For all the time spent showcasing the scars of past psychic traumas here, I still tread lightly when it comes to the “High Eighties” period. That block of time — roughly spanning 1984 to 1988 — is such a tangle of regret, embarrassment, and pain that anything associated with it dredges up muck better left undisturbed.
They were my junior high years, which would’ve been agonizing enough without all the extra flourishes thrown in my direction. My family moved from North Woburn to the center of the city. The spacious new digs were a welcome upgrade from a crowded two-room apartment, but it also brought home how much my childhood circle of friends had drifted apart. Though the move seemed like it would alleviate some of the pressures on my already dysfunctional family unit, the respite was short-lived and followed by an escalating downward spiral of deterioration.
On top of all this, I was trying (and mostly failing) to get a handle on my raging adolescent hormones and struggling with what in hindsight was a minor nervous breakdown brought on by crippling anxieties over an imminent-to-my-eyes nuclear holocaust. To cope with all this, I leaned heavily into geeky escapist tendencies that only amplified my sense of alienation. I futzed and fumbled through those years with little in the way of self-awareness or personal restraint, leaving a wide trail of debris in my wake.
It was awful and I knew it was awful, but I couldn’t help myself. It’s why I consciously decided to seal that part of my past off, behind my mother’s death, behind punk rock, behind a reflexive disdain for anything that remotely evoked those memories. Very select bits and pieces of it were allowed to remain in my ever-shifting personal narrative, but the bulk of the memories remained walled up in a psychic quarantine zone.
The cordon held for the better part of three decades, with the first breaches only opening in the past few years or so. Maybe it’s because I was forced to confront it when working on the series of RPG posts. Maybe it was a natural reaction to sifting through physical artifacts of those times while cleaning out my late grandmother’s house. Or maybe I’m just getting old and realize that the shame actually does have a half-life.
I wouldn’t call it nostalgia, but an ongoing process of re-evaluation. It’s hard to romanticize when even the few cherished blossoms sport vicious barbs beneath the petals. There’s very little sweet in the lot without a stiff dose of the sour thrown in for good measure.
This tragic case of after the fact introspection has also begun to manifest in my record collection. I’d already reclaimed specific Sixties soul and pop releases from my wayward youth, where the quality of the material transcended any unpleasant memories it might have evoked. Approaching more contemporary stuff was a trickier business, fraught with questions such as “do I really want to listen to this” or “will Maura think any less of me for admitting I kinda like this thing?”
Before I slipped away before anything resembling a social circle, before I stopped paying attention to the current Top 40 and went all in on the sounds of two decades before, my musical tastes were shaped by Top 40 radio and music video programming local broadcasters threw together in hopes of nabbing a little of that sweet MTV action.
There was no tribal sense of a “sound” or “scene” involved (though I did semi-incline towards hard rock and pop metal, thanks to my North Woburn upbringing). It was entirely predicated on videogenic allure and whatever slotted into my current flavor of adolescent sentimentality –
– and nothing exemplified this quite like “Lights Out” by Peter Wolf, in which the former J. Geils frontman goes solo and sounds even more like his old band that he did when he was with them.
The song is pure MOR party rock, extruded and polished to an acceptably scruffy sheen. It’s uptempo enough to keep the toes tapping but with enough melancholy schmaltz to close out a DJ’s middle school dance set. In other words, just the sort of song an emotionally addled thirteen year old would latch onto as he looked up from his pile of Deathlok comics and wondered if there was someone out there for him, somewhere. (It turned out she lived two towns over, was three years older than him, and was listening to Siouxsie and the Sex Pistols at the time.)
The entire thing is cheesy to the core. When I spun the single for the first time last week, I had face-flushing flashbacks about borrowing my famous junior high dance moves from Wolf’s white hipster gyrations in the video.
But I still love the damn song. God have pity on my soul.