It started, simply, with a song popping up on the radio last month on I-95 in Baltimore. A deejay played Rick Springfield, the 1980s pop icon whose turn as Dr. Noah Drake on the TV soap opera General Hospital killed him with snobby music critics but made him a smash with tweens like me. My fingers found the volume and cranked it up.
It ended, three weeks later, with me on the phone with Rick, and then watching him the next day in concert in Bensalem Township, and all because I was trying to answer one question: Why does this music feel like a beat-up sweatshirt that never should have been stashed away in the attic for decades?
What would it be like to watch one of your teen idols in concert, only he is now 69 and you are somewhere in your 40s? Does it bring the kid in you back to life, if only for an hour or two? I recruited good friend and former Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney to help me find the answer. Monica would be the ultimate litmus test.
Unlike me, Monica had a poster of Springfield stapled to a wall of her bedroom as a kid. Unlike me, Monica saw him in concert once back in the day.
But every afternoon in the early 1980s, she and I and kids across the country returned from middle school to Rick. We were Generation Xers. Our parents worked and had not slotted us into a maddening lineup of extracurriculars. We instead lumbered home every day, on our own and unsupervised, to the only babysitter we ever knew: General Hospital.
It was the daytime soap opera that just about everyone in America tried to watch. And if we weren’t watching GH, we were trying to find music videos, probably stumbling upon some of Rick’s.
In the same way that my fingers turned up the volume last month when “I’ve Done Everything for You” came on the radio, Monica’s and my instincts clicked when we learned, that same day, that Springfield was on tour.
I went to StubHub. Bought two tickets — seventh row, center. I razzed Monica. What were we doing here?
“I literally possessed tissue paper that had been wrapped around flowers that he touched and I took it home as a kid,” she told me, her tone a combo of self-mockery and excitement. “I believe I still own it somewhere in Fort Wayne, Ind. I saw him at the Fort Wayne Coliseum.”
I asked Springfield why his music, as short-lived as his hits were, has been so indelible on the girls we once were.
“It was a very, very wide-open window for a lot of people,” he said, a thoughtful mind that was behind a heralded memoir, Late, Late at Night. “The window stays open until you get a job, get a serious relationship, and then the window closes to letting musicians into really deep places.”
In the ’80s, which baby boomers love to hate on, we didn’t have Snapchat or iPhones or text messaging. A small handful of radio and TV stations fed us a few megastars a year. Daytime soaps were the Facebook of our day, except no one felt bad after doing it. I kid you not when I tell you that GH one year was so outrageous that one of its villains tried to freeze the world with a weather machine.
Springfield’s character was downright dreamy. But only because his music was so sweet for kids our age. Our hearts were blank slates, ready to receive all the innocent romance of his songs, even if it was a rock time, too. (Puberty is no fun, am I right?)
“If you really think about it, our teen years weren’t very calm,” he told me. “I was a friggin' mess.”
Springfield tried to commit suicide as a teenager. He dropped out of high school in Australia in 11th grade. But even he finds joy in that time, namely, ’60s British star Cliff Richard and his band, The Shadows.
“I still love looking back on that time,” he said. “Music was very important to me. It was my center. It kept me from losing my mind.”
Part of life is figuring out how much of your past to discard and how much to keep close. Some women my age follow Springfield around the country, captive to a sliver of otherwise long lives. But Springfield, now 69, would not allow that Thursday. He went on stage with just five guitars and a computer of recorded tracks.
He told stories of his life, with photos flashing up above. He has written books, is acting again, is married to the same woman for more than three decades, and has continued to record for decades. He even collaborated a few years ago with the Foo Fighters, whose frontman is just about my age. They were jazzed when they first met Springfield — they thought he was carrying around the same guitar strap he used in the “Jessie’s Girl” video.
So. Monica and I weren’t giddy kids again on Thursday. She spent part of the show texting her kids to make sure someone walked the dog. I was worrying about how I would write this column Friday morning while also getting my 6- and 4-year-old boys ready for school.
But right in front of us was this lovely figure from our past. And it was just the right tone of real and ideal to be sublime.