nostalgia

When Billy Joel Was Homework

We Didn't Start the FireIt’s been derided as one of the worst Billy Joel songs ever written, maybe even one of the worst ever, and when Christopher Bonanos of Vulture put it second to last in a comprehensive list of all of his songs*, he called it, “The biggest problem for the Billy Joel apologist, because it is so highly popular and inescapably bad.” But for me, a “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is important—while Billy Joel was inadvertently summarizing the entire Cold War in three minutes, I was taking my first steps into the world of collecting music.

Released on September 27, 1989, the song, which was the first single off of Storm Front, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the weeks of December 9 and 16 of that year and came on the heels of his monstrous 1980s grand slam of An Innocent Man, Greatest Hits Volume I & II**, The Bridge, and the Russia tour. That prior success and the chart-topping first single helped Storm Front go quadruple platinum, outselling his prior studio album, something that’s impressive for what is half of a good album, although the singles, especially “The Downeaster Alexa”, “I Go to Extremes”, and “And So It Goes” have gotten many a replay over the years.

Of course, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” overshadows all of those. Its verses are laundry lists of events and people from his then forty years, which Bonanos trashes by saying, “So much is wrong here: boomer-generation narcissism, the tri-state area-news myopia (‘hypodermics on the shore?’ ‘Bernie Goetz’?), the iffy rhymes (‘James Dean’ with ‘winning team’ and many others), the double mention of the Dodgers.” But the appeal was the challenge of memorizing every single  reference, which while not as tough as, say, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M., was still a task, especially since Joel was not known for his ability to enunciate and it was years before I realized that “Dien Bien Phu falls” was not prnounced “Din din foo falls.”

To do so, I would need a copy of the song and while I was content to wait until I heard it on the radio and had a tape ready to record, but fate intervened in the form of Saturday Night Live and my junior high school.

In late September, NBC aired a huge prime-time special to celebrate SNL’s 15th Anniversary (which I covered in episode 45 of the podcast). It was, as these shows tend to be, a huge retrospective of the characters, comedians, guests, and sketches from the show’s history, and just about everyone in my grade wound up watching it, or at least that is what I could tell from the number of times we repeated lines in class for weeks after. This ultimately led to the last time I ever really dressed up for Halloween—my friend Rich and I wore gray sweatpants and sweatshirts and weight belts and went as Hans and Franz.

The costumes were a hit and we won “Funniest costume”*** and a $25 gift certificate to Record World, a record store in the Sun Vet Mall that even in 1989, when mall record and tape stores were still important destinations for teenagers, seemed like a relic of the decade before. The décor was deep brown shelving with gold carpeting that might have at one time held years’ worth of nicotine tar. The cassettes were locked behind glass cases, and the disaffected employees working the register stood in a perch, nearly inapproachable. Think Empire Records, but with paneling. Rich and I walked in and almost immediately saw the cassingle for “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, snatched it up, and then grabbed other tapes we were interested in. I can’t remember what else we got, but the minute I got home, that cassingle of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” went into constant rotation on the boom box with its partially broken antenna that sat on my bedroom dresser.

Later that winter, Rich and I, along with my sister, would set my parents’ camcorder up on the washing machine and record a music video of us lip syncing the song, using the mallets of a croquet set as guitars and microphones, which is something we’d been doing for a while****.  And while my peers and I had no context for the majority of the song, we belted out the lyrics and many of us had to research them.

Now, I was never asked to do a research project on one of the song’s many allusions, but more than a few of my friends were, and it’s even Bonanos writes that he didn’t place the song last in the list because it made him learn something.  I’m pretty sure that Joel didn’t intend to hand junior high teachers a lesson plan, but he did and even to this day, you can find online lessons available. Most of them haven’t changed much in 30 years—I don’t care if you add multimedia, you’re still looking up a song lyric and doing research. So whereas Boomers could wax nostalgic, their kids could be forced to learn about all of the important things in their generation’s lifetime. And for a generation as notoriously narcissistic as the Baby Boomers, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was perfect fuel for the nostalgia that had been started by American Graffiti, ramped up with The Big Chill, and was chugging along with The Wonder Years.

