The Summer Of ’81

May 22, 2010

Rolling past a junior high school on the morning commute, I noticed that the final day of class was plastic lettered onto the marquee out front.

This week.


Class dismissed.

I still had one more year of junior high when school broke for the summer in ’81, but it was the first summer for which I was legally and officially a teenager.

I got started quickly, sleeping in ’til ten.

In previous summers, I’d be up several hours earlier, my schedule hardly altering from the school year. There were places to go and things to do.

OK. I was on the outskirts of a town of less than three-thousand and there was a cornfield across the one-lane road from our house. There was nowhere to go and even less to do.

That was cool, though.

There were half a dozen kids, roughly the same age in our subdivision. We played a lot of baseball.

Little had changed in ’81.

There were still the same kids.

There was still baseball.

There was still nowhere to go and even less to do.

And, I knew it.

And I was less interested in baseball and more interested in Angie. I was quite smitten with her – a gangly tomboy of a girl with short, tousled red hair. We had hung out a lot that spring waiting for the same bus after school. Sometimes, we’d shoot hoops in the gym to kill the time.

But, she lived in a farmhouse several miles away with thirty-six brothers and sisters, a burly, overall-clad father, and a mother who was overly exuberant for Jesus and possessed a withering glare.

So, there was little need to be up early – I could be petulant at any hour – and that meant staying up late to maintain equilibrium.

Not that there was much to do late except sprawl out on the couch and search for something to watch between six television channels (if you counted PBS – and I don’t think it even aired past eleven).

Some nights I’d watch Johnny Carson and, on other nights, I’d check out the CBS Late Movie.

I was truly nocturnal for the first time that summer, usually not crashing until two, two-thirty in the morning. At which time of night, the viewing choices usually were winnowed down to the one independent station.

But it was late one night that I stumbled upon America’s Top 10 and the oddly engaging little fellow hosting the program. It was the first time I’d ever seen Casey Kasem.

Of course, I’d heard him before as the voice of the sandwich-loving stoner Shaggy in the Scooby Doo cartoons. I wouldn’t hear him counting down songs on the radio, though, for another six months when I happened upon American Top 40.

I was increasingly interested in music, so I watched as Casey gave a rundown of the Top 10 charts. I likely recognized the songs from the pop chart, some from the R&B chart, and few – if any – from the country one.

From then on through high school, I’d occasionally catch the show. As it was syndicated, it didn’t really seem to have a set schedule on our ABC affiliate. Usually I’d randomly find it on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, but, every now and then, it would air late, late at night after whatever regular programming had ended.

I’m not sure when it was exactly that I first saw America’s Top 10 or what songs Casey highlighted that week (hell, I barely remember what I had for breakfast), but according to a music chart archive I found, here are four songs that were in the Top 10 or from albums in the Top 10 from this week in 1981…

REO Speedwagon – Take It On The Run
from Hi Infidelity

Years of relentless touring helped make REO Speedwagon a radio fixture in the Midwest during the late ’70s and Hi Infidelity, released in late 1980, launched them to superstar status when Keep On Loving You ruled the airwaves in early 1981.

Though it was hardly rocket surgery, Hi Infidelity struck a chord with my classmates at the time with its straight-ahead rock and tales of romantic entanglements which were suddenly becoming something to which we could relate.

Of course, it was the album’s second quasi-ballad, Take It On The Run, that we were hearing in early summer of ’81.

John Lennon – Watching The Wheels
from Double Fantasy

In college, one of the most popular classes was one on the history of rock and roll. It was taught by a professor that was, apparently, one of the world’s most respected historians on The Beatles. Regrettably, I was never able to work the class into my schedule.

However, several friends took the class which began with the early years of rock and culminated around 1980. When the final class arrived, the professor would walk into class, play John Lennon’s Watching The Wheels and dismiss everyone for the semester.

AC/DC – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Though it had been issued in the band’s homeland of Australia five years earlier, AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap didn’t receive a release in the States until the spring of 1981, following the massive success of the previous year’s Back In Black.

I’m certain that, at the time, I had no idea that I wasn’t hearing lead singer Brian Johnson but, rather, the late Bon Scott, whom Johnson had replaced on Back In Black. But it’s certainly the charismatic Scott that gives the song a charming menace that makes the song one of the band’s classics.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – The Waiting
from Hard Promises

Hard Promises found Heartbreaker’s lead singer Tom Petty fighting with the band’s distributor over the sticker price which had been scheduled to be tagged at a higher “superstar pricing.”

(a battle that Petty would win)

According to Wikipedia, Petty and the band were scheduled to be in the studio recording at the same time as John Lennon and Petty was eager for the opportunity to meet the music legend. Sadly, Lennon was murdered before the two could meet.

(as a tribute, the band had “WE LOVE YOU JL” etched onto the master copy of Hard Promises and, thus, the millions of copies which the album sold)

As for The Waiting, it sounded simply perfect on the radio that summer.

