When it comes to nostalgia, there are those things that are true memories and those which are false memories. No decade has more of this going for it than the 1980s. Eighties nostalgia is a juggernaut that began when I was in high school back in the early 1990s and really hasn’t stopped since, especially since I’ve had students who say they’re nostalgic for the 1980s, something I find hilarious considering they weren’t really old enough to remember it (And no, they don’t, because that would be like me saying I remember the 1970s when I was born in 1977 and my only memory of anything world events before 1981 is seeing Jimmy Carter on a television screen. That might be a 1970s memory but it doesn’t exactly put me inside Studio 54).
If you are truly a Child of the Eighties, you are fully aware of these two sides of nostalgia because for every movie, television show, compilation album, or Glee medley that says, “Remember Eighties? Here it is! No, don’t think about anything that really happened. This is Eighties. Enjoy these memories.” You’re not supposed to remember that Wang Chung had three good songs, only that they recorded “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” and made a seizure-inducing video to go along with it. You’re not supposed to remember Fresh Horses, the piece-of-crap other Molly Ringwald/Andrew McCarthy flick, just Pretty In Pink. And you’re not supposed to remember the Cloris Leachman years of The Facts of Life.
Okay, sorry about that last one.
Anyway, I’m one of those people who will listen to a flashback station on Sirius and be happy that Alan Hunter has decided to play “Stone in Love” instead of “Don’t Stop Believin'” for the hour’s dose of Journey. Maybe it’s because I’m a nostalgia dork, or maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to so much Eighties nostalgia for the past two decades that I need more than something that scratches the surface. I think that everyone reaches that point in his life, where he wants more than just another playing of “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and usually there is one work that serves as a trigger for the true memories that lie beneath the VH-1-produced surface. For me, it was “At This Moment” by Billy Vera and the Beaters.
First recorded in 1981 when the band was playing live shows at the Roxy, “At This Moment” is one of those songs that took its sweet time to hit number one. In fact, it didn’t hit that position until January 1987 after it had been featured on a now-famous Family Ties storyline and Rhino Records had the sense to rerelease it. I wasn’t a big fan of Family Ties at the time (and honestly haven’t watched much of the show in reruns, although I have seen the one where Alex forgets to take his test because he’s thinking about Ellen and they’re playing this song), but in 1987 I was becoming a fairly regular radio listener and this was one of the songs that got constant airplay not just during the beginning of the year, but during the whole year, at least on the station that my sister and I preferrered, WBLI.
Now, most people my age who grew up on Long Island will quickly point to Z-100 or maybe even Power 95 (WPLJ) as where they got their pop music education, if they didn’t have the luxury of MTV, which I did not; or an older sibling/cousin who would slip them tapes of bands that nobody but nobody played on the radio, which I also did not. But I had a rather weak radio signal in my room that only really picked up a couple of stations strongly: the adult contemporary WALK and the “adult Top 40” WBLI. I say “adult Top 40” because at the time WBLI seemed to have a playlist of the lighter side of the Top 40, which meant that when Madonna decided to go completely risque with stuff like “Justify My Love” they would stick to playing “Holiday” and when Celine Dion and Michael Bolton rose to stardom, well … then it was over. I have lost count of the number of times I had to endure “How Can We Be Lovers If We Can’t Be Friends” or “The Power Of Love” while sitting in the passenger’s seat of my mom’s Honda Prelude.
The fact that we could get all of the awesome New York-area radio stations (and even one or two out of Connecticut) on the radio in my mom’s car only made the fact that my parents liked to listen to either the oldies station or Lite FM worse than it should have been and whenever we had to take a long car trip, Nancy and I spent most of the ride badgering them with “Can you put on WBLI? Can you put on WBLI? Can you put on WBLI? Can you put on WBLI?” We knew that asking for Z-100 would be automatically denied but they would put up with WBLI until the first twinge of static when my dad would claim that we were “losing the station” and immediately put on Lite FM.
The station didn’t necessarily play great music and probably led me down the wrong path in that I did not have an extensive collection of Van Halen tapes before I left elementary school, nor was I passing Dead Kennedys tapes around and wearing Circle Jerks T-shirts in my eighth grade study hall. In fact, the one mix tape I did have in the eighth grade featured Roxette, Jesus Jones, Def Leppard, and EMF.
Sorry. Had to.
I blame WBLI for that. Sure, they aired Casey Kasem’s Weekly Top 40 every Sunday, so I did get at least some passing knowledge of what was charting, but I also found myself listening to the station in January of 1987 and thinking about how much I liked “Mandolin Rain,” a song that I still love but would never cop to loving during my formative years lest I be laughed at by my Biohazard-loving friends.
