At 8:07 A.M. on the morning of January 19, 2018, I will have been on this Earth for exactly 40 years. (Time spent in the womb notwithstanding.) I decided to spend the 40 days leading up to it focusing on a specific year of my life per day, as viewed through the lens of a song that somehow influenced me at around that time. (I’ve been posting these to my Facebook page since that 40-day period started, and I’m compiling those posts here on my blog for those who missed any of the earlier posts and/or aren’t connected with me on social media.) This was challenging for two reasons:
One, because I don’t have clear memories of the very earliest years of my life, and thus I had to cheat and pick songs which either my parents played for me deliberately or that were iconic in popular culture at the time, that left enough of a mark for me to remember them from some later point in my childhood.
And two, because once I really started to deliberately seek out new music to listen to in my teenage years instead of just absorbing whatever was around me by happenstance, it opened up the floodgates to the point where it’s hard to pick a single representative song for a lot of the later years of my life.
But it’s been a fun challenge nonetheless, because I think it really gets at the nuts and bolts of what sparked my initial interest in music, how it might have been shaped by early events in my life, and how that all contributed to the sense of identity I’d wind up with after four decades of existence.
So we’ll start where it all began, in the year I was born…
1978: “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees
I was born during the peak years of disco’s popularity. I can’t say it’s a genre I was ever specifically interested in as a kid – my Mom hated it, and said the beat to a typical disco song reminded her of the dull thump of a washing machine. I’m pretty sure I never saw the film Saturday Night Fever. So I was probably exposed to this song by way of cultural osmosis at some point in the early 80s. I must have seen at least a clip of John Travolta strutting around New York City with this song as the soundtrack, because whenever I hear that SWEEEEEEET bass line, I think of somebody walking down a street to the beat of it, looking all badass. I secretly thought this song was kind of cool, even when it was well past the point where popular culture had decreed that disco was deader than dead. I also thought it was kind of funny how the lyrics tried to establish that they were about a guy who was “a woman’s man; no time to talk”, when the voices were so high-pitched and the musical setting was about as far from “macho man rock & roll” as I could imagine. Of course I wasn’t aware of the complex gender politics that played into disco’s rise to popularity at the time. I just thought it was interesting how it seemed to play against a stereotype. I liked the sassiness of the rapid-fire lyrics, even though I couldn’t understand most of them. This song – and perhaps others that were similar to it at the time – may well be the reason that I respond favorably to attempts by modern bands to revive sounds they enjoyed from the disco era, and also why I tend to get excited whenever I hear a well-executed falsetto vocal.
1979: “Heart of Glass” by Blondie
This is one of those songs that I faintly remember from some point early in my childhood. Even though my teenaged self from about twelve years later had to pretend he thought it wasn’t cool to fit in with the other kids when he heard it again in high school (since I had a gym teacher who would put her favorite 8-track tapes on a loop while we ran laps and stretched and so forth), there was something secretly intriguing that kept drawing me back to it. I then forgot about it again for a LOOOOOONG time… until another song that I’ll cover much later in this list strongly reminded me of it. Basically whenever I hear this one, it’s like Blondie is resurrecting a lost memory of something that gives me the warm fuzzies, even though I can’t quite put my finger on it. I love that it was basically a new wave rock band doing a disco-styled song just to screw with people. I love it nowadays when rock bands do that sort of thing, just on a lark. I guess the intersection of rock music and dance music has always intrigued me, which is weird, because I’ve never been much for dancing. This also may have been one of the first songs to throw me for a loop by changing up its time signature. You know that part in the bridge where it keeps skipping a beat? I kept thinking the record was skipping, and then I realized – wait, this is playing on an 8-track!
1980: “I Will Follow” by U2
U2 is one of the few bands I was actually aware of in the 80s who went on to legitimately become one of my favorites as an adult. I can’t say that I knew anything about them at 2 years old, obviously. But that was when their first album came out, and this was the first cut on that album. It’s still the most memorable track from U2’s pre-War days, and pretty much the only one from Boy that they still play on a regular basis. I picked it for 1980 despite not having any awareness of the song at the time, because I think its description of the affection between a young boy and his mother is quite fitting. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a momma’s boy. I figure a lot of kids spend more time around their moms than their dads – it’s starting to change nowadays, but definitely when I was growing up, stay-at-home moms were much more common than stay-at-home dads. Personally, I never had the greatest relationship with my Dad, so I was usually toddling around wanting to know what Mom was up to. I can trace a lot of aspects of who I am today back to things she taught me when I was very young. My love of wordplay, and of laughter in general, probably comes from all the silly, pun-filled conversations we would have, as well as the tickle fights. She was the one who got the whole family going back to church when I was little, so a lot of how my faith was shaped over the years, I owe to her. As I got older, I could actually have mature conversations with my Mom in a way that I imagine isn’t the easiest thing for most teenagers. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Bono to lose his mother as a teenager. It clearly affected him deeply in a way that came through on this song, as well as a number of my other favorites by U2.
