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  • Writer's pictureJeff South

The Countdowns No One Asked For, 1979-80: 50-41

50. "Refugee," Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Elementary school lunch was simple, manageable. I joined my friends, opened my lunchbox, and enjoyed whatever my mom had prepared for me while we all chatted and laughed. Good times. Something happened, though, over the summer between my sixth and seventh grade years. A memo was sent that I never received outlining the new social guidelines and protocol for lunch periods in junior high. Perhaps I was supposed to subscribe to a newsletter or something and was so caught up in the chaos and joy of the end of my elementary years that I missed it. This could be the only explanation for everyone seeming to know this new world order but me. On Day One, I wandered into the cafeteria like some lost explorer who had just stumbled upon a strange alien land. I hadn't made connections with my friends yet and just wanted to enjoy something familiar. I plopped down at the first open table I could find and opened my new lunchbox. It was plastic, a departure from the usual metal containers of my youth. Each side was adorned with the helmets of every NFL team of that era. I felt all cool and athletic. I unwrapped my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and sought out that first luscious bite when a girl's voice at the end of the table interrupted me. "Is that a lunchbox?" Her tone dripped with disdain and judgment. I glanced about and saw no one else with a new lunchbox. Kids were either eating whatever was being passed off as food by the school or they had a plain brown sack. Lunch ruined. LIfe changed. New rules governed us and I would have to discover them on my own.

49. "Don't Fall in Love With a Dreamer," Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes

The reprieve from this lunchtime faux pas came in the form of Study Hall. We actually called it Conference Study, but that suggests we participated in some kind of corporate group study. We did not. Most kids sat and stared. Others passed notes. Some actually tried to do homework. I only did homework when I was furiously trying to get it done because I had procrastinated. Mostly, I used this time to write my stories. I carried a smaller spiral notebook with my usual school supplies which served as a journal of sorts. I didn't keep a diary, per se. No daily thoughts or recap of activities. Looking back, I wish I had kept a diary. If for no other reason than it would've made this project a helluva lot easier. My notebooks were reserved for stories and story ideas, lists of favorite songs, and feeble attempts at poems and song lyrics. I usually kept my notebook contents secret, trusting only my closest friends to my creations. Two girls in study hall changed that.

48. "Stomp," The Brothers Johnson

Adjustments were made to my lunch routine to account for the passive aggressive peer pressure. The NFL lunchbox stayed home and if I've learned anything from animated films, it likely sat on a shelf feeling rejected and wondering what it had done to deserve desertion by the human it trusted. Still, finding a group to sit with wasn't easy. Some days I'd sit alone and read or work on a story. Lunch time reading included books like 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. I also read whatever I had checked out from the library at the time. One library find was a little book called Sheriff Stonehead and the Teenage Termites by Jerome Beatty, Jr. I'm not sure why I remember that particular book so well, but I know I loved it. I know the story was that of a sheriff in a backwater burg trying to solve the mystery of a series of pranks caused by someone calling themselves Finlay Farmer. I don't remember the details, but I do remember finding the book very funny. Would love to get my hands on a copy but internet research has shown it hard to come by.

47. "The Long Run," Eagles

Sometimes at lunch I would sit with a group that was perusing a pop culture magazine. Often it was something like Teen Beat or Tiger Beat or something with pictures of our favorite celebrity crushes and the latest news on what they were up to. Personally, I enjoyed reading the song lyrics published in them. Before the internet provided a gateway to all the stuff I wish I had known in 1980, I had to read magazines to learn song lyrics. It's how I found out that Don Henley was signing "all the debutantes in Houston, baby" and not "all the deputies in Houston, baby," which changes things considerably. I studied those lyrics because I wanted to write songs, too. I didn't know how to read music or play an instrument. I was petrified to sing in public, so I wasn't in choir. But I loved the poetry in songs and I wanted to write lyrics. I saw it as a way to impress girls, honestly. One of the girls in my study hall was about to become my first muse.

