I Hate 1984
1984: An Introduction
Peter S. Scholtes
I was 14 for 10 months and 7 days of 1984, which tells you about all you need to know. The year before I had become a "punk rocker" at Marquette Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, which was cool. I remember being outside on the grass during gym class, and somebody giving me shit about my hair, calling me Frankenstein, and then another girl saying, Shut up, he's dressing punk. Once people knew what I was, they respected it. We were in eighth grade, so there was no one older than us to beat us up and enforce the rules.
Then I entered my freshman year at East High School near the Oscar Meyer factory, big and anonymous and working-class, where you could get seriously hurt for looking weird. I had painful acne, and at home my brothers and my sister were joining me in moody adolescence. Hating Reagan and loving music brought us together, corny as that sounds. Our Episcopal church had given sanctuary to Central American refugees, whose torture scars we could see if they let us. My parents (it's complicated, but I have four of them) didn't object when the kids walked out of school to protest apartheid in South Africa.
I distinctly remember my stepmom, Peg, whose church we attended, buying us these albums to share for Christmas: Cyndi Lauper's She So Unusual, Madonna's Like a Virgin, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., Chaka Khan's I Feel for You, Van Halen's 1984, and Prince's Purple Rain. This was back when buying records was an investment for me, so getting all this music at once was a big deal. Meanwhile, through my friend in punk rock, Joel, I had gotten into the Replacements' Let It Be, the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, and Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, all in a matter of weeks. The last of those became my first record review in the high school newspaper, for a senior named Ruth Conniff, who later became an editor at The Progressive.
So it was the year I had to show my ugly adolescent body, naked and shivering, to fellow high school showerers during health class (where bathing after activities was required). But it was also the year I saw Apollonia naked on the big screen, and the year I began to see some of her voluptuousness in the new wave girls around me. This was the year my classmates literally cheered Reagan's reelection. (With more than a little melodramatic self-pity, I found myself empathizing with Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984, which I was reading around that time.) But it was also the year that radical, political punk rock produced its greatest art.
I hate 1984 today because it makes all the other years look bad. Not that I haven't felt much, much better in the two decades since, or that things around me have particularly gotten worse. (Communism left, the Bush clan stayed, and we've still got a bomb and could all die here today.) But I've never been so fully engaged in popular culture as I was in that lonely year.
Which is to say, I've never enjoyed the culture as fully through my family and through the friends I call family. I'll never forget watching The Terminator with my brother Matt and my stepdad, Tom, groaning "Arnold" at the screen and getting the whole theater to do the same. I'll never forget my sister J.J. (now Jenna) and a bedroom full of her friends singing "Darling Nikki" together at the top of their lungs. (Tipper Gore was right.) I'll never forget my mom's enthusiasm for the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense movie, or her patience when I tried to convince her that the Minutemen were great even though they couldn't sing. You lose some of this familial perspective when you go off to make your way in the world.
And now I remember with fondness my dad's system of preferential voting for what movies we would go see as a family, and the one we all agreed about afterward: Sixteen Candles. Things I took for granted at the time, like my brother Ben's martial arts moves, that seriousness on his face, the way a news segment about him on local TV used The Karate Kid theme--these are now some of my fondest memories.
Nostalgia and anti-nostalgia is a snap in the digital age: The above paragraphs, and most of the essays that follow, were taken from my self-indulgent web log www.complicatedfun.com, which launched this series in the spring. Visit the blog to find the complete set of 1984 tributes, with obsessions ranging from Run-DMC to Van Halen, The Terminator to V: The Final Conflict. We've mostly avoided Prince, in both print and online: Do you really need to read another article about Purple Rain?
If so, write one and I'll post it on the website.
The Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime
Other than listening to music, I honestly couldn't tell you what the hell I was doing in 1984. I was a college flunky with more incompletes than grades on my University of Minnesota transcripts, I know that much. I was through with college, and I surely had some sort of shit job, or combination of shit jobs; whatever money I could scrape together from this meager existence I know I was spending on Old Milwaukee, microwave burritos, and records.
There were, of course, a lot of records to buy in 1984. There were, and are, always a lot of records to buy, but that was, from a strictly personal standpoint, but also in nearly universal hindsight, a particularly good year. As miserable as I might otherwise have been, it will nonetheless always be remembered as a very good year, one of those rare good years that seem better to me all the time.
