When I did my semester in England back in the mid ’80s, the first thing they did to acclimate us was send us on a “homestay” weekend with a family in the countryside. A bunch of us were sent to a town called Gloucester, where several families had volunteered to entertain us for the weekend. I stayed with a lovable family who chose me because the parents had emigrated from Italy, and they saw I had an Italian last name, plus their daughter was only a little older than I was. Her name was Nancy, and she was a nurse.
Nancy took me to Gloucester Cathedral, an 800 year-old Gothic church that is famous throughout England for its gorgeousness, despite being located in a sleepy little hamlet, lost amid miles and miles of anonymous rolling hills. It truly lived up to its reputation… walking through its spired interior took my breath away. Just the smell of a structure that was older than my whole country made me swoon.
Yesterday I was looking for an lovely photo to jazz up my Tweeter feed, so I looked up Gloucester Cathedral.
Maybe this is a kitsch-y and shallow reason to get excited about having been there, in light of the eight centuries of history the cathedral has endured, but…
Turns out they filmed parts of the Harry Potter series in Gloucester Cathedral.
Maybe if I weren’t a writer who sat on my bed reading hours and hours of these novels to my daughter, this wouldn’t mean as much to me…
But it freaking does!
Sentiment aside, it was probably the most beautiful man-made place I’ve ever (gingerly) set down my feet.
Who knew what Hollywood and the world of middle-grade literature had in store for it?
I was challenged recently to post my choice of videos from the 1980s. Boy, did they pick the right girl. I thought I’d share my selections along with my commentary, for those of you who maintain a sense of nostalgia for the best decade in musical history. Enjoy.
Don’t be envious, Millennials. We’ll continue to share our sensibility with you.
The Police: King of Pain, 1983
To start us off, from The Police’s Synchronicity album, the above is some rare Australian video for this song, complete with a stuffed goat and a flaming dial telephone. This kind of eerie, Imagist camera work was considered artsy and cool at the time.
I went to the acutely famous concert promoting this album that took place at Shea Stadium, Flushing, NY, in the summer of 1983. I was 19 years-old. The LIE was transformed into a parking lot stretching across Queens, and I was twice rear-ended waiting in near-stop-dead traffic. We were so late to the event that we missed both opening bands, REM and Joan Jett, respectively. I didn’t even know who REM was yet.
According to Internet reports, it was after this one-night-only show that Sting decided to break up the band and go solo, because playing Shea Stadium (as did The Beatles) was a performance epitome for him, so he decided to move on to other pastures, where, say, the Blue Turtles roam.
Anyway, just listen…
Echo and the Bunnymen: Lips Like Sugar, 1987
Here is a quintessential ’80s dance song, although I don’t think I ever saw this video at the time. Remember, friends, there was no YouTube, and MTV had actually just emerged. Not everyone even got cable TV. So we mostly viewed these videos in the background as we danced at clubs. I hope the end of this one was supposed to be campy, because it’s as bad as some of the Godzilla films my son watches. However, the song is AWESOME, still. One other thing the rest of you ’80s people might experience: These guys all seemed so mature and intimidating at the time. Yet viewing them now, they look like babies. Oh my Lord, the perspective of a 22 year-old.
And dig that hair.
Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime, 1980
Presenting the lead track to the movie of my life, and the theme song for my crew of girls in college. We made up a poster that had lyrics from the song magic-markered on it back in our dorm. We taped it to the ceiling, so that whenever one of us awoke on the rug the morning after a party, we’d see the lyrics staring down at us:
“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?!”
David Byrne is a freaky-amazing genius and I adore him. He better not die any time soon, as losing David Bowie was enough of a blow.
Herbie Hancock: Rockit, 1983
This breaks out of my typical new wave mode, but still fits the technotronic synth-y club vibe we all grooved to at the time. I recently rediscovered this song and played it full blast, dancing through my house, remembering how wild it was with all its funky scratchiness and such.
Even my son, whose hobby is mixing “beats” all day on Mixcraft, leaned over our stair rail to ask, Hey what are you listening to?
This video was a gas in the ’80s and one of the earliest I remember seeing on MTV. The musical artist, Herbie Hancock, is funked-out fantastic. And the guy who put together these half-humanoid, half-obscene robots, a British artist and inventor named Jim Whiting, was quite The Bomb. I recall rumors at the time that the scene in “Blade Runner” where they visit the toy maker/android designer in his apartment, wherein life-size robotic toys wander aimlessly, was inspired by this guy. Although a current Internet search doesn’t back that up.
Not exactly Disney’s version of animatronics.
