Prince

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A week before Prince Rogers Nelson left this place (hopefully by now he’s already been checked in and comfortably accommodated in the only place he deserves to move onto–I think they call it Paradise) I watched a DVD of The T.A.M.I. Show, a 1964 showcase of some truly amazing musical talent that was conceived with the now outdated idea of filming artists actually performing live versions of their hits with musicians actually playing real instruments in real time. The lineup featured artists both black and white performing before an auditorium of integrated Santa Monica teens basically having the time of their young lives. James Brown’s astonishing, athletic and otherworldly performance is the one history correctly lauds as the film’s highlight, but everyone–artists, back-up dancers, kids–is fantastic.

The night of the day Prince died, I switched on VH-1 and caught the tail end of Purple Rain, a low-budget, not-always-good movie from 1984 that almost immediately turned into a box office smash because, well, because it’s packed full of some of the greatest pop songs ever written. The movie ends with a concert scene featuring an enormously talented band comprised of musicians of many different and mixed races playing to a wildly enthusiastic crowd made up of people flashing every shade of skin under the sun. The leader of this band gives an astonishing, athletic and otherworldly performance that justifiably launched him into the very highest reaches of popular culture. He never, ever, came down.

2016 has unleashed upon the American people a grotesque parade of tiny, petty, vainglorious creatures all vying for “control” of this country. These politicians (is there an uglier word in the English language these days?) are, all of them, “dividers.”

2016 has also brought us the deaths of people like Prince and David Bowie and Merle Haggard and Maurice White and even Abe freakin’ Vigoda, who were all, God bless them, “uniters.” It’s been a terrible year.

Prince. You know the man, you know the music–there is nothing I could hope to add to his legacy except to observe that we all lived through his reign TOGETHER, shaking our asses and smiling at each other in wonder at the incredible gifts he gave us.

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The Athlete’s Foot

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This wasn’t a shoe store, it was a candy shop. From the day The Athlete’s Foot opened, it was the number one must-see store in the mall–the place you ran for as soon as you got dropped off by mommy and daddy. So long, Spencer Gifts! Nice knowing you, National Record Mart! Vaya con Dios, Video Arcade! You walked into this store and pretty much wanted one of (ok, a pair of) every single thing they carried. Despite the somewhat off-putting name, (have you ever seen a bad case of tinea pedum?) this retail establishment was a winning concept from day one.

Before the advent of these kind of specialty stores, parents bought their kid’s “sneakers” at places like Kmart or JC Penney or the dusty old sporting goods shop where they sold bowling trophies and gym bags. The shoes from these places had lame-ass names like Traxx and USA Olympics. The Athlete’s Foot offered exotic brands that identified themselves with cool things like the winged goddess of victory or Andes-roaming jungle cats.

On the sales floor, potential customers were encouraged to fondle and handle and fuss over the merchandise like each shoe was the breast of some plump carny skank. Just a few minutes in The Athlete’s Foot was all it took to send images of Nike Bruins, Puma Clydes, and Saucony Jazz dancing through a child’s head like so many sugarplums. And once the burning adolescent desire for these colorful rubber, nylon and leather objects flared up, there was only one way to “put it out,” so to speak. With a purchase.

Parents reeled. In these new stores, what was once a $9.99 commodity you plucked out of a wire mesh bin near the automotive section of Kmart was now displayed like a work of art and sold for a price 4 or 5 times as dear. And if you didn’t comply with the howls of want emanating from your offspring, it was simple. You lost your children. Once The Athlete’s Foot was in town, if you still insisted on dragging the kids to Woolworth’s and slapping the same old off-brand shoes on their feet, they would hate you until the end of time. Such is life.

