Tricenarian (I)

Like Axl Rose, I ain’t got time to reminisce on novelties. On the other hand, I am gearing up to turn thirty this week. Yikes! So a little bit of reminiscing is probably in order. I have had various ideas for how to commemorate these three decades of life. Sometimes for birthdays in the past I have embarked upon personal projects to recap my life: wandering around DC looking at all the different places I have lived; sitting for a few days and trying to make a list of all the songs I’ve ever written. That kind of thing.

For the big three-oh, I had the idea to do something musical, like string together a medley of songs from the past thirty years into an amusing m�lange and try to record it or film it. But that was a bit overly ambitious. Then I decided to try to make a quick playlist or mix CD of songs from the years 1977-2007 — thirty songs for the thirty-year old. But when I started to do that I realized that it didn’t quite work. Would I try to compile the best song from each year? Or the song that mattered to me the most that year? I mean, it’s not like I was listening to any music at all when I was, like, two. And it’s not like I was listening to hipster underground music in seventh grade — identifying the “best” song from 1990 depends on my perspective, then vs. now. I listen to music in a completely different way now than I did when I was younger, and my musical sense and tastes constantly shift. So a straightforward list of thirty songs didn’t make much sense.

Instead I thought I would create a wacky multimedia extravaganza celebrating the music I’ve listened to throughout my life, from my earliest influences to my more recent interests. It turned out to be a huge project, so I’m breaking it up into three (long) parts, first my childhood (up to about 1990), then my teenhood (more or less — up to around 1997), then the past decade of my life (my 20s). They probably won’t be all done before my birthday, but it will be close, and it will be totally rockin’. Sorry, Axl, I guess I have time to reminisce after all…

So today I bring you part one:

Journey to the Centre of Eternity:
Remembering the ’80s

In the year 1980, I turned three, and in 1989 I turned twelve. In 1980, Bon Scott, John Bonham, and John Lennon died; the Eagles broke up; Paul McCartney went to jail in Japan for possession of marijuana. I don’t remember any of those things. In 1989, Madonna divorced Sean Penn and released the controversial “Like a Prayer” video, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “I’ll Be There For You” topped the charts, and Junior Scholastic had an article about how, in the future, you would be able to read news on a computer about Guns n’ Roses reuniting. I remember all those things clearly, and the Junior Scholastic prediction even came partly true, if you count “putting out a new album” as “reuniting.” What did I listen to during this strange decade, spanning from the death of classic rock to the cusp of grunge? Let’s see if I can peer back through the haze of time…

I suppose the first music I ever knew consisted of kids’ songs and church songs. I certainly don’t remember the first “pop” or “rock” songs I learned, but I most likely learned them from my dad. Good ole’ Dad! His musical taste has not changed a bit in the thirty years I’ve known him, and probably not for twenty years before that. He has always loved any music that is catchy, anything that you can tap your toes to, anything that has a melody you can whistle while you’re working in the basement. And it can’t be too fast, and it can’t be too slow. So the first popular music I can remember included breezy, pleasant songs from the ’70s and ’60s: old Beatles and Beach Boys and Bee Gees songs (I guess they weren’t really so old at the time, though!) and Elton John and Carly Simon and James Taylor, and James Bond theme songs and such. Back in the ’80s my dad listened to the radio and tapes and records, and I can remember a lot of the records around the house that he would listen to while exercising or whatever else it was that kept him busy. I actually have some of those records in my apartment right now.

Me and Cyndi and Dad and Rod Stewart

I never was especially interested in any of his music at the time, but I absorbed a lot of it (this kind of music is totally catchy, after all), and most of what I know about ’70s music comes from things I heard him listening to as a kid. So I can’t remember ever not knowing songs like this:

B.J. Thomas: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head

My mom loves music but she never was terribly interested in pop and rock music. She is more of a showtune kind of gal. From Mom I inherited a soft spot for songs like this (also good for toe-tappin’):

I’d Do Anything

My other influences as a kid were my older siblings, but their level of influence was hardly equal. From about age six to twelve, I totally idolized my older brother, who is eight years older than me, and in hindsight, didn’t seem to really do anything to gain so much respect. I was in awe of him just because he existed, I guess. I also have a sister, six years older than me, whom I mostly ignored during that age range (we were closer when I was little and became closer when I got older, but when she was a teenager, not so much). I was vaguely aware of the music she listened to — it was in the vein of U2 and R.E.M., but I didn’t deliberately seek out her music. I mean, would you trust somebody with these pictures on her wall? Is that David Hasselhoff?

