Saturday, April 05, 2008

1983: Miracles And Heartbreak

That was the year that it was

We rarely know until afterwards when the best years of our lives occur. Usually, commonplace distractions like schoolwork, mowing the lawn, going to work, dealing with occasional irritations like car repairs or other day-to-day minutiae draws our attention away from The Bigger Picture and it will usually be a couple of years or so before we realize "hey, 1998/1992/1988/1984 was actually a pretty good year, all things considered." There are, however, a few spans in my life when I was actively conscious at the time of how wonderful it was to be alive in the here and now. If you were to ask me to come up with a year off the top of my head when everything seemed to come together, when all was good with the world, and then maybe qualify it by adding "the first time in your life after which things never seemed quite the same afterwards," I'd have a pretty quick and easy answer for you, and that answer would always be "1983."

Looks like a really bad day ahead...In the Grand Scheme of Things, 1983 was anything but a banner year for humanity as a whole, particularly in an economic or political sense (and in my far more cynical and advanced age, I'm not really sure of the last year that was). One of the Big Issues of the day had even managed to penetrate my own consciousness: this was the year when, for the first time, I'd started coming to grips with the concept of possible nuclear annihilation, largely thanks to a 1982 article in Time magazine that detailed the effects of a rudely unannounced nuke strike over downtown Detroit (say, twelve miles and change south of our front door). While that alone was disquieting enough to read and visualize, there was also an ABC-TV movie we all watched one Sunday night called The Day After, which had far more of an impact on my psyche not so much because of the visual aspect of being able to see what I had had been reading about, but because my own life had been changed irrevocably by that November, and that somehow made the idea of meaningless mass extermination from the skies a lot more troubling than it had been only six months previous. By late November 1983, nothing seemed like a cakewalk anymore.

Of course, this isn't to say that everything since that time has been a dreary, overcast, soul-smashing grind: I can easily name a few other stretches of my life that felt almost as boundless and fun as that year did. While the second half of 1987 found me with more personal freedom and a far greater ability to steer my own destiny and do whatever I pleased, most of 1983 was a magical time of close friendship, unbounded imagination, and, most of all, endless, wonderful, exotic musical discovery.

1983 was the year that the seemingly machine-tooled, incredibly intoxicating music that I'd discovered the year before on cable television was suddenly everywhere. It took a while to get rolling, but by the middle of spring, the synthesized strains of New Wave weren't confined to MTV, but all over the rest of the television spectrum and even the radio as well. A lot of this was due to the now-inescapable conclusion being reached by the major labels who watched incredulously as heretofore-unknown British acts originally aimed solely at college radio or late-night Anglophile "specialty shows" suddenly exploded in popularity everywhere MTV was available. The gold rush was on: for a year or so, New Wave was allowed to fully infiltrate the mainstream.

One channel shall lead them least for a little while...The timing of this breakthrough couldn't have been better: as everything suddenly began to heat up, it seemed that creativity in music and in the art of promotional video clips was running at a feverish pace. Watching MTV that spring and summer was an intoxicating, unending learning experience as I was suddenly awash in so much amazing new music that I literally couldn't keep track of it all ... but Goat knows I tried.

It must be said, however, that despite the enormous underground popularity of the channel, MTV still lacked the real commercial muscle it would flex in later years when its programming began to run more in line with mainstream pop/rock music (something we'll certainly be addressing over the next post or two), thus while many acts received months of heavy airplay on the network, that didn't always translate to success in record stores. Going by the Billboard singles chart recap for 1983, you'll notice quickly that much of the new wave/synthpop invasion was contained outside of the Top 10, with only rare incursions from the likes of Eurythmics ("Sweet Dreams"), Peter Schilling ("Major Tom") and Men Without Hats ("The Safety Dance") to fly the flag for the rest of the troops (while heavily electronicized, post-disco Top 10 incursions by Donna Summer ("She Works Hard For The Money") and one-hit wonder Michael Sembello ("Maniac") don't exactly earn the "New Wave" tag). The rest of the class was still kept in check by the unending onslaught of post-Yacht Rock that was still dominating adult-aimed radio at this time. In effect, you had to know where to tune in to get the good stuff.

