1984 Never Ends

1984It’s a sweltering August evening. I’m in the front passenger seat of a sleek black sports car listening to music at high volume in a parking lot somewhere in Northeast Indiana. It’s 1984.

Not the year 1984… rather, the CD my husband and I were cranking after coming from an anniversary dinner to the resort where we were married.

But it could easily have been 1984 in the same vicinity, in the same month, on a similar hot night, in a (much likely) less impressive car with the same CD playing. In fact, that anniversary evening, I had that sensation that is not quite deja vu and not quite flashback, a cocktail of past and present that reminds you that some moments line up on a parallel. There are things in your life that don’t just remain the same… they keep popping in at various points, layering on new meaning each time.

I remember the weeks before 1984 was released. There was all manner of speculation about what the album would be. It was a bold statement to name the album after the year, as if it would be the artistic statement that summed up the era. I would be surprised if that was the band’s intention. The real big news was that Eddie played keyboards on it.

When I first saw the video for “Jump” on MTV, it was actually kind of disappointing, because I listened (and still do) to Van Halen for a harder, more swinging sound. But as soon as I heard the rest of the album, I could overlook it. The one thing it did was open the band up to broader air play, which used to be a much more important thing for a fan than it is now.

There’s something about Van Halen, and especially 1984, that reminds me of being young, more than any other music from that time. In a way it enables me to experience that feeling even now. So, while listening to 1984 might not seem an obvious choice for celebrating a wedding anniversary, it was perfect for my husband and me.

Coincidentally, today is Eddie Van Halen’s birthday. It’s a fitting way to wrap up my week of birthday blog posts on songs that shaped my life.

Advertisements

Cruising Tunes

cassette in carInsurance.com recently did a survey on best and worst driving songs, and when I got over my jealousy of the marketing team who worked on that program, I thought about the general subject of listening to music in the car. The number one pick was “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, which actually makes sense to me, though one might think something like “Drive My Car” or “Radar Love” would take the top spot.

When I was in college, my friends and I would enjoy what we called a “campus cruise.” We would pile into someone’s car and drive around the campus and adjacent student-housing areas just to see if we could catch anything interesting in action. Two gentlemen a few ladies in my group were interested in lived (or hung out at, I can’t remember) the same house, so it was convenient to drive around that block a couple of times. But mostly we meandered with no specific destination in mind. While the idea of this now is probably incredibly offensive to young folks, this was the 80s, and Ronald Reagan had been assuring us for years that it was our God-given American right to not deprive ourselves of any pleasure, as the world — and everything in it — was ours for the taking, especially petroleum products.

So, after plopping out of bed well after the sun rose and devouring a lukewarm pizza from the student union, we’d hop in someone’s car, roll out of the parking lot and pop in one very special cassette — Kick by INXS.

There is nothing on Kick about driving. “Don’t Stop Believing” isn’t about cruising either, but you can imagine why it was the top choice. It’s a turn-up-the-volume-and-belt-it-out anthem that transports you to a place where you are unashamed of who you are, what you want and what’s happened to you. For whatever reason, it seems like when we are behind the wheel of our car, we are in a place that is both public and private. We can sing out loud… to whatever we want… even if it’s Steve Perry and we have no chance of hitting more than four of the notes he does.

We didn’t sing to Kick. We generally ignored or fast-forwarded through the opening song, “Guns in the Sky,” but we did rap along to “Mediate”. We thought we were totally cool to “Devil Inside”. We imagined someone singing “Need You Tonight” to us, maybe even Michael Hutchence himself. Why not? We were in the car. Your imagination can take you anywhere when you’re in the car.

Kick was an obvious choice in the late-80s for a group of gals, but there is something very open-road-freeing about that album for most people, I think. It’s actually one of my husband’s favorites — a guilty pleasure for him, because his standards for musicianship at the time were so high it was surprising Kick even was a blip on his radar. The music is punchy and celebratory, like sticking your arm out the open window on the highway… before you became aware of the rare possibility that a pebble or some other small object could pop up from under the wheel of the car in front of you and puncture your skin and, in turn, starting telling your kids to keep their hands and arms in the car until you got to the last block before home.

