Tag Archives: 1980s

I Heart TV: The Wonder Years

After we moved in together in October 1990, Diane – who was and is far less of a TV fanatic than me – suggested that we watch The Wonder Years, a show I’d never seen due to the quirks of working retail (i.e., nights) for much of its first two seasons. And, too, I just assumed it was your standard-issue sitcom. But Diane persisted and I eventually relented, if only to humor her – and immediately fell in love with the series. Its evocation of suburban teen life was letter perfect.

As soon as I could – which wasn’t for a few years – I began taping it on VHS. (I likely still have some of those tapes, somewhere.)

Anyway, flash forward 27 years and we’re again watching The Wonder Years, and again it’s thanks to Diane – she gave me the DVD set for my birthday in July. Since, we’ve slowly been working our way through the seasons. In my opinion, it’s retained all of its charms and lost none of its luster.

Which leads to this: the first draft of the first essay I penned for TV GUIDE’s I Heart TV tome, which was published by Sasquatch Press in 2007. (I also wrote about The Daily Show, My So-Called Life and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson). At the time, I should mention, I was knee-deep in a years-long effort to digitalize old family pictures and movies. Importing the analogue past into the digital present was a time-consuming endeavor for me back then (and, in many respects, remains so).

The final version, which was about five or six drafts later, was streamlined – as you can see in the picture, I wound up excising much of the first paragraph. And, despite the editor’s best efforts, parts still came off rather clunky. (My other essays, I think, were smoother reads.)

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Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next you’re scanning family pictures for a digital photo album. In one respect, it’s a tedious task. In another, however, it’s an exercise guaranteed to affect all but the hard-hearted. Memories come rushing in—and not just of the holidays, birthdays and other life events. Perhaps a shot of a gray-haired grandfather, his shoulders thrust back and squared to the camera—in uniform despite his casual attire—conjures a duck-feeding expedition you and your brother, just three and five at the time, accompanied him on. And maybe, then, you come across a picture of the expedition itself. You don’t remember much due to your age, of course, yet you recall the kindness of his touch, and the way his giant hand grazed your hair while stewarding you towards the friendly—and hungry—ducks.

More than any series (or movie, for that matter), The Wonder Years conveys that very wistfulness—it’s as likely to leave you smiling as it is tearing up. Through six seasons, it charted the path of “everyboy” Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) as he navigated the rocky terrain of adolescence; and added perspective to the stories via the narration of the adult Kevin (Daniel Stern).

When it first debuted, in 1988, the series was hailed as a baby-boomer confection due to the era in which it was set—the 1960s—and its soundtrack, which made generous use of pop, rock and soul songs from those years. It also was, importantly, placed in the suburbs, a land of tract houses and shopping malls that many middle-class families called home. The cookie-cutter communities seemed safe, a perfect place to both raise kids and to be a kid; to paraphrase the adult Kevin, back then, a kid could walk the streets at dusk without ending up on a milk carton.

The story begins in 1968, a tumultuous year by anyone’s standards: growing unrest over America’s involvement in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, riots at the Democratic National Convention and a contentious general election that saw Richard Nixon win the presidency by less than 500,000 votes. Yet, for 12-year-old Kevin, the biggest issue on his mind that fall was…junior high. In the pilot, he and best friend Paul (Josh Saviano), and the newly pigtail- and glasses-free Winnie (Danica McKellar)—or “Gwendolyn,” as she informs the boys she now wants to be called—see the step up as an opportunity to break free of old perceptions and reinvent themselves. Unfortunately for Kevin, nothing goes as planned. For one, he’s following in the footsteps of his obnoxious older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey), whose boorishness has earmarked his sibling for extra scrutiny at school. For two, well, have I mentioned Wayne? The lunkhead teases him at lunch about liking Winnie—in front of the pretty brunette, no less—and, with a toss of an apple, Kevin winds up in the vice-principal’s office with his Doris Day-like mom (Alley Mills) and monosyllabic dad (Dan Lauria).

If the episode ended there, with the adult Kevin pontificating about lessons learned, or unlearned, it would have achieved the goals every premiere strives for—introducing the characters while telling a story that compels viewers to tune in again. Creators/writers Carol Black and Neal Marlens, however, push the debut into greatness: arriving home, Kevin and his parents are met by Wayne and sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) with awful news: Winnie’s brother Brian has been killed in Vietnam. Suddenly, the day’s events seem meaningless. At dusk, Kevin walks to an old haunt of his and Winnie’s, and finds her looking up at the stars. There’s so much he wants to say, to make go away, but he can’t manage much more than “I’m sorry,” and not just because he’s a kid. Words of those sorts don’t come easy, ever. He wraps his coat around her and, as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” swoops in, they kiss—their first. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, but it’s exactly such moments that make The Wonder Years, time and again throughout its run, hit home.

