Run Zola Run

July 29, 2012

The first summer Olympics that I recall in more than fuzzy detail was the Los Angeles Games in 1984.

For me, the first thing that comes to mind from those games isn’t Carl Lewis or Mary Lou Retton, it’s Zola Budd.

It must have been in Sports Illustrated that I first read of Zola, a diminutive South African teenager who had broken the women’s world record in the 5000 meters, a record that was unrecognized as it had taken place in a race in her homeland.

I found Zola fascinating as she wasn’t much older than I was and, at an age when five years was forever, this gangly, curly-haired sprite was apparently smoking the adult runners against whom she competed.

And she ran barefoot.

I was a sixteen year-old kid in a small town in the American midwest and on the high school track team and this was exotic stuff.

In the days before constant media, Zola was a mystery to most of the world, and – in this pre-internet, pre-ESPN world – I don’t think I’d even seen footage of her running.

But she was in the sports news a lot in the time leading up to the 1984 Olympics, for record-setting performances and for being granted UK citizen to be able to compete in the games.

(South Africa athletes being banned from international competition because of their country’s apartheid system)

I was watching the night of the 3000 meter finals which had been hyped as a showdown between Zola and American Mary Decker.

Decker had been Zola a decade earlier, a teen-aged running prodigy in pigtails, who had missed chances for Olympic glory due to injuries and the 1980 US boycott of the Soviet games.

And I was watching when, halfway through the event, with Zola leading a pack including Decker, the two became entangled as Decker clipped Zola’s bare heel, sending the American tumbling in a heap into the infield.

As Decker writhed in pain at the side of the track, the race continued as the massive crowd of 85,000 spectators viciously booed.

It was brutal to watch.

Zola had been the target of ongoing protests because of being South African, but this was different. She had described Decker as her heroine and had posters of the older runner on her bedroom walls.

She led for another lap or two but faded to seventh, later explaining that she couldn’t quit, but that she couldn’t face receiving a medal in front of the hostile crowd.

That summer was one were my musical interests were continuing to undergo a shift. For the first time since I’d begun to really care about music a couple years earlier, Top 40 radio was losing sway with me.

Sure, I’d still listen to Top 40, but more often than not, it were the album rock stations that were favored and, once the sun set, I’d tune into the modern rock of 97X. It might have been the most unconsciously open-minded I’ve ever been about music.

Scanning through the Billboard Hot 100 chart for this week in 1984, most of it is familiar. Here are four of those songs…

Scandal featuring Patty Smyth – The Warrior
from The Warrior (1984)

My buddy Beej had turned me onto the debut mini-album by Scandal and not long after the band was getting a lot of radio attention with Goodbye To You and Love’s Got A Line On You. Their full-length debut pushed lead singer Patty Smyth to the forefront.

The Warrior might have been goofy – and the video didn’t help – but the song is an earworm and Smyth was the kid sister Pat Benatar might have had.

(and, oddly enough, as I watch the 2012 summer Olympics, tennis great/commentator John McEnroe – who is married to Smyth – is hanging with Bob Costas)

Bananarama – Cruel Summer
from Bananarama (1984)

My buddy Beej brought a lot of new music to us via his uncle, a college professor who lived in the city. So, we knew of Tears For Fears, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, and Echo & The Bunnymen before we might have heard them on the radio.

Bananarama was another one. The trio’s Deep Sea Skiving might not have been more than a cult hit in the States, but I did hear He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’ and Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye often when 97X went on the air in autumn of 1983.

I dug Bananarama, though I didn’t own Deep Sea Skiving as, for quite some time it, was an expensive import. And I dug the loping Cruel Summer (as well as Robert De Niro’s Waiting… from earlier that summer)

(then the group got involved with producers Stock Aitken Waterman and I was out)

The Cars – Drive
from Heartbeat City (1984)

I recently posted several songs by The Cars and there was great outrage over my neglecting to include Drive. Actually, the only reason that it didn’t make the cut was that I knew I had written about the song before.

