Seems 1985-86 was the year music took over my life. I remember hearing Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr. and Higher Love by Steve Winwood for the first time. I recall jamming out to Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News. Don’t judge me. The 80s were inescapable if you lived there.
Also, I was five.
But I remember there was one song that started it all. The opening song to the first album I ever truly owned (I think my mom got it for me as a birthday gift). One track, that upon hearing, sped up the blood in my veins, compelled my hips and legs to jerk about, and convinced my five-year-old brain that this was the future. My future. Four minutes and eighteen seconds of pure late-70s R&B fused perfectly with at-the-time cutting edge hard rock.
That song was Beat It by Michael Jackson.
From the opening sirens you could tell that shit was about to kick off.
Then the guitar riff hits you: Bu-bah nuh nuh ne nuh Bu-bahna namp namp!
It was over for me after that. I mean, I could’ve done something with my life. I could’ve been a doctor(okay, maybe not, but I could’ve at least been a dentist). But no, I just had to be a pop star, like Michael. I even “borrowed” one of my female cousin’s white gloves cause it was covered in glitter. If I recall correctly, she was kinda traumatized by the loss. But I think if she knew the level of joy it brought me wearing it, dancing in front of the mirror in my underwear, grabbing my kindergarten crotch and yelling “Ooohh!”, she’d be totally okay with me stealing it.
Of course, as kids grow their tastes change. By the time Bad came out I was seven and had moved on into a very deep James Brown phase, mainly because it seems to attract attention from girls when I would dance and lip-sync to I Feel Good. After that came the dreaded combo of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer in 1990. Then I hit puberty, bought Nirvana’s Nevermind and was unable to listen to anything pre-1992 for awhile. Besides, you couldn’t sincerely listen to a Michael Jackson song in the ironic world of the mid-90’s. Especially if you were a fifteen-year-old guy and the song was called Beat It.
Then the 80s came back. It was years later, long after I got out of my rigid punk rock teenage years and could go back and listen to the songs I enjoyed as a kid without irony or sarcasm, when I went out and bought Thriller again…this time on CD!!! And as I was listening to the opening tune that inspired me all those years ago, the chorus came on:
Yeah, beat it.
“No one wants to be defeeeated!”
Of course not.
“Show me hot fucking strong is your”–
Wait, what? Did he just say “show me hot fucking?” Surely not.
I skipped back. There it is again! I swear to god he just said “show me hot fucking!” This was during the time of the internet, but before the advent of the smartphone, so this profane mystery would have to wait to be solved once I got home.
When I got back I immediately went to lyrics.com. Much to my disappointment, he does not say “show me hot fucking,” but instead he says “show me how funky and strong is your fight,” which makes more sense given the lyrical content of the rest of the song.
But it didn’t matter; the seed was planted, and ever since I’ve been unable to un-hear Michael’s plea to show him steamy scenes of intercourse. It stays with me like a gypsy curse, or whatever the modern day non-offensive equivalent to a gypsy curse is. And just like a curse, I pass it along to others whenever I recount this tale, infecting them with this malapropism I’ve created. And like that VHS tape in The Ring, I pass the curse along to you.
Go ahead. Try listening to that song now and not hearing those words.
Show me hot fucking, MJ. Show me hot fucking indeed.
Most of my earliest memories about music come from riding around with my redneck parents while they blared 80s rock and early 90s pop country in the car. We lived down a gravel road toward the edge of a rural Arkansas town, and my mom loved driving fast in her yellow 1985 Z-28 Camaro with the windows down, music playing as loud as the buzzing speakers could handle while we sang along with John Anderson and Stevie Nicks. If we were out in the pick-up truck I’d be in the middle of the bench seat, my dad next to me in a Harley Davidson t-shirt listening to Joe Walsh or the Georgia Satellites on Rock 103 (which apparently still plays the exact same stuff they did 20 years ago).
Lots of songs from that era have stuck with me, and I have a mental mixtape of vivid audio-visual snippets from this early musical education—Ugly Kid Joe’s “Cats in the Cradle” playing while we drove down a smooth road canopied by huge shade trees; tripping over Stillwater’s “Mindbender” on the back way home from the store during a honeysuckle scented dusk in the summertime; my young momma jamming out to Heart’s “Magic Man” just hard enough to embarrass me a little. But of all the 80s rock or warbly country we listened to, the album that seems to be most unique to my little white trash upbringing is Cher’s “Heart of Stone,” particularly the A-Side. It’s rare that I can bellow one of these songs at someone and have them know what it is, even if they’re otherwise well-schooled on bad radio hits from 1989.
Coming long before the auto-tuned Cher dance hits of the 2000s, the songs on this album have a definite hokey, wounded-but-tough 80s broad vibe that makes me cringe, but at the same time I can’t help but wail along with “Love on a Rooftop” and wonder if my mom still has her fringed black suede jacket somewhere that I can borrow. “You Wouldn’t Know Love” was always one of my favorites because of the non-sensical lyrics, “You could hang your ass from the heavens above, you wouldn’t know love…” but when revisiting the song for this post I realized the lyrics are “If it landed in your hands from the heavens above…” which is actually really disappointing, and if I ever do this song at karaoke you can bet there will be asses hanging from the heavens just like my childhood brain imagined. Now excuse me, I have to go make a CD of the first cheesy 15 seconds of “Emotional Fire” on repeat in case I ever want to get in a dollar store parking lot fight and need background music.