In fact, on the strength of that episode and the five that followed in its first, truncated tease of a season, the series garnered an Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series. It earned three more nominations in the years to come, including two once Bob Brush assumed creative control. True, sometimes the episodes missed the mark—the obligatory pimple episode, for example, or when Kevin joined the soccer team—but when they did? They were powerful, funny and dramatic, and resonated long after the credits rolled.

Two episodes from the fifth year, when Kevin sprouts into a headstrong young adult, rate among the series’ best. In “The Lake,” the season opener, Kevin’s and Paul’s families are on a summer vacation beside a nondescript lake; and the boys are, in a word, bored. Soon enough, however, Kevin finds excitement in the form of the sultriest 15 year old to ever grace the small screen: Cara (Lisa Gerber), a townie he encounters at a drive-in. On the final night of the vacation, Kevin defies his dad to spend it with her, expressing his wish to stay and vowing to write her; and she holds his hand on her heart. “Back to the Lake,” the second-to-last episode of the season, takes place the following summer, when everyone else and their brother—meaning Wayne—are gainfully employed. Not only is his dad insisting he get a job, but Winnie’s suggesting the same! Kevin remembers the fun he had with Cara, whom he never wrote, and in a rash moment heads back to the lake to recapture a little of the glory…but it’s not meant to be. In a wink of a young girl’s eye, that moment passed him by.

The series’ finale is as wonderful and wistful as the premiere. It’s the summer of 1973 and a 17-year-old Kevin is working for his father while Winnie’s a lifeguard at a far-away resort. After one run-in too many with his dad, he quits and seeks out the one person he thinks will make everything okay. But Winnie’s not thrilled to see him, and even less thrilled when he becomes a busboy at the resort. The situation turns worse when he sees her kissing another boy (in a deft touch, “When a Man Loves a Woman” again swells in the background). He hits the road as a hitchhiker, having lost his car in a poker game, and finds himself sharing a backseat with none other than his erstwhile girlfriend. They argue; and are quickly deposited by the roadside as a result. When a rainstorm hits, they seek shelter in a barn—and, before the night’s out, in each other’s arms.

As they return home—on Independence Day, no less—the adult Kevin informs us, much as a friend might while showing us a photo album, of the fates of his family and friends. Then, in poetic fashion, he sums up the series and its appeal: “Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place…a town…a house like a lot of houses…a yard like a lot of other yards…on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back with wonder.”

The memories stay with us, indeed. As our eyes open to the world, we question our parents about their seemingly arbitrary rules, and bicker with friends, pushing them away one day only to hold them close the next. Expectations rarely play out as envisioned, not because we reach for the sky—though sometimes we do—but because life is not connect-the-dots, where A leads to B leads to C. Even in this age of cell-phones and the Internet, somewhere a gray-haired man takes his grandkids to a park; a 12-year-old boy comforts a friend over a brother’s senseless death; and teenagers defy their parents, often without understanding why. In artful fashion, The Wonder Years articulates all of that, plus this: the day will come when those kids, too, will look back with wonder.

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The Essentials: The Bangles’ All Over the Place

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Although it seems daft to me now, in the early and mid-‘80s I often bought albums on cassette, and cassette only. I’d love to say that, for a time, I did so due to me taking not one, but two buses to travel to and from Penn State’s Ogontz campus (now known as Penn State Abington), which for a time I did, and that during those hour-or-so trips I listened to music via a Walkman clone. Or that I later purchased them for the tape deck that I installed in my ’79 Chevette.

The truth is, however, that I bought them because I bought them, which I’d been doing off and on since my folks gave me a cassette deck that plugged into my Radio Shack compact stereo/turntable in the late 1970s, though the trend picked up steam after Christmas 1982, when they presented me with a Sanyo Mini AM/FM Cassette Recorder Stereo. Sometimes I went with the cassette because the vinyl wasn’t in stock; and other times just because. In some cases, I eventually bought the same album on vinyl – but there was no rhyme or reason as to what got duplicated. Some touchstone albums in my life, such as Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Lone Justice’s debut and Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., never made the jump to vinyl (though all, in time, made the leap to CD) while others that weren’t did.

Another touchstone album that I never picked up on vinyl: the Bangles’ All Over the Place, which – says Wikipedia – was released on May 23, 1984. I didn’t purchase it until the fall, however – on October 15th, a Monday, according to my desk diary, four days before another touchstone album, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name…, came into my life. (It may seem incongruous to love both, yet I did…and still do.)

That is, I didn’t buy the vinyl until yesterday, when I stopped in HHH Records a used-vinyl store near me, and found it for $4. (Clean LP, no pops, crackles or snaps.)