Like most music geeks, I've always made year-end lists of my favorite records. In my case, these have almost always been strictly for my own obsessive amusement, and a way to keep track of a record and CD collection that gets more unmanageable all the time. I can do the math, and I do: There's a damn good chance that at least half of the records in my possession may never get another listen.
Oddly enough, two of the most enduring records from 1984--Bruce Springsteen's hugely overrated Born in the USA and Prince's Purple Rain, which I was sick of hearing in clubs and at other people's apartments after two months--never even made it into the sort of heavy personal rotation that would allow me to give them much more than a second thought today. I was in no mood for stiff white guys in stiff blue jeans or androgynous little black guys in black bikini briefs in 1984, and I was never in the mood for synthesizers, period, so neither of those records has any place in my fierce and increasingly pathetic nostalgia for those wasted halcyon days.
For a long time, I've been fine-tuning a list of records that I need to have with me when I travel for any extended period; it's a list that gets longer all the time--last summer, when I readied for a two-week drive across Canada to the East Coast, I packed a box of more than 300 CDs, which was of course absurd, but a guy has to be prepared for any mood, weather, or landscape, and you never know what you're going to need to hear at any given moment.
Double Nickels is one of those records that always makes it out of the box. I don't even like to leave town for 24 hours without taking it along, and I once found myself in a panic when I realized at a roadside rest somewhere just east of the Black Hills that I didn't have a copy with me in the car. This was at the time when I was just starting to build a CD collection, and though I had Double Nickels on vinyl and on a worn-out cassette somewhere in my house, I had just replaced my car's cassette deck with a CD player. I was furious and ashamed of myself for the inexcusable oversight, and realized that I could not possibly continue on the trip without the record.
As is so often the case, my wife didn't particularly understand my irrational panic over a seemingly trivial matter, but she also knew enough by this time to recognize that there was no point in proceeding until I had peace of mind, knowing that Double Nickels was at the ready. What followed was an absurd and increasingly futile wild goose chase that eventually necessitated staying overnight at a Motel 6 in Rapid City so I could scrounge the town's record stores in the morning. Undaunted by my inevitable failure in Rapid City, I called a friend in the Twin Cities and asked him to overnight a copy of the disc to me at our motel in Livingston, Montana, which he was kind (and insane) enough to do. Double Nickels was waiting at the desk when we checked in the next afternoon, and all was once again right with the world.
There are a lot of records that I honestly don't believe I could live without, but there are two records that I know I couldn't possibly live without: Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and Double Nickels on the Dime. I'm afraid I can't explain to you, really, what it is I love so much about the Minutemen's masterpiece, but I can tell you that it's one of those records that I seem to actually listen to more with every passing year, and it never fails to make me happy. Unlike so many of those other 1984 records that I continue to love so much, there's no ache of nostalgia associated with Double Nickels. There are no individual songs that break my heart or dredge up all sorts of bittersweet memories of my lost youth, and I think the reason for that is that this is a record that reminds me again and again that nothing has been lost, that I'll always be in some essential way the same guy who put the needle down on Double Nickels' first disc for the first time in 1984, and that every single thing I ever wanted or expected from rock and roll has been given to me in spades, again and again and again.
I can still hear, and feel, everything that I ever heard or felt in the ferocious, awkward spectacle that was the Minutemen in their too-brief prime. It's all still there in D. Boon's sometimes overarching fever to signify and, at a time when no one else really seemed to stand for anything, or want to, D. Boon did, even if he could only articulate it through a passion that acted as equal parts contagion and fuse. I sensed then--and continue to sense--an idealistic kinship in the band's jamming-econo ethos and schlub fashion sense and yearning for community and connection.
I loved that band, and I love them and miss them more every single time I play Double Nickels.
How Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel Almost Saved Me from Poseurdom
In 1984 i was a suburban wannabe punk rocker or "new waver" without a clue, in the best prep school that Fridley, Minnesota, had to offer. For about a year and a half I labored under the notion that I was the king of punk angst, at least all the angst you could wear on your sleeve while shopping at Chess King. Granted, I was trying to be old-school by listening to the "classics of the genre": Sex Pistols, the Damned, as well as what MTV said was cool. Every new wave album that I had was purchased at Musicland in Northtown.
