Here lately, I’ve been seeing things that remind me of my youth. Some of it has to do with re-reading the start I’ve made on my literary memoir, and it was reinforced when I read Gunmetal Black, the novel I reviewed this week. The main character, Eddie Santiago, does several flashbacks that have a connection with the current situation in one way or another, and one of them has to do with a trip from Chicago to New York he took with his father when he was nine or ten years old.
The trip, it turns out, was made because Eddie’s father had stolen a 1972 Camaro Super Sport that was fully customized. Now, if you grew up in the late ’70s/early ’80s like I did, then you’re familiar with Camaros and Trans Ams. They were the dream car of so many back in those days, and having a tricked out one with flames, chrome wheels and a good stereo was something you probably dreamed about at night.
In this particular case, what sealed the nostalgia deal for me was when Eddie says there was one 8-track tape in the car: Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.
Man. I can think of only one other seminal album from the ’70s that would evoke the same feelings of nostalgia for me: Hotel California by The Eagles.
Music plays a large part in Gunmetal Black, though most of it is salsa and related Latino music, a genre I’m not that familiar with. But when he mentioned Rumours, and especially when he talked about it being an 8-track, wow did that spark memories.
My friends and I had a Sharp (I think that was the brand) portable 8-track player that saw a lot of use. It had a radio on it as well, but it played a lot of tapes for us. I was heavy into Styx back then, and The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight got a lot of playing, followed by Cornerstone, the album with “Babe” on it.
For those of you unfamiliar with 8-tracks, they had four programs on them, as they were called, and the songs were divided among those four programs. To make the album fit on the tape, sometimes a song go cut in half. See, those old players had to shift between programs, a little like the silence between songs but more pronounced. All the players I ever saw had a loud, distinctive click they made when they switched programs.
Well, Styx—or maybe it was their label, A&M—had a hallmark on their 8-tracks: each program was exactly the same length. That meant there was always a song cut in half. The way this would happen—again for the uninitiated who want to understand this antiquated technology—was that the song would fade away in volume. Then you’d hear that loud click and the song would fade back up. For years, that’s how I heard a lot of Styx songs: with that fade away and click in the middle. It wasn’t too bad, since I also had these albums as records to play at home.
Another one we wore out was Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, as well as Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke. Man, we had that thing memorized, and I can’t listen to War’s “Low Rider” without remembering those days.
Band on the Run by Paul McCartney and Wings got played a lot, as did Queen’s The Game, News of the World and the Flash Gordon soundtrack (whatever happened to that movie, man?). Steve Martin’s Comedy is Not Pretty made us laugh, as did several of Richard Pryor’s albums. The chief one was called simply Richard Pryor Live, if I remember right. I know it was a double-album.
Oh, man. Double-albums. Who out there remembers those? Gatefold covers. I miss album packaging. Bands were so creative with them. The lyrics were usually on the dust cover inside, or on the back cover, depending. But the size was perfect for awesome artwork. Some good examples are Asia’s album covers from the ’80s with artwork by Richard Dean (if I remember his first name right). Hotel California with that memorable sunset picture on the cover. Then you opened it up—it was a gatefold album cover—and there were the Eagles standing in the lobby of the hotel. They had the instrument cases stacked on the floor around them, and other patrons moved around them. Up on the second-floor balcony is an out-of-focus picture of Anton LaVey, or so I’ve heard, the found of the Church of Satan. I’ve heard Don Henley was into Satanism at the time and wanted Anton in their somewhere. It’s also been said that the song “Hotel California” is about an old hotel LaVey took over and converted to the Church of Satan. I’ve never researched it to see.
Hmm. Maybe I should check it out on Wikipedia.
There was another band that never made it really big, but they had the coolest album covers. The band was called Starcastle, and all their covers—at least the ones I saw—were paintings by The Brothers Hildebrandt, the same artists responsible for the iconic Star Wars movie poster with Luke holding the lightsaber straight up and Darth Vader’s presence looming large in the sky behind him. They were big fantasy artists—they did the original cover and interior artwork for the hardcover of The Sword of Shannara—and did the Tolkien Calendar for several years. I remember owning a book of their work that I ordered from the Science Fiction Book Club. I’d love to have another copy of that one. I spent hours looking through it. Talk about bringing back memories.
Lots of things can trigger these memories. I watch Miami Vice as much for the nostalgia value as for the show itself. They featured so much iconic ’80s music in that show that, even if you don’t like the series itself, you’re bound to hear a song that’ll bring back memories.
Then there are objects: old lunchboxes you took to school, maybe seeing/hearing the intro to Happy Days or Waylon Jennings singing the theme song to The Dukes of Hazzard. And who could forget that weird synthesized sound you heard every time Steve Austin used his bionics on The Six-Million Dollar Man? I’ve always intended to read the original novel that inspired that series. It’s called Cyborg, and it’s written by Martin Caidin (I hope I spelled that right.)
And who could forget the Mad Max movies? Or Blade Runner, with Harrison Ford in the lead role and the soundtrack by Vangelis?
Yeah, it’s the old story: the older we get, the more we pine for the days of our youth. There are times when I’d like to go back to the ’80s so bad I can taste it. I’d like, in some ways, to get away from cell phones and computers, the Internet and writing a blog, all that. Yeah, it’s the stuff of the future. I can remember watching Crockett and Tubbs using those car phones on Miami Vice and thinking how neat that was. Now I can carry one in my pocket that makes them things look like two cans with string between them. They were radio phones—they just used regular radio waves to link up with landlines.
In twenty years, I’ll look back on today with nostalgia.
I don’t think there’s any nostalgia as alluring as that of our youth, though. Most people talk about it, yearn to return to it. Even the ones who claimed they had to walk five miles to school—uphill both ways—in the snow. Our youth was always a simpler time and, let’s face it, the reason for that is that we were so naïve—most of us, anyway—to know better. We gloss over all the negative stuff, like waiting days or weeks to hear from somebody who lived far away because we had to send a letter through the mail instead of emailing them. Yeah, that’s a very minor case, but it illustrates what I’m talking about.
But, hey, so what, right? I mean, what’s that compared to looking through the latest Spider-Man comic and wanting to order those X-ray glasses? Or buying the flying disc in the ad right next to it? Reading the Marvel Bullpen and seeing what else was out right then. What was Captain America doing? What about The Hulk? Or the X-Men?
Forgot him, didn’t you? The chemically-made vampire.
The longer you think about it, the more things you remember. And, as writers, I think that can be a good thing. One of the things I’ve mentioned I’d like to do is write a story that takes place in the ’80s and involves the stuff you see on Miami Vice or in Scarface: the drug deals in abandoned warehouse parking lots, that kind of thing. “You got the cash?” “Yeah, you got the product?” And out come the silver Halliburton briefcases, one with two or three keys of blow, the other full of cash. Money for goods. The basic premise of business, even if it’s illegitimate.
Can I capture that ’80s atmosphere, though? How do you do that, exactly? It’s something I’ve been mulling over for at least a year now, at least in all seriousness. I’ve thought about it off and on every time I think of It by Stephen King (as well as his novella “The Body”), where he captures the ’50s so well. Could I do that with the ’70s and ’80s? I don’t know.
But even if I don’t, the nostalgia’s fun, isn’t it?
Hey, wanna Have a Coke and A Smile and listen to Rumours with me? Then maybe we’ll turn on the TV and watch Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.
Hey, hey, hey!