The more I write about this, the more I miss it, and its context. A song like “Mediate” told us that the world really wasn’t all right, and several of us had already caught on to the false prophecy of the Reagan years. But we weren’t quite ready for reality. We knew it was coming, but it was our time to savor the last bits of youth.

Rock biographies… the ultimate beach read.

reading-on-beach-03

The holiday week has me in a beach state of mind, especially as the weather has recently turned from cool and rainy to hot and bake-y. But the tepid weather helped me catch up on my magazines, and I finally read the recent Jimmy Page interview in Rolling Stone. The interviewer references some of the “legend” surrounding the band. Page refused to get sucked in, saying that if it weren’t for their music, no one would be interested the debris of their personal lives.

But, would they? I think Hammer of the Gods is a wild ride of a book, even if you don’t know much about Led Zepplin’s music . In fact, I loaned it a couple of years ago to a book club friend of mine who read it simply for the juicy bits. Granted, the band’s fame, fueled by their talent, changes the context of their crazy antics. But, there’s still conflict, characters (in some cases ones in whom we already have an emotional investment), plot and story arc — all the makings of a good tale, and considering the content, an excellent beach read.

If you’re unfamiliar with what makes a book a beach read, specifically, think about what you’d like to read in the midst of blue skies, white sands and whispy, lofty clouds. You want something not too deep, not too depressing, easy to read and maybe even a bit trashy. Romances are often cited as classic beach books. Rock biographies can fit the description too.

Not every rock biography is suited for the sand-in-your-toes reading occasion, though. Dream Brother is a deep and satisfying story about the short life of Jeff Buckley, but it is more suited to gray skies and crashing surf viewed from the dry side of a rain speckled window. Reading about the Doors and Hendrix is too dark, in my opinion, as their stories are closely tied to premature death. So, if you want an easy read that packs in drama, exotic locales, flamboyant personalities and the jet-set lifestyle that doesn’t destroy you beach vibe, here are some recommendations.

Hammer coverHammer of the Gods. Brace yourself from some gratuitous, deviant and reckless behavior in this tell-all by rock journalist Steven Davis, who takes a lot of what is included from Richard Cole, Zepplin’s tour manager. The band’s and its inner circle’s shameless behavior endears them to few, but reading about their antics is pure guilty pleasure. It is a glimpse of what happens when decadence is afforded to young men who aren’t quite ready to handle the Pandora’s box of fame.

True Adventures coverThe True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. I’ve read Keith Richards’ autobiography and other books about the Stones. Richards’ maintains an element of lightness even as he describes his multiple cold-turkey episodes, but his account of the band’s career also includes a very long passage about an early love of the blues, which exists in much the same form in every biography of a sixties British Invasion musician. This is way too boring for the beach. Stanley Booth, on the other hand, spins a tale of life in the late-60s and early-70s hanging with the band at the creative height of their careers. You get the escapades, drugs, parties, wives and girlfriends along with the music. Booth writes in a way that makes you feel you were riding shotgun the whole time. It remains a classic among rock biographies, even today.

I'm With The Band coverI’m With The Band. The trend here is that rock biographies covering the 70s provide the best beach reads, and this one by one of music’s most famous groupies is no exception. Pamela Des Barres delivers on all levels when it comes to the details you want most from someone with her unique perspective into the rock-n-roll lifestyle. Many rock biographies give a nod to the role of the groupie back in the industry’s heyday, but Des Barres gives you the real inside scoop in a voice that is as unapologetic as it is authentic. It’s hard to put this one down without liking her at least a little bit.

Into the Pleasure Groove coverIn the Pleasure Groove. How often do you see a man on the beach reading a book (or a Kindle)? Beach reads are almost always in the hands of women, so it makes sense to include this autobiography of John Taylor from Duran Duran. But, it’s not its appeal to the ladies that makes it fitting for sun and sand. (It did, after all, receive a very favorable review in the New York Times.) This book more than any other I have read gives an honest account of how fame and the lifestyle of a rock star can make what should be the highlight of one’s life a tortuous struggle. Many musicians have written about their addictions, but few have been able to tap into their vulnerability for readers in the way that JT does. Fans of our hero should get ready to swoon all over again.

Feel free to share your suggestions, as there is plenty of summer left to indulge!