Cyndi's room

But like with my dad, I absorbed a lot of my sister’s music (U2 was pretty unavoidable). I actually really love those bands, and here is one of my favorite U2 songs from that era:

U2 : Running to Stand Still

The problem with U2, and with my sister’s music in general, was that at the time, it fell on the wrong side of what I considered to be the Q94/GO-106 divide. This will take a little explaining.

So in Western Maryland, a mountainous region where radio signals didn’t reach too far, there were just two rock radio stations that we could pick up in the ’80s. Out of Cumberland you had WKGO, aka GO-106, legendary home of “the triplex’ hottest hits.” Meanwhile, across the Potomac River in Keyser, West Virginia, WQZK rocked the airwaves as Q94. Now, looking backwards, there was probably not much difference between the music played on GO-106 and Q94 — there sure wasn’t any last time I compared them — but to me, it seemed like they were complete opposites, and I placed myself proudly in the Q94 camp.

Q94 in the ’80s played hard rock, I believed. GO-106 played what I considered pop. And the distinction between “hard rock” and “pop” seemed so clear back then. On Q94, you would hear bands like Mötley Crüe and Poison (which I considered to be “hard rock”) while on GO-106… well, I don’t know what they played on GO-106 because I refused to listen to it. Most likely there was plenty of Bon Jovi over there as well, but I also suspected they played — shudder — Michael Jackson.

GO-106 used to have Casey Kasem’s weekly top 40, while on Q94 they had shows like the King Biscuit Flower Hour and Dr. Demento, so it always seemed like GO-106 was the bland mainstream station appealing to high school girls sending out long-distance dedications to their crushes, while Q94 was the home to air-guitar enthusiasts and comedy nerds. Like my brother, I sided with the nerds and the shredders, so for me, the ’80s were mostly the era of hard rock.

Kids' World Almanac of Records and FactsBack then, I used to differentiate between “hard rock” and “heavy metal,” as though they were clear scientific categories like “mammal” versus “bird.” I remember I had this book, The Kids’ World Almanac of Records and Facts, which had a section on music listing bands who represented various categories of rock music, including “hard rock” and “heavy metal.” Now, I took exception to their categorizations (I guess I always was skeptical of purported authorities), because in the “heavy metal” section they included Van Halen. And I was absolutely certain that Van Halen was not a metal band, but by all logic should have been listed under “hard rock.”

How was I so certain? How did I know which bands qualified as metal? I’m not sure, maybe I heard Van Halen songs on GO-106. But more likely, I picked up this idea from my brother, who seemed like such an expert on heavy metal (he still is, at least to me). It seems like I distinguished between “metal” and “hard rock” based on popularity, and I genuinely cared about the difference (though I enjoyed both). Van Halen was a popular band, and they were on the radio, so therefore I was pretty sure they were “hard rock.” Meanwhile, Iron Maiden, certifiably metal, seemed to exist only in my brother’s record collection. I suppose some radio stations, somewhere, played Iron Maiden, but in the triplex, we only had GO-106 and Q94 and Maiden was way too heavy even for the Q. Maybe Q94 played Maiden on their “High Voltage” show (“Saturday nights at 12!”) but I was too young to stay up to listen to “High Voltage” despite their awesome ads featuring the “Ah ah ah ah” part of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.”

So anyway, ignoring the Kids’ World Almanac of Records and Facts, I basically divided the music world, circa 1987, into the following categories:

  • Anything played on GO-106: pop
  • Anything too heavy for GO-106, but played on Q94: hard rock
  • Anything too heavy even for Q94: metal

Pop was useless or worse, I believed, so I spent most of my childhood immersed in hard rock and metal. And I have some great memories of those days. One time during a school recess, around second grade (or maybe third), one of my classmates asked me what my favorite song was. And I replied, “Freewheel Burnin'”. And my classmate did not know this song, so I clarified, “Freewheel Burnin’, by Judas Priest.” Judas Priest was probably my favorite band as a kid, because they were my brother’s favorite band. Judas Priest were metal. They weren’t really on the radio, so I knew them from their weird album covers, especially Defenders of the Faith and Turbo, and from my brother playing their music all the time, or singing the songs as he pulled a lawn mower up the hill in front of our house.

