I recently attended my high school reunion. More incredibly for me, I was also part of the group that planned the event. My general ambivalence about even attending a reunion is trumped mightily by my steadfast abhorrence towards being part of any type of organizing committee. I simply don’t do it, and further subscribe to the Groucho Marx notion of not choosing to belong to any group that would deign to have me as a member. Yet, I signed on for one reason, ultimately convinced by my friends Jody and Cathy who knew just how to sell me: I would be entrusted to handle the music. The task was simple and the theme was equally self-evident for a class that had graduated at the tail end of a particular decade: create a party playlist of precisely four hours, made up of songs culled from the vastly music-rich era of the seventies. Obsessed with creating the optimal mix, but stricken with indecision amid such a bevy of possibilities, I questioned nearly every choice along the way. Well, every choice except for one: the pick for final song.
Fortunately, I did have a collaborator. I was partnered with an old chum, Dave, a riotously funny friend from back in high school but someone with whom I’d had scarce contact for literally decades. Now he was a colleague I could bounce ideas off in our mutual search for the ideal, most representative song selections – on a quest, in other words, for the perfect playlist. With great excitement, I formulated an initial fever dream of an email to Dave hoping to identify many of my primary considerations, and trying to outline what would necessarily become our baseline compilation strategies. Although I felt I was being somewhat restrained, it did go on for a while, and contained what, in retrospect, was probably a bizarre level of speculation and detail. Dave’s 4-word reply, then, was perfectly understandable: “You’re scaring me, man.”
Despite our seemingly straightforward mission, I had presented an abundance of theories and posed a plethora of questions. Here’s a sampling:
To ultimately assemble a maximum of probably 60-65 total songs, do we arrive at a sub-theme of some kind, or attempt to cover a little of everything? What bands or artists most deserved to make the cut, and by what criteria? Do we choose the “famous” songs, the “hits” that everyone knows best and would most likely want to hear? Or are those perhaps too obvious, trite and even over-played, leading us to concentrate on the likelier forgotten, deeper cuts of our youth? Must consideration be given to song lengths – after all, as iconic as, say, the “Frampton Comes Alive” live version of ‘Do You Feel Like We Do’ was for our time, could substituting it’s 14-plus minute running time be better utilized by 3-4 other quality tunes? With so much ground to cover and great bands sure to be left off, could we responsibly allocate more than one song to any individual artist? And how on earth might one arrive at the right single song by Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan, The Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, and countless other bedrocks of rock history? Think about it: just one song! (few bands outside of The Knack presented anything close to an obvious choice). Speaking of which, in addition to kitschy ‘My Sharona,’ what of the eclectic or “novelty” song, one that inarguably would not stand out retrospectively but instead would evoke the ‘70’s timeline – Chuck Mangione’s trumpet instrumental ‘Feels So Good,’ Randy Newman’s sardonic ‘Short People,’ or the Steve Martin gimmick ‘King Tut,’ for instance? How about the AM-radio staples, embarrassing but inescapable, highlighted by cheeseball classics such as ‘Feelings,’ ‘Seasons In The Sun,’ and the all-time gag-inducer, ‘Sometimes When We Touch’? Could we bear placing even one of those for levity and intentional mockery, knowing it might cost a spot for second-tier mainstays like Supertramp, Boz Scaggs, Foreigner, or Steve Miller? And what about individual song characteristics and even tempos? We’d surely have to mix some rocking and upbeat tunes with some leisurely, more relaxing ones, so to which bands go which? (a good example was Chicago, where consideration was given to the favored junior high slow dance facilitator, ‘Colour My World,’ versus an objectively “better” song like ‘Feelin’ Stronger Every Day’). Perhaps most importantly, how would we possibly distribute such hopelessly limited selections among the multitude of prevailing and historically significant music genres present during the era? Most of my friends and I considered southern rock our favorite category during high school, unironically worshipping deep-south bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, The Allman Brothers, and most of all, The Outlaws, from our suburban New York enclave. Naturally, there was Yes, Bob Seger, Elton John, Traffic, Little Feat, and all the legion of classic rock bands, before enough time had yet passed to establish them as classic. We had the light rock of legendary singer/songwriters like Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell to help smooth our troublesome teens. Many of history’s greatest funk/soul acts were in their prime; my favorite was Earth, Wind & Fire, but close behind were The Ohio Players, The Isley Brothers, and a guy named Stevie Wonder. There was, of course, the golden age of disco, and no matter what your opinion of it may have been then or now, there’s no disputing that when John Travolta’s bell-bottoms strutted across the screen during the opening credits of “Saturday Night Fever,” the music scene and popular culture at large were forever changed. And related, was it conceivable that “people of a certain age” would actually want to dance?! Lastly, lest we forget, the late ‘70’s also gave birth to the seismic musical movements known as punk and new wave. How could any reflection on seventies music fail to include, to name but a few, The Cars, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, The Ramones, and The Clash? I could go on (and I probably did), but I’m guessing you may see the overall point. And I did already concede that I asked a lot of questions.