46. "You Decorated My Life," Kenny Rogers

One song I tried to emulate was "You Decorated My Life" because I thought it was romantic and said all the things girls wanted to hear. They didn't want songs about wishing you could watch "The Dukes of Hazzard" with them. They wanted poetry and imagery and metaphors. I didn't know poetry and imagery and metaphors. I could make words rhyme easy enough and I had memorized all the cliches. Knowing all the current melodies was instrumental in putting together something that made sense and had flow. I tried disco songs about roller skating inspired by the roller boogie fad of the late 70s. In case you haven't noticed, I was not hip. I was probably 18 months behind actual trends. Those songs provided a means to hone my lyrical skill and allowed me to delude myself into thinking I was a prodigy. Sure, I knew I had yet to write something like "you Decorated My Life," but surely by eighth grade, I would.

45. "Him," Rupert Holmes

Two girls sat to my left in study hall. The first, named Kim, was kind and chatty. Kim sat directly across from me and we talked throughout class even though talking wasn't allowed. One day she asked to read something I was writing and I reluctantly obliged. She said she liked it, calling it "cute," which wasn't the reaction I was going for with a science fiction story. Still, a positive review is a positive review, so I embraced it and began to share more. The other girl, named Shelley, sat in front of Kim and I thought Shelley was endlessly fascinating. Quiet, unassuming. This made her mysterious to me. I also thought she was very pretty. Captivating even. So, one day, I wrote her a poem and asked Kim to pass it to her. This system was integral in those prehistoric days before texting. I waited with fluttering stomach as Shelley read the poem. She turned, smiled, and gave me the 'ok' hand gesture and went back to her homework. This wasn't the reaction I was going for, but, again, we writers learn to accept even the faintest of praise.

44. "Sexy Eyes," Dr. Hook

When you're 12, it's astonishing to hear the word 'sexy' in a song. At least it was to me at 12 way back when. Today, most songs contain far more suggestive language. But, the first time I heard Dr. Hook's "Sexy Eyes" on the radio, I was shocked. SHOCKED! It seemed so brazen, so taboo. Soon after hearing "Sexy Eyes" I experienced Penthouse magazine for the first time and "Sexy Eyes" suddenly seemed chaste and playful. Dare I say cute? A mere five years later as a high school senior I would crank Prince's "Darling Nikki" and celebrate its artistry. "Sexy Eyes" was the beginning of a slide down a naughty slippery slope.

43. "Highway to Hell," AC/DC

If "Sexy Eyes" introduced me to the more salacious side of popular music, then AC/DC introduced me to a different forbidden fruit: hard rock. Oh, I knew about it through my brother who listened to it, but I tried to avoid it. I had heard a lot about Satan at church and his love for the music of groups like AC/DC and I didn't want to go to hell, which sure would be the result of listening to a song about literally going there. I assumed this might possibly be what they listened to at Wolf Creek, which could only mean that animal sacrifices. That kind of thing didn't happen at Skate City. Satan wasn't at Skate City.

42. "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin," Journey

I guess what I'm saying is I had an identity crisis at 12 years old. I wanted to be writer, but didn't know what that meant beyond stories in a little notebook. I wanted to be an athlete because I thought that was the key to social acceptance. I wanted a girlfriend because my hormones told me it was time, but as soon as I got around a girl I was immediately in over my head. I loved sports, but I also loved science fiction and comedy. I could tell you the starting lineup of every team in Major League Baseball, but could also name some of the writers on M*A*S*H* because I thought being a TV writer looked like a cool job. Some kids were engaging in more adult activities while I was still going to the skating rink. When we went to high school football and basketball games, I actually watched the games with my brother, which seemed to be counter to the social contract others had forged. I got along with everyone, but still felt very much like an outsider.

41. "Lights," Styx

Music fascinated me, too. And I enjoyed all varieties. Hard rock (except the Satanic stuff), soft rock, disco, country, bluegrass. Music soothed me when I hurt, lifted me when I was down, and invigorated me when I was happy. I enjoyed musical numbers on variety shows as much as the comedic sketches, even though I dreamed of writing sketches of my own some day. Styx was the first time I heard a band and thought I wanted to follow them. I heard "Babe" on the radio and loved it. When I listened to Cornerstone for the first time, I was blown away. "Lights," especially, was a favorite, even though it wasn't released as single or played on the radio. "Lights" was the song that really introduced me to the idea of loving deep cuts as much if not more than the hits.

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