As a budding cynic in the 1970s, I remember sneering gleefully at those who listened to “the oldies.” I couldn’t grasp why anyone would want to listen to any of that musty crap from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Hadn’t these geezers heard those songs over and over and over? Wouldn’t sheer boredom or a modicum of interest in what’s hip and contemporary motivate them to embrace the music of the day? Evidently not. The musically imprisoned were a mystery to me, particularly when they listened to the oldies on the radio in the company of others, broadcasting their embarrassingly outdated tastes to everyone in the room.
What a difference 30-odd years make. Now I am the one whose favorite music—’70s arena rock—is officially “the oldies” (making anything before 1970 “music of the ancient ones,” I suppose.) But I am not ashamed. What I was too naive to appreciate as a child, I now have enough wisdom to understand: There’s no replacement for the music of one’s youth. In my case, that includes some of what I consider to be the best (think Jackson Browne) and worst (think anything disco) pop and rock music of all time. We don’t choose the decade of our birth, but even if we could, I’d still proudly choose to come of age in that gloriously stack-heeled, bell-bottomed, mullet-headed decade with my BIC lighter held high.
Whenever my family crammed into our beige Volkswagen Bug, the first thing we did after ignition was turn the radio on, the dial typically set to WSAI-AM, and sometimes to WEBN. Fortunately for me, my parents were young enough to appreciate most of what contemporary music had to offer. And what a broad offering it was: from “The Streak,” Ray Stevens’s campy homage to running naked in public, to Led Zeppelin’s titanic rock classic “Stairway to Heaven.” While I have no scientifically acoustic proof to back me up, I do have a layman’s theory that ’70s music sounded better inside a VW bug, the iconic car of the era, in much the same way that classical music must sound better in a Bentley. Not that I would know.
Even when my family wasn’t in the car, the music never really stopped. We listened to records or the radio before and after school, and a portable radio accompanied us to all family outings, whether a barbecue in the backyard or a picnic at Mt. Echo Park. Even when my father and I went jogging together—I ran on my elementary and high school cross-country teams—he carried a small battery-powered radio. As we jogged side-by-side around Price Hill, Covedale, and Delhi, the beat set by bands like Chicago, Boston, and Kansas urged our tired legs along. When you grow up listening to so much pop music, this background soundtrack will eventually synch up with what’s actually happening at any particular moment. Like when I was out running with my dad, and “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme song from Rocky, would come on. Dad would turn up the volume, leaving us with no choice but to pick up the pace. Sometimes one of us would run to the top of some stranger’s front steps and raise our arms triumphantly above our head, jogging in place, just like Rocky atop the stairs in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. No one seemed to think this was anything but perfectly normal.
There were many occasions when music and life aligned perfectly, even heartbreakingly, as it did the summer before my freshman year in high school. Long story short, I made the mistake of making out with a girl I’ll call Carol. What’s so bad about that? 1) Carol wasn’t my steady girlfriend; her name was Mary Ann. 2) Carol and I were sucking face on her (well-lit) front porch. 3) A friend of Mary Ann’s passed by, spotted my teenage-hormone-induced infraction, and ratted me out. The next day, which happened to be the Fourth of July, I was unceremoniously dumped like a wet firecracker. That night, when my family went to view fireworks at a nearby park, I opted to stay home. I sat in my bedroom listening to the radio, contemplating something new to me: a broken heart. Which stung, even if it was of my own doing. I kept my composure until Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” came on and I had to listen to lead singer Brad Delp emote my exact sentiments: “It’s more than a feeling when I hear that old song they used to play…/ I begin dreaming…/ I see my Marianne walking away.”
My Mary Ann did walk away, and, following the advice of another Boston song, never looked back, either. I think about Mary Ann (and truth be told, Carol) whenever I hear a Boston song. And I hear a lot of Boston. That’s because I have all their songs on my iPod, and my favorite XM/Sirius channel is—do I really need to tell you?—No. 7: all ’70s, all the time.
One of my favorite features on that channel is the way they replay random editions of Casey Kasem’s weekly program American Top 40. You had to have been pretty hard-hearted, in my maudlin estimation, to not be captivated by Casey’s “Long Distance Dedication.” Each week he would read some sappy letter from a listener separated from a loved one because of military duty or a family’s abrupt move across the country, and then he would play a sad-sack song, such as Dave Loggins’s “Please Come to Boston.” I held out inexplicable hope that one week the “Long Distance Dedication” would come from some foxy chick trying to get my attention, even though I didn’t know any chicks, foxy or otherwise, beyond the boundaries of the west side of Cincinnati. But the music kept me hoping—and playing what I can now describe as an early version of Guitar Hero. I would hold my mother’s broom like a guitar and jam on the bristles to “Jet” by Paul McCartney & Wings and other favorites from my collection of 45s. Pretending to be one of the greatest pop music stars of all time was an excellent alternative to homework—or to actually using that broom for its intended purpose.