To understand Northtown in the '80s is to understand Minnesota suburban youth culture in those days. If the '80s were an age of excess, Northtown was beyond the boundaries of time. Mullet-haired boys and sunflower-haired girls had lengthy discussions about the meaning of the lyrics "motoring, what's your price for flight." To my knowledge, at that point, my friends (well, friend) and I were very alone in our tastes. And my one friend, Suzette, was a cheerleader. Not exactly the punkest of rock. But we passed our time cruising Musicland for Oingo Boingo records, buying very cheap costume jewelry at Walgreens, and of course trying to look menacing. Lord knows nothing was scarier then a teenager with spiky hair and several plastic rings.
Punk rock/new wave hadn't come to my school yet, at least not the haircuts, and not all that much of the music. Being that I was a shy, unsure youth among strangers who all seemed to know each other since birth, the best way to get along seemed to be this: color my hair purple and spike it really, really high. Oh yeah, the rattail helped too. I think what made me look foolish was trying to adopt the new romantic look of the period without knowing anything about it--for example, knowing that even in England, they thought it was a lame idea.
Then Brian transferred to our school. Brian came from the mean streets of Roseville, a much grittier suburb. Brian, with hair that frightened adults much more then mine. Brian, with many earrings. Brian, who smelled rather bad. Brian who had, in large scrawly text on the back of his Army surplus coat, the word "Foetus."
Seeing as how we were the two guys with haircuts at Preppie High, it was assumed that we would be friends. Now, up to this time, my epithet of choice was "poseur." Anyone with a polo shirt and a Flock of Seagulls haircut was fair game for a harsh word and a surly look from me. But in the course of one school lunch, I got the feeling that I might in fact have been a poseur, too. Not through any fault of my own. I just had never found access to any other information, save what words of wisdom the clerk from Musicland could pass on. But Brian knew the truth. He held the keys to secret and arcane knowledge. He had a subscription to MaximumRockandRoll. Brian was from a different world: He had big, spiky hairy--poorly dyed, lots of tails, not to mention a large square randomly shaved into his head. Did I mention he smelled? I had no idea that you were supposed to be smelly, save, of course, the subtle hint of Drakar Noir.
As we talked about bands, I realized that his was a world I knew nothing about: DRI, JFA, GBH. The best I had to offer was some records on IRS. It was decided that some advanced study was needed. Since I tended to prefer things with synthesizers, he pulled from his backpack a ratty cassette with graffiti lettering that said "Scraping Foetus off the Wheel," and in even worse marred-up lettering, "Hole." Hole scared and excited me in equal measure. Hearing it was transcendent. This wasn't a guy hoping to be on American Bandstand. He was angry, and not angry in the MTV-won't-play-my-video way. The notes were sharp and pointy. His voice seemed to sneer with each word. He was much angrier then Joey Ramone. This was deeper, darker. Hearing it was like living in a Playboy world and suddenly seeing Hustler. It certainly wasn't the world I'd want to live in now, but when you're a 14-year-old boy, it's hard to put down. For three days, that was what I listened to. It was dark and brooding, with comic-book moments, a little like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, except, you know, minus Mr. Toad.
Twenty years later, things have changed. I won't tell you that Hole is a great record. But it is awfully good. It's hard to make nihilism hold up for that long a period of time. Sure, Rimbaud could do it, but he was French. Like all of that nihilist generation, the punks never lived up to their promise: It always seemed like something big was right around the corner, but then it never materialized.
Michael Jordans Rookie Season
In December 1984 I had only a limited knowledge of Michael Jordan, then an NBA rookie. I remembered him playing on the 1982 North Carolina national championship team, and a season later he went pro after his junior year. When my parents, who were then briefly living in the Chicago area, called me at my University of North Dakota dorm room and told me that Dad would be taking my brother Randy and me to see a Bulls game while we were visiting for Christmas, I'm sure I thought, Hey, that's the team Michael Jordan plays on. I was curious as to just how good this guy was. What interested me most was an article in a fall 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated about the incredible hang times of certain NBA players. The writer claimed that Jordan stayed in the air so long that he had time for a sandwich while he was up there. Accompanying this assertion was an SI cartoon showing Jordan enjoying a sandwich in midair as he prepared to dunk.
We drove into the city on game night, through neighborhoods filled with Old Style signs. Chicago Stadium was full of, as people might kindly say, character. But we had outstanding seats and the sight lines were solid. The place wasn't close to being sold out. The Bulls were playing the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team with ugly orange uniforms whose sole star was the unforgettably named World B. Free.
