Dust In the Wind

My brother, Tim McHale, is the Chief Media Officer of Madison Avenue Consulting. This is his story which I am reposting here. For anyone who remembers the late 1970’s, I am sure you can identify with at least some of what follows. It is not in any way political, but reminiscent of a time long gone by.

 

Am listening more and more to Apple Radio these days. I’m old enough to feel embarrassed that I do like their Classic Rock channel and know almost virtually every song that comes on. I have listened to it enough now to kind of know where the loop begins and ends.

I originally thought that the songs on Apple would be endless. I mean, there are thousands of classic rock songs. Why they think a listener is going to be happy with 90 or so, is absurd. Having been a Pandora listener for years on the commercial free premium package, I am spoiled and find I prefer the choice of 100 channels even if they also loop. At least there are more choices to change to keep it fresh than the one on Apple.

As compared to many of my peers, I still am very open-minded about new innovations, wherever they come from, social, video, Snapchat’s new video glasses etc… Point is, while I feel comfortable in my current excitement about digital content in the modern era, heading into the future, I can still appreciate the sentimentality of the old, or more specifically, what is referred to as “classic.”

Old, in this case goes back to the 1970s. Digital wasn’t around then, but “classic rock” was. But it wasn’t considered “classic” back then. That came with time and changes in music tastes that froze many of the songs produced into that era into our memory.

“Dust in the Wind” was one of them.

Produced by “Kansas,” the rock band, not the state, “Dust’s” lyrics were a complete departure from what that band stood for, to me at the time. I had abandoned hard rock already for dance music. Plus, Kansas wasn’t a California-based band. Their name might give as much away. They are from Topeka. According to Wikipedia, “Kansas is an American rock band that became popular in the 1970s initially on album-oriented rock charts…”

That’s right, Kansas is still around. I perish at the thought of seeing what kind of show they would put on today. I never saw them live so I have nothing to compare to the current 2016 photo of the band on Wikipedia. Though I expect back in 1977 their hair lines were thicker and their waist lines were thinner than they are now.

God bless ‘em that they are still making music, though in all honesty, I am not one of those rock fans that wants to relive my youth by going to see some 70s-era band doing what I call a “mortgage tour.” Where they are really just touring to pay the mortgage and make money for their kids’ education.

I’m a bit cynical and see that all they are doing is merchandising on our collective past for the sake of the good old times. Spare me. I am older and in worse shape physically living in the present, but happy.

I prefer to view my rock star legends in the past, when they were stars and in better shape. Trust me, age has had the same effect on me as it has had on them. It’s simply a matter of preference. Ah, forgive me, I digress.

So since no one was around today, I turned on Apple Music’s “Classic Rock” channel and the song “Dust in the Wind” came on. I had not heard that song in many many years. Can’t remember when I heard it last, but it brought me back to a memory I will never forget.

Dust in the Wind Lyrics

“I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind
All they are is dust in the wind”

It has always surprised me that the “Dust” lyrics and the tune that Kansas created could have been produced by what I thought was a shit kicker standard Lynard Skynard-ripoff type redneck band. It’s a soft ballad, with an orchestral violin arrangement, harmonies and a peacefulness that is not to be found anywhere in Kansas’s other work. A total rock anomaly.

I am from NYC so yes, I am a snob when it comes to the hierarchy of who produces the best art, in this case, the art being rock n roll. And in my opinion, it is definitely not from the heartland or the south.

However, what makes the irony of the band, Kansas and “Dust” so meaningful to me is that, (1) it comes from an otherwise redneck head banger band who in my vaulted opinion knows more about moonshine than Zen philosophy; and (2) it also speaks with such depth to me that it brought me back to one of the most memorable nights of my all-too-short youth.

That night didn’t start out with rock and roll.

Rather, being a college student in NYC in 1977, a disco club was the destination that night. Downtown disco was in fact cohabitating at the time with rock n roll. Not that you could call CBGB’s a rock joint. By 1977, it was most definitely punk. Yet, right up the block from CBGB’s was a disco club called “Area,” which was where kids my age, in college or not, would bump and grind the night away until 4AM sweating to pulsating disco music.