However, Drive is certainly among my favorite songs by The Cars and I took note of it the first time I popped in a copy of Heartbeat City not long after the album was released in the spring.

The song was so atypical for the band, a lush, dreamy ballad sung by bassist Ben Orr. As pretty as Drive is, it has a desperate, dark undercurrent to it which was reinforced by the video which seemed like something Rod Serling might have conjured.

Quiet Riot – Mama Weer All Crazee Now
from Condition Critical (1984)

No metalhead was I, but there was a bit of hullabaloo surrounding the release of Condition Critical, Quiet Riot’s follow-up to the mega-selling Metal Health from the year before. That album had brought metal to the mainstream, topping the album charts and spawning a Top Ten single with the group’s cover of Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize.

I recall a few of the rock station’s hyping the arrival of Condition Critical and MTV – which we had just gotten access to earlier that summer – heavily playing the first single, another Slade cover.

I was mostly indifferent to Mama Weer All Crazee Now as most of the public proved to be as well. Ratt had become the token hard rock act on pop radio that summer with Round And Round and both Condition Critical and Quiet Riot were summarily relegated to the cut-out bins.

Metal Guru

July 25, 2012

There is a great likelihood that Paloma and I will be purchasing a new vehicle between now and when the Mayans zap the planet with a giant ray gun.

(or something like that)

I confess that the process – the considerations and calculations of buying a new car – isn’t one that blows back my hair.

I can’t help but think of Jim, the father of a Chris, a high school buddy. Jim had a gig that often consisted of long hours and considerable stress, but he went about his days dutifully.

We all dug Jim and he seemed to envy our youthful antics, wistfully watching us engage in hi-jinks that we took for granted.

(not that he allowed anarchy, but he seemed to understand our need for room to screw up benignly)

He was an educated man who had been in school with Bob Dylan and the quiet of reading seemed to be his one indulgence.

So, my friends and I took note when his demeanor became more relaxed and his his banter with us became more lighthearted.

“He’s buying a car,” Chris explained.

More importantly, the car would essentially be Jim’s car with Chris’ mom getting dibs on the family Volkswagen (which she preferred).

I accompanied the two early one Saturday morning on a trip into the city. Jim was positively giddy.

We picked up the car – an early ’80s Volvo – and Chris and I drove the family car back home.

The transaction took place in a dodgy, decidedly un-Volvo part of the city and under rather sketchy circumstances, resulting in my friends and I amusing ourselves for years discussing the purchase.

(in truth, any possible illegalities were mere figments of our imaginations)

Jim loved that car and, behind the wheel, he was serene with an undercurrent of whimsy.

My friends and I referred to it as “Jim’s Car.”

But Jim was not possessive. It sometimes seemed that we had the car more than he did those last couple years of high school. He rarely balked when Chris asked to borrow it if we’d snagged tickets at the last minute to see Rush or if we simply wanted to be mall rats and roam record stores.

Then, Jim’s car was gone. He’d gotten some nondescript mid-’80s sedan as part of a job promotion and the Volvo was sold.

Perhaps fittingly, Chris and I totaled the new Interlopermobile while home for Christmas break as college freshmen.

Paloma once declared The Cars to be a perfect band for summer and I’m inclined to agree with her. So, in honor of cars – past, present, and future – here are four songs by The Cars…

The Cars – Moving In Stereo
from The Cars (1978)

I asked Paloma for some of her favorite songs by The Cars and Moving In Stereo was the first one that she named.

It’s a classic track by the band and one that I haven’t been able to hear since 1982 and not immediately picture Phoebe Cates climbing out of a pool.

The Cars – Touch And Go
from Panorama (1980)

Moody and menacing, Touch And Go wasn’t one of The Cars’ biggest hits, but Paloma also named it as a favorite from the band and it’s always been a favorite of mine, too.

