I’m tired of writing about politics this week. I need to do something to stir up my blogging mojo.
Regular political blogging restarts, most likely, next week. ‘Til then, I’m going to follow through on an idea I first started noodling with close to three years ago, and see where it goes. It’s another of my loooong series on pop music history. But unlike my recent “Springsteen for Conservatives” series (which I had a stone-cold blast writing), I don’t have to try to keep up a cohesive narrative for weeks on end.
Which fits my attention span much better, these days.
I graduated from high school in 1981. I grew up in North Dakota, which is still a bit of a national punch line for “isolation” (although these days North Dakotans are doing most of the laughing), but in those days before the Internet, was much, much moreso.
Pop culture came to my hometown, Jamestown, much later than most of Western Civilization. Until I was in elementary school, we only got two TV channels (or only two that Mom and Dad told me about, anyway). Only Algore had the Internet in those days.
For a couple of years, we didn’t even have a movie theatre in Jamestown. First the Grand Theatre on Main Street – a splendid old 1890’s opera house – got torn down to make way for the worst Holiday Inn in America. Then the Star Theater closed, probably due to health code violations; stories of people reaching into their popcorn and coming up with a handful of rodent were standbys in Jamestown’s urban legend library at the time. Without a theater? Forget about catching the tail end of one of the great eras in American film; we didn’t even see Star Wars or Jaws until a year after the rest of the country did.
Oh, we caught little bits and pieces of seventies culture when I was a kid; books and magazines had those gawdawful swishy seventies fonts and typefaces; polyester and bell-bottoms and suits made of corduroy or denim cropped up.
Entertainment? Well, I was too young to “get” some of the great stuff of the era, “The Rockford Files” and “Mary Tyler Moore” and the first “Bob Newhart Show”, among others. But if you were a kid, it was the heyday of Sid and Marty Kroft, and the beginning of Hanna-Barbara’s thirty-year nadir – most everything the former cartoon powerhouse produced between 1968’s “Banana Splits”, which I hated with a passion even as a kid, until 1998’s “Powerpuff Girls”, which I loved as an “adult”. And even then, I couldn’t stand much of it – from Gilligan’s Island reruns (to which my friends glued their faces every night after school) to The Brady Bunch, most of it annoyed me to one degree or another.
And as re music, which was then and now my primary whiff of pop culture? Jamestown’s only two radio stations played either country or, at the station I started at when I was 16, something radio people used to call “Middle of the Road” – a little Beatles (not the “hard” stuff, mind you, like “Daytripper”), a little Top 40 (the mild stuff) and any variety of pop standard going back to the forties and fifties. Think Ann Murray in her heyday.
Things changed a bit in seventh grade, when I finally got an AM radio of my own. Spinning the dial when I was home sick one day, I found radio stations from other places – WDAY in Fargo (which I’d been to maybe twice), KFYR in Bismarck, and – once I discovered night skip – WLS in Chicago.
And it was in eighth grade I discovered two things:
- The guitar. I started teaching myself the guitar in the winter of eighth grade. As a greasy-haired, acne-ridden, tall scrawny klutzy stringbean with no athletic aptitude, it was going to be my backdoor pathway to being cool. And in a way it was.
- Rolling Stone magazine. In my newly developed mania to be different than everyone else, I latched onto the flavor the the month, which was at that time the explosion in punk and new-wave music. I figured that waving that as my personal flag was my ticket out of being gawky, non-threatening schlemiel Mitchell, and into being…dangerous Mitch.
And the punks of the day exercised a studious disdain for the mainstream of the day. Whatever the mainstream was; from bloated art-rock holdouts like Pink Floyd, to the Album-Rock Top Forty warhorses like Bachman-Turner Overdrive, to the easy-listening pop of Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Brown and Fleetwood Mac, I cultivated a studied hatred of the whole noxious corporate (so I was told) stew that was Seventies music.
Oh, not all of it. I liked Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and Creedence Clearwater, all of whom had the seal of counterculture critical approval, sure (although I liked each before I knew that), but I also liked Boston because I had a blast learning to play their first album on guitar, critics be damned. And I loved Heart because I was a 15 year old guy with a standard-issue set of hormones (and a thing for Nancy Wilson’s fingerpicking style). And as a guitar player and wanna-be showman, I loved Van Halen, and so did everyone else, quit lying.
And throughout high school, I loved loved loved The Who, because Pete Townsend was a vainglorious pseudointellectual arrested-art-school adolescent drama duke, and I was a vainglorious wanna-be pseudointellectual actual-adolescent drama duke.
But, nearly alone in Jamestown North Dakota in the late seventies and early eighties, I sniffed derisively at the mainstream, at BTO and Bad Company and Pink Floyd and Shooter and Head East and REO Speedwagon and Styx and Kansas and Emerson Lake and Palmer and Ted Nugent and Rush, and the R ‘n B and Country Western of the era, and waved the flag for The Clash, the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Dictators, Elvis Costello, the Cars (but only the first two albums), Television, The Police, Gary Numan and the Tubeway Army, the Pretenders, eventually U2 – and some of the more-traditional bands that kept or gained their critical cred during the New Wave; Petty, Springsteen, Bob Seger, Dire Straits, even AC/DC.
I was, in short, a teenage wanna-be hipster douchebag.
And being a wanna-be hipster douchebag with a garage band beat the crap out of being a greasy-haired acne-ridden geek who couldn’t run a fast break without slamming into the opposing team’s bench. As high school identities in rural North Dakota in the late seventies and early eighties went, it was a big step up.
Well, I’m not 15 anymore. And I don’t have to adopt an attitude to throw in peoples’ faces, because when you’re a Republican in Saint Paul, one is a fish swimming in a contrarian sea with no need for artifice.
And a few years back I started listening to some of the music from the Seventies – much of which I’d spent the eighties through the mid-2000s aggressively ignoring in an ever-more-vestigial burst of “too cool for thou” – with a much more open mind.
And I thought I’d write about it a little.
Maybe once a week until I run out of ideas, anyway.