2028: A Letter to My 14-year-old Daughter at the Half-way Mark

September 27, 2021

Our daughter, Cozette turned seven last month and she’s way ahead of where I was in terms of coolness. When I was a new second grader at Highland Christian Academy, I didn’t even know the #1 single for that week (“Maggie May”), but I did know the Frito Bandito song. Cozy can riff on some Dua Lipa cuts and has a vast knowledge of classic rock lyrics. (She has a soft spot for Lindsey Buckingham’s Fleetwood Mac songs.) Cozy is well-versed, from Coltrane to Storm Large.

It just dawned on me that, at 7, she is halfway to 14, which was a big year for me and my musical coming out, so I thought I should write her a letter now and tuck it away on this blog until 2028.

Dear Cozy,

Happy 14th birthday! Every day with you has been a thrill and it’s so exciting to see you ready to rock 9th grade. You have turned into the most joyful, complex, and kind young woman I know. And even though your mom and I have had some influence, who you are comes from some wonderful spark that exists deep inside you. I thought I’d use this moment to tell you a little bit about what I was like when I was 14 and make a birthday promise to you.

I turned 14 fifty years ago in 1978. It was a great year of self-discovery and what I like to think of as my “musical coming out” year. You know what a role music has played in my life, starting with my pre-school raiding of my parents jazz records and endless hours listening to your grandmother playing Scott Joplin rags on the baby grand piano in our living room. But 1978 was different. It was the year your grandparents started letting their oldest son go to concerts without adults!

I already had caught the concert bug the year before. (Ask me someday what it was like to see Kiss in concert in 1977). For some reason, once I turned 14, my folks trusted me enough to let me go to concerts with my friends. And we went to every big show that came through Atlanta, from Blondie (at the Fox Theater) to Black Sabbath (at the Omni). In fact, if you listen to the 1978 live Blue Oyster Cult album, Some Enchanted Evening, (recorded at the Fox Theater) you can hear Charlie, Richie, and I screaming our lungs out.

You know how exciting live music is. Officially, your first concert was U2 in Vancouver, BC on May 15, 2015. For the record, you were 9 months old and The Edge fell off the stage. We’ve been to countless shows together since then. You know about the anticipation swelling as the main act is about to take the stage. You know about singing along with the actual people on the recording. You know about your ears ringing when it’s all over.

When I was 14, the other element at concerts was drugs. A lot of drugs. And everything else. I remember a guy drinking straight Jack Daniels before a Who concert, and telling everyone it was his life’s dream to see The Who in concert. By the time The Who took the stage, he was passed out drunk. Missed the entire show. I’m sure he told all his friends how brilliant the concert was. Those concerts were too important for me to miss a thing. I was clear-eyed sober, focused on every element of the experience, every guitar solo, every screaming fan pressed against the stage. And I remember them all 50 years later. Just a suggestion about the value of a clear head. You’ll want to remember this stuff.

Concerts were where I found my tribe. Other music fanatics and the various subtribes. By 15, I was firmly in the mod/punk/new wave tribe and going to Ramones shows. But at 14, it was all brand new. I people watched as much as band watched.

So you are at a magical spot right now. Given life expectancies in 2028, you’ve got another 70+ years of life ahead of you. That means you’ve got 14 years behind you, much of which you don’t remember because you were little, and 70 years ahead of you. The future is wide open. Most of my life is behind me, which is why I bore you with stories of the distant past. But for you there is this incredible newness and potential wrapped up in every experience. I would give anything to hear music that way I did in 1978. For my 14th birthday, I got the debut album of a band called Van Halen and you would have thought the Rapture had unfolded on Earth. That album was like a lightning bolt from God. (Our poor neighbors in Stone Mountain who had to tolerate me playing “You Really Got Me,” at full volume over and over again.) I can listen to that record now and it sounds nothing like it did when I was 14. Now, it’s just a classic rock classic. Then, it was EVERYTHING.

I know kids always get tired of us old folks saying, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people,” or “enjoy your youth.” But we’re speaking from a place of regret. I wish I would have known about the magic of 14 when I was 14. I just wanted to be 18, or 25, or 30. (Definitely not 64.) I’m begging you to take it all in. Close your eyes and turn the volume up all the way. Take a minute to feel how the sound lands on your body and what it connects you to in this moment in history. For me, it gave me the dream of escape; to the lower east side of Manhattan, to Liverpool, to London, or to wherever Styx wanted me to sail away to.

That’s my request. Listen and connect your music to your space and time and maybe your own tribe. My promise is, now that you’re 14, you can go to concerts without me. You have a great set of friends and I trust you to be there for the music. I will still drop you off and pick you up (unless I need my driverless car to do it), but you are free to be as fully into the experience of live music as I was at your age. And feel free to pick music that you think I will hate, because that’s also what 14 is about. (Bringing home the Sex Pistols album at 14 almost got me booted from the Blazak family.) You will find your people at shows. And you’ll find fashions. And you’ll find great opening bands that you will end up loving more than the headliners.

Fourteen is go time. It’s new car smell. It’s endless discoveries. It’s an entire human history of possibilities. And it’s music that will mean EVERYTHING. Go get it. I’ll be there to give you a ride home.

Love,

Dad

Disco Didn’t Actually Suck: Racism, Homophobia and Intersectionality in Music We’re Taught to Hate

December 2, 2020

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.