How songs connect us to memory

I was never a huge fan of Richard Marx. (I never actively disliked his music, either. I just wasn’t a raving fan.) 

But boy, the summer of 1987 was his moment. That summer, I spent a lot of time in my car, listening to FM radio, and this Richard Marx song was on the radio endlessly

When I hear it now, I’m instantly transported back to that time and place. That hot, fun summer. I was nineteen years old.

Songs often ground us to particular moments in our past–sometimes even songs that we didn’t necessarily love at the time, but nevertheless heard a lot.  

Children’s songs and the culture police

Writing in the Gen subsection of, progressive finger-wagger Dr. Katya Ermolaeva bemoans “blackface minstrel songs” like “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as racist

“The removal of racist songs from school music programs is long overdue,” Dr. Ermolaeva goes on to declare. “The Camptown Races” is turning white American children into aspiring Nazis and Klansmen, apparently. The argument seems to be that at one point (in the 1800s) some of these songs may have been employed by minstrel singers. 

This is part of a larger progressive project to go over our culture with a fine-tooth comb, and look for pretexts for offense. Their method is to constantly ratchet up the bar of sensitivity, so that you can never really be sure if you’re in violation of their latest cultural diktats.

This isn’t limited to children’s music. Earlier this year, Nike nixed the planned release of a Betsy Ross shoe because Colin Kaepernick denounced the Betsy Ross flag  as (you guessed it) racist. That same flag appeared at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

The “wokeness” of the privileged on display

In almost every case, kerfuffles like this are more about virtue-signaling “wokeness” than any material harm done to African Americans, or anyone else. This sort of cultural nitpicking is invariably the concern of the privileged. Dr. Ermolaeva is a white music educator. Colin Kaepernick is wealthy NFL player. 

Obviously, no one is oppressed by the Betsy Ross Flag. No one is oppressed by “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, either. 

Intention and context

When judging whether or not something is “racist”, intention and context count.

If someone is standing on the corner waving a Confederate flag and shouting racist slogans, then clearly there are racist intentions behind the Confederate flag. The flag is being displayed in a racist context.

If the Confederate flag appears on the cover of a book about the Civil War, however, then the intentions probably aren’t racist. Nor is the context.

(Speaking of context: “Jimmy Crack Corn” is a slave’s cryptic celebration of the master’s death. It can arguably be construed as a song of liberation, of striking back at the oppressor.)

But those concerns are for ideological adults–not children. I remember singing most of the songs Ermolaeva condemns in kindergarten, or during my early primary school years. They were just songs, and there was nothing racial about the context in which they were performed.

The end game of the culture police

Leftwing ideologues like Ermolaeva and Kaepernick aren’t concerned with intention and context. The immediate goal of these self-appointed culture nannies is to ding you on a technicality. They want you to be constantly on edge, to constantly wonder if you’re being racist, or sexist, or ableist, or homophobic, or whatever.

And guess who will be the judge of that? They will. Their ultimate goal is to subject every aspect of our culture and history to a revolutionary dialectic.  

There is something oddly Soviet about their methods. (Ermolaeva, I might note, specializes in Soviet music; and Kaepernick has expressed admiration for Castroite Cuba. )  As was the case in Soviet Russia, in their universe, everything is political–even “Jimmy Crack Corn”.

Just say: NO

We need to tell them that we’re having none of it. Tell them “NO”, clearly and firmly. And without shame.  Do not apologize. 

Or, as the refrain goes, “Jimmy crack corn, and I don’t care.”

Ric Ocasek 1944-2019

Ric Ocasek, the lead singer of The Cars, has died. 

Anyone who remembers the early 1980s remembers Ric Ocasek. He was a mainstay on FM radio in those days, the voice behind “Shake it Up” and “Since You’re Gone”. 

When MTV came along in 1982, Ocasek’s visage became well known, too. Those sunglasses.

Ocasek was an unlikely rock star: a too-thin, gawky fellow with a pointy nose and a prominent Adam’s apple. Ocasek was nevertheless a man older than my father, who was married to a supermodel about my age. 

