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.

Miracle On Ice

February 22, 2010

I woke the morning of February 13, 1980, climbed from the warmth of my bed and shuffled to the bathroom down the hall that I shared with my brother. I probably yawned as I turned on the light.

Taped to the bathroom mirror was a scrap of paper on which the old man had written “2-2.”

It was the final score of the hockey game from the night before. The US had tied a favored Swedish team in their opening game of the ’80 Winter Olympics.

Interest in hockey, both personal and in our area, barely registered. The nearest cities to us with professional hockey were Indianapolis and Cincinnati, both of which had franchises in the old World Hockey Association, and that league had folded the previous spring.

We were living in the heart of basketball country.

I don’t even recall watching any of that opening game. It might not have even been televised. Maybe my dad had seen that the US had pulled off the draw with a goal in the final thirty seconds on the late news.

Not much was expected from the team going into the games, even by those who had a passion for the sport.

I’m not sure why my dad felt that my brother and I needed this information at our earliest waking moment.

Maybe he was prescient.

(maybe he should have called a bookie)

Two days later, the US throttled an even more highly-touted Czech team. Now, my friends and I were definitely taking an interest and hockey was suddenly a topic of conversation the next day at school.

That weekend, we were watching as the pucked dropped for a Saturday afternoon match-up with Norway. By the time the US had blistered the Norwegian team 5-1, we were all in.

The next day, caught up in the unexpected run that was gathering momentum and followers, a bunch of us kids from the neighborhood did our best approximation of our new heroes. Half a dozen or so of us played “hockey” for the first time.

We had no rink or even pond. Instead, we had a small patch of ice in a cow pasture where a drainage ditch widened. Wiffle ball bats made for sticks and a frisbee served as a puck. It was good-natured mayhem in the frosty air as we pretended to be Mark Johnson, Mark Pavelich or Rob McClanahan.

(amazingly, thirty years later, I realized that, glancing over the roster of that team, I remember each and every name)

There’s no mentioning those Olympic Games and the US hockey team without trying to view it through the prism of the state of the country and the world at the time.

Iran had seized the US Embassy and Americans were being held hostage in Tehran. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. The Cold War was an entrenched way of life from which there was seemingly no resolution that didn’t end with both sides charbroiled.

Things weren’t good.

And though things weren’t good, I was twelve and fortunate enough, like most of my friends, to still have lives uncluttered by most of the flotsam and jetsam.

That doesn’t mean that a bleak vibe in the adults wasn’t palpable to us. But as the second week of the Olympics began in ’80, the hockey team was making its way to the medal round and there was something just as palpable as dread beginning to build.

People who had never cared about hockey (or even sports) had fallen in love with this team. People were giddy.

It was as though the entire country had done a bong hit. People were smiling and not even necessarily realizing it. You had a feeling that a lot of folks might start giggling at any moment.

The team was a topic of conversation everywhere. Adults in stores were talking about the team. We kids at school were stoked.

There’ve been a lot of major events that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime and there have been a number of times that this country seemed to pull together, but at no time have I ever experienced anything – including 9/11 – galvanize people to the degree that a bunch of kids playing hockey did for those two weeks.

The difference between that period and other moments that touched a lot of lives is that the ’80 US hockey team’s run wasn’t rooted in fear, grief or sadness. Rather, it was two weeks during which strangers were bound together in hope and excitement, in a belief that something improbable was possible.

It transcended the often petty things that serve to divide.

Everyone held their breath, anticipating what might happen next.

It reached critical mass thirty years ago today, Friday, February 22, when, having reached the medal round of the tournament, the team of college kids faced an overpowering team from the Soviet Union.

The game was played that afternoon and had already been decided by the time most of the country tuned in to watch it that evening on tape delay. With ESPN and cable news now, I suppose that it would be difficult if not impossible to have kept the result a secret.

The Soviets took an early lead. The US rallied. US coach Herb Brooks watched stoically.

The Soviets went back ahead. The US rallied to tie and the Soviets benched goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, regarded as the best goalie in the world.

Meanwhile, US goaltender Jim Craig was under constant siege but continued to turn back Soviet shots, keeping the team in the game.

Finally, captain Mike Eruzione scored, putting the US ahead 4-3 with ten minutes remaining and, I imagine, most of the country again held a collective breath as Craig held off the Soviet onslaught, and, I imagine, most everyone watching counted down those final seconds with commentator Al Michaels.

Less than forty-eight hours later, the US beat Finland to capture the gold medal.

Then, Craig provided one of the iconic images of the tournament. Viewers had come to know how the goalie’s mother had died of cancer several years earlier and, with the bedlam of his teammates celebrating all around him, Craig, draped in an American flag skated along the boards searching for his father in the stands.

