I was pulling into my friend Thomas Durdin’s driveway. By the volume of the AC-DC sample that forms the backbone of Boogie Down Productions’ “Dope Beat” (the first song on the second side of their 1986 debut album, Criminal Minded), I knew his mom wasn’t home. Along with the block-rocking decibel level, I was also struck by how the odd and primitive pairing of Australian hard rock and New York street slang sounded. It was gritty. It was brash. It rocked.
De La Soul’s 1995 record Stakes is High opens with various voices answering the question, “Where were you when you first heard Criminal Minded?” — knowing that moment was the door opening to a new world.
There was the one definitive moment
Well, did it mean it to you?
There was that one definitive moment
When it was something new.
— Pretty Girls Make Graves, “Speakers Push the Air”
Wayne Coyne once described this phenomenon to me as the “punk rock” moment, remembering the first time he heard something other than Foreigner and realized that Foreigner really wasn’t all that good. Listening to fans of The Replacements describe the way certain records changed them forever in Color Me Obsessed (What Were We thinking Films, 2011) is often painful. That moment is so difficult to describe without sounding stupid. So much so that many of them preface their testimonies with phrases like, “this is going to sound cheesy, but…” And it does. Mark Schwahn (creator of One Tree Hill) described the moment well in sober tones, saying that you know your life is different when you hear that sound than it was the moment before you did.
In that same movie, everyone also has a stoic opinion about which Replacements record was “the last good one.” In an old issue of Seattle’s The Stranger, Josh Felt wrote. “Authenticity is subjective. Case in point: The person who thinks Nirvana was the height of authentic rock and therefore disdains any post-grunge band for being phony is obviously someone who had an important moment along the lines of that day in their bedroom listening to Nevermind when they were jarred into consciousness about the homogenous teen culture surrounding them.” Once the moment happens, it often poisons the experiences that follow, some of which were potential epiphanies. The new is tired because it’s not like the old stuff. “Authenticity comes from the moment you’re living in,” continues Felt, “not from the product you’re buying.”
Psychologists call this “imprinting.” Certain experiences during certain times of your life just stay with you. Whatever you listened to in the decade somewhere between ages twelve and twenty-one is likely the most important music you’ll ever hear. Explaining what it means to you is one thing; making someone else understand, someone who didn’t have the same experience, is damn near impossible. Our experience with music is what my friend Josh Gunn calls “radically subjective.” We try and try to translate the experience with language and it always falls short.
I feel like I’ve had that moment many, many times in my life. Hearing Criminal Minded for the first time was one of them, and one that still informs my listening today. There’s no escaping the imprinting of the punk-rock moment.
When was yours?
Here’s the video for Pretty Girls Make Graves’ “Speakers Push the Air” [runtime: 2:57], which I think captures the feeling pretty well: “Yeah, nothing else matters when I turn it up loud!”:
Special thanks to Josh Gunn, Wayne Coyne, and Barry Brummett for the many discussions that informed this piece, and to Thomas Durdin for playing me the good stuff back in high school.