Michael Jordan wasn't yet a figure in popular culture. While in the Chicago area, I saw him in exactly one commercial, for Chicagoland Chevy dealers. He was alone on a dark basketball court dribbling toward the basket, and the voiceover said: "Sometimes, all I think about is driving." He hadn't yet shaved his head; he didn't yet have baggy shorts. Nor did he have Air Jordan shoes or the supporting cast that helped him lead the Bulls to multiple titles in the '90s. But certain trademarks were in place. He stuck out his tongue while playing, he hustled his ass off, he played amazing (and then unheralded) in-your-face defense, and he lit up the joint that night with about 10 dunks (some of the jaw-dropping variety) and 48 points. The Bulls won. We loved the show. Over the years, while watching him in the playoffs or seeing his spectacular highlights on SportsCenter, I would think of that one time I saw him play live. It's like telling people I was at the Cavern for the Beatles or the Stone Pony for Springsteen. I still shake my head when I think of it.
The Replacements Were Funny, Heavy, and Better Musicians Than You Think
G.R. Anderson Jr.
For all the legends of ramshackle shows fueled by booze and snot, the lip service paid to Paul Westerberg's clever, poignant lyrics, and the bawdy pathos that informs the mythology of the Replacements, one petty detail is almost always overlooked: The 'Mats were a tight little unit.
I mean that these guys could play, that they were--and still are--underrated in that regard. But then again, this is how it is with most great bands: Folks are aware of, say, Dave Grohl's ferocious drumming, or McCartney's lock-groove melodic bass playing, or even Malcolm Young's bump 'n' grind rhythm guitar work, but it's hardly the first thing they think about when listing the attributes of the bands those fellows happen to have played in. (And as for those who did get credit for their technical skill--well, nobody talks much about how a Steve Vai record saved lives. And if you do, get the fuck away from me, you wank.)
But trust me, the Replacements--Stinson, Stinson, Mars, Westerberg--could play. Any other talk is simply a disingenuous DIY ruse. This was never more evident than on Let It Be, a record that carries so much affirmation and emotional heft for me that I can barely write about it in anything other than technical terms. It's hard to imagine drunken punk heroes sitting in a concrete room, plunking away at tunes, hammering away on mundane music-class things like tempo, harmony, and arrangement. But, sports fans, I'm afraid that's exactly what the band did before entering Blackberry Way Studios to record the best record to ever emerge from the indie underground.
Case in point: "Seen Your Video." A quasi-surf instrumental, the tune seems tossed off. The song is anything but, however, and Bob and Paul's two-guitar give-and-play not only constitutes a deft piece of writing, but offers something as great as anything Mick Taylor brought to Sticky Fingers. Back-cover liner notes hint at the seriousness of it all, for anyone keeping score at home: "Paul on 12-string electric, piano." Actually, on the sleeve it says "acoustic" rather than "electric," which may be an attempt to dismiss the so-uncool notion of musicianship. But I'm not fooled: It's a masterpiece.
The rest of the album rumbles and soars with the kind of intensity and confidence that results from men at work. I've been playing in bands playing Replacements songs for damn near 20 years, and I can honestly say that in all the times I've been a part of covering "I Will Dare"--probably no less than 300, but who's counting--all the various combos I've played with have really nailed the song maybe five times. That song is a bitch. The rest of Let It Be, wisely, I've rarely ever tried.
None of this was apparent to me when I first heard it 19 years ago. My friend Jean, who, alas, was decidedly not my girlfriend at the time ("Fifteen Blue," anyone?), was in the throes of a mad crush on Tommy in early 1985, which I found pretty damn annoying, frankly. For this, I dismissed the record every time I hung out in her bedroom and she put it on.
It sounded tinny and grating, and what the hell was with the half-assed ending of "Androgynous," anyway? Tommy this, Tommy that, Jean would say, blah, blah blah. So in a fit of jealousy, I swiped the cassette out of her boom box one day, hoping never to hear--or never let her hear--the record again. At least that's how I remember it. But a funny thing happened on the way to my adolescent envy: With Jean being frustratingly unavailable, I fell in love with the 'Mats.
And for good reason. For starters, Let It Be was full of adolescent humor. "Gary's Got a Boner" is funny enough for the Beavis and Butt-head set, and it rips off the Nuge's "Cat Scratch Fever" to boot. (A songwriting credit was given to the Motor City Madman in later pressings of the record.) But the line, "Gary's got a soft-on/But not for long, long, long" will likely crack me up well into middle age, when I'll sadly be popping Levitra and relating all too well.