1981: “Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog (from The Muppet Movie)
This is the first song on my list that I distinctly remember from when I was a little kid. I can’t say for sure how old I was when I first saw the movie it came from – it came out in 1979, but 1-year-olds don’t really have much of an attention span for movies, so I honestly have no idea. But I know that I was SUPER into Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and pretty much anything with Muppets in it when I was around 3 or 4. There were probably a lot of songs from Sesame Street that I could have picked, but honestly, I remember that show more for the educational sketches that weren’t necessarily songs, and the little advertisements for letters and numbers. Maybe some of the classic songs that had been recurring on the show since the 60s, too. But this is the most distinctive song that I can remember being sung by a Muppet when I was a kid. It’s not really an educational song like you would hear on Sesame Street – it’s more of an introspective introduction to Kermit’s character at the beginning of the movie, when he’s pondering the meaning of life as he sits on his lily pad playing a banjo. Take away the fact that it’s being sung by a felt puppet with a goofy voice, and maybe look past the inspirational-but-kinda-vague lyrics on par with a lot of Disney ballads, and the thing that really jumps out at me as an adult is how freaking decadent the chord progression is. The key changes are super sneaky here, timed just right for maximum heartstring-tugging effect. There’s something buried deep down inside my soul that is genuinely moved whenever a song can pull this sort of thing off with such class, and I’m willing to bet “Rainbow Connection” is the genesis of that feeling.
1982: “What Did Delaware?” by Wee Sing (originally by Perry Como)
My Mom accumulated a whole stack of Wee Sing tapes to keep us kids entertained on long car rides when we were really little. Basically there would be a few adults on the recording, teaching kids a few verses of various silly songs, nursery rhymes, etc., much like a preschool teacher would. Most of the songs were pretty short, so they could cram like 30 of ’em onto a single cassette. But the booklets that came along with those tapes had all the verses, so that you could sing more of the song if you wanted to. (Hey, as road trip music goes, it beats singing all the verses of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”.) I found this particular silly song amusing because it made puns on the names of states. (“What did Dela wear? She wore a New Jersey!” Commence knee-slapping.) I have always loved puns, and I was pretty obsessed with knowing all 50 of the states ever since I first encountered a puzzle with each state as a piece in preschool. So a song that merged puns and geography was going to be a guaranteed win as far as my childhood self was concerned. (I’ve embedded the original Perry Como recording from 1959 here, because the Wee Sing version is literally about 30 seconds long, and this way you can hear more of the verses.)
1983: “Every Breath You Take” by The Police
Yes, I know this is a creepy stalker song, and not a romantic love song. Let’s just get that out of all of our systems, because I know you’re all thinking it. Heck, even Sting himself bagged on this song from time to time, and he was self-aware enough to know what mood he intended when he wrote it to begin with. This song was freaking EVERYWHERE in 1983, which I suppose is eerily appropriate given its subject matter, but it’s not like I would have picked up on the possessive undertones of it as a five-year-old. I remember hearing it on the radio as my Mom would drive around town, running errands with me in tow. (For some reason I remember going to Woolworth’s. That’s my go-to memory for a lot of late 70’s and early 80’s muzak.) At the time, I was intrigued by the list of actions that all rhymed with “take” that he was keeping an eye on. “Every move you make/Every vow you break/Every smile you fake/Every claim you stake/I’ll be watching you.” Hey, wait a minute… every claim you stake?! Was this woman a prospector or something? Suddenly my mind was going off on weird tangents where he was a robber in one of those old Western movies and she was standing there with a shotgun, telling him to get off her land. (OK, maybe I didn’t think it through at such a level of detail when I was five… still, I thought it was an odd thing to sing about.) This may be the point where I first learned to recognize that a lyric had been shoehorned into a song for the sake of a convenient rhyme. I’m not knocking it, necessarily. Songwriting is hard sometimes. This song still packs a hell of a melodic punch, though. Sting resented that one of their most simplistic songs became one of their biggest hits, I guess, but sometimes a simple recipe can work wonders.
1984: “Eat It” by Weird Al Yankovic
My love of parodies can probably be traced back to this song. For the joke to work, I had to at least have enough knowledge of popular music to be aware that “Beat It” was a big deal. Despite my parents’ noted disinterest in Michael Jackson (and really, most of the popular singers of the era), cultural osmosis still made sure of that. So I was pleasantly surprised when I realized Jackson’s lyrics had been sneakily replaced with all manner of food puns in this version. I would, much later in life, become a self-professed nerd who proudly proclaimed his love of Weird Al’s music, and now I realize that this was the song that started it all for me. What’s great about this one is that, as the parent of a toddler, the song is even funnier to me now. Thankfully I haven’t had to genuinely fight to get my kid to eat her food just yet, but it’s occasionally a fight to get her to stop playing with it and dropping it on the ground when she decides she’s full. I can hear the genuine frustration of those past generations of parents in this song’s plea to just shut up and stop complaining about what’s on the menu and eat your dang dinner already.
