Reaching For the Stars, Vol. 1

I’ve been kicking around an idea for awhile about using the 1980s American Top 40s[1] I listen to most weekends as a jumping off point for writing about old songs. Every weekend, whether I listen to an entire countdown or just catch a few minutes here and there, I’m bombarded with memories from 30+ years ago when all those songs were new. Might as well put those memories to use and use them to create some Blog Content, right?

So this is entry #1. I imagine some will be personal stories, as this week’s entry is. Others might be histories of a particular song, or just something funny that Casey Kasem said back in the day. I don’t know if I’ll be posting these every week, and they may not always correspond to the countdown that played the previous Sunday. It’ll depend on how the ghosts present themselves to me.


Chart Week: Feb 7, 1987
Song: “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” – Beastie Boys
Chart Position: 24, 8th week on the chart. Peaked at #7 the week of March 7, 1987.


I don’t often make bold choices. I tend to be cautious, considering angles, and then settling on the choice that offers the fewest chances for embarrassment. This was especially true in my teenage years. But in December 1986, I made a rare bold choice that had big ramifications for a huge change that was about to take place in my life.

That month we were packing up our house in Kansas City and preparing to move to San Leandro, CA, just south of Oakland. My step-dad had taken a job the previous summer with Wang Labs and had spent the last four months commuting to San Francisco every Sunday through Thursday. My parents decided to let me finish out the semester in Kansas City, figuring that would be the easiest time to move me academically.

A week or two before we left, I had dinner with my dad and he gave me my Christmas presents early. One of them was a gift card to Musicland.[2] Amidst all the packing and organizing, I managed to talk my mom into taking me to the mall our final week in KC so I could use that card to buy some music for our flight west.

Now in the fall of 1986 I was still, more or less, a Top 40 listener. My two favorite radio stations were Q104 and ZZ99, both of which were Top 40 stations. The music I listened to the most that fall was Van Halen and Boston. Sundays I did homework listening to Casey Kasem.

But I sensed rumblings of change beneath the surface. The previous summer I was entranced by RUN-DMC’s remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” In December my fellow knuckleheads and I were quoting their “You Be Illin’” constantly.[3] I had a tape someone at school made me with a few Fat Boys songs on it. And although New Edition and the Force MDs were primarily singing acts, they were also pushing the culture of rap forward into the mainstream. I had always listened to “black music,” mostly thanks to my mom’s affinity for classic Motown and the poppy R&B of the 80s, but this was a whole new kind of urban music directed at my generation.

Sometime that December I heard the Beastie Boy’s “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” for the first time. Like, say, 40% of white boys my age, I was immediately hooked.[4] It was loud, obnoxious, raunchy, and, most importantly, brand new and genre defining. This was going to be my music!

So, anyway, back at Musicland…I remember spending a tremendous amount of time trying to decide what to buy. I really wanted to get RUN-DMC’s Raising Hell and the Beasties’ Licensed to Ill. But I had concerns. What if the three total songs I heard off the two albums were the only three good songs? I had bought plenty of shitty albums over the years, and would continue to do so for many years to come, because of one good song. Why so reluctant to do so now? For some reason I was worried about ruining the three-hour flight to San Francisco if I bought the wrong cassette tapes. Like I didn’t have 50 others I could listen to if they sucked.[5]

More, though, I worried about my new school in California. I knew nothing about it. When we had visited the area in the summer, we had focused on a different East Bay suburb and toured the high school there. I had impressions of one school, but would be going to a different one, and I had no idea what to expect.

I was worried about buying the wrong kind of music. What if everyone was metal heads? If I listened to rap, would I get my ass kicked every day? Or what if my new school was simply like my school in Kansas City, where listening to rap wouldn’t necessarily make me an outcast, but would raise some eyebrows? The last thing I needed to do, as the new kid, was call attention to myself for being out of the norm. Being from the Midwest was going to be enough baggage to deal with.[6]

I know I debated for far too long. I imagine my mom getting annoyed as I picked up Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and Huey Lewis & The News’ Fore! only to put them back and pick up the rap cassettes again.[7]

Finally, I made a decision. I chose to be bold. I grabbed Raising Hell and Licensed to Ill, confidently marched to the front of the store and placed them on the counter. Then I refused to look the 20-something dude running the register in the eye, lest I see disappointment in his face when he saw my purchases.

Fast forward three weeks. We’ve moved, gotten through the holidays, and I’m in my first few days at my new school. SLHS had an open lunch period where kids could eat in the cafeteria, leave campus to get food, or just wander around for 45 minutes. This was my daily chance to try to figure out the culture of this strange new world. I came from a school that was something like 95% white. San Leandro high school was still by far majority white, but the kids who weren’t white weren’t just black. There was a small black student population, but bigger Asian and Hispanic populations. And, I quickly learned, the Asians were from all over Asia and the Pacific, and the Hispanics were from all over Central America. Or at least their parents/grandparents were. You know what I mean.

At lunch I’d sit around and observe, trying to learn the fashions, lingo, and social groups of SLHS. One day, had to have been my first week, I was at my locker preparing for classes to begin again when I heard some familiar lyrics being shouted:

I did it like this,
I did it like that,
I did it with a whiffle ball bat!

Followed by shrieking laughter. I turned to look and here came a group of five or six white girls, all singing the lyrics to “Paul Revere” together for all to hear.

Wacky, wild stuff, man.

I quickly learned I had nothing to fear by listening to the Beastie Boys. In fact, that seemed to be the one thing that crossed all racial/ethnic/socio-economic lines because every-freaking-body was listening to the Beasties.

In fact, the Beasties helped me start meeting people after that initial glow of “So, you’re the new kid, right?” wore off. SLHS didn’t have busses, so kids who could not yet drive had to take public transportation to and from school. One day while waiting at the BART station for my transfer, someone tapped me on my shoulder. I removed my headphones and looked to see a guy from my gym class.

“Hey, Kansas, what are you listening to?”

I wore a KU 1986 Final Four shirt in gym and this dude slapped me with the nickname “Kansas” when we had played volleyball on the same team that week.

“Uh, the Beastie Boys,” I mumbled.

“No shit?!? They have the Beastie Boys in Kansas?”

“Sure.”

Sure.

With one simple, powerful word, a blossoming friendship was born.

Actually that’s not true. This kid, let’s call him Tim, and I became cool with each other, but we were never really friends.

Tim did, though, open social doors for me. The next day in gym, as we were milling about waiting to get started in our volleyball games, I heard him talking to some other guys. “Hey, Kansas listens to the Beastie Boys!” as I walked by. I got a few nods of respect. One dude, Charles, our school’s best basketball player who lived in Oakland, loved this.

“Yo! You listen to the Beasties! Seriously?”

He was utterly delighted that a white kid from Kansas was down with the Beasties. Charles became one of my best friends in my short time in California, and famously “borrowed” my Eric B and Rakim tape for about six weeks the next fall.

Where were we?

Oh, right. Not being the most outgoing person in the world, it was a struggle for me to forge friendships at my new school. But a simple thing like listening to the Beastie Boys and RUN-DMC broke some of the ice. Soon I had a few friends in every class, had people to walk to Taco Bell with at lunch, and kids to sit by on the very interesting county bus.[8]

Fast forward to 1998. Some buddies and I were going to see the Beasties and A Tribe Called Quest. In anticipation of the show, we wasted time at work sending emails to each other about our favorite Beasties songs. I believe I shared a (shorter) version of this story, how the Beasties helped me get settled at a new school. My literary cherry on top came by suggesting that the Beastie Boys had saved my life. If I had been unable to make friends, who knows what kind of trouble I would have gotten into? I certainly wouldn’t be working in an entry-level position in the finance department of a Fortune 400 company!

All because of the “rowdy, rockin’ rappers from New York” as Casey called them back in 1987.

One note about last weekend’s countdowns: both the AT40 and VJ Big 40 countdowns were from 1987. But they were from different weeks. AT40 took the first week of February while Sirius used the list from the last week of January. The chart geek in me loves listening to the two and comparing how songs are in different spots. I know, fascinating, right? “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” jumped eight big notches in that one week. America was learning what I already knew.


  1. And VJ Big 40 countdowns on SiriusXM that are based on the old Billboard charts  ↩
  2. Musicland?!?! How much of my life did I spend at that place between the ages of 13 and 18?  ↩
  3. Hard to believe that peaked at #12 on the pop chart.  ↩
  4. Another roughly 45% of white boys my age would eventually get hooked. The remaining 15% of white boys my age viewed rap as ghetto noice that wasn’t really music and would refuse to listen to it ever, even if performed by white acts. Most of these guys are members of, or have already been ousted from, the Trump Administration.  ↩
  5. Or more likely 12. I had a little carrying case that I believe held two stacks of six cassettes each. Whatever went into that would be my soundtrack for the flight.  ↩
  6. I needed more Ren MacCormack in me.  ↩
  7. These are placeholder names only. I don’t recall what more mainstream albums I contemplated purchasing.  ↩
  8. San Leandro had a number of factories, so folks from all over the Bay Area bussed in for work. I’m not sure all of these folks were 100% there mentally. We saw some crazy shit on those rides home after school.  ↩