straddle the line in discord and rhyme…yes, the picture’s changing every moment, and your destination, you don’t know it … Rio and Avalon turn 40

Once again, it’s been several months since I’ve shared a note from the listening gallery. I find myself compelled to connect a few of the threads in the musical tapestry of my being, to laud the 40th anniversary of two albums released in May of 1982. I turned thirteen that month, and as had been my birthday tradition for as long as I can remember, my mom bought me a new swimsuit and whatever album I was most obsessed with at that time. That year, it was Rio from Duran Duran. I was captivated by the band’s sound, for me, those layers of synthesizers were a sentimental throwback to Electric Light Orchestra. The music of ELO was composed from a similar bounty of beautifully exotic sounds created by instruments unfamiliar to me, electrified into sonic soaring brilliance. I can still feel the muscle memory in my feet, pivoting around and around the floor at Topp Cats Roller Rink, in time with “Strange Magic” (which could not be more aptly titled) when I first started skating in 1975. And at the other end of my skatings years, “Magic,” a collaborative track between my favorite band and vocalist in 1980, ELO and Olivia Newton-John. From the age of six through twelve, I rolled through nearly every Saturday on eight wheels finding blissful escape from the reality of my existence as a gangly and exceedingly shy daydreamer. I grew from 5’2″ to 6’0″ between 1979 and 1981, which brought about the humiliation of wearing knee braces in sixth and seventh grades. I grew so quickly that I did not know the boundaries of my own body. I once hit my head so hard on the doorframe while exiting the school bus that I was knocked out. Luckily we lived in a small town, the driver borrowed my brother’s house key and went inside to call my Grandma who came and took me to the hospital to be checked for a head injury. In those painfully awkward years, my experience at Topp Cats was other-worldly, pure magic for me. The damp air from the box fans mounted in each corner of the rink blew through my long hair and fluttered the winged sleeves of my Stevie Nicks-inspired blouses and Xanadu-esque flowing peasant skirts. The long skirts were a nod to Olivia Newton-John’s character in the film, but they also served as a way to hide my orthopedic devices in 1980. The music associated with those memories still makes my heart swell with the joy of that fantastic feeling of escape I encountered at Topp Cats more than forty years ago. But in 1982, the layered sounds of Duran Duran would create an entirely new and enthralling level of music-induced intrigue for me.

This band had already arrived in the living rooms of urban teenage Americans in 1981, via MTV. All five members, smoldering with androgynous eyeliner and glossy lips, immediately became the pre-eminent heartthrob poster boys of my generation when their music videos began appearing on this brand new cable network. Cable television was a fairly recent technological innovation in the early 1980s, not yet available in many small towns, including mine. Thus, my initial interest in Duran Duran was strictly auditory. While watching my peers in Philadelphia dance to this exotic new band on American Bandstand, I became enchanted by this very modern European style of synth-pop. Immediately, I needed a copy of “Hungry Like the Wolf.” In the early 1980s, Mom got paid every other Friday. So, every other Saturday, just after watching American Bandstand and Soul Train, our family would drive to another rural town ten miles away, slightly larger than ours, enough so that it had a Pizza Hut and a Wal-Mart. On those payday weekends, our mom treated my brother and me to an exciting lunch “out” consisting of Pizza Hut salad bar, pizza, and sodas in those trendy “collect them all” take-home glasses, featuring characters from popular films and cartoons. Mom always managed to scrounge through her huge purse to find a couple of loose quarters to keep us occupied so that she could thumb through her weekly copy of People magazine while we awaited the arrival of our Personal Pan Pizzas. My quarter was dropped into the jukebox in exchange for three musical selections, while my brother generally opted for a game of Pac-Man. Lunch was always followed by a trip across the street, where our mom shopped for the basic necessities of life for the next two weeks, while my brother and I lingered in front of the American Top 40 end-cap display in the electronics department of Wal-Mart. We were each granted ownership of one new 45RPM record on those shopping trips. On the mid-May payday of 1982, I knew without a doubt my selection would be “Hungry Like the Wolf.” I had no visual reference for what the members of Duran Duran looked like, and when John Taylor’s dark, dreamy eyes looked into mine from under his dashing fedora on the sleeve of that record, I immediately understood what Dolly Parton was talking about back in 1974. Until that moment, whenever I’d heard “Love is like a Butterfly,” her words meant nothing to me. Suddenly I felt those soft wings in flight for the first time.

At the dawn of the 1980s, disco had been splintered into all sorts of new wave fusions of pop and punk and funk and hip hop and reggae. I had never heard reggae or calypso or bossa nova or any sort of Latin jazz music or even those words, nor of other non-American-based music genres, and I certainly had no awareness of their influences on American popular culture in 1982. When I first became aware of Duran Duran, this was the most avant-garde musical experience I’d ever known. They were exotically foreign, excitingly romantic, and entirely unique to me. So many things changed during that summer. I had become free from my leg braces, allowing me a scant bit of confidence in myself. I also had my first full-time job during that momentous summer, babysitting a girl whose family attended the same church as our family. Each morning at 8:00 a.m., her mother dropped her daughter at our home, so that I could also look after my brother. Her parents were married, her father was a lawyer, and in my young mind, they were a family of great wealth. So wealthy, that in addition to paying me $25 a week, they also added my brother and me to their family pool pass. Every day that the sun was shining, right after making lunch and washing the dishes, I’d lead us on a walk to Walt Disney Park. We’d spend the entire afternoon at the pool until her mom picked us up at 4:00 p.m. Within two weeks, I had earned enough money to purchase my first boombox. I also had the money to buy my own clothing and makeup, and all of this was terribly exciting for a teenage girl living in a rural Missouri town, constantly dreaming and scheming my entry into the glittering world of entertainment. Since my earliest memory, I had envisioned the adult version of myself, living in New York or Los Angeles, deeply embedded in music and fashion, while working in some form or another of live theater or film. I began to practice the art of wearing makeup and hot-rolling my hair by carefully following the step-by-step guides in Seventeen Magazine. People began telling my mom, “Your daughter looks like that girl in the Calvin Klein ads…you know, the one from The Blue Lagoon movie.”

Me, summer 1982

There would be other albums on cassette that I would love dearly in the 1980s, but I will never forget that my first was Duran Duran. For the first month, after my mom purchased Rio for me, I had only been able to listen to it on the stereo in the living room. After the purchase of my boombox, Duran Duran could be with me in my bedroom at night. I listened intently to every element of sound and wrote down every lyric in my journal. This was not American pop music. Some of the sounds were instruments unfamiliar to me, and there were sounds of cigarette lighters and car engines and laughter, and salacious sounds, obscured by the many layers of synthesizers. Their words were mysterious, romantic, poetic, and I thought myself so worldly as I lay awake listening, rewinding, listening again, leaving space to add my interpretations of the lyrics between each line in my notebook. Completely unknown to me at the time, the members of Duran Duran, and particularly, John Taylor had been intrigued and inspired by the style and sound of another British band called Roxy Music. In 2019, I would learn of the connection between these two bands when Roxy Music was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Taylor gave a heartfelt introduction, revealing a pivotal moment in time when he was fourteen and listening to Roxy’s first single, “Virginia Plain” on his portable tape recorder, “in my darkened suburban bedroom, I listened back and I knew my destiny. I knew what I wanted to be.” When I heard Taylor speak those words, an electric bolt shot through me, and my brain began obsessively playing a line from that Roxy song “We are flying down to Rio.” But Roxy Music was completely unknown to me in May of 1982, as well as the fact that the band had released their final album, Avalon that same month. Five years later, Avalon would be introduced to me in such a lovely way that no other album could ever possibly have a more profound impact on me.

John Taylor presents Bryan Ferry with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame award in 2019.

I was completely smitten with John Taylor when school started in the fall of 1982. Much to my delight, my locker partner and I agreed that all the other girls, who loved Simon or Nick, were terribly misguided. John was the cutest, obviously, and the most romantic too, we could just tell. We saw his amorous and gallant nature so clearly in the rare glimpses of him in their videos. And why did they show so much of Simon in those videos? We pondered this question endlessly after we were finally able to see them on a late-night, one-hour music video program, Night Tracks, which began airing on Saturday nights on TBS later that year. I have always maintained a state of hopeless devotion to the men I have taken a romantic interest in, whether it be celebrity crush or real-life romance, there’s no straddling of the line for me, I’m all in until I’m all out. John was the only man to ever grace the door of my locker until I graduated from high school in May of 1987.

A sacred page from a long-ago issue of Teen Beat.

My obsessively detailed journal entries document my departure from Missouri to Los Angeles on June 16, 1987. I had graduated from high school and turned eighteen just three weeks earlier. I flew direct from the Kansas City Airport to LAX on the long-defunct now, Braniff Airlines. The previous year, I had had the incredibly rare fortune of meeting D, a young woman from Los Angeles, a cousin of my baton twirling coach. She worked as a fashion model and was the kindest and most gracious person I have ever known. For the next few years, I felt as if I had a big sister to advise me, and for the past 35 years, I have had a trusted mentor and friend. I had received a set of two houndstooth plaid suitcases as a graduation gift from my grandparents. One of the bags held all the clothing I owned. The other smaller one was much heavier, filled with books, journals, my complete collection of cassette tapes, and a few LP record albums. My carry-on item was my beloved boombox. I thought myself quite wise beyond my eighteen years and three weeks. I had subscribed to Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine throughout the past year, since meeting D, as my training course for an artistic and urban lifestyle. I was prepared, not to be distracted by the things that bring about the demise of the young ingenue archetype in all the movies I’d seen and books I’d read about Hollywood. I would be different, never to be attracted to the sex, drugs, and rock & roll lifestyle that plagued many a young woman, both real and fictional, who had arrived in LaLaLand before me. I wasn’t interested in the sex or the drugs, just the rock and roll. Little did I know, I was a walking, talking hypocrisy because I really believed all of that was possible. I thought I was so carefully informed and I was so inextricably naive.

So, there I was on the arrivals platform at LAX, with boombox and virtue intact, on a warm June afternoon in 1987. My great aunt and uncle who had been living in Los Angeles County for about a decade met me at the gate. In those days, long before 9/11, everyone could greet passengers upon arrival at every gate in every airport in the world. We retrieved my heavy bags from the carousel and shuffled out into the California sunlight streaming through the smog. My uncle pointed out that luggage with wheels is a modern convenience I might want to invest in for future air travel. “They do make these things with wheels nowadays,” he stated as he wrestled with the smaller of the two bags, “What’s in here, bricks?” I smiled gratefully and responded, “Books.” I had never before seen suitcases with wheels but just then, I became aware that we were the only people at the airport carrying our bags. Outside, I immediately noticed the hum of thousands of cars shooting up and down the 405 Freeway. I had grown up in a railroad town, where the clatter and whistles of trains gusting through town were commonplace occurrences day and night. Here the mode of transportation was different, but the auditory experience was similar.  

The drive from LAX to my aunt and uncle’s home in the San Gabriel Valley was over an hour.   The long drive from my country home to the airport in Kansas City had been three hours. We’d left before dawn to meet my plane. In the span of three and a half hours, I’d crossed the country from Missouri to California. All the way to my new home, as I rode from the 405 Freeway to the Santa Monica Freeway, and finally, to the Pomona Freeway, I looked to the north toward the Hollywood Hills in the hopes of a glimpse of the famous landmark sign. But it was not to be seen, the smog was too thick on that first day in Los Angeles.

A smoggy sky overhead upon arrival at my LA home for the first time.

A week after arriving in Los Angeles, my friend D invited me to stay for a week at her home in Malibu. As Saturday Night Live‘s The Californians would say: we took the 60, to the 10, to the 405, to Sunset, to PCH, to Big Rock. After nearly two hours in the car, we arrived at the traffic light on the west end of Sunset, where the Boulevard meets Pacific Coast Highway. From that vantage point, the Pacific Ocean is all that one can see to the west, and it’s nearly all that can be seen to the north and south as well. As I sat in the passenger seat, looking out at the ocean for the very first time, I was overcome by its vastness and its beauty. These were the days of four channels of television and long before the internet, when seeing the ocean for the first time was truly seeing it for the first time for an eighteen-year-old Midwestern girl in 1986. Tears began to stream down my cheeks. D quickly pulled into the nearest beach parking lot so that I could be fully indoctrinated in a multi-sensory encounter with the Pacific. In addition to the astounding visual sensation, a multitude of foreign experiences rushed all of my senses. The feel of the sand under my feet, the taste of salty ocean air on my lips, the smell of the beach that hung in the salty air–a glorious combination of ocean water, sand, and coconut-scented suntan lotion, and the roaring sound of the waves crashing the shore. All of this was accompanied by the most intriguing music I had ever heard and the romantic voice of Bryan Ferry:

More than this
You know there’s nothing more than this
Tell me one thing more than this
Ooh there’s nothing
more than this

I am absolutely certain there is no other album in the history of recorded music that could have been a more perfect soundtrack for that moment. D was driving a 1970s-era beachcomber Range Rover. With the windows down and the volume up, Roxy Music’s 1982 masterpiece, Avalon floated into my consciousness for the first time. She pointed southward and told me, “on a clear day you can see Avalon from here.” At the time, I didn’t know she was referring to the port city on Santa Catalina Island or the title of the album playing in her car. It was a simultaneous love-at-first-sight with the Pacific Ocean and love-at-first-sound with Bryan Ferry. This music had the same effect upon me as Rio had five years earlier.

D’s husband at the time was a photographer and had offered to shoot a few rolls of test photos for me the next day as a prep course for actual test photos that would be required to pursue an agent and a modeling career. D dressed me from head to knee in Ralph Lauren couture from her own closet. Our backdrop was the lush and colorful florals and botanicals in the backyard of their Malibu home, overlooking the Pacific. The two of them paced around me in a circle, and determined that the right side of my face was ‘my best side’. Next, she placed me in the grass as he began to set up a camera tripod and pop-up light deflectors. I was incredibly nervous and had not a single clue what to do, where to look, or how to pose by my body. I asked her if we could listen to the album she had played in the car the previous day. I had never heard music quite like it before and found it so mysterious and magical. I asked her who it was, and what kind of music it was. “Roxy Music” she answered, “I don’t know…they’re just called Roxy Music.” She went to retrieve the cassette from the car and returned to the backyard with a boombox playing the tape. Immediately, Ferry’s voice calmed me. My first test shoot, accompanied by Avalon, resulted in my favorite photo ever taken of me. I can hear Avalon and feel the warm Malibu breeze on my face and the cool grass under my bare feet, and I remember just how earnest and innocent I was at that time in my life.

That evening, we climbed into the Range Rover again to drive further up the coast of Malibu to watch the sunset from Point Dume at Zuma Beach. There, I sat on the same massive red rocks where I had seen Gene Kelly playing his clarinet in the opening scene of the 1980 film, Xanadu. As I witnessed the sun melt like an orange popsicle into the Pacific for the very first time, it seemed as if I were watching a magic show of the grandest scale. When we returned to their home I wrote every detail in my journal. “Oh, to think that people live here in this place where they can experience such beauty every day!” A few months later, Bryan Ferry released a solo album, Bete Noir. I’d acquired a copy of Avalon that summer, but its cover art had not included the band. So there I was sorting through the F section at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in late 1987, when our eyes met. A whole section of Bryan Ferry’s discography revealed a divinely dressed English gentleman with brooding eyes, and shining black hair, like an old movie star from one of those film noirs that had taught me everything I thought I needed to know about this town. John Taylor was out, Bryan Ferry was in.

That first day in Malibu is a memory I hope that I will never, never, ever forget. I believe as long as I have the ability to hear Avalon, I have the ability to be transported to that particular spot on the Malibu coastline and to Avalon and Xanadu, two mystical places of ultimate tranquility from ancient literature. In each room of my home, I have kept mementos from visits to Malibu. A jar of sand, rocks, and shells from my daughter’s first visit to Zuma in 2012; a bottled scent of essential oils custom-designed to keep the aroma of Malibu alive in my midwestern home; and a bottle of Wellness, a magical elixir of organic cayenne pepper, ginseng, and citrus juices purchased and consumed during my visit to Malibu in 2017. Its contents have been replaced with more sand, collected on my daughter’s second trip to Zuma, when she reached the age that I had been 30 years earlier when I first experienced Malibu. And most recently, a chunk of that enchanting red rock was added to the jar of Zuma artifacts. Each time I return there, physically or metaphorically, Bryan Ferry is always there with me, serenading me through my earbuds, and for 37 minutes I am eighteen again, enchanted by all of the possibilities that lie ahead, with my whole life yet to be lived. Ferry’s own description of the album is so aligned with my own: “Avalon is a part of the King Arthur legend and is a very romantic thing. When King Arthur dies, the Queens ferry him off to Avalon, which is a sort of enchanted island. It’s the ultimate romantic fantasy piece.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s