A student asked me today what made me love history?
Damn good question, actually. And I’ve spent the rest of the day pondering this seemingly insignificant question, and the answer I’ve come up with is simple in its complexity.
In a nutshell: I’m a product of my generation. That generation having nothing to do with the Cold War or Reagan or Geopolitics or Rambo. I’m of the MTV Generation. Music. That’s what did it.
My parents helped too. In a few ways; one of them I’m certain will disappoint them, but they’ll live. Somewhere around 1984 I had to do a research project for a class assignment. I was around ten. While I have no idea what the other kids did their projects on–one would assume the Summer Olympics since I grew up in Los Angeles–I can distinctly remember doing my project on the origins, structure, and intentions of the Hezbollah. A year earlier, the Marine barracks in Beirut were attacked. Muammar Qaddafi was spouting off, and would come through with his treats a couple of years later. My parents, now I realize that this had to have put a decent dent in their personal time (i.e. going out to dinner alone), had subscriptions to U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, and, on occasion Time. I devoured the articles. Secretly, I reveled in the delivery days and pounced on them like other kids my age would their Highlights or Mad Magazine. But there had to be something to foster that desire to read articles about the Hezbollah and Qaddafi and drug cartels in South America. And that’s also where my parents come in.
They were incredibly strict about the music I could listen to. We didn’t have cable in the house. My first radio got AM stations much better than FM. If the album didn’t come from a Christian book store, I couldn’t buy it.
So. I did what every kid in that situation would do. I sought it out. I watched MTV’s opening night at Adam Dalvia’s house. I lied that U2 was a Christian band. I played it up to the poor saleslady at the Christian Bookstore on Arrow Highway that “of course they’re Christian.” Eventually, I was able to buy War at a “mainstream” outlet and I would listen to it real quiet on my record player. I was amazed when my dad went with me to buy the Stray Cat’s album Built For Speed. More amazed that I walked out of the store with it.
You couldn’t spin the radio dial a few stations without hearing some form of political song. Whether you were into punk, rock, metal, or new wave. It was out there for anyone willing to take a moment to listen closely to the words and the meaning behind them. From Nena’s “99 Luftballons” to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Cities in Dust”, Sting’s “Russians” to Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldiers” there was history everywhere. This was a time when the A-Team was fighting to protect the Cosby’s. Red Dawn. Rambo. Rocky IV. It was the Cold War and it played out on my radio, when I could hear it.
I thought I would go through the songs that caught my ear and made me listen a bit closer. They are presented in no particular order, other than how my memory has pulled them back from the abyss of the past. Sorry mom and dad if this disappoints you… I know you did your best, but, hey, that’s what sleepovers were for.
“Run to the Hills”–Iron Maiden
Why this one comes to mind first? It’s Iron Maiden! Not a snowball’s chance in hell that album was getting in my house. Any album titled Number of the Beast was not, in any way, shape, or form, getting across the threshold of my mother’s door. There was something that amazed me in the fact that I was “taught” that metal was the music of the devil, but here was a band singing about the stuff I was learning–chiefly, the conflict between Native Americans and, well, everyone else. Those of you unfamiliar with the song here’s a YouTube link to the video–maybe even mom or dad will watch. Doubt it.
Music video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geHLdg_VNww
“Pride” and “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”–U2
To say that this band was my first favorite is an understatement. I still listen to my albums; I own everyone on almost every format possible. But these two songs hit home to a kid who was devouring U.S. News and World Report. I’d read about the unrest in Ireland, and now I was hearing about it from the Irish. I lied about U2’s Christianity to get the album. And then I heard Pride. Done. I was hooked on history.
Music video: “Pride” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHcP4MWABGY
There was a girl living up the street that I had a childish/hood crush on. She was a huge Police fan, so, of course I became one also. One day, hanging out in her house, she played songs from The Dream of the Blue Turtles and I heard “Russians.” The tick, tock of the clock at the beginning. The haunting melody. This was the Cold War in a neat 3 minute 58 second package.
Music video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHylQRVN2Qs
“Brothers In Arms”–Dire Straits
In 1985, after–maybe while–I was researching the Hezbollah MTV was overrun with a fun little song by Dire Straits. You know it, I know you do: “Money For Nothing”. And, you probably finished the line “…and chicks for free.” But there was another song on the album that got some airplay. I first heard it on Miami Vice without realizing what it was. I couldn’t turn a page in Newsweek or any other magazine that got pushed through the mail slot in our front door without reading about the Falklands Island War. Here was a song about it. A song about a trivial little war in over an island in the Atlantic. Maybe these rock guys knew more that I did. I couldn’t allow that.
Music video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5JkHBC5lDs
“Rock the Casbah”–The Clash
Alright, I’ll give you it’s not quite on the same level as the above songs, but it did mean something to me, and, after all, it is my list! With everything going on in the Middle East, the video for this song just brought a smile to my face. I wondered if there would be people in countries like Iran sneaking off to a quiet corner of the house listening to music that they weren’t supposed to be… like I was. It’s just something that music was able to do–unite people across all sorts of political, religious, or cultural boundaries.
Music video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJ9r8LMU9bQ
There would be other songs later–“Future’s So Bright, I’ve Got To Wear Shades”-Timbuk 3, “Winds of Change”-Scorpions, “Two Tribes”-Frankie Goes To Hollywood, for example–and others that came before that I was introduced to as I got older–“Ohio”-CSN, “Biko”-Peter Gabriel, “Fortunate Son”-CCR–that would continue to keep me interested in music and history, but these some of the songs that come to mind as having shaped an impressionable kid.
Like I said, simple answer in its complexity.
I’d love to know what you think.