All I Know Is That Thailand’s Royal Family Owes Me A Pair Of Sunglasses

May 18, 2010

Thailand doesn’t pop up on the radar much here in the States.

But Thailand is without a doubt one of the more fascinating places I’ve ever visited. From the commercialized seediness of Patpong and the filth, congestion and poverty of much of the city to the gleam of modern skyscrapers, bustling street markets, and the lush beauty of the countryside, Thailand is a scene.

Six months after returning from the country, I was spawled on the couch in my college apartment watching CNN. There was Bangkok.

Specifically, there was the lobby of one of the hotels I had been in six months earlier being used as a makeshift triage ward following some civil unrest. Where I had sat eating duck and rice, victims of the skirmishes were sprawled, writhing on the floor.

When the massive tsunami hit several years ago, much of the visuals focused on Phuket, a small island off the coast of Thailand.

I watched the shaky camera footage of destruction and thought of the many evening I’d sat with friends at the Babylon Cafe on a street near those same beaches, devouring the finest pizza we had encountered on our journey.

In recent weeks (days and hours), there has been an escalation in the country’s latest civil unrest, a state of emergency that has existed for some time and that I’ve only followed casually.

The plot, so much as I’ve followed it, is hardly original – a clash between the working class and poor seeking justice from a government which they believe to be corrupt and indifferent.

And some have looked to Thailand’s king to quell the situation as he has done in the past.

I think of the Thai king and I think of sunglasses.

No one sets out to intentionally lose a pair of sunglasses, but, rather, it is simply an immutable law of the universe that each day from the time you purchase new shades is merely one day closer to the day when you will reach for them and they will not be there.

At least in the case of a pair of round, mirrored sunglasses I once had, I managed to lose them in a locale far more exotic than usual – a movie theater in Bangkok.

Two friends and I had opted to escape the unremitting heat and the suffocating combination of humidity and diesel fumes of Bangkok in July. We found a theater near our hotel that was showing Lethal Weapon II in English.

We sat in the darkness with a half dozen or so locals, sheltering ourselves from the blistering mid-afternoon sun and the remnants of the previous night’s hangovers. The movie could have been Karate Kid III and we would have been grateful.

(so starved were we for movies that summer, the three of us had checked out that flick weeks earlier and I had proclaimed Ralph Macchio’s performance to be Oscar-worthy)

There might have been commercials before Lethal Weapon II rolled. That innovation hadn’t really hit the states, yet, but we had exerienced it in Singapore.

There was a new twist, though.

Resting comfortably in the cool, awaiting Gibson and Glover, we watched the pre-movie fare play out when black and white news scenes suddenly flickered on the screen and the locals rose as though pulled by images.

Some stirring music began to blare from the speakers and we did as the small crowd and stood. I heard my sunglasses hit the tile floor with a clink, falling out of the loose pockets of my cargo shorts as I’d risen.

The screen filled with footage of the monarchy.

There’s something almost more oppressive about late-afternoon sun than that of mid-afternoon. As we stepped out of the theater and the racket of the Bangkok street, the sun sat at an angle that was unavoidable through the haze.

I shielded my eyes, reached into my pocket, and remembered that I had not been able to find my sunglasses before the movie had started and forgotten to look after it had ended.

The king owes me a pair of sunglasses, but I suspect that he has far more serious matters to ponder.

(and, given the precarious state of his country, he’d probably agree that it might be good to be king, but it has to be better to be Tom Petty)

Here is a quartet of songs that I associate with that trek through Thailand…

The Cure – Disintegration
from Disintegration

The Cure had been gaining momentum in the States for several years and their previous few albums by the time Disintegration arrived in early summer of ’89. Fascination Street had been a smash before I’d headed to Asia and Lovesong was even bigger during my time over there.

Queen – I Want It All
from The Miracle

Unlike The Cure, Queen had been steadily losing momentum in the States during the ’80s despite retaining a massive audience in the rest of the world. The Miracle would hardly rank among their finest efforts. I was disappointed when I snagged a copy of it from a street vendor in Bangkok.

I was disappointed because I had heard I Want It All before I’d left the States and it was an intriguing teaser for the album, full of bravado and showcasing Brian May’s guitar heroics along with a simple, anthemic chorus that immediately lodged in the brain.

Aside from I Want It All, though, The Miracle wasn’t very memorable.

Big Audio Dynamite – Contact
from Megatop Phoenix

Big Audio Dynamite was also a band losing steam by the time Megatop Phoenix arrived. Maybe I was over the initial charm of Mick Jones’ post-Clash outfit or maybe I simply didn’t find the songs quite as worthwhile.

But Contact has always been one of my favorite BAD tracks. There’s just something about the positivity of the song that makes me feel better about everything when I hear it.

Transvision Vamp – Baby I Don’t Care
from Velveteen

And then there was Transvision Vamp, fronted by lead singer Wendy James who was seemingly on the cover of every music magazine from the UK during the summer of ’89. Velveteen was the group’s second album which made little impact in the US but had a string of hits elsewhere.

