This morning, I submitted an application for a highly-desirable remote music journalist gig at a tech company with deep pockets. I won’t get it because these roles are always filled from within, but at least the hiring editor made the submission process interesting.
Instead of requesting information about my job history, he just asked a question and asked for an answer in essay form. A refreshing change of pace compared to the usual solicitations of old music-related writing samples. My recent terse review of The Dandy Warhols’ latest effort isn’t my best foot forward.
His question was, “What was the moment you became obsessed with music?”
I never thought to figure out the day it happened, but after a few Google searches, I was able to pinpoint the date to August 18th, 1981 -- a Sunday. I know it was a Sunday because this moment involved my father, and by that time, I only saw him on Sundays, as per divorce court orders.
On that Sunday, my father persuaded me once again to wash his car with an ongoing long con with Tom Sawyer-esque proportions
“You know, this car will be yours when you start college,” he’d casually say in passing whenever we’d happen to be in its presence.
“This car” was his pride and joy -- a cherry red 1976 Porsche 911S Targa. He bought it between marriages when Saturday Night Fever fever spread across America like a Biblical plague. The car, the coke, and the gold-braided necklace were the accoutrements of a freshly-divorced man in his late twenties.
While I washed the car (which included a vacuuming, a vigorous shammy rub down, and coating its rubber and leather with Armor All), he popped Prince’s Controversy into the car’s Blaupunkt cassette player, and the title track started pulsing.
The music was different. It was punk, electronic, disco, soul, gospel, and rock. I couldn’t tell if it was a protest song, a song about sex, or something attempting to will itself into a new queer dance anthem. It was hot and cold at the same time, but it was exciting.
The cover art on the J-card didn’t tip me off to what I was listening to either. The person in the foreground looked like an alien -- streamlined Little Richard in a studded trench coat with a Rude Boy badge on its lapel -- a grab bag of pop iconography. The backdrop was made up of a bunch of mock newspapers with apocalyptic headlines. It was a lot to take in for someone who’s first and only album they owned up until that point was a rock & roll novelty sampler curated by Henry Winkler as The Fonz.
It might have been an inappropriate selection to play in front of your 11-year-old son, but my father still had a curious artist’s spirit at the time.
“I asked the guy behind the counter what was playing over the speakers,” my father said, explaining his recent purchase at Tower Records. “He handed me this tape and said, ‘Everyone’s gonna be talking about this guy in a year.’”
My father bought the cassette, and the clerk was right – 1999 was released about a year later. (It would take me two more years to discover Dirty Mind, and find the root of his incalculable peak from 1980 to 1984.)
That’s all it took for me to realize that music could be more than novelty songs and lightweight dance music, which is the only kind of music Top 40 disc jockeys played at the time.
But this moment might not have made an impact if it wasn’t for my stepmother. She appeared out of nowhere while “Controversy” was playing and bellowed, to no one in particular: “What’s this? Is that the Lord’s Prayer? This is sacrilegious. You have to turn it off... Now.”
In 1981, America was going through one of its recurring spells of Satanic Panic. Many people escaped undamaged, but children with born again Christian parents weren’t so lucky. Every Sunday, I was one of those affected children.
(One year later, I would be forced to follow my stepmother around her house, from bathroom to bathroom. While stopping at the three bathrooms, my stepmother would grab the tube of toothpaste from the medicine cabinet, and when we ended up by the kitchen trash can, she dropped two of the tubes in the aluminum cylinder.
“Did you know Crest is made by Procter & Gamble?” she asked me as if I kept abreast of which conglomerates manufactured the toiletries I didn’t even purchase in the first place.
As she waved the third tube in the air like a scepter, she said, “Procter & Gamble, and the people who run the company support the Church of Satan!”
And with that, she presented the back of the third tube to me, and pointed at a small logo of a crescent moon surrounded by stars. “Thirteen stars,” she pointed out.
I later found out she saw something on television that accused Procter & Gamble of being a Satanic company. I’m almost positive her vigor was stirred up after watching a segment about Satanism on the highly irresponsible Phil Donahue Show.)
When my stepmother associated Prince with Satan, that sold me on him. This was confirmation that he was as dangerous as I assumed he was, and there was something appealing about that. I was no Satan worshiper, but I was raised Catholic and all those masses and catechism classes seared the fear and intrigue of God and Satan in my conscience.
All that happened within the five minutes of the first time I heard “Controversy.” I wasn’t even able to listen to the entire seven-minute song. My father acquiesced, and ejected the cassette out of the tape deck before the song was over. It would be one of the many times he buckled and placated her. By 1985, he too became a born again Christian, and eschewed any last artistic attribute that made him unique.
With no older siblings’ influential record collection to glean any sort of direction from, that was the song that made me really obsess over pop music as an art form. Eventually, I’d discover the important bands that inspired Controversy, but Sunday, August 18th, 1981 was when I became obsessed with music.
The Porsche, you ask? My father sold it to my stepmother’s daughter’s boyfriend for $6,000 in 1987, the year before I was to start college. (No, the $6,000 didn’t go to my college tuition.) The boyfriend didn’t realize that Porsches with over 50,000 miles on them are famous for dribbling about a thimble full of oil every day. This dumb kid who was all of maybe 25 at the time never kept tabs on his 911’s primitive dashboard gauges. The engine caught on fire within three weeks, and what was to be my birthright was sold as scrap for $400.