There were drugs of course, though that night was drug free. The gal who I was with, was BWOC “Big woman on campus.” There was no such term like at the time, though in my opinion, Jackie G was the bees-knees at school. Much to my surprise and delight, she took a fancy to me. We were in lust.

Jacqueline G was quite a handful. Just a year before, the “Son of Sam” killer, David Berkowitz had erupted incognito on the scene, scaring the hell out of every disco goer, picking off his victims by shooting kids exiting discos every weekend. He paralyzed the city for months.

By 1977, he had been caught. To a goyim like me, her name sounded awfully like Berkowitz. That wasn’t lost on Jackie. When we met, she had already been harassed with the similarity of her name to the infamous killer for a year.

Only time would inevitably change the sound of her name, with marriage, but it added a sense of intrigue to me, coming from the sterile, suburban, white-bread, Christian neighborhood that I came from.

Strange name or not, every guy in my class had a thing for Jackie. She was quite something; had a great petite, yet curvy body, beautiful hair, stunningly deep blue eyes and the cutest pre-operated-on nose this side of Sheepshead Bay.

Originally from Brooklyn, Jackie was from an upscale liberal Jewish family with connections. Though a Junior in college, Jackie already had business internship from one of her father’s friend’s companies, who were much older than mine.

Jackie was born into a family of an elderly couple. She had a sister almost 15+ years older than her, who often lent us her upper west side apartment off of Riverside Drive, in one of the most stylish buildings at the time. This was a perk that I had not ever experienced yet. Using it repeatedly, cutting out of school early and using it while it was empty in the weekend afternoons, I quickly started to appreciate why everyone wanted to live in the City, filthy or not.

Jackie pretty much did what she wanted. Her parents were most likely in bed by 8PM so they had little idea what Jackie did at night, or during the day for that matter. With an older sister living the high life on the upper west side, she pretty much came and went. She was like a post flower-girl child who was very liberal with everything, including her time and her body.

However, besides having an intensely seductive smile and a twinkle in her eye when she wanted to use it, she was also insanely smart. And she was also a loner. None of the other girls I was friends with in school liked her. So, when I expressed an interest in her to my friends, my male friends could relate but my female friends could not. They told me I was making a mistake.

Image result for Baruch college images

At the time, before I met Jackie, I was also BMOC, to some degree. I was president of the Public Relations Club and a leading member of the Advertising Club at Baruch College. We called Baruch, UCLA, or “University on the Corner of Lexington Avenue” since it was located on 23rd and Lex, right next to Grammercy Park when it was very run down.

The PR and Advertising Clubs actually had offices in an unused office on the city campus. When not in class, we would all hang out there, read Advertising Age and other journals and discuss the commercials of the day like they were works of art.

I was one of the more outspoken hot shots of all the kids who were majoring in Advertising and had a crew. Back then, Baruch offered the only Advertising curriculum in the city. It was fertile ground for many Madison Avenue agencies which were both exiting the 1960’s “Creative Revolution” and entering into the era of major agency and media global expansion.

We knew, or thought we knew that we were all destined to enter “the Street of Dreams” as we called it, to inevitably become the next David Ogilvy or Bill Bernbach, who were already legends in 3rd quarter of the 20th century.

While the general national economy and the city was bordering on bankruptcy and recession, Mad Ave was growing at a 15-20% clip a year. There was no such thing of a failed start up. Creative agencies were starting up at an amazing rate. Mary Wells Lawrence had proven that even a woman could be successful in advertising. Bright shiny lights lay ahead.

My own economic background was very different from Jackie’s. I grew up on Long Island, from a lower middle class Irish/Italian family who controlled me and my 5 siblings with a loving, but iron fist. Liberal, my parents weren’t. To me, Jackie’s upbringing seemed ideal. She could do whatever the fook she wanted. Me, I still sometimes had a curfew, even in college. My college experience sucked as compared to so many others who went away to school.

So, the downtown disco scene was one of the few things I could say was “mine.” Driving a yellow cab to put myself through college, going to school for Advertising – while I didn’t know anything about Art History or the great Philosophers – I did know the filthy streets of NY, transporting cab farers to all of the 5 boros, which was an education in and of itself.

