Wednesday, July 31, 2013

That ’70s Song

A couple of weeks ago, a local station played a marathon of songs from the 1970s. Even though I was a teenager during the ’70s, I can’t say I really like the music; I’ve always felt a bit embarrassed that I grew up during the decade that gave us “Feelings” and “Muskrat Love.” But recently all those ’70s songs have started to show up on—God help me—the “oldies” stations. So here I am, officially old and getting misty-eyed over my teen years…and, you know, some of those songs aren’t sounding half bad.
     So while I was listening to that ’70s marathon, I found myself jotting down song titles and snippets of memories that flashed through my head like so many Sensurround movies. Here are a few.

“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”
Steely Dan (1974)
I actually don’t have strong memories of this song, but it sounds like a lot of songs on Steely Dan’s Aja album*—and that always makes me think of my high school boyfriend. In 1977, he and I binged on that album. We played that thing to death on the cassette player in his barn where we hung out for hours while he worked on motorcycles. To this day, whenever I hear a Steely Dan song—especially “Deacon Blues” or “Josie,” but “Rikki” does it too—I can smell motor oil and see vise grips and feel my boyfriend’s strong wrists. It was probably the happiest time in my life, and you don’t forget the soundtrack to that.

“Miss You”
The Rolling Stones (1978)
My boyfriend again. I vividly remember listening to this song while we were eating in his car outside Bruno’s, a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria somewhere near Springfield, Massachusetts. Bruno’s made this fantastic square pizza with a thick crust, which we considered the best on Earth and worth the drive of a half hour or so. I’m guessing we were stoned, which would partly explain why we were eating in the car. But we rarely ate in restaurants because my boyfriend had such a snarly, tough-guy attitude that I pretty much couldn’t take him anywhere—a fact that I found both exhausting and irresistible. We weren’t big Stones fans and didn’t give a rat’s ass that they’d released a disco song. Didn’t matter. It sounded good. And the pizza was great.

“Heartache Tonight”
The Eagles (1979)
I hated the Eagles during the ’70s. They fired their opening barrage with the sticky “Best of My Love” and finished me off with the endless “New Kid in Town” (to quote an editor friend, “It’s long, but at least it’s boring”). But thanks to those oldies stations, I’ve come to love a few Eagles songs, especially “One of These Nights,” which I now think is a perfect pop tune that encapsulates the ’70s but never sounds dated. But “Heartache Tonight” is another story, a cloying mess of handclaps and kick drums that was destined for bar-band hell the instant it was recorded.** A few years ago, I stayed in a motel at Lake Shasta that was next door to a little bar. It was Saturday night, and a cover band was playing in there to a jam-packed audience. By 1:30 a.m., people were spilling out the door and smoking on the sidewalk and yelling and laughing as I lay in my motel bed, pressing the pillow over my head, trying to sleep. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any louder, the band ripped into “Heartache Tonight.” It was like the song was taunting me: “The handclaps are cloying? Here’s a room full of drunk people doing them! How do you like me now?”

“Hollywood Nights”   
Bob Seger (1978)
I like to pick on Bob Seger. Who doesn’t? And this song has the bonus of being, like a few other tunes of the era (including a couple of Eagles hits), a “story song” about the wicked state of California. In these songs, there’s always some small-town hick who moves to CA and gets sucked in by drugs and shallow people and ends up disillusioned or dead (or, I don’t know—you tell me what happened in “Hotel California”). So, funny story: I moved from a small town to California in 1979, and it was actually like that: big parties, fast cars, pretty people…and more drugs than I’d ever seen in my life. The only thing that didn’t match up with the “wicked California” songs was the ending; I certainly got sucked into drugs and disillusionment, but that was only a stop in a much longer story. And a lot of those shallow, pretty people ended up PR executives and owners of restaurants and are now 30 pounds overweight and toting their grandkids around in Priuses.

