Rich Wilhelm

Posts Tagged ‘friendship’

HooplaThon Day 2: Starship and the “Art of Listening Ironically”

In 1980s, 1985, music, Music/Memory, pop music on September 13, 2016 at 2:56 am

HooplaThon HooplaMeter Day 2: Ankle Deep in Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

Program Note: In yesterday’s initial HooplaThon entry, I noted that I’d be listening to Knee Deep in the Hoopla and writing about it for 31 days in a row. Clearly, I was delusional. After a good night’s sleep, I have realized the insanity. I’m now not going to promise any number of entries so you can clear those early October evenings you were reserving to read HooplaThon entries. We’ll just play this all by ear.


Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released on September 10, 1985. It was the first album by just plain Starship after longtime Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship member Paul Kanter jumped ship and took the Jefferson with him.

Starship took the opportunity of a name change to reevaluate and update their sound for the mid-1980s. With a modern-minded producer named Peter Wolf–very clearly not the J.Geils Band singer–at the producer’s desk, Starship ceded most of the heavy songwriting work to outsiders and relied on Wolf to overlay the resulting songs with a slick synthesized veneer that was clearly meant to appeal to ’80s kids with a yen for technopop. Like me.

Of course, by the time September 1985 rolled around, a lot of us new wavers had passed through our initial synthpop rush and moved onto other things. Things that were a little more organic (R.E.M.) or rocked in a more traditional, if shambolic way (Replacements) or were less concerned with the state of their hair than the guys in A Flock of Seagulls. Though, of course, everyone was concerned with the state of their hair in the 1980s.

Don’t get me wrong though. Even in ’85, I continued to like artists who creatively incorporated electronics into their music. But artists like Eurythmics and Thomas Dolby had a knack for using synthesizers in intriguing ways, as something more than aural window dressing. Knee Deep in the Hoopla, on the other hand, is all about the electronic window dressing. Even when Marconi is playing the mamba, it’s an electronic mamba.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the initial release of Knee Deep in the Hoopla had absolutely no effect on me at all. I do not remember having any reaction at all to the huge breakout hit, “We Built This City” or the equally popular follow-up, “Sara.” What’s weird about this, is that Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released at the perfect time for me, as I was just about to fully submit to the fine art of listening to music ironically. Or, more appropriately, “listening ironically,” because when you’re going ironic, you do everything in quotation marks. Or more, appropriately “do everything.” But you get the point. Actually, you “get the point,” right?

Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released just days after I moved into the second floor of Johnson Hall for my third year of college at Temple University. As record store workers worldwide were stocking copies of Starship’s new album, I was getting to know Rick and Greg, two of my new floor mates, and good friends of mine to this day.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla could have been a huge talking point for the three of us, as we bonded early over music. Once we located each others’ senses of humor, we particularly bonded over the idea of listening to music ironically. That is, picking out a band or album that we might not actually be all that into and TOTALLY EFFIN’ ROCKIN’ OUT to said band or album.

In other words, “totally effin’ rockin’ out” in quotation marks.

We never explicitly said to each other, “Hey, let’s listen to music ironically.” It just happened.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla would have been a perfect “ironic listen” for us. And yet it wasn’t to be, because another band, a band whose name I am not going to reveal in this entry, loomed large, very large, in our ironic listening.

More on ironic rocking as I sink ever deeper into the Hoopla tomorrow night.

This HooplaThon is being sponsored by Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!








In 1980s, high school, nerdism, nerds on February 14, 2016 at 1:12 pm



I woke up thinking about nerds on this very cold Valentine’s Day in Pennsylvania. This has nothing to do with my romantic life per se. I just woke up thinking about nerds.

It all started late one evening last week. I caught the end of the 1984 movie, Revenge of the Nerds. I first saw this cinematic masterwork in a theater, with a couple of my nerdish friends, within a week or so of its original release. Hell, we may have seen it opening night.

