“Around the Music” features true life tales: coming-of-age, slice-of-life, and anecdotes, all based around music. Poignant, humorous, weird and wacky. Road trips. Concerts. Good drugs. Bad Drugs. Cups of tea. For more stories and submission information, visit “Around the Music.”

One on One: Furtive Music

by Nathan Leslie

As we all know, music is profoundly tethered to identity. At times the aura a certain musician or band gives off is all but impenetrable—a kind of shield blocking the ear holes. Sometimes we listen to what we think we should listen to. Put a cowboy hat on a musician and some will walk out of the room. Ditto for ropey gold chains. We cannot really blame MTV for this, but they have to be held at least partially responsible. I’m old enough to remember a time before MTV, when it was just my head and the radio. And then MTV came along and I—along with many others—was immediately addicted. I got to see all the musicians I had heard on the radio. That’s what Hall and Oates look like! There are the Cars. Video did not kill the radio star—it made us aware of the radio star as a physical entity. This is how Blondie dresses. That is how David Byrne appears. Next thing you know, Madonna is writhing in her lingerie and suddenly it’s the underwear wars—ZZ Top vs. Stray Cats vs. Warrant vs. Whitesnake.

For me music was always a personal unearthing first, something discrete. We think of music as part of a collective experience. You attend a concert and sing along to the big hits with thousands of others. But for me, discovering a band was like eyeballing a new surreptitious corridor in a dusty old mansion. I liked listening to music with the door closed.

This, of course, is a lot to digest considering MTV has not actually shown actual, you know, music videos in a decade plus. Now we use YouTube for the music, and occasionally we might look at the video—but that seems almost superfluous. YouTube is the world’s greatest record collection—every obscurity at our fingertips. So perhaps we have come full circle now to a pre-image era, almost. Except not really, since everything is Instagrammed and Twittered and Facebooked all the time. So music is still tarnished by all the imagery.

Before MTV, the concerts and album covers and posters were the visual draw—so it’s not as if MTV created the visual world of music. However, I remember as a little eight year old taking care of my neighbors’ dogs and lingering to watch MTV on the old punch box cable. My lovingly Luddite parents wouldn’t let us have cable—certainly not MTV—and it wasn’t until I was in high school that they gave in. So I had to furtively watch videos when and where I could. I was often behind in terms of popular culture. Often, after school, I would hang out at a friend’s house, not because her mom would give us post-school snacks (though those were nice—apples or Doritos) but because we would watch videos. I remember the Eurythmics most specifically. The Pretenders and of course Prince and Michael Jackson. These were secretive pleasures for me. But I was young. I had no associations with these songs; my identity was not pegged to listening to the Clash. I just liked “Rock the Casbah” and thought the video was strange and interesting with its snaking amp cable, oil pump, and tottering armadillo.

But it wasn’t until high school when I truly understood the connection between the kind of music one listened to and the friends one found oneself surrounded by. The band t-shirts were the dead giveaway, as were the 80’s rap tokens—the Mercedes Benz ornaments, for starters. The cool kids wore Ramones or Beastie Boys t-shirts. I was not a cool kid. I liked Scandal and Men at Work and nursed embarrassing predilections for 1984 by Van Halen, A-ha, Corey Hart and even—gulp—Spandau Ballet. I hadn’t really discovered “loud” music yet. I also had a weirdo affinity for John Denver. Nobody but nobody my age liked John Denver. Some of this was probably considered “girly” music, I am aware—and Van Halen was not definitely not “cool.”. The “grits” with the big hair and the cigarettes behind their ears wore the Van Halen t-shirts (or the jeans jacket with the Van Halen patch sewn on the back) on their way to the smoking section out the back door. However, I was a budding, sensitive writer kid whose tastes were a bit mixed-up; a bit embryonic; a bit cock-eyed. I remember my buddy, Matt, telling me my taste in music was “ uh . . .” He trailed off, unable to finish his sentence. He lacked the words.

For those of us who loved our furtive music—the songs nobody else understood—the salvation was the Sony Walkman. Mine was a tape player only, the size and density of a bookshelf dictionary. I still have nerve damage in my neck from constantly wearing that thing around the beach in the summer of 1983. On my Walkman I could listen to my Buffalo Springfield or Cat Stevens or The Beatles White Album and nobody would be any the wiser. Watching Trees Lounge (staring Steve Buscemi) a long time ago, I could relate to the character’s obsessively furtive blues collection. He hung out at the bar, but all he really wanted to do is stay in his apartment and listen to those terrific, dusty records. For me, however, out in the real world I was a bit lost in terms of what was cool and what was not cool. In a day before Internet metrics and social media I had no idea what was popular, aside from Casey Kasem’s Top Forty, which I, of course, listened to obsessively.

In high school it took me a while to gauge how my listening tastes reflected a certain type of personality. This became more obvious when my high school invested in a retro jukebox, plopping it firmly in the school cafeteria. The jukebox is all I remember about high school lunch. It was the clear centerpiece and certain songs I cannot hear anew as a result of that jukebox. Growing up in the 80’s, music was ubiquitous. To whit I heard “Should I Stay or Should I Go” twice a day, every day, in that cafeteria for two years. It was at this point I became more aware of associations. Then I knew that if I liked the B-52s I was deemed a bit . . . odd. And if I liked Tom Petty, I was a hippy. And if I liked Whitesnake I was confined to the “grit” circle again. And if I liked Boston I was a wannabe frat boy douchebag. Previously I had no idea. I listened with my ears.

I was maybe seventeen sitting around at the pier at Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia, Maryland with friends and friends of strangers. We began talking about music and for some reason I admitted publicly that I liked a certain Simon and Garfunkel song. Simon and Garfunkel! The howl of mocking laughter ripped through the air. I had no Simon and Garfunkel were not cool. But this was the late 80’s and Simon and Garfunkel were deemed outdated and hippy-dippy, easy listening music. I shrugged.

That summer I discovered/was introduced to the Cure, Nine Inch Nails, and Midnight Oil. Pretty soon I would understand that peal of laughter at a deep level, and by 1991, when Nirvana hit the airwaves, I too had all but moved beyond 60’s music to what was rendering the old rules obsolete. By then I too owned a few band t-shirts. By then I too had been to a few concerts. Perhaps my paltry badges meant I had found a niche. Perhaps I found my limits, also.

NATHAN LESLIE’s ten books of fiction include Root and Shoot, Sibs, and Three Men. He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years. He also served as interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle. His story appears in Best Small Fictions 2016 and his fiction has been nominated numerous times for a Pushcart Prize. Nathan is also the host for Reston Readings, a monthly reading series in Northern Virginia. Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as at www.nathanleslie.net. Information about his latest book, Three Men, can be found at www.texturepress.org.