He also proved that you don’t need movie-star good looks to be a successful rock star. The Cars were enormously popular throughout the Reagan decade, with Ric Ocasek as their frontman.

The Cars were never my favorite band. But their music was always there, and it was always pleasant. A feel-good sound from a now vanished, better era.

At the time of this writing, the details of Ocasek’s death are unclear. He was seventy-five years old, and an ex-rock star, so…well, we just don’t know.

Ric Ocasek, 75, R.I.P. 

Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’

In honor of the approaching Halloween holiday, and the 1980s (two of my favorite areas of culture), I present Michael Jackson’s old music video, Thriller

Thriller was released in December 1983 on MTV. Watch the thing, and you’ll see that it is really more of a short film than a traditional music video. Many music videos of the golden age of MTV told little stories, but Michael Jackson’s Thriller set a new standard.

This is an example of what is possible in the realm of short-form storytelling. In a little less than fourteen minutes, Thriller tells several nested stories, and casts a spell on the viewer.

As with most any cultural artifact more than a decade old, it is tempting to look at Thriller with a jaundiced eye, and describe it as campy, trite, and overrated. 

Those arguments are yours to make. I prefer to see this as an interesting artifact from a time when creative artists were still more interested in creativity than mouthing off about politics. Thriller is also a relic of a time when the late Michael Jackson was relatively “normal”—an era when his more extreme eccentricities were either subdued, or not yet metastasized. 

Oh, and this is also a video from a time when MTV was much, much better. You kids today, you don’t know what you missed out on…in so many aspects of our culture. 

Rush retrospective

45 years ago, ‘unknown band’ Rush played Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena

I haven’t been a Rush fan for 45 years–not quite. (I was only 6 years old in 1974.) But I’ve easily been a Rush fan for 35 years–since the early 1980s.

Although Rush is now retired, I still enjoy the band’s music. 

From the ‘Moving Pictures’ album (1981)

Song of the day: “The Spirit of Radio”

A Rush song for Rush fanatics and non-fanatics alike.

You can’t beat Rush. This song is the most popular track from the band’s Permanent Waves album (1980).

Many Rush songs are less than radio-friendly. This one is the perfect length for radio play. It’s also fun, and upbeat and (unlike some Rush songs) instantly accessible. 

A personal note here: I took guitar lessons in the early 1980s, and I did learn how to play the guitar portion of this song on my old Peavy electric guitar. 

The Who in 2019

One of my Facebook friends (a former high school classmate) recently posted a photo of herself and her husband at a Who concert.

When you think about it, there is a certain irony there. The Who formed in London in 1964. That was when Lyndon Baines Johnson was President of the United States, and the U.S. had not yet fully committed to the Vietnam War. 

The irony of all this was not lost on my friend, who noted:

“Attending a concert where the band has been around longer than I’ve been alive.”

My classmate, I should note (just like yours truly) is now fifty-one years old. We were born in 1968. So The Who had already been a going concern for about four years when we were born.

And the band is still doing live concerts. Wow.

The Who was never one of my favorite bands, but they were always on my radar. Another irony here: By the time I started high school—way back in the early 1980s—the band’s real heyday was already behind it. The Who’s tenth studio album, It’s Hard, appeared in September 1982, in the fall of my freshman year. Whenever I hear the song “Athena”, I’m instantly transported back to that time. 

I like a lot of individual Who songs. But my hands-down favorite is from the album Face Dances: “You Better You Bet”.

Enjoy the video below, and consider picking up the whole album, if you’re so inclined.

The best rock albums of the 1980s (Ed’s list)

Oh, like this one won’t cause any controversy…I would be better off writing another political post if I wanted to avoid hate mail.

I was very much into rock music during the 1980s (especially the first half of the decade). I turned twelve in 1980, so you might as well say that the 1980s were my “coming-of-age years”. And it is during this time that we are most into youth culture—especially music.

The list that follows is unabashedly and unapologetically a personal list.

I don’t think you’ll find any albums here that are too far off the beaten path. Even if they’re forgotten today (though some of them aren’t) they all had significant followings at the time.

That said, I’ve left off some albums that were popular, but not for me.