I suppose we thought that the [SPOILER ALERT!] ultimate triumph of the goodhearted nerds over the mindless, evil, social-climbing prep jocks was a validation of our nerdish existence, and maybe we were right about that. In many ways though, Revenge of the Nerds is not an easy movie to watch in 2016. It is awash in ethnic, racial and sexual stereotypes. Not only that, the scene in which the main nerd uses the mask he is wearing to trick the main jock’s girlfriend to have sex with him in a moon bounce is seriously uncool, even if it all works out OK in the end.

Of course, all of that is looking at a 1984 movie through the lens of 2016 sensibilities and I am not really interested in a debate about whether current standards should be applied to any sort of art (including Revenge of the Nerds) from the past. Besides, I betcha the whole plot and cast of characters from the movie was stolen from Shakespeare anyway.

The movie did get me thinking about my high school friends–who shall remain nameless here, but should they happen to stumble upon this, they know who they are. We clearly were living on the fringes of high school society, or so we thought. This, despite the fact that we were all Caucasian, straight (as far as I knew) males. But this is not really surprising: while nerds comprise all races, ethnicities and orientations today, a certain strain of straight while males were clearly the nerdiest of the nerds in early 1980s teen culture, despite the more diverse (but stereotyped) cast in Revenge of the Nerds.

I realize that I am basing this on my very limited experience. Clearly there were black nerds, Asian nerds, girl nerds, gay nerds and all other manner of nerds populating high schools in 1982. It’s just that I knew what I knew at the time and, in retrospect, what I knew was pretty damned limited.

As for my friends and me: we played Risk while listening to Rush. The epic Moving Pictures and its new wave-influenced follow-up Signals were the big Rush studio albums of my high school days, but it was the live album, Exit…Stage Left, that seemed to be the most common Risk soundtrack. Because it rocked.

Of course, there was that sleep-over that happened not long after one of my nerd friends had fallen in love. He thus made us listen to the three hit songs–“Lost in Love,” “All Out of Love,” and “Every Woman In the World”–from Air Supply’s first big album over and over again. But he wouldn’t listen to the rest of the album, which is why I am still not conversant on what the best Air Supply deep album tracks are.

We played Dungeons and Dragons as well, or at least some of us did. There was another fantasy game that took hold of as well. I think it might have been called Ysgarth, or something like that, and it was one step beyond D&D.

I was never fully enmeshed in the fantasy game scene–even as a teenager, I found actual reality surreal enough, thank you very much–but I was there sometimes when the games were being played. I was not a huge Rush fan–the new waver in my kept the prog rocker in me at bay–but I was there when we were listening to the Rush records.

But it wasn’t as if I was simply a nerd-by-association. I could recite the names of all the U.S. presidents by the time I was seven years old. The graveyard obsession that has ultimately led me to become a cemetery tour guide followed shortly thereafter.

So yes, I was a nerd. Or a geek, or a dork. I know there are subtle differences among those three words, but it’s all just semantics. My friends were nerds too, though looking back, we each approached nerdism in our own specific way. Just like every single kid, before and since, has approached the development of their own personalities in the sometimes harsh world of high school society. My friends and I were fortunate in that we were able to work through the nerdishness–which, let’s face it, is really just code for “being true to oneself”–and emerge unscathed. Sadly, we all know that is not always the case, which is perhaps a topic for another time.


The Dead Milkmen! At Laurel Hill!

In Uncategorized on September 7, 2014 at 3:44 am

The Dead Milkmen wrapped up their Laurel Hill Cemetery concert just 24 hours ago. I have spent a good part of today contemplating what a profound experience last night turned out to be.

Yes, I just used the words “profound” and “Dead Milkmen” in relation to each other. Not a shred of irony was used in the construction of those sentences.

The Dead Milkmen concert at Laurel Hill Cemetery last evening was a profound experience for me. But, I’m thinking, not just me.

When the show was first announced in July, I very briefly thought that I might be the sole inhabitant of the center of a Venn Diagram showing fans of Philadelphia’s favorite satirical punks and the city’s most celebrated cemetery, where I happen to be a volunteer tour guide. How undeniably, blissfully wrong I was about that! Best thing I’ve been wrong about ever.

