Throwback Thursday: The Basement Tapes

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My sister and I were beside ourselves with delight: our parents had bought us a karaoke machine for Chanukah. Although I was only in the third grade and my sister had just started elementary school we’d already had a considerable amount of performance experience. We loved being in front of a camera– any camera– and often regaled all who would pay attention with our rousing renditions of the greats like Disney and Raffi, Mister Rogers and We Sing Kids.  Even if it wasn’t immediately clear what we were really supposed to do with the thing, we knew it was something special and exciting to be sure.

The karaoke machine was a tall, cumbersome box thing with sleek lines, professional-looking audio mixing knobs, and dual cassette and state-of-the-art single CD playback and recording spaces. Also included were two microphones, a starter CD, and an accompanying VHS tape that featured a smattering of full and karaokefied renditions of the day’s top hits (most notably Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Billy Ray Cryus’s “Achy Breaky Heart”). Instant holiday cheer. We were instantly enamored.

We thanked our parents profusely as they led us downstairs to set up the device in the basement. While they began to set it up, plugging it in, switching on the microphones, and giving them the standard sound check test phrases and whistles, our minds raced with wonder and delight at the possibilities. Gone were the days of using wimpy single-cassette recorders or trusting the shaky handling and spotty direction of our parent’s video camera to record our star quality. Not only that, but here was an opportunity to bring our talents to the masses!

Setting the demo VHS in the small TV nearby and the demo CD on track 1, they stepped back and let the twangy, country charm of young Billy Ray wash over the room. Lyrics began to scroll across the bottom of the screen in their predetermined rhythm and colors and actors danced about behind them, carrying out the song’s narrative in faithful pantomime.

Once everything seemed well in hand, our parents left the room, leaving us alone with the machine, our own dreams, and our creative devices.

Quickly adopting a mantra of “out with the old and in with the new,” we immediately cast cast aside both CD and accompanying visual aid, and instead focused our energies on recording originals. It wasn’t much really– some word association, simple rhyming couplets, or even mindless jibber jabber– but it didn’t matter as long as we were making something. Anything. And recording it. All that mattered was recording and, from time to time, playing it all back just to hear what it sounded like all to the delight of no one but ourselves.

Perhaps the novelty wore off, or maybe it was boredom setting in, or maybe it was what I would now define as “artistic differences” but what my sister would have then called my “being annoying and hogging it all,” but a few days of this routine my sister left for higher ground and greener pastures, leaving me alone, presumably to “pick up the pieces.”

Though I might have been sad to see my sister go, there was now an opening for a new DJ in this studio. A new DJ meant a new partnership, and a new partnership meant the chance to explore a new format– all of which sounded like a win-win to me. I quickly enlisted my friend Jason to fill the space, and no sooner had we sat down at the mic than the concept of the new format became apparent: the bawdy mid-afternoon talk-show.

We modeled our program after the ones our dads would often listen to on their afternoon commutes home from work, offering commentary on the issues of the day in a light-hearted, playful way. We had everything: “real” celebrity impersonators, “fake” celebrity impersonators, other miscellaneous live callers, even commercial breaks and all done in house by us.

(Given that we were only 7 or 8 years old at the time, our understand of the phrase “issues of the day” was limited to topics like a) what we’d had for breakfast that morning or b) the dreams of the Lego characters we’d played with the other day. Thus, even if everything was modeled in the style of, say, The Don and Mike Show, it all had a markedly younger, more innocent soul).

Another noteworthy feature of our program was the distinct profile of the ever topical and ever poignant music that we used to usher us both in and out of each segment. I refer of course to the timeless sounds of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album and Endless Summer by The Beach Boys. As polar opposite as these selections may seem now– and likely even then– these two albums were as much a part of the Jason and Nick Show as smart and witty personalities themselves.

For a kid who didn’t fit in so well at school, having this creative outlet was a huge release. The basement  was a safe space for creativity and exploration and the karaoke machine a tool for broadcasting that journey. On the microphone in the basement there was no pressure to conform or fit in, only the freedom to do and to express, to be as goofy and irreverent as one could hope to be. The music as well, strange a pairing as it was, were also a testament to the freedom granted here: Be yourself. You can be both– you can like both. Because why not? Because who cares?

The sort of kid I was at age 7 or 8 had no idea of these emotional implications as he was making them, and at most he knew that it was fun, enjoyable, and filled with hours of endless entertainment. But that’s all that really mattered: the fun, the excitement, and the creative potential.

And in those moments nothing else mattered. We had the time, we had the talent, and now– we had our outlet. It was time to rock and time to create.

By the end of our initial session we knew we’d stumbled upon something special. When the outside world felt unfriendly and inattentive, even if we were only really entertaining the carpet squares and the dust mites, we truly felt we were the coolest thing to be heard on basement airwaves since air conditioning vents. And that was pretty cool indeed.

*Artwork by Insert-Username-Here

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2 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: The Basement Tapes

  1. lovely post, and hilariously, i also had a fake radio show that i recorded when i was that age (with recurring features like “hmm, what’s happening outside my window?” and very important stuffed animal interviews). the safe basement imagery reminds me of that early weezer song “in the garage”

    1. haha- excellent! it was endless hours of entertainment for me. too bad i couldn’t scrounge up and photographic or audible memories of it.. i’ll have to do a full search next time i’m home.

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