My then twenty-seven-year old self wandered around in the wasteland that was 1988 filled with a kind of wary optimism. I wasn’t exactly inundated with it. Gee, the presidential choice that year (should one put the air quotes around presidential?…or choice?…or both?….sorry, the mind stiffens and refuses to commit) was between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
But if it had been Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln it wouldn’t have been all that much different. Let’s just say that unwary optimism wouldn’t exactly be me.
Well, the intervening years have dispensed with those particular fine distinctions. I’m unburdened by any sort of purely political optimism these days. Goodbye us and all that.
One reason I was still, improbably, optimistic in 1988 was that I was still hearing quasi-subliminal messages in popular music.
Well, really I was only hearing quasi-subliminal messages (that is messages that spoke to the moment and could be read purely and solely between the lines of songs that, for folks living on the standard, government approved wavelength, were certainly about some very ordinary other thing) in music made by ex-Go-Go’s drummer Gina Schock that was only trying to be popular.
One reason it wasn’t too terribly successful at being what it was trying to be might have been its too-numerous mundane aspects: airless, cookie-cutter production (from original Go-Go’s producer Richard Gottehrer, who had been good at this stuff since the Angel’s “My Boyfriend’s Back” and really should have known better), anonymous riffing (where the Go-Go’s–especially Gina Schock–had always substituted personality) and lyrics that were mostly straight from songwriting class, mid-semester, freshman year.
Another reason might have been luck. Because all that other stuff, minus what was good about House of Schock, was all over the airwaves in 1988, not to mention every year since and every year now stretching before us down the long dark road into the deep black night.
See. I told you got rid of all that optimism!
And, what may you ask, was good about House of Shock (which was the name of the band as well as their one and only album)?
Three really good songs (all written, like the bulk of the album, by Schock and band-mate Vance DeGeneres*) and Gina Schock’s voice, that was what.
In those three songs and her nothing-special-except-it-got-under-my-skin voice, I heard enough to write the only fan letter of my life. I don’t remember much about the letter (though I remember enough to really, really hope she never read it!…fan letters are bound to be like that, I suspect, if you are older than twelve at the time of composition and subsequently live long enough to look back from a safely objective twenty-twenty distance). And one thing I very specifically don’t remember is whether I mentioned my curious but heartfelt reading of those particular songs–all that between-the-lines stuff.
I suspect not. My twenty-seven-year old self was cautious about sharing unlikely, far-fetched theories. Not like my fifty-four-year old self at all.
Which leaves us (well, me anyway) with what exactly it was I that I did hear.
Wary optimism. Fellow traveler (spiritual sense, not dread phony political sense).
An assurance the singer would not only survive but would do so precisely because she possessed an abundance of the old “can-do” spirit that was waiting to be reborn in the national soul.
Coming from just about anyone else in 1988 (let alone now) that would have sounded like a very big pile of what the bull leaves in the pasture.
But it wasn’t coming from just anyone.
It was coming from the woman who had thrown her possessions in the car and driven from Baltimore to L.A. and then walked into a punk club where one of the anonymous thousands of that (or any) era’s wannabe bands was playing out a contract before they broke up and went their separate ways and talked them into staying together, into taking her on as the drummer, into rehearsing (and rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing), into literally battling their way to the cover of Rolling Stone twenty-something months later….some time after said Richard Gottehrer had told bassist Kathy Valentine to watch what the drummer did and the “accidental” result had been the first (and, a mere thirty-four years down the line, so far only) album by a self-contained all-female band to reach #1 in Billboard.
So, for me at least, the can-do spirit coming from that woman was bound to mean….something.
Something more than songs to dedicate to every fourth year’s crop of major party candidates (though boy do they work on that level, then and now).
And under the cover of darkness, where the rebirth of the old “can-do” will now have to occur, if it occurs at all, it still does.
So here’s to the old optimism…
The spirit of the open road…
the spit in the eye…(and one of my favorite vocals of the decade)
and the all purpose dedication to the deceivers among us and those who survive them….
*Yes, he’s Ellen’s brother. And no, she wasn’t yet famous. I’m sure I was one of at least four people on the planet who, when I first heard of her, thought “Gee, I wonder if she’s related to Vance!”