My daughter recently started high school.
As I walk into the stands at her school’s football games, past the sidelines, I sometimes get very visceral flashbacks of my own days on a football field, the very same field on some occasions.
I never played a down of the sport.
I was an equipment manager for the team.
You can call us water boys if you want to be spiteful.
But we did so much more than that.
I think back to a stadium of vacant bleachers; not a player in sight. Just us managers, setting up for the game, maybe taking the field and throwing around a few balls ourselves if there was time.
In the latter half of those years, if it was a home game, something off of Journey’s Escape album would likely be blaring over the PA system, helping the moment to somehow become bigger than life.
When I hear Neil Schon’s soaring lead guitar at the end of “Stone in Love”, and Ross Valory breaking into that melodic bass line in lock step underneath, I don’t even need to be in a football stadium.
I am instantly transported back to that vast, empty field on a crisp, fall evening under the towers of bright lights and I’m hit with a distinct, somewhat bittersweet feeling.
This deeply embedded memory would not likely have seemed significant to anyone outside of it, fading quickly into obscurity before barely anyone even knew it existed. In some ways, it mirrors the time in which I grew up.
By nearly all accounts, the post-World War II baby boom that occurred in many countries ended in 1964.
I was born in 1965. Back then, the concept of naming generations wasn’t really a thing. The earliest record of the term “baby boomers” being used seems to be around 1963, about 17 years after the boom started.
In similar fashion, those of us that followed the baby boom were not referred to as Generation X until the early 90s, when I was out of college and well into adulthood and the working world.
What this means is that for my entire childhood and teenage years, I belonged to a no-name generation. Which tracks.
People tend to associate Gen X not with our growing up years of the 70s and 80s, but with the trappings of the early 90s grunge music.
I was certainly affected by the culture of that time, even growing out my hair. And I do have some of the defining characteristics of Gen X.
But being in my mid-twenties when all of that occurred means that I don’t identify with it in the same way as those who grew up in it. Lots of flannel, teen angst, cynicism, slackers, and such.
Both the Baby Boomers and the generation that proceeded them, which Tom Brokaw would eventually label “The Greatest Generation,” were strongly defined by the reality of war.
In the 40s, my father dropped out of school at age 16, lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy and was shipped out to the war.
The late 60s were rife with societal unrest and upheaval, with a central point of contention being the Vietnam War and the horrors experienced by those who fought in it.
By the time I was a teenager we were far removed from all of this. The thought that we could be involuntarily sent thousands of miles from home to fight and kill was almost incomprehensible to most of us. (Younger boomers can probably relate to this as well.)
Toward the end of my freshman year in college, I did get an idea in my head that signing up for the Army Reserves to help with tuition costs was a solid plan.
Just going for the physical felt like an isolating, humiliating and dehumanizing experience.
I didn’t pass. Which was the best thing that could have happened, as boot camp would have likely scarred my delicate psyche for life if I even had survived it. And the thought of 19-year-old me defending the country should have been scary to everyone.
No, my teenage years were in stark contrast to the cataclysmic times that preceded us.
My friends and I spent much of our spare time at the video game arcade, pizza joint or the movies. Most of the places we frequented were newer establishments, only to become obsolete just a decade or two later and cease to exist, as if our collective experience was destined to be swallowed up quickly into the past with no trace of evidence.
The six-theater multiplex would give way to the giant 24 screen megaplex.
The indoor mall would be torn down and replaced by an outdoor mall.
Some high schools closed permanently.
Video game arcades were suddenly all the rage – and then almost completely disappeared just a few years later, as home consoles such as Nintendo and Sega took over. I remember once trying to take my nephew, who was visiting from out of town, to a video game arcade I hadn’t frequented in a couple of years.
Only to find that it was it not only closed down:
but the entire strip mall that housed it had been plowed to the ground – and was just gone.
If we’ve learned anything from Billy Joel’s magnum opus, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (Tom Breihan rated it a “1”), every generation has defining moments and important things happening. Of course, one must set aside the fact that the song ends with Billy shouting out “Rock and roller cola wars…” – which is not very historically significant at all – and works against his point.