I realized the error of my thinking within minutes of sharing Laurel Hill’s Facebook post that the Dead Milkmen would be playing. Ecstatic comments popped up immediately from Dead Milkmen fans who also happen to love Laurel Hill in the way that I do. It was semi-jokingly suggested that I ought to do an LHC tour the afternoon of the show. But that particular joke was, in fact, an excellent idea and within an hour I had announced through my Facebook page, that I’d be doing a pre-show tour.

Let me stop for a moment to describe my history with both the Dead Milkmen and Laurel Hill Cemetery. Way back in 1985, Dean Clean, Joe Jack Talcum, Dave Blood and Rodney Anonymous released their first Dead Milkmen album, Big Lizard in My Back Yard. Soon thereafter, I journeyed from my dorm room at Temple University, via the Broad Street Subway, to one of the now-legendary Sounds of Market record stores in Center City Philadelphia. There, as the clerks exhorted customers not to go to mall record stores, I purchased my own personal vinyl copy of Big Lizard. It would spend many happy hours on my turntable in Room 232, Johnson Hall, blaring once- and future-classics like “Bitchin’ Camaro,” “Tiny Town” and “Serrated Edge”–the best song about Charles Nelson Reilly ever–for my friends and me. Good times. No, great times.

I followed the Dead Milkmen through their next few albums and their classic “Punk Rock Girl” but never managed to see the band live. Until last night.

Which brings me to Laurel Hill Cemetery. Founded in 1836, LHC is a National Historic Landmark, one of the few cemeteries in the country to have that distinction. It covers well over 70 acres in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia and is filled with unique memorials to both well-remembered and little-known Philadelphians. Though I have been a cemetery tourist for years, I managed to not visit LHC until 2012, but I’ve made up for that by becoming one of the cemetery’s approximately two dozen volunteer tour guides. I’ve since given several tours, showing the cemetery to first-time and repeat visitors alike.

I flat out love Laurel Hill and the staff and volunteers associated with it.

Laurel Hill also happens to be the perfect venue for a Dead Milkmen concert. The guys in the band certainly knew that. They love the place as much as the LHC staff and volunteers do.

Now you’re up to speed and I can tell you about the tour and the show and just how profound the whole thing was. My tour ran from about 4:20 until the fairly intense heat and humidity melted us and we fled back to the air conditioned gatehouse before heading down to the show. I had a total of eight people on the tour. My wife Donna and our Phoenixville-area friends Jennifer, Tina, Laura and Laura were there. In addition, we had three serious Dead Milkmen fans from out of town–husband and wife Ed and Grace from York, Pennsylvania; and Sean, who had taken the train down from Boston.

The tour was great fun–yes, cemetery tours can be fun! Thanks to something I had learned from another LHC guide, Kerry Bryan, I was able to show the tour group a milkmen-relevant gravesite–that of Mary Engle Pennington, “the mother of refrigerated transportation.” Pennington, who is in halls of fame devoted to both women and chemists, invented technology that made refrigerated boxcars, and thus the transportation of milk and beer over great distances, possible.

Everyone got to talking during the tour. The Phoenixville friends had a new experience to share and the very obvious shared interests-the Dead Milkmen and old cemeteries-made for easy conversation that led to new friendships.

All of this was reinforced by the concert itself. More than 900 fans came to see the Dead Milkmen and opening act S.T.A.R.W.O.O.D. Just walking among the crowd, I got the feeling that, while everyone was just there to have a good time listening to the music, there was also this sense of what a cool and unique experience seeing the Dead Milkmen among the tombs and mausoleums was.

And, while this isn’t necessarily meant to be a music review, I can assure you that the Dead Milkmen rocked, playing many beloved classics, along with a few very promising tunes from their upcoming album, Pretty Music for Pretty People.

