It began…when? In early 1983? The first time I listened to “American Top 40” in its entirety? It soon became a ritual; it soon became a ritual that required a notebook in which to mark down the songs that had risen and fallen over the week, and all of the new entrants, whether mayfly-lived (Costello’s “Everyday I Write the Book,” never getting past #36) or those just marking the first stage of a long residency.
Or on the day that my cousin Michelle told me about MTV. “It’s this channel where all there is is music—you have to see it.” Well, she could: she was in Connecticut. In Virginia, at my house, we only got two TV stations. For the ‘84 Olympics, my father had to climb on the roof and turn the aerial clockwise so that we could get ABC, which sent the other two stations into a temporary exile of grey static.
In the summers, when I was shipped up to live with my grandmother in Connecticut, there was another world, one of slight abundance. Unseen comics in the newspapers—Crock, Momma, Broom Hilda; more newspapers, too (my grandmother took a morning and an evening paper, which seemed wonderfully civilized). And she had cable television, a variable color-world summoned into being by the TV-top controller with its three rows of punchable numbers and letters. A crunch of a button brought unknown pleasures: WPIX, which ran Star Trek reruns in the afternoons; another station that had Twilight Zone marathons (I knew every episode of each, but only from books—whenever I finally saw an episode, I had to reconcile the idea of it, which I had conjured out of a few stills and a paragraph-long plot synopsis, with what I was watching).
So finally then, MTV. I gorged on MTV as only an 11-year-old savage could. My grandmother didn’t approve of it, and she was right. So mine was a strategy of finding stolen moments: when my grandmother went out to the store to get milk, I could watch 25 solid minutes of MTV. If she was doing laundry, that meant a sporadic (joyous, paranoid, oft-interrupted) quarter hour with the volume barely audible. The hatred I felt when a bad act (anyone old, really; also, Billy Squier) took up some of this time; the joy whenever the new Duran Duran, the new Fixx, the new Eurythmics came on.
It’s the cheapest, most pathetic form of nostalgia to lament the passing of the popular music that was popular when one was 11 years old. I see this all the time in YouTube comments (I’ve thought of doing a Tumblr called YouTube Nostalgia which would be nothing but YouTube laments about how great X was and how Y (often J. Bieber) can’t compare to it). I will only venture that to be young and into pop music in 1983 may have been more fun than at some other times, because in 1983 something—shiny, silly, frivolous—was happily and busily killing off an older music.
I use the phrase older music literally here. The music of my early childhood was meant for older people, I thought: “Aja,” “Heart Hotels,” “Reminiscing,” “Night Moves,” “Islands in the Stream,” “Candy Apple Red” (don’t ask—an awful regional hit that was inescapable if you lived in Virginia) and so on, all songs suggesting the compromises, shadiness and a general inexplicable blues that came with being an adult; these songs always seemed to end with the singer on a dock, drinking and thinking aloud. The music I took hold of, that took hold of me, had none of this baggage. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and was bright and loud. It suggested that life is different somewhere else; it may not be better, but it’s something you don’t know yet, and you might like it. The music of the forbidden cities, of the islands that only exist on television.
I come back to my grandmother. During those summers, she took me and my cousins to church. She had a favorite priest, Father Gill, so we would often follow him on his rounds—he was circuit priest of sorts, and worked three or four small towns on the Massachusetts/Connecticut border. It was on those interminable hot Sunday mornings that I got the scrapings of a religious education. Sitting in the pews, reading and rereading the list of the mass, and silently checking off each milestone: the first reading, the second reading, the possibly-deadly homily (it depended on Father Gill’s mood—if he was effusive, the homilies could drag on for a half hour), the Eucharist (always exciting—it meant the end of the mass was near). There was a fine, humble community in those small churches on those mornings, with the pews often filled, as ours was, with older summer people shepherding their grandchildren.
I don’t miss the sermons. Maybe the poison had already taken by then. The books and the songs had won, in a walk; out of them I would carve whatever I have of a spiritual life. Those church mornings wound up serving as the image of a grey alternative, of a proper life whose ambitions and dreams were confined to smaller spheres.