Over the years, Joel has been asked about adding extra verses to the song but has declined, which I can respect, because he doesn’t need to.  Future generations can take it upon themselves to follow it up, like Matchbox 20 did with “How Far We’ve Come”, a Gen-X spiritual sequel that has a similar sound (superimpose the final verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” over the song’s bridge, it fits perfectly) and a video that is flashes of events from the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. And I guess it’s appropriate that a band whose Greatest Hits album is called Exile on Mainstream is paying tribute to an artist who practically defined mainstream during their youth.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was the first cassingle I ever bought.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a watershed moment. Up until that point tapes were something I flipped through as TSS while my mom was shopping***** and I only had the few that I put on birthday and Christmas lists–Thriller; Born in the U.S.A. (which I wore out and had to replace); and the soundtracks to Footloose, Over the Top, The Karate Kid Part II, and Top Gun.  Songs were something I heard on the radio and taped onto a blank cassette. As I made my way through junior high and then into high school, I’d start a music collection. And while my taste could be–and has often been–called into question, to this day I will still loudly proclaim, “Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!”

* Last on the list was “The Mexican Connection”, a piano instrumental off of Streetlife Serenade that isn’t bad per se but is certainly a very deep cut.

** At some point in the mid-1980s, just about every household on Long Island was issued a cassette copy of Greatest Hits I & II and I can imagine those cassette copies of the album circulate in the area’s garage sales like currency.

*** I remember someone yelling at me that it wasn’t fair because the prize was supposed to some guy named Emil who dressed in a toga and I honestly don’t remember why he didn’t get it but it just sticks out at one of many “You didn’t deserve this, loser” moments from my formative years.

**** A video that no longer exists because I threw the tape away years ago.

*****When I wasn’t staring at Samantha Fox posters.

Candee Avenue Goes to War

Entertech water hawk

The Entertech water hawk, which is the pistol that my friends and I called “The Scorpion UZI.” Whether or not that was an accurate description is debatable. Photo by Marquis de Zod. Used under cc license.

It’s the summer of 1987.  Times are hard.  In the hot weather, the kids of Suburbia are desperate for cold snacks and air conditioning, both of which are kept in short supply by parents who are insistent that they go outside.  But outside has become a land of boredom–there are only so many places to ride, the playground is overrun by little kids, and the huge tree in the backyard at the latest wiffle ball.  The situation seems desperate and there is nothing left to do but fight.

All right, so the summer boredom sometimes suffered by suburban children is not a good premise for a 1980s action movie, but there was a time about 30 years ago where my friends and I took our interest in GI Joe and extended it to our yards and the streets surrounding them.  Granted, we had been playing pretend for years, reenacting superheroes, Voltron, and Star Wars on playgrounds, but that was fantasy, before we had seen Red Dawn and realized that we had to be ready to fight real-life villains like Mummar Gaddafi.  And so, for our birthdays, we got Entertech water guns.

Now, we’d had water pistols before, usually the plastic-colored kind that came in multi-packs or that you fished out of a bin at Ben Franklin for $1.00.  But Entertech was a whole new dimension of water warfare.  These were battery-operated automatic guns which meant that all you had to do was fill the clip with water, slap it into the gun, and press the trigger.  Once you did, you heard the noise of a small motor and saw the water come out in steady bursts until you ran out and either threw in another clip (you could buy extra clips) or went and got a refill.  It was leaps and bounds beyond anything else we had seen until then and more importantly, they looked cooler than anything else we had seen.

Entertech guns looked like real guns.  LJN, who manufactured the guns, from 1985 until 1990, gave them fully automatic rounds of 60 RPMs and a range of 30 feet and “realistic” looks.  To an extent, anyway.  I mean, nobody was going to mistake a kid with an Entertech RPG for a terrorist.  But the realistic look and the fact that we were seeing moveist hat had guns just like it, such as Rambo (which Entertech would license at one point), made them incredibly appealing.  My friends and I had the Water Hawk, which I believe was a reproduction of a TEC-22 semiautomatic Intratec or “Scorpion,” which is why my friends and I referred to them as “Scorpion UZIs.”  And the advertising wasn’t false–they shot far and fired fast.