Despite the song’s flaws, Billy’s overall premise was not wrong. But are all eras of history remembered equally?
It would appear that those of us who grew up in between the Boomers and the 90s kids are part of an era that is somewhat forgotten.
In terms of music, when I look at my time in high school, 1979-1983, we didn’t have anything quite like the Beatles and the British invasion before us, and Nirvana, et al. after.
Disco had permeated our junior high years.
Though it wasn’t dead in the fall of ‘79, it was seriously losing its foothold, and in my suburban almost all-white, all-boys high school, it was nowhere to be found.
There wasn’t that one sound that dominated my high school years, but instead, many styles of music, and artists, old and new, competing for attention, including a second British invasion, and it was all a bit scattered. Synthesizers were more prominent than ever, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they somehow tied everything together.
When something extraordinary such as The Wall exploded into the atmosphere, it was more of a last gasp of the classic era of rock, and nothing quite like it followed.
Many people nowadays speak highly of the mainstream rock that was popular at the time. In real time, it was often dismissed as too cheesy to measure up to what came before it, nor did it culturally dominate like the flashier hair metal that was in its infant stages and would eventually take over.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller burst into the pop atmosphere my senior year.
It goes without saying that it was an absolute game changer and would go down in history as a certified candidate for the Mt. Rushmore of albums.
That said, it was the first shot fired in the transformation of 80s pop as people probably most remember it.
The flood gates were just opening.
For the time being, top 40 radio was in flux.
Rather than continue to try and describe the different kinds of music which were co-existing without one ring to rule them all:
I’m just going to offer a playlist of songs that were current during my high school years and that I genuinely liked, (though I wouldn’t always have copped to it) and for the most part still do.
You will see that it’s stylistically all over the map; at times jarringly so. My tastes may have been broader than others, but I do believe that it paints a picture of the divergent trends and cultural shifts that were transpiring at the time.
Absent from the list is a great deal of groundbreaking music, particularly punk and edgier new wave, that didn’t quite reach my environs.
We would see the albums in the record store, and they held an exotic and somewhat verboten allure, but no one I knew purchased them.
Though I came to love quite a bit of it in my later years, it wasn’t something I experienced back then.
Many of us didn’t.
If we had, maybe it would have provided more definition to our high school days, and simultaneously make us look way cooler than most of us were. Not long after I graduated, my younger sister Elise would embrace much of the music that to us had been underground, and she indeed was (and is) much cooler than I could ever hope to be.
So: who were we?
I don’t have a definitive answer. Because I’m not sure there is one.
I don’t think I could define my generation by a general zeitgeist, nor by the events we witnessed, or a stand many took at the time. And a generation is never a monolith, anyway. There were certainly pockets of resistance that didn’t fit in to what I have been describing.
As well as: people of a different background, orientation, or ethnicity that shaped their experiences in not the same way as mine. In all these respects, I would soon encounter much more diversity in college.
But without the visible threat of something impossible for the whole of the younger generation to ignore, such as a compulsory draft, there was no mass upheaval. Perhaps the fact that we didn’t, in large numbers, question or rebel against the prevailing thinking and politics of the time, or speak out against injustices is part of why we are remembered -or not remembered – as we are, fair or not.
In the end, for me, it wasn’t about what was going on around us.
It was about the people with whom I interacted and spent time, and the memories we created.
I will always cherish those days and they will likely retain a powerful hold on me.
But I also see as an adult that on multiple levels, I need to move past that insular world in which I grew up. I am convinced today that it is essential to have an awareness of what is happening in the here and now and in the world around me as a starting point.
To ignore it, or to view it strictly through the lens of the past and my own experience, is akin to fading away like so many of the buildings that we frequented those many years ago.
In the late ‘00s, while reflecting on those fleeting days of being a nameless horde, and what it all might have meant, I wrote and recorded a song about it called “The Forgotten Generation.”
Much of what I’ve said here expounds on what was conveyed in the song. You can hear it here:
And here is the playlist, as promised:
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