** I just learned I can’t post The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” as an ’80s video as it was actually 1979. Dang it. Can’t use “Rock Lobster,” either. Same problem. Argh! ** Moving on …
Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. David Johansen): Hot, Hot, Hot, 1987
I’m going more late-’80s mainstream this time, although we didn’t know back then this song would become a wedding conga-line classic. Mostly I’m posting it because I have the real inside guff this time, as I was AN EXTRA in this precipitous piece of film making.
Left: Blonde in bustier. Top right, Sharon with long red curls. Orange arrow, head below Sharon with dark bangs: ME. I think.
Alas, hard as I try, I can barely see myself in it. Although refer to the arrows in the screen grab to the right. That’s us at the table in the indoor concert scene at the end. For four seconds. I see the exact table where we were sitting. I recognize the blonde woman in the black bustier dress who was sitting across from me. I see a fuzzy likeness of my friend Sharon who I dragged out to accompany me, and there’s my head below hers. The shot is nearly as grainy as a sonogram, but it’s us.
Here’s what happened: I was working at Columbia Pictures as a script researcher and had to call a club downtown, the Latin Quarter, to fact-check something for a script. The manager said, Hey, we’re having a party for David Johansen tomorrow night because he’s filming a new video. Why don’t you come down? I grabbed my buddy Sharon and we got painted up and trucked down to the place. I asked for the manager who had invited me.
An older gentleman in a bedazzled tuxedo coat met us at the door. He looked me up and down and said (and this was cute–not sure what he was expecting):
“Oh, sweetie — you’re much more attractive than I thought you’d be. Come with me!”
Next thing you know we were signing release contracts and he sat us against the stage. They filmed the end of the song repeatedly and shouted for us to dance, throw our hair, and scream. Which we did. It was a blast.
At the time, we thought it was some weird number that no one would ever hear of. Because frankly, it was David Johansen, former cross-dresser from the New York Dolls, in a 1950s pompadour hairdo and a formal suit singing a Latin song — not something you thought would become a major hit in punky 1987.
As it turns out, I’ve been able to tell this story at every wedding I’ve ever been to.
Tears For Fears, Everybody Wants To Rule the World, 1985
Screen grab from the Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” video. Tin-foiled camera visible in mirror behind keyboardist.
I’ll sign off with this one, because the video for The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” in retrospect seems vaguely racist, and I can’t find the original video for that Thomas Dolby song. And the Flock of Seagulls video for “I Ran” is just too corny, with the cameras covered in aluminum foil, reflecting in all the spinning mirrored backdrops.
Soooo … I was studying a semester in England when I bought the album Songs From The Big Chair on cassette, because all I had with me was a SONY Walkman. I’d hide away in the tiny basement of our flats and play this, and literally bounce off the cinder block walls. When I hear it, I’m re-infused with the excitement and fear and wonder and expectation of my life finally beginning. I turned 21 years-old in London. And for a few moments, in my little head, I really did Rule the World.
I’m in a state of mourning, and for more than just the loss of a music icon (or two) this month. I’m stricken by the fact that there is no one to succeed David Bowie—and I’m downright rancorous over the reasons why.
For someone who experienced college in the mid-80s, it’s particularly wounding to realize that a major creative engine of the new-wave fueled era has ceased to exist. To us post-modern, mini-skirted, artsy new wave chicks whose hair was stiff with BOY LONDON gel, Bowie was God. The Internet has since become overrun with tribute slide shows that far outnumber commentary on his contribution—especially discussion of who might continue his legacy. It is apparently easier to gather clips of his ten best videos and costume changes and movie roles than it is to contemplate the environment left in his wake. The slide show parade itself is symptomatic of why no one is waiting to take up that mantle.
Why will there never be another David Bowie? Because the current entertainment industry would never tolerate him. It has become mind-numbingly easier and cheaper to depend on recycled and homogenized entertainment than to put up with the inconvenience of nurturing an actual artist.
Genuine talent is unmanageable. It does not adhere to a contract. It is sexually confused. It throws televisions out the window and says f@ck in public. It gets pissed off at its bandmates. It will not be judged by a panel of well-styled celebrities with buzzers in their hands for the public’s general amusement.
Right now, I imagine there are a hundred Millennial Bowies out there. Instead of being fabulous, at their boldest they are mimicking contrived Disney protégés at network-sponsored national cattle calls. More likely, they’re hiding their true preferences and creative impulses so they can keep their jobs, afford their apartments and justify their unwarranted degrees. They are settling for Instagram as an artistic outlet.
Don’t think another innovator of the Bowie variety just can’t happen. As freakishly brilliant as he was, and as devastating as his loss is to popular culture, talent of this magnitude is not an isolated occurrence. Case in point: John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up in the same region of Liverpool. At the same time. If the world is ready to ingratiate itself to the next genius, he or she will emerge.