Timberland 3 Eye Boat Shoe

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In 1985, you could buy a pair of brown Timberland 3 eye boat shoes for about $75. They were sewn together, by human hands, somewhere in New Hampshire. They were great shoes. If you were a person who actually spent time on and around boats, they were functional and durable. If you were a drunken college student, staggering across campus to that night’s keg party, they were fashionable and durable. If you were a Yankee Grandpa who walked your Jack Russel the half mile into town to get the Union Leader each morning, they were dependable and durable. I had a pair that I wore 4-5 times a week for about four years straight. By then, they were broken-in to perfection, although the razor-cut sole had worn down as smooth as the underside of a bowling shoe. Still, all the stitching remained as tight as Randolph Scott and Cary Grant. And of course, every little crease and scuff and nick in the leather had a story to tell. Like I said earlier, they were durable. I wore them a lot less after college, but even ten years after their purchase date they were still functional. It baffles me to this day where they eventually “went.” I know I would never consciously throw them way. At least I hope I wasn’t that stupid. But they disappeared at some point. I miss them!

$75 in the mid-80s wasn’t outrageously expensive, but it was still pretty far above the mean most people were plunking down for footwear. This particular shoe was about the same price as the first Air Jordans, although with the Timberlands, you could sleep better at night knowing that they were made by American craftsmen being paid a fair wage and not 9 year-old Asian kids working for pennies a day while glue fumes inexorably feasted away on their brains.

The point is, to buy these shoes back then was to purchase something that was worth it. Getting what you pay for, and all that.  A product you could rely on, offered at a fair price. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but sadly, at some point in the late 80’s and early 90’s Timberland and Cole Haan and L.L. Bean and Johnston & Murphy and Sperry and dozens of other American footwear makers shifted their production overseas. This all happened within about a five year window. Monkey See, Monkey Do. What once were worthy products became disposable rubbish.

If you’re really paying attention, and most people aren’t, because, why bother–there’s been a bit of a mini-revival in the Made In The USA footwear market recently. That’s all well and good, but upon closer examination, it comes up a bit short in the value department. $75 in 1985 money translates to $165 today. And yet, American-made boat shoes from Sperry and Eastland are running $300 bucks right now, or basically twice what they used to in terms of real money. Timberland, whose shoes were better than both of those brands back in the day, doesn’t even offer a domestically-produced boat shoe as far as I can tell. What was once a solid value is now a hyper-inflated fashion statement. But, hey, at least it exists.

Duck Head

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Picture a 30 year-old low-tech equivalent of what the iPhone is today. Something that every person has or at least seems to have. Well, every single Southern male in the 80s had at least one pair of these pants and most had plenty more than that. There were four basic colors at first—khaki, navy, olive and a really cool gray, but they would later expand their range considerably including a Masters green that could be spotted from a distance of about 5 miles. They made shorts, too, and back then inseams were pretty short, all the better to let just a sliver of your boxers hang out of the bottom hem, a kind of tasteful obverse to today’s “urban” fashion of flashing your underwear above the waistband, although today’s irrepressible kids tend to show a bit more than a half-inch sliver, it must be said.

Quality control was far from the best—side seams had a way of starting where they belonged at the waistband only to twist around like a vine of ivy as they worked their way down to end up somewhere near the shoelace knot, but what did you expect for $24.99? Heck they might have even been $19.99, I simply can’t remember. The cotton twill was great, though–it would eventually get real nice and soft and the navy pants would fade into a truly unique shade of purple. Most importantly, the yellow square with the mallard’s head on it was as charismatic as a slapped-on exterior label ever got–the ugly black rectangle that is still used by Banana Republic is positively laughable in comparison.

In the 90s, general preppiness declined as people inexplicably started to consider nylon track bottoms and oversized below-the-knee basketball shorts acceptable staples of casual wear, and that coupled with a series of disastrous management decisions signaled the end. It was like someone had taken dead aim at this poor duck with a 20 gauge Remmy and the company plunged into the reeds. I think the brand has been bought out and attempted to be revived a couple times now, but it may be the world isn’t quite ready yet.

PONY Footwear

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It’s not very often that the world of boxing crosses over into the world of fashion. (UFC is another matter–and decade–entirely, although I think we can all agree that the person or persons who created the TAPOUT line of apparel can never be forgiven) I did know a pretty fashionable guy who used to wear a pair of boxing gloves when he played guitar, but that was in a joke band plying their trade in a sub-genre they call “noise rock” and so doesn’t count for much at all.