So the record's fuckin' funny. But it's no joke; it's also really heavy, man. The pedal steel alone on "Sixteen Blue" is enough to make a dead man weep, and any machismo underpinnings found elsewhere on Let It Be (see "Favorite Thing," for example) are undercut by the most honest confession of sexual confusion ever plied to wax: "Brag about things/You don't understand/A girl and a woman/A boy and a man." Yeah, meathead, he's talking to you. And when Paul intones that "Your age is the hardest age/Everything drags and drags/It ain't funny/You ain't laughin' are you?" he's hardly speaking to only those among us waiting for our driver's licenses.
And there's no resolution by the end of the record, no absolutes or blacks and whites to jibe succinctly with the era of Just Say No. Westerberg has accrued a nice stable of tearjerkers--"Within Your Reach," "Here Comes a Regular," and "If Only You Were Lonely" come to mind--but the not-at-all concealed anger in "Answering Machine," the album's final scene, makes it the most resonant of all of Paul's lonely-hearts-club songs. Westerberg's alone again, and he's pissed that you're not around. He even hints that he misses you, and that's somehow not enough to get you to pick up the fucking phone.
The song ends with a loop of that friendly phone lady offering, "If you need help, if you'd like to make a call ..." that's slowed down and distorted. It's chilling. And it's also comforting, beyond any rationale. To this day, it rings true.
My choice of record stores evolved steadily between the ages of five and twelve. At five (in 1975), I begged for my first record at the Chicago-Lake Sears while on a trip with my Dad to pick up a lawnmower part: Heartbeat (It's a Love Beat), by the DeFranco Family. Then came the Woolworth at Southdale (in 1978), which had a selection that literally made me giddy until I was old enough to ditch Mom at Donaldson's and discover Musicland (1979) in the basement by the T-shirt shop.
As my bike trips began to range outside my neighborhood, I found the Wax Museum on Penn (1980) and Know-Name Records on Portland (1982). It was in 1984, however, that I reached my final evolutionary stop: My sister came home with a 12-inch single of Greg Kihn's non-hit "Remember." She had found it in the used bin of a record store that she and my dad had discovered while hitting garage sales on a Saturday afternoon: Oar Folkjokeopus. The very next Saturday, my dad took me to Oar Folk and the Electric Fetus in one afternoon.
While the Fetus was huge and the music selection was as vast and foreign to me as the bong selection, it was Oar Folk that felt like home right away. Giant homemade drawers with 45s (used and alphabetized!) by artists I had read about in Creem but never seen in Musicland's inventory. Record sleeves on the wall (somebody's personal commentary there on the wall!) and only music for sale (no posters, stickers, bongs, clothes), as if somebody else believed that nothing else mattered more than the music itself.
I came from the gearhead world. Saturday afternoons were usually spent helping my dad fix the family car or going to free impromptu parking-lot car shows. So I admired but instinctively stayed outside of the post-punk, new romantic Anglophilic world of edgier music. (Back in the day, we called it "college music.") With admiration, I understood why private nonconformists needed to go public with their own looks and opinions. Yet my inherent blue-collar utilitarianism left me thoroughly, desperately confused about how to make that happen to my body.
Oar Folk was like a chop shop for malleable introverts in the market for a new identity. I easily befriended the beautiful geeks that listened to the Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen, but felt inferior to them for my lack of peacock feathers or other identifying colors. It was at Oar Folk that I met living role models (Peter Jesperson, Mark Trehus, Terry Katzman, Dave Ayers) that would show me the way to my greater, projected self. It was like a Method acting studio for blue-collar music lovers. I saw the way I had to go: I grew my hair out on top just a bit, like the Alvin Brothers, and bent it back. Mark started calling me "the Elvis kid."
New records were usually out of reach for my budget. I found an imported reissue of one of Little Richard's first albums, which I touched gently with great avarice, but could never afford. When I saved up enough money to buy a German reissue of the soundtrack to Elvis Presley's King Creole at Oar Folk, Mark Trehus rang it up. He had a black T-shirt and jeans, shaggy hair, and teeth as crooked as mine. He nodded amiably when I walked up, but after looking at the record, he looked up quickly and grinned with approval. "Elvis, huh?" he said. He was still grinning, but now with closed mouth, nodding with his chin stuck out. "I have this, too," he said. I realized later that he sells very effectively by affirming your taste. Conversely, I never heard him disparage somebody's tastes, even behind their backs.
