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When I was 16, it Took Me Two Weeks to Figure Out Who Sang Nights in White Satin…
By Zach Selwyn
It was early summer 1991. I was driving around Tucson on another hot day listening to the classic rock station 96.1 KLPX in my ’88 Dodge Lancer when I first heard the tail end of the song Nights in White Satin. The melody was haunting and seemed like the kind of ghostly and sexy voice I could put on a future mix tape for some girl. I didn’t know what a “night in white satin” was or who the band was or why it grabbed me like it did, but when the song finally ended, the radio DJ moaned into the microphone that that song always took him back to “a magical time when love was free and gas was cheap.” (Gas was .99 cents a gallon in 1991, BTW.)
Sadly, the DJ did not finish his tag. He never mentioned who sang the song or what it was called. I assumed it was titled Nights in White Satin. But I had no way of confirming this. There was no space age device or Shazam app in my hand that I could hit and get instant answers from a satellite above that had every solution to every question man has ever pondered. I actually had to do some research.
I wrote the song title down on a Jack-in-the-Box napkin I had in my car and sped home as fast as I could to call the radio station… From my mother’s landline.
Since that was during the “96.1 Days of Summer” promotion when Tucsonans were feverishly competing to win tickets to a Joe Satriani concert taking place at Tucson Raceway Park in July – the line was constantly busy. I could NOT get through. I even called the pop radio station 93.7 to ask the 25-year-old DJ if he knew the answer. His response?
“We don’t have that song, bro.”
I was dying to figure out who sang it. Since my music-obsessed stepfather was at one of his countless rehab centers that did not allow human contact from behind sober walls, I had to ask my friends at school, who were only interested in Nirvana, Digital Underground and the Black Crowes at the time. Nobody knew. Only one buddy had even heard the song.
And he swore it was Rush. I knew it wasn’t Rush.
Finally, on my weekly sleepover at my father’s house, I had to ask my dad – who, although he is truly one of the smartest men I have ever known – is not much for rock-n-roll trivia.
“Pretty sure it’s a Neil Diamond song,” he exclaimed.
That did it. I spent the next week saving up my bread and thinking Neil Diamond sang Nights in White Satin. Finally I took $20 from my job bussing tables – and went to the local record store called Zips. I acted nonchalant and cool – like all record store shoppers used to act when they would walk into a place with so many options… You wanted to appear focused. If you have ever been to an Amoeba Records in LA or San Francisco, you know the swagger you want to have when you walk in. You want to impress the clerks. You can’t look lost around the other customers. You want to appear as if you know exactly what you are looking for.
I headed towards the rock section. I started thumbing through Neil Diamond CDs. The big cardboard box ones. The CD packaging that was soon banned by the Environmental Protection Agency – although they somehow let the plastic that now pollutes half of our oceans remain as the primary packaging for compact discs. If I ever come across that massive plastic floating island in the middle of the Pacific, I’m gonna be amazed at just how many CD jewel cases compose the island’s largest volcano.
Anyway, I rifled away through Neil Diamond. I could not find Nights in White Satin. I looked at the Neil Young section as well, just in case my dad had simply “mixed up his Neil’s.” No luck. Finally, I realized I had to do what every young music loving record shopper dreads the most at a retail store: I had to interact with an actual employee.
After fooling around with some buttons and stickers near the register, I eventually mustered up the courage to raise my voice above the din of the shitty hair band that was playing from the speakers in the ceiling.
“Hey man, do you know which Neil Diamond album Nights in White Satin is on?”
The dude momentarily stopped filling out the plastic rack card he was illustrating in red Sharpie for Alice in Chains.
“Neil Diamond?” He chortled. “That’s not Neil Diamond. That’s the Moody Blues.”
What? The Moody Blues? That shitty band that sang Ride My See-Saw? Impossible.
“Yeah, look in the prog rock section,” he explained.
Fuck me. I was going to the prog rock section? I never went to the prog rock section. I hated bands like Yes and early Genesis and what?!? I refused to go to the prog rock section and gasp! Buy a prog rock CD??
Listen. In 1991 broke teenagers didn’t have illegal or easy 99 cent download services. Or streaming. Or YouTube. Or any cassette singles that were made in 1967 when Nights in White Satin was recorded. I had but two really expensive choices… I could to plunk down the 16.99 for the actual album the song first appeared on, which was called Days of Future Passed… Or, I could play it a little safer and spend 18.99 on Voices in the Sky: The Best of the Moody Blues.
Either way, I was throwing my money blindly at 13 unknown songs. I decided to go with Voices in the Sky because it just sounded trippy and like something I might “get high to” someday. I brought it up towards the front where the clerk informed me that if I bought two “same artist” CD’s I would get a coupon for three dollars off. Luckily I passed on that amazing offer.
So, I was roughly twenty dollars invested into the Moody fucking Blues. I had recently dropped $195 on a sweet Blaupunkt Pull-out tape deck for my ride at the local stereo shop, and I had also scored a Sony Discman-cassette adapter so that I could have CD-quality sound in my car at all times. Assuming my batteries weren’t low, of course… So, I loaded up the Discman and rolled my windows down and began a very brief relationship with the Moody Blues.
The first song was Ride My See Saw. Skip. Then another clunker. Skip. Soon, however, the songs got a tad more interesting… Never Comes the Day was soaring and anthemic, and Question had some Stones-y undertones… but the sheer annoyance of Talking out of Turn or I’m Just a Singer in a Rock-N-Roll Band was so hard for this kid from the lowest corner of the desert to accept that I had to move ahead to Nights in White Satin for the remainder of my drive home.
My stepfather returned from rehab two weeks later and I showed him my recent musical purchases. He approved highly of the Byrds and the Doors Greatest Hits, but he scoffed immediately when he saw the Voices in the Sky CD I had purchased. His complaint was simple… And was very understood.
“You’re such a stooge, man – you didn’t buy a Moody Blues CD with Tuesday Afternoon on it?” He scoffed. “That’s like, their best song ever!”
Two weeks later, I had saved up enough money to buy a second Moody Blues Greatest Hits CD. One that had Tuesday Afternoon on it. I swear to God. This collection, called Legend of a Band ran me $14.99 and introduced me to a trippier longer version of Nights in White Satin as well as the poppy foppishness of the hit Your Wildest Dreams.
(For the record, my stepfather could have changed my life if he had just said, “Screw the Moody Blues, go listen to the Kinks.”)
To this day, Voices in the Sky and Legend of a Band both sit in gargantuan CD cases in my office that have been collecting dust since around 1994. In the same case are thousands of CD’s that set me back 14.99 here and 17.99 there. From Phil Collins to 3rd Bass to that fucking Oasis album that came out after …What’s the Story Morning Glory. We all have them. Resting in our garages and attics, taunting us like medals of adolescence that will forever brand us as the parents who tell our kids that they need to do some research once in awhile because “nobody’s going to do it for you.”
Well, we better be careful. This new generation’s problem is that everybody is doing it for them.
As I paid my bills this month, and looked over the CD collection I have amassing in my house that is worth nothing but fond memories, I thought back to that hard earned $18.99 and $14.99 I had dropped on those CD’s back in 1991. That’s a lot of money for a kid. That’s a lot of money for a lot of people. The music industry sure did take advantage of us, didn’t they? Then again, without them, we wouldn’t have what we have. As I sent off another online bill to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power at that very moment, I thought to myself that all that disposable high school income sure would be really helpful right now.
And then I pulled out that CD case, got stoned and listened to Nights in White Satin…
Download and hear ZACH and MISSI PYLE on the latest ep. of “Anna Faris is Unqualified”