Anyway, how was I going to know in the first place? Aside from some basic knowledge of Van Halen from my cousin Kelly, who I hope still owns that “Van Halen Kicks Ass ’87” tour T-shirt she came home with from the Nassau Coliseum that summer, I knew little to nothing about music when I was 10. I think I owned four tapes: Thriller, Born in the U.S.A., Sports, and the Top Gun soundtrack. The next tape I would get would be the soundtrack to Footloose. It wouldn’t be Billy Vera and the Beaters, unfortunately, because for all of my Bruce Hornsby love at the time, I actually didn’t like “At This Moment” very much when I first heard it because I didn’t know what a live recording sounded like vs. a studio recording, so I got really turned off by hearing the audience at the song’s end.
I can still picture myself, in the fourth grade, with my radio on in the basement during a rainy Saturday, playing Nintendo and getting annoyed that I could hear people go “Woo!” when Vera sings “If I-I-I-I-I could just ho-0-o-o-ld you,” as if the people who were at his concert were there to personally offend me or something. The first twenty or thirty times I heard the song (and WBLI, like so many other stations, was in the habit of playing every single to death), I didn’t even know what it was called or who sang it.
I found that out on New Year’s Eve when WBLI played its Top 106 songs of 1987 and announced the title and artist before each one. New Year’s Eve was always pretty special to me, not because of any huge party or anything but because of the simple fact that it was the only night of the year when I was allowed to stay up until midnight instead of dragging myself up to bed at 8:00 (9:00 or maybe 10:00 on a weekend night), long before any of my friends even started to feel tired.
Of course I watched the ball drop in Times Square to count into 1988 that year but for most of the night I sat in my parents’ basement with some toys and a pencil and paper, playing G.I. Joe vs. Stuffed Animals while listening to the 106-song countdown and writing down who sang what and where they placed. The number one song of the year was Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” a song that had been popular back in the fourth grade when my friends were walking around with Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet cassette before it was replaced with Licensed to Ill. I can sort of understand that, although considering that 1987 was the year of The Joshua Tree and Appetite for Destruction, WBLI’s choice was a little suspect to me then and still is.
“At This Moment” was in the top 10 of the countdown–four or five, IIRC–and on the paper where I was keeping track, I wrote “Billy Bera and the Beaters.” Sure, I’d misheard the name of the band but at least I sort of knew, and if my years of watching G.I. Joe after school had taught me anything, it was that knowing was half the battle. And I would win that battle because I wouldn’t see or hear anything related to “At This Moment” until 1995 when I spotted a copy of By Request: The Best of Billy Vera and the Beaters in the CD pile of my friend Andy at his graduation party. At first, I thought this was ballsy because some of my friends were known to ridicule others’ music tastes (or maybe that was me and my love of Queen and Springsteen? Considering that I got shit for just about everything, it probably was just me); then I thought of when I wrote “Billy Bera” down and remembered “At This Moment.”
Had 1995 been the age of the iPod, I probably would have gone home that night and downloaded the song and enjoyed it. However, in order to get it on a tape I would have had to come upon it by chance on the radio, ask Andy to borrow his CD or hunt the CD down on my own. I did none of those and instead waited another year for Billboard’s Hits of 1987 to land in my lap courtesy of someone in college. I can’t remember if it was my roommate Dave, our friend Kristy, or one of the girls in the dorm room next to us, to be honest, all I know is that on one of the many mix tapes I called “Tom’s Crap” was “At This Moment” (and “Lady in Red,” which is a whole other story), except this time I really listened to it and really enjoyed it.
A combination of the song itself and Vera and the band’s performance makes it one of the Top five breakup songs of all time, easy. I might be a little prejudiced here because I played the piano for so many years and this is a piano-driven song, but the way that Vera sings honestly without going for bombastic glory notes (I can just picture someone on American Idol butchering this song while getting a ton of applause because he’s loud) and lets the music and lyrics do the work makes his heartache sound incredibly real. I mean, I’ll even excuse the rather cheesy Eighties-style saxaphone solo because when he comes back for the finale and puts those pauses in between “If I could just hold you …” he’s definitely got me. And you really feel those four guitar notes after “Again” before the saxaphone plays out. If I’d experienced any heartache in junior high or the first couple of years of high school, this would definitely be the soundtrack.
Instead, what it did back in 1996 was remind me that there was more to the decade I grew up in than what was featured on a compilation CD, and that while I was making some sort of effort to listen to music that was popular among my peers (even if that music included Better Than Ezra), I needed to make sure I owned up to everything I’d listened to or loved.