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How Pulse magazine shaped the way I discover music

[Tower Records Pulse! magazine, Dec. 1989]

Steve Reich turned 80 years old on Oct. 3, 2016. I discovered Reich when he had just turned 50. He would be one of many discoveries I made through a magazine published by Tower Records called Pulse.

In 1986, I started high school. The popular radio stations played all the usual hits of the era — Madonna, Janet Jackson, Phil Collins, to name a few. Toward the right of the dial was a classic rock station and a light jazz station. On the other end, the classical music station played the war horses, while the University of Hawaii radio station couldn’t be heard beyond three miles of campus.

Radio’s insistence to overplay its most popular tracks spurred me to abandon the format in 1988. I replaced it with Pulse.

A shopping guide in the guise of an impartial publication, the magazine went wide with its coverage, including classical, jazz and world music with rock and pop. An interview with Sting ran next to an article about Buster Poindexter. Reviews of Bulgarian women’s choirs shared column inches with Throwing Muses and R.E.M.

The ads were as informative as the editorial content. Pulse offered a “No-Risk Disk” guarantee for Robin Holcomb’s self-titled debut album — return the album within 14 days if you don’t like it, no questions asked. That purchase would lead me down a rabbit hole of the Nonesuch catalog.

But I wasn’t just paying attention to band names in these articles. I scoured liner notes for credits, making note of producers and guest musicians.

In 1991, MTV ran a short feature on a band called Smashing Pumpkins and featured a snippet of “Siva”. It was enough to get me curious and pick up a cassette copy of Gish. It became one of the most played albums in my collection that year.

A few months later, an article in Pulse about a band called Nirvana mentioned Butch Vig, who I remembered produced Gish. So I bought Nevermind based on that connection. I showed the album to a friend of mine, who found the naked baby on the cover quite odd. It would another half year before he heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio.

Pulse ceased publication in 2002. By then, the Internet had edge it out as a source for new music.

Even before file sharing networks, word of mouth through online communities — Usenet groups, mailing lists, bulletin boards — served as recommendation engines. I also happened to live in Austin, Texas in the late ’90s, where Waterloo Records’ generous policy of allowing shoppers to listen to anything in the store verified those recommendations.

I kept picking up Pulse every month till the end, but format changes and shifts in editorial focus left the magazine gutted. File sharing put Tower Records on a decline, and the shuttering of Pulse was an early harbinger.

But Pulse helped me take responsibility for my listening choices. It taught me how to parse music reviews to make educated guesses on whether I’d like an album. I would apply the habits I developed with Pulse to other sources. It’s Japanese counterpart, Bounce, would guide my choices in the early 2000s, which I parlayed here on this site.

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The history of a music fan in four decades, part one

[The Manhattan Transfer - Extensions]

This month, I turn 44. I’ve been collecting music for about 81 percent of that lifespan. I bought my first album when I was 8 years old.

OK, it was my mom who caved into my whining about wanting that Manhattan Transfer album with the “Twilight Zone” song on it (Extensions, by the way.) She’s regretted it ever since. I think the last time she chided me for spending too much money on music was … three months ago?

When my collecting took off in junior high, I went through phases where I would dive deep into a particular style of music and play it to death on the family stereo. Every year, I would glom onto something new, then ditch it for something else. It was such a reliable metric, my siblings would ask, “What are you going to get into next year?”

In college, the phases started to grow longer and overlap to the point that I though I outgrew them. In reality, I was just figuring out what kind of music sustained the dopamine rush. I kept those around while I explored other things.

By then, I had figured out that anyone can like any style of music if you learn how to listen to it. When I got into post-punk music, my siblings hated being subjected to singers who couldn’t sing. They had been raised on a steady diet of radio pop and didn’t understand a lack of polish was exactly the point.

So to commemorate this birthday month, we’ll explore the various phases that marked my history as a music fan, starting our first decade with the 1980s.

New wave

[Duran Duran - Rio]I can’t say MTV influenced my music consumption because my parents didn’t subscribe to cable. But network TV attempted to ride the music video coattails with such shows as Friday Night Videos and Prime Time Videos.

It was music video that spurred my childhood interest in ABBA. And it was music video that got me into Duran Duran, Eurythmics, ABC, Tears for Fears, Huey Lewis and the News and Sting. I preferred the more theatrical videos made by bands from England and Europe than the song-and-dance numbers of American bands.

That steady diet of English bands set up an affinity for punk-influenced music that would set me at odds with my peer group. That didn’t stop me from trying to fit in.

Radio pop

In 1986, I started high school, and I wanted to establish an identity different from the one I had in junior high and elementary school. So for a time, I was listening to Club Nouveau, L.A. Dream Team Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam and Janet Jackson.

But my conscience eventually won out. Some of the most popular hits played on the radio weren’t songs I really liked on first listen, and repeated plays didn’t make them any better. And the popular kids with whom I was trying to ingratiate myself? Turns out I didn’t really like them all that much.

“Hawaiian Electric” by Hiroshima

In 1987, Hawaiian Electric Co. commissioned a pair of television ads featuring music by jazz fusion band Hiroshima. It was my first introduction to non-Western instruments, and I was fascinated. Hiroshima was a staple on a new radio format for light jazz and new age. Basia, Enya, Spyro Gyra, Hiroshima — all different styles of music unified by mood. It was a diversity I’d been craving.

Musicals

[Andrew Lloyd Webber; Tim Rice - Jesus Christ Superstar]In my junior year of high school, my band instructor introduced me to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jesus Christ Superstar. Around the same time, a television broadcast of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George alternately bored and fascinated me. Jesus Christ Superstar led to CatsEvita and The Phantom of the Opera, while Sunday in the Park with George was the springboard to Into the WoodsSweeney Todd and A Little Night Music.

Sondheim and Lloyd Webber pretty much allowed me to break rank entirely with everyone in high school. I no longer felt a need to fit in. I would explore music that interested me, and the more it confused my cohorts, the better.

Music: An Appreciation by Roger Kamien

All throughout these years of exploration, I was taking piano lessons, but when I expressed interest in songwriting, those piano lessons became rudimentary lessons in music theory and composition. To take advantage of my large finger span, my teacher introduced me to works by Claude Debussy and Aram Khachaturian.

My dad also took a music appreciation course at a community college, and I used his textbook, Music: An Appreciation by Roger Kamien, as bathroom reading. Over time, I absorbed the names of composers, the eras in which they lived and the forms of music they composed. The section on 20th Century Music fascinated me in particular.

All these events came together when I ran across a description of Kronos Quartet in a music magazine, and my love for modern classical music was born.

Pulse! magazine

[Tower Records Pulse! magazine, Dec. 1989]As my high school years drew to a close, a free magazine published by Tower Records, named Pulse!, became my bible. Pulse! introduced me to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Camper Van Beethoven, the Sugarcubes, the Replacements and Steve Reich. It published some of Adrian Tomine’s earliest comics, and one of its columnists spurred me to write about music. This blog owes a lot to Pulse!

Up next …

College would deepen my understanding of classical music, but when all the underground rock I was precociously consuming during high school became mainstream, I would find new ways to differentiate myself.

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