1977

Somewhere in a quiet corner of my mind that I keep hidden to myself, I’ve always had this notion that the people you most want to impress in life are your parents and the folks you graduated high school with. Maybe that says a lot more about me than anything else, but I still think there’s a kernel of truth hidden in there, somewhere.

Of course, this assumes that you want to impress anyone at all. Some people go through life without caring about impressing anyone, about anything. I’m not sure I know any of these people, but I hear they exist. Or pretend to exist….

Others couldn’t give a crap about their old high school mates, and in fact hold them in near contempt, due to some personality quirk I’m not smart or learned enough to discuss with any degree of expertise.

But let’s assume you want to impress someone, or at least win their nod of approval. Who would you pick?

Certainly, you would want (or at least need) to impress plenty of others. Your teachers and coaches. Your bosses. Your industry peers and work colleagues. Your kids and spouses. The banker who holds the key to your loan; the interviewer who holds the key to your career; the customer who walks through your door.

But that’s not the same as impressing your parents. It doesn’t have the same degree of emotional depth. You spend much of your childhood trying to win approval from your parents – and much of your adulthood trying to deflect criticism from them. It’s a lifelong battle, that one.

The folks you graduated high school with? Well, that’s a different thing. Most of us will say we don’t really care, especially as the years roll by and that little chapter of our lives grows tinier and tinier in memory and relevance.

But there’s an old saying: You can’t make old friends, only new ones. Your old friends might date back to your earliest memories. You might have grown up with them from infancy through the earliest stages of adulthood. They were there through the magic of childhood to the confusion of puberty and the hellish uncertainty of teendom. That has to leave a mark. It has to mean something, all these people shadowing you through the formative years.

I graduated high school in 1977. That’s been about eleven lifetimes ago. We had a big graduating class – 700 or so souls. I’ve kept in regular touch with less than 10 of them through the years. Some I reconnected with through social media. But it’s a very tiny percentage. It’s not like the arc of my life has been all that affected by the people with whom I shared a cap and gown. The vast majority are dusty memories in the dusty dustbin of my dusty brain.

Even so, they’ll always have a place in my consciousness. There are a couple reasons for this.

For one thing, I have a fascination with the year 1977, and it has nothing to do with high school or graduation. It has to do with popular culture. That fascination keeps pulling me back to the year I graduated, and subsequently to thoughts of the people I graduated with.

1977 was the year three separate and distinct musical forms developed that would influence popular music for the next 43 years and counting: hip hop, punk and disco. All three had their roots in New York City, located more than 600 miles to the north of my hometown of Charlotte.

Now, most of us listened to other stuff – Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, Earth Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, George Benson, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, Pink Floyd, Kansas, Neil Young – but bubbling below the surface and out on the edges was something else entirely.

Hip hop, then known as rap, got its start in the Bronx in the mid-1970s, mostly among a small group of African Americans and Puerto Ricans. When the infamous, three-day NYC blackout hit in the summer of 1977 – brought on by scorching temperatures and an overwhelmed power grid – lots of folks in the Big Apple took this opportunity to loot stores and steal things. Among the things they stole were turntables, audio mixers and other stereo equipment. This in turn led to a rapid rise in the number of DJs and rappers. In short order, rap became a major urban musical movement that eventually evolved into hip hop, which became the world’s dominant musical form.

Punk also got its start in New York, mostly in a grungy little music club in the grungy Bowery district. The club, called CBGB, is where the Ramones, Blondie, the Talking Heads and Patti Smith learned their trade. In 1977, the punk movement had gained enough steam that many of these artists caught the attention of record companies. The same thing happened over in London with groups like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. The original punk movement burned out quickly, but it produced several successful bands, and led to what would eventually be called new wave, grunge and alternative, all of which forever changed the rock music landscape.

Disco – well, we all know about disco. It was basically a dance music favored by gays that broke huge around the world in 1977. The epicenter was Studio 54, a dance club in midtown Manhattan favored by celebrities and celebrity watchers. Disco greatly influenced techno and other dance music forms to follow. It’s my understanding that disco has enjoyed a recent renaissance among the kids.

I still read books about the cultural upheaval of 1977. I just finished one called “England’s Dreaming,” by Jon Savage. One of my favorite books ever is “The Bronx is Burning,” which chronicled the Big Apple’s near meltdown in 1977 amid the blackout, the city declaring bankruptcy, the Son of Sam murders, and the punk/hip hop/disco movements. The title was taken from a quote by sportscaster Howard Cosell, who noticed a bunch of burning buildings near Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx during the World Series and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

So 1977 is never far from my mind. Which brings me to my classmates….

They were a good group of folks. I say this with utter sincerity, knowing that my memory is probably selective, and the years have painted over a good portion of the reality.

I can’t think of any obnoxious assholes among them. Maybe it was just my perception, based on nothing factual. My memory tells me they were a pretty humble, good-natured and easygoing lot. Not given to grand ideas about themselves. Not too sold on their own awesomeness. There must have been a few exceptions. With 700 or so classmates, there must have been some loud, arrogant tools. I just can’t think of any right now. I can think of some from other classes – yep, I can surely think of them.

But the ‘77ers? No, I’m drawing a blank. Or if there were, we knew it was a put-on, and we rolled our eyes and waited for the moment to pass.

Humility is contagious. It becomes your culture when enough people you spend enough time with adopt it as a guiding principle.

The way I remember things, we were mostly just kind of trudging along, waiting for high school to finally end, because God knows, most of us just wanted it to end. I don’t remember a lot of drama. I remember plenty of shared boredom. I remember being able to talk to pretty much anyone about nothing at all – and there was just a whole lot of nothing to talk about. I remember a million parties and a billion laughs, because one thing we were all pretty good at was laughing.

Speaking strictly for myself, that attitude helped form the person I eventually became. I am like anyone else, given to highs and lows, ecstasy and rage. I’ve had a lot more of it than some, but a lot less than most. There’s always been a regulator inside that said, “Calm down, sport. It ain’t that good and it ain’t that bad. It’s somewhere in the middle.”

I attribute some of this attitude – the ability to find perspective, no matter the situation – to those I shared my youth with. One of my best friends and fellow Class of ’77 grads is maybe the calmest person I know or ever will know. His whole life is an exercise in perspective. We could be surrounded by fire and brimstone and you get the sense he’d say something like, “Well, it ain’t lookin’ good. Might as well grab a beer.”

This same attitude has crept into much of what I see on social media among old classmates. They are passionate about certain things, and will not pull punches or mince words. But behind that is usually an add-on like, “Of course, it’s always good to hear the other point of view as well.” Or, “But then what the hell do I really know LOL.”

Contrast that with much of the rest of the world, which is so cocksure of its rightness and righteousness that it would take a massive gamma ray from outer space to get them to shut the f**k up for five minutes and let the other person speak.

You start a conversation, you can’t even finish it
You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything

Those lines are from “Psycho Killer,” a song from the Talking Heads’ 1977 debut album, Talking Heads 77.

Talking for the sake of hearing yourself talk didn’t carry a lot of currency among most of my old classmates. This was a gift we gave to ourselves, and one that has never lost value.

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