Saturday, May 26, 2012

Stories from Stu's iPod: Donna Summer Remembered

After so much encouraging and prodding and nudging from friends and colleagues, I decided that as of this summer, I will start blogging on a more frequent basis, because I got a quick, easy lesson on how to utilize Blogger more effectively. I mean, there will be plenty of things to write about, because if everything works out the way I hope it will, I will be covering practically every major cultural festival here in Montreal, so there will be plenty of shows, observations and behind-the-scenes stories that I want to eagerly share with you on this blog and in my "Grapevine" column that appears every week in The West End Times (

To paraphrase the late Donna Summer, this time I know this attempt at blogging will be for real.

And speaking of the late Donna Summer, this brings me to the subject of my first full-fledged blog.

Around this time two years ago, after appreciating pop and rock music through vinyl, cassettes and CDs, I decided to go the high tech route and bought an iPod Nano at the Apple Store in downtown Montreal. What a great little device! Through the semi-frequent purchases of iTunes cards and the wonder of downloading songs through the iTunes Store website, I have been on a musical downloading tear. And I have to admit, it's been a lot of fun picking and choosing the songs that I want to have on my iPod (which I have used when I do my long distance walks every weekend and weeknight during the spring and summer). So far, as of this writing, I have amassed a total of 235 songs (and counting).

Basically, the songs that I have selected are mainly classic rock songs that I have enjoyed listening to over and over since I was 10 years old. The late Dick Clark once proclaimed that "music is the soundtrack of your life", and I couldn't agree with him more. The songs that I have collected for my steel blue iPod Nano are basically the songs that I grew up with. It's strange, but every song that I hear again I can clearly remember where I was or what I was doing when I first heard it played on the radio, or when I first purchased it on vinyl (or cassette) back in the 70s and 80s. Or a certain song by a certain artist can have me recall a specific event or period of time in my life that was good, memorable or life changing (which I am able to do with a great deal of clarity).

So, besides the reviews, views or behind-the-scenes that I will be blogging, there will be this series of "music-is-the-soundtrack-of-your-life" stories of select songs that made it to my iPod, and why it has played so significantly in the soundtrack of the nearly 50 years of my life, which I call "Stories from Stu's iPod".

 And the first story deals with Donna Summer, who unfortunately lost her private battle with cancer recently at the age of 63. So what is this popular singer, who brought the disco genre from out of the private clubs to the top of the record charts during the late 70s and early 80s, warrant some spots on my iPod? By the time Summer was dominating the charts with such hits as "Love To Love You, Baby", "Last Dance" and "She Works Hard for the Money", I was more partial towards Kiss, Led Zeppelin and yes, the Beatles (plus the comedy albums of Cheech & Chong). However, Summer's hits during the 70s became standards during my teen years, especially during sweet 16s, high school dances and the B'nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) tri-annual dances that I attended regularly. And "Last Dance" was always the last song that was played. It started slow (it was always fun having a mini-slow dance with the girl of your choice) and then that pause which bridged from the romantic part to the high energy, pulsating dancing that signalled the end of another evening of teenage coed socializing.

Although I vehemently despised disco music as a teen (and was never afraid to boldly state that it "sucked"), Donna Summer's tunes were for the most part quite upbeat, and always represented the good times I had during my adolescent years. There is one of her hits that every time I hear it, takes me back to the occasion when I first heard it on the radio that represents a very distinct time in my life that meant nothing but good times for me.

The song in question was "Heaven Knows", which was released in early 1979. I was 16 years old and was going through a typical middle class teenage upbringing in my hometown of Ville St. Laurent, a suburb located in the western part of Montreal. Besides being a student at Sir Winston Churchill High School by day, most of my free time was taken up with being a member of BBYO (which I joined three years earlier), in particular as a member of Chapter Gaza AZA #2014 in the Laurentian Region Association (LRA), which represented BBYO in Montreal in the international order.

That winter, I finally discovered that BBYO was a truly international organization, and wasn't  confined to just my chapter and region in Montreal. In December of 1978, an exchange trip was arranged between our region and Red River Region in Winnipeg, thanks to a grant that was given to us through the federal Secretary of State's office (it was a time when the federal government had a lot of money to offer to any type of program that would faintly promote any aspect of multiculturalism across Canada). Basically, several of the Montreal kids and staff would spend a few days in Winnipeg during the 1978 Christmas holiday period and in return, a delegation of the Winnipeg kids would make the trek to Montreal the following spring (somehow, due to circumstances that were unknown to me, I wasn't able to make it on the trip west; then again, spending Xmas break in a place colder than Montreal wasn't exactly ideal; in hindsightI still regret not being able to go).

Fast forward to the last weekend of March, 1979. All of us were looking forward to having the Winnipeg BBYO kids visiting Montreal that weekend, because they would be attending our annual Spring Convention, which officially signalled the end of our programming year. It took place at the Hilton Hotel near Dorval Airport (and for us teens, we regarded it as a luxury hotel; hell, we even had our meals served to us by white-coated waiters, and each dish was covered by metal lids). There were over 150 kids in attendance and it was the largest amount of people I witnessed for a single BBYO program in our region at the time. And added to that the fact that there were people from another city whose common bond was that they were BBYO members like us was very exciting. It was a major exercise in teenage bonding.