It sounds really strange to say it these days, but back then most of the good new music was found only on MTV. Strapped for material when it launched in late 1981, the network was now absolutely swimming in videos by new artists to the extent that their current rotation play lists (which started appearing in Billboard on a week-to-week basis) often ran several dozen titles deep and touched on everything from sales titans like Michael Jackson ("Billie Jean") to novelty jetsam such as Haysi Fantayzee ("Shiny Shiny") and nearly all points in between. So great was their influence that, for a short while, the idea of "video 45s" took flight as record labels started releasing 4-song videocassette EPs comprised entirely of clips from period artists like Naked Eyes ("Always Something There To Remind Me") (or, in one case, a gargantuan classic rock act like Pink Floyd ("The Final Cut")), sensing that some fans might consider the video more important than the song itself. A 2-CD Rhino Records compilation of channel favorites called MTV Class Of 1983, released over a decade later, illustrates just how many well known songs got their push from video airplay.

My once-favorite radio station in the whole wide world. RIP.Locally, a longtime Detroit progressive-rock radio station once known as WABX threw in the towel on its long ratings war with rivals WRIF and WLLZ and switched to a nearly exclusively New Wave programming strategy (called "Detroit's New Music") with a decidedly U.K. synth bent, often airing imported singles (such as The Human League's electro/Motown pastiche "Mirror Man") months ahead of their domestic release. While I still kept a habitual ear open to the current Top 40 hits blaring from WHYT several notches down the dial, it was listening to WABX that summer that was absolute heaven on Earth, and the one song that defined that time like no other was Berlin's relentless electro-classic "The Metro": the kind of sleek, thrumming, electronic torch song that producers like Georgio Moroder would kill to create.

It was also around that summer that I had begun to strike up a musical dialog with my Uncle Kevin (whose wedding I mentioned earlier in The Great Record Massacre post), whom I think it's fair to say was like a younger, wilder version of my father. While Dad was the more taciturn, strong-and-silent type, Kevin was like the stereotypical hippie uncle who never grew up. We'd always had a great time when I was a kid as Kevin was always up for acting like an overgrown ten year old himself: either getting into water hose fights with my mom, making funny faces at us across the dining room table, laughing that infectious, carrying bray of his, and, down the line a few years, reinforcing for me that growing up doesn't necessarily involve becoming a suit-and-tie-wearing drone.

With my new found musical geekiness in full bloom, my uncle and I had started connecting on an entirely different level as I'd learned that he and my Aunt Barb not only watched MTV, but had in fact been fans of the music I'd recently discovered for years. Within months of this realization, Kevin began sending me home-dubbed cassette tapes of Duran Duran's Seven And The Ragged Tiger, a fantastic Eurythmics club gig broadcast that fall by MTV, Visage's The Anvil, Yello's You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess, Thomas Dolby's The Golden Age Of Wireless, and The Police's Synchronicity (though he wasn't quite anti-authoritarian enough to let me listen to Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret just yet, heh heh). I guess these days, kids raid their parents' music collection to dig a little deeper into music beyond what they hear over the airwaves, but my only option back then for checking out post-punk and synthwave was my Uncle Kevin, and bless him for it: he was a much bigger influence on me than he ever knew.

In the midst of that long, wonderful summer came the proverbial bolt of lightning from the blue sky: my Dad's employer was transferring his job back to Wickliffe, Ohio effective immediately. While we would still be living in Southfield until the end of summer vacation, we would be starting the next school year in the Cleveland area (likely Mentor, the same town in which we had lived until I was about 6 years old). Our house was put on the market and everything had to be cleaned up and kept that way for showings (which would also necessitate us kids to vacate the premises for an afternoon here or there) throughout July and August. This is not a drill. Repeat. This is not a drill ...

