Thursday, October 15, 2015


This Saturday, October 17, is Cassette Store Day. In honor of that fact, and also the fact that my Illuminated Paths release "Ray Zinnbrann's Time Tunnel 1983-1988" is now both streamable on Spotify and available for purchase on Amazon, allow me to relate how it all began for me so many years ago, when I never thought my music would ever become playable in any form beyond the mighty cassette tape.

I was making home recordings long before I knew how to play an instrument or had any friends who were musicians. It was a very tentative process in the beginning to say the least. First I tried improvising my own lyrics to whatever instrumental recordings I had lying around, but I didn't like that. Then I tried just singing acapella, again making it up as I went, but that didn't seem to fly either. So finally I got an old beat-up guitar at a garage sale and without even learning to play it first, finally made up "songs" I delighted in driving my family crazy with. It was even better and more annoying sounding if my elementary school friend Zoltan or my 2-year-old cousin Jamey was around to bang on a piano while I banged on my guitar. We also had a big toy drumkit my mother had bought me at Toys-R-Us at our disposal; Mom still regrets the purchase of those drums to this day.

Just before I turned 17, I took a few lessons from my high school punk friends and finally learned how to play guitar well enough to write real songs at last. I wasted no time in getting to work, with nothing but a cassette deck, a cheap beginner's guitar and a very early fuzztone (pictured above) my aunt's brother gave me. I discovered quite by accident that if I plugged my headphones into one of the input jacks on my tape deck that it functioned as a microphone. I plugged my guitar directly into the other jack and I was set.

In February 1983 there was a huge blizzard which dumped over two feet of snow in North Jersey. To occupy myself while snowed in, I started recording these new songs I'd been writing. By the time the storm passed, my very first demo tape was complete. Calling myself Ray Zinnbrann for the first time, I made a few copies of it and passed them around my high school. One student I'd blessed with a copy proceeded to play it on a boombox on her school bus, not knowing it was Not Safe For School. I still wish I'd been there when she played the song that ended with me insulting the school's dean of discipline by name. She said it got a huge response!

At this time, the local NJHC scene was first being championed by WFMU DJ Pat Duncan. He delighted in turning the station into a weekly local punk party during his Thursday night program, playing seemingly any tape his guests would throw at him. I so wanted to be on the show myself, but for some odd reason the folks I knew who went to these little on-air meets were reluctant to deliver tapes of my music to Pat. Then came the fateful evening when one of them needed a ride there one Thursday night and asked me to do the honors. I accepted most willingly and made damn sure to bring a tape to hand to Pat myself. He aired it, and I was officially in. Now knowing exactly where the party was, I began attending Pat's show religiously, bringing tapes whenever I had new recordings to share. I would get the occasional compliment (and the occasional criticism) here and there, but my big moment came when I made a song about a female scenester I'd developed a crush on at Pat's shows. That song, "I Found Love at WFMU," got enough requests in the summer of '84 to finish at a respectable #40 on Pat's Top 100 list at year's end. My first brush with fame!

Irwin Chusid, the outsider music champion whose show followed Pat's at the time, picked up on the buzz generated by "Love at WFMU" and invited me to accompany him on a spoof of Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized," which quickly became a follow-up smash and in fact still sees occasional WFMU airplay to this day. With a "crossover hit" under my belt in record time, I moved to expand my base beyond the hardcore scene in earnest. In early 1986 I met William Berger, who had just launched his "Lo-Fi" program spotlighting the now-growing home-taping scene, and found that he, too, craved a taste of Ray Zinnbrann. Soon I was giving all my new tapes to him, winning continuous airplay and appreciation. By then I had "progressed" to recording tracks on a boombox, then playing them back on my good deck while I did additional things over them with another tape going in the boombox -- now I was multitracking.

Two years' worth of "Lo-Fi" contributions and networking with other artists who had sent their music to the show led to the formation of the greatest music scene I have ever had the pleasure of being a member of. On February 10, 1988, we took it to the streets when "Lo-Fi Night" took place at the Lismar Lounge in New York. It was then that I finally got the chance to see for myself just how deeply my music had resonated. After years of making music exclusively in the bedrooms and basements of my hometown, I made my official live debut that night in front of a crowd of fellow "Lo-Fi" artists and admirers who greeted me with a thunderous ovation, sang along to my songs and left me feeling like I had "arrived" at last. I went on to collaborate with other Lo-Fi artists (most notably Jurassic Jet Screamer and the deeply missed Terry Folger) and carve out my own little path of musical mayhem that I strive to keep going till I die.

All of which brings me back to the start of this blog entry. The musical journey I have just related would not have been at all possible if it had not been for cassettes. And I never saw this glorious cassette revival coming either. The next generation is now seeing for themselves just how we did it, and embracing it with the same sort of passion, and it makes me very proud. Cassette Store Day is the wonderful antithesis of that bloated monster Record Store Day, and it honors a format that will always mean more to me than vinyl ever did (except maybe when said vinyl had music I'd made on it). They were inexpensive to produce then and still are now. And as we celebrate this Saturday, well, you may want to buy yourself some cassettes. Like this one. Or, perhaps, this one...

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