“Allen Ginsberg told me time makes most ugly buildings beautiful if you give it long enough, though I’m not sure that applies to all we built in the 80s. Certainly not the mullet.” This is Bono talking to Lynn Goldsmith for a new coffee-table book about the 80s, though if it were to be decade-appropriate, grab another stimulant.
We have 10 fingers and toes, Abrahamic religions are ruled by the Decalogue, so we are wired to think in decades. Your 80s are surely different from mine, but we’ve all seen the videos, heard the synths, kept Final Net in business. Goldsmith lived it, captured it, and is now giving us a museum of excess and artifice, documenting an era that still begs questions. Why is the Queen of Soul clad in a denim jacket and smoking? Why is Pat Benatