Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sophisti-pop

"I won't try to stop you when you speak of the past ..."
- Everything But the Girl, "Fascination"
We were so fucking suave.

Teenagers for time immemorial have aspired to adulthood. In the mid 1980s this was reflected in the clothes we wore, the way we stood, the music we listened to. For men the clothes were rumpled, structureless suits. We wore ties to school. We posed and smoked, drank wine coolers and listened to the music inspired by our elders.

Wine coolers. Music inspired by. Ten years later we would be doing the real thing, drinking the actual cocktails our grandfathers drank, and listening to Sinatra. But not in the 80s. We were kids. We had soda pop alcohol, and we had soda pop jazz.

Arabica, the only coffeehouse in Cleveland, was a distant oasis of cool, somewhere far on the east side. We heard there were two. But a third opened in Rocky River in 1982, and I would spend weekend nights there, getting smokes from the machine (seventy-five cents a pack) a fourteen year-old getting jittery on black coffee, talking philosophy with community college twenty year-olds whose lameness should have been evident from their hanging out with fourteen year-olds.

The soundtrack was smooth, it was stylish, it must have a saxophone. Roxy Music’s swan song Avalon was the epitome of the genre which has in recent years come to be known as Sophisti-pop, a bizarre combination of pop, blues, and jazz, with period keyboard stylings, and wistful lyrics of longing, regret, and instant nostalgia.

It is not arbitrary that the Bill Murray character sings “More Than This” for the karaoke scene in Lost In Translation.

So styling, and not yet eighteen.
Some singles were big hits on the American pop charts, including Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years.” George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” certainly falls into this category. Lesser known acts like Prefab Sprout, Everything But the Girl and The Blue Nile, never played on commercial radio, would find their way into our cassette players thanks to recommendations of other pop stars in music magazines, through college stations, and late-night MTV. And we heard them at the west side Arabica.

This was the soundtrack in my head as I wrote The Way I Danced With You, an exploration of this pretense of maturity, faced with the reality of inexperience.
CHARLES: Then I drove her back to her house and we kissed listening to "Winelight."
This music, invoking images of sun-drenched, exotic locations, smoky nightclubs, shimmering, wet city streets. Nameless, faceless lovers, hungover expressions, overcoats, eyeliner and lipstick. It’s an age-old question, and one that won’t stop being asked any time soon. Why do we want to grow up so fast?

The answer is simple, because being a teenager sucks. I’ve lost interest in childish things but am not permitted to do adult things. “There’s nothing to do,” teenagers exclaim, and they are as correct today as we were back then. There really isn’t.

So we painted a picture of Reagan/Thatcher-era wealth and sophistication (or thrift-store chic and rebellion) and put ourselves squarely in the middle.

Wouldn't it be nice if we were older?

Blank Canvas Theatre presents “The Way I Danced With You” at 78th Street Studios, March 22 - 24, 2018.

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