Youtube has some amazing Judas Priest footage, including my first-ever favorite song, but I think I need to get you in the spirit with this vintage commercial for Turbo before we really let the Priest nostalgia get going:

Now we didn’t have MTV until I was in around sixth or seventh grade, towards the end of the ’80s, so I never saw these videos, but they sure sum up the spirit of the times. Here ya go, my favorite song in second (or third) grade:

Judas Priest : Freewheel Burnin’

I also loved the next song, not recognizing that the lyrics were a tad risqu� for a little eight-year-old (“then I descend, close to your lips, across you I bend, you smile as I sip… softly you stir, gently you moan, lust’s in the air, wake as I groan…”).

Judas Priest : Love Bites

And one of other favorites (all of these were from Defenders of the Faith) always makes me think of 20-sided dice and fearsome battles between half-elven fighter-thieves and evil drow princesses. I couldn’t find a video of it but you need to give a listen to:

Judas Priest : Some Heads Are Gonna Roll

At some point in the mid-to-late ’80s, I remember sitting around the kitchen table, and my brother was talking to somebody (our mom?) about Judas Priest, and the songs he wanted to tape (from his records?). And I chipped in, saying, “I want to tape ‘Turbo Lover,'” mostly meaning that he should include that song on whatever tape he was making, but he thought I meant that I wanted a copy for myself and offered to tape it for me. And it had never occurred to me before to have tapes of this music for myself! I didn’t own any music before then, unless you count things like Mr. Rogers records. We were not exactly a wealthy family, and I didn’t have any actual money or allowance, so I never even thought about actually collecting music that I liked.

My brother made me some tape that did in fact have “Turbo Lover” on it, so I think we need to have a listen to that most excellent song right now (my brother totally has to track down the biker chick from this video) :

Judas Priest : Turbo Lover

Ok so we’re moving right along here. First favorite song: Judas Priest. First dubbed tape: Judas Priest. First manufactured tape? Not Judas Priest. But pretty close. The first real cassette tape I ever had came from my brother, too, and it was a hand-me-down copy of Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark at the Moon. I am not sure why I ever got this tape, maybe he had two copies for some reason? But I listened to it a bunch because I had never had a real tape before.

Ozzy was metal, but still pretty popular. He got played on the radio (on Q94 at least) and I think they may have even played some of the videos at the skating rink, which is the first place I ever saw music videos. Ozzy would have fit in pretty well with “Thriller” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which were staples of the skating rink circuit. I can’t remember for sure whether or not I actually skated along to Ozzy, but I do remember an incident that took place at home related to the Bark at the Moon album. My brother was playing the tape loudly in the kitchen and my mom happened to wander in just as the opening part of “Centre of Eternity” came on, which consists of this angelic choir going “ah – ah – ah – ah” in a creepy kind of chant. My mom was pretty freaked out. I guess Ozzy was pretty freaky to parents back then.

(As an aside, I remember watching some TV show in the ’80s all about the dangers of Satanism, and I can remember being scared that maybe my brother was secretly a Satanist. The heavy metal, the Dungeons and Dragons… the signs were all there! Satanism was a really big deal for a while, as if the Satanists were suddenly gonna take over the country, perhaps while everybody else was distracted by “Family Ties.” I think if we had had the technology at our house to play records backwards, I would have been terrified that my brother would play some Judas Priest or Iron Maiden backwards and then who knows what would have happened? Possibly it would have summoned Venger!)

The “Bark at the Moon” video gets a lot of airplay even now for its silliness, so its impact is diminished a bit, but it’s still worth a look:

Ozzy Osbourne : Bark at the Moon

Better is some of the live stuff… “They say I worship the devil — why don’t they open their eyes?” It is so hard to believe that any adults seriously believed all this crazy Satanism stuff…

Ozzy Osbourne : Rock ’n’ Roll Rebel (live in 1984)

