No one has yet been able to explain to my satisfaction that musical anomaly known as "The 80's." Wasn't disco enough of a detour away from taste? Did disco and punk have to somehow meet covertly and try to form an uneasy alliance? Is Loverboy really what you get when you mate Led Zeppelin and Donna Summers? Was it all just a set-up to make Nirvana sound better than they actually were? Were we all blinded with science? Blinded with Reaganism and the "Me" Generation?
The best of the 80's was never even on the radio (or barely got a mention). I didn't fully learn that until I got down here in the South and started hearing Guadalcanal Diary, Let's Active, the Db's and other under-the-radar bands from the incredible Athens music scene that was. Eventually, I saw all of those bands live and also learned that despite their lack of "hits," they all played great music that you could move to. I blame the 80's for the dichotomy that exists to this day--the music you listen to and the music you dance to are two different musics. I'm here to remind you that wasn't always the case. People did once actually dance to "In Gadda Da Vida," while other people were sitting in their rooms alone in the dark, staring at their lava lamps and grooving to the same song.
Now don't try to peg me as some kind of 80's-hater; a huge portion of my music collection consists of music that was produced during that decade, though not many of the hits. But anytime you read about music, there are always rumblings that things got a little off course back then. I remember when I got the 4-CD box set of Bruce Springsteen's Tracks and started reading reviews of it, one commentator mentioned that even Bruce seemed lost during much of the 80's (not an assessment I agree with, by the way).
Maybe one way to try to get an understanding of that crazy decade is to look, in retrospect, at the people who were trying to say something, even if they weren't.
Case in point: 70's California folk-rocker Jackson Browne (banished from listening in this house because of his beating of Darryl Hannah) tried to update his sound with a more electric sound, synthesizers, a cynical look at capitalism instead of the utopian perspective on agrarianism that he seemed to have embraced in much of the 70's. Lawyers In Love, the most overtly commercial of these records, had an MTV video to go with the title track and maybe one other song. It's slick stuff, flawlessly played by session musicians with Browne in a minor, supporting instrumental role. Maybe it was the cocaine runnin' all around his brain. Probably.
Nevertheless, he has a hard time shaking his deep thoughts and political causes, even though some of his catchiest and most endearing songs (think "Somebody's Baby" from the Fast Times At Ridgemont High soundtrack) come out of the 80's, when he may have sought a larger audience but also gained an expanded sense of melody.
But situated in what would be the "death position" on a CD today (who listens all the way to the end anymore?) and may have been a kind of banishment even back then, last song on the second side of the vinyl album, Lawyers In Love, there exists a gem, at least to my ears. It's called "For A Rocker."
Maybe it was intended to be a toss-off. After all, it is a party song, it name-checks the members of the band, it doesn't seem to have much purpose beyond clarifying that a party will happen (and why):
Open the door, baby, turn on the light
We're gonna have a party tonight
For a rocker
For a rocker
I know it's late and you're already down
You ain't ready for people around
I'm gonna tell you something I found out
Whatever you think life is about
Whatever life may hold in store
Things will happen that you won't be ready for
I've got a shirt so unbelievably right
I'm gonna dig it out and wear it tonight
For a rocker
For a rocker
Therein lies the rub. The song is actually implied conversation between the narrator and the woman who lives with him, who is in no mood for a party. But he anticipates her reluctance and tells her why it's so important she be a part of it (Things will happen that you won't be ready for). In between the details of the upcoming party itself are the explanations for why it has to happen and why it isn't too much of an imposition after all:
Don't have to change, don't have to be sweet
Gonna be too many people to possibly meet
Don't have to feed 'em, they don't eat
They've got their power supplies in the soles of their feet
They exist for one thing, and one thing only
To escape living the lives of the lonely
And eventually you get to who the rocker is, who the party is for. He's a fellow musician who is leaving:
For a friend of mine, from the neighborhood
Moving down the line, after tonight he'll be gone for good.
For even in a song like this, Jackson Browne has to try to make things matter, to gain a higher sense of purpose:
Till the morning comes, till the car arrives
Till we kill the drums, till we lose our lives.
Injected into this party song are those anti-party emotions of despair, alienation, loneliness and loss. But are those emotions really so antithetical to the notions of partying? Hrothgar's thanes, in the epic poem Beowulf, spend their time carousing in Hereot, the great mead hall, because they are "forgetting the woes of the world of men." What party doesn't thrive precisely because it has to end--someone has to leave, duty calls, time runs out?
But there's even more to the song for me. Songs become what we make them into, whether they were ever intended to be those things or not. They can't help it, we can't help it, and no artist can argue against our interpretation. Once the song gets put out there, the call is all ours. "For A Rocker," was, for me, a remembrance of a friend I had lost a couple of years earlier. It's a wake he never had, a gathering that never occurred after his suicide in the lonely woods of Michigan. Near the end, Browne says to his woman, "I don't want to argue, I don't want to fight/But there will definitely be a party tonight." As if it were the only thing that matters. I like to imagine the urgency of that gathering, that it is for a person, that it is for a rocker.
Maybe the best way for us to understand much of the music of the 80's is to remind ourselves how much there was to try to forget or to try to come to terms with at the time. The things that happened that we weren't ready for.
"For A Rocker" is on Lawyers In Love, available at Itunes. By the way, I didn't say a thing about the music. In spite of some key synthesizer parts, the song does rock; otherwise, we wouldn't be talking about it.