Armagideon Time

In the spring of 1985, my mom and dad took us on a Sunday drive along the Mohawk Trail in western Massachusetts. The trip was one of many we took that year as a way of reestablishing ourselves as a nuclear family during one of the (all-too-brief) stretches where it seemed our home life might have settled into a state of normality.

Being a restless thirteen year old who was unimpressed by sweeping vistas of natural majesty, I brought along a stack of dog-eared Twilight Zone Magazine issues to read during the outing. I burned through the already-familiar good shit before we crossed the I-495 curtain, forcing me to delve into the “boring” parts of the publications. One of these items was a book review column where Tom Disch (I think?) offered up his critical opinions of Stephen King’s Different Seasons, an anthology of novellas published a couple of years prior.

I was particularly fascinated by the part about “The Body,” which was not a horror story but rather a coming of age story about a group of tweener boys in rural Maine during the dawn of the Sixties. I’d never read King before (apart from a couple of pieces published in TZM) or really any horror fiction longer than a short story, but there was something about the write-up that grabbed — and held on to — my normally fleeting attention.

After school on the following day, I rode my bike directly from Kennedy Junior High to the Bradlee’s on Washington Street and dropped three bucks on the paperback edition of Different Seasons. I skipped right to “The Body,” which exceeded my lofty expectations by a country mile. It was a textbook case of encountering the right material at precisely the right moment. The characters, their relationships, and the world they inhabited — hell, everything except the period setting — jibed perfectly with my own experience as part of a group of childhood friends from a hick neighborhood enjoying one last brittsommar before adolescence upended everything.

Not everything lined up perfectly, of course. As much as I wanted to identify with the sad and intelligent Gordie, I probably had more in common with Teddy and his devout worship of an abusive war hero father. My circle had multiple analogues for Chris, though none expressed much in the way of remorse or sensitivity to offset their reputations as delinquents. My buddy Scottie was definitely the Vern of the group, however.

It well and truly spoke to me in a way that I’d never realized fiction could, and shook my perception of what writing can actually accomplish.

I was flipping through a film mag at CVS the following summer when I spotted a brief mention that “The Body” was going to be released as a feature film — retitled Stand By Me — later that year. Part of me was curious about the film, but another part me felt vaguely nauseated by it. My love for the novella burned bright and fierce at a particular moment, but that moment had passed. At that age, a year feels so much longer, and so much had happened since then. My group of pals from the old neighborhood had drifted into different orbits, and whatever poignancy that transition possessed got lost in stronger sentiments of “there but for the grace of God” or “good riddance.” The intensity of my former devotion to “The Body” was replaced with cringe-inducing embarrassment.

My ambivalence towards the film was a moot point, because it received an “R” rating and I was too chickenshit (and awkwardly recognizable) to sneak in to see it. A good percentage of my classmates did, and watching them ape bits from the film only hardened my disdain (for them and the flick).

I did pick up a cassette copy of the soundtrack, although that purchase was motivated by the love for an entirely different movie. The song “Stand by Me” figured prominently in The Flamingo Kid, another Sixties period coming-of-age tale. It got pretty heavy play on cable TV, where it got ample opportunities to register in my impressionable psyche. The film was marketed as part of the Eighties teen movie craze, but was less about titty shots and gross-out gags than about a working class kid trying to figure out “what really matters” while working at a private beach resort.

It was sentimental boilerplate of the TV sitcom variety (Garry Marshall co-wrote and directed it), but it had a solid cast and did a decent job selling the schmaltzy aspects. It was my favorite teen flick of that era, partly because it always seemed to be playing on Cinemax and partly because was so damn charming in the vicariously aspirational way these films strived towards being — romance and friendships and witty dialogue in a nifty summer job and not busting your ass delivering the local paper for chump change while your buddies get ready for D&D night and you blurt out unintelligible syllables at some girl you have a crush on at the mall.

The Flamingo Kid also included a killer selection of early Sixties music that was heavy on R&B and girl group sounds. Along with the Blues Brothers, it was a crucial factor in my embrace of vintage soul and pop material during my mid-teens. I never managed to spot a copy of the film’s official soundtrack in the wild, but it wasn’t any great loss as most of my my favorite tracks didn’t make the cut and what did was bookended by a pair of dire contemporary Big Pop atrocities.

It didn’t even include “Stand by Me” — the real must-have for my ears — thus I obtained the track elsewhere.

The rest of the Stand by Me soundtrack made less of an impression. I’d already begun to settle into a post-British Invasion groove for my retro music thing and the doo-wop and rockabilly stuff was a little too quaint for my tastes. That didn’t stop the tape from getting countless plays in my freshman art class by peers who were besotted with the movie. (I suppose it would’ve been maddening, but the alternative was listening to Club Nouveau’s cover of “Lean on Me” in a loop and thank goodness for small favors.) No fewer than three of the songs were worked into the junior high’s Christmas pageant.

Jump ahead thirty years, where I’m slowly assembling a collection of mutually acceptable platters to spin during the hour after Maura and I get home from work. In contrast to me, Maura is a huge fan of pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll and vocal groups (although I’ve gradually come around to the sound). She mentions that “Whispering Bells” by the Del Vikings is her idea of a perfect song, and I remember it was included on the Stand By Me soundtrack along with “Everyday” by the much beloved-by-her Buddy Holly.

A couple of internet searches and a media mail delivery window later, and the circle was complete.

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  3. Back to Wax #15: Draw blood

2 Responses to “Back to Wax #21: Come go with me”

  1. Chris Wuchte

    I’d forgotten how ubiquitous that soundtrack was. I know my family owned a copy, and I remember the cassette frequently getting plays on high school speech team trips.

    But oldies soundtracks in general had something of a heyday back then. Good Morning, Vietnam… Dirty Dancing a few years later… and I know I’m forgetting some.

    I guess it lasted until the ’90s ushered in the whole “soundtrack consisting of b-sides and covers by alternative bands” trend.

  2. EAG46

    I think enough time has passed….if you can see Stand By Me, go see it. It’s a good film. Don’t let what your peers did to it taint your perspective on it.

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