My Walkman, Eurail Pass and Depeche Mode

The soundtrack for GenXineurope.

The soundtrack for GenXineurope.

I did a study abroad semester while in college with old friends and new, but my constant companion that term was a cassette tape I picked up in Cambridge, England, that featured two albums by Depeche Mode… Black Celebration and Music for the Masses. Not everyone is moved by such a thing, but I couldn’t imagine a more amazing possibility – one cassette, two albums. It was maximum use of Walkman capacity in an era when all my possessions needed to fit into a backpack light enough to drag around the Continent for a month.

Music for the Masses was a very big release at the time, and the songs seemed to be everywhere inside and outside of my headphones. It was played often at the pub where we hung out, and I sometimes can taste the combination of salt & vinegar crisps with lager & lime when I hear “Never Let Me Down”. We all have those albums that serve as a soundtrack for a time in our lives, and this was it for my first stint in Europe. I spent a lot of time on trains and buses that term, and I never left our house without my Walkman and Depeche Mode. It was essential as bringing your own sheet to the youth hostel and wearing comfortable shoes.

At one point during the semester, I was in Paris. It was a week of emotional ups and downs. I was staying with my “French brother,” the exchange student our family had hosted just a few years before with whom I was close. I was also waiting for a letter that never came from my boyfriend at the time. A trip to Brugge was in order.

As my train pulled out of Gard du Nord, a man sat next to me who looked and smelled like he spent most of his time in places far less luxurious than Paris’ least glamorous train station. The stench was overwhelming. On my Walkman, “Black Celebration” began. I stifled tears.

By the time we rolled into Brugge, the man had been ushered along, and things were looking better. I met a fellow American (he spotted my shoes), and we spent the afternoon and evening comparing notes on our study abroad experiences. I missed my hostel’s curfew and ended up throwing stones at the window for someone to come down and let me in. It was an interesting evening.

One of my favorite things in the world is the idea of music as a time machine. Those two albums definitely bring me back to 1989. But the timeless quality that is woven into just about anything Depeche Mode does keeps them as two of my favorite albums to listen to anytime.

Where would I be without the Columbia House Record Club?

In the 80s, Columbia House Record Club was God’s gift to young music fans interested in building their libraries. I remember those card stock ads falling out of our weekly TV Guide and bothering my mom to let me spend my babysitting money on signing up for those 12 albums for a penny plus a bonus. All I had to do was purchase a certain number of additional albums over the course of 12 or 24 months, and I would fulfill my contractual obligation and pack my record collection full of the day’s favorites.

Some summer during junior high, I wore her down and received her permission to sign myself up. It was one of the headiest days of my life.

I had never paid close attention to what was offered by Columbia House, so filling out that first form was difficult. The Club offered mostly selections from the Top 40 lists of recent years, like Air Supply and Carly Simon. But there were enough gems in there to satisfy my taste for new music and add to my collection of the classics.

Prince CharmingOne of those was Adam & The Ants’ Prince Charming. It was the first album I opened on that auspicious day of my inaugural delivery. I can still remember Stuart peering at me all war-painted wearing pseudo-military garb in ruffles and the flashiest colors imaginable. The band was absent from the cover. Didn’t matter… Adam was the man. “Don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me your handsome.” INDEED!

It didn’t take long for the needle to hit the record and blast those tribal beats out of the speakers my dad constructed to match with my hot pink and French Provincial décor. I wonder if my mother regretted her decision to let me join the club as much as I doubted my sanity for downloading Katy Perry’s “Firework” onto my kids’ iPods. But that album, and the dozens of others that followed, brought me tremendous pleasure for years to come. I still own all of them. (It took two weeks for my kids to dismiss Katy Perry.)

A couple of years ago, we had guests over for an impromptu “afterparty,” and I boasted that I could offer our guests anything they wanted to hear. One of them thought he was putting me to the test when he asked for Adam & The Ants. Of course, I delivered …as did Adam & The Ants …as did the Columbia House Record Club.