Our first playlist draft slightly overshot the mark. Unable to pass on so many, I looked up to find that we’d amassed well over 200 songs spanning 13-plus hours. We had enough music to cover this reunion and the next few after it. Something had to give, but I couldn’t bear it to be my treasured chestnuts by Pousette Dart Band, Bread, Todd Rundgren, Dave Mason, or New Riders of the Purple Sage. Thankfully, a brilliant idea was floated: we could utilize our massive song surplus by distributing smaller monthly playlists to our classmates in the long lead-up to the event (did I mention that this level of obsessive planning was also taking place a solid 10-12 months prior to the actual date?). This really opened things up for Dave and I, as we created a series of branded “mixtapes,” dubbing them the “SHS ‘70’s,” that eventually numbered volumes 1 through 13, and featured crowd-pleasing thematics such as “Friday Night at the Fore ‘n’ Aft” (a local music club/bar from back in the day), “Brewster Road” (where some chose to hang out during school, possibly to do some experimentation), “Epic Greatest Hits” (‘Freebird,’ ‘Stairway,’ ‘Layla’ and the like), and undoubtedly the most popular, “What In God’s Name Were We Thinking?” (which showcased luminaries Olivia Newton John, Debby Boone, Starland Vocal Band, and the unforgettable England Dan & John Ford Coley). Even compiling these interim lists necessitated frequent consultation between the two of us. But we determined to use as our lodestar an old classmate, Jane, whose unfailingly positive comments we’d received right from the outset of how much of a kick she was getting from listening to the old tunes as she took long walks – in Greece, of all places, where she now lived. In one such friendly debate, Dave summed up the approach perfectly: “The goal with these lists is to mix the popular with the interesting and some obscure (without going too far). My gauge is Jane in Greece going ‘Damn, I forgot that one and it’s great!’” We giddily envisioned Jane parading past The Parthenon jamming out to an old Pablo Cruise tune. She became our unsuspecting muse.
Eventually, reunion weekend arrived, and notwithstanding the exceedingly long buildup, it still managed to surpass all expectations. Friday night, a local cover band, helmed by two of our classmates; Saturday morning, a memorial service at our school to honor those among our graduating class who tragically were now gone, and presided over extraordinarily by two other classmates who’d become a rabbi and classical violinist, respectively; and finally on Saturday night, the reunion party. Despite my inherent cynicism as to the basis for such an event, I’ll risk saccharine sentimentality in saying that it was a magical evening. Taking a reunion for just what it is, or should be – a judgment-free zone in which to happily re-connect to old friends and old times – I reveled in reminiscences with people who, in some cases, I’d known since I was five years old. It was a truly joyful environment, a potently positive vibe, and I tried to soak in as much, and as many conversations, as possible, chatting with, among many others, a psychologist and a proctologist (you might say, covering me from top to bottom). A somewhat expected consequence of all the retrospection and merriment, however, was the estimable party playlist, each tiny aspect of which I’d overthought and labored over for more months than I’d care to admit, descended now to more background than feature. Imagine: the peculiar people of my graduating class actually desired to be able to speak to one another rather than shout over the din of Van Halen and ZZ Top. The music was still noticeable – I got intermittent compliments throughout – just not the focus I’d somehow imagined. At least until the end. I’d submitted our yearlong playlist project to the hired DJ a week in advance, with the understanding that he could shuffle the songs as the course of the evening seemed to dictate – as long as he stayed entirely within our list (no requests!). That was the plan, except for the very last segment of the party – 23 minutes to be exact – which I specifically scripted out. We began the closing sequence with Southside Johnny’s ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’ and ‘When Will I See You Again’ by The Three Degrees, two great oldies that under the circumstances I also hoped might elicit knowing nods. From there, an eminent closer for the class of ’79, ‘The Load Out/Stay’ by Jackson Browne, the final track(s) of one of the most prominent albums of our era, “Running On Empty,” which to my great delight quickly devolved into an enthusiastic crowd sing-along. When it ended, I’d instructed the DJ to announce that unfortunately our time was up…but to have one last tune queued up and ready to go (he didn’t quite stick the landing here, but I guess it was close enough). And so he set loose the encore, the one song I’d never questioned, a guaranteed show-stopper, and if there could be only one, the song of our high school years: ‘Rosalita.’ The room exploded. The jocks, the nerds, and everyone in between melded to a euphoric whirlwind of dancing, shouting, toasting, fist-pumping, and jumping (a little higher) to the incomparable Bruce Springsteen anthem. For seven minutes all was right with the world – for Jack the Rabbit, for Weak Knee Willie, for Rosalita, and for all of us. For a moment in time, we were all 18 again. And I tell you, that made the whole damn thing totally worth doing.
(The Boss, in his high school yearbook, as also appeared in our high school yearbook)