The scene had a poignancy that every sports movie since has tried to capture but can’t.

The following week, Sports Illustrated arrived in the mail with the cover capturing the moment after the win over the Soviet team and, in and unprecedented and fitting move by the magazine, no words accompanied the photo.

For those of us fortunate enough to have been a witness to those two weeks, none were needed.

Chuck Mangione – Give It All You Got
from Fun And Games

There’s simply no other song that reminds me of the ’80 Winter Olympics than Chuck Mangione’s Give It All You Got. ABC, which broadcast the games here in the States, chose to make use of the flugelhorn player’s song as the theme.

Hearing the song now, thirty years later, it immediately transports me back to those evenings that February, sprawled out on the floor of our den watching the nightly broadcast from Lake Placid.

Thirty years from now, it will undoubtedly still do the same.

Don’t Wake Me When It’s Over

January 20, 2010

There’s been a lot of hullabaloo about this Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien/NBC three-way steel cage death match and I can’t say that I’ve really cared.

Yeah, I’ve read about it in the news, and while promises seem to have been broken, its difficult to work up much sympathy for two uber-wealthy guys who get to do what they want fighting over the same shiny, expensive toy.

When it’s over, one will have the toy and a pile of cash, the other will get a bunch of loot and a different toy, and a couple million Haitians will still be homeless.

As a five-year old in the early ’70s, I was quite aware of Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. I didn’t watch it, but the commercials fascinated me.

(I think that I thought of Johnny as something very adult like cigarettes and moustaches)

It was sometime around junior high, in the late ’70s/early ’80s, before I started watching The Tonight Show. I most vividly remember watching during the summer months when no school meant staying up late and sleeping in.

The summer nights in Indiana could be sweltering, especially without air conditioning. I’d often spend the summer months crashing out on a large couch in the wood-paneled womb that was a basement in the American Midwest of the ’70s.

Though I’d first check to see if there was anything worthwhile on the CBS Late Movie, there were many nights I’d end up watching at least some of The Tonight Show.

I’d construct a structurally sound sandwich and devour a midnight snack watching Johnny run through his monologue, banter with Ed McMahon, and roll out the evening’s line-up of guests.

It did make for a pleasant way to wind down the day.

I was a fairly regular viewer for several years aside from Fridays which was reserved for Fridays. I don’t recall watching The Tonight Show after I left for college. On nights when I was home, I was enamored with having cable for the first time and the only late night appointment viewing was Late Night with David Letterman.

I would catch Johnny from time to time and I did make a point to watch some of the last episodes before he signed off in ’92 (which was made easier as I didn’t have cable at the time).

In the nearly twenty years since, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have watched Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien (and that statement would probably hold true even if I had flippers instead of hands). If I’m home and up, I’ve opted for Letterman.

Someone will be hosting a show following the late local news on NBC next week. Unless they exhume Johnny and Ed, I’ll have to read about it.

I can’t really remember watching Johnny Carson anyplace else than on the television in our basement during those summers as a kid. It’s hardly summer, but it feels like we’re considerably closer to spring than we were a week ago. Here are some songs from albums on Billboard‘s chart in July of 1980…

The Pretenders – Stop Your Sobbing
from The Pretenders

From the debut by The Pretenders, a cover of a song written by future paramour of lead singer Chrissie Hynde (Ray Davies) and produced by a man (Nick Lowe) who would later write a song (I Knew The Bride When She Used To Rock And Roll) alledgedly about the ex-wife of a co-worker of mine.

Van Halen – And The Cradle Will Rock…
from Women And Children First

It’s kind of gotten lost in the wake of the last quarter century – between Sammy Hagar, Gary Cherone and a lot of inactivity – but Van Halen was a great band. For a good half dozen years, the band ruled the planet as one of the biggest acts of their time.

Somehow, the further we get from their heyday, the more I recognize their greatness.

Peter Gabriel – Games Without Frontiers
from Peter Gabriel

An ex-girlfriend insisted that the line Kate Bush sings was “She’s so frontier.”

What the hell could that even mean?

(The line is actually “Jeux sans frontieres”)

Roxy Music – Same Old Scene
from Flesh And Blood

I remember seeing the movie Times Square late one night on a local station when I was about twelve or thirteen. I have no doubt that when Same Old Scene by Roxy Music played during the opening scenes it was the first time I had ever heard the band.

It wouldn’t be ’til college that I’d really listen to them again. My French professor used to play them before class and I began to check out more of their music. On nights when I had to close the record store where I worked, Roxy Music’s Avalon was one of my go-to albums to play as I went through the closing tasks.