There’s that “Seasons of Love” song from the musical Rent that asks how you measure the “five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes” of a year. “In laughter, in strife?” Or truths we learned.
You’d think that with all that pandemic lockdowns, I would have been blogging my ass off, but I only managed to get 19 posts out in 2020. Part of that was the task of moving a full time teaching schedule into a remote platform, part of it was spent rallying in front of the Portland Justice Center and dodging teargas canisters. But the truth is, we spent more time cocooning, ordering take-out and bingeing on endless episodes of 90 Day Fiancé.
It was somewhat of a blessing that I got to do my “What does it all mean?” and “Why Portland?” TV interviews from my living room, via Zoom. The world’s media was in Portland this summer, covering the protests. I was interviewed byLa Monde from France (an 80’s Randy dream), as well as by reporters from South Korea, Switzerland, Denmark, Turkey, and several others that are lost in the fog. From assigning White Fragility to my students to talking to CNN’s W. Kamau Bell for United Shades of America (after getting a COVID test), it was a great year for pushing the conversation about race and racism in America.
We did have some safe road trips to give us a break from quarantine, including to the heart of Trump country in Eastern Oregon. It really was a year to focus on family, marriage, home improvement, and all things close to home. Which was made easier since I spent a good third of the year in Facebook jail.
Watching the collapse of Donald Trump’s bid to become America’s first dictator was the most satisfying part of 2020. It’s too bad that his abdication from his Constitutional role was at expense of the the lives of 345,000 Americans (and more deaths to come). It will take decades to clean up the mess Trump will leave us when he is dragged out of the White House on January 20th. Trump will be gone but his sub-moronic base is sure pray for their orange messiah’s return. That will keep me busy on the right-wing extremism front.
My joke about this year has been that 2020 will make 1968 look like 1954, but without the soundtrack. That’s not quite true. There has been a lot of great music this year, including full albums recorded while on lockdown (or “rockdown,” as Paul McCartney called it). Unfortunately, a lot of us where not in the mood to search out new music this year, especially when all live shows were cancelled. I found my muse in creating numerous Spotify playlists, like chronologies of Prince and The Kinks. My music highlight of the year was Beyoncé’s musical film, Black is King, released during the summer. Visually stunning and perfectly timely as the streets were filled with Black Lives Matter protestors.
The truth is that my most listened to album in 2020 was released in the summer of 2019. Lana del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell was on repeat play through the year. It’s 67 and a half minutes of epic soundscape offered endless layers of discovery. Like an arthouse film that reveals a different interpretation with each viewing, Norman Fucking Rockwell was an expansive chasm of wordplay and music pulled from the dreamworld.
Similarly, some of my favorite albums of 2020 came out at the very end of 2019 (Harry Styles, The Who). Others were the casualties of COVID (Toots Hibbert, RIP) or commenting on the meaning of it (Bob Dylan’s sweeping tome). The death of George Floyd gave us the most clear musical moment, including powerful releases from Run the Jewels and Black Thought. But nothing sounded more like 2020 than the third album by the British band Sault. Untitled (Black Is) brought the themes of being locked down and tearing down racism into a hypnotic swirl that was both backward and forward looking. I didn’t quite get the Taylor Swift album but the Sault album seemed to be the right album at the right time.
Flipping back through the new music I dug in 2020, here’s my top 20 albums of the year. I expect that, with massive vaccinations, 2021 will kick off our swinging ‘20s.
1. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)
2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
3. Harry Styles – Fine Line
4. Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able
5. Drive-by Truckers – The Unraveling
6. The Who – Who
7. Paul McCartney – McCartney III
8. Shelby Lynne – Shelby Lynne
9. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions
10. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
11. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You
12. Paul Weller – On Sunset
13. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
14. Toots and the Maytals – Got to Be Tough
15. Lido Pimienta – Miss Columbia
16. Various Artists – PDX Pop Now Vol. 17
17. Pearl Jam – Gigaton
18. Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
19. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
20. Neil Young – Homegrown
And a special mention of The Chicks “March, March” single, which gave us the most needed video of the year, and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” which the girls in the neighborhood mimed endlessly this summer.
When we wake from a dream, half remembering the details and then immediately losing them, we only know what we don’t know. Keith Richards once wrote in his detailed autobiography, “Memory is fiction” as a way of letting himself off the hook for constructing a picture of his life that may have diverted from facts. But all history is a construction. George Washington told a lie or two. When I remember something in my own life, am I remembering it as it happened, or merely remembering my last memory of it? A picture of a picture, losing sharpness with each copy.
That’s sort of how I reflect on 2020, a year of years, as if a dream that I am just now waking up from. Did all that happen? The clouds of CS gas may have affected my cognitive ability. If I’m not mistaken, everything collapsed. Reality as we know it ended and I’m a bit foggy on whether that was a bad or a good thing.
The year for me really began on March 11. Before that it was the usual drama; war in the Persian Gulf, Democratic debates, stock market and helicopter crashes, and me trying to get my kindergartner dressed for school. The news about the “novel coronavirus” had been spreading fast and I remember telling my students in February that this was probably going to be the story of the year. Little did I know it would be a tsunami that would wash over every person on the planet. March 11 was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was also the day that we were supposed to see Patti Smith in concert. We had tickets for show at the Seattle Paramount and were going to drive up after my Wednesday classes. That afternoon the show was cancelled out of fear of the virus spreading (Washington was the first state to get hit) and I had a feeling that it was just getting started. The following day Tom Hanks was was sick. As goes Tom Hanks, so goes the world.
The year now exists in a series of half remembered moments that may have been scenes from a movie and not my life.
I remember fleeing Portland because the wildfires in Oregon and California had clogged the air with smoke, making breathing impossible. We headed as far west as possible, ending up in Newport, Oregon, which was a mixture of smoke and fog but at least you could breathe. You couldn’t see the ocean and the escape it promised. We camped out in the Sylvia writers’ hotel, where we found sanctuary in old books as our daughter played with Shelly the Cat. (I am back at the Sylvia Hotel now, sitting next to my wife who is writing her book that will change the world. I can see the Pacific Ocean and it can see me. I’m finally starting Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey.) When the rains came back to Oregon, Cozy and I danced in the streets, thanking Gaia for protecting our house.
I remember Andi and I being in the streets of Portland as the revolution ramped up. Trump’s federal troops had come in to quash the Black Lives Matter protests, which only brought more anti-fascist Americanos to the fight. By that week’s Battle of Portland, we already had a few tear-gassings under our belt. There was a moment this July night (really morning) when I was hiding behind a concrete pillar on SW 5th Avenue as the DHS troops fired rounds at unarmed protestors. Was this Argentina, 1979, Mexico City, 1968, Belfast, 1972, Cairo, 2013? What country was I in and would I be killed by a hastily assembled gang of federal forces whose only mandate was to show that Trump was tough on “antifa”? Andrea and I made a mad dash across the street to a safer alcove. In 1994 I had tried to get to Sarajevo from Austria and was blocked at the border. In 2020, I was in the middle of something equally as historic. A group of protestors came marching eastward, chanting “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA” and the federal forces fired rounds and them and then chased them down to attempt mass arrests. “Oh my God” Andi screamed. Was that America or was that a dream?
I remember having to move my college classes to a remote set-up and hoping my students, laid flat by deportations, lay offs, depression, and the virus itself, would show up. Weekly Zoom meetings became more like therapy sessions and I found myself longing to see their two-dimensional faces. Most typically kept their cameras on mute, making me wonder if I was dreaming them or they were dreaming me. Did they even exist? A name on a role and on a screen. Had the virus erased them, as well? While my daughter found community in a neighborhood “pod school” with four other first-graders, I was stuck in my living room, whiskey in my coffee, pretending I was a college professor.
I remember watching the body count. 1000 dead. 50,000 dead. 250,000 dead. 294,535 dead, just in the U.S.. All while the president played golf and held super-spreader rallies, proclaiming it would magically go away after election day. (Didn’t he get the virus? And his wife? And his kids? And his greasy-hands-in-pants lawyer?) I remember thinking that I had COVID more than once, including this morning. (That was just a hangover from drinking Gin Rickies in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room at the Sylvia.) I remember worrying I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Andi and Cozy with a ventilator down my throat. My parents, in their seventies in hard hit Georgia, stayed in my mind. Would I get to see them again? Would anything be anything again?
I remember a gameshow president trying to imitate his dictator pals, even after he lost the election BY A LOT. I think about his cult-like followers caravanning into Portland in pick-up trucks, shooting paintball guns (and real ones) at protesters, oblivious to the 1922 March on Rome that brought fascism to Italy wrapped in a national flag and the cry, “Kill the communists!” I wonder where those people are now. Training for Civil War II, I imagine, their orange lord encouraging to them face the bullets while he snorts Adderall in his last moments in the White House. Donald Trump was cancelled like Coachella, but the specter of his idiocy hovers like a toxic cloud from a sewage plant fire.