In 1984, I was 13 and got my first job as the paper shredder at Summit Bank in Richfield. Every week, I grabbed the newest City Pages at the end of my shift and sat in the lobby of the bank to read it. (I literally haven't missed a week since.) There were two records that year that made me swoon just from reading the swooning of others: the Replacements' Let It Be and Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive?. With paper-shredding money, I bought both. I also became aware that Peter Jesperson was splitting his time between Oar Folk and the Replacements, and they used to practice in the basement (where I later discovered the parking-lot car show of the record world: the collectable record store. Everything was eyed and coveted like a pot of gold, but nothing was affordable). Now, this place where I went to show off a newly forged identity was a mystical gateway to the almost-touchable older-sibling bands of the area: the Cows (I think Mark flattered me into buying their album on Treehouse), Soul Asylum, Run Westy Run, Hüsker Dü, and others.
Only a year later, the place burned, which wasn't the pat end of a golden era or a vision of beautiful dreams in smoke. (Treehouse is every inch the living reincarnation.) It was, however, the day that I realized how much Oar Folk meant to me. My dad took me to the Oar Folk fire sale, held at a warehouse space somewhere. Records that had expanded, melted, contracted, and been squished by liquefying shrink-wrap were for sale and lined up on the cement floor. I found a copy of the Little Richard LP that I had held a dozen times before. It was scorched and water-damaged, which really hurt to see. The only good thing was that I could finally afford it. I still have it now.
Im Loving It! Loving It!
"One of these days, Alice...POW! right in the kisser!" Dating back to the days when a lowly New York City bus driver threatened domestic violence to the howls of a studio audience, the catchphrase has been a key part of a sitcom's success. Remember the Skipper, cutting homoerotic tension by beating his first mate with his hat to the strains of "Gilligan!"? Why were we ever enamored of a mechanically inclined high school dropout with a leather fetish purring, "Aaaaay!" to attract the fairer sex? Sitcoms, it seems, have long taken their cue from advertising, mining thousands of viewers every week with a simple catchphrase.
Great acting? Fine. Innovative writing? Good. A popular lead-in? Very helpful. Tossing out "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis!?!" every week, same time, same channel? Priceless.
In 1984, advertising executed this tactic to perfection in the form of three geriatric women complaining about the diminutive burgers found at most fast-food operations. The commercial was for Wendy's, a smallish burger chain whose previous claim to fame had been introducing the first modern-day drive-through window to Columbus, Ohio, in 1970. The catchphrase? "Where's the beef?"
Yeah, Bill Cosby injected new life into the sitcom (and NBC) in 1984 with The Cosby Show (which was successful without catchphrases, by the way). But the biggest TV sensation that year was Clara Peller, an 84-year-old former manicurist hired by Wendy's to utter "Where's the beef?" to promote their larger, square-shaped hamburgers. Back in a time when a sexual subtext wasn't added to absolutely everything, "Where's the beef?" became a white-hot cultural touchstone, popping up in magazine headlines, on coffee mugs and T-shirts, even underwear (okay, there's the sexual subtext, I guess). Walter Mondale wielded the words against rival Gary Hart. Hey, why
not ask Donna Rice! (Oops, there's that sexual subtext again.)
Wendy's featured Clara in numerous commercials, even using her croaky, exasperated utterance on a 45 record, performed and recorded with a guy named Coyote McCloud on the Awesome Record Label.
It seemed the only thing America loved more than cute little kids sassing off to their less-intelligent parents were spit-fired old ladies who told it like it was. Dr. Ruth Westheimer, The Golden Girls, Angela Lansbury solving murders left and right: The mid-'80s was when the grannies threw down their knitting needles and kicked some TV ratings ass!
Sadly, America's love affair with Clara and her catchphrase waned when she did a commercial for Prego Plus spaghetti sauce and declared, "I found it!" (She was talking about the beef, of course.) Wendy's fired the beefeater, and their spokesperson sternly declared, "Clara can find the beef in only one place."
The four-foot, eleven-inch pitchwoman died two years later. In 1989, Wendy's folksy founder Dave Thomas began a 13-year ad campaign that ended with his death in 2002. On a happier note, you can still hear Coyote McCloud hosting the morning show on Oldies 96.3, a Nashville radio station.
IN 1984, I WAS LIVING IN ST. PAUL, HOME FROM college on a year's break, trying to make some money. I waitressed the early shift in a diner not far from the Ford plant and suffered daily abuse from some swing-shift assembly line workers who had figured out that I drove a Honda Civic.
