Suicide Hill

December 15, 2010

Like a good portion of the States, our region was smacked with the first snowstorm of the season.

The cover of white that we awoke to this morning, though, had largely disappeared by the time I faced the evening’s rush hour hell. Nothing makes the trip as potentially as treacherous as when a wintery mix is added to the commute.

Yeah, the cast of Ice Road Truckers might brave the elements, but they don’t do it with thousands of other vehicles driven by oh-so attentive folks who – aside from a couple days a year – have little experience with such conditions.

I exited the interstate and headed home along a frontage road, From the road, I could see several kids were making use of the conditions and gravity, hurtling down a good-sized hill on various crafts.

Though it’s fortunate for me that we get little snow and it’s rarely on the ground for more than a few days, it’s the children who suffer. The snow on that hill already had wide swaths that was revealed the grass.

Those kids were sledding on borrowed time.

Growing up in the Midwest, me and my friends could usually expect ample oppotunities to hit the slopes each winter.

Several of us lived along a country road that bisected a subdivision and farmland. As soon as there was snow, we would jump the fence across the road and drag our sleds up a small hill.

If there was enough snow, we would eventually create rudimentry bobsled runs, piling the snow and creating a half pipe. If the weather held, over the course of a week or so, the run would pack – smooth and slick – and become more delightfully lethal.

As we grew older, we would head for Suicide Hill with most of the other kids in our hometown. From the top, we’d stare down at the state road in the distance. The busy road posed no danger as it was unreachable, separated from us by a drop into a small creek.

To get to the bottom, you navigated a path that took you between the 11th and 18th holes on a golf course. And, if you managed to make the run cleanly – avoiding trees and such – you still had to contend with that water hazard.

We lived for the rare spectacle of someone plunging into the drink.

As Christmas approached in 1980, my friends and I were halfway through our middle year of junior high. It was beginning to dawn on us that it might be better to be inside on winter days – somewhere where there might be music and girls – then outside risking hypothermia.

But, in December of ’80, Suicide Hill was still a siren’s song to which we had to respond. Music was still mostly incidental to me, but, over the next six months or so, I’d be hooked.

Here are four songs that were on the chart in Billboard thirty years ago…

Bruce Springsteen – Hungry Heart
from The River

Hungry Heart most likely served as my introduction to The Boss. The River was his current release in late 1980 and, though I was just discovering radio, I was familiar with this song as well as Cadillac Ranch, Fade Away, and the title track.

It would take more time for my young ears to embrace the stark brilliance of the follow-up Nebraska , but I was on board for the long haul.

Blondie – The Tide Is High
from Autoamerican

Blondie was one band that had caught my attention in 1980. Songs like Heart Of Glass and Call Me were such mammoth hits that you would have had to have made an effort to not hear them at the time even if, like me, the radio was nothing more than an occasional companion.

(lead singer Debbie Harry also gave the band a visual component that did not go unnoticed)

I vividly remember hearing the breezy, island groove of The Tide Is High blasting from the radio when someone’s older sister gave us a ride home after one of those afternoons spent sledding. It was a wonderful antidote to the winter weather then and it still is.

The Korgis – Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime
from Dumb Waiters

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the lone US hit by The Korgis on the radio. I certainly don’t recall hearing it thirty years ago when it was a hit.

The first time I do know I heard Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime was when The Dream Academy covered the song in the late ’80s. And, I also heard Beck perform a version of it on the soundtrack to the movie Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind before I heard the original.

There really was no need for the song to be covered, though. The Korgis’ version is lovely – wispy and fragile – and flawless.

ABBA – The Winner Takes It All
from Super Trooper

ABBA and T. Rex occupy a similar niche in my music world. I could probably distill both to a dozen songs (most of which I never tire of), but I own way more of both acts’ work than I truly need.

That said, The Winner Takes It All is a shimmering tower of melancholy and Agnetha really belts it to the back row.

Plan B, Lloyd And The Snowbus To Hell

December 26, 2009

The snowstorms hitting a wide swath of the country remind me of growing up and the presence of snow on the ground for long stretches of winter being a given.

The snow, though, also offered the possibility of the Snow Day which was a near-miraculous event, offering a glimmer of hope in the dead of winter. You slept in and only trudged out into the cold on your terms for your reasons.