1985: “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” by Cyndi Lauper (from The Goonies)
I’ve seen The Goonies roughly a billion times, I think. We had taped an airing of it from when it was shown on TV, and my brother would watch it over and over, often while I was in the living room playing computer games on our Commodore 64. We actually had a video game of The Goonies, which was basically a puzzle platformer where each level required you to navigate two of the characters through an iconic scene from the movie, usually figuring out how to place each character at the right spot in tandem in order to open doors or distract bad guys or avoid falling into spikey pits of doom as you made your way to the exit. It only had eight levels, but I played the hell out of that thing. It had a midi soundtrack that I later realized was the theme song from the movie. So I always get fond memories of playing video games whenever I hear the song, even though at the time, it sounded like a lot of 80s pop music that I wasn’t really into. Cyndi Lauper apparently hated this song and resented her label’s extreme efforts at cross-promotion with the movie. It became to her what “Creep” later became to Radiohead, I guess… an unlikely hit that distracted from other songs she was far more proud of, and that she refused to perform in concert for many years, until finally enough fans kept requesting it that she relented and kind of made her peace with it.
1986: “Celestial Soda Pop” by Ray Lynch
So, if my parents didn’t listen to a whole lot of popular music, they must have listened to something, right? There was a radio station in L.A. at the time – I think it was called “The Wave” but I might be confusing it with another station – that played a lot of relaxing, new-agey music that was usually instrumental. It was more new-agey in the “let’s see what we can do with our futuristic-sounding state-of-the-art synthesizer technology” sense than in the “meditate and feel the healing power of your crystals” sense. Since it put a lot of focus on instruments, and this was the 80s, this is probably where my interest in a lot of synth-based pop music derives from, rather than the actual synthpop and new wave music that were popular back then. (Genre labels are confusing, aren’t they?) This piece was like an 80s approximation of a classical music motif, since it repeated the same basic melody over and over and kept adding different instrumental layers to it. “Theme and Variation”, as I would learn a few years later in my 6th grade music class. I had an electronic keyboard that I had gotten as a Christmas gift one of those years – I had never learned to play it in any formal sense, but I could sort of fumble around and pick out the tunes of Christmas carols and such, and I loved to experiment with the different instrumental voices that sounded nothing like the instruments they claimed to be. So of course a tune like this one piqued my interest. I don’t even think I knew the title of it until years later – I just thought of it as the “Raining Xylophones” song, since that’s what it sounded like was happening in the most climactic part of it. It’s amazing what repetition can do for one’s memory – there was probably a good 25-year gap between my hearing the song several times in the 80s, and then not hearing it again until I looked it up on YouTube not that long ago. And I still remembered every note of that cheesy but addictive synth melody.
1987: “With or Without You” by U2
U2 is the first artist to make my list twice, though this song is actually the first one of theirs that I can distinctly remember hearing as a child. The bass line was just unmistakable. I was probably following my Dad around at one of those swap meets at the Rose Bowl he used to drag me to, when I heard that low-end melody booming out of a huge speaker. Later, on one of our family’s summer road trips, I can remember the song coming on the radio and my parents having a debate about who the artist was. My Mom said something about how he had a husky voice and kinda sounded like Neil Diamond. I didn’t know who Neil Diamond was, so for many years, I thought Bono’s voice must have been what Neil Diamond sounded like as a result of that offhand remark. I didn’t actually know this was U2 until my college years! But the song certainly stuck with me – particularly the opening lyric “See the stone set in your eyes/See the thorn twist in your side.” I didn’t have a funny interpretation of that one – it was just one of those weird lyrics that puzzled me in a good way. Much like “Every Breath You Take”, this one took a simple recipe and used it to build up to a HUGE release of emotion, which was something I grew to appreciate about the song when I got older. That was also when I came to appreciate the paradoxical statement being made by the song – that it’s possible to love someone so much, and yet be so tortured by your relationship with the person, that you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. My love for the song – and eventually the entire album that it came from – emerged at several points over the years, particularly after my first visit to Joshua Tree National Park in my college years, which made me feel compelled to listen to the album on each subsequent trip back to that desert wonderland. 22 years after the song’s heyday, when U2 concluded their 360° Tour at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, I finally got to hear them play this one live, a stone’s throw from the same location where I’d first heard the song at that swap meet taking place in the parking lot. In a weird way, it’s actually a good memory of my Dad.