I have a dish of songs next to me that have coagulated into that one giant chunk of striped hard candy that grandmothers try to palm off onto unsuspecting kids. None of these songs have a full story behind them, but they evoke too strong of memories to dismiss them. So grab your candy lump and get to licking. It tastes pretty good as long you don’t think about how old and stale it is, I promise. (That wasn’t supposed to sound dirty.) (Yes it was.)
“Der Kommisar,” After The Fire. I’ve always preferred this version to Falco’s original, probably because it reminds me of the first months of Sherri’s and my budding romance. Fridays were spent with her little brother and his friends, spinning records and watching crappy movies like Basket Case.
“Every Breath You Take,” The Police. One of the cooks at Hardee’s was a senior named Trip. He was pasty and soft and wore real leather Sperry Topsiders to work, which was unheard of because the fry vats and charcoal grills ruined shoes quickly. He worked rarely, and when he was there he did as little as possible. I never quite understood what he was doing there. When he spoke he sounded like Thurston Howell, III.
Anyway, one afternoon while I was raking the playground sand into a Japanese garden Trip pulled up in his Corvette, radio blasting. He opened the door, swung his Pillsbury legs out and proceeded to change into his Topsiders.
“Hey, do you know what this is?” he yelled.
“No kidding? I’m going to have to pick that up.”
My other solid memory of “Every Breath You Take” is reading Sting’s Penthouse interview, where he noted how funny he found it that his song about dangerous, toxic obsession was considered a love song. Though certainly not my first realization that pop music is capable of great complexity, it is a moment that stuck with me.
And no, I didn’t buy the magazine for the articles, but they were pretty good. Gottfried Helnwein was a regular contributor back then, too — a painter most famous to music crowds for his Scorpions Blackout cover, but a remarkable fine artist. Look him up.
“Runaway,” Bon Jovi. Often for those after hours Hardee’s cleanings I’d bring a boom box. This was a good time to listen to new music, usually borrowed from Sherri’s neighbor. He was an interesting guy. He wore new wave pins on one half of his Member’s Only jacket and heavy metal pins on the other. Aside from music his only other interests seemed to be Legos and drawing. Good kid. I hope I can figure out how to introduce him as a character. (Note: I found out many years after writing this that he committed suicide.)
“Mama,” Genesis. Sherri and I drove her little brother to their church, where their parents were volunteering at an all you can eat spaghetti feed. It was one of those spring evenings in the Piedmont where the sky was clear, the Moon hung big and low, and the humid air felt like a comfortable blanket. I loved being out at night, it didn’t matter why: walking, driving, sitting by the pond near my house. One of my favorite games on a moonless night was to walk a few hundred yards into the woods and turn off my flashlight — absolute blackness and 120 decibels of sinister sounds.
But on that night we were in Sherri’s car when the strange, mechanical opening of “Mama” kicked in. Genesis during the Eighties was a truly schizophrenic animal, always mixing the shittiest pop music with truly interesting work. You’ll find this haunting song about a boy’s obsession with a prostitute on the same album as “Illegal Alien,” for example.
I liked “Mama” a lot, so much so that I couldn’t wait to see Matt. Thanks to his MTV access he was always ahead of me, so I was looking forward to turning him on for a change.
“Hey, man, have you heard that new Genesis song?”
“Oh, man. It’s like a movie. It has this really eerie vibe. Phil Collins sounds like a demon or something. He goes Ha! Ha! Huh! Huh!”
“Oh, you mean ‘Mama’? Sorry, I didn’t know your definition of new is ‘six months old.'”
“Why Me?” Planet P Project. Just a really cool song that was a minor hit and hasn’t fared well in the great pop music filter of time. It’s too odd for a Burger King commercial or to fit on an Eighties compilation between “Karma Chameleon” and “Walking On Sunshine,” but it’s too good to be forgotten. Give it a spin — you’ll enjoy it.
“Major Tom,” Peter Schilling. This song divided the Bowie freaks. The purists were not amused by a heretic treading sacred ground. The rabid fans didn’t really care — they were happy with a new chapter in Major Tom’s story.
Essentially the song is a piece of top forty fan fiction, though over the years Schilling has denied any connection to Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” He’s also confirmed that connection, so there you have it. Like “Mama,” this is a “driving around with Sherri” song without any real story, just a strong auditory memory. Here it is in German, ya?
“Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” Yes. This song for me has an incredibly stupid memory anchor but a very strong one, and when it is triggered I’m guaranteed an earworm.
Lee G. stayed with me one night to help with the after hours cleaning at Hardee’s. He was at the stainless steel sink, scrubbing dishes. I brought a stack of ten or so cookie sheets and placed them on the edge of the sink. They immediately fell crashing and clattering to the floor. The sound echoed through the empty restaurant. Lee G. and I stared at each other, waiting for the last clang. “Na na na na naaaaaa,” I sung.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t the funniest joke ever but it cracked Lee G. up, and now I can’t drop something metallic without triggering “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” And please don’t say “Bodega Bay” or I’ll have “Mah Na Mah Na” stuck in my head for a week.