I remember the summer of 1980 as a season of eerie silence. I lived in an empty house that season; I was in full retreat from the world. I was waiting for September, waiting for my freshman year of college to begin. It was the season of the Long Wait.
Like many kids in 1980, I first encountered Parker by way of Arista Records’ promotional push for him in 1980. A video for “Stupefaction” appeared on Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert and the musician himself performed on Fridays, a short-lived ABC sketch-comedy SNL knockoff. I didn’t know it at the time, but Parker had just jettisoned his long-time band, the Rumour, and his horn section in an attempt to transition from blue-eyed soul and R&B to a more mainstream “rock” sound. I bought Parker’s records for years and saw him in concert at least twice, but my infatuation with him is a mystery to me now. I suppose his sneering contempt for everything must have appealed to me. All of his 80s records come off today as wordy, keyboard-heavy, and marred by self pity. Later, he would write bad fiction.
Self-pity and a sense of being under-appreciated in a nowhere house in a nowhere town were my primary states of mind in the summer of 1980. My father had taken an apartment in North Bergen, forty miles to the east of us. His infrequent return visits only served to remind us that there were bad things going on in his new life, things we didn’t want to know about. My mother worked in an insurance office during the day and went out to church bingo every night, a different parish each night, seven nights a week. She would come home at eleven at night, watch the local news, and fall asleep in her chair.
Steve Forbert was probably the last breakout singer/songwriter to be foiled by an overt “New Dylan” record-label campaign. Forbert’s willingness to include a song titled “Sadly Sorta Like a Soap Opera” on his debut suggests he wasn’t exactly an unwitting dupe in the plot. I liked this record when it came out—“Romeo’s Tune” was a Top 10 Billboard hit in the spring of 1980—though I don’t remember ever buying another Steve Forbert record. I guess nobody else did, either. After re-visiting a number of 1980 albums for this entry, I found the production here to be a relief. No dorky synths, no saxophones, no “big drum” sound, no portentous vocal overdubs. Just Forbert’s insightful and understated lyrics, set to humble, uncluttered arrangements of guitar, drums, and the occasional harmonica. Surprising.
I should clarify, by the way, that I wasn’t purchasing “records” in 1980. I was buying pre-recorded cassettes to play on my Soundesign stereo. The Soundesign was what they called a “shelf system”—tuner, built-in cassette deck, and two speakers. I kept it on a shelf that had previously held Revell models of aircraft and military vehicles, the kind you assembled with Testors plastic cement and painted with Testors paints that came in tiny bottles. My brother and I officially shared a bedroom for all of the 17 years we lived under the same roof, but by 1980 we were heartily sick of each other and I was sleeping on the couch in the living room. My brother, sister, and I avoided each other completely in the months before I left for college. We had nothing left to say to each other. I had a little one-speaker cassette player that I kept beside the couch. At night, after my midnight run and an hour or two of the CBS Late Movie, I would put a cassette in the player on low volume and let it lull me off into sleep.
Breakfast in America: Supertramp
Released: March, 1979
The sound of Breakfast in America is the sound of dissatisfaction and longing. Specifically, it’s the sound of the Wurlitzer electric piano, keening and lamenting behind the twin falsettoes of Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. Every song on the album, from the slowest ballad to jaunty uptempo numbers like the title track, is about desire for something that is gone, something unreachable across an ocean or an expanse of time or a divide between alienated lovers.
For me, it was the soundtrack of the Long Wait. Listening to “Take The Long Way Home,” with its long piano-and-harmonica intro, reminds me of sitting in a metal lawn chair in front of my parents’ house, long after midnight, listening to the crickets and tree frogs, and longing to be somewhere else. Our house was deep in the woods and there were no streetlights until you got out to the main road. On moonless nights, it was possible to run right off the road if you weren’t careful. The darkness, the night noise, the loneliness. That’s what I remember. Our high school senior yearbook adopted the lyrics from Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” as a theme. Everything about this album still signifies for me the border between my old life and my new life just about to start.