Unfortunately, without carrying around several clips of water, playing with all the functionality of the gun proved tedious, so what we often did was kept firing and pretending we were shooting bad guys or one another.  The motor still worked as long as the batteries weren’t dead, so we could get sound effects going.  And long after the batteries had died, rusted, and corroded because I’d stored the gun in the garage, it was still a prop for whatever adventures we devised.

My friend Tom’s backyard, which was huge, was usually the setting for those adventures.  We would put on the military camo pants that we’d gotten from Thunder Ride–our local army surplus store–and would run around dodging enemy fire, or army crawling through the grass to find and ambush someone, or climb into the huge tree in his backyard to get into sniper positions or to jump out of the tree like we were Rangers, the best of the best.  When we weren’t playing, we were at the local library looking up the various ranks and insignia in the World Book Encyclopedia or were photocopying pages out of books like Weapons of World War II by C.B. Colby.  Like I said, we weren’t just pretending; we were training.

Unfortunately, this commitment to realism resulted in its fair share of controversy in 1987 and 1988.  There is a line in Die Hard where Reginald Vel Johnson’s character talks a bout how he’s riding a desk because he shot a kid who was carrying a toy pistol.  While this served to give some background to his character, it was also a rather timely reference.  While this didn’t become a widespread phenomenon in the mid-1980s, toy guns being the cause of shootings or being used in crimes came to national attention.

In 1987, it literally spilled onto the airwaves when Gary Stollman managed to make his way into the studio of KNBC in Los Angeles and put a toy gun to the back of consumer reporter David Horowitz while forcing him to read what the Los Angeles Times called ” a rambling statement on the air about the CIA and space aliens.”  Stollman was the son of a former KNBC pharmaceutical reporter and had managed to find a legitimate way into the building–according to 4:00 p.m. newscast co-anchor Kristie Wilde, he had obtained a security badge and had made himself inconspicuous on the set prior to walking up to Horowitz.  The news director, Tom Capra, cut the feed, but not before viewers saw Stollman, Horowitz, and the gun:

The incident, which you can read about in the archives of the Los Angeles Times (“Intruder With Toy Gun Puts KNBC Off Air” and “Risk at NBC: Integrity of Newscast vs. a Man’s Life”), was probably the most high-profile incident and by 1988, legislation was being introduced in various states as well as at the federal level to better regulate the manufacture and sale of toy guns.  According to a June 16, 1988 article in the New York Times (“After 3 Deaths, Realistic Toy Guns are Under Fire”), after a few deaths and crimes, several major cities–San Francisco, Memphis, Chicago, and Detroit–as well as states such as Connecticut, Michigan, California, Florida, and Massachusetts had begun banning the sale and manufacture of realistic toy guns (they also point out that black, blue, and silver guns had been banned in New York City since 1955).  At the time the article was published, the Senate had passed a bill that was sponsored by Bob Dole that required toy guns to have bright orange markings and barrel plugs.

While the article quotes Gerald Upholt, who was the director of Gun Owners of California, as saying,  ”Anti-gun types are trying to play on the emotional appeal of a few incidents. The real problem is that police officers may need a little more training,” the incidents and legislation were enough to spell the end of realistic toy guns on the shelves. Toys R Us said they wouldn’t be selling the guns and companies, including Entertech, changed their designs to be more colorful and fake-looking.

So the Entertech era didn’t last very long, and in the 1990s, Acclaim bought LJN and discontinued all of its toys, choosing to focus on the video game side of the company (probably because Nintendo would only license so many games per company per year and having two separate companies under one umbrella meant more games/more revenue).  Autofire guns weren’t as in vogue by that time anyway because in 1990, Larami released a game-changing water gun, the Super Soaker (which is now manufactured by Nerf), a gun that had a huge water tank and used pressure to shoot incredibly far and with a more powerful stream than other water pistols.