I think what will linger with me about last night is how the venue, the audience, the bands, and even the spirits of Laurel Hill’s permanent residents all merged into an experience that we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives. And, though some people might find the idea of a punk rock concert in a cemetery to be disrespectful, I beg to differ. The founders of Laurel Hill built it for the living, as well as the dead. Those of us at the show were simply extensions of our weird Victorian ancestors, who would bring picnics to Laurel Hill and other cemeteries. In the end, both the tour I gave and the concert were celebrations of life in all its odd glory, as well as an opportunity to build on a community that revels in the eccentricities of life.

Plus, it was all just plain cool, in the best sense of the word.

The Dead Milkmen concert at Laurel Hill Cemetery was a profound experience for me. But, I’m thinking, not just for me.

The Copco Lake Five Year Photo Guys and the Art of Time Standing Still

In Friendship on September 26, 2012 at 2:59 am

Maybe you saw the story this summer about the five guys who took a photo of themselves at a lake back in 1982 when they were 19 years old. They have restaged the photo every five years since then.

The same five guys. The same location, Copco Lake in California.

This is a classic feel good story that happened to emerge during a week when it seems as though many people needed something to feel happy about.

I read about these guys on CNN’s website and enjoyed the story, without thinking about it too much in that moment. However, I have found with the passage of a day or so, that the story has really gotten into my head and heart.

What I’m finding is that the stories that have emerged on CNN and elsewhere and, of course, the photos themselves, are creating more questions in my head than they are answering. I find myself wondering about the demographics of these five guys: what are their political, social, religious views? How have these views changed over the decades and how have those changes affected the dynamic of the friendships?

And then there are questions like “I wonder who each guy in these photos considers his best friend among the other four?” and “How does the friendship dynamic change when two, three or four of the guys are together with the rest not around?” And, of course, it’s hard not to wonder if there haven’t been fallings out through the years.

Lots of questions emerge, which are wisely not answered by the photos themselves. And, while I have those questions, ultimately I don’t think I want to know the answers, as this is really none of my business.

What emerges from the photos is the fact that five guys who have apparently known each other most of their lives still like hanging out together. And that is all we really need to know.

I do know that if I had been part of a photo like this with four of my friends when I was 19 (in 1984) that I can very clearly tell you who two of the other guys in that photo would have been but I can’t say for certain who the other two would be, as some of my friendships were in a state of flux at that point. I can also say that, once the five-year-tradition started, there surely would have been years in which not all of five of us would have showed up. In some of those years, I would have been the one who chose to miss the picture.

None of the five Copco Lake guys have ever missed a five-year photo.

In the wake of the media attention, some readers/viewers have focused on the toll the years have taken on some/all of the Copco Lake guys. I understand the interest in that, especially given how superficial we all can be about physical appearance, but again I’m way more fascinated by the many, many strands of experience and memory and friendship that the photos represent than I am by how paunchy or gray-haired some of the Copco guys may have gotten. And anyway, being in the same general age bracket as these guys, I’ve got my own gray hairs and other signs of the aging process to confront.

Some people might look at the Copco Lake photos as some kind of exercise in nostalgia but to me this is just as much about now and the future as it is about the past. The photos (and more importantly, the process of making sure they get taken every five years) remind me very much of the Rush song, “Time Stand Still,” in which the narrator notes:

“I’m not looking back
But I want to look around me now
See more of the people
And the places that surround me now.”

Yes, of course, the Copco Lake guys have a shared past that bonds them, but they seem pretty comfortable being friends with each other as they find themselves now. And I guess that is what will allow the friendships to move forward into the future. That seems to be what would allow any of our friendships to move through our lives with us, rather than become static memories.

In any event, I consider myself lucky to have made many great friends throughout my lifetime, and even luckier to realize that nearly every one of those friendships still exists in some form (even those friendships that got bruised a bit or went dormant for awhile along the way). The Copco Lake guys are reminding me that I really ought to celebrate the friendships I have and to see to it that these friendships live as much in the present as they are rooted in the past.

Thanks for that reminder, Copco Lake guys.

You can see the rest of the Copco Lake guys’ photos here:

Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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