It’s a beautiful spring afternoon and I’m in the drive-thru at Taco Bell in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ. It’s 1998 and I’m thrilled to finally have a Taco Bell in my neighborhood. I’m bored with the stash of CDs in my pickup so I’m flipping through radio stations when a sound I’ve never heard floats into my ears. A lazy beat gently pushes a dubby bassline as a guitar hovers like a cloud of smoke.
I buy Pan American a few hours later. It survives several smash-and-grabs that deplete those CD stashes in my old truck, as well as a few ruthless purges that cull what’s left. It keeps me company through a couple of college degrees, a couple of marriages, a couple of career changes, and one nasty pandemic. It is an old friend.
It’s a cold winter night and I’m in the electronic section at Sound Garden in Baltimore. It’s 2020 and I’m thrilled to still have my favorite record store in the midst of the pandemic. I’m bored with what I’ve been listening to so I’m flipping through titles when I see a box set of the first three Pole albums. I’ve never heard Pole but his latest album was on a few “best of 2020” lists so I blindly try it.
Pole’s first album, 1, came out a few months after the self-titled debut from Pan-American. As I listen to Stefan Betke’s fractured beats for the first time, I’m transported back to that New Jersey Taco Bell where I heard Mark Nelson for the first time. The two albums are different, but not that different. If I had heard 1 as I ate my burritos 23 years ago, it might have been the friend who kept me company on this journey.
I am fortunate to have found so much music throughout my life, but for every album I’ve heard there are dozens I’ve missed. Now that I’ve heard 1, I know it will be with me as I muddle my way through the next 23 years. That means I’ll listen to Pan American a little bit less than I did before: the curse of new things is there’s a little less time for old things. An old girl scout saying comes to mind, something about friends and silver and gold.
I’m not sure which is silver and which is gold, but I’m thrilled to know both Pan American and Pole.
Pan American, Pan American, released March 23, 1998
Pole, 1, released July 27, 1998
“Personal Stories” is a series of posts about artists, albums, concerts, and other experiences that permanently changed our relationships with music.