I remember a planet convulsing with the burden of having to carry the human race for another year. So many hurricanes they had to start the alphabet over again. Endless fires and floods and people wondered, “Is Tiger King on?”
And I remember black people begging for their lives to matter. Not begging, demanding. Tired of this shit 155 after the end of slavery and yet it continues. The signs said it all, “Enough is enough!,” “Black trans lives matter!” “Stop killing us!” and a thousand others. A hundred nights of protests in Portland. Americans being gassed in Lafayette Park so Trump could hold a prop Bible. White People reading White Fragility and then looking in the mirror. A racial convulsion of a nation that had too long denied its sins. Was this an awakening or were we still asleep?
But I also remember the more personal moments, like my wife being awarded her masters degree and then landing a teaching gig at Reed College, or my daughter learning how to ride a bike or communing the the lemurs at the Zoo. Those moments seemed more real than watching the death throes of the American Century. Deep, quarantine-time conversations with my wife about how to make our marriage a friendship meant more than worrying about Melania and her celebrity apprentice.
With the vaccine and Inauguration Day on the way, I’m ready to wake up and see how this year will be remembered. But I’m happy to wait for the grand historical recap to be told. Or the post mortem. In 2021, when we open our eyes, there will be a dance where we once again embrace and celebrate the joy of life, vowing to not go back to sleep.
Every generation has its snapshot memory, a historical event that is frozen in time. Talk to a baby boomer about the day JFK was shot. Ask Gen Xers about where they were when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded. Younger “Greatest Generation” members talk about Pearl Harbor the way elder Millennials talk about 9/11. Like it happened yesterday. So much of the minutia of our lives is lost to the fog of time, but that event, like any snapshot, captures the detail of our lives and frames it in the historical context of that specific moment.
For me it was the morning of December 9, 1980, the morning I woke up to find that my beloved Beatle had been murdered.
Since this blog is dedicated the feminist influence of househusband John Lennon, I thought I’d try to recreate that snapshot. I understand, just like there are people alive now who have never known a world without a cold war or without the internet, there are billions alive who have never lived on the same planet as John Winston Ono Lennon.
First things first, in 1980 I was know as the biggest Beatles fan at Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Even more than my obsession for the Ramones and all things punk was by fandom for the Fab Four. I bought solo albums the day they were released, including Wing’s London Town and Ringo’s Bad Boy in 1978, Wings’ Back to the Egg and George’s George Harrison in 1979, and Paul’s McCartney II in 1980, and most significantly John’s Double Fantasy in November 1980. John hadn’t released any new music in five years and it was a big deal. Yeah, it was really a “John & Yoko” album and yeah, I wasn’t mad about the Elvis-sounding “Starting Over” single, but I quickly fell in love with the LP (bought at Turtles Records & Tapes on Memorial Drive). There were rumors John would tour in the new year and rumors about the rumors that said Cheap Trick would be his backing band,
By the first week of December of I was reading every interview John was doing and, again, dreaming that the world was preparing us for the inevitable Beatles reunion, at that point, the very reason for living for any music fan. Both John and Paul sported Beatle haircuts on their new albums, That must mean something!
The country in late 1980 was in a weird place. We were a year into the crippling Iranian hostage crisis that played a role in Ronald Reagan beating incumbent Jimmy Carter. The 80s felt like they were about to bust loose on a new wave soundtrack, but there was a dark cloud hovering.
The guy that killed John went to Columbia High School, one of the Dekalb County rivals of my school. He was on some psychotic mission that changed the world at 10:50 pm when he shot John Lennon 4 times outside the Dakota, John and Yoko’s gothic New York City apartment. A spot I visit almost every single time I go to New York City.
John was known as being super accessible in the Big Apple, loving the freedom of movement he didn’t have in England. The fall of 1980 my friend Ed and I discussed going to NYC the summer of 1981, after graduation, and hanging out in front of the Dakota to meet John and thank him for all the great music he had given us.
The night of December 8th, for some reason, I had been gone to bed early. Sportscaster Howard Cosell interrupted his broadcast of Monday Night Football to tell the world that Beatle John Lennon had been shot. Friends began calling our house to share the shattering news but my mother chose to let me sleep. Instead she laid the morning copy of the Atlanta Constitution on the kitchen table the following morning.
Like most Tuesday mornings, I woke up and turned on 96 Rock, pleased to hear a Beatles song on the radio. I showered and got dressed to more Beatles songs. Perhaps it was a “super-set.” I went into the kitchen for breakfast, first turning on my parents 70s console hifi (96 Rock was obviously on a Beatle binge.) The 1967 classic, “A Day in the Life,” began to play. The line “I read the news today, oh boy” came out of the speakers just as I looked down at the newspaper. “John Lennon Slain by New York Gunman.”
