Monday, July 25, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: 1980

My uncle recently “loaned” me a bunch of his records.

When I was growing up he was my rock and roll uncle, the guy who appears with the shaggy mop of hair and thick beard in all the family pictures taken in the 1970s. He’s all cleaned up now: short, graying hair; father of two; high school teacher; churchgoer. After I bought my turntable and started collecting vinyl again I called him and asked if he still had any of his old LPs. He told me he’d gotten rid of a lot of them, but he’d kept a couple hundred, though he almost never listens to them because CDs and radio better suit his busy lifestyle. So I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask.

He let me take about a hundred. As I was sorting through them, listening to old favorites and others I’d never heard before, I noticed that he had an unusually high number of selections from 1980, which isn’t typically hailed as a banner year in the annals of rock. Disco was thriving, Ronald Reagan won the presidency and John Lennon was murdered, among other horrible things. Yet here among the 60s classics and jazz and blues masterpieces were all but forgotten titles like Beat Crazy by Joe Jackson, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Cyndi Lauper’s first band Blue Angel and Sax Maniac by James White and The Blacks, which is the most unpleasantly strange album I’ve ever heard.

I called him and asked him about it. He told me he hadn’t really thought of it before, but that it makes sense because he was getting over a divorce that year, and he could buy records again without worrying about his ex leaving them out and ruining them. I told him I had a hunch it was more than that. If you were to line up all of his records chronologically, this sudden 1980 boon would stand out as a sort of paradigm shift, an explosion of bright colors and angular hair and lively music against the dull clouds of the late 1970s. These records are clearly documents of a new lease on life, a precursor to his second, still-going marriage and the career, family and life he’s brought into being. The reason I picked up on this fact so quickly, I think, because I shared this life change with him at the time, through the same music, in my own way.

The funny thing about this glut of 1980 disks in my uncle’s collection is that it doesn’t contain the two records he gave to me at Christmas in 1980: Talking Heads Remain in Light and The B-52s’ first record (actually ’79, I know, but close enough, right?). I was twelve. I hadn’t asked for them, and he hadn’t asked me what I wanted. He’d just decided that these were two albums I needed to have. And I did. They busted life wide open for me. Before I got those records, all I knew about was what was on the radio, which, in my memory’s ears, was all soul-suckingly lame R&B and pop, or disco, or a few pale shades of hard rock. And I was sneaking up on my teens, and I was starting to see that the world was kind of the same, at least in the small, Midwestern industrial, where the lake effect of Lake Michigan kept us shrouded in gray clouds for weeks and months on end. To my young eyes, everyone seemed the same, and they weren’t like me. I didn’t know who or what I was necessarily, but I knew I didn’t fit in.

So here was this music, and it revealed to me that there are worlds upon worlds outside the Main Street mainstream, and I might just belong in one or several of them.

I’d play “Rock Lobster” over and over again and jump around my room and dance, utterly unaware of my gangliness. I’d put a blue shirt over the lamp in my room to set the mood for the weird and eerie songs on side two of Remain in Light, like “Seen and Not Seen” and “The Overload.” Soon I was finding other bits and pieces of the counter culture hidden in unexpected corners of Elkhart, Indiana, most notably the picture book about new wave that I found at the Walden Books at Concord Mall. Here was a whole catalogue of possibilities for complete makeover as a young anti-Elkhartan. I raced off to the barbershop for a new wave haircut (now known as a mild mullet) as soon as my mom would let me. I started wearing white button down shirts with skinny ties I found in my grandparents’ basement so I could look like Fred Schneider on the cover of the B-52s’ album, or the Specials, or the English Beat, because by now my collection was starting to grow.

Elkhart, Indiana
Despite having more than a hundred free records courtesy of my uncle, I went out soon after he bequeathed them to me and bought the B-52s’ and Talking Heads’ right away. And after I listened to them a bunch of times, I called my uncle and said something like, “Do you know how important that was for me, you buying me those albums?” He demurred. But it’s true.

I shudder to think what paths my life might not have taken had he not decided that his precocious little nephew might appreciate something weird.

No comments: