I was 13 in 1990

Showing 4 posts tagged I was 13 in 1990




O Positive



O Positive - Overflow

Listening to a record you associate with a specific time in your life can feel like looking at a photo with a double exposure.  In one exposure, you see yourself as you were and the hole the music filled in your life.  You also see yourself as you are now.  Hearing the music anew helps you understand it – and yourself – in a different way. 

In the first exposure, I am thirteen.  I tumble into my room, stepping on the heels of my sneakers carefully so as not to tear the pompoms off my anklets.  A red tape-tag curls around my thumb, and I strum it as I kick my sneakers under the bed. 

I catapult myself onto the mattress and rip the tape-tag from the envelope in one fluid motion.  A cassette case is the first thing to fall from the envelope, shiny in a cellophane wrapper with a big sticker that says “Featuring the hit single ‘Back of My Mind’”.  A pair of black stickers with a rainbow-colored O Positive logo flutters next from the envelope.  I could feel a thick, rigid rectangle jammed at the opening, and I reached in and smoothed out a press kit with the palm of my hand. 

Grabbing my walkman from the nightstand, I peel the cellophane down from the hole punched in the upper right-hand corner of the case, careful to preserve the sticker.  Before I pop my tape in the deck, I remove the J-card from the cassette case.  A collage of creepy marionettes and gelatin-print mundanities leers out at me from under florescent light.  I unfold the J-card out to the next panel to find a photo of the band, taken somewhere on the harbor in the early evening.  They stand shrouded in shadows at the end of a pier, lit at a low angle redolent of ghost stories.  There’s Dave Herlihy on the far left, saluting the camera and scowling in proud defiance from behind granny glasses.  Alan Pettiti, the lead guitarist, stands at the center of the group, stepping forward from the shadows.  The low-angle lighting gives him a heavy-lidded look, like a gumshoe in a black-and-white movie.  Drummer Alex Lob eyes the camera warily, as though he’s trying to divine the f-stop through the camera lens.  Band factotum Dave Martin leans in like a closed parentheses, barely containing a smirk. 

I fold the sticker into the J-card and slip the tape into the deck, clicking the Play button with my thumb.  In the seconds before the music starts, I grab the folder and take out the photocopied press kit.  My initial instinct is to lie on my stomach with my head in my hands, perusing the clippings as I listen to the album. 

Within about five seconds, I rolled onto my side in a fetal clump.  The press kit hits the floor in a confusion of photostated, stapled-together pages. 

The song’s insistent rhythm draws me in.  The steady drumbeat and bassline that establish the song tugged at me, and the discordant piano punctuation suggests an ominous mood.  Ten seconds in and a choppy guitar line cascades over the rhythm track, sometimes racing the tempo and sometimes falling behind it.  The inconsistent cadence of this solo sounds like Morse code, or like a helicopter circling overhead. 

The vocal kicks in about twenty seconds into the song.  In his honeyed burr, Herlihy intones a pair of couplets that deepen the song’s suburban noir mood:

A happy house is camouflaged in town

It took me more than two nights to get it down

All the wonders are going up for sale

They get high, and cannot stand to fail

Our street was lined with perfect little houses painted blue or brown or white or yellow, piped with primary-colored drainage pipes and decorated with matching flowerpots.  The kids who resided within them lived among stable nuclear families.  Either their parents were still married, or their mothers had the good sense not to re-marry loutish men.  My mom wasn’t so lucky, as the neighborhood was all too aware. 

Look closely through the loop and you’ll see an irreverent curl playing on my upper lip. The band’s lyrics – with their literary allusions – flattered my intelligence.  This verse made me think of the opening lines of some Russian novel I read about in a how-to-write-fiction book I borrowed from the library.  When did my safe-in-suburbia classmates’ favorite bands do that? 

If you shift your gaze to the second exposure, though, you’ll see a suburban woman in early middle age, stopped short on a streetcorner.  A veil of steam emanates from her mouth, obscuring her facial expression.  21 years later, I hear the verse with a poignancy to which I was too close to recognize when I first heard the song.