I was never sure what the attraction was that Jackie had for me. I was embarrassed by my traditional background that I had come from and escaped into NYC to reinvent myself. However, my attraction to Jackie was obvious. With a cute body, great smile, witty and bright… a girl who liked to fool around. To a 20-year-old, what could be better? Having an apartment on the upper west side that we could use didn’t hurt either.

I couldn’t believe my good luck. I also couldn’t believe it was real either. Jackie and I dated for several months. During that time, we would go out dancing every Friday night. While I didn’t have a lot of excess cash, I did have a car, so that was key, since a lot of NYC kids never bothered to get one, since they didn’t need one.

Anyway, one night, or early morning, depending on how you look at it, we got out of the Area disco, down the block from CBGB’s around 4AM, but still had so much adrenaline juice in our blood that we decided to drive around.

The City was a total $#!+hole back then, especially down by Area and CBGB’s. A block or so from the Bowery, that area at the time was filled with drunks, heroin addicts, people selling themselves and a good amount of urban decay. Just blocks away, the now chic Williamsburg Bridge was rumored to be on the brink of collapse, though no one cared at the time since Williamsburg was really about as bad as Trump says our inner cities are today.

I do believe that in the 1970s, Williamsburg was as dangerous or more than Afghanistan. At least it was for me. I had zero interest in venturing into that part of town. My kind of danger was much closer to reach, in the front or back seat of my car.

None of the slummy neighborhoods bothered Jackie or me. We were in lust and felt invincible after a night of hot motion on the dancefloor. Still panting with sweat and hormones, we didn’t want to go home.

So we took a drive around the lower east side and laughed about at all the derelicts that we saw, drinking, p!$$ing, $#!+ting, smoking, shooting drugs and most prominently, making a stinking mess of that street at that time of day.

Why we never thought we would be held up and robbed of “our” platform shoes (yes, “our” since we both wore them) is beyond stupid. But we were young, feeling great, enjoying the Studio 54ish rush that disco offered and felt connected in a way that we had never quite been yet, or for that matter, after.

Plus, I had a full tank of gas too. After a while, we stopped at some diner in a better part of the Village and had an early breakfast, but still weren’t ready to call it a night. So I suggested, why don’t we go check out the Verrazano Bridge.

Just several months earlier, John Travolta jolted NYC disco culture with the smash hit “Saturday Night Fever” (SNF). It’s hard to describe in modern blockbuster terms just how big SNF was, to disco, to NYC and to kids my age. It was a modern day anthem at the time to what “American Graffiti” was to the pre-Beatles 1960s.

But “Graffiti” was produced 20+ years after that era ended. SNF was produced in real time. The soundtrack became the soundtrack everywhere. Similar what how the Presidential Election is dominating every media outlet available today, in the 1970s, SNF played around the clock everywhere you turned. Everywhere. But as compared to the BS we are drowning in today, SNF was exciting and made every school mate I knew feel more alive.

That film had a huge impact on us. It later became a cliché only because it captured the feeling of living in urban decline, so well and like nothing ever had before. The Beatles were from the UK. While the Bee Gee’s were from Australia, they had somehow – with Producer Robert Stigwood’s help – co-opted the NYC street pulse in that film and that film’s hypnotic soundtrack.

John Travolta was from New York, was one of ours and damn, the film was shot at the actual location of the legendary disco “The Odyssey” which was in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

Neither Jackie nor I knew at the time that SNF’s plot was taken from a real-life article that ran in New York Magazine about a bunch of kids who spent all their limited money every weekend dressing up and going to a disco in Brooklyn. We didn’t have to. There was no Wikipedia at the time and newspapers weren’t interested in covering the genesis of film ideas then like they are now. We just knew it was about us and made what we were into larger than life.

Jackie was from Brooklyn. Even though I wasn’t, I felt that her upbringing gave me creds to some degree. Plus, being in college, we felt like we had already learned the lesson of SNF, which is that you “can’t” spend your whole life dressing up and going to disco every weekend forever, no matter how much fun… even though that’s what we were doing.