The Columbia House Record Club is a dinosaur now, distinct for more than a decade and probably irrelevant long before it folded. I was still a member in the early 90s when CDs replaced albums and cassettes. I’ve got to say that I prefer the immediacy of the iTunes world. How else could I download Andy Gibb for an instant New Year’s Eve devotion? But I will always have fond memories of Columbia House and the joy of getting all that great music for the price of a few albums and a penny.

Backstage Pass Gone Bad

Behold!

Behold!

When I was a teenager, there was no greater testament to a guitar player’s skill than the following statement, “He can play ‘Eruption’!” (Yes, it was always a he.)

When Van Halen came to my hometown in 1984, it was a colossal event. My friend’s older brother was allowed to stay overnight in line at the venue to score tickets. We got one for everyone, except the guy I had decided to date just because he wore the same hat John Taylor did in the “Hungry Like The Wolf” era. Although he was a drummer, he didn’t care for Van Halen. But, he ended up buying a ticket from a scalper for a lot more money simply because he want to tag along.

On the afternoon of the show, Mr. John Taylor Hat was working his usual job as an usher at the movie theater.  He was sent in to take care of some loud viewers on whom the rest of the crowd’s pleas for quiet had no impact.  Alex Van Halen was one of the offenders.  They talked about the concert that night, and my date mentioned that he was taking me.  Alex handed him two backstage passes and told him to come by after the show.

After a great performance that was not hindered by my very grumpy seat-mate, we walked to the backstage area to see how well the passes worked.  The opportunity to meet Eddie Van Halen was worth having to hear my date heckling David Lee Roth throughout the show. Among the girls I knew, few understood the magic of “Eruption,” so with that and  a story about meeting Eddie, no one would dare question my right for a seat at the rock-and-roll table (the one that dudes sit around posing questions like who’s the greatest guitarist or who’s the best drummer, etc.)

As we walked through the threshold, no one seemed to notice us, so I said to my companion, “Let’s just be casual and walk around like we belong here.  No need to get the passes out unless they ask, right?”  But he seemed determined to ruin everything.  He said, “No, we need to wear these,” pulling one out of his pocket and putting it around his neck.  Within two seconds, a very large security professional escorted us out the door.

The minute we were out of earshot, I started yelling at him for blowing our chance.  Two guys from my high school were lurking around the area and heard us arguing.  They offered to take the passes off our hands… for $100 each.  My soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend moaned in disgust at the whole incident and wouldn’t let the passes go.  Tragedy was a great motivator for his art, and this was the best that our short relationship had delivered.  He shook his head, slumped his shoulders and dragged his feet toward the parking lot.  Only because I needed a ride home did I follow him.  (If only texting existed in 1984!) We never went out again.

Years later, I’ve seen Van Halen two more times with my husband who is as appreciative of the band as anyone I’ve ever met. I can’t say that he could play “Eruption”… at least I’ve been told not to.

Thankful for a song

I’m thankful for “Ordinary World” by Duran Duran. Actually, I’m thankful for any song that affects me like this one does.

If you’ve seen my previous posts, you are aware of my appreciation of Duran Duran. But, lately it’s been more about their music than ever. And as I’ve brought together the teenager and midlifer in me, I’ve been paying more attention.

When this song came out nearly 20 years ago, I was in my twenties.  Although I bought the CD, I didn’t notice the song all that much.  Ubiquitous radio airplay and maturity beyond my Tiger Beat perspective left me less interested in the band in general. “Ordinary World” was a ballad. I assumed it was about failed romance, and at that age this kind of song elicited a shrug and a nod, but no more.

After reading John Taylor’s biography, I learned that this song was inspired by Simon LeBon’s feelings at the loss of a friend to suicide. Maybe you knew this before, but I didn’t. Listen to the lyrics. You can really feel it. And you can hear the sadness in the music. It’s textured and beautiful, and I can’t imagine it done any better.

Songs like this arrest me. I’m convinced that if I am ever in a car accident caused by my own inattention, it won’t be because of my cell phone. It will be because of a song. When I hear things like this, I am cocooned from the world. I am enveloped in a silken sheet that folds me into the music. I am drowning in the song. Nothing else exists for those few moments. It’s like meditation, though my mind isn’t empty. It’s saturated. To me, Heaven would be songs like this on continuous play.

I am sorry that such a gorgeous thing began from sadness. I am thankful that artists have the courage to share.