For example, you won’t find any Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, or Michael Jackson on the list below. I had nothing against these artists (and I liked a few of their songs) but I was never one of their fans.

Oh, one other thing: I did not include any “greatest hits” or live albums on this list. I wanted to focus on music that was being heard for the first time between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1989.

Escape (Journey): Yes, I know: There is nothing especially original about this choice. Released in 1981, this album continues to have a footprint in the 21st century. “Don’t Stop Believing” was featured in the final scene of The Sopranos. I heard the song in a recent episode of MacGyver, too.

Foreigner 4: This is the only truly memorable album Foreigner ever put out, in terms of every song being a good one. But they hit a home run with Foreigner 4.

Back in Black (AC/DC): This album came out in December 1980. I still hear the title track in my mind sometimes at the most unexpected moments.

This is a great album to play when you’re working out!

For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) (AC/DC): A year after Back in Black, another great album from those Australian guys.

Third Stage (Boston): Boston spent most of the 1980s on hiatus. Third Stage came out in the summer of 1986, and the songs were on the radio constantly throughout the rest of that year.

There were many good ones—especially “Amanda”.

1984 (Van Halen): The year 1984 was significant because of the association with George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel set in that year.

Van Halen released 1984 early in 1984.

I especially liked “Jump” and “Hot for Teacher”. (I am guessing that the latter song would be considered politically incorrect, or triggering—or something—in these more sensitive times.)

5150 (Van Halen): This was the first Van Halen album with Sammy Hagar in the lead vocal role (instead of David Lee Roth).

Perhaps because of that, 5150 had a different vibe from previous Van Halen albums. More polished…and kind of mystic.

Does anyone know what the lyrics of “Love Walks In” mean? I’ve been wondering about that one for more than 30 years.

Reckless (Bryan Adams): There were a lot of great songs on this one. But it would make the list for “Summer of ’69” alone.

Scarecrow (John Mellencamp): From back in the days when John Mellencamp focused on making great music, and kept his political views to himself.

Permanent Vacation (Aerosmith): At the beginning of the 1980s, everyone thought that this band had left their best days behind them. They proved everyone wrong with this album in 1987. Aerosmith is still going strong today.

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Moving Pictures (Rush): “Tom Sawyer”, “Limelight” and “Red Barchetta” are among the great songs on Moving Pictures.

Signals (Rush): “Subdivisions”, “New World Man” and “Losing It” were among the songs that showcased Neil Peart’s lyrical skills—which were then at their peak (1982). Also, this is probably the only rock album in history that features a song about the space shuttle launch!

Piece of Mind (Iron Maiden): Dark and deep, but still very accessible, this is my favorite Iron Maiden album…and I like most of them.

Eliminator (ZZ Top): Some great MTV videos came out of this album..back when MTV still played music videos, that is.

Pyromania (Def Leppard): One of my all-time favorites, still sounds good after more than 35 years. The album that put Def Leppard on the map.

Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits): I like the politically incorrect, uncensored version of “Money for Nothing”…though it’s hard to find nowadays. Oh, how the finger-wagging do-gooders have ruined popular culture.

Invisible Touch (Genesis): The only Genesis album I ever really liked. But I liked this one.

This is my list. Which albums do you remember fondly from the 1980s (or wish you remembered fondly, if you weren’t around then)? Let me know on Facebook.

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Stairway to Heaven: the ‘Heart’ version

I was poking around on YouTube and I found this cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven’ by Heart–a band I remember fondly from the 1980s.

I’ll admit when I clicked on this, I had my doubts: I mean, Heart…’Stairway to Heaven’?…Really?

To my surprise, however, Heart might actually have improved on the original. (Yes, I know this will seem like pure blasphemy to some of you. But give it a listen before you judge.)

The meaning…if there is one…of the lyrics of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ have been debated for years. I won’t delve into the occult controversy for now. Suffice it to say that the lyrics of this song sounded a lot more profound to me thirty-five years ago, when I heard them at the age of fifteen.  But a lot of things aren’t as good or as deep as we remember them, thirty or forty years later.

‘Stairway to Heaven’ is still a great song, part of the soundtrack of my (and many other people’s) youth. I’ll always like it.