Every morning the same four guys came in, ate the same eggs-and-potatoes configurations, repeated the same harangue about how I was personally responsible for their lack of overtime, and stiffed me. I was too scared to stand up to them, or to the diner's skinflint owner, who kept finding creative ways to dip into our inadequate tips. It was a very long year.
But that Civic was great. Ten years old, it cost me a few hundred bucks and just chugged along despite its overabundance of personality. It was rusted to the point where the frame was exposed in several places, and featured a manual transmission that no longer matched up to the five-spoked map on the knob of the gearshift. Consequently, you had to shift by feel. I didn't have the goods to prove it, but I understood instinctively that Ford would never build anything as flat-out magical. I also understood that to the factory workers, I was a living token of something very bad indeed.
The gas shortages of the 1970s were fading from the public's consciousness, but Detroit was still depressed, and the Big Three were still avoiding the effort and expense of turning out well-designed, fuel-efficient compact cars. Nor were they doing much to comply with the Clean Air Act of 1974, which required that the average gas mileage of an automaker's entire fleet keep getting higher, and toxic emissions lower.
Instead, we got Pacers and Gremlins, Horizons, and the Dodge Aspen--rolling insults, not cars. Parts started falling off at 15,000 miles. Windows crashed down into window wells. Many still had rear-wheel drive, and consequently couldn't be driven two feet in the lightest of snowfalls.
You'd think that Lee Iacocca (the first of the name-brand CEOs, let's pause to note) would be up nights personally disassembling a Toyota Corolla to see how the thing held together. Clever Iacocca had moved on, though, and was instead banking on the minivan.
It was actually 1983 when the very first 1984 minivans rolled off Chrysler's assembly line in Windsor, Canada, directly across the river from Detroit. The vans were boxy, came in a narrow array of flat colors, and sported a front grill modeled on the ugly and doomed K-Car.
Ostensibly, the appeal of the minivan was its carlike feel, eight-person capacity, and ability to fit into a family garage. But its real genius was that it was essentially built onto a truck chassis, and for the most part trucks don't count toward an automaker's fuel efficiency statistics. When the Clean Air Act was first passed, there were only 20 million trucks on the road, and most of them were in commercial use, so Congress exempted them from the environmental standards imposed on cars. Somehow, Chrysler managed to convince regulators that the burgundy and sky-blue Voyagers and Caravans counted as trucks.
In the intervening 20 years, Detroit has figured out how to strap many, many things onto truck chassis, and has batted back what few attempts Washington has made to prop up the ailing Clean Air Act. It's not too far-fetched to think that without the demands of the large markets in California and Texas, which are under tremendous pressure to reduce smog, the American economy car would be as dead as a four-year-old Eagle Talon.
Which would suit Detroit just fine. In relative terms, there is no profit in economy cars. Their higher engineering costs, government-mandated safety features, and the expensive but lightweight aluminum parts that allow for their high gas mileage all make them comparatively costly to produce. And then they sell for tens of thousands less than a full-size luxury sedan.
Meanwhile, trucks, minivans, and the modern SUV are really just a bunch of luxury car parts bolted onto the rigid, not-very-safe structure of a truck. They're cheap to build and sell for big money. There's $12,000 in profit in every $36,000 Ford Expedition. There's $8,000 in every Dodge Durango, according to the New York Times' excellent former automotive industry reporter, Keith Bradsher.
At this point, it's tempting to veer off into a tangent about how Iacocca's corporate heirs manage to keep convincing people that they need ever bigger, ever more dangerous road hogs. So big and so dangerous that they're rendering the compact car's expensive safety engineering all but obsolete. What inspired capitalism it is, then, that the behemoths' sellers get that profit by preying on our more reptilian fears.
But I digress. By 1997, minivans and other "light trucks" constitute half of all family vehicles sold, and were poised to make up the lion's share of the reemerging smog problem. Since 1998, the number of SUVs sold in Minnesota has increased 79 percent. In January, Subaru announced that rather than comply with fuel efficiency standards for its Outback sedan--which it cheerfully markets as a progressive, "green" alternative--it was raising the chassis by an inch and a half, marking the first time I can think of that a four-door car has actually been classified as a truck.
I'd like to think that the factory workers who failed to tip me for 10 straight months got theirs, but in all likelihood they're probably raking in the overtime faster than they can spend it.
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