I know where I need to go, but I’m not sure how to get there, so I’m going to sit down with a glass of wine and try to set the stage for some complicated social problems that would occur in just a few short months.
If you had asked me back when I was fourteen if I liked music, I may very well have said, “No.” I can vaguely remember liking music as a child and I would learn to like it again in college, but my high school years were something of a musical wasteland. Furthermore, music wasn’t about music for my peers. It was a complicated declaration of social alignments and identification. We had entered the years of “Disco Sucks.”
Like a lot of middle-aged people, I’ve become a little out of touch with the current trends in music and totally out of touch with any social scenes that are attached to them. Still, when I glance around me, I don’t see anything that is accompanied by the vitriol that accompanied the rise and fall of disco. Our white ethnic, lower-middle-class town was the territory of “rock.” Not rock-n-roll, and most certainly not r-n-b. Rock, white boy music in active denial of its origins. A beat that was even vaguely danceable was banned. Despite the girl I’d met over the summer, punk was something happening in another country and I wouldn’t see hide nor hair of it again for another couple of years. It’s only in retrospect that I can look back and see how narrow my exposure to popular music was. Journey, Boston, Rush, Foreigner, Kansas. These bands still leave me cold today. Yes, Genesis, ELP, Jethro Tull. Musical choices were highly limited. I liked my father’s old swing records more.
This particular teenage subculture went with a style, and I have to say it was far more gender neutral that it is easy to imagine in our current climate of exaggerated gender differentiation in fashion. A pair of jeans, a waffle weave “thermal shirt” with an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt over it, a pair of sneakers or work boots. It was virtually a uniform.
My new friend S had friends of her own, three girls who dressed in exactly this manner. It’s tempting to refer to them as tough girls, but how tough can you be at thirteen? Two of them had boyfriends who lived in the next town over. The boys would ride over on their bicycles, we’d sit around M’s living room and play records and just “hang out.”
One day, shortly after the boys had gone, M looked out the window after them. “Okay, they’re gone. Let’s go to my room.” In M’s bedroom, we stood around while she bent down and reached under the bed. She pulled out Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall like it was a secret vice. And here I was worried that it was going to be marijuana.
S’s secret vice was Bruce Springsteen. Bruce occupied a neutral zone in the battle between pop music and hard rock. He was most certainly a working class white kid from New Jersey, and that was a plus. However, he wasn’t hard rock. Somehow, he was regarded as just a bit lowbrow compared to the overblown art rock that held the most respect among the teenagers in our town. My sister was another devotee of the Boss and we had in our basement all the records he had recorded up until that time. S and I would go down to the basement. Her favorite was Greetings from Asbury Park. She’d sing along and dance around, acting out the stories. I can still see her now, miming flipping her collar up as she sang, “I could walk like Brando right into the sun,” then she’d take a step forward jutting out her bony preadolescent hip. “And dance just like a Casanova.” We were on opposite sides of that divide. If I had a body that looked like a young woman’s, S still looked like a child. She bemoaned many times that she hadn’t yet started to menstruate. “Really, don’t be in a hurry,” I’d tell her. “It’s kind of a drag, if you want to know.”
S’s parents were immigrants from China and by far the most strict. They liked me. I got good grades and if S said she was with me, they would let her stay out longer than they would if she was with anyone else. My parents were teachers and telling her own parents that mine said it was okay worked like magic to get approval for almost any outing. However, S’s parents didn’t approve of the other girls quite as much and more and more I found myself hanging out with M, SY, P and those boys from the next town over.