“Dream Weaver”  
Gary Wright (1976)
Every time I hear this song, I think of the school bus. I was a sophomore the year “Dream Weaver” came out, and like most kids in my town, I rode the school bus every day. The buses all had radios (presumably to calm down troublemakers), and around 1976, my bus got upgraded from AM to FM. This was a quantum leap, marking a dividing line between the “pre” years of bright AM pop (like Tony Orlando and Linda Ronstadt) and the moody-broody stuff of FM like this hit by Gary Wright that, for about two years, you could not get away from. As soon as I hear those burbly, sci-fi synth effects, I’m right back on that green Naugahyde seat, my hair brittle with sleet from standing at the bus stop, hunkered down and hoping the smoke-stenchy guy wouldn’t sit next me, or the pretty, popular girl that I didn’t want to be compared to, or the short girl whose mother made her wear bobby socks and lace dickies and was even lower on the social scale than I was.

“Born to Be Alive”
Patrick Hernandez (1979)
I include this disco megahit…because I’d never heard it until that radio station played it during their ’70s marathon. I had to look it up—who the heck was this? On the surface, the reason I never heard it back in 1979 was because my friends and I were squarely in the “disco sucks” camp. We never listened to disco, and I didn’t know a single person who liked it. But the cause for that, which I didn’t realize until many years later, was a little more subtle: The small town where I lived was racially divided, and quiet undercurrents of bigotry ran through it. I actually type this with held breath now, because it was something no one talked about. It’s like a delusion that only I have; I’m sure some of my high school friends would scoff at the idea that there was any racism in our sweet little town. But the only people of color in town were a handful of Puerto Rican families, some of them black, who kept largely to themselves, an arrangement the rest of the city seemed fine with. There was an “otherness” between the two communities that I could never put my finger on. But once in a while I heard friends toss off the “n” word, especially when we were talking about disco or soul music, which some felt was not music that white people listened to. This bothered me, but I didn’t really think it through. These were my friends, and I didn’t question them. They weren’t perfect or pure, but I wanted them around me more than I wanted to quibble with their ethics. Looking back, this scares me; if my friends had been farther out on the spectrum, harassing black families or vandalizing their houses, I’m not sure what I would have done. I like to think I would have stood up to it, but I don’t know that. Sometimes when I see what happened in Nazi Germany and Cambodia and Rwanda and countless other places, I think about this and wonder if that’s how it begins***. I was a teenager; I don’t even know that I was a fully formed person yet. I wanted so badly to be liked.
     The gay component of disco was way, way off my radar—back then, to most people I knew, homosexuality didn’t exist****. It happened in places we didn’t know or understand, like San Francisco—the city I would later live near and work in for many years, and which I now consider the home of my heart.

* The reason "Rikki" sounds like those later Steely Dan songs is because that band only wrote three or four songs and then just rearranged the chords to make new ones. I’m kidding a bit—Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are fine musicians—but when I saw them in concert a few years ago, I was surprised to find that I couldn’t tell their songs apart. They’d start in on one, and I’d think, “Oh, it’s ‘Hey Nineteen’” or “Oh, it’s ‘Peg.’” But it would turn out to be “FM” or something. Then it happened again…and again. The only song that really jumped out as being different was “Reelin’ in the Years.” And I hadn’t realized it before, but a lot of their songs are about men desperately hitting on much younger women. And at that concert they had a jumbotron next to the stage, with live video from a camera pointed up from the floor very, very close to the band. So for two hours, we were literally looking up Donald Fagen’s nose.

** “Heartache Tonight” always reminded me of Bob Seger at his worst—which, in my opinion, is all of his songs. And it turns out that’s no accident; when I looked up the release date for “Heartache Tonight,” I found that Seger co-wrote the damned thing.

*** From “The 8 Stages of Genocide,” by Gregory Stanton: “Stage 1: Cultures…distinguish people into ‘us and them.’”

**** Thankfully, that’s changed: Both Northampton and Springfield, Mass., are now known for their LGBT-friendly culture. In 2010 Springfield was named as one of the “Top 10 Gay Cities in the U.S.”