Tales of an Intrepid Girl Reporter

After two years of publication, PS North Shore ceased publication with the May 1991 edition.  There was no formal announcement, but at the time, I sensed they might stop the presses for good.  At the start of the school year, payment had dropped from a nickel a word to three cents a word, and the middle and high school editions were combined into one broadsheet.  In spite of the wide distribution, the “young adult” edition still went out with a back page-long ad listing submission guidelines…and the same six bylines in every issue.  I’d tentatively spoken with a friend and fellow staff reporter about my desire to organize a benefit for the paper.  Because his family knew the publishers, he told me that this wasn’t a great idea. 

 

In the final issue of the paper, I’d reviewed a pair of releases by duos with local ties – the long-forgotten Just*Us, and Rykodisc recording artists John and Mary (who would later join 10,000 Maniacs).  Based on my memory of a slag at local newscaster Dixie Whatley – who never saw a show she didn’t like – I can say that my snarky streak was still intact.  I’d started branching out beyond the lyrics sheet and describing the music, and not just in terms of comparing these bands to other artists.  My interests had broadened into folk, jazz, and show tunes.  I think I sensed a sea change in music and knew that the more confrontational sounds were Not For Me. 

 

When I think back to the stuff I’d written about, I had some regrets.  I hadn’t landed a scoop to rival the O Positive interview from the beginning of the year.  WFNX was less than five miles from our house, and Rykodisc had opened its doors on Pickering Wharf.  Given my rejection of the status quo, you’d think I’d be interested in learning about what happens behind the scenes at my favorite radio station, or how a band goes from forming to getting signed.  Why couldn’t I pull my head out of my nethers long enough to chase down either of those stories? 

 

Reality usually sets in after I contemplate these things.  At the time, my mother had gone back to school and was working odd jobs to keep us afloat.  We would have had to wedge any visits to these places into not only my school schedule but also into any spare time she might have, and I’d probably have very limited time in which to get my scoop.  Further, our disastrous trip to Nightstage in Cambridge made me feel uncomfortable about asking her for a lift.  (I am incredibly proud of my mom’s degree and what she had to go through to get it.  She’s at a fabulous place in her life right now.)  Because the buses around my home were not known for their reliability, even taking public transit would have been a huge challenge.  (Plus, would you want an unaccompanied thirteen-year-old taking a city bus to the “City of Sin”?) 

 

At the time, the folding of PS disappointed me.  Writing for them had given me something of an income and had allowed me to experiment with writing about music and the arts.  I felt some trepidation towards submitting to Merlyn’s Pen or the newspaper that has become Teen Ink because they openly spoke of getting more submissions than they could publish, and I didn’t know if I could handle that rejection.  (I never mailed my submission package for Sassy magazine’s Reader Produced Issue for this very reason.) 

 

I tried to pick myself up by recognizing that I could always write for the Ledger, the weekly school newspaper.  In reality, my burning ambition and an impending move back to my mom’s hometown, combined with the hit that my confidence took at the start of adolescence, had prevented me from even searching for another outlet for my interest in writing.  But that’s another story for another time. 

“Miami in the’70s was not the center of any kind of cultural revolution.  Thurston Moore was born [there] and told me he saw an ad in the paper there that said, ‘If anybody in this town has heard of the Clash, please call me’.”  — Kelly Reichardt, Venus, Winter 2006

 

As I was reading the columns I logged for PS North Shore, this story crossed my mind.  While Bush I-era Massachusetts wasn’t the cultural backwater of 1970s Miami, living so far north of Boston, without the autonomy to do anything, made me feel like I was living on the moon.  The music and movies most accessible to me didn’t speak to my tumultuous home life or the rococo existence I had imagined for myself, and therefore were Bad and Wrong.  I was angry at the way the media saw my peers as passive consumers, and at how my classmates were so easily played.  At the same time, I had no friends.  My schoolmates were about as eager for my company as I was for theirs. 

 

My initial re-reading of these columns for the first time in twenty years left me with a kind of shock.  I remember sitting at the computer in my mom’s room, face aglow in the blue screen of the word processing program.  My fingers would sink deep into the keys, which made a satisfying ka-chunk as I hunted and pecked.  I’d crank the tapes I was reviewing on big headphones.  When I finished and saved my articles, I’d print them out on a dot matrix printer twice the size of my current laptop, which took forever to print out two or three pages of double-spaced courier-font text.  Sign at the bottom that everything on these pages was completely original and stuff it into an envelope, and in a few weeks my article would come out. 