Talk About Love


O Positive


Only Breathing/Cloud Factory

O Positive - Talk About Love

My initial impulse was to write a capsule review of Cloud Factory, the second O Positive EP.  I was going to first contextualize it within their career – how they jumped from a small indie label after a business dispute and ended up label-mates with the Godfathers and Winter Hours, and mention the success with which they met on the local airwaves, cashboxes (the EP was the best-selling record at Newbury Comics that Christmas), and even the Rolling Stone/Gavin Report charts.  From there, I’d start talking about the music – the shiny, clean production, the radio-friendly rave-ups like “In the Light”, and the more active (for want of a better word) lyrical perspective; the eerie and poignant epic closer “Watch Out, This Sled’s Made for a Maniac”. 

Instead, I’d like to tell a little story. 

It’s sometime in 1989, and my father is taking us to his apartment in Quincy.  A black billboard with lurid pink-and-yellow writing greets us as we get off Storrow and onto I-93 South.  “Have you heard WFNX?” my dad asks, flicking ash from his cigarette in the general direction of the billboard.  “They play songs like ‘Take the Skinheads Bowling’ and ‘Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child’.” 

I blush as red as the hot tobacco in my dad’s cigarette and shake my head.  I’d been moving away from the cheesy teen pop I was supposed to like, but these song titles seemed altogether too scandalous for my still very refined tastes.  At some point all the ‘FNX billboards and stickers got to me.  After getting sick of the stations we’d pre-programmed on our stereo, I waited until my mom had gone out for the night to twist the tuner over to 101.7 and slipped the headphones over my ears. 

The music I heard that night sounded edgier than the music aimed at my demographic.  To someone reared on classic rock and pre-fab bubblegum pop, artists like New Order, REM, and 10,000 Maniacs sounded both companionable and revolutionary.  Particularly on shows like “We Want the Airwaves”, the DJs and the folks who wrote in and made requests felt like a community of cool yet approachable people, and the we’re-all-friends-here vibe hastened my retreat into the arms of alternative radio. 

WFNX was a huge supporter of local music.  Where most commercial alternative stations might siphon the local artists off onto a Sunday night show, the ‘FNX playlist featured Boston-area big shots in regular rotation.  At the time, I’d assumed that music was something made in other, more exotic locales.  There was something exciting about hearing bands that had formed a mere 20 miles away from me! 

While WFNX wasn’t the first place I heard O Positive, they were huge supporters of the band.  Not long after I got Toyboat, I stayed up late to listen to the band perform a live studio set on Juanita the Scene Queen’s Sunday-night show.  Hearing them goof off one minute and play a heartbreaking ballad the next cemented my love of their music. 

My interview with Dave Herlihy took place the day that Stephen Mindich had announced the sale of the 101.7 frequency to the corporate oligarchs at Clear Channel.  WFNX got behind the band in a big way, particularly after the release of Cloud Factory.  In a 2008 interview with Jim Sullivan, Herlihy looked back at the station’s salad days.  Back in the day, ‘FNX treated us like a major-label band. They didn’t have the corporate playlist coming down from the mountaintop. Christmas ‘87, we were number one on their overall playlist with ‘Talk About Love,’ ahead of R.E.M. and U2. Yeah, baby. They were instrumental in our reaching our audience. The gigs became exponentially more crowded. ‘FNX was a tastemaker and played ‘modern rock’ before it was a format.”

This is a long lead-in to “Talk About Love”, the band’s big radio hit from an era when a big radio hit actually meant something.  If you were anywhere near a radio between 1987 and 1990, you’re probably singing along with it even before you hit the play button. 


Say Goodbye


O Positive


Only Breathing/Cloud Factory

O Positive - Say Goodbye

“It’s the last day of middle school, and you couldn’t even wash your hair?”

I climbed into the front seat of Mom’s car, shrugging with a studied nonchalance that I could never quite summon when I needed it.  “Wasn’t worth it,” I said out of the side of my mouth as I snapped the seatbelt shut. 

School had let out early, and Mom had picked me up to take me out to lunch before letting me go home for the rest of the day.  I found myself in my usual stance in the front seat, resting my cheek against the seatbelt and gazing out the side window.  The two mulleted boys from my homeroom threw a Frisbee around on the front lawn, almost beaning a kid in the head. 

Mom stretched out her arm and rested her wrist on the top of my seat.  She tapped out a rhythm against the headrest supports.  “My little baby’s going to high school,” she trilled. 

“Not for a few months,” I shot back. 

“High school will be better for you.  There are more kids with your interests.  People grow up, and you’ll find your – “

“Mom!” I interrupted.  My ears were trained to the sound of a familiar riff.  I lunged to the radio dial and turned it up a little louder. 