My father once said that I knew just about every word to almost every Beatles song before I started preschool. That did not mean I knew the correct words. As a toddler, I was certain “Nowhere Man” was really “No More Man” and that they were telling me they were “Shaking a Baby… Twist and Shout.” The Beatles remained a serious fixture of my upbringing, not just their music but their feature films, numerous documentaries and biographies. I still remember some of the local commercials cut off in the breaks of the Beatles Anthology mini-series we recorded on VHS in the mid-90s,(and I continued to watch probably at least once a summer until I moved out, choking up at the end every single time), and one preteen summer I went through all of my dad’s Trivial Pursuit cards to memorize all the Beatles questions. (You see, I’ve always been a nerd, ok?) Despite all this, it wasn’t until my late teens when I was reading the book version of the Beatles Anthology that I discovered I’d been mishearing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” my whole life. Bob Dylan reportedly introduced them to marijuana after assuming they were already hip to it because he mistook the lyrics for something like “It’s such a feeling that my love, I get high.” But I had thought the same thing! Except my silly innocent self thought it was like, a wholesome kinda high, like high on LOVE. Not drugs. It still makes more sense to me than “my love, I can’t hide.” Take that, hippies.
Another song worth recalling would be the Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson recording of Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. Legend has it, when I was very young I thought it was rude and that the moms should let their kids be cowboys if they wanted to be cowboys! Listening to it now, I’m not sure how I feel. Maybe I haven’t had enough cowboys in my life to feel either way. As a mom myself, what could I agree with? Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Rock N’ Rollers/Graphic Designers/Zine Writers? Actually, I think I still stand behind the childhood sentiment. Just be nice to others and don’t litter and always use your turn signal ok?
I spent a ton of time with my Grandmother when I was a little boy. I blame her for my obsession with kitschy shit, bad art, and nic-nacs because of all of the thrift shops, junk stores and flea markets that we lurked around in on a constant basis…
My earliest memories of just not being able to stop shaking my hips or toe tapping to my jams were with her. She picked up my first little second hand Fisher Price portable turntable at one those dusty junk dives and with it eventually I had such golden 45 treasures as Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Sha-Na-Nas’ “Pretty little Angel Eyes,” as well as the always fantastic Little Golden Book Records. The first record that I remember playing to death was the original dirty ole rocker Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling.”
In a house where we were not allowed to listen to such giggle inducing kid faves as “Shake your Booty” due to its salacious focus on the “unmentionable” parts that the song repeated a record number of times throughout the chorus or Ram Jams carny classic “Black Betty” for the questionable morals and lifestyle of the subject of the song, I can’t help but feel that my Grandmother knew what she was doing by introducing this record to me with its thinly veiled innuendo laid over a catchy tune that any kid would pick up instantly. I am sure my poor Mom was completely mortified to have her little boy singing “Why won’t you play with my ding-a-ling” in public or god forbid at church. Well played Grandma, well played…
I have never liked birthday parties. Well, I like them more now at 32 than I did at 12, when the idea of a birthday party seemed completely at odds with my idea of fun. My last non-surprise birthday party was when I was about 7 or 8. A bunch of my friends joined me to see The Rock-afire Explosion at ShowBiz Pizza. Social anxiety and the horrifying animatronic robot band combined for a miserable time and I decided to put an end to the exercise. So, I did. For the next couple decades, I stopped celebrating my birthday with friends and I largely avoided going to parties of any kind. However, my prepubescent anti-birthday party stance did not extend to Munchy’s, a local sandwich shop and soda fountain where my friend Matt celebrated his birthday. My likely undiagnosed Social Anxiety Disorder was trumped by my lifelong passion for milkshakes and music. Munchy’s had wonderful strawberry milkshakes and an even better jukebox. I can vividly recall the thrill of looking through the selections on that jukebox and the surge of excitement I felt when picking out a song that would be heard by EVERYONE in Munchy’s. My personal favorite pick was “My Brave Face,” a 1989 minor Paul McCartney single that he apparently wrote with Elvis Costello. I’m not sure what it was about “My Brave Face” that I loved so much. It may have been the instant gratification of a song that jumps right to the title in its intro. It may have been McCartney’s perfect voice. I’m not sure.
Naturally, the Munchy’s jukebox was also full of oldies. “Pretty Woman” was an obvious favorite. So was “La Bamba.” I’ve always found myself drawn to music that’s equally mysterious and silly. For my tiny, developing brain, a song in a language I didn’t understand met both of those criteria. It was the same reason I asked my dad to constantly play a French dancepop cassette he bought from a bargain bin as a joke. I enjoyed singing along with songs with words I couldn’t really understand.
My friend’s Munchy’s birthday party came during the camcorder boon of the late 80s/early 90s. My dad would film me playing basketball with friends, lip-syncing “Born in the USA” into a cordless drill and eating lemon meringue pie at my understated, quiet family parties at home. There was one favorite video to roll out for guests of the Cook family, however. It was the one where I punch a kid at my friend’s Munchy’s birthday party while “La Bamba” plays on the jukebox. My dad claimed he didn’t notice the punch while filming, which is difficult to believe. Either way, he didn’t intervene and it’s all there for anyone to see. While the other kids are dancing to the music, I’m happily scanning the jukebox selections in my teal-and-white striped sweater. One of the partiers (who will remain nameless, but I just looked him up on Facebook and his profile featuring him shirtless reveals that he likes Tosh.0) was a particularly wild kid. He begins jumping on my back and kicking me, which prompts me to ask him to stop. He doesn’t and I punch him. It was the only time I punched anyone as a child and it’s on film. Para bailar La Bamba.