In twenty years of teaching high school, I have seen more than a few students who were clearly born in the wrong decade. After the movie Swingers came out in 1996, for instance, kids started arriving to school in zoot suits and fedoras, twirling pocket watches on chains. I’ve witnessed boys slick back their hair into DAs and slip on leather jackets, and girls don aprons and bake like 1950s housewives. For me, these anachronistic students are always the most interesting; they don’t fit in with their generation so they claim a new one.
My main characters Coy and Monroe in my new novel NICKEL are outcasts, and I wanted them to connect with each other through a different era’s music and pop culture. These references and cultural touchstones would serve as their own coded language, a way to secretly communicate with each other and to protect themselves from those who insulted or ignored them. Even though theirs is a boy/girl friendship, I was reminded of two girls I taught who were obsessed with eighties music. Since I graduated from high school in 1984, I often made jokes in class about Culture Club, Repo Man, and Tom Cruise. These girls always understood my references and laughed at my meager attempts at humor. Even when I claimed that the eighties wasn’t a terrific time for rock music, they’d fiercely object and play the David Bowie or AC/DC Back in Black card. Like Coy and Monroe, these girls stood on the fringes of our school, but they had their own subculture that supported them when others did not.
As I was writing and revising NICKEL, I considered the bands Coy and Monroe would gravitate toward based on their shared sensibility and individual emotional states. I recalled my own soundtrack as a kid in suburban Connecticut, navigating between my downstairs bedroom at home and the Jem Amusement Center on the Boston Post Road where we would feed quarters into the jukebox while playing foosball and Captain Fantastic pinball. My personal soundtrack consisted of bands like Bad Company, The Police, Prince, and Talking Heads. Foreigner, however, seemed to be the one who fit Coy and Monroe best. Foreigner was the band that connected the ballads of the late seventies with early eighties rock and roll. Head Games was embarrassingly obvious and cloying, something this dirty white boy needed when I was Coy’s age because I didn’t have a legitimate way to express certain types of emotion. Foreigner 4, considered by some to be their best, still had the emo “Waiting for a Girl Like You” but offered the iconic “Juke Box Hero” and head-nodding “Urgent” as counterparts.
As I remembered Foreigner I did some research (as Coy and Monroe would) and saw that lead singer Lou Gramm had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor was benign but the surgery and subsequent medication damaged his pituitary gland, forcing Gramm to gain significant weight, hurting his voice and stamina. In NICKEL, Monroe comes down with a mysterious illness that seriously irritates her skin, starting with the area around her mouth. Searching for clues to the source of Monroe’s deteriorating health, Coy sees the parallels between the suffering of both Monroe and Gramm. I’m sure many of us have found some sort of emotional or spiritual connection with the singers and songwriters we love, artists who put our own complex feelings into words and set them to music. Foreigner happened to be the right choice for my two main characters.
Postscript: In 2009, one of my students gave me tickets to see Foreigner at the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino. I had never been to a casino show before so I was surprised by the rowdy behavior of all of the sweaty middle-aged rockers in black concert shirts who came to relive their checkered pasts. Mick Jones was the only original member on stage. Some members of the band didn’t look as though they were alive when Foreigner released the hits everyone was singing along to. Even though the lead singer was more reminiscent of Steven Tyler than Lou Gramm, people still screamed and reached for him as if he were the real deal. The concert was somewhere in between a reunion show and a surprisingly excellent night of karaoke. I kept wondering, as I flashed back to junior high and high school, whether I was having a real good time.
Robert Wilder is the author of the YA novel, NICKEL, and two critically acclaimed books of essays: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge and Daddy Needs a Drink, both optioned for television and film. He has published essays in Newsweek, Details, Salon, Parenting, Creative Nonfiction, Working Mother and elsewhere. Wilder’s column, also titled “Daddy Needs A Drink,” is printed monthly in the Santa Fe Reporter. He was awarded the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation. Wilder has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the past twenty years.
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