"If you like Hendrix, you'll like this," my guitar teacher said, handing me a cassette of the Psychedelic Furs' second album, Talk Talk Talk.
More than 20 years later, I have no idea what he meant by that. Talk Talk Talk doesn't sound anything like Hendrix. I imagine that my teacher was just taking pity on the nerdy 15-year-old in front of him, trying to trick me into listening to something other than classic rock and heavy metal.
I was skeptical. I held the cassette case by its edges and saw a typical new wave album cover: a black-and-white picture of the band overlapped with geometric shapes in bright colors. But I liked my guitar teacher and I really didn't have anything better to do, so I decided to give it a shot.
As I remember it, I first listened to the album in the car. My family was driving to Monterey for the weekend and I reached up from the back seat and popped the tape in the cassette deck. My father grimaced. "Is this tape warped?" he asked.
The guitars were overdubbed so many times and each track was so saturated with electronic effects that the instruments seemed to be fighting with each other to get out. There were horns and keyboards squealing and squawking here and there, and everywhere there were pounding drums. And of course, there was singer Richard Butler, sounding like Johnny Rotten playing the part of Casanova. I was amazed.
A couple of years later, Talk Talk Talk would become famous as the album that contained "Pretty in Pink," a song Molly Ringwald liked so much that she convinced John Hughes to borrow its title for his next movie.
But as we drove to Monterey that weekend, all that was a couple of years away. When I listened to the cassette, "Pretty in Pink" wasn't yet a teen anthem. It was, I thought, a very adult-sounding song on a very adult-sounding album.
"Pretty in Pink" tells the story of a woman named Caroline and her despicable ex-lovers. In his croaking voice and thick cockney accent, Butler tells us that Caroline "says I love you, and too much." It's not clear if that means she says "I love you too much" or that she says "I love you" too often. The men, on the other hand, are easy to read: "The one who insists he was first in the line is the last to remember her name."
Sitting in the back seat of my parents' car, I felt older and cooler just for hearing this album. As Butler sang "They're making up things that we've all heard before, like romance and engage and divorce," I held an imaginary cigarette and stared out the window with what I thought was a suitably world-weary expression on my 15-year-old face. "Yeah," I thought, "We've all heard those before."
Today, the Psychedelic Furs are a fixture of the nostalgia tour circuit. They cashed out their credibility a long time ago. When I listen to Talk Talk Talk, I find some of the songs aren't as strong as I thought they were. The saxophone, I now realize, is often out of tune. I now recognize that the densely layered production, which once struck me as wholly original, owes a heavy debt to Brian Eno. And, most importantly, I'm also no longer convinced that Butler's jaded-romantic pose is a good way to live one's life.
But if my guitar teacher hadn't lent me that cassette, I don't know if I would have later got into My Bloody Valentine or the Flaming Lips or a lot of the bands that would become my favorites. And I don't know that I would be the same person I am today.
Maybe the pretentious 15-year-olds of 2005 are having similar experiences when they download one song at a time and listen to them on their iPods. Maybe they don't need albums to let music change their lives. But I don't know. When I first listened to Talk Talk Talk, sides one and two, I entered a new world. I don't think I ever really left it.