The deluge of online slide shows point to something deeply askew: Rather than expound on David Bowie’s legacy, resulting in fresh insights and unique prose, the more effortless route is to embed videos or repost a collection of existing images and call it a memoriam. Such is easily digestible, and the content is free.
YouTube has become the new vocabulary of our emotions. We are a civilization that communicates via a series of regurgitated flash cards instead of thoughtful narrative.
A watershed of top ten lists is a disservice to what any genuine artist stands for: The conception of material that never existed until, magically, it is brought into reality by the sleight of the artist’s hand. Art is born, not linked.
This is why a whole generation of hipsters have devoted themselves to retro culture, rejecting the artists and even the technologies of their own era and declaring themselves aficionados of material that was conceived and produced long before they were.
I’d like more opportunity to glorify those who originate as opposed to reconstitute. Priority needs to shift back to supporting the strange and unbearable and tortured, instead of the managed and choreographed and sanitized. Until that happens, we will never see another Bono and U2. We will never see another Sting and The Police, or David Byrne and the Talking Heads. We certainly will never see The Doors, The Stones or Led Zeppelin again. Ever.
To that dormant Bowie in the audience: Please recognize a glimmer of yourself here. Please stand up and put on a dress and dance. Write yourself out of the cultural stupor you’ve been born into. Masquerade in glitter eyeshadow and spandex and don’t care what the world thinks about it. Date men. Date women. Dye your hair. Do drugs. Shun the X-Factor auditions. Please, I beg of you—quit your day job, lay off the freaking Pinterest and spew out something amazing.
Recalling a little incident from a journal, one that I didn’t even remember until re-reading it…
I convinced my buddy Sharon from Queens to come with me see China Crisis, one of my favorite bands from college. She and I had an unspoken pact: Whenever one of us wanted to do something and needed a friend to do it with, the other was automatically in. Sharon owned a car—a great amenity in New York City—so if I wanted to get back and forth anyplace at night, she had to drive me. And when she needed to bring up the sophistication level of whatever party she planned to go to, in order to impress whatever guy she was trying to affect that week, I was obligated as a chick from Long Island to accompany her. It was subtly known throughout the boroughs that Long Island girls were classier than Queens girls (if a tad less exciting). We were mellow and smart and sensible. They were turbulent and street-savvy and bold.
Sharon and I dutifully filled each other’s friendship needs and usually had a riotous time doing so. That is, if we did not get thrown out of whatever club we were in. Because as much as I classed-up any party she took me to, she amped-up the crazy/fun quotient at any place we went.
So, she agreed to see this bunch of obscure English guys play at The Ritz, one of the biggest new wave clubs in the city. By this point in my life, I was skilled at muscling my way to the front row at general admission concerts, despite being smaller than most of the rest of the crowd. I planted myself against the stage under the lead guitarist, who had rather fabulous European bone structure. He played there right above my head all night. I would not even let Sharon herself elbow in front of me. When she tried, I took her by the shoulders and supplanted her so briskly that she fell on the floor, and I apologized.
Anyone else, Sharon would have belted them with a beer bottle. Me, she let slide. I was the only one who got away with that stuff with her. I was the only one who even tried.
Before the end of the night the two of us swore we’d figure out a way to take the freaking band home (although we hadn’t decided which of us would say uncle and let the other have the lead guitarist). At this point in my life, I wanted to be a real groupie, but thus far the only musicians I ever went home with were the few I had already been dating before the show. Yet when you hung around with Sharon, sometimes that kind of thing was possible. She was this exquisite little wild-woman who never said no to anything. Men worshipped her.
Also consider this was Manhattan, and the party wasn’t over until you had to get ready for work the next morning. When the band’s set ended at 12-ish, we were just getting started. Sometimes we didn’t even go out until that hour.
In an effort to secure the attention of the guitar player post-show, we waited a safe gawking distance from what was labeled a stage door, next to a table that several place cards designated as reserved for the band. A nebbishy, older guy in a black suit and glasses hit on Sharon repeatedly, insisting he was the band’s photographer, despite the fact that he didn’t have a camera. He looked more like he had just come back from a prayer group than a new wave concert. She flirted back, even though she was way above his league.
“Sharon,” I whispered sideways in her ear. “This guy’s a bullshit artist.”
She ignored me.
“Sharon, I’m tellin’ you, he’s not with the band.”
She ignored me. The guy had to take off. He gave her his card.
The Ritz was gothic and cavernous; everything was awash in in black paint. She held the card up to what little light was available.
“Jeweler,” she read. “He said he’s a fucking rock photographer, and his card says Jeweler.”