In the later part of the ’80s, my brother moved out of the house and I was left more on my own in pursuing musical interests. Without his guidance, and without any money to spend on music or on magazines like Circus or Metal Edge, I was mostly left to the dubious mercies of Q94. By this time, I have a clearer recollection of what the Q94 playlists actually sounded like: a mixture of hard rock of the day with classic rock and southern rock and the latest new music from various aging rock stars. The classic rock part included things like “Styx and Stones weekends” from which I picked up a taste for all those ’70s rock bands like Journey and Bad Company and Skynyrd. The fact that, twenty years later, I can nearly be reduced to tears by a few chords by Grand Funk Railroad is clearly the fault of Q94. But the music I really loved, the hard rock, was about what you would expect… the likes of AC/DC, Gn’R, Skid Row, Aerosmith, and great local heroes Kix:

Kix : Don’t Close Your Eyes

As the ’80s wound down, my interest in music ramped up considerably. This was the era of Def Leppard and Guns n’ Roses, and it seems like for a full year (1988?) I only heard two songs, “Paradise City” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” That same year I went from fifth to sixth grade, and I remember classmates in school had tapes like Bon Jovi’s New Jersey with another monster hit, “Bad Medicine.” The music of my peers was beginning to overlap with my brother’s, and MTV was beginning to penetrate my outlook as my parents bumped up from basic cable.

1989 was a true threshold year. I turned 12, I entered seventh grade, and really for the first time I started to feel the urge to acquire the music I liked, an urge that has bedeviled me ever since. I still didn’t have any money, but I had access to old cassettes, and so I began taping things off the radio. I have a pretty clear memory of the first tape I made this way — the first tape I ever really listened to since losing my brother’s extra metal tapes a few years earlier. It was a mixture of embarrassing power ballads (with a handful of rockers) that were on Q94 all the time when I was in around seventh grade. The crazy thing is how much I like these songs even now — or at least they are highly entertaining to listen to again after all this time. I know for a fact that my early “hard rock” mixtape included the following songs (though it may have been closer to 1990 than 1989…):

Mötley Crüe : Without You

I totally loved the album Dr. Feelgood (released in 1989) and I had a dubbed copy of it around that time. Besides “Without You” I also loved “Kickstart My Heart” and “Same Ol’ Situation” and of course the title track. This is the only Mötley Crüe album I’ve ever really listened to.

Also on the mix tape was:

Giant : I’ll See You in My Dreams

I never knew anything about Giant until I just looked it up, all these years later. It’s not that interesting. More interesting is that I went to see another hard rock band called Giant 17 years after sitting in my room singing along to those “sometimes it’s fatal to be on your own” lyrics…

Then let’s not forget the awesomeness of this end-of-the-’80s classic:

L.A. Guns : The Ballad of Jayne

I didn’t know this song was about Jayne Mansfield until I just read it on the internet, but I didn’t know who Jayne Mansfield was back then anyway. And I don’t see any lyrical connection to her anyway. “I wish I’d never let you go”… “I still hear her voice in the wind, I still think of you in the night”… Is vocalist Phil Lewis implying that he had an affair with Jayne Mansfield? I think the connection is just something they made up later to explain why “Jayne” was spelled that way; the real reason, perhaps, was to distinguish “Jayne” from “Janie” of Aerosmith “got a gun” fame…

Music acquisition wasn’t the only stirring I was feeling for the first time at the end of the ’80s. Sometimes today I think that popular music is too much awash in sex, but then I just have to think back to my own youth, when the musical spectrum encompassed the likes of Madonna, Lita Ford, and Bobbie Brown. I was mostly oblivious to all the sexual innuendos for most of the ’80s, but I was beginning to catch on by the time of later-era hair metal.

I think the song — and video! — that really did it for me was Alice Cooper’s comeback hit, “Poison.” Yowza! I had never paid attention to those old Judas Priest lyrics when I was eight, but at twelve it was impossible to miss Alice Cooper’s meaning on lines like “your skin so wet, black lace on sweat.” This song is killer and watching the video now strikes me as hilarious. Watch for the surprise ending! It made me laugh out loud! Alice knew what he was doing in this video — pandering to the generation that loved Poison (the band) via scantily clad babes and dark imagery, but he seems to be enjoying it on a different level, winking at the audience.

Alice Cooper : Poison

“Poison” was a hit at the end of 1989, while I was in seventh grade, and I was just beginning to grow up a little, just starting to think about lips of venomous poison. So it is a fitting way to mark the end of my childhood and the end of the ’80s. Come 1990, I would turn into an awkward teenager, but one with enough disposable income to buy tapes and, soon, CDs. Interesting times indeed, but ones that will be saved for part two.