As I wrote in my long-ago review of Susanna Hoffs’ Someday album, thanks to Rolling Stone, I’d been aware of the Bangles since March 1983, though I didn’t actually hear them until their videos for “Hero Takes a Fall” and “Going Down to Liverpool” received play on MTV in the spring and summer of ’84.

(Leonard Nimoy’s friendship with Susanna Hoffs’ parents accounts for his appearance in the video, from what I’ve read.)

The band was the focus of a Michael Goldberg-penned article in Rolling Stone that September and, presumably, a review around the same time, though my lack of access to the RS Archives means I can’t confirm the latter (and I have no memory of reading one).

Wayne King did offer a less-than-glowing review of their debut LP in the September issue of Record magazine, however. The words that would’ve caught my eyes: “bouncy guitar group sounds,” “soaring vocals” and “mid-‘60s fixation.” The criticism itself…eh. I’d already seen the videos. They sounded good to me. It was just a matter of when, not if, I invested in the LP…or, in this case, cassette.

To my ears then and now, All Over the Place echoes the mid-‘60s, specifically the Beatles and Byrds, while sounding very much of its own time. I.e., it’s both retro and modern, and – simultaneously – ahead of the curve. “Hero Takes a Fall” is one example. Another is “Tell Me”…

And another is “Dover Beach.” (Check out Vicki Peterson channeling her inner Dave Davies at the 3 minute mark.)

Really, to me, All Over the Place – despite topping out at No. 153 on the Billboard charts – is reason enough for the band (Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, Debbie Peterson and Michael Steele) to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (Additional reasons came along later in the decade, of course.)

Anyway, here they are on Late Night With David Letterman in November of ‘84…

Side 1:

  1. Hero Takes a Fall
  2. Live
  3. James
  4. All About You
  5. Dover Beach

Side 2:

  1. Tell Me
  2. Restless
  3. Going Down to Liverpool
  4. He’s Got a Secret
  5. Silent Treatment
  6. More Than Meets the Eye

Here’s the album in full, via YouTube…

I should mention, the playlist includes a bonus track tacked onto the CD at some point in time: a cover of the Grass Roots’ first hit, “Where Were You When I Needed You,” which the Bangles released as the b-side to “Hero Takes a Fall.” (As I point out in my (un)Essentials essay on Jan & Dean’s semi-classic, semi-kitsch Folk ’n Roll album, however, the Grass Roots weren’t the first to release the song. The surfer duo was.)

The Essentials: The Long Ryders’ State of Our Union

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Great albums transcend their times. Such is the case with this gem from 1985, which sounds as fresh my ears now as it did then.

In fact, if push came to shove and I really had to whittle down my voluminous Top 10 (lotsa ties!) to, say, a mere 25 titles (not as many ties!), this – the third release from Messrs. Griffin, McCarthy, Sowders & Stevens – would likely be among them. Since I bought State of Our Union at the newly minted (and now defunct) City Lights Records in State College, Pa., that fall, I don’t think I’ve gone longer than a few months without listening to it or – thanks to the 2-CD Anthology (1998) and Final Wild Songs box set (2016) – songs from it.

In many ways, the 11-song set – along with the Ryders’ 1983 E.P. 10-5-60 and 1984 LP Native Sons – served as a primer for what’s now called “Americana” music. It integrates rock ’n’ roll, R&B, country and folk into a tasty whole, contains glorious guitar work and incisive lyrics, and features melodies that burrow into the brain like a groundhog beneath a back deck. As with those earlier efforts, the Long Ryders build upon the traditions begun by such forebears as Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Flying Burrito Brothers while incorporating a punk and post-punk ethos. They embraced the past while remaining relevant to the present, in other words, such as on the Tom Stevens-penned “Years Long Ago,” about how the nostalgic pull of the past often hides ugly truths:

“If we return to the places we lived in before
We turn from all that we’ve gained
If we lived out a life that we struggled to change
Just to turn back the calendar page
Then we’d see that our memory betrayed us
We’d see what had frightened us so
We’d hear all the voices that fall silent now
Pieces of years long ago.”

Another highlight: the anthemic “Looking for Lewis & Clark.

Another: “WDIA,” which offers a history lesson on the importance of America’s first black-run radio station to generations of black and white youth.

And another: “State of My Union.” Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock critics, said that the song “aggravates the honest chauvinism of Ronnie Van Zant’s reflections on the same subject with the gratuitous self-righteousness of Neil Young.” That’s a criticism, I think, but I find it funny. It’s a great song. Here’s a live version (and, yes, I’ve shared it before):

Here’s the album, via YouTube, in full (plus a few bonus tracks drawn from the Looking for Lewis & Clark EP that were added for the CD release):

The track listing: