Fugitive Music | By Joshua Harmon

Joshua Harmon’s cultural history essay “Fugitive Music” appeared in NER 30.4:

phonographMy earliest home recordings were live, direct-to-tape. In a ritual common to my generation, but which now must seem unfathomably absurd to anyone under the age of thirty, I would hold my portable cassette recorder to the speaker of a portable radio and record the songs the DJ was playing. While some friends captured huge swaths of a DJ’s set, letting the tape run until it was full, I was an editor from the beginning, waiting patiently for a specific song to come on, then hurriedly pressing buttons and hoping the DJ didn’t talk over too much of the song’s introduction or fade its ending into another song’s beginning—especially one I didn’t like, since that combination would now become part of my own version of the song, the same way, hearing a song today that was once recorded for me on a mix-tape, I still hear ghost sequences of songs following it. Fidelity was irrelevant, given the cheapness of both the source and the recording devices, and given the media: FM radio and cassette. As Milner writes of the earliest phonograph Edison created, the uses imagined for this machine “emphasized the act of preserving information, with little regard to how that information actually sounded. Fidelity wasn’t the goal; permanence was.” And certainly what mattered to me as I taped music from the airwaves was what I might learn from those songs—about music as pop-cultural entry point and schoolyard currency, or about myself as auditor.

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Joshua Harmon Selected for Best Music Writing 2012

Joshua Harmon (right), ’87

Joshua Harmon’s “Speculative Markets and the 7-Inch Single” (32.3) has been selected for Best Music Writing 2012, guest edited by Questlove from the Roots. The series editor is Daphne Carr, and the book will be published by Feedback Press.

Read Harmon’s NER sketch “From Negative ∞ to O.”

Learn more about The Annotated Mix-Tape.


From negative ∞ to 0

Ben Reid (left) & the author, c. 1987

The Annotated Mix-Tape #20:
“Blue Monday” by New Order

(b/w “The Beach,” 12” single, Factory Records, 1983)

By Joshua Harmon

Ben and I were high school scientists. Though, like many kids our age, we pursued old rail lines into tunnels, snapped photos inside abandoned state hospitals, and picnicked at midnight in a field glowing with the local airport’s landing-strip lights, we also stole a centrifuge from our school chemistry lab so we could “separate drinks.” (Ben’s mom later sold it at a yard sale.) We picked random names we found interesting from our city’s phonebook and mailed those people copies of our ’zine, Sketch Fifty-Three. (No one replied.) Ben endeavored to perfect the “cookie loaf,” collecting, in a plastic bag in his fridge, a year’s worth of leftover crumbs from every cookie he ate. When the bag was full, he mixed its contents with some cream cheese, spread it in a pan, and baked it. (Thin, hard, dense.) I sought to condition my body to require less sleep—an obvious waste. I stayed up weeknights until about one o’clock, then set my alarm for 5:24 am exactly, at which point I’d rise, turn on the shower, and pass out on the bathmat for several more minutes before crawling under the water. (“So spiritual,” a friend’s mom remarked when I once explained this process.) Because of my increasingly low enthusiasm for school and my increasing sleep deficit, as well as my almost-physical craving for music, I roused myself each day by blaring my stereo before I left the house at quarter past seven to walk the silent mile to school.

Image Courtesy of Peter Saville Studio

One morning, I chose New Order’s “Blue Monday” to test the power handling of my cheap-but-big Yamaha speakers. The volume control on the amplifier I used then did not go to ten but instead measured decibels from negative ∞ to 0, a scale I admired for its objective precision even if I didn’t fully understand it. (My father had moved out months earlier, and we were all recalibrating our understandings.) That opening drum machine beat, already jackhammer-like, pounded through the house: my mother, still in bed trying to rally herself for her own day’s efforts, howled “not yet!”


NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Joshua Harmon’s The Annotated Mix-Tape is a work-in-progress; other selections may be read online at Open Letters Monthly and Coldfront, and have been published or are forthcoming in AGNI, The Believer, and The Cincinnati Review. His most recent book is Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie, winner of the 2010 Akron Poetry Prize. His essay “Speculative Markets and the 7-inch Single” appeared in NER 32.3.