Back in October the family and I took our annual vacation. Typically that falls in June/July, but thanks to the world shutting down in 2020 we decided to get away in late fall. Sure, the pandemic was still running hot and heavy, but our vacation was being spent in a cabin in the woods of Brown County. We were isolating with nature, a rustic locale, and a pool table in the basement.
On one of our expeditions out of our secluded spot was to downtown Nashville(fully masked and ready to throat punch any mouthbreathers coming our way.) Nashville, Indiana is a tourist town, filled with local artisans selling their wares. Paintings, homemade candles, furniture, hand-carved chess boards, and of course homemade jewelry are all up for grabs in Nashville. It’s the kind of stuff you gawk at on a humid summer or fall day sipping on a lemon icee and gnawing on monster cookies whilst dreaming of getting back to your car and leaving.
One of the stores we found ourselves entering was a hat store(it was right next to a shop with a guy selling fireworks and guns, ‘Merica.) There was nothing all that amazing about the hats. Just your average leather caps, some strange fedoras with feathers in them, and some rebel flag beanies for the true patriots. It was the radio playing over our heads that struck me. The song, Robbie Dupree’s one-hit wonder “Steal Away” played overhead like it was 1980 all over again. I don’t think I’d heard that song since I was a kid in short pants sitting in the backseat of my parents Omni Miser, most likely going clothes shopping with my mom to Kline’s in downtown Warsaw. It felt like traveling back in time hearing that cheesy Michael McDonald rip-off of a song.
This got me thinking about the radio, or more to the point the importance of pop radio in my life. As an adult and throughout most of my later teen years radio was inconsequential. By the time I was 15-years old I’d have headphones over my ears on the school bus listening to the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen, Dokken, and Megadeth, leaving the bus radio play to the little kids and lonely hearts who dug all that Janet Jackson and Young MC noise. And by 1984 my parents bought a brand new Honda Accord with a sweet cassette deck in it, which allowed my brother and I to serenade our parents with a stockpile of hair metal cassettes whenever we took a family trip(occasionally my parents would veto our suggestions and play John Fogerty’s Centerfield or George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ Bad To The Bone.)
But prior to owning a Walkman and having a cassette deck in the family sedan radio was my main source of music. The aforementioned car rides into town with my mom was soundtracked by pop radio stations like 92.9 out of South Bend, 97.3 out of Fort Wayne, and even occasionally my hometown’s own 107.3 WRSW. The early 80s were marked by quirky pop hits like, of course, Robbie Dupree’s “Steal Away”, or Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”, and Toto’s “Africa”. I’d get lost in thought in the backseat of that 1981 Omni Miser while bearded, permed hair gentlemen sang songs about sailing away and reminiscing, while women in glittery tops and permed hair sang about Gloria and Flashdance. It didn’t all connect to my little kid brain, but I didn’t care. It was something to concentrate on, both in the car and at the womens’ boutique as my mom tried on blouses and high rise jeans.
We often went to my grandma’s house in the summer, usually once a week. She lived on Lake Manitou about 25 miles from our house, so mom and I would get in the car and head over for a day of pontoon rides, fishing, and lots of Nestle Crunch Bars(my grandpa was a salesman for Nestle and had a room full of candy in the basement.) Those rides were filled with pop radio, both modern and oldies(though at that point songs from the late 60s/early 70s were only about a decade old.) I became quite fond of early solo McCartney, Steve Miller Band, and Three Dog Night on those rides. I think my mom preferred those to whatever modern pop radio had to offer, and I did, too. Besides my parents spinning Aerosmith, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Grand Funk LPs on the living room hi fi, those car rides hearing 70s pop rock really went a long way to shaping my musical tastes.
But where the radio was my dirty little secret was middle school. Those early morning bus rides to Warsaw Middle School was where I’d indulge those early teen crushes and heartbreaks. Billy Vera and the Beaters, T’Pau, Prince, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper gave me the songs I needed to cope with those adolescent growing pains. I had two girlfriends in the first three months of 7th grade, both of which ended at my own action because I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Dating with a 7th grader was like offering a firearm to a toddler. Only bad things could possibly happen, man. Those mid-80s pop hits gave me the right amount of reflection, depression, and healthy heart pain that allowed me to work out the kinks and figure my stuff out. It didn’t lessen the pain of understanding these new “feelings” I was going thru, but it gave me this weird fantasy life between 6:30am and 7:45 where I could beat myself up mentally and come out of it a little smarter. Or tougher. Or both.
As much as I couldn’t stand a good portion of 80s pop radio, there were spots of greatness. Hearing David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise” on the ride home from school, or Michael Penn’s “No Myth” before hitting the middle school on a Friday morning were small blessings in disguise. Or 7th grade and hearing Beastie Boys on U93 because “You’ve Gotta Fight For Your Right(To Party)” was just that popular at the time was a sign that things might take a turn for the better.
Things just aren’t the same anymore(old man rant, look out!) Radio is a completely different beast nowadays. Sure there were big conglomerates running things in radio even back in the 80s, but humans stilled manned the boards. Today things are run by computers and radio stations are formatted for certain listeners. In the 80s you could still hear songs from Toto, Madonna, Steely Dan, and Run DMC all in the same hour on the same station. Everything is categorized for our pleasure nowadays, and DJs are there to talk to local politicians and visiting comedians only. They’re not taking requests or even spinning an album side-length track so they can step out and smoke a joint. Everything is pre-planned, canned, and packaged for mass consumption. No personality. No adventurous DJs spinning something some local band dropped off at the front desk.
Radio isn’t what it used to be, but for a time in my life, it was everything. It was a friend in the darkness when I was all alone and looking to connect to something, or someone. It was a voice from the ether playing songs that said what I was thinking but couldn’t admit it. Radio was the weird, lovelorn diary I would access when I couldn’t figure out my emotions on my own. It was my temple of resignation. My mountaintop of lovelorn heaviness.
Into the night, babe
Why don’t we steal away
Make it tonight
Why don’t we steal away