Marc Spitz’s Summer of ’81: There’s A New Wave Comin’, I Warn Ya

Editor's Note: Marc Spitz is the author of the novels, How Soon Is Never and Too Much, Too Late and the biographies We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk (with Brendan Mullen), Nobody Likes You: Inside the Turbulent Life, Times and Music of Green Day, Bowie: A Biography and Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue, as well as Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown Manhattan in the 90s and Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion and Film. His writing has appeared in Spin, The New York Times, Uncut Magazine in the U.K, New York, Maxim, Nylon, and Vanity FairFor Signature's That Summer series, in which authors share personal stories on the summers that shaped them or their subjects, Marc remembers the summer of 1981, when he attended his first co-ed dance.

It’s funny that this series is called “That Summer,” because one of the most cherished LPs I own is the soundtrack of an obscure movie called “That Summer.” The song list is perfect (“Another Girl, Another Planet,” “Teenage Kicks”) and vinyl is yellow like chicken, which is exactly what I was in the summer of ’81.

I had never been popular at sleepaway camp. I was chubby and bad at sports, even though I had the name of a world class Olympian athlete (deal with that, kids). I hadn't gone through puberty yet, but was thrown into the barracks full of people who were twice my size and ten times as hairy (and aggressive). I might have had lice. I’d only just stopped wetting the bed between the release of Prince’s "Dirty Mind" and "Controversy" albums. But I had rock and roll in my soft boy bones already. The difference between rock in ’80 and rock ’81 was immense. The previous summer, John Lennon was alive and everyone’s favorite band seemed to be The Doors, who’d broken up almost a decade earlier. By 1981, all that changed and there was a new music, mostly from England, vying with Billy Squier, Styx, Foreigner, and AC/DC for airplay. They called it New Wave but I called it liberty.

It all started with a co-ed dance. These were all the same in that I never once stood, much less danced on the floor. I sat in the bleachers and frowned and drank Orange Crush and ate Mary Janes. Year in and out, the co-ed dances were identical, only the slow dance tunes changed. One year it was “She’s Out of My Life,” the next it was “Endless Love.” I could never dance to these songs because girls didn’t want me to grab them and move back and forth to the beat. And I could never dance to “The Stroke,” and “Back in Black,” and play air guitar or do Bruce Lee karate moves, because clearly I wasn’t tough enough. But by the co-ed dance of ’81 … new wave, or as Paul Reubens would say it (“Nee-yooooooo wave!”) had found its way into the crates. When the miserable, chain smoking mobile DJ in the sleeveless Journey tee and faded jeans whom they’d hired happened to drop the needle on “Da Da Da” by the German band Trio, I got up (while most everyone else sat down or went off into the woods to make the sex). Suddenly, I was on the floor. The body sometimes reacts in physical ways before the mind can protest and my legs and hips and feet already knew they could hop up and down and up and down and up and down to this song (and “Money” by Flying Lizards, and “Kids In America” by Kim Wilde). That’s exactly what they did before my brain could say, “But wait, you’re fat with no hair on your nut sack! Sit! Sit!” Unlike many from camp who were from Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, I already knew these songs from the radio back home, W-LIR, which had switched to a New Wave format and I’d logged my Gladwellian 10,000 hours, hopping up and down in my bedroom alone to them.

Now, I could show off my expertise. “I’m on the dance floor,” I thought as I piston-thrust and sweated and grinned, “Oh, man, I’m on the dance floor. The dance floor!” The dance floor, by the way was a decrepit basketball court. When I returned home that summer, MTV had just started to take over and soon “my kind” of music became simply, pop, pop, pop music, but I still think of the summer of ’81. If it had been a movie, a pretty girl would have taken me into the woods, impressed and willing, but I of course went back to my bunk full of racists and squareheads and alone, waiting, patiently for, well … let’s face it, college.