I Will Survive

This 1978 Gloria Gaynor song was another MONSTER hit during my early years. A Grammy award winner and number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic – say no more, it was huge on a global scale. I’m sure there were Amish communities and Amazonian tribes humming this tune by 1979.

Relatable lyrics and highly danceable – no wonder it did so well. The now unmistakeable rising / falling piano intro leads into the classic disco, – tshh, tshh, tshh, tshh – hi-hat cymbal sound that carries you right through the song. Lovely. We had a Gloria Gaynor record in my house before 1978 that included the hits ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ (resurrected in 1987 by The Communards) and ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be there’, so I was aware of her before ‘I Will Survive’. You have to wonder if she had any idea of the scale of the phenomenon she was creating when she recorded it. I think it’s fair to say the song defined her whole career.

The memory I attach to the song is a strong one, but it’s also sort of bleak so I’ll probably struggle to sprinkle much levity on it. It’s been tucked in a corner of my head for around 40 years though, so bleak or not, here goes – It’ll be brief at least.

In 1979 I was 14, and in my first year of high school. Starting high school isn’t easy and I struggled initially. My form teacher that year was a surly young guy named Mr. Duncan who, along with some other teachers, didn’t seem too happy with his career choice.

We hadn’t entered the glorious 80’s yet, but in addition to, ‘I Will Survive’, there was some pretty great music in 1979. Donna Summer was all over the radio with ‘Bad Girls’ (“Toot toot, heey beep beep”), also Herb Alpert with ‘Rise’, Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass, Chic with ‘Le Freak’, Anita Ward with ‘Ring my Bell’, Rickie Lee Jones’ ‘Chuck E’s in Love’, Styx with ‘Babe’…I could fill the page with the songs I enjoyed that year. Socially, everything was coming up roses. House parties in the suburbs were all the rage and at weekends we’d do the bashful bop in emptied garages to all the songs just listed, as well as many others. We were growing up fast – I had a girlfriend named Joanne who was cute, super smart and mature beyond her years.

For most of that year, my best mate was a guy named James. We were similar – both kids of ex-pat Scottish parents, we shared the same name and we were both football crazy (James was a rabid Hearts fan). We differed though, at a family level. Stereotypical heavy-drinking Glasgow Scots, my parents were both functioning alcoholics. I can’t say that my sister and I were ever badly neglected, but it was certainly a dysfunctional household. As is nearly always the case, the alcohol abuse went hand in hand with domestic violence, intimidation and anxiety.

James on the other hand, seemed to have the perfect family life. His parents were young, vibrant and attentive to him and his two younger brothers. They had a modern, small but neat home and although they probably weren’t wealthy, the kids wanted for nothing. Blessed with good genes, they were all healthy and good-looking – his Mom resembled a young Cher.

If James’ family was Olivia Newton-John, mine was Amy Winehouse.

They were also kind and generous to me. Over the course of the year, I stayed over at his house on some weekends and they also took me with them on camping trips during school holidays. Most memorable was a trip to Sabie, where as a novice fisherman, I caught a trout in the Sabie river. James’ Dad showed us how to scale and clean the fish and we grilled it right there on the bank. That trip gave me a huge affection for the little town and down the years, I’ve returned there many times. I’ve never managed to catch another fucking trout though.

A song that always takes me back to that trip is Dan Hill’s, ‘Sometimes When We Touch’ – it was on a compilation tape (Pop Shop Volume 8) and it played constantly whenever we were in the car visiting the various waterfalls and sites around Sabie.

Compared to the varying degrees of chaos at home, this was like being a guest actor on the set of The Brady Bunch. I was a tourist in The Land of Normal and I liked the scenery.

The speed at which it all unravelled was staggering.

You ask me if I love you, and I joke on my reply. I’d rather hurt you honestly, than mislead you with a lie” – Dan Hill.

A thing I pretty much know for sure is that teenage kids are selfish little arseholes. I was one once myself and I currently share a house with a sixteen-year-old, so I can provide the data to support my claim. I was at their house quite regularly as his parents’ marriage fell apart and from what I remember, James and I were indifferent spectators to the whole process. I’m sure he was affected by it, but at the time it seemed to be business as usual for all the kids involved. We had bigger to fish to fry – there were bicycles to ride, balls to kick and a pool to swim in. It felt like there was a TV soap opera on in the background as we ran about the place, sporadically glancing up at the drama. I suppose credit is due to the parents for managing the situation so well.

Obviously, I can only speculate, but it seems to me that James’ Mom fell into a trap that life sets for many. As the routine of marriage and family turned to tedium, a guy at her work showed some interest, and seduced, she made a choice. A story as old as marriage itself. Shit, variations of the same scenario have spawned a thousand Country and Western songs.

This is where the song links to the memory; – although the situation was handled well for the most part, there was one weekend when the composure faltered. James and I were in his room one Friday afternoon when we heard a commotion coming from the front of the house. As we walked out to investigate, we saw his Dad in a blind rage, screaming at someone through the telephone handset. He was lean and well built, and now, as his restraint fell away, he lost control and started re-arranging the house. First the phone went flying across the room and into a wall, then the sliding door to the kitchen flew outward as it was kicked off it’s rails. James and I quickly retreated to his room. As I glanced back before we closed the bedroom door, more objects flew as his Dad went through the kitchen like a hurricane.

After we established that we couldn’t climb out of his bedroom window, we sat wide-eyed on his bed staring at the wall, waiting for the eruption to let up. I don’t know if this was the first time his Dad had exploded, but James was understandably shaken.

After a short while when the clatter subsided, his Dad came into the room and apologized to us.

The next morning things seemed normal again…with one exception. On one side of the lounge, there were three or four tiled steps that led down into a small entertainment room containing a TV and a stereo system. James’ Dad was sitting on the steps, next to the stereo, listening to Gloria Gaynor. Every time ‘I Will Survive’ finished, he would reach down, and trance-like, put the needle back to the start of the record, and listen to the song again. And again…and again.  

Now down the years I may have exaggerated this to myself, but I swear I remember him sitting on those steps, listening to that song, for a couple of days. Oblivious to his emotional crisis, we kids ran around him and went about our business like he was an ornament on the side table.

At some point, he must have ‘grew strong and learnt how to get along’, because he got off the steps and got back to his life. I guess when you have three kids and a bond to pay, you don’t have much choice. After a while, the family adapted and normal service was resumed. They were quality people and I was lucky to know them.

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