I HAVE OBSERVED that most mainstream pop bands go through a natural evolution that can easily be charted according to where they appear on television. Think about this: Teenybopper bands start out on the Disney Channel. Most don’t make it beyond the Tiger Beat stage, of course, but the few who do (think Jonas Brothers) then graduate to MTV, where yet more bands fall by the wayside. Those who survive this stage eventually mature and move on to VH1 (think Fleetwood Mac). Then, if a band has really stood the test of time (think Peter, Paul & Mary) they graduate to PBS (Austin City Limits excluded), where their taped concerts are broadcast, typically during fund-raising week, to people old enough to have the disposable income to make a pledge. (Hey, you’re not going to get much from the Nickelback crowd, at least not this decade.)
My musical interests still mostly fall in the VH1 span of the pop mainstream, but I’ve known for some time that the day would arrive when one of my favorite ’70s groups would make their Public Television appearance. And lo, it came to pass. Not too long ago I stumbled upon a Styx concert on PBS. They performed all their hits, including the god-awful but impossible-to-get-out-of-your head “Babe” and the synthesizers-gone-mad “Come Sail Away.” When you’re getting you’re rock-and-roll fix from PBS, you’re a certified oldster. And when you pay good money to see one of these acts perform live, as I did in November when one of my Top Five ’70s bands, the Eagles, flew into town, you know you’re not long for Medicare. Still, I gladly plopped down $400 so my wife Angie and I could enjoy the show from the floor, just seven rows back from Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, and Timothy B. Schmit.
When Angie and I arrived at U.S. Bank Arena about 30 minutes before show time, the crowd appeared even older than I had anticipated. At 45, I was clearly one of the youngest in attendance (discounting those kids who appeared to have been dragged to the show against their will). When I stepped into the bathroom before taking my seat, I noticed that the guy standing ahead of me was using a cane. For a moment I thought I’d mistakenly shown up at a Frankie Valli concert.
The Eagles took the stage shortly after the advertised start time of 8 p.m. There was no opening act. I joked with Angie that the band and its fans would all be asleep by 10, so there was no time for another band to perform. (In the band’s defense, they played for three hours, with only one brief intermission.) The lights dimmed, and the Eagles walked out, wearing matching black suits, white shirts, and black ties and opened with “How Long” from their new album. They looked a bit, well, bored, but they sounded absolutely terrific. Glen Frey welcomed everyone to “The Eagles’ Assisted Living Tour.” That drew a big laugh from the crowd, and made me feel better about being a part of this collective trip down memory lane. If you can laugh at yourself, you’re still young where it counts.
The band did not disappoint those of us—that is, virtually everyone—waiting to hear the songs from our younger days. Among the Pleistocene hits they played were “Take It Easy,” “Witchy Woman,” and “Hotel California.” Don Henley closed out the show with, in my estimation, one of the best rock ballads of all time: “Desperado.” It’s amazing how music can tap long dormant regions of the brain. Hearing these songs brought back a tsunami of lost memories: dancing with Marilyn Lynch at her junior prom; driving with my best friend, J.C., to Hueston Woods State Park for weekends of camping and (underage) drinking of Boone’s Farm wine; attending “Little Sibs” weekends at Miami University. It was as if, in one night, numerous versions of me existed simultaneously.
On the way home, listening to Eagles tunes and reminiscing, I thought of the poem “Car Radio” by Jeffrey Harrison, a Cincinnati native, in which the narrator flips from station to station encountering the music of his youth:
…Pop oldies and
what they now call Classic Rock transport you
to high school dances in gyms and hotels,
rock concerts in hockey rinks, summer camp,
even the monkey bars on the playground.
Harrison continues in this vein, capturing the power that music has over the mind. In the end, he chooses to listen to jazz because it:
…brings you back
to the present, to clouds streaking the blue sky
and a flock of starlings rising up and turning
all at once in flight like notes in harmony
or all those selves inside you coming together.
Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki
Originally published in the January 2009 issue.