

I’m a Thompson Twins fan — I liked them well enough — but unlike some of the music I’ve chosen for earlier entries in this musical memoir of mine, I didn’t select them, or one of my favorite songs from them, “Lay Your Hands On Me,” for this post because their music had a huge, grand impact on me.

I selected them because they were part of an ad I placed in a national magazine.

Star Hits was published in the late 1980s as a Stateside version of the long-running UK magazine Smash Hits.

(According to the Wikipedia link, the two shared content and articles. Ah, corporate synergy at work in the corporate 1980s!)

My sister Shelle’s teenage music fandom of bands like the Bay City Rollers was published on the pages of teen-girl centered magazines like Tiger Beat.

But Star Hits was a publication for the 1980s – as easy to read as USAToday, but with some real content and substance for the beginner music fan, both guys and girls.

It would be easy to dismiss something like Star Hits as a promotional rag for teeny bop bands, but they were really good about covering a lot of the bands of the day. They were the source for me to find out about Everything But The Girl, which to this day remains one of my favorite bands.

A rare Star Hits cover that did NOT feature Duran Duran.
A rare Star Hits cover that did NOT feature Duran Duran.

If I had my head in a magazine on those days (and there were many) where I skipped school to avoid another day of harassment or another ass kicking, it was probably Star Hits. (Possibly Soap Opera Digest, but that’s another story and another blog.)

Nestled deep in the pages of  Star Hits was a page for pen pals.

It was simple: you posted your favorite bands and your contact information, and voila, you had mail.

Somewhere in my senior year of high school, I started to send my pen pal request to Star Hits. 

I can’t remember every band or musician that I listed in my ad, but I know for sure Thompson Twins and OMD were on the list.I’d seen them live a few months before, and it was a great show. Probably Yaz and Alison Moyet, too, and perhaps Siouxsie and the Smiths.

After several letters to Star Hits, I was in.

Success! There it was, my ad (under a nickname), and a list of the bands and artists I loved.

I expected a few letters, but was stunned when our mailbox was soon bulging – literally – with letters. I must have received over a thousand letters that summer. Our mail carrier began to complain to my mother. Then again, he complained to everyone.

I learned a lesson from the responses to the ad: A majority of people don’t hear what you say — or read what you write – but instead see or hear what they want the conversation to be.

90 percent of my replies were from Duran Duran fans, or “Durannies,” as we called them.

HI I’M BECKY!!!!!!!! I LOVE JOHN TAYLOR AND HORSES….AND PURPLE IS MY FAVORITE COLOR. I HEART JOHN!!! DD ROX! 

Duran Duran was NOT on my list of preferred bands. Not anywhere. I’ve just never been enthusiastic about them. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost friends and been uninvited from weddings because of this personality defect, but hey, one musn’t compromise one’s beliefs!

The Durannies were early spammers, most likely writing to everyone who was listed in that issue, and those letters were another lesson that I learned early and remember often in correspondence, communication and social media: Cut through the noise and focus on the people who are really listening to what you have to say.

I did make some fun, interesting friends. There was Emily from Maine, Teresa from Missouri, Monica from Cleveland Heights, and Joanna from Laval, Quebec. These were all smart, funny young women, and their warmth and intelligence shone through in their letters.

(They also had great handwriting, which was pretty much a necessity for me to respond!)

I did also meet a few guys through the ad. I was pretty inexperienced in the meet-and-greet department, but pen pals allowed me to practice my game from a distance.

I remember the cute, quiet guy who was a DJ at a college radio station. He sent me vinyl copies of The Smiths’ “Louder Than Bombs” and a Siouxsie record, and we had a brief correspondence, which included a nice little flirtation.

As far as the ad itself, I’m foggy on the details, but I think my home address was indeed published as part of the ad (though I did use a nickname in the ad itself). It’s probably mind-blowing to think of someone doing that today. “Oh hey, I’m a teenager and living with my parents. Here’s my contact info. #kthxbye.” No one got hurt, though.

I eventually lost touch with everyone. A few of the girls ran for the exits when I told them I was gay, and they realized that their hopes for a long-distance boyfriend would never come to fruition.

I went off to college. My best friend from childhood went to a different college a year later, and when I eventually met his boyfriend, we realized that he’d also done the Star Hits thing, and may have answered my ad. Small world.

Technology has changed so much. I only need to open a browser to listen to music from across the ocean.

The One Directioners don’t need to share a live address these days – they can follow their “fam” on Twitter.

The music industry has changed in many ways, and I’m sad that to some degree, the sense of adventure and discovery has disappeared from mainstream music.

But it’s alive and well on YouTube and on sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp.

For all the changes, the ideas are the same: Find interesting new music. Connect with other people who like the same things you do.

And watch out for the Durannies — and the One Directioners!

(Edited to add: I really need to see if I can find the ad.  I’m curious!)

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