It is 1978 and I have entered Grade 7 at a regional high school that was famously built facing backwards, a metaphor for many of the young minds that would pass through its halls. But this story is not about them. It’s about disco. And of course me.
In the senior high, they had dances. Junior high had socials. Dances were held in the gym, socials in the cafeteria. Why junior students were not considered gym-worthy is as great a mystery as how the school administrators could commit acts of low-level violence in the hallways with zero repercussions. But that’s a grudge for another time.
It’s the night of a social, the chairs and tables are moved aside, the lights are dimmed and a sound system is installed. The boys settle on one side, the girls on another, the dance/cafeteria floor between them obscured by a fog of unchecked hormones. At the time I weigh 27 pounds.
At some point, some song, there is a shift in mood, a tipping point, and bodies move tentatively onto the floor, dancing uncomfortably at first, but soon, in a rudimentary mating display (again: hormones), there is a flinging about of arms, legs and still-blossoming parts.
The song is “Ra Ra Rasputin.”
Russia’s greatest love machine.
Am I savvy enough to know with certainty what a love machine is? Am I aware of the non-so-subtle gay subtext of “Macho Man”? Do I think Rod Stewart querying about his relative sexiness is, even at that age, icky? No, no and yes, most certainly yes.
But the groove! I’m sure I liked a girl at the time (who didn’t I like!) but I can’t remember who. All I remember is dancing cat-like to forgotten Canadian disco hit “Boogie Woogie Dancing Shoes” by Claudja Barry – thus clearly not forgotten; I retract the allegation.
I am 13 years old. My brain is not fully formed. It’s 80 percent lizard brain. I want to dance and have fun and maybe start growing hair, you know, there. Despite my scrawniness (or maybe because of it) I think I can dance, and my brain is not about to tell me otherwise. Unaware of all the cultural-sexual baggage it carries, disco is the ideal conveyance for my tiny tweeny body on the dance floor.
But that summer after Grade 7, Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” (not actually about bell ringing) comes across the radio, and my brain, which was by then evolving into something discerning and much more of a killjoy, rebels. I do not like this disco song, I tell myself. Therefore disco is bad. Disco sucks.
Now I am in Grade 8. My weight and brain power have both increased 8 percent. I compensate for shortcomings in both areas by being a wise guy. I am less smart than smart aleck. There are still socials and there is still disco. But now our brains are beginning to make judgements. No longer am I a Grade 7 dweeb repeating Bee Gees parodies (“Tragedy… when you go to the john and the toilet paper’s gone…”). I am a sophisticated 14-year-old; I listen to Supertramp.
And so, one fateful day, in my Grade 8 English class, I give an oral presentation: “Why Disco Sucks.” I cannot now give you my reasons for why disco sucked. Were they lifted more or less intact from issues of Mad magazine? Did I make up for the flimsiness of my arguments with cheap laughs? Did I at one point mockingly strike the iconic John Travolta pose from Saturday Night Fever? Possibly, a pretty safe bet and yes, most certainly yes.
The rest, of course, is music history. Shortly after my speech, disco went into decline and soon died. Sure, it would continue to turn up but it never moved our lizard brains in quite the same way. Video killed the radio star, and I killed disco.
There are many things I’ve regretted over the years, but none more so than killing disco, because it was a music of pure joy, because it embraced sub-cultures, but mainly because killing it led to Kenny Rogers.
If only I had used my presentation powers for good, like why you should never let dudes at a social convince the DJ to turn off the dance music and play “Cocaine.” The live version.
Disco died because of me. But there is a happy ending: I do finally have hair, you know, there.