Being matriculated full time in college, going to school for advertising in the biggest media empire in the world, we “just knew” that we were also going to make it. The soundwaves were ours, be it in pulsating discos, to the AM/FM radio and cassette player in my car.

Shortly around 5AM, the sky was starting to lighten up. The city was then quiet, dirty, about to hum again, though not as much as during a work day, since it was Saturday morning and all seemed good in the world.

Having gotten a second wind from the early morning breakfast and coffee, we were ready for an adventure. In SNF, Travolta had memorialized the Verrazano Bridge. Near the end of the film, it’s the first time that he shows his insightful side to Stephanie, the stuck-up girl partner in the film who condescended to him the whole film.

Image result for tony manero images

It’s a poignant part of the story. Tony had just lost a friend who had actually fallen/jumped off the bridge earlier. Just before that, Tony had turned down the big disco dance award due to his realizing the smarter, better Hispanic dancers didn’t win it, due to ethnic bias of his friends.

But to me, what made that part of the film special was Travolta’s knowing that he was living a life that was no longer his own. He had outgrown it all and was dealing with both his own frustration, knowing that he had to change his life, without knowing where to start. That rang true to me then. I knew that NYC was in my future even though I was still commuting to school from Floral Park, Long Island. Like Tony I felt like I was someone special when I was in the City and then someone else I hated going back to when I had to go home back to Floral Park.

While I loved being with Jackie, I didn’t really feel like I owned my life. I was observing it all, like someone watching a movie in the theater.

For a time, the Verrazano Bridge was Mecca for disco goers, particularly in the wee hours of the silent sunrise morning, after a night of ear-splitting music.

In my car, we left Manhattan for greener pastures and entered Brooklyn through the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel. The sky was getting brighter in front us, the sun rising from the east, as we navigated to the base grounds of the bridge, which had park benches there in the public park, where people could sit and admire the majestic bridge that took up the entire horizon.

Jackie and I were in a state of bliss. No one was on the road, no one was in the park. It was coming up on 6AM and the bumping and grinding all night, where we were working out our own internal hopes, dreams, fears and appetites had for a moment been suspended by the calm and beauty of seeing the bridge in real life, that had been memorialized in the film that had just come out months before.

We had even danced that night to the SNF soundtrack, so now being there at SNF Ground Zero seemed important. It gave us a feeling that we were part of a struggle, the same struggle for identity that young Tony Manero in the film was going through. Art became life. Suddenly, it wasn’t Travolta’s movie any more. It was Jackie’s and mine.

Though Travolta’s girl, Stephanie was very uppity, Jackie wasn’t. We both knew there was some sort of cultural divide that would inevitably separate us. Our economic status and ethnic cultures were different and while I wanted to be with her in the worst way, I kind of knew that we wouldn’t end up with each other. We must have both known that our time was limited, but that didn’t matter.

At that moment, we felt genuine affection for the other. Me, being the naïve kid that I was, felt so excited and lucky that this gorgeous creature with the funny name was sitting right next to me in my ’73 Nova; which for those who can remember had a front bench seat, where she could sit right next to me. No separate bucket seats. No middle console stick between us. For those in the know, if you knew how to coordinate up in front, you didn’t need the back seat of the car. The front seat worked just as well.

And then, the soft siren sound “Dust in the Wind” melody came on.

“Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
Oh, ho, ho
Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away
And all your money won’t another minute buy
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
Dust in the wind
Everything is dust in the wind
Everything is dust in the wind
The wind”

The effect on us was immeasurable. At that moment, we were really just specks of dust in the wind. Muscles exhausted, dried sweat in our polyester outfits, a bit sleepy after a night out, whatever resistance we had about going all the way vanished.

Jackie turned to me and told me she loved me. I returned the lie, even though I felt it at the time. My heart both raised up and broke at the same time, since I knew that our time at the bridge was too short for all the things that I wanted to feel and say at that moment, the hopes, dreams and fears that we communicated with our bodies in the dance floor just hours before.

I had my right arm around her. Her body right next to mine, I drove the car into the parking lot, put it in Park and shut the car off.

 

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