My friends and I had stopped fighting the war by then, anyway.  Our interest in G.I. Joe had faded, and while we were still watching our fair share of action movies, we were more in tune to what was happening in the world of the WWF.  Today, kids still can buy Super Soakers but can also arm themselves to the teeth with Nerf darts, which are really good for shooting cups off of a picnic table but maybe not so much for a real-life Red Dawn.

 

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 76: The Robotech Episode

Episode 76 Website CoverIn the mid-1980s, one of the seminal anime series to ever cross over to American television was watched by children across the country. Combining mecha with a love story and an intergalactic war, Robotech was a sweeping saga that makes it one of the most memorable series of the decade. For this episode, I sit down with Donovan Morgan Grant (The Batman Universe, The Next Dimension, Questions No Answers) to talk about The Macross Saga, and then I come back and take a brief look at the Masters and New Generation sagas.

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Here’s some bonus stuff for you to check out.

First, my 2010 blog post about the Jack McKinney novels, “Mecha, Minmei, and a Decade-Long Fight for the Future.”

The original (1980s) intro to the cartoon, featuring images from all three series:

The Toonami intro (h/t to Donovan for sending me the link):

The current intro to The Macross Saga (as seen on Netflix):

The current intro to the New Generation (as seen on Netflix):

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 74: Well Everyone Else is Doin’ It …

Episode 74 Website CoverThey were cool, they were hip, they were the “in” thing, and they lasted all of three months.  They were fads.

Slap on a bracelet, flip a water bottle, hug your Beanie Babies tight and join me as I take a look at seven huge youth-driven fads (with some old people getting into it) from the mid-1980s until today.  I examine the background behind each, some of its effects, why they were often banned from schools, and how they died out.

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And just for fun, here are the seven fads featured with some footage (where possible)

Bottle Flipping

Silly Bandz

Silly Bands

Snopes article about “Sex Bracelets”

Tamagotchi

Beanie Babies

Pogs

Slap Bracelets

slap bracelets

A couple of articles on slap bracelets from The New York Times 

“Turning Profits Hand Over Wrist” (10/27/90)

“U.S. Consumer Panel Warns of Injury from Slap Bracelets” (10/30/90)

“Principal Puts a Halt to Slap Bracelet Fad” (10/11/90)

Garbage Pail Kids

garbage_pail_kids_650x300_a

 

 

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 68: Baseball Like It Oughta Be

1641713TH_ACRO17526022Thirty years ago, the New York Mets beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. For those of us who are die-hard Mets fans, it was an experience that we’ll never forget, and one that we have savored since then, as we patiently (and sometimes even painfully) wait for the Amazins to hoist the World Series trophy once more. Join me and my guest Paul Spataro as we look back on the 1986 season, NLCS, and World Series and share our memories of what it was like to be a kid (in my case) and be at some of the greatest games in Mets history (like Paul).

PLUS … stay through to the end of the show for an exciting announcement about a BRAND NEW PODCAST!!!

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here are some extras for you …

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 64: The Music of the Summer of 1996

Episode 64 Website CoverIt’s time to throw your Sublime CD into the stereo of your teal Mustang and then do the Macarena while downing some Molson Ice because we’re going back to the summer of 1996.  Join me and my special guest–my wife, Amanda–as we take a look at the lineup from the 1996 HFStival and then discuss the music of that summer.

Here’s where to listen:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And below the cut, here are some scans from the HFStival program:

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Modern Diner

1:43 a.m.
(Conversation on a Diner Napkin)

Rain falls to the sidewalk
beside a lonely crowded roadside diner,
where I’m wondering what it was about her
that could have stopped the world for so long.

The exact handwriting, shape of numbers–
lines a paper napkin
with her phone number
in faded gray pencil and that smudge
always a backdrop for conversation.

And smiling.

I remember smiling
and she did the same
even though the music stopped
and the words were erased
by the rain ticking off my umbrella
into the night.

