Thursday, August 7, 2008

Oh, Wow. It's Good to Hear You, Old Friend.

OK, "friend" is too strong a word, but once upon a long time ago, no later than 1994, I rented the back half of an old bungalow here in central Austin. It had no air conditioning other than some hopelessly spent old window units, and no heat save for a floor furnace that could only heat the little hallway under which it lurked like a tiny pit of Hell. There was a lot not like, but it had a tiny back yard adjoined by neighbors who had a dog I could pet through the fence, the house and yard were overhung by big, shady trees, and its decrepitude notwithstanding, it was possessed of a comfortable oldness that I found easy to like.

Though I didn't know it when I signed the lease, it also had a beautiful woman named Roxanne Hale. She rented the front half of the bungalow. But forget the beauty – this woman could sing. And compose. Naturally, she had a place in Austin's famous live music scene, which, just as naturally, meant that she had to earn her living working for a company that made snack chips.

There's a lot less justice in the world than there ought to be, but, then, you knew that.

Back in '94, the World-Wide Web was just about a year old, and you couldn't swing a cat without hitting about half a million people who hadn't even heard of the Internet, let alone the Web. I'd been using the Internet since I signed-on at The University of Texas at Austin Computation Center in 1987, and had been doing my small part to build-up the Web ever since the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) had released Mosaic 1.0a9 for the Macintosh. (First Geiger counter on the 'net? That was me. U.T. Austin's first home page? Me, again - though there's some dispute about it.) Where local music was concerned, I'd first pushed the idea of having Internet connected volunteers get the schedules for the local music venues, type them in, and post them on some of the local Usenet newsgroups for the benefit of all. One volunteer, one venue, was the idea. (I took the Elephant Room, though they were thoroughly unreliable about getting their schedule out.)

Just in case this point hasn't already sunk in—and if you weren't there you could easily have missed it—the Internet back then wasn't about advancing one's commercial interests. Other than defense contractors, commercial interests pretty much hadn't noticed the Internet, yet, and wouldn't begin to for at least two more years. Stocking the Internet with content was a volunteer effort performed on the grounds that, if someone would just do X, wouldn't that be great? And so lots of us did lots of things, and the Internet and the Web did begin to become great. And then, in '96, the world began to notice, and ISPs started to be created, and the Internet began to grow and change. And sometime around the millennium, I found myself standing in line to order lunch at a notoriously tiny eatery near campus, and overheard two sorority girls behind me discussing their email. That was the moment, as far as I'm concerned, when the Internet had well and truly arrived. For better and for worse.

Anyway, back in '94 the Internet and Web weren't household words. But lots of us were doing whatever we could think of to make it a bit more interesting or useful. And it was completely obvious to me that the Internet could deliver music to people who would otherwise never get a chance to hear it. And so I suggested an "adopt a band" effort to anyone who would listen. And bands were contacted and adopted, web pages were created for them, music was digitized and linked-to, and fingers were crossed that somehow this'd get a local band the attention its adopter believed it deserved. I have no idea whether it ever worked, but I am certain that it was worth trying.

Naturally, I adopted Roxanne and her band. I created web pages and digitized music (albeit from a cassette deck that I later learned was distorting the sound by running ever so sightly slow), and hosted the web site from the Macintosh on my desk at the U.T. Austin Computation Center's Microcomputer Support Group, using, if memory serves, MacHTTP for the server. (Even in those days of cooperative multitasking on the Macintosh, that arrangement worked fine.) These days, there are, properly, policies forbidding the use of the University's Internet resources for commercial purposes, but back then the policy makers had no idea that there was an Internet, so those of us who occupied that wondrous policy-free zone did whatever seemed right at the time. And trying to helping Roxanne and our other unknown local musicians seemed right.

Three years later, the Internet Archive arrived on the scene to begin making a record for posterity of the entire contents of that world-changing, ever-changing medium, and captured a snapshot of the Roxanne Hale web site, not much altered, as best I can recall, from its original design.

Eventually my lease on the back of the bungalow expired, and I went to live elsewhere in Austin. Eventually, so did Roxanne, except in New York. And somewhere in there, as the policies on acceptable use of University Internet resources arrived on the scene, I had to drop her web site, and wish her well.

I've thought of her repeatedly, if infrequently, over the years, for several reasons. Two of those reasons are cassette tapes gathering dust on the bottom shelf of my CD collection, which I have no way to play, but wish I did. Another reason was one evening at the bungalow when a knock on my door revealed Roxanne in a half-zipped dress, anxious to be on her way somewhere, looking for help finishing the zipping – a singular event in my life, so far. And, perhaps for that reason, I will always regret not having offered then and there my help with her unzipping whenever she got back. It did occur to me, but about thirty seconds after the zipping was complete and she was gone with a smile and a wave. Timing, as they say, is everything, and mine was off, as usual. Also, I didn't stand a chance with her, but that's just details. It should, at least, have been said, if only so I wouldn't spend years kicking myself for screwing-up a scene that a screenwriter couldn't have setup any better.

But that CD collection ... I've been re-ripping it lately, because when I first ripped it, iTunes was so stunningly dumb that it ignored the error correction codes on the discs (actually, it still ignores them by default, but can now be configured otherwise), which meant that read errors introduced static-like noise into some songs, and because I recently replaced an 8GB iPod nano with a 16 GB iPhone (my very first cell phone), so I finally have the extra space to increase the bit-rate of my music. And it was somewhere in that re-ripping process tonight, that Roxanne's name floated through my head again. And that left me thinking that in these days when any musician can publish their work on iTunes for around $30, wouldn't it be a shame if Roxanne was missing that opportunity to, once again, make her music available on the Internet.

And here's where we finally get to the good bit: she isn't missing the opportunity. And my favorite song of hers, though renamed from "But I Do" to "You Think I Don't Know You", is among the offerings. And they're "iTunes Plus" tracks, which means no DRM and a bit-rate of 256 kbps. So, I finally bought my first complete album from iTunes, and it's a treat.

Roxanne, it's great to hear you again. I hope this foray onto the Internet finds you the audience you deserve.

And if you ever need help with a zipper again....

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:44 PM CDT

    I knew Roxanne also. She and I became friends when the company I worked for put a phone system into the snack chip company she worked for at the time. Her music was magic and I was also just thinking about her (I live in Philly now) and her music. I understand she is married and living in Los Angeles. I hope she finds the success she deserves, I'm headed to the iTunes store as we speak!

    Renee (Jeffries) O'Brien