“Sitting in for Mark Parenteau, this is Albert O-Positive,” the afternoon DJ intoned over the opening notes to “Say Goodbye”. 

“YOUR GUYS,” my mom chimed in excitedly. 

Albert O. was giving away tickets to see O Pos play with Mechanical Shark Head at the Edible Rex in Billerica to lucky caller number five.  Even if cell phones existed in 1991, Edible Rex was an hour’s drive from my sleepy burg, and I sensed the bouncers would not have taken kindly to a scrappy fourteen-year-old seeking entrance.  After a moment, the DJ just shut up and let the music play. 

Mom and I were both quiet as the song began.  The lyrics – “say goodbye to the past/you know these memories were never meant to last” – seemed prescient as Osterberg Junior High shrank in the rearview.  I mouthed the words and swayed along with the pinging melody. 

A fine coating of dust had formed on my O Positive tape collection.  I told myself I was eagerly awaiting their next album, and I didn’t want to get sick of them.  Though I tried my hardest, I wasn’t able to follow up my story on Boston’s finest with anything that felt like another “get”, and much of my eighth-grade year felt like a letdown after my interview with Dave hit the stands.  If I was really honest with myself, I still felt a little embarrassed at making a bad impression on the band by being an awkward teenager.  Meanwhile, the kids at school didn’t pay much attention to the budding Ellen Willis in their midst.  Doing interviews was still the only way to get people to talk to me. 

All those thoughts ran through my head until they became white noise.  The lapse in conversation made me feel a special kind of alone that isn’t really alone…I was in the car with my song, a kind of bespoke aural security blanket that helped me get through some tough times. 

Mom’s car glided to a stop at a red light.  I looked out the window and saw a group of girls from my school.  Erica, my school-appointed bestie in fourth grade, tread on the sidewalk closest to our car.  For a split second we made eye contact, but when the walk light came on her gaze slid over me and she started crossing the street with her friends. 

Mom shifted gears, then tapped me on the knee.  “Your time will come,” she said.  A moment passed, and she added, “I’m proud of you.”  The light turned green and we were off.


Imagine That


O Positive



O Positive - Imagine That

I first heard O Positive sometime in the summer of 1990.  My mom had come to pick me up from the allegedly-artsy day camp in which I was enrolled, and we drove back home with the windows down and the car radio on.  As her car pulled away from the curb, a dreamy, contemplative ballad insinuated its way over the airwaves.

We drove past row houses and city parks, the sparkling ocean merging with the skyline in the far distance.  I leaned my cheek against the cool of the safety belt and stretched my arm out the window.  The insistent melody and the singer’s gritty-yet-reassuring sigh of a voice seemed made for a balmy summer afternoon.  When Mark Parenteau* broke the mood with a station ID, I realized that I’d heard about this band for a few months.  The Boston Globe had run a splashy review with a photo a few months prior, and their previous hits “Talk About Love” and a song I initially thought was called “Smoke A Cigarette”** played in ads for the suburban clubs. 

At the time I wrote music reviews for a short-lived teen newspaper, PS North Shore. “Modern rock” godheads like the Cure and REM filled my column because they were easy for my readership to find (a few rows down from the odious New Kids on the Block at the Sam Goody in the mall).  However, music always seemed like an exotic thing that was made elsewhere.  Listening to WBCN and WFNX had opened my ears to local bands, but the Pixies and Throwing Muses weren’t exactly beating a path to play at the neighborhood watering hole. 

When I got home, I knew I’d found my new favorite band.  With my mom’s permission I called Epic in New York and spoke with one of the publicists about interviewing them for my column.  Within a few days, I got a big package with a CD, a press kit about an inch thick, and some stickers.  For a kid who still had to buy her review copies at the aforementioned Sam Goody, this felt a little like Christmas.  (Stickers, people.)  About an hour later, my mom answered the phone and promptly handed it to me. 

 “Hi, this is Dave Herlihy of O Positive,” the voice on the other end of the line said. 

I almost dropped the phone on the floor, but managed to keep my composure long enough to schedule an interview and take down his number.  He asked me about the newspaper and my column and addressed me as an equal instead of as a cute kid, which calmed my nerves. 

I ran in the next room with jelly knees.  My mom high-fived me.  This could be the start of something big, I thought. 

 * =  Yes, the “disgraced and disgraceful” Mark Parenteau.  Those radio pre-sets came in handy when mom was driving with us, boy howdy. 

** = Actually, it was called “With You”.  More on this in a bit.