I wrote that poem for a creative writing class. in the fall of 1997.  It’s not a particularly great poem, nor is it based on anything that actually happened or anyone I know.  I am pretty sure that the inspiration was more along the lines of an imaginary idea, a fictional story where two people enter a diner and one leaves heartbroken, the only thing left to show for it is something scribbled on a napkin–notes, a phone number, maybe something much deeper.  It didn’t matter.

But the geographical inspiration was very real.  Sitting on Main Street not too far from the intersection with Greene Avenue, the Sayville Modern Diner was just about everything you would expect from a restaurant with the word “diner” in its name–a greasy spoon filled with vinyl-covered booths, the sounds of silverware clanking on thick earthenware dishes, and the smells of a grill that had seen countless omelets and cheeseburgers.  It was not haute cuisine by any means and even though the menu was pretty extensive, any time I was in there, I ordered one of two things:  some sort of omelet with a toasted bagel, orange juice, and coffee; or a cheeseburger deluxe.  Well, that’s not 100% accurate because there were those times when I was feeling extra fancy and got a hot open turkey sandwich, but really it was those two items, which are diner standards.

The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996.  Taken from a 1997 calendar.  Photo by Pat Link.

The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996. Taken from a 1997 calendar. Photo by Pat Link.

While breakfast after midnight is something you can get in quite a number of places outside Long Island (I have a number of memories involving late-night runs to Denny’s outside of Baltimore), I have to say that there are few if any places without the word “diner” in their name that really know what a cheeseburger deluxe is.  And yes, there are better hamburgers out there, burgers with higher quality ingredients and all sorts of creative sauces.  I love those places, don’t get me wrong, but there is something about the simple perfection of a single patty on a bun served with fries, onion rings, and a pickle (with the option of topping it with lettuce, tomato, and onions).  You don’t need anything else.

Of course, the food at a place like the Modern Diner is not the reason you go to a place like the Modern Diner.  I’ve noticed that diner culture has been fetishized over the last few years because of the culinary hate crime that is Guy Fieri, but turn away from his shtick and walk into a diner and you find something incredibly genuine that cannot be mass-produced.  Oh, it’s been tried–I’m sure there are still a few Silver Diner restaurants left at local shopping malls, but that place felt more like bad theme park kitsch as opposed to an actual diner.

That’s because a real diner feels worn in.  It’s the type of place where you can go in, get a booth, and aside from getting food and refills, you can be ignored.  You can allow yourself to disappear into that booth as long as possible.  The Modern Diner, when I was a kid, had this brown and gold decor that clearly came from the 1970s and at some point in the Eighties, they remodeled with the same dull magenta color you’d find in your average doctor’s office waiting room.  I’m trying to remember if they remodeled one more time and for some reason keep picturing a seafoam green motif, but I’m not sure.  Decor aside, if I was with my friends, those booths were the entire world for an hour or two.

Sometimes, the conversations were memorable; most of the time they were complete mundane.  Looking back, I feel that time spent there was our part of a ritual that had existed since time immemorial.  You’d make plans to go out and no matter what you did that night, you’d wind up at the diner.  Billy Joel put Brenda and Eddie there.  Garry Marshall had The Fonz set up shop in the bathroom.  George Lucas had Steve Bolander drown his sorrows in a vinyl-cushioned booth.  Barry Levinson wrote an entire movie called Diner that remains one of the all-time great friendship films.  Even when I (badly) wrote teenage characters, I’d have them hang out at the greasy spoon, giving them a moment of pause in a hectic plot or providing a place where moments of truth were had.  They are moments of importance, or in the case of the poem above, moments that are fleeting.  It’s something that is easy to recognize yet tough to capture in exactly the right way.

The Monday before this post went live, the Sayville Modern Diner served its last meal.  The owner, a former classmate of mine, apparently decided to sell, leaving the diner to be turned into a sushi/Asian fusion restaurant.  While I hadn’t been there in nearly a decade, I can definitely say I will miss it, even though there are other diners in town and other diners on Long Island, meaning that the idea of the diner will continue even though this one has closed its doors.