I did not like Donna Summer’s music. And I loved it. This is one of the contradictions of my childhood. There were many.
I did not like Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Like it? How could anyone like it? The wind whipped in off the lake and made summer evenings in July feel like that fruits and vegetables room at Costco, and winter afternoons in December feel like Stalingrad. The view from every seat, every single seat, was blocked by a metal beam — it was an architectural marvel in that way, the ballpark equivalent of that pool table where no matter where you aim the cue ball it ends up in the same place. The floor was covered in some kind of remarkable and ambiguous tacky substance that I’m entirely sure was later patented and used for the Sticky Buddy. Asbestos seemed to be leaking out of the walls, there were exposed wires everywhere, the place smelled of the kind of gasoline beer that could get you drunk if you were within a 500-foot radius. My father, of course, would buy the cheapest tickets available, which meant that even though there were countless empty seats in front of us in that cavernous place, we would sit far back, because to move up would be cheating*, so it would feel like we were a half mile away from the game. The place was so big and, except on the Fourth of July, so empty and so filled with ghosts that to go in there was like walking into an instant sadness machine; it felt like the place was crawling with dementors from Harry Potter.
*A habit I never lost; I sit in assigned seats no matter how many empty seats happen to be available down low.
So, no, I did not like Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Still, I loved it.
I did not like the television show, “Three’s Company.” Even as a 10-year-old, I fully realized that it was a one-plot show, as in, “Did you ever see the Three’s Company where two of the people are talking, a third overhears them, and he/she totally misunderstands what they are saying, and then much mayhem ensues.” Even to a kid who saw ‘The Brady Bunch” as Shakespeare and Happy Days as Arthur Miller, this show felt impossibly stupid. Plus there was the whole Jack has to act gay so he can live with two hot women thing that seemed astonishingly insulting and not funny from the start. Plus there was the creepy loser Larry character at the Regal Beagle. Then they tried that whole Mr. Furley fiasco …
So, no, of course I did not like “Three’s Company.” Still, I loved it.
I did not like Niagara Falls when I was a kid. We lived in Cleveland, of course, so that meant that any time a relative came to town, any time we were thinking about summer vacations, we would go to Niagara Falls, because it was a relatively short drive away. I rode on Maid of the Mist so often that I expected them at the end of one ride to say, “Yeah, listen, to save time just keep the raincoat.” Anyway, there are only so many times you can see Niagara Falls (2) before it becomes just a lot of water going over the side.* Plus whenever we went, we would have to take a side trip to Fort Niagara, which is where the British yak yak yak yak yak yak yak snore huh did you say something yak yak yak yak yak yak um stop hitting your brother yak yak yak yak yak yak can we go home now yak yak yak if I stay here another minute I’m going to yak yak yak yak yak holy cow this is boring yak yak yak I’d rather be doing ANYTHING else yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak.
*It feels a bit like when Albert Brooks goes up to Hoover Dam in “Lost America,” takes one look and says, “Nice dam.”
So, no, I didn’t like Niagara Falls at all. Still, I loved it.
This is the marvelous thing about nostalgia. Memories have their own power, not because they are good or bad but simply because they are memories. I loved Cleveland Municipal Stadium because it is where I went to see the Cleveland Indians play, the team of my youth, and when I would go out there I was with my father, and we were watching baseball, and we would see Duane Kuiper dive in the dirt, and Buddy Bell rap line drive singles up the middle and 6-foot-5 Jim Kern throw hard fastballs that seemed to be coming from the top of a flatbed truck. I would be adopted by the factory workers and police officers and car salesmen who were inevitably sitting around us, and they would tell me stories about Rocky Colavito and Bob Feller and this one time when they ran on the field and eluded the cops for a half house.
I loved Three’s Company because it was on at 9 p.m., which was my bedtime, and every minute spent in our TV room watching Jack sashay around to fool Mr. Roper and Chrissy say something dumb while wearing short shorts was a moment stolen, a brief step into an adulthood where I could watch TV as late as I wanted, eat whatever lousy food I wanted, do whatever dumb things I wanted to do.
I loved Niagara Falls because all around would be young couples on their honeymoons and tourists from around the world and people who had literally dreamed of being here, seeing this place, and I felt like I was someplace that mattered.
I loved all these things — and love them still. I might not have chosen any of them. I might not have chosen to grow up in Cleveland, where I was stuck with a lousy baseball team and a crumbling stadium. I might not have chosen to grow up in a time when Three’s Company was really the only viable television option on Tuesday nights. I might not have chosen to live so close to Niagara Falls, with Fort NIagara as the educational byproduct. But the choice wasn’t mine to make. This was the childhood I was given.
* * *
When I was 15 years old, I heard the song “Electric Avenue,” 3,948,539 times. We had two swimming pools in the apartment complex where we lived — a big pool and a small pool — and music constantly played at both. I would spend my days going from one pool to the other. At each pool, Electric Avenue played perpetually.
I had absolutely no musical taste when I was 15. It’s likely that I have no musical taste now, but this was especially true at 15. And I mean this musical taste thing literally — I do not mean I had BAD musical taste. I mean I generally did not or could not differentiate between “good music” and “bad music.” I only knew “music.” I would listen to the Casey Kasem and the weekly Top 40 every week, and I would write down the songs on little note cards and denote whether a song went up or down on the chart. That was the only way I knew to determine a song’s quality.
