Fall Break

October 11, 2012

moody-autumn-skyAs a kid, fall break was an inspired construct. It wasn’t as lengthy as spring break – a mere Thursday and Friday – but it’s placement in the school year was almost flawless.

It fell in the latter half of October, a week or so before Halloween and halfway between the start of the school year and Christmas break. It was far enough into the semester that the hopeless feeling that the school year would never end had set in even if the last warm days of Indian summer were reminders of the summer past.

There are a couple schools I pass on the morning commute to work each day. They all have some kind of message board at the front of the school, marquee letters announcing football games and such.

I’ve started seeing dates for fall breaks.

I keep thinking of the fall break in 1984. It was the first fall break where my friends and I all had licenses. Acquiring a vehicle, though, usually demanded nimble gamesmanship and negotiation with parents or an older sibling if not outright chicanery.

That break, my buddy Kirk showed up with his older brother’s car, a late ’60s Ford which we abused as often as possible.

Another friend, Bosco, was with him, but, as Kirk hadn’t actually gotten consent to have the car, there had been no time to assemble the rest of our usual group.

So, the three of us headed to the city – Cincinnati – and an hour later we were rifling through the racks at a record store.

Bosco, an obsessive fan of The Tubes, was determined to snag a recently released solo album by the band’s front man Fee Waybill.

He found the desired vinyl at a Record Bar from a clerk whom he summarily dubbed “DLR” as the kid had adopted the look of Van Halen’s soon-to-be ex-lead singer.

Bosco led us to the stereo department on the top floor of the mall, peeled peeled open the shrink-wrap and threw the new album onto a turntable for us to preview.

(at least until it was requested that we leave)

I remember vividly the overcast skies – much like today – that day, but it was far warmer than it is here, now, where it feels as though we’ve skipped directly from September to November.

As we headed home late that afternoon, the sun did its best to break through the clouds before issuing a surrender and making way for dusk.

I’m less certain of what music I purchased that day, though I have no doubt that I returned home that evening with several new cassettes.

Here is a quartet of tracks from albums that I very well might have snagged on that break in the autumn of 1984…

U2 – The Unforgettable Fire
from The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

I do know that I purchased The Unforgettable Fire from a clerk in a record store that had been greatly influenced by Cyndi Lauper. She complimented my purchase and I asked her to marry me.

(it was all a whirlwind and ended with Cyndi answering my proposal with an indifferent shrug)

I arrived home, sprawled out on my bedroom floor with my Walkman, and was promptly confused as the jagged edges which had drawn me to War were now soft like watercolors. There were elements of the past, but I didn’t know what to make of the hints of U2′s future.

But I slowly embraced the more subtle nuances of The Unforgettable Fire.

The title tracks was one of my favorites at the time. Since then, it’s only become more dear to me. Nearly twenty-five years later, I’d consider the song to be four of the finest minutes of their career.

A Flock Of Seagulls – The More You Live, The More You Love
from The Story Of A Young Heart (1984)

In 1984, as U2 was becoming one of my favorite bands, A Flock Of Seagulls, one of my very first favorite bands, was issuing what would be their commercial swansong with The Story Of A Young Heart.

The More You Love, The More You Love got a bit of radio play where I lived and, as MTV had finally reached our part of the world, I do recall seeing the video a handful of times. The song wouldn’t reverse the Liverpool quartet’s fortunes, but it’s actually a very catchy track.

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – Cherry Bomb
from Glorious Results Of A Misspent Youth (1984)

Cherry Bomb – originally performed by Jett’s previous band, The Runaways – is about as gloriously elemental as a rock song can be and proof that oftentimes there is no need to reinvent fire.

Tommy Shaw – Girls With Guns
from Girls With Guns (1984)

If you grew up in the Midwest in the late ’70s/early ’80s, there was probably a great likelihood that you owned something by Styx, be it The Grand Illusion, Pieces Of Eight, or Paradise Theater. It seemed half the kids in our high school had a well-worn t-shirt commemorating one Styx tour or another.

For me, Styx was my first concert experience and, though I quickly soured on the band with Kilroy Was Here, the punchy title track to guitarist Tommy Shaw’s first solo album caught my ear at the time and was enough to lure me in.

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Where Have All The Astronauts Gone?

September 15, 2012

I entered school a mere half-decade after humans first set foot on the moon and, at the time, astronaut was a trendy career aspiration for kids our age.

Astronaut was a very cool gig.

You worked in space.

(the job sold itself on that alone)

Sometimes you returned home and found a bottle on the beach where you landed with Barbara Eden trapped inside.

Sometimes you ended up on a planet dominated by talking apes.

Space was the final frontier and it was full of possibilities.

In the early ’70s, we kids were led to believe that the future would resemble the world of the Jetsons.

Alas, the last moon landing had occurred in 1972 and the most important walk on the moon in our future was the one which The Police would sing about.

(it’s a great song, but not quite as cool as day shuttles to the moon while sophisticatedly and futuristically sipping Tang)

Being mobile but still diaper clad in 1969, I have no recollection of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface. It had to have been mind-boggling.

My only memory of the Apollo missions was hearing about a deranged, elderly aunt in Florida who had been to a few of the launches, an accomplishment that elevated her to quasi-celebrity status within the family.

By the ’80s, everyone was preoccupied by Rubik’s Cube, Jell-O Pudding Pops, and MTV and space was forgotten.

None of us became astronauts.

Here are four space-age songs…

Elton John – Rocket Man
from Honky Château (1972)

Sir Elton didn’t exactly do the profession of astronaut any favors with Rocket Man, making it sound about as appealing as working the fry station at a fast food joint. It’s cold, it’s lonely, and he readily admits he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

But, as a song, it’s a classic.

The Police – Walking On The Moon
from Reggatta de Blanc (1979)

Sparse and chilly, with a reggae vibe that was elemental to the sound of The Police, Walking On The Moon indeed captures the mood that I can imagine would be fitting for a stroll on the lunar surface.

If the next human to set foot on the moon is a music fan who lived through the ’80s, will they be able to do so and not have this song playing in their head?

A Flock Of Seagulls – A Space Age Love Song
from A Flock Of Seagulls (1982)

Even folks who lived through the ’80s probably remember A Flock Of Seagulls for no more than their debut hit I Ran (So Far Away), which was a Top Ten single, and lead singer Mike Score’s gravity-defying hair.

That’s too bad as I thought that the band’s blend of spacey synthesizers, effects-laden guitar, and sci-fi lyrics made for an engaging and interesting sound that stood out from a lot of their contemporaries and merited more than a footnote.

Though it wasn’t as successful as I Ran, I favored A Space Age Love Song from the moment I heard the full album. The song is breathtakingly wooshy and, at the time, it had a sonic vibe that sounded as if it might indeed be perfect for a romantic encounter in a future filled with jet packs and laser blasters.

Peter Schilling – Major Tom (Coming Home)
from Error In The System (1983)

In the autumn of ’83, I had opted to take German in hopes of a trans-Atlantic trip. That autumn, I had also discovered 97X, which had recently taken to the air as one of the first modern rock stations in the US.

So, my ears pricked up when the station began playing Major Tom (Coming Home) by the German musician Peter Schilling.

(I seem to recall that there was a German version which they would play)

Months later, Major Tom – a loose continuation of the tale of the character from David Bowie’s Space Oddity – was released in the States and became Schilling’s lone Top 40 hit and one of the more fondly remembered tracks of the period.


Summer Cometh When The Iceman Goeth

June 23, 2012

As a kid, the NBA championship meant that summer had arrived.

School would have ended a couple weeks before the title series, so staying up until the wee hours watching tape-delayed broadcasts of playoff games on late-night CBS was a seasonal ritual in the early ’80s.

(as was sleeping in ’til mid-morning)

We had an NBA franchise within a short drive, but all of our media was from Cincinnati, across the border and as the city no longer had a team, pro basketball received scant coverage.

With no abiding loyalty to our local team because they were mediocre at best and boring with no superstar, my friends and I were fans of individual players and, by extension, their team.

Everyone loved Dr. J, so the Sixers were popular.

The Lakers had Magic and the Celtics had Larry Bird, our state’s greatest gift to the world, so both of those teams had their loyalists.

I dug, George Gervin, the rail thin, guard for the San Antonio Spurs who was the best pure scorer in the league.

No one was more chilled on the court than the Iceman and one thing he could do…was finger roll.

Unfortunately, Ice would end up on summer vacation before I would. There were a couple seasons during which he managed to get the Spurs to the brink of the finals but no dice.

I’ve been watching a lot of the NBA playoffs this spring and Oklahoma City’s superstar Kevin Durant – Gervin 2.0 – has made me think of watching the Iceman as a kid.

And, as I did as a kid, I’ve been watching this season’s final series.

It’s been compelling and, whether you’re a fan of his or not, if you know basketball at all, you know what an epic romp through the playoffs and championship LeBron James had.

I didn’t stay up late, though, shutting things down most nights during the third, maybe early fourth quarter.

I no longer sleep until mid-day.

And the end of the series is no longer a marker, a sign post noting that for the next ten weeks you were mostly unfettered.

The summer of 1983 began with the Spurs losing in the conference finals. It would be the last time during Gervin’s seasons with the team that they would get so close to a championship.

It would be the last summer that my friends and I would lack driver’s licenses, but it was also the last summer that most of us were unencumbered by jobs.

I have no idea how George Gervin spent that summer, but I spent it with a lot of music. Here are four songs that I was hearing as the summer began in 1983…

Hall & Oates – Family Man
from H2O (1982)

Hall & Oates were in the midst of a ridiculous run of hit singles as the summer began and Family Man hit radio. Dark and paranoid, the song was a bit of a departure for the duo with its edgy guitar and New Wave vibe.

Family Man was a cover of a song by Mike Oldfield of Tubular Bells fame and, despite its darker feel, followed Maneater and One On OneH2O‘s previous hits – into the Top Ten.

The song seems to have been lost in the wake of all of those other hits from Hall & Oates during the early ’80s as I’ve rarely heard it on the radio in the past thirty years.

A Flock Of Seagulls – Wishing (If I Had A Photograph Of You)
from Listen (1983)

1983 was also the year when I began to really build a music collection and few releases were as eagerly awaited by me as Listen, the follow-up to A Flock Of Seagulls’ debut from the year before as I had adopted them as my band. Heavier on its use of electronics than its predecessor, the album initially disappointed me.

I did love the first single, Wishing, which would become the last of the A Flock Of Seagulls’ three Top 40 singles in the US and possibly their finest effort.

The dense, swirling cascade of multi-layered synthesizers and guitar gave the song a wall of sound for the New Wave era feel not surprising given that the band’s best-known song, I Ran (So Far Away), had apparently caught the ear of legendary producer Phil Spector.

The Kinks – State Of Confusion
from State Of Confusion (1983)

Despite the bulk of their success coming before we were born, The Kinks were one of the most popular bands among my friends and our schoolmates. It wasn’t just the classic ’60s stuff, but the newer material from albums like Low Budget and Give The People What They Want.

So, it was a given that 1983′s State Of Confusion would have our attention. It turned out to be popular with a lot of listeners as Come Dancing was the band’s biggest hit in years.

My favorite song from State Of Confusion was the driving title track, a lovely mix of angst and optimism with a mesmerizing chorus.

Iron Maiden – The Trooper
from Piece Of Mind (1983)

I wasn’t a metalhead and never went through such a phase, but I was well acquainted with Iron Maiden at the time as my buddy Beej’s little brother was obsessed with the band. As we spent a lot of time at his house that summer, we heard a lot of Maiden blaring from Davy’s room.

A year or so later, once we had our driver’s licenses, another buddy, Streuss, would baffle us when he’d toss in a cassette he had made with Men Without Hats on one side and Iron Maiden on the other. I soon developed an appreciation for the band.

Though not as memorable to me as some of their songs, The Trooper is standard-issue Maiden, galloping along at a breakneck pace driven by their twin-lead guitars and Bruce Dickinson’s throaty wail.

It also might be the only song I know with the word musket in it.