Biographical Non-Fiction posted February 10, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
reflections on a song and a time


by Mark Valentine

“But something touched me deep inside, the day the music died”

When Don McLean wrote those words back in 1971, it didn’t take a cryptographer to figure out that the day being referenced was February 3rd, 1959; the day a plane crashed in an Iowa cornfield taking the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and JP Richardson. In 1971, most of the stars of the rock and roll era were still with us, and thus the universe of rock stars in the firmament was fairly small. It didn’t take much searching to crack the code.

These days, it seems like the music is dying every week. Every death stirs a memory.

Ben E King makes me think of an old girlfriend. (“Stand by Me” was our song). BB King evokes the days after college, and before marriage and family. We had money in our pockets and time on our hands and weekends would find us in Chicago’s blues clubs until the wee hours of the morning.

Is “air guitar” still a thing? God, I hope not. How ridiculous I must have looked, jamming on an imaginary Stratocaster to “Suffragette City”. David Bowie’s death brought back those cringe-inducing memories.

Glen Frey takes me back to my senior year in high school. Hotel California had just come out. We thought we were bad ass, cruising Archer Avenue with a twelve-pack of Bud in the back seat, gunning the motor when “Life in the Fast Lane” came on the radio. And now my kids wonder why I’m hesitant to let them borrow the car.

Last week brought news of the death of Maurice White, founder of Earth Wind and Fire. That one really took me back.

It was the fall of 1979. We were juniors in college which meant that we were free to move off campus. Ten of us that had lived on the same dorm floor decided that we would pool our money and rent a house. When we found a great, seven bedroom house with a backyard and a large front porch, we signed the lease immediately.

I’d like to say that our decision was motivated by economics, or by the fact that the spacious house had plenty of little nooks that would make great study spots, but the fact is, we knew that it would be a great house for parties. And it was.

We were young and the beer was cold. We were young and the music was loud. We were young and we danced the night away. We were carpe-ing the dies and the noctes - making the best of days we knew would not come again. Did I mention that we were young?

Any soundtrack to those parties and those times would have to include the song “September” by Earth Wind and Fire.

Do you remember the twenty first night of September? Love was
changing the minds of pretenders, while chasing the clouds away.
Nobody sat that one out. The dance floor was jammed with exuberant young bodies that didn’t know how young they were. Faces without worry lines. Shoulders light and unburdened. Knees still under factory warranty. Carefree souls that had yet to learn how weighty responsibility could be. “September” was the perfect soundtrack to those days. A recent piece on NPR called it “the happiest sounding song in the world”. We danced.

Ba de ya, say do you remember?
Ba de ya, dancing in September,
Ba de ya, never was a cloudy day
Many of the people on that dance floor remain good friends to this day, some thirty-seven years later. We look back and marvel at the fact that we somehow managed to become mature adults. I suppose we could have studied more (a little less alcohol wouldn’t have hurt us either), but all in all, I think we knew what we were doing back in college.  Granted, life isn’t just about, or even primarily about, happiness, but there’s something to be said for drinking your fill while you can.

I am reminded of a Bill Watterson (the guy who wrote Calvin and Hobbes) quote: “In the short term, it would make me happy to go play outside. In the long term, it would make me happier to do well at school and become successful. But in the VERY long term, I know which will make better memories.”

I’ve had plenty of fun since college, but the fun is always tempered by the weight of adult responsibilities, I’m never not a parent, the mortgage is always years away from being paid off. The credit card bills come every month. Work piles up and there’s no wiping the slate clean at the end of each semester. My body won’t let me stay out late or drink too much. Alas, I am a responsible adult. That’s OK – I made good memories when I had the chance.

I have a daughter in college now. My wife trots out the “You’re there to get an education” speech whenever she thinks that extracurriculars (including parties) might be competing with studies for calendar space. Her parting words to my daughter, whenever we drop her off at school, are “Be safe”. I feel compelled to add “Have fun” by way of balancing the equation.

Adulthood will come soon enough and it will last her for the rest of her life. College is the last opportunity to taste something of childhood. Dig in, I say. Childhood is life’s breakfast – if it’s rich enough, it can sustain us through the long day of life.

There is a movement toward year-round schooling in the United States. The thinking being that our children are lagging behind the rest of the world academically, and a more rigorous school year might help them become more “competitive”. I’m not sure what it is we’re competing for though. Maybe I’d be financially richer had I gone to school 12 months a year as a child, but I think I’d be spiritually poorer.

We spent summers riding bikes, cooling ourselves in fire hydrants, playing baseball, waiting for the ice cream truck. We negotiated the world of kid-dom; how to make friends, resolve conflicts, cooperate. Most of all, we had fun. It made for a good foundation for adulthood. I’m guessing Maurice White had fun as a child too. Childhood is life’s breakfast.

Do you remember?


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