No, no way… I’m not done. I’m having too much fun. It’s not over for me now, life has just begun…
I came to America and started a pop music quiz.
In the early oughties (or two-thousands, whatever you lot call them) my then wife and I were approached by the owner of Mobile’s only independent record store, Satori Sound Records, with the idea of sharing in the concept of a coffee house and cafe as part of the premises. The plan was to keep the record store and to attach a cafe to the other half of the building; and so it came to be that for a brief couple of years towards the end of my time in Alabama I had the coolest job of my life that far; working in the record store and also helping out in the cafe serving coffee.
(Okay, so I pretty much hated working as a barista making frothy coffee, but let’s get past that for now.)
It was during that tricky first year of opening that we needed ways to bring more trade into the cafe in the evening, and so that’s where the idea of a pop music quiz first germinated. I’d been a huge fan of the popular UK TV music quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, that my mum and various friends would send to me on VHS tapes from England that I could then watch on the universal VCR I owned at the time. (That show is still going strong as a staple of Friday night telly in England, now almost in its twentieth year.) I based the original version of the quiz on that show and stole a few ideas from other less popular variants too.
I have the flyer from the very first music quiz I hosted in the USA on my bedroom wall and have just noticed that today marks almost the thirteenth anniversary of that first night. I did an eighties music quiz on Friday 15th February in 2002 in the cafe. I can’t recall much about it despite still having my script for the quiz in my archive.
In those days it took place in a small and well-lit coffee house with a creaky and uneven wooden floor and various tables scattered around. I had a clipboard and a cassette tape player plugged into a couple of small speakers. I spoke in my normal unamplified voice and it was a polite and somewhat restrained affair. There was no alcohol, only coffee and various fruity drinks.
I tell you this because just last week I hosted my 99th quiz in my hometown of Winston Salem, North Carolina, in the best live music venue; The Garage downtown. These days it’s darker, a lot larger, a little crazier, and louder via a microphone and big speakers and a much noisier crowd. You can order anything you like from the bar if you’re old enough, and it’s a good deal more fun and unhinged in its present state.
By hook and crook I hauled the bones of the quiz through my last days in Alabama, and then put it into storage in Tennessee for just under a year, until it landed a little bruised and battered but otherwise compact, and began life once more in November of 2006 and continuing since on Thursday nights monthly in downtown Winston.
I am fierce proud of what my girl Amanda AKA DJ Shute and I have done with the evolution of the quiz and you can like us on our Facebook page and see tons of flyers and photographs of the many great nights we’ve had doing it here in Winston. We’ve also seen married two couples who first met at the quiz so go easy trampling around in there. You never know what you’re gonna come away with at the quiz.
I tell you all of this because last week in that 99th quiz I did a five-question round on the days of MTV and specifically their 120 Minutes show that used to air on Friday nights between ten and midnight when I was back in Alabama. This show specialized in what was widely becoming known as alternative music in the nineties. I’d record the show on then pre-DVD standard VHS tape and watch it later, often fast-forwarding through the commercials and the stuff I didn’t much care for.
One question in that quiz round set my mind wandering about how you could hear a piece of music that you may not have heard in a long while and an entire flood of memory would travel back accompanying it. I got that same feeling on You Tube just last week watching the video to The Last Time That We Talked by Small Factory.
I first saw that same video clip one night scrolling through 120 Minutes back in my bedroom in Mobile and it had a seismic effect on me. 120 Minutes in those days was a somewhat turgid affair; with emphasis on harder rock and dark and brooding lyrical themes, heavy on angst and moody with it. Suddenly there was this fun and catchy pop song created by a band I’d never heard of; featuring two guys and a singing girl drummer who I found out later had the excellent name of Phoebe Summersquash.
I rode that wave of elation from their song for a few weeks, putting out magazines in my day job at Barnes and Noble in Springdale Mall. There were so many small-print-run indie publications we’d carry in those days, with pages I’d devour on lunch breaks trying to drain as much information on bands as I could find.
You have to remember that there wasn’t an Internet as such to gather information on music minutiae, and the local radio wasn’t helping either, nor the local newspaper, and so word-of-mouth and magazines were all I had. Tailspins magazine from Evanston in Illinois, just outside of Chicago, was one of many small publications I’d read and one day in April or May of 1995 I came across this review here;
I couldn’t buy their new album on record because they didn’t exist for me in that format in that town at that time, but I got the CD of For If You Cannot Fly from Satori Sound, the indie record store I would later work in, and I loved it. I wrote the also ace-named reviewer Floyd Spangler a passionate retort and then got on with my everyday life.
A month or so later I get the shock of my life when flicking through the next issue of Tailspins. I see my reply to Floyd published in the magazine. Except that they didn’t actually copy it per se from my original handwriting, but reproduced my exact letter, and in my own writing, in full on their letters page!
I can’t explain to you easily just how freaky a feeling it is to suddenly catch your own handwriting looking right back at you from a place that you were not expecting it to be, thus;
As I write this entry from nearly twenty years on there are many, many things that I am sucking my teeth at concerning the verbiage of that note I wrote. Consider if you will such phrases as ‘these cats’, ‘skinny ass’, and especially the appalling ‘bleating wailment’.
NB: I right-click on the red underlining that appends to the word wailment in my text to find the computer’s closest ally; ailment. Enough said.
I’ve scant connection to that writing but I can very much tap into the sensation. From my music press archive I found the following piece on the band in the UK weekly Melody Maker from around the same time. If you struggled to grasp what I’m on about in my letter to Floyd Spangler, you’ll have as much chance as I have in trying to unravel the first paragraph of this brief feature here;
Some years later I finally found The Last Time That We Talked on a UK version 7″ single on the most eye-popping hue of coloured vinyl I think I own.
That colour simply has no comparison with anything that I can compare it to in life. You’d have to wear sunglasses to even play it. I have no idea where I bought it.
There’s a small square yellow sticker stuck inside the cardboard of the sleeve that leads to nowhere. This is a thing I do with my records; I add things inside, so you get much more than you’d get at the cash register. This time I added the tiny yellow sticker. It doesn’t even have a price on that sticker! It’s almost as though an earlier prototype version of me thought that it made total sense to affix a sticker – and nothing else – to the inside of the sleeve. If it stood for anything at all back when I did that, like most vague details in my life these days, I have now mislaid it completely.
I read somewhere that one of the better ways to work with memory loss – something that is happening to me an alarming amount these days – is to sing along to your favourite songs. It seems that there are tiny spaces in the brain that store the millions of song words I have gathered and retained along the way. It’s weird how I can put a record on and away I go, there’s no stopping me.
In little else do I feel so confident.
On any day I would struggle hard to remember anything at all beyond the vague outline of my daily life from back in those Alabama days, but then I can put this record on and even if I haven’t heard it in ages, and never get to recall where it was that I bought it, I effortlessly sing along to every single word of it.
I think there’s more than I can remember to say for that.