*I was talking to my friend Tommy Tomlinson the other day about this, and he said that HE used to do the same thing, which tells me that there may have been many sad saps like me who wrote down the weekly top 40 …
But the idea that “Kiss on My List” was not as good a song as “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” was not in my sphere of understanding. I might have LIKED the Police better than Hall and Oates, but this was almost irrelevant. I might LIKE sunny days better than rainy days. I might LIKE Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot more than Ultraman. I might LIKE school days canceled by snow more than school days not canceled by snow. But these were all out of my control. The weather, the shows on television in the afternoon, snow days … these were things that happened to me.
And so was music. I did not own a record player.* I did not have any entry point to the cool music of the time. I listened to the weekly top 40 and 1220 WJAR and the music that played on television or the malls. And that music happened to me too. I consumed it, consciously and unconsciously, in the same way that I consumed the gray Cleveland afternoons. And, because of this, I still love gray afternoons.
*I got my first record player when I was 17 years old, a senior in high school, and so of course I wanted to go out and buy a couple of 45s because, hey, I got that cool attachment that allowed you to play 45s. But, as mentioned, I have no real access to different music and no friends cool enough to tell me what that music might be worth buying and trying out. So I bought Huey Lewis and the News’ “If This Is It,” and John Waite’s “Missing You.” The absurdity of buying records of songs that I could hear any time I turned on a radio did not register with me. And, of course, the general absurdity of buying a Huey Lewis and John Waite record was the furthest thing from my mind. I’d heard those songs. They were available for purchase. And I had just bought a record player. I could not think of anything else to do.
So, I heard Electric Avenue many times every single day all summer, and I remember this clearly because it was the first song that I can remember having an active distaste for. I did not like the beat of it, that weird electronic thing they did with it, the words that made absolutely no sense to me (“Where is Electric Avenue? It must be on a hill because it will take us higher.”). And yet, that song played and played and played. We’re be chicken fighting in the pool (or whatever the PC term for that is now) and out in the streets there was violence. We’d be playing some localized version of Marco Polo, and dealin’ in multiplication. We’d be racing some kind of medley race and can’t get food for them kid, good God.
And there was really nothing I could do about it.
Thirty years later, I hear Electric Avenue. And you know what I think? I don’t think about the beat or the words or the general annoyances. They don’t even cross my mind. No, I think about chicken fighting in the pool, racing in the sun, being 15 years old, 110 pounds, my eyes red from the chlorine, high school girls laying out in the sun and a whole life ahead.
Tell me, how can I not love Electric Avenue now?
* * *
Donna Summer was 63 years when she died, lung cancer the leading cause, and I must admit I probably have not thought about Donna Summer five times in the last 20 years. Sure, every now and again I hear Hot Stuff playing, maybe in a movie, and she will reemerge momentarily but in general she disappeared into that place in my brain where Julie from the Love Boat, the Hudson Brothers, Chef Boyardee, Leif Garrett and Tatum O’Neal are having some kind of picnic.
When she died, though, I wanted to hear a few of her songs. Of course, it used to be that if someone famous in music died you could not help but hear their music because radio stations would play tributes. I can distinctly remember that feeling of hearing two songs in a row by the same artist and thinking, “Oh no, did they die?” Usually they did not. Usually, it was just a two for Tuesday.
But I don’t listen to the radio anymore, and I don’t really know many other people who do now either. I plug my iPhone into my car for music. Or I go to E-Street Radio on my satellite radio. I go to Spotify and listen to different music every day. We live in a time of choice. I’m all for choice, of course, but it does occur to my just how different a world it is for my daughters than it was for me.. If you don’t want to watch Three’s Company, there are 500 other shows you can watch — not to mention the infinite possibilities of streaming and digital video recordings. If you don’t want to listen to Electric Avenue, there are countless musical options. And this goes further. I suspect more people today (though I only suspect it, don’t know it) choose their favorite teams rather than simply sticking with the team they inherited. I suspect with travel opportunities, people probably don’t just go to the same nearby vacation sport again and again (unless, you know, they really like it). Opportunities abound.
And so, I suspect that there probably were radio tributes to Donna Summer, but I didn’t hear any. I also didn’t see any on television because I don’t watch any channels that would feature such things. So, I created my own Donna Summer music tribute. I listened to surprisingly moving “On the Radio,” and the inescapable “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls,” and the disco version of “MacArthur Park,” and that odd “Enough is Enough” duet with Barbra Streisand that my mother loved.
More than anything, I listened to Last Dance. I don’t remember hearing that song as a child … I mean, I know heard it many, many times because I still know all the words but I don’t remember any specific time I heard it. I connect no particular moment to it (even though I know it was on the Freaky Friday soundtrack). But there is something I connect to it, a time, a vague, indeterminate feeling. I didn’t ask to be a child of disco. I didn’t not ask to grow up in an AM radio time and place where Elton John lip synching on American Bandstand felt like the cutting edge of music. I didn’t choose to hear Last Dance again and again and again rather than, say, Darkness of the Edge of Town or Elvis Costello or The Clash or whoever might have been cooler.
No, this was the childhood I was given. And so Last Dance plays, and unlike music I hear as an adult or movies I see or television shows I’m pointed toward, I don’t judge it. I don’t think it’s a good song or a bad song. I don’t think it’s an important song or a stupid song. I simply reach for that feeling, the one of being young, and try hard not too think too much about it because if I think too much about it, the feeling will fade away, like the last memories of a dream.