“Told ya’.” One point for the Cynical Long Island Bitch.
A thin guy with blondish, mussed hair emerged from the door marked stage. Sharon pointed at him. “That’s one of the guitar players,” she said. She yelled to him. “Hey you! Come ‘ere!”
He came over. Guys listened to Sharon.
She asked if he was in the band.
“Yes, I play the bass,” he says, in one of those early-Python-esque British accents that’s such a rapid and choppy cascade of syllables you can barely tell it’s the same language we speak in New York. The band had announced they were from Liverpool. Like the Beatles.
He talked to us. It was loud in the club; they blared the music once the show ended.
Sharon smiled. “You know, I love your accent, but I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” she shouted.
I spent a semester in London, so I recognized the lilt and I somewhat understood what he was saying, although I don’t remember a thing and didn’t write down specifics. Likely he was deflecting our advances. Or maybe I piped up about living in England. If I was able to gather my thoughts together.
He was friendly, an ordinary guy. Except one who we could scarcely comprehend.
“I’m Sharon.” She shook his hand. He turned to me. We shook. “Suzanne,” I said.
He said his name. Me and Sharon looked at each other like WTF?
“What was that again?”
He said something that I wrote down in the journal as Gaesa, assuming it was maybe Gaelic. It was my best guess. You never know. I had met a guy from Ireland a few weeks before (relocated to Woodside, of course) who pronounced his name “Ian,” but spelled it something like EOINEN. I swear there might have been a “w” in there somewhere, like a Tolkien character.
I asked him to spell his name but couldn’t hear the answer.
Note at the time there was no Internet to look things up, so if there was no photo of the band or list of names prominently on the album cover, then you didn’t know what the guys looked like or who they were until Rolling Stone did a feature. But you listened to the music anyway. So I let this encounter go, not even convinced that the guy honestly was one of the guitar players, wondering if instead he was just running with things because two cute groupie-types waved him over. We girls who hung around stage doors learned early: The guy who comes out after the concert is not always in the band. Sometimes he is just a guy with cool hair who moves amps.
This guy seemed far too polite to be a rock star, and he was about as young as we were.
However, in the here and now, I can look up the names of the members of China Crisis from that year. One of them is listed as Gazza Johnson. This was, according to reports, a nickname for Gary— also the name of the black-haired lead guitarist we were drooling over throughout the show. There were two Garys in the band that year, so I guess they needed to differentiate, like me and my four roommates from college, all of whom were named some variation of “Sue.”
I’m sure me and Sharon made a play for this guy to come out with us, but it did not work. However, my notes say he was very sweet, so he must have found a diplomatic way to sidestep our invitation.
So… here’s to Gazza Johnson of China Crisis in 1987, for making nice with me and my buddy, even though we could hardly decipher most of what he said. Even though Cynical Long Island Bitch didn’t believe he was who he said he was. Let’s give one point to Sharon, the Crazy Little Queens Girl, who believed, and who had the balls to yell loudly enough across the Ritz’s pitch and earsplitting mosh pit to get him to come over and talk to us.
And here, also, is to a life in which I have forgotten things that are way cooler than what many other people ever get to do, ever.
Note that Gazza Johnson was actually an exceptionally talented bass player, and some of the numbers from that year’s album are still my favorite tunes. I will share one of my faves, then.
“Safe as Houses”
Why I didn’t recognize the guy who played it even as I shook his hand is beyond me. Apologies for having eyes for the other guy, who was close enough to step on my fingertips. But apparently not nice enough to come out and say hello.
Note I have purchased and repurchased “What Price Paradise” in every format that it has been issued in since the ’80s, starting with the record album, moving on to a tape cassette for my first car, then a CD, then a download on iTunes after the CD was destroyed in a move, and a second download from Amazon after the iTunes stuff wouldn’t play on my phone anymore. So the band has gotten their share of royalties from me on that recording, in addition to the concert ticket.
I have a certain affinity for bass guitar anyway, since I grew up listening to bass lines being plucked out daily, repeatedly, maddeningly. My younger brother played. And played. And played so much that sometimes I’d march into his bedroom and yank the cord out of the amplifier at 9:00 in the morning on summer weekends when I had a hangover. Certain days I would stand there like an idiot ordering him to mow the lawn before my father had a conniption fit. Until I got fed up and flattened my hand over the strings, it was as if I weren’t even there. At that point he would finally look up as if to say, oh, sorry, you’re in the room with me?
I don’t know if that qualifies me to judge anything. But I do love a good new wave bass line.
That, and thanks to my brother Jimmy, I will have the bass notes to “Tom Sawyer” etched across my brain cells till I die.