I dug Baby I Don’t Care. It was lightweight but frothy, a New Wave-tinged bit of dance-rock that I hadn’t listened to in years but is now stuck in my head after one play.

The Daughters Of The Lizard King

May 15, 2010

Channel-surfing the other night, I happened across When You’re Strange, the new documentary on The Doors. I walked in late and it was past my bedtime, but I watched half an hour or so.

Maybe it was late and I can’t necessarily remember ever hearing him interviewed before – plus I can only hear Val Kilmer instead – but there was something about the manner in which Jim Morrison mumbled his answers that made me think of Napoleon Dynamite.

I was distracted by the thought.

Though Jim Morrison was dead before I turned four, The Doors have been a presence in my life for as long as I’ve listened to music.

In the early ’80s, the rock radio station in our small town switched formats – rock to country. It truly was for the best.

My mom knew someone at the station – our town’s population was well under three-thousand – and, having noticed my budding interest in music, snagged a box of 45s that no longer fit the format

There must have been a hundred or so singles – some New Wave-styled Alice Cooper song, three or four singles from The Cars’ Panorama (even though the album’s lone hit was Touch And Go), and others I’ve long forgotten.

There was also a handful of hits by The Doors and, thinking back, it must have been the first time I heard the band. I remember People Are Strange and finding it’s vibe to be a bit disturbing. It was like a sudden chill.

In high school, several years later and a dozen years since their final album with Morrison, The Doors were as popular with most of the students as The Beatles or Stones and newer acts like Van Halen, The Cars, and Def Leppard.

I have no idea why. Their songs weren’t played much on the stations we listened to, though there was a new release from The Doors during that time with ’83’s Alive, She Cried live set.

Nearly a decade later, Oliver Stone released his bio-pic on The Doors. I knew their best-known songs – I think I had a copy of The Doors Greatest Hits on taped from a friend – and I’d read a copy of roommate’s No One Here Gets Out Alive, but I wasn’t an obsessive fan of the band.

But Stone was on a roll with Platoon and Wall Street and Val Kilmer was one of the best actors around. I caught a midnight showing at an old theater from the ’50s with several friends.

The place was packed. We were late. The few remaining seats were in the front few rows.

It was a hyperactive flick and a whiplash-inducing two hours and twenty minutes. One scene that stood out simply because it was one moment of calm was a shot of Kilmer as Morrison walking down a deserted street at dawn.

And, both times that I’ve been to Paris, I’ve made the trek to Père Lachaise, where Morrison is buried. Both times the weather was grey, cool, and rainy – one during the chill of a early, spring afternoon; the other, in late autumn.

But the thing that I think of first when I think of The Doors are two girls in high school. Two sisters. One was my age and the other a year younger.

And of all the fans of The Doors in our high school, the sisters were the most obsessive and claimed that Morrison was their father.

OK. It seemed highly unprobable that Mr. Mojo Risin’ had fathered two girls who ended up living in the middle of nowhere, in a town with three stoplights, but the man was a rock star and fond of the ladies, so I suppose it wasn’t impossible, I thought at the time.

And the sisters were adament, clinging to the declaration with the same veracity with which I lock onto a chicken drumstick.

Unfortunately for them, it appears that of the more than twenty paternity suits naming Morrison at the the time of his death, none were pursued against his estate and the only public claim after his death was a man and proven to be a fraud.

But Morrison has remained a pop culture fixture and, though I’ve never progressed beyond being a casual fan, there’s some fantastic stuff in The Doors’ catalog with few frontmen ever matching the charisma and magnetism of the self-proclaimed Lizard King.

Here are four from The Doors…

The Doors – Strange Days
from The Best Of The Doors

While People Are Strange unnerved me, the title track from its parent album had a more playful vibe to me. Maybe that’s because it somewhat reminded me of the song Gene Wilder croons on the boat ride in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory – “There’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going…”

Actually, come to think of it, that kind of makes the song disturbing in its own right.

The Doors – Five To One
from The Best Of The Doors

According to Wikipedia. Five To One‘ is rumored to be the approximate ratio of whites to blacks, old to young, non-pot smokers to pot smokers in the US or the ratio of Viet Cong to American troops in Vietnam.

Personally, I’ve always loved the song’s ominious mood and martial cadence.

The Doors – Touch Me
from The Doors Greatest Hits

Poor Robby Krieger. The guitarist for The Doors wrote many of the group’s best-known songs including Light My Fire, but most fans simply assume Morrison penned all of the band’s lyrics.

Krieger also wrote Touch Me, not only one of the band’s biggest radio hits but a song that apparently polarized fans of The Doors at the time with its incorporation of brass and orchestration.

Whatever the case, I think it’s a stellar and insanely catchy pop song.

The Doors – L.A. Woman
from The Doors Greatest Hits

Though I’ve had the good fortune to do a fair amount of traveling, the only time I’ve spent in Southern California has been a few hours enjoying the ambience of LAX on a layover. So, my vision of Los Angeles has been forged through films and song.

The bluesy, driving L.A. Woman is one of those songs.