The headline was next to a picture of John in a suit and tie from his 1976 immigration hearing. My first thought was, “Wow, there’s another John Lennon” thinking the clean cut gent was a politician or businessman who shared a name with MY John Lennon. Then I realized it was my John Lennon and it felt like the floor fell out from under me. I quickly turned on Good Morning America and saw the scenes of thousands of fans sobbing outside the Dakota in New York. My head was reeling. I wanted to go to New York. I wanted to murder the man who murdered John Lennon.
Instead I ran to my room. “Watching the Wheels” was playing on the radio. I fell on my bed, surrounded by Beatle and John posters, and sobbed. “I just had to let it go.”
My mother reminded me I had to go to school, so I put on a John Lennon Walls and Bridges t-shirt (that I got at Beatlefest ’78) and carried myself to Redan. I only made it through three periods. I had become the wailing wall for the Beatle fans at school. Where before I got abuse for my weird music tastes, now I got hugs. Girls, who would never talk to me, came up to me in tears to say they were sorry. My English teacher, Mrs. Patsy Zimmerman, told me she had taught John’s killer when she was at Columbia. We both burst into tears and I decided to leave. I put the school’s flag at half mast and walked home, vowing to never laugh again, a punishment for the world stealing this peacemaker from us.
The week was spent playing records and piecing together what happened. I sat in my room, playing Double Fantasy and thinking I would suddenly wake up to find it had all been a nightmare and that the dream was over. Instead of a funeral, Yoko asked fans to gather that Sunday, December 14, for a 10-minute silent vigil. I ended up in Piedmont Park with thousands of other Atlanta-area fans. Without direction, at 2 pm the crowd moved to the center of the field on the south side of the park, grabbed hands and then formed a massive circle for ten very long and quiet minutes. Then someone began singing “Give Peace a Chance.” We all joined in and moved back to the center and hugged each other for the next hour. Peace. “Ah, this is what John was talking about,” I remember thinking.
“Starting Over” shot to #1 on the charts and six weeks later Ronald Reagan was sworn in, launching an era that we REALLY could have used John Lennon to help navigate.
I was 16 on that day and I am 56 today. It seems like a minute ago. John’s served as a model for mine, the evolution of a man. He died at 40, so I will now always be older than him, but I still feel like I learn from him in new and surprising ways. This “househusband blog” has been a part of that lesson. We all shine on in our own way.
I miss you, John and if I had gotten to meet you in the summer of 1981, I would have thanked you for showing me how to grow.
One of my guilty pandemic pleasures (besides watching 90 Day Fiancé) has been making playlists on Spotify. I’ve made playlists that chart Prince’s album chronology and playlists loaded with songs about denim (“Forever in Blue Jeans”). I started doing month-based playlists, beginning with cuts from albums released in January, 1973. I was traipsing through 1979, month-by-month, reliving all the LPs I bought, borrowed or stole in my 15th year on earth. My top three favorite bands that year were, in order, The Who, Blondie, and The Police. It was the year of new wave.
It was also another year of disco.
While 1979 gave us The Cars, Gary Numan, and Nick Lowe, the radio was still dominated by dance tracks by Chic, the Bee Gees, and Donna Summer. The summer radio of ’79 was an ongoing battle between “My Sharona” and “Ring My Bell.” I was deeply into my “Randy Ramone” phase by that point. Even though I camped out for tickets for the 1979 Kiss Dynasty tour, I had already sold my soul to punk rock. But whether you were a mod or a rocker, a Clash fan and/or a Ted Nugent fan, all guitar disciples could agree on one thing, disco sucked.
In 1979, I sported a t-shirt that said, “Disco is Dead, Rock is Rolling” that I ordered from the back of Rolling Stone magazine. I was full of theories about how musicians were losing gigs because clubs were hiring DJs instead of bands (even though I wouldn’t get my fake ID until 1980). I graffitied “Disco Sucks” on the bathroom stalls at Redan High School and dreamed of burning copies of Saturday Night Fever.
I wasn’t the only kid hating on disco in 1979. Chicago rock radio station WLUP organized a “Disco Demolition Night” between games at a White Sox doubleheader. Over 50,000 rock fans showed up with their kid sisters’ Sister Sledge albums. The plan was to blow up the albums on the field. The explosion caused a riot as the rock fans stormed the field and proceeded to destroy the stadium, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the cancelled game to the Detroit Tigers. I had heard about it next day and thought it was a glorious blow against the disco empire.