As kids, it meant spending the day in someone’s den or basement playing Atari. Once we got our licenses, it meant the opportunity to do donuts in parking lots.

(there weren’t a lot of entertainment options in our hometown)

Of course, high school basketball had far greater influence than the primal forces of nature in the decision of whether school would be cancelled. The result was often the dreaded Plan B schedule – a tease if ever there was one – with school starting an hour or two later than usual in order to allow the games to go on.

Before me and my friends were old enough to drive, I’d usually get up early and catch a ride to school with my dad. If not, it was the bus. Plan B pared my options down to the latter.

We lived at the edge of our small town, where the terrain shifted from civilization – such as it was – to miles and miles of sparsely populated farmland. Our neighborhood was one of the first stops on our bus’ route. We would then spend nearly an hour rolling through the hinterlands on often narrow country backroads with hairpin curves, hills, and combinations of the two.

(the schoolboard obviously believed that the shortest distance between point A and point B ran through point Z)

Piloting the craft was Lloyd, a local farmer who had to be in his late ’60s. Always clad in denim overalls, a non-descript grey jacket and a hat from a nearby feed store, Lloyd’s enthusiasm for the job meant that some days he managed to stay awake for the entire trip.

(he might have been mute)

Adding a bus load of sixty or so screaming kids – disgruntled to have had a day off cruelly snatched away from them – to the mix of icy roads upped the degree of difficulty.

Throw in a couple of rickety bridges and the occasional white out and it made for a good time.

As the bus lurched along the route, often sliding to the precipice of wholesale disaster, we’d “oooh” and “ahhh.” Lloyd would cock his head ever so slightly, a gesture that assured us that, despite all evidence to the contrary, he was still alive.

From the back of the bus, we’d yell out advice to Lloyd as we traversed the barely passable roads. Our favorite unsolicited suggestion was a line delivered by Scatman Crothers in the movie Zapped which seemed to air daily on cable.

“Forget the horn. The bus is stalled.”

In truth, the trek was likely far more perilous than we realized especially as we headed down the forty-five degree incline of an icy “Suicide Hill” guided by a drowsy fellow with the hand-to-eye coordination of an arm chair.

(queue up The Sweet Hereafter on Netflix for theatrical proof of such perils)

Yet, somehow, we always arrived at our appointed destination.

In what may have been a feeble attempt to quell the natives, Lloyd usually had the radio tuned to Q102, a popular Top 40 station out of Cincinnati. According to Billboard’s chart for this week in 1982, here are some of the songs we might have heard playing above our din…

Duran Duran – Hungry Like The Wolf
from Rio

Since we didn’t have MTV in 1982, we didn’t see the videos for Planet Earth and/or Girls On Film, making Hungry Like The Wolf our first exposure to Duran Duran. Like the rest of America, we took to it, and, though some of them might have been goofy as hell – Union Of The Snake and The Wild Boys come immediately to mind – Duran Duran did put out some ridiculously catchy singles in their heyday.

Men At Work – Down Under
from Business As Usual

Men At Work had dominated the radio during the late summer and early autumn of ’82 with Who Can It Be Now? By Christmas, Down Under had become the Aussie act’s second smash.

I do know that my friends and I had seen both of those videos on Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 10 and been delighted by lead singer Colin Hay’s expressive antics and emotive nature. And, I do know that I received a copy of Business As Usual for Christmas that year which I wore out.

A Flock Of Seagulls – A Space Age Love Song
from A Flock Of Seagulls

I’ve expressed my childhood allegiance to Liverpool’s A Flock Of Seagulls and chronicled playing pinball with lead singer Mike Score. I still have great affection for their music from the early ’80s.

Though A Space Age Love Song didn’t get nearly as much airplay as I Ran on Q102 (or any of the other stations at my disposal), it was my favorite track from the band’s self-titled debut (which was also a gift that Christmas).

Toni Basil – Mickey
from Word Of Mouth

Mickey was massive during Christmas ’82. It was weird. I’d never heard the song until it popped up on American Top 40. Overnight, it seemed as though every Top 40 station in range added it and proceeded to play it dozens of times a day until we were all sick of it.

It seemed to take about three weeks.

It was a fun song that became grating quickly. I snagged the vinyl of Word Of Mouth last spring and noticed that several members of Devo played on it. It was quirky New Wave – fun, but nothing aside from Mickey standing out. I might have to give it another shot.