Ponys were different; they weren’t just some British Knights-type deal created out of thin air to cash in on the “sneaker craze.” Real boxers wore real Ponys into the ring and sometimes even emerged  with real championship belts wrapped around their waists. How much cachet that had among consumers is hard to say. I mean, Converse had Magic and Larry Bird, Reebok had ‘Nique, and of course Nike would soon reel in that young kid down in Chapel Hill who would one day become so famous he’d make a movie with Bugs Bunny. Meanwhile, Pony had the coked-up pugilist/anarchist Leon Spinks–the man who shot Muhammed Ali in an East St. Louis Hardee’s parking lot!

The question “Who wore Ponys?” may never be answered. Kids who weren’t too bright? Latchkey kids? Bullies? I personally thought they were cool but never had a pair. I can’t even remember if the big chains like Athlete’s Foot and Foot Locker carried them or if they were relegated to the wire mesh bins of Woolworth and Kmart with the Wilson Batas and Traxx. If you search for “Pony Basketball Shoes” on Google, you get 127 hits. Using Bing brings up just 78 results. Try it with Alta Vista and you get an Error 404 message. I think these shoes deserve a lot more recognition than that, but we may end up having to rely on the incandescent minds and fearless vision of the hipsters to bestow upon them a proper revival.

Earrings on Guys

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This fad swept through the high school halls and shopping malls of the 80s like a bad virus. It was an epidemic that left school administrators scrambling to re-write dress codes and parents wringing their hands in outright consternation at just “what” their little Johnny had become.

Now, in those days you couldn’t just saunter up to your local Piercing Pagoda with a coupla cans of Milwaukee’s Best in ya for courage and say “Pierce my ear, por favor.” You had to pick the right ear to get pierced and the right ear in the 80s was the left ear. That meant you were straight. If you got your other ear pierced there was going to be trouble at school before the first bell even rang, regardless if you liked guys or not. Actually, in most places it really didn’t matter which ear you had pierced—the sight of a traditionally female piece of jewelry pinned into the flesh of a male classmate was bound to enrage some poor lunkhead, or group of lunkheads, and a few names were going to get called at the very least, most of them beginning with the letters “F” or “Q.” If you had really bad luck, you’d get your nice Captain Morgan-inspired gold hoop ripped right out. Such was the tenor of the times.

Things simmered down pretty quickly, however, as more and more guys started sporting them and MTV certainly helped mainstream the look with its endless imagery of pop stars of every musical genre and sexual persuasion jumping around in music videos with all sorts of things dangling from all sorts of places. Nowadays, the crazy kids somehow contrive to insert plastic or wooden discs the diameter of 90s sensation POGS into their lobes, so a little quarter-carat cubic zirconia in the left ear of the 1984 Prom King doesn’t seem so quite so outrageous, does it?

Rolex President

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This timepiece, especially the gold version, seems pretty emblematic of the whole Yuppie/Greed is Good aspect of the 80s. It seeemed like every leveraged buyout artist–the guys who had quickly come to be regarded as the new “Masters of the Universe” by the mainstream press–sported one.

Fakes of this watch abounded on the UGA campus and I remember people constantly poring over the faces of fellow classmates’ timepieces to see if the second hand ticked or swept. Ticking was fake, sweeping was real, the consensus went. Either/or, you can pretty much rest assured they were ALL fake. Honestly, did the people who used to swagger around with these things dangling on their wrists really believe that other people were going to believe that parents intelligent enough to earn that kind of money (and there were plenty of students from just that type of background) were going to send their kids off to college to live in an almost completely unsecured dormitory with a $22,000 gold watch their irresponsible, drunken offspring could leave sitting on top of their metal dresser while they walked down to the end of the hall to take a shower? I mean, really now.

I remember one joker on my dorm floor who used to go around insisting that the company’s name was pronounced Rawl-ex, like Rawlings, the famous maker of baseball equipment. I think someone finally punched him in the face and that was the last we had to hear about that. I do think it is a pretty good gauge of the 80s much-maligned “materialism” that a bunch of 18-22 years olds attending their state university, most with just enough pocket money to buy a 3 dollar pitcher of beer every night, talked about these watches incessantly.