When this news was dumped on us, I felt like I'd been flattened by a freight train. I harbored only a few distant memories of my early childhood living in an apartment complex in Mentor, flashes of friends, elementary school, and little else. My entire life, however, was in Southfield: I lived right down the street from the high school I would be attending that fall (I'd even been on the orientation tour at the end of my 8th grade year), I had a fairly wide circle of friends and acquaintances cultivated over the years, there was a girl who might have liked me that I'd finally started to pay attention to (from afar, at least), I had a radio station nearby that I already knew was the rarest of its kind in the region, and the idea of losing all of this was too terrible to even consider. But there was no working things through or alternate routes to ponder in this situation: the end was coming whether I liked it or not.

The End Of All Things, August 1983July flipped into August and the huge cardboard moving boxes we were given had started to fill. The shelves and closets of our house, always loaded with books, magazines, and smaller boxes of cruft accumulated over the years had started to empty (even down in the evil, murky basement). Since we were continually being kicked out of the house so that the real estate people could bring in prospective buyers (or my parents were headed down to Mentor to scout about for a new house for us to live in), I spent as much time with my closest friends as humanly possible, listening to WABX on the nights when I couldn't watch MTV, always living in some futile hope that the news would change and we wouldn't be leaving and everything was going to be just like it was. But then the end of August finally came around and Moving Day had arrived at last. A little more than three hours after later we watched our house disappear in the rear window of the family van, we arrived at a Holiday Inn in Euclid where we would spend a few days until everything was ready for us to move into our new home.

Two-and-a-half decades later, I can easily see the ripple effects of this move on the person I would become. In Southfield, I was friendly, outgoing, bored with school but getting through it regardless, always prone to leap on my ol' 3-speed and scout around the subdivisions looking for something to do ... generally a pretty happy kid. Once we had moved to Mentor, however, all of this seemed to change in the space of a weekend. I was absolutely crushed with homesickness, listless at school (my ninth grade year represented the very lowest-ebb of my admittedly unspectacular public school experience as I brought home a .7 GPA in early November), and feeling completely lost in the lazy, comparative rural suburbia of Mentor (which turned out to be even farther removed from bustling, crowded, built-to-bursting Southfield than I'd imagined).

With a couple of new friends to play D&D with (a trio of wildly-different kids who were pretty much the only people to so much as say "hello" to me in the weeks after I'd started school), I tried to find some measure of solace in strategy gaming and familiarizing myself with the completely-unfamiliar radio landscape of metropolitan Cleveland. Initially, I wasn't thrilled with what I'd found: certainly nothing anywhere near my beloved WABX was in the offing during my early swipes through the spectrum, an unsurprising discovery which chased me off the dial completely for a few months. Looking back, it was probably for the best: listening to Top 40 that fall would have entailed continuous dives for the dial whenever Jim Steinman's dual godawful schlock-fests "Making Love Out Of Nothing At All" and "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" reared their ugly head.

A mantra for Fall 1983With radio out of the picture, there was only a little bit of MTV here and there to pick up the slack as long as I wasn't being grounded for my abominable academic performance at Shore Junior High School. That passionate state I had been in with music before our move had dissipated a bit as I had been overcome by a crippling, withdrawn shyness that I had never known before this time. Advancing from Northbrook to Birney was one thing, but somehow starting completely over again in a new town as a ninth grader (yet still attending a junior high school) had me paralyzed like a deer in the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler. Meeting new people became tough, a kind of obstacle course that suddenly looked far too daunting to run through again and again. Underneath all of that (and perhaps powering it), was a secret fantasy I was harboring in which my parents abruptly decided in a few short weeks that Mentor was a dreary disaster and we were headed back to Southfield for good, which of course never happened. Over the next couple of months, I was too busy trying not to continually burst into tears of despair to really care much about when a new Asia video ("Don't Cry") was going to be premiering on MTV. The thrill was gone.

