1985. The year of We Are The World. The year of more bullshit from Reagan and something grownups kept talking about I’d never heard before, something called Lebanon. The year Talking Heads released Little Creatures, in which David Byrne sang of a girl lying on the grass and floating through the air, of a perfect universe and a road to nowhere. The year I found out what a virgin was, thanks to Madonna.
This was the year that pop music was everything to me, and I used to call up my best friend on the telephone and bemoan Sunday nights, because they only led to Mondays, because Monday was when we had to return to the dreaded School. At nine years old, I knew nothing about getting to work late, or kissing Italian-named boys in my dreams, but I knew that Mondays sucked, and every week I came down with a case of them.
I stumbled into 1985 on the way back from a trip to southern California this weekend. My mind and heart and body were already reeling from the many-pronged assault of family baggage, the weight of Time and Mortality, the physical displeasure of sitting in cars on your days off and eating many fried things, and… Riverside County. We made it through LA and the rain started up again. The bumped and tarred veins of Highway 101 were slick and everything had that daytime-dark glow, when you know there’s sun behind the cloud but its light is filtered through the unseasonable condensation of this atmosphere: heavy with light.
Our state is beautiful. Hills like bleachers surround the car, the unusual greens plastered by the rains on the meadows contrasting with the deep gold of summer hay waiting for it to actually be summer. Black cows as freckles. Oaks to make a conquistador sigh with homesick. The ocean water is still beneath the rain water and the palm trees shake in the quiet storm’s path, defiant. One or two surfers defy it, too.
We stopped in Santa Barbara to surprise my dear friends and check out their amazing new record store in person. I am jealous in all the right ways, sitting on the floor of the stock room eating tacos and being thrilled at the physical realization of all the ways in which I always thought, “If I had a store, this is how I’d do it.” Good work, kids.
The rain calmed and the lunch break was over and we had to get on the road again. Max remembered that we needed music for the car, thanks to a temper tantrum (only half-joking) I threw on the way out of town Friday when I realized I had forgotten my chosen stack of road trip CDs and Max, unaware of my very specific driving-music needs, had brought nothing but soft indie rock and West African guitar music.
“No,” I had explained, astounded that I even needed to clarify. “Road trip music should be music that I know the words to, music with a driving rock backbeat, with drums and bass, and preferably bar chords. White Americans with guitars, that’s what I need to start off a road trip. Later when the road gets blurry we can segue into the filmic African soundtrack, or ladies singing old-timey labor movement songs, but I want to sing along as I pull out of town.”
With this in mind, I chose a couple cassettes from the small selection on the back wall of the store, a dollar each because that’s how old we are now, and we pointed the car back onto the north-south path. The best options to fulfill my overly specific yet still vague demands were Little Creatures, by Talking Heads, and the Bangles album Different Light. Both were recorded in 1985.
The tape starts, and now the clouds are mountains themselves: inverse ranges of hip-shaped rows in alternating light and dark greys. I remember: this is one of my favorite things. Road trippin’, California style, with a person you love and music you know the words to. I turn it up and Max grins in sort-of amazement as I start singing along, hitting every word with the correct inflection and timing. It’s like riding a bike. The gold tipped hills of California are my onlookers and if I had a hairbrush I’d use it as a microphone. It’s just another Manic Monday…
The song’s goodness stands out on an otherwise pretty mediocre album of songs the Bangles didn’t write (including a bizarrely bad “September Gurls”) that was recorded more slickly and gently then their previous 60’s girl-group inspired album. It’s only after sitting down to write about this that I am reminded “Manic Monday” was written by Prince and duked it out on the charts against “Kiss,” my other favorite 4th-grade song. (Like Cyndi Lauper’s Prince-written hit, “When You Were Mine,” the gender pronouns in a love song by a male songwriter sung by a female singer within the presumed heterosexual context of pop music, and when and where they are switched, are sometimes interesting, especially to a nine-year-old).
This song is bedroom phone conversations and fantasies of adulthood and 1985 and the sound of pop, then. In 1985 I probably drove this route with my mom and brother on Christmas, stopping at Pea Soup Andersen’s at night for me to gaze in the bright-lit windows at dimly lit figurines that moved and sang. Then it was back to sleeping in the back seat of the Mazda again, mildly dreading the oncoming crush of family and worlds that I never considered mine, driving and tanning and buying and the southern California-ness of it all, my richer Republican relations and their questions and amazement at us, brown-haired Northern non-Christian children among a sea of blonde ornaments with our skateboards and our books.
1985 must have been shortly after the year my cousin Christie and I staged a riveting lip sync choreography routine to Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” in the living room of a soul-free condo in Palm Desert, and certainly after the at-home choreography sessions in my best friend’s living room back north in Santa Cruz, which often involved the soundtrack to Flashdance. It was not long after I listened to the Top 40 countdown every Sunday morning on the radio, tape recording my favorite songs on a handheld player borrowed from my older brother and dreaming up ways to call in to the station to win those free Prince tickets.
This was a moment of childhood, but also of growing older. Of no more performing in living rooms, of learning to live lives in public away from the family’s realm, learning to make excuses for being late, and beginning to concoct a fantasy of a glamorous future in which I was a city girl, shook out of dreams by alarms the morning after, just tryin’ to make it to work on time and blamin’ it on the train.
[PS - My camera is having a moment of deadness, so a pretty picture of the vinyl version's cover art will have to wait...]