1988 was probably the most pivotal year in my developing taste in music. Until that point, I’d pretty much been a bit of a drifter, taste-wise, taking what I liked from what my friends exposed me to–I could still remember being excited for months before the first “Asia” supergroup album came out in when I was junior high, and a year later I was sitting in my friend Andy’s room, blown away by bands I’d never even heard of before, like Husker Du, The Minutemen and The Jam. Thanks, Andy!
The radio soundtrack to my youth was vintage Pittsburgh Classic Rock, pretty much the same three dozen songs iconic radio station WDVE still plays today: Journey. Zeppelin. Styx. That shit. I knew all the words to way too many Kansas songs, and like a lot of people I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Journey. Those summer nights are callin’. Don’t stop believin’ , man.
In college I listened to what the local college radio played–some cool stuff and some not so cool stuff. We joke in hindsight–it was the eighties, but on the other hand, it was the eighties. Billy Joel was the King of Rock, and Bono was just some Irish Dude with a bad haircut standing in the snow--not the most earnest dick in rock spending the rest of his career trying to match that big, perfect anthemic single.
In 1988 a lot of things changed. I’d been listening to more hippie music thanks to a room-mate in that old yellow craftsman bungalow on South Sixth Street, a great college house with beautiful woodwork and a ping-pong table that we nicknamed “The Slaughterhouse” after meeting Kurt Vonnegut, who was an both an unapologetic asshole and just as magnificent as I’d hoped. We thought it was a cool name, but it never stuck–not even with us. We called it “the house.”
1988 was the year of N.W.A.’s eye-opening and mind-blowing album Straight Outta Compton, the subject of Part 3 of this post (coming next week at this time), and the equally fantastic Eric B. & Rakim album Follow The Leader, the playing of which earned my a “what the fuck are you listening to?” from another roommate. This, of course, made me want to play it again. And louder, if only to drown out his John Cougar Mellancamp.
It was against that background that I stumbled into some very different revolutionary music–a friend and I took some girls to see my favorite band, Cowboy Junkies (another 1988 band, deserving of their very own post), in the Dormont Theater, and the opening act was an unknown folk singer named Tracy Chapman. None of us knew the first thing about her, and we were curious. Now, our idea of what a folk singer should be was an amalgam of, say, Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez filtered through the only contemporary folkie getting any college radio play at the time, Suzanne Vega.
We expectied a soft spoken little pale girl–not a waif, but maybe a sprite. Probably in a little sundress. What we didn’t expect was a powerful, yet quiet and unassuming young black woman who stunned us to near silence for the entirely of her too-short set. She was dressed all in black, like Johnny Cash. I still remember the uncertainty in her eyes, the embarrassed smile at our applause, and the way single spotlight reflected off the frets of her acoustic guitar. I’d never before seen an audience demand an encore from an opening act, but we couldn’t get enough.
I also remember thinking: and this is what regular people get from church.