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.
The Up Escalator: Graham Parker
Released: May, 1980
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.
Jackrabbit Slim: Steve Forbert
Released: October 1979
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.