Apr 29, 2013


Well, I guess that it's typical 
To cling to memories you'll never get back again
And to sort through old photographs of a summer long ago
- Conor Oberst

Back around 1991 or so, me, my brother, and a few friends had an idea for a television show. We were the children of MTV, its progeny, there when it began, avid viewers, disciples of music television. But, MTV didn't play the music we listened to, stuff from independent labels such as Sub Pop, SST, Merge, AmRep. 

Luckily, in NYC then there was this thing called Public Access Television. It used to be on channels 16 and 17 via Manhattan Cable. Community, DIY programming. Anyone could have a television show. In a moment of Wayne's World delusion, we figured that we could make our own program. We walked into the offices of Manhattan Cable on East 23rd Street, filled out a one-page form (that's all that was required), handed it in, and got a slot on the spot. Thursday at 7:30pm. Right before the Simpsons. Prime time. Just like that. We had to come up with a name so we did so. The Underground Railroad: Independent Music for the Independent Mind. All we had to do was have the video tape - a 3/4 inch  tape - delivered to 23rd street every Friday at 6pm for the following week. It was as easy as that. We were on our way. 

Now the real work began - we found an old portable video cassette recorder with integrated mic. We called and wrote letters to labels asking for videos, for interviews, for anything. We plastered the east village with flyers. We got introduced to a ex-tank operator named Amit with war stories to tell but who was also an editor and had studio time - from midnight to 3 am. He accepted payment in cash or contraband or any combination thereof.

Over the next few years we pretty much put on a show every week. Hundreds of 28 minute episodes. The first video of the first episode was Shonen Knife - Red Kross. The second was Ween - Pollo Asado. My friend Steve and I were the "hosts" of the first episode, filming the introductions and "wrap arounds." Somehow, I think by calling up Mammoth Records, we were invited to interview Julian Hatfield, on the eve of the release of her first solo record, outside CBGBs. I had never interviewed anyone before. Luckily, she was more nervous than me. It was a disaster. 

But we did it, each week, for a few years. Spending half a day driving around in an Econoline van with Mike Watt. Meeting Mudhoney. Drinking with the Afghan Whigs. Interviewing Evan Dando in 1992 and listening to him play on acoustic guitar a song called "Fuck and Run" by an unknown female singer from a demo tape he had been listening to. Writing letters to Sub Pop. Meeting Jon Spencer. Begging SST for videos (they never gave them up). For years we got on the guest list of every show, everywhere, backstage and all. Had to get a P.O. box and cut a special deal with the mailbox operator because we got too much mail - videos, CDs, swag. 

When I tell people this story, they mostly have the same reaction. "You need to put the shows on Youtube!" The video tapes - cartons of them - are spread out. Maybe in California. Maybe at my mom's place. Some in Woodstock. Maybe they are gone. These requests usually set off a flurry of internal emails amongst ourselves: should we do this? Have you watched them? Which one should we digitize? This year we will really get around to it, yes this year we will, right?

And then when I think about it, I realize we probably shouldn't, and most likely won't, digitize them and put them on Youtube or Vimeo or wherever. 

It would ruin the memories.

Those memories are amazing. We had no idea what we were doing. It was DIY. It was punk. We were going to be famous. Get a "real" show someday. Something like that. The memories are also bittersweet: there are episodes we filmed downtown with the Twin Towers in the background. 

And as the years go by, and the specifics fade, these memories retain and enhance something even more. The romanticism of youth. Of music. Of friendship. Of Greenwich Village. It all seemed so fun, the stories are wonderful. We still tell them to each other.

But the reality was also something different. The memory is that editing the shows with a stoned tank operator editor was exhilarating. The reality was that it was a huge hassle doing it in the middle of the night, we were tired and cranky and fought all the time, and he was a terrible editor, it took him hours to do something simple.

The memory is that calling Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop and speaking with him was fun. The reality that was that bothering a small businessman and begging for music videos was lame, tedious stuff, as was debating endlessly over and over what was really "independent" or not.

The memory of meeting and hanging out with your "heroes" was spectacular. The reality was that these were just people, sometimes cool, sometimes jerks, living in some surreal existence and we were bothering them, playing along to some bizarre post-teenage groupie game.

If I think hard about it, I recall that we fought all the time making this show. Oftentimes, it felt more like a burden than a joy. Friendships were strained to the breaking points.

You see, I don't need to remember the pain, humiliation, the crap. If I watched those episodes again, if I posted them online to be available for posterity, I am pretty sure I would be disappointed. Embarrassed  Reminded of alot of time and money wasted and stupid things done and said.

Instead, I just want to remember that, for a little while, we got a little closer to something, maybe to being cool. We got to touch those who we thought we ourselves wanted to be. We got to pretend we were rock and roll. It was, yes, romantic.

As the details fade, the stories - what we remember of them - become more interesting as the rough edges smooth out. My memories are better than the reality. Not only is that ok, it sustains me as I get older.  

Maybe not everything needs to be preserved outside of our minds. As imperfect, fading and fleeting as our memories may be, maybe that is precisely what makes them - and us - special. I'll stick with those instead.

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