Christmas that year was bittersweet: I was still in a pretty terrible funk (not helped by the fact that there was no snow on the ground that day, which happens here from time to time) but very happily surprised nevertheless when I was given a stereo system of my own, along with a couple of record albums (in the form of Michael Jackson's Thriller and Culture Club's Colour By Numbers) and a whole bunch of blank 90 minute DAK cassette tapes. It should be said that this stereo system wasn't some component rack kind of deal, but instead a Sears-model "all-in-one" kind of piece with a turntable, a 5-band equalizer, a digital radio tuner that easily could double as a night light, and two tape decks (one that worked in the same "auto reverse" fashion as a car stereo tape player and one in the more familiar mode, with the ever-important record button).

I don't recall ever asking for a stereo for Christmas (I was far more into squeezing things like ColecoVisions, mini synths and AD&D books/modules into my lists back then), so for a while I selfishly wrote off this particular gift as a lucky guess on my parents' part. It seems truly silly now that I somehow thought they hadn't noticed my fascination with music at that time. How could they have? I used to listen to the radio on my dad's receiver with the headphones on for hours at a time in Detroit, I had drawn out little cartoon telethons featuring contemporary musical guests to keep myself amused on camping trips, I had spent hours recording videos onto my own 4-hour music tape, and I was continually being asked to give up MTV so that someone else could watch another channel. Sure, I'd never talked about this new love with my parents, but it was perfectly obvious that they knew the score. They might have even known that the stereo eventually would help steer me through this rough spot in my life ... and if they did, they were right. I won't say that music saved my life in this case (that came much later on), but it was the first time I would became aware of how much of a crutch it could provide when I really needed one.

And the snow turned to rain...What I thought was an even better Christmas present arrived couple of days later as I was overjoyed to discover that we would be returning to Southfield for New Year's Eve. That joy, however, dimmed considerably when I learned that we wouldn't be seeing Paul (or, for that matter, any of the other close friends I'd so desperately missed) as he and his family were out of town and we were merely crashing at their place so that my parents could reconnect with their friends. Golly, sign me up...

I don't know if anyone reading this has ever stayed at their best friend's house when said best friend wasn't around, but it was a very dull, sad couple of days. My chief memory of that time was sitting around upstairs in the old "game room" desultorily playing Turbo and Zaxxon on Paul's Colecovision and listening to my pocket radio the rest of the time before we left Southfield again for our new home and our new life in Mentor ... and to face the year 1984.

And the snow turned to rain ...

Fave Raves Of 1983 (by artist):

Berlin Pleasure Victim
The Cure Japanese Whispers: The Singles
Def Leppard Pyromania
Duran Duran Seven And The Ragged Tiger
Electric Light Orchestra Secret Messages
Brian Eno Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks
Eurythmics Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
A Flock Of Seagulls Listen
Peter Gabriel Plays Live
Genesis Genesis
The Glove Blue Sunshine
Herbie Hancock Future Shock
Billy Idol Rebel Yell
Billy Joel An Innocent Man
Journey Frontiers
Huey Lewis & The News Sports
Madonna Madonna
John Cougar Mellencamp Uh-Huh
Naked Eyes Naked Eyes
New Order Power, Corruption & Lies
Alan Parsons Project Ammonia Avenue
Pink Floyd The Final Cut
The Police Synchronicity
R.E.M. Murmur
The Rolling Stones Undercover
Klaus Schulze Audentity
Talking Heads Speaking In Tongues
Tangerine Dream Hyperborea
Tangerine Dream Wavelength
Tears For Fears The Hurting
The The Soul Mining
This Mortal Coil It'll End In Tears
U2 War
Neil Young Trans
ZZ Top Eliminator

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