I am an avid record collector. I do not have nearly as many records as some of the people in the groups I frequent. But I have about 600 albums, mostly from the 70s and 80s, with a decent variety. Admittedly, my collection has a decided slant toward Progressive Rock and (what would now be called) Classic Rock. But this blog is not about my collection (perhaps a topic for another time) it is about one recent acquisition: Def Leppard, Pyromania. This album purchase has caused way more reflection than probably any one album should, but more on that later.
I grew up in a small town in Northern Michigan, Gaylord. Many of my friends and I were in Kindergarten together at North Ohio Elementary. Literally, we grew up together. Our parents worked together, knew each other from Rotary, attended the same church, had business dealings together, or sat in my mom’s hygienist chair at some point (also a potential topic for another day). Such is life in a small town. We entered 5th grade, not knowing that the next four years would change everything.
Middle School was the point where South Maple Elementary, and a handful of Elmira students, joined together into one larger school. Still, we were a fairly close-knit group. We had attended birthday parties, cub scouts, and hunted for blueberries at the State Park together. 5th grade served to strengthen our bond. We played marbles (yep, I’m that old), kick ball, and Star Wars, with our action figures, at recess. Growing up in Northern Michigan gave us plenty of opportunities to stage various Hoth scenes from The Empire Strikes Back. During 5th grade, we participated in our first science fair, “voted” in our first mock Presidential Election, and had our little hearts broken by our first crush.
You see, we were growing up, with all the experiences that entails. We were still kids, but also something else. They took all the girls out of class to talk to them about their changing bodies, the guys got no such similar education. The girls came back very silent holding a brown bag. There were whispers of what was in that bag, but none of the boys knew for sure. We wanted to be “older” but maybe “not yet”. I remember a situation where one of our teachers (the name is being withheld because he is totally guilty) berated and humiliated a female member of our class for not knowing the answer to a question. I remember vividly that it was Halloween. She was dressed as a baby and had a pacifier and a doll under her arm (both of which were probably much more recent in her past than she, or any of us, would want to admit). She looked every part the helpless child he reduced her to. The humiliation I felt for her is still palpable. But I kept my mouth shut because we didn’t question authority and as long as he went after her, maybe he wouldn’t notice I hadn’t done my homework, again.
In 5th grade I got my first “pink slip”, my first detention, and my first outrageous injustice. I could write a blog on each of these, but I will choose to move forward as I have already ruminated on 5th grade longer than I had planned. I started 5th grade with all As and finished it with all Cs. It caused enough of a crisis in my home that it was decided I would be better served in the small Baptist school across town. I can’t say that I was against the idea or went fighting and screaming, but it certainly proved not to be a stellar year in my educational experience. When I returned to public school in 7th grade, everything had changed. We were in a new school building, new students had joined our cohort, and we were all 12 months older. When you are only 12, that’s a sizable amount of your nascent years. My original friends were still there, and we quickly reconnected, but I had missed important bonding experiences, including 6th grade camp.
One other change was not for the best, our maturation had a seedy underside. The jokes and kidding were becoming increasingly sexual in nature. Just two years earlier, a changing woman’s body, caused furtive and uncomfortable glances. Now we openly joked, teased, bullied, and harassed one another in ways that still cause a deep sadness within me. My own sojourn in the Baptist school did not stunt my growth in this area and I was an all too eager participant. We knew enough of biology to participate in a very adult conversation but did not hold nearly enough maturity to understand the ramifications of what we spoke. I remember some girls in 7th grade “pretending” they were pregnant. For some reason they thought being sexually active without protection was cute. It was a lot less “cute” when a girl in 8th grade left school and the word got around that she had become pregnant and was going to live with relatives (there was no progressive ideas about teenage pregnancy in Northern Michigan in the early 80s).
By 7th and 8th grade, we had discovered pop culture. Previously we had a passing knowledge of music and trends, but mostly it was influenced by older siblings or, maybe still, our parents. Now, as fully grown consumers, we claimed it as our own. Billy Idol, The Police, and Duran Duran were staples on the radio and became the soundtrack of our adolescence. We quoted our favorite movies, which we had all seen. Having only one theater, with only one screen, meant that when the big movie came to town, everyone saw it, usually on the same weekend. War Games, The Outsiders, and Christine were ubiquitous in our conversation, and became the basis for our story lines in Creative Writing class. This is when the New Wave of British Heavy Metal hit Northern Michigan.
August 27th, 1983, on the third leg of their North American Tour, Def Leppard came to Castle Farms in Charlevoix, Michigan. Overnight, everyone was a fan. Well, everyone but me. You see, one of the things that happened between 5th and 8th grade is that my home life became more and more insular. Part of this was due to restrictions placed on me following my own poor decisions. But it was also due to a crystallizing of a Christian sub-culture that my family was increasingly a part of. I am not criticizing these parental decisions, raising kids is tough and we all do the best we can. But the end result was that I partook less and less in the common culture of my friends. Secular Music, Dungeons & Dragons, and Halloween were all prohibited and Christian Rock, Youth Group, and Harvest Parties took their place. As everyone bought the Def Leppard album and wore the concert t-shirts they had purchased, I realized that there were people who were “in” and there was everybody else. And, I was not “in”.
I had my own bands of 1983 that I would put on the turn table and drop the needle, but they did not provide a touch stone with my friends. I showed the same devotion to these bands as anyone else did, it was just my private fandom. I wouldn’t say I was ostracized, I just felt a bit marginalized. As 8th grade, and our middle school years, came to a close we went to Mackinac Island as a class, the last time we would ALL do anything together. One of my classmate’s parents owned a house on The Island (as we called it). Some students were invited to a house party; I was not one of them. It would certainly not be the last time I was left out of a party. In fact, by the time I was invited to a party, during my senior year, I no longer had any desire to fit in. I don’t think I missed out on too much. One of my best friends in High School developed a fairly serious alcohol problem by graduation. He was dead at 21 in a car crash. While I never heard for certain, I am pretty sure alcohol was involved.
I do not begrudge my upbringing. I turned out alright, and I side stepped so many pit falls and difficulties of my teens and twenties. After High School, I had an 18-month failed experience at Michigan State before getting married, switching schools, and, largely, checking out of my teenage years. By the time our ten-year anniversary came around, I was living halfway across the continent contemplating a Doctorate, which I completed before twenty years had passed from high school. Today, I am still married to the same wonderful woman (sometimes despite myself) and I have three amazing kids. There is not much room, or time, for regret. But, when nostalgia hits as I dig through the bins of a used record store, I still feel a loss for when we were all just kids growing up in Gaylord: no trenchers, no metal heads, no preppies, no jocks, no burnouts, no geeks, just kids. As we all close in on 50, I am reconnecting with many of the people I grew up with, thanks to the magic of Facebook. I am finding out that none of those teenage divisions, that seemed so important, are really worth a damn. Why did we ever let petty tribalism come between us? And the more important question: have we finally learned our lesson?
So, I am 37 years late, but I finally bought it . . . Pyromania by Def Leppard. Can I come to the party now?