I first heard the big single off this album, “Heartache Tonight,” on a school-organized bus trip to the County College of Morris. All but maybe 4 or 5 people in my senior graduating class of 100 students were going off to college, and very few of them were going to CCM. So this trip was a bit of a goofy lark that no one took seriously. At this point (it must have been late winter/very early spring of 1980), I had already been accepted at Rutgers. I had applied to three crappy schools (Livingston College at Rutgers, Rider, and, I think, Fairleigh Dickinson) and been accepted by all three. My GPA and SATs were probably sufficient for better schools, but I had nothing else—no extracurricular activities, no contacts, no money and, really, no ambition. My entire college search had consisted of a ten-minute meeting with a high-school guidance counselor. I was a witless kid and I’d had too many other problems. I was living in a house with no furniture, no parents, no food in the refrigerator. I had also largely stopped going to school. In my senior year, I logged 45 absences, or about one quarter of the school year, more than a day per week. What was I doing during all that empty time? Not much. Sleeping, watching TV, reading. Today, I don’t think you could get away with that, even in senior year of high school. There are too many school boards and departments of oversight.
As for the Eagles, you could say they were mailing it in, too. Every member of the now-reconstituted band is said to hate The Long Run (except maybe Joe Walsh, who had just showed up and likes everything). I laughed out loud at “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks,” which I hadn’t heard in 30 years, and actually seems kind of fun, in a stiff, starchy Eagles way.
Like the vocalists in Supertramp, Rocky Burnette favored a high, reedy tenor that could soar into falsetto. He used it to adorn the hiccupy rockabilly tunes on his 1979 debut album, which spawned the 1980 Top 10 hit “Tired Of Toein’ The Line.” That song still gets radio airplay today, and is often anthologized in compilations with a One Hit Wonder theme. The rest of the album? Damned if I know. Son Of Rock N’ Roll disappeared amid the early 80s implosion of EMI America, never appeared on CD, and has been out of print for decades. I can dimly remember listening to “Angel In Chambray,” too. I once played parts of this album for a high school friend of mine, the guy who was my first roommate at Rutgers, and he looked at me like I was crazy. He knew a lot more about contemporary music than I did (everybody did, really), and I can remember him looking over my collection of about 200 pre-recorded cassettes—Steve Miller Band, Fleetwood Mac, Al Stewart, ELO, even worse stuff—and asking, with some trepidation, if I intended to take any of it with me to college.
By now, you’re noticing that there’s no good music here. If you’re reading this article for music shopping tips, you’re shit out of luck. Talking Heads? No. Kraftwerk? Ha! Joy Division? Please. Even the halfway decent “classic rock” of the period—Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones—didn’t make much of an impression on me. My mother’s AMC Hornet—the car I drove until I bought a 1969 Chevy Chevelle in August—had a radio with no FM band. So I listened to WABC Musicradio Top Forty. At home, I listened to cassettes I’d bought at the music store in the Ledgewood Mall. I can’t remember the name of the place; all the cassettes were kept on the wall behind a long counter to prevent theft. I’d lean over the counter, read the spines on the cassette cases, and point one out to the store manager. He’d pull it from the wall, hand it to me, and watch as I examined the case. There wasn’t much to read on those old cassette cases. Listening to it, of course, was out of the question. You either bought it or you didn’t, based on holding it for a moment. I bought a lot of crap that way.
Which brings us to Glass Houses. I recently purchased a two-disc Legacy Edition of The Stranger which pairs a remaster of the original album with a Carnegie Hall show Billy Joel played for industry people and friends in June of 1977. I enjoyed it immensely. I also still enjoy Turnstiles, most of Streetlife Serenade, and the song “Captain Jack.” Glass Houses is none of these. This is the album where Billy ditched the piano for squiggly “new wave” guitars, the horns for synth flourishes, the slice-of-life suburban vignettes for pugnacious “statement” songs, and his rumpled sportcoat for a black leather jacket. I wish I could say something nice about this album that I spent so many hours listening to in 1980. But I can’t. So instead, I offer this Alvin and the Chipmunks version of “You May Be Right” from the 1980 Mercury release Chipmunk Punk.
