I have next to no money for the first half of the year. Instead of scooping ice cream or wiping off filthy tables at the Old Country Buffet, I opt to subsist as a full-time college student with no supplemental income--living at home, living off what’s left of my savings. I acquire new music shrewdly and thriftily, frequenting libraries, used record stores, and the buy-now-pay-later magazine record clubs. On the Saturday after Kurt Cobain kills himself, I thumb through the shelves at the CD Exchange near Southridge like an emaciated junkie, gleefully forking over the last six dollars in my wallet for a recycled copy of Kate Bush’s The Whole Story.

I do most of my used-CD shopping at 2nd Hand Tunes, a snarky East Side corner store straight out of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. I glean much pleasure spending many weekend afternoons browsing through bin after bin of plastic slipcases holding CD booklets (the discs are kept behind the store’s comically elevated counter). I have a general mental list of stuff I’d like to acquire when I’m browsing, but also enough devotion and tenacity to usually search through every last slipcase in the bin. The possibility that I could find a hidden treasure that never would’ve occurred to me to look for unless it was staring me in the face carries a little electrical charge. That feeling of discovery keeps me coming back for more; it becomes something I live for. (Click here to read more about this).

I’m listening to a lot of WARP, Milwaukee’s first alternative station. At 1340 on the AM dial, it’s low-watt and “canned”, meaning no live DJs (although a meant-to-be-hip-but-fairly-dorky guy introduces the occasional song). It was also pre-programmed to a fault: at times, you could count on hearing the same song at the exact same day and time every god damn week! Nonetheless, WARP was important because it played stuff no other radio station at the time would touch, from then-daring new artists like Green Day and Tori Amos to classics from The Clash and The Smiths--believe it or not, this was where I first heard “How Soon is Now”.

Sadly, WARP goes off the air in April (playing “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” twenty-four hours straight), leaving a void in the market until dance/Top 40 station Hot 102 morphs into New Rock 102.1 in September. You can practically hear a collective Gen-X cheer across the city when this format change suddenly occurs. It’s almost utopian at first, hearing songs from Enigma, Nine Inch Nails, Throwing Muses and the Meat Puppets in one hour of programming, but repetitive rot gradually sets in and the “New Rock” format seems rather old hat and predictable in less than a year’s time.

I get my act together and get a job that summer (shilling auto parts and supplies, no less). You can just guess where most of my newfound disposable income goes. After weeks of anticipation, I finally receive my first paycheck and make a beeline for Best Buy to buy Seal’s second album. I love it and listen to it so much that eleven years later, it seems overly, painfully familiar and I can only play it once in a blue moon. I also start getting into the brilliant British-pop combo/cult band XTC after obtaining Oranges and Lemons from the library and, unknowingly to me, a first-edition cassette of Skylarking (without “Dear God”!) from 2nd Hand Tunes. They’re my New Favorite Band by year’s end, even better to me than their spiritual heirs, The Beatles.

For the first time, I also allow another person’s taste in music to extensively influence mine. Over the summer, my friend John encourages me to listen to a lot of artists familiar to me by name only (PJ Harvey, Arlo Guthrie, Concrete Blonde, Velvet Underground), and even more that I’ve never heard of (Stan Ridgway, Steve Wynn, the Judybats). While on a road trip to Madison, he also introduces me to the art of making a mix tape, and for that alone he is more influential in this regard than all other friends I’ve ever had put together.