A Secret History, Part I (1975-83)

My friend Rachel has this odd thing for Barry Manilow. Supposedly, her parents played a lot of it for her as a child, and she just hasn’t been able to shake off the strains of “Mandy”, “Copacabana”, and “I Write The Songs” that permeated her formative years.

Rachel’s confession of this slight Manilow fixation was hilarious when we were 19. I teased her about it incessantly, purchasing a vinyl copy of his infamous 1977 live album for 99 cents. On one inebriated night at my apartment, she had asked me to dub Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” onto a cassette tape for her. Impulsive and intoxicated, I took this as an opportunity to also dub her “V.S.M. (Very Strange Medley)” a truly terrifying tidbit from that live Manilow record. It’s a seven-minute medley of commercial jingles that Manilow either wrote or sang on, climaxing grandly with “You Deserve A Break Today”. The horror… the horror…

But even at that time, I understood her fascination with Manilow. The music we’re exposed to in our youth forever follows us, whether we will own up to it or not. My parents had a relatively small collection, heavy on the Barbara Streisand, Burt Bachrach, and later, Al Jarreau. Their tastes were extremely safe, “hip” easy listening with occasional dollops of soft rock and a few Original Cast Recordings (the cover of “Hair” always intrigued and frightened me). Needless to say, the “cool jazz” format that sprung up in the late 80s was made for them, and their copy of War’s “The World Is A Ghetto” sorely stuck out amidst all the Sergio Mendeses.

None of this music stayed with me as indelibly as Manilow did for my friend, but when I unexpectedly fell in love with “Dionne Warwick’s All-Time Greatest Hits” at the age of twenty, I had only my parent’s Bachrach records, and exposure to her renditions of his songs on the radio to blame. In the days before cars had tape and CD players (days that lasted roughly until 1998 for my mother), my parents always listened to the radio. From that first decade of my life, particular songs left an imprint. And as I got older, I rediscovered some of them on my own, hearing them again on the radio as I drove, hearing them as muzak in an Army/Navy surplus store, hearing them on compilation CDs borrowed from the library.

In addition to Dionne’s oeuvre (especially the inimitable woah-woah-woah’s of “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”), these songs all bring me back to sitting in the back seat of our Mercury Monarch, for better or worse.

Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”. A breezy, circular melody, a syncopated electric piano, and that phone ringing after “d-d-d-digital”.

Gerry Rafferty, “Baker Street”. A warm, unforgettable sax solo so good that you just did not need a sung chorus.

Donna Summer, “Hot Stuff”. I loved singing along to this driving paean for sexual fulfillment at the age of five, never expecting that it wasn’t simply a song about lunch.

The Beatles, “Penny Lane”. Still one of my favorites, though for years I thought it was called “Elaine”.

Eddie Rabbitt, “Step By Step”. A counting song! When you’re six years old! How perfect is that?!

Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”. Spent years trying to figure out what the hell this song was about, obviously not being familiar with “The Graduate” or Joe DiMaggio.

Wings, “Silly Love Songs”. Hypnotic bassline, but this was the song that seemed like it would never end.

Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Midnight Train To Georgia”. Always sat in anticipation for the end, when she can’t hold back and screeches, “I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go!”

Billy Joel, “The Piano Man”. Why does the microphone smell like a beer? Why would anyone put bread in his jar?

Any drippy Air Supply hit ballad. Man, without fault, they played one every hour on Mix 99 in the early 80’s.

Also, let us take a moment of silence for “Solid Gold”, “American Bandstand”, “Sha Na Na”, and last and certainly least, “Hee Haw”, all of which gave us a visual counterpart that must look pretty silly now.

There was also a time when I believed that the music heard on the radio was actually being performed, right now!, in a high rise building with one floor devoted to each station. I speculated that Journey must be getting tired of playing “Open Arms” so many times every week.