Adjust the radio dial to find the right frequency. Seek the perfect sound, skip past that uncomfortable crackle….
It’s 1975 and I’m a grade schooler, snuggled under my Marimekko sheets, waking up to my little clock radio. I’m tuned into Philadelphia’s WFIL-AM, listening: Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing,” ABBA’s “S.O.S.” and then….Bowie. More specifically, David Bowie’s “Golden Years.” The song snaps and thumps through the Solid State and I recognize, for the first time, that I love music. The righteous guitar riff, thudding bass drum, distant melodica and that bellowing, sinewy voice…it turns me on, like a radio.
Music became my breath, my way of life. It relaxed me and it amped me up. I’d fall asleep to side two of Tattoo You. I’d dance in my bedroom to The Cars. I called i-92 to score tickets to The Police/Joan Jett/R.E.M/Madness at the old JFK Stadium (yes, that was a line-up). I’d make mixtapes for boyfriends. My life could be charted in musical moments.
I’m a music fan, a record and cassette tape collector, a college DJ, a college newspaper music critic, a professional music critic, and eventually, back to just “music fan.”
Music criticism and I had a gradual falling out, around 1998.
I’d spent about nine years — almost my entire 20s — as the music editor and a music critic at an alt-weekly, the Philadelphia City Paper, as well as occasional contributor to Option (the Pitchfork of its day, long since gone), the Village Voice and Rolling Stone’s “Random Notes” section. It was a job I’d invented for myself, and the publisher was cool with that. It was that kind of place.
To be honest, I never really liked writing music reviews (yeah, that dancing about architecture thing). Why do you have to explain it? The words never lived up to the sound. I couldn’t explain how I was transported, how time stopped, and all that mattered was getting to that fucking high, when that song peaked to a crazy chorus of voices, searing guitars and piano frenzy.
As a writer, the best stuff was chronicling the shows themselves, the experience of it all, how it made me feel, interviewing the musicians, learning about their lives and all the machinations behind the actual songs. Spending the night on a couch in a home on Yasgur’s Farm for a story. Liz Phair joking with me because I am a Gemini, just like her boyfriend at the time: “You people are evil, two-face, evil, two-faced!” Tom Waits growling over the phone: “Are you gonna type while I talk? Don’t you have one of those FBI things to record me?” A million other magical moments, many which included people like Joan Jett yelling at me or running out of gas with a Buzzcock. Both happened. (There is a book here.) I even joined a band for six months, to figure out what that was like.
Maybe I was just a glorified groupie, but I loved reporting and telling stories. And I loved music. Rarely did the two shake hands.
Eventually, I got worn out by what I thought the job should be. And I got tired. It sounds ungrateful, but over that near decade, I became inundated and overwhelmed by the 30+ CDs that came into the paper, every day. Stacked on my desk, waiting to be listened to, doled out to the right critic. The joy in discovery was waning.
In 1997, I wrote a piece about hanging out with the biggest, most bad-ass rock critics at the time (Christgau, Marcus, Eddy and more) and the academic ego I just couldn’t get with. In hindsight, this was the beginning of the end.
Maybe I wasn’t assured enough to realize I was forging my own path. Or maybe I just got bored. Or maybe I was just sick of the alt-weekly salary. Or all of the above.
In 1999, I was recruited for a gig as a managing editor at AOL’s Digital City (the interwebs!). And again, I felt like a spy in a brave new world. These were the crazy ’00 days of a Time Warner merger, private plane flights to Dulles, VA, parties that featured 20 rooms of food, booze and people dressed as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. It sounds insane and it was, in a weird, light-blue-buttoned-down-shirt-and-khaki kind of way. Side benefit: with a much better salary I was able to buy music, to choose what I wanted to hear, to plunk down the cash. There was something liberating in that.
At times, in this shiny new Internet company, I felt like I’d left part of my soul behind. My brother started calling me “Corporate Margit.” But I like to think I brought my soul to bear, learning everything I could about digital publishing. We were always preaching to the converted at the alt-weekly. Here I could add a dash of my punk-rock heart to the job — and eventually found there were plenty of others just like me.
Many jobs later, now in my 40s and running this website, I’ve realized that feeling of “not belonging” is what defines us as individuals. We have to find our own channel on the dial — as fuzzy as it might be.
Will I ever go back to music writing? Maybe, maybe not. But I’ll never stop writing.
And I’ll never stop listening.