What you are, it seems, is predestined by what song was number one on the day of your birth, in concert with the artist that was biggest that year (The author named 1976 "the year of Rod Stewart," but I remember it as the year of Elton and Kiki belting out "Don't Go Breaking my Heart," and also "Afternoon Delight" playing on all the radios, as I spent the summer lazily floating down a drift that fed into Sippewissett Beach. Jumping into that warm shallow water, into mud that felt smooth and clean, and drifting down to the ocean, unmindful of anything or anyone, is the closest that this body's ever come to paradise.)
I guess I can understand why these two elements figure so prominently in the Popstrology equation, but I think there's also another pop phenomenon that also makes an important impression upon your life's destiny. Call it the third part of the equation, the catalyst that adds motion to the mixture. This is, the first record that you actually ever purchased (those born in the 80s might know them as CDs.)
I'm serious. And the thing is, I think of this element as the catalyst, because it's such a deliberate act. The fates have little to do with it. I mean, I can't help it that the number one song of 1965 was "Ticket to Ride," can I? (Although, thank god it was, imagine being the poor saps stuck with "Tie a Yellow Ribbon."). On the other hand, the act of purchasing your first album is something that is a reflection of your soul. It's not quite the same as the albums that your parents picked up for you as Christmas presents, because it involves spending your own money (or at least, the $10 that Aunt Doris had taped to the inside of a Christmas card). It requires you making the journey to an actual record store, and sifting through the bins and stacks, and choosing against hundreds of other colorful albums. You're using your freedom of choice to select something that says something about who you are, or at least, what you think is cool.
I remember my first album. It was October 1980. I was a late bloomer, a sophomore in high school. The album I chose was
by the Cars. Called Panorama .
I bought it on the afternoon of the very first Halloween party I ever organized. The party had a Halloween theme, and I was going to dress up Richard Simmons, and lead the group in exercise. I had originally planned a theme for the party: "Come as Someone You Hate," but my friend Pauline had objected to it, calling it needlessly cruel. ("I'll just come dressed as poverty," she sniffed.)
I was driven to the mall by my mom, in my Dad's gold Delta 88. The nearest mall was in Lincoln, RI, and I thought it was absolutely huge at the time. Of course, by today's standards, it was little more than a strip mall, but that's looking at things from jaded eyes. Hey, it had a Gap (I bought a pair of green cords that day), a health restaurant called the Magic Menu, a movie theater that showed all of four movies, and an Anderson Little, where, later that few year, I'd buy my first suit, for confirmation. The suit was a hideous, light blue affair that blessedly became landfill many years ago...
Oh, and there was a record store. Slightly dimmer lights, The Pretenders blasting from the speakers in the walls. Way too many records. It was a heady experience. So many competing images. The Rolling Stones cover with the swatch of denim and the zipper that actually unzipped. The stark, black and white, bricks in the wall. David Bowie, looking Hunky Dorey.
I've always been a terrible selector, by the way. Was then, am now, especially in a public setting. The presence of so many people, invading my personal space, constricts the oxygen flow to my head (I can just see Josie nodding her head, reading this, and thinking, "Oh. That explains a lot.") I look around helplessly, and start to beachcomb through the aisles, fumbling around, trying to remember the name of an artist I like. Even though I have a two page list in my head before I reached any store, those names somehow disappear. And I'm just stuck there. Staring.
I think I was attracted to the big billowing racing flag on the album cover, surrounded in a sea of deep blue. That, and the fact that the album had just come out, and being a Boston band, was receiving heavy promotion that month, meaning a whole wall in the store was devoted to pushing Ric Ocasek's latest.
The music had something to do with it, too. I had heard "Touch and Go" a few times on the radio, and liked it, but more importantly, I remembered hearing the Cars' debut album a few years ago, sitting in the back of a car headed home from CCD. The music had been all I had to focus on, because the kids in the car hated me. (My parents made us car pool, and I'd usually be stuck next to a tall red head who was convinced I was gay, and would whisper terse commands all through the ride: "Don't touch me." "Don't get near me.") Even so, the music hit me like a splash of cold water.
There are only a handful of songs that truly blow your mind, when you're young and everything's new. These are the sounds that change your life, that bring you to another level of awareness, that make you feel like a cat discovering the outside for the first time. My first taste of the Beatles was like that, and the first Cars album was like that, too. To this day, I hear "My Best Friend's Girl," and suddenly, all I can feel is hope and youth and a tingly feeling in my body, an inch away from sexual awakening, but far more innocent.
In retrospect, Panorama was a terrible choice for the party. The album was dense and artsy and moody, and the lyrics were obtuse and inspired by an obscure band Ocasek had been producing, called Suicide. Looking back on it now, I think that album broke the spirit of the band, who suddenly realized that they weren't going to receive widespread acceptance for these type of works, and intuited that they were driving down a commercial dead end. They quickly returned to less challenging, but also, less interesting terrain, and pumped out friendlier Top 40 hits for three more albums, until they broke up in 1987, having run out of gas.
But to me, after that party? Man, I must have played that album a thousand times. I'd lock the door to my bedroom, and sit on the bed, cross legged (as I'm doing now), and bellow out the words to the songs at the top of my lungs.
The seven floors of walkup
The odor musted cracks
And the peeping keyhole introverts
With the monkeys on their backs
I remember reading a Rolling Stone review, shortly after the album came out, which asked, of this specific song ("Gimme Some Slack") "Who wants to even contemplate drivel like this?" I did. I thought it was so cool, so artsy. I thought it was outside the mainstream, and defiant, and it said something, even though it was hardly saying anything at all, except, in a very distant, polite way, "Fuck you."
So anyway, for the past few weeks, I've been in this huge Cars mood. I've been listening, over and over again, to and from work, to The Cars Greatest Hits," a CD that I 'borrowed" from Josie's boyfriend. Finally, Friday night, I made the decision to shell out some money for the two disc Cars anthology.
The next day, Corb and I were driving to the mall, and I turned on the songs from Panorama .
Corb wrinkled his nose? "What's this?" he asked.
"Just listen," I said. He listened. Five minutes later, we reached "Gimme Some Slack." I knew all the words by heart, still, having sung them literally hundreds of times, as I pretended to be a rock star in the comfort of my bedroom.
I wanna float like Euripides
All visions intact
I'm alright with fellini fiends
A trippin' over the track
Down at the end of l-onely street
Where no one takes a chance
Someone's in the cheap light
Someone wants to dance
Corb burst out laughing. "That's so lame!" he said.
I listened to the words again, with fresh ears, and realized, he just might be right. Truth be told, the song was a bit..repetitive. And perhaps, just a little bit pretentious? But then again, I'm not the guy who has a complete collection of every Britney Spears CD that's ever been issued.
After a few minutes, we turned on some country.
Some childhood treasures are better left in the past, I think. However, I still contend that the Cars debut albums is one of the best ones ever.