And I was quite eager to partake in that bonding. My roommates were two other Montreal members, along with two kids from Winnipeg. Let's say the bonding happened automatically without the usual hesitation or discomfort that usually accompanies a bunch of teenagers who meet each other for the first time. Every time the kids got together en masse for the convention programs, it was almost like a huge love-in (but without the flowers and 1960s "peace and love" slogans). And when we got to our rooms for lights-out, the conversation and bonding continued  well into the night (two months earlier, I was a contestant on the CBC TV high school quiz show "Reach for the Top", and we talked about the show quite a bit, because the quizmaster for Winnipeg's version of "Reach" was the late Bill Guest, who also served as quizmaster of its national playoffs). I remember that the TV in our room (like many hotel-style TV sets) also had a radio built into it, which could be used as an alarm clock as well. So when the alarm went off to wake us up on Saturday morning, it was tuned to CFCF 600, which was the oldest existing radio station in the city. At the time, it was playing both middle-of-the-road pop tunes and Top 40 hit songs. And the tune it was blaring to wake us up bright and early that Saturday morning? "Heaven Knows" by Donna Summer.

During the more than 30 years I have been involved with BBYO (and the hundreds of conventions I have attended as a member and staff person), the highlight of Spring Convention was always the Saturday night dance. It gave us the chance to shed the jeans and t-shirts we wore most of the time, and dress up in suits & ties and dresses and reinforce those bonds that were established a little more than 24 hours before (and if you established contact with a certain girl or several girls beforehand, you knew you had several opportunities for some good slow dancing time and maybe if you were lucky, it could mean a temporary or long-term hook-up). Of course it being 1979, the dance had that "Saturday Night Fever" feel to it ... dark ballroom, continuous colorful, flashing lights, and plenty of fast (and slow) tunes to dance to. Practically every hit disco tune of the previous four years were spun by the hired disc jockey (and they used real vinyl 33 1/3 rpm records, too!). "YMCA", "Macho Man", "Tragedy", "I Will Survive", "Too Much Heaven", "Black Betty" and of course, its share of Donna Summer songs, including ... you guess it ... "Heaven Knows". It was a lively, upbeat song that worked so well with the revolving and flashing lights, and seemed like all 150 of us were on the dance floor for practically every song. It was just so symbolic of the great times we were having that weekend.

The following morning was an emotional one for everyone. Besides electing a brand new regional executive, it meant that this memorable weekend was coming to an end. It also meant that the graduating members of BBYO (you have to leave it as a member when you reach 18) were coming to the end of their time with the organization. There were a lot of tears shed (even from guy friends that I knew whom I least expected to get teary eyed and speak with quivering voices). We had such a great time together, we just didn't want to say goodbye. And when my dad came to pick up me and my sister Nancy from the hotel when the convention ended, one of the songs that played on his car radio was ... you guessed it ... "Heaven Knows".

Why is this song so ingrained in my memory? Every time I hear its upbeat tempo, Summer's powerful voice (she sang the song as a duet with someone whose name escapes me), the strong horn accompaniment and the brief techno keyboard riff that was played at the end of each chorus, it takes me back to that fun weekend that was BBYO Spring Convention at the Montreal Airport Hilton in March of 1979. For me, it represented a somewhat "age of innocence", when things were a little bit simpler. It was a year that bridged for me what would turn out to be an unforgettable 18 months to follow. It started with my election as president of Chapter Gaza (which would launch and strengthen my long-term involvement with BBYO that continues to this day); that fall, I would once again participate in "Reach for the Top", in which my school team won the provincial championship for the 1979-80 season; we competed in the national playoffs in Ottawa and finished in second place, and I was voted MVP of the nationals (we even got to meet Terry Fox during our visit to Rideau Hall to meet the Governor-General), which sparked my interest in a possible career in media; and while working on the high school yearbook, my interest in writing and journalism got its humble beginnings, as I contributed several articles for the publication (including a two-page "year in review" spread).

And those Winnipeg BBYO kids? After a brief one-day visit to Ottawa following Spring Convention (they even met then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the corridor outside the House of Commons, just as he was about to dissolve Parliament and call a federal election that he would lose to Joe Clark), we never heard from them again. Two years later, when I attended my first BBYO International Convention at Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania, one of the delegates from Red River Region was the younger brother of one of the Winnipeg BBYOers who visited us in 1979. Needless to say, the bonding between the Montreal and Winnipeg kids was just as immediate.

It's amazing how one song can quickly recall such feel good personal memories. It's a remarkable statement to how powerful music can be; somehow, it can indirectly write your own biography and recall the events of that life every time that song is played. For me, Donna Summer's "Heaven Knows" always takes me back to that time in early 1979, when I started to make that happy transition from typical teen to a young adult ready to make some important choices that will guide me on the path to my future.

Thanks, Donna Summer, wherever you are in that big discotheque in the sky. I guess we will always love to love you, baby.