In 1980, I convinced two of my best friends, Colleen and Marianne, we should spend the following school year studying French at Laval University in Quebec City. Once we’d all secured bursaries for living expenses, the plan became a reality. Together, along with a French-Canadian roommate, we took over a four-bedroom dungeon/basement suite in Quebec. We all got along great and even shared most of our meals together, but one thing we didn’t share was our tastes in music.
During that year, Marianne had the only means of playing our cassettes, a small tape player/recorder, which she kindly shared. We practiced our harmonies anytime the tape player was in the kitchen but if Marianne felt like getting romantic with her boyfriend (and future husband), she’d retreat to her own room where they listened to Billy Joel and Chris de Burgh. Bleh.
Despite Marianne’s generosity, I was getting no time at home on the communal tape player for my own music. I’d brought along a bunch of cassettes taped off my own vinyl from home: The Pointed Sticks singles, The Subhumans, Young Canadians, Maurice & the Clichés. My roommates were polite but I could tell they hated my weird music; I needed my own machine to listen to my own tapes.
My music situation was still a problem around the time our university announced that they would be organizing a New York trip for students during reading break.
I was the only one of the roommates who signed up for the New York trip, though I’d convinced another friend Patrice that the trip couldn’t be missed. And so we set out early one day mid-reading week with a busload of fellow Laval students, bound for a city we’d heard was the place for cut-rate electronics — and my holy grail, a ghettoblaster to play my own music on.
The first evening, before our hotel was ready for us to check in, we unleashed some pent up energy from the long bus ride by hitting the streets in excited groups, sightseeing as we foraged for dinner. Each succeeding crosswalk elicited increasing thrills as we recognized the names and numbers from the songs and movies we’d enjoyed our entire lives. When we came to legendary Broadway, corny though it may seem, we actually burst into the song spontaneously and skipped and danced down the street from the sheer joy and excitement of being there and being 19 and being with our friends.
I rode the subway for the first time, which was a thrill in itself. I don’t remember where we went, but what sticks in my mind from the ride is how extravagantly the subways at that time were decorated — and I don’t mean officially. It was the graffiti. Graffiti was something we didn’t have in Vancouver then, but we’d heard about it and here it was for real. Menacing, multi-coloured, jagged and angular, the graffiti smothered every single surface, including the ads all along the top of each car and every available in-between space.
It was most striking not for what it said — I don’t recall any of the slogans or the names — but for the intent with which it was executed. The graffiti quite clearly expressed sheer wild violence and willful unbounded nihilism of a sort that I had never seen before (or since). In fact, the next time I was in New York, six years later, I was astonished to find that there was no graffiti whatsoever anymore on the subway. The city had been wiped clean by its crusading mayor and it was as though the graffiti had never been there. I was traveling with my boyfriend that time, and it was hard to convey to someone who didn’t know just what it was like. The feeling of threat evoked was omnipresent on the subway as you rode. We all just sat tight and took it in. This most definitely, Dorothy, was not Kansas anymore.
At the same time as our visit, David Bowie was playing at The Booth Theatre on Broadway in The Elephant Man. We loved Bowie and seeing a Broadway play in New York was mandatory, so this was perfect. We learned that you could buy same-day tickets cheaply if you showed up at the box office and opted for a matinee, which was the cheapest; the plan worked and during one of our New York days, we got tickets. Being that close to Bowie was mind-blowing. It was early on in the run — he played at The Booth Theatre from late September 1980 to early January 1981 — and by the time we saw the play, he’d perfectly settled in but the performance was still fresh.
The last day was D-Day for purchasing my ghettoblaster. Our group trouped to Times Square together, then at its most squalid, ringed by peep shows and not much that reminded us of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve countdown. However, we had no other basis for comparison, and were unconcerned by the parade of working girls and boys. I remember way-cool looking guys with huge ghettoblasters heaved up on their shoulders and blasting some unfamiliar type of talking-music, mostly rhythm to our unschooled ears. We’d never seen ghettoblasters in action before.
Cutting to the chase, a few of us scoped the electronics stores in the vicinity. Like they all were, the store where I found my baby was brightly lit and sparkled enticingly from within like some electronics Aladdin’s Cave. Inside, all lined up and stacked on the full back wall behind the counter, was the treasure, an array of ghettoblasters shining in all their silvery glory. I was in a bit of a hurry because the bus was leaving soon, so I decisively forked over the $150 for my beautiful Sharp GF-5656 AM/FM Radio cassette tape recorder. It’s sitting on the chair beside me, even as I write this.
Looking like some modern take on a short-wave radio, it sports a beautiful, long extendable aerial, with the biggest part of its front taken up by the speaker grill. The buttons are numerous, and give a fully satisfying sensation when punched.
That day, I carried it proudly to the bus and, with that, our mission was accomplished.
For the rest of our Laval University year, that ghettoblaster took over the prime broadcasting location on our kitchen table. I listened to Vancouver saxophonist Fraser McPherson’s wonderful cassette Live at the Planetarium whenever I did my homework and saved my faster tunes for non-school related activities. It also played centre stage in early December at our big Christmas party that year, before exams hit — and during the soiree, I made sure to give everyone’s music fair play.