Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Heartbeat City Here We Come

I belong to an online music subscription service.  It’s the 21st century successor to those record clubs that used to advertise in magazines back in the 70s and 80s.  Remember, “Choose 11 albums for just one penny”?  As a subscriber to this current service, I get outrageous discounts on MP3 downloads each month.  It’s a pretty sweet deal, especially for a big music fan like me.

Usually, I have no problem using up my subscription amount, which I have to do or risk losing it at month’s end.  Sometimes, though, there just isn’t anything major on my “must have” list.  This was one of those months.  So, I did what I typically do in such cases, and went back into the site’s archives, looking for albums I used to own on vinyl or cassette and never upgraded when CDs came along in the late 80s.

This time, I decided to download Heartbeat City by the Boston new wave/rock band The Cars.  Heartbeat City was THE album of the summer in 1984 for me and my pals.  There were pictures of a souped-up sports car and a pretty girl in tight clothing on the cover.  Lead singer Ric Ocasek always wore sunglasses, and the rumor among my friends was that it was to hide his eyes because he was high all the time (not true).  Bass player and singer Benjamin Orr wore skin-tight leather pants on the jacket insert, leading us to believe that he must be gay (also not true).  But that combination of perceived naughtiness and incredibly catchy and well-crafted tunes made Heartbeat City the ideal soundtrack for the summer between junior high and high school.  I bought it on vinyl the first day of summer vacation that year.  I immediately made a cassette copy, and it followed us on our Walkmans wherever we went all summer long.   We used the song titles and lyrical references as catch phrases all the time.

As I listened to it from start to finish for the first time in nearly 25 years, all kinds of things flooded back from that landmark summer of 1984.

The summer of 1984 was a transition period for me if there ever was one.  It was the summer between going to the parochial grade school which I had attended for 8 years, and attending public high school, which I would for the next four.  It was the last summer before I was old enough to drive.  It was the last summer before I was old enough to get a part-time job.  It was the first summer I had a “serious” girlfriend (or as serious as it could be at age 14).  Ultimately, it was the summer when I started stepping away from being a kid and toward becoming an adult.

I could write a whole series of articles about that summer, and maybe I just will, but for now, suffice it to say that The Cars’ Heartbeat City on my iPod takes me back to a time when bicycles were my primary mode of transportation, when friends meant everything, when kissing a girl was the height of risk-taking, and when having $5 in your pocket made you feel like a rich man.  I was old enough to go mostly where I wanted and make many of my own decisions.  That summer, Americans not much older than I was were dominating the Olympics in Los Angeles, Ronald Reagan was on TV making us feel good about America and ourselves as a means of getting re-elected, and it seemed like every day was sunny and hot but not uncomfortable.  Looking back, it was one of the high points in my life, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  It truly seemed there were limitless possibilities and nothing standing between you and them. 

Not long after that summer of 1984, the realities of getting older began to set in.  The girl I dated that summer broke up with me not long after high school started in the fall.  The complexities of a larger social scene in high school put walls between me and some old friends, while bringing new ones into my life.  I started to see things in people I had not seen before, both good and bad.  They probably started seeing the same in me.  With high school came the drive to excel in order to “get into a good college”.  There was the pressure to fit in, to look a certain way and do certain things.  I started working not one, but two part-time jobs.  I got my driver’s license and all the freedom and responsibility that came with it.

The last song on Heartbeat City is the title track.  It is a decidedly tentative-sounding song, and a seemingly odd choice to round out a collection of mostly upbeat tunes.  It is essentially about a girl who left town for an extended period and finally has returned.  The lyrics indicate that the singer didn’t see the girl’s absence coming, and is unsure of what to make of her return.  Trust seems to be lacking now, though he is still glad to see her.
Heartbeat City was my best friend Brian’s favorite song on the album.  His mother had just died of cancer that spring after a long battle.  She suffered for a long time, and was suffering no longer, so there was surely relief in that.  Still, he missed her a lot, though he didn’t talk about it much then.  The ambivalence of emotion in the song must have struck a chord with him at some level that didn’t hit me until much later.

When I listen to Heartbeat City now, it almost seems as if there was a message to the 14-year-old me back in that summer of 1984.   It was a message I didn’t see at the time and wish I had: “Enjoy what you have now, because change is inevitable and it is complicated.”

Indeed.  Summers are short.  Life is short.  Enjoy it.


  1. Well, thank you Mr. Literal!

  2. Okay, back for real - didn't even read the post first time (had my son on my lap and he's a but slap happy with the keyboard) - but great stuff here and VERY well said. And it sort of makes you wonder about the music we listen to: do we choose IT based on who WE are, or are we who we are because of what we listen to? Luckily for me, i didn't discover the Grateful Dead until my late teens/early 20's, else I might be homeless "living" in some park! As for The Cars, had the very same reaction to that album (and to some extent, the videos) but i have my older brother to thank for playing the likes of Candy O, etc. when I was younger. sort of setting the stage, you know? Then again, I could also thank Phoebe Cates for "Moving (and undressing) in Stereo"

    off to check out your other posts...