Looking back on that era from over 40 years later, there certainly was some super crappy music (Who let Elton John make a disco album?). There was also some crappy punk and metal and “arena rock” records. But a lot of those disco tracks are now on replay, like “Get Up to Get Down” by Brass Construction. I’ve even warmed up to 70s-era Bee Gees. It wasn’t the cock rock of Van Halen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexy. But the hatred of disco was vicious. The Chicago riot was just part of the disco backlash. Was this a just a fanatical devotion to “any guitar and any bass drum,” as The Jam sang, or something else?
I don’t doubt there was some real imbedded racism in the “Disco sucks” trend. Disco had its roots in black and Latin dance clubs in New York. Soul music became R&B, then became the most banal disco. Somehow Barry White went from make-out music to the Hustle, with actual dance steps. Early Saturday afternoons in 1979 spotlighted white couples on American Bandstand who were trying to mimic the steps of the black couples dancing on Soul Train later in the afternoon. White rock fans in ’79 could dig Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin channeling ancient blues cats, but somehow Chic’s “Le Freak” was too much. Dance music was about black and brown bodies moving in choreographed synchronicity while individualistic white bodies were either head banging or slam dancing.
But there was black music that was off limits to the anti-disco hate in 1979. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall LP, with it’s Quincy Jones horns workin’ day and night, was dynamic in the way that rock sought to blow your head off. Prince’s debut single, “I Wanna Be You Lover” was so provocative, it was punk. (I’ll never forget his performance on American Bandstand, sporting a very small tiger print Speedo and thinking the 70s were officially dead.) And there was this weird hippity hop music coming out of the Bronx. But rock fans would still rather blast AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” then sort out what “Rapper’s Delight” was all about.
There was also a healthy dose of homophobia reflected in disco hate. After all, those dance clubs in NYC that birthed the coked up disco scene were mostly gay clubs. Few things seemed gayer in 1979 than the Village People and dancing with your hands in the air. Real men kept their hands at waste level to play air guitar to Aerosmith. Working class boys, terrified of revealing any feminine attributes, were required to bash anything that wasn’t macho macho, man.
But there was plenty of gender-nonconforming in rock in 1979, from David Bowie (“Boys Keep Swinging”) to Queen’s Freddie Mercury (“Don’t Stop Me Now”). The B-52’s “Rock Lobster” was a big ol’ southern gay dance party and Lou Reed was femming as Patti Smith was butching. The rednecks in my high school would harass me for liking “that fag music from England” (usually referring to Devo, who were from Ohio) which gave me the privilege of being gay-bashed without actually being gay. I was bonded the mythical urban queer (I imagined him/her walking into CBGB’s while “Walk on the Wild Side” played), but I still hated disco.
Best I can figure is the Disco Sucks crusade was an example of intersectionality. Both black and gay were devalued in 1979, but tolerated. Everyone was convinced Bowie was “queer” but Freddie Mercury was “straight” (figure that one out). But they knew how to rock. Bands with black members, like Thin Lizzy, Mother’s Finest, and the Doobie Brothers cranked the guitars above the bass. Black or gay could find a place in white boy culture. Black and gay could not. Disco was black and gay and that was a bridge too far. Play that funky queer music white boy. Or bash it.
The hatred was all contextual. Rock acts were allowed to release disco-ish records. (Kiss’ “I Was Made for Loving You,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Wings’ “Goodnight Tonight,” The Kinks “Superman,” and Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” to name a few.) But if the act had any connection to the dance club scene (think Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Night Life”) it was deemed “disco” and must be blown up at a baseball stadium. Disco sucks wasn’t really about the intersection of black and gay, it was the intersection of racism and homophobia.
I’ve missed out on a lot of great music because of learned bigotries. (Why didn’t anyone tell me that Mariachi music was 100% brilliant?) The 15-year-old me would have been musically richer and ethically deeper if I had been open to disco in 1979. It was a time of discovery but somehow small town culture stopped me. Two years later (at 17), I would be hanging out in Atlanta gay bars with the other misfit punk refugees from suburbia, but in 1979, anything without a power chord was a threat to my forming masculinity.
It’s been fun discovering these songs over the years. A lot of it is the worst culture human civilization has ever produced (Humanity should have cancelled for “Disco Duck” alone), but much of it is a joyous release. (Currently playing, “Beat of the Night” (1979) by Fever.) It didn’t all suck. Racism and homophobia suck. Shaking your groove thing will set you free.