 

The palpable satisfaction of writing these articles stayed with me more than the quality of the prose.  I’d already fallen back on the lazy critic trick of comparing bands I was reviewing to every band on the WFNX playlist as shorthand for the harder work of describing what the music actually sounded like.  Instead of taking the high road of behaving as though the New Kids didn’t exist, I made fun of them mercilessly.  I thought I was cool. 

 

After the initial cringing subsides, I think about my surroundings and influences at that point.  I was a bit of an angry kid, and the snarky attitude the Phoenix adopted towards pretty much everything appealed to me no end.  The writers for Sassy wrote exclusively in the first person and likewise had no qualms about mocking teen pop with a Velveeta consistency, and if it worked for them, it worked for me, too.  Showing off my knowledge of obscure bands my classmates wouldn’t know from a hole in a Wahlberg was another way of saying “Look at me!  Look at me!  Hey!  Over here!  Yeah!  Aren’t I so adorable and precocious, with my knowledge of modern rock?!” 

 

Thinking about that look-at-me attitude eventually leads back to the ad Thurston Moore described to Kelly Reichardt.  Like the anonymous ad placer, I felt isolated in what seemed like an indifferent community.  Writing these articles gave me something to do, and interviewing local bands allowed me to talk to someone.  Unlike the guy who placed the ad, I didn’t have to pay to find allies.  Instead, I got paid a nickel a word. 

In the fall of 1989, my mother transferred me from the middle school I had attended in sixth grade to the other junior high across town.  I had gone from attending a relatively affluent middle school where I had been alternately bullied and ostracized, to the school that served a tougher working-class population.  My mom’s second marriage had fallen apart, I’d been thrown in with a large population of mean kids, and my elementary school-appointed best friend had abandoned me. 

 

Because we lived in an isolated neighborhood, I found solace and a sense of connection in media…or at least in the media I could find in a pre-internet backwater.  I tore through Sassy every month, listened to the alternative radio station WFNX (RIP), and cherished the issues of the Boston Phoenix Mom brought home every Friday.  The girl next door, who babysat for my younger brother when Mom was out late, slipped me tapes of popular modern rock bands of the era.  I became particularly obsessed with the Cure, and came to understand the deteriorating relationship depicted in Disintegration in a way no twelve-year-old should. 

 

In spite of my flailing grades at school, my teachers thought I had a particular skill at writing.  What I thought had been my best writing was confined to the pages of my journal.  (In reality, these were long, handwritten letters to Robert Smith, the only person I thought might understand me.)  At the start of the school year, a newspaper called PS North Shore had made it to our school.  I scoffed at the articles about New Kids on the Block, a band I hated for their lack of musical skill, their prefabricated qualities, and the extent to which they were loved by the girls who teased me.  At the same time, the newspaper paid a nickel a word for submissions that ran, and the only person who could write something to contrast with the New Kids mania in their earliest issues was me. 

 

In the spring of 1990, my first review ran.  I had written about Green, the by-then two-year-old breakthrough album by alternative godheads REM.  The album was new to me, and WFNX still had some songs from it on frequent enough rotation.  When an envelope arrived with the iconic PS logo in the upper left hand corner and a check for $15 inside, I went straight to the mall and bought a tape I’d had my eye on for a while…Standing on a Beach by the Cure, which was even older than Green. 

 

My classmates barely noticed my status as a budding rock critic.  One girl, noting my love of “queer” bands, had written graffiti on a desk in my English class about these bands, presumably to get me in trouble.  Though my English teacher had little patience for me, she didn’t raise a fuss about this either way, at least to my knowledge. 

 

When school ended in June of 1990, PS was still going strong.  I liked having a little bit of cash flow, but writing the reviews gave me a great feeling of accomplishment.  Opening a broadsheet and seeing my byline was really exciting, and I hoped that my style of writing and interest in hipper bands might help me find some like-minded friends.  As much as I enjoyed being the hipster alt-girl I saw myself as, I longed for some allies.