Music and Memories in Writing

I was a teenager in the ‘80s, so every time I hear a song from that era, it brings me right back to those days of asymmetrical haircuts, DayGlo sweatshirts, and sneaking into Clash concerts. Since I enjoy writing teen novels, I find that I’m able to get into the teen mindset more easily if I delve into my own memories from that time. I do this by cranking up ‘80s music so I’m back to that age again. Immersed in the memories, my writing then flows with details about the teen experience that I might have forgotten otherwise.

For example, right now, I’m listening to “Our House” by Madness. I can never hear a Madness song without being reminded of cruising down State Street in Santa Barbara in my old junk car covered in bumper stickers (which I thought were cool at 16 but became an embarrassment by 17) and passing the “Ska Guys,” or Mods, on their Vespas. The Ska Guys were a group of mysterious, aloof guys in Santa Barbara who listened to only Ska music: Madness, The Specials, The Untouchables, The English Beat, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (if you’ve never heard of this music, then I highly recommend you go find it – it’s great stuff). From a teen girl’s perspective, those Mods were highly intriguing guys with a certain mystiquewho rode Vespas wearing full length trench coats, turtlenecks, and Ray Bans on hot summer evenings.

They’d cruise by on their multi-mirrored scooters, British flags flying, with a detached air that made all the girls howl like groupies (which we did, of course, on many occasions). Those guys were Santa Barbara’s version of Edward from Twilight—mysterious and confident. And as any teen girl knows, those qualities are very attractive in a guy. The Mods also dressed better than the scruffy surfer guys who’d show up for dates in board shorts with sand in their ears and peeling, sun-chapped lips. Who wants to kiss that? No, the Ska Guys were attractive, clean cut, and different from regular guys. They’d show up around Santa Barbara, slam-dancing at the outdoor Fiesta concerts while never getting their trench coats entangled or their Ray Bans dislodged, then jump on their Vespas and roar off into the night. I was mesmerized. Smitten. They were, in one word, cool. Utterly cool. And I was determined to meet one.

I finally got my chance at an outdoor party near Santa Barbara City College. After much debating with my friends, I got up my nerve to approach the tallest of the Mods as he smoked a clove cigarette and watched the crowd with an aloof air and Billy Idol scowl. He said he’d noticed me, too, howling from my car and staring at him on State Street. He’d wanted to meet me, too. I was over-the-moon.

Unfortunately, after chatting with him for a bit about his favorite movie, Quadrophenia, I learned he wasn’t in high school at all, but a 24-year-old cashier at McDonalds who had a strong whiff of fry grease on his trench coat. He had a high-pitched girl’s laugh and talked about his mother too much...and his kitty cat. He also had foul breath. Big Mac breath. Lick-an-ashtray breath. Doh. Mystery gone. Romantic visions fizzled. Although he offered me as much free food as my friends and I wanted, it wasn’t enough to give him my phone number.

After that, when I’d see the Mods cruising down State Street as usual while my friends howled and giggled and nudged each other, I held back. I knew the truth. Ska Guy was just a regular guy. A dorky one at that. Nothing mysterious about him, except how he was able to afford his shiny, sea-green Vespa on a fast food salary.

Despite my disillusionment with the whole Mod-mystique, I have fond memories of that time.  As an adult, it brings a smile to my lips to remember those young teenage guys—kids really—trying so hard to be cool and to impress the overly hair-sprayed girls wearing mesh gloves while they howled from car windows and blasted Ska for all to hear: “One Step Beyond . . . !” Whenever I hear a Madness song, it brings me right back to those fleeting teen years when girls get butterflies over a guy with a cool ride, and boys will pretend not to notice when they do. Those are moments of teen hormones, teen innocence, teen crushes . . . and teen music to mark the experience. Those songs are like a time capsule that takes me back so I then can capture the details in my writing. And so I do.

I’m just glad it’s music that reminds me of the Mods, and not the smell of Big Macs.