I have a reissue of this album (with bonus tracks) that gets a little same-y over the course of 69 minutes. But “Cars,” the 9th track (tucked away on Side 2 of the pre-recorded cassette) still roars out of the speakers sounding like nothing else released in 1979. I was working just about any hour they would give me at the Grand Union supermarket one town over in Landing, NJ, saving for my first car and for a little nest egg I could take to college with me. “Every hour” meant weekdays 5pm-10pm and weekends either 8am-4pm or 4pm-midnight. On weekday nights, WABC Musicradio ran a show called “10 at 10.” Listeners would call in their favorite songs throughout the day and the DJ would play back the top 10 in reverse order starting at 10pm. Roughly from January through August of my last year at home, “Cars” appeared in that top 10 every single day. Hearing “Cars” today makes me think of driving through the darkened streets of my town, looking forward to changing out of my work clothes and into shorts and a T-shirt, and going running in the dark along narrow streets, into and out of the tiny pockets of light cast by the porchlights of the houses all along the way.
At the time, much was made of The Knack’s lack of credibility stemming from their pre-packaged origins. Today, everyone rightly assumes that every nationally known act got its start in a marketing department somewhere. And most people could give a happy crap. If the Knack were around today, they would have enjoyed the same three-or-four-album heyday afforded Franz Ferdinand or the Strokes (whose debut, Is This It, is a virtual carbon copy of Get The Knack).
Anyway, it’s all about girls, here. “She’s So Selfish,” “Frustrated,” Good Girls Don’t.” Nobody in The Knack is getting any, but it’s okay, because they’re in a band. In 1979, I was learning about girls, pretty late in the game. I was going out with one of the Grand Union checkout girls. You couldn’t say that Stacy and I dated, because we never went anywhere. On nights when I had my mother’s car, we would drive somewhere—a ball field, a mall parking lot, a boat landing area—and make out ferociously until a cop car came along and spotlighted us. If we encountered the same cop twice in the same night, we knew the night was over. I don’t remember us even getting anything to eat in the six months or so that we “went out.” We saw two movies—a Jodie Foster film called Foxes and John Carpenter’s The Fog. Eventually, we broke up over a disagreement about the prom. I can’t remember specifically why I refused to go, but I’m sure it had something to do with the difficulties I was experiencing at home. Today, I wish I had tried to swing it somehow. Anyway, we went to different schools around the lake, so our breakup proved very easy to sustain.
Joe released two albums in 1979, Look Sharp! and I’m The Man, and they’re both all about girls. In Look Sharp! Joe’s watching the “Pretty Girls” walk down the street, he’s sore about all the “Happy Loving Couples” and “Fools In Love,” and he wants to know, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” I spent a lot of time mooning over this one, too. On the night of my graduation, I ended up in my mother’s car with my future Rutgers roommate, my brother, and two other guys, headed to a Joe Jackson concert at Great Adventure. Joe already had another album, Beat Crazy, out by this point. It was a dismal trip; we got lost several times, the carburetor on my mother’s Hornet got stuck in the wide-open position, we ended up driving all the way north to New York City, then all the way west to Sussex County to get home because we had no maps and knew no other way. We got home at dawn, exhausted. As for Look Sharp!, it seems long to me, even at only 36:16.
The last record here is probably the only genuinely good one here. This is almost certainly the last pre-recorded cassette I ever bought. It was running in the Pioneer car stereo when I drove away from home with my few belongings heaped up in the back seat of the Chevelle. When I got to college, I started buying vinyl records, even though I wouldn’t have my own turntable for years. I always had roommates (on- and eventually off-campus) who had turntables. This record’s trebly, jittery, sour sound, widely derided in 1980, now sounds like the exit ramp to sugar-rush noise-poppers M83 and Dan Deacon. It sounds to me today like the best thing the Cars ever did, though I don’t think I believed this at the time. Later in 1980, I got a job over winter break in a K-Mart near college, and I would drive back and forth to work with this cassette and a few other mix-tapes alternating time in the player. My college roommate was right, I never did play any of those pre-recorded Little River Band or Rod Stewart cassettes again once I was exposed to real music. On this day, thirty years later, I have one of those cassettes left: a copy of Point of Know Return by Kansas. It’s in a box in the attic somewhere, along with scores of mixtapes and mix CDs from my post-college, pre-marriage days.
I would be home two more times (Thanksgiving, Christmas) in that difficult year of 1980. The next summer I got a job painting rooms for the university and lived in an apartment on campus. I never stayed for more than a single night under my parents’ roof again. The Long Wait was over. My escape was complete.