The Cars – Since You’re Gone
from Shake It Up (1981)

Shake It Up was released right around the time that music was becoming a casual obsession for me and though the title track was a massive hit that got played into the ground, I rarely heard Since You’re Gone, the album’s follow-up single.

The chant-like chorus is just one of the things that hooks me in this pop masterpiece of melancholia and, though many of The Cars’ songs have temporarily worn out their welcome, I’ve never tired of Since You’re Gone over the past thirty years.

The Cars – Magic
from Heartbeat City (1984)

The Cars seem like such a summer band to me because during the summer of 1984, Heartbeat City was – with Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA and Prince’s Purple Rain – the sound of that summer.

And nothing on Heartbeat City was more summer than Magic. The song was released as school was ending and it seemed to be on the radio constantly.

And if Magic wasn’t on the radio, the video – which climaxed with lead singer Ric Ocasek walking on pool water – was on MTV. Even now, no matter what the season, I hear Magic and it’s summer for four minutes.

Holding Auditions In My Head For A Potential Imaginary Friend*

August 24, 2011

As I often remind Paloma, my childhood was spent in the hinterlands of the Midwest, right past where the flat Earth ends, amidst a lot of corn. Its charm is far more apparent given time and distance.

Paloma has heard me recount tales of my years in the wild. There was no MTV because there was no cable. And new music was not easily attainable. Life was often accentuated by imagination out of necessity and, yet, I never had an imaginary friend.

The last item came to my attention the other night when I happened across my copy of The Essential Calvin And Hobbes. The comic strip, which ran for a decade or so beginning in the mid ‘80s was drawn by Bill Watterson, whose been quite reclusive and rarely (never?) has licensed the use of the characters.

Calvin was a hyperactive and imaginative six-year old tyke; his constant partner-in-crime was a stuffed tiger, Hobbes who was as real to Calvin as anyone else. I can’t do them justice in writing, suffice to say it’s good stuff.

Reacquainting myself with the duo, I wondered if I had missed an important childhood trinket, so I held an audition in my head for such a sidekick.

The name Captain Erving popped into my head. I’m thinking it must be some subconscious homage to the great Dr. J, so I kind of like it. And, for some reason (perhaps some subliminal, nautical influence due to repeated viewings of Jaws), I envision Captain Erving, my potential imaginary friend, as a lobster.

It does seem like a lot of responsibility, though, this imaginary friend business. And, I’d much rather have a dog.

I have nothing in my head right now, so here are four songs about the contents of other people’s heads…

The 6ths (featuring Georgia Hubley) – Movies in My Head
from Wasps’ Nests

I snagged a copy of The 6ths’ debut as a promo when it came out in ’95. The album was a collection of songs written and performed by Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields with an array of guests handling the vocals.

Movies In My Head is a perky bit of twee pop featuring Yo La Tengo founding member and percussionist who finds the visual vignettes showing widescreen in her head to be more interesting than a would-be suitors’ efforts to gain her attention.

Electric Light Orchestra – Can’t Get It Out Of My Head
from Strange Magic: The Best of Electric Light Orchestra

Though ELO had no shortage of hits with upbeat stuff, Jeff Lynne and company were equally adept when they opted to slow things down as on the lovely ballad Can’t Get It Out Of My Head, which became the group’s first major single in the States.

The Cars – Got A Lot On My Head
from Candy-O

I think that I could pick random track after random track from the catalog of The Cars and I’d hit something that would make happy most of the time.

There’s a lot of classic stuff there and the rest is, at the very least, usually a lot of fun like Got A Lot On My Head.

Shonen Knife – Tomato Head
from Rock Animals

From the country that gave us Godzilla, the all-female trio Shonen Knife were darlings of the alternative rock world in the ’80s. I heard songs here and there and was charmed by their zany brand of garage band pop, but never enough to own anything

I did snag a promo of 1993’s Rock Animals which featured the blissfully enigmatic (and slightly menacing) Tomato Head.

There was also a nifty little 3D reproduction of the album cover enclosed in some of the CDs like a Crackerjack prize.