Too much has been written about High School, that American institution of adolescence, yearning, and despair. And so I’ll let the music tell most of the story. But to set the stage: I started 9th grade in the fall that followed the Bicentennial celebration of my nation’s birth; I ran with a prototype of the nerdy crowd; My girl friend was rumored to be the smartest-girl-in-school; My best friend was a body builder inspired by Pumping Iron; My other friends ran the Audio Video club as if it was the CIA; I was the worst guy on the Math Team and spent every moment I could in the Library reading Science Fiction; Worst of all I was the President of the High School Band, elected at first as a joke and re-elected because I was clearly the only soul who cared.
But there was one thing that kept me from depression in the face of the jocks’ taunts and cheerleaders’ cold shoulders. That was Pop Music. Back then I called it Rock and it defined my social circle. While the psychological rifts between those who love Algebra and those who did not could never be crossed, every teen at Delran High School could rock out to Kansas, Thin Lizzy, ELO, Styx, and Heart.
As a freshman in High School I was only interested in big bombastic songs with lyrics that asked rhetorical questions. The fact that the word No in the title was spelled Know meant Kansas knew exactly how to get my attention. Was it a stupid pun or deep philosophical insight? I’m old enough now to know there is no difference between the two but at the time I was young enough to want to ask the question.
The one High School party I remember well was at this rather popular girl’s house. None of my friends were there so I was bored and ignored. (I’m not even sure how I got invited.) To escape my anxiety I decided to man the record player and be the DJ. Nested in the middle of a stack of LPs was ELO’s A New World Record Album. Back then a big part of the experience was the artwork on the cover and ELO’s bright neon logo signaled icy crisp newness—So I plopped it on the turntable. I don’t down know what happened the rest of the night during the party but I still remember every song.
After school I hung out at a pizzeria in strip mall located at the halfway point between home and DHS (Delran High School). For the price of a coke and slice of sicilian it was my home away from home. I couldn’t afford to buy every album that interested me so the pizzeria was my focus group and cultural roundtable.
Thin Lizzy’s album Jailbreak was much discussed. The cover art looked as if Marvel Comics created it. Most of the songs seemed to be about a bunch of tough guys who called their girlfriend a “good looking female”. At the age of 15 I found this frank form of speech quite intoxicating.
At the time I was not a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Southern Rock (I would drastically revise my opinions when I opened my ears and listened). But Freebird was the official theme song of the DHS prom in 1977. I was a sophomore and it was the only prom I attended. The smartest-girl-in-school was my date. I now realize my prom was a tame and chase affair compared to the Jersey Shore-inspired extravaganzas of the 21st century. I dined, danced, and stayed up to 3 am. Freebird did it job.
In my final year of High School (I only stayed for 3 out of 4) my musical taste was irreparably changed forever. In the middleclass bedroom community of Delran, I was securely well insulated from Punk, Europe, and Life with a capital L. (Remember, there was no Internet, that I knew of, back then—No MTV either.)
By this time the smartest-girl-in-school had graduated early and gone off to University. In my isolation the pulsing beacon of Punk rock was beginning to worm its way into my consciousness. Bombast was replaced with raw angry beats. I’m not sure where I first heard the Sex Pistols. I didn’t understand what it was but I immediately knew that I wanted to be part of it in some way, some how.
This song , this album, this band was it. Unlike the Sex Pistols, which were beautiful, incomprehensible chaos, the Talking Heads were pure tension under a thin taunt layer of control. David Byrne sang songs about nothing and therefore, of course, everything.
What I liked best about the Heads was the clarity of purpose in their music: Not one note or beat was out of place. There was no fat, no frills, and no flourish. Their sonic tone of austerity only served to heighten the buried emotion of songs like Psycho Killer. It was the Heads who broke me like Tommy’s mirror. I forgot the High School band, put my sax permanently in its case, and bought a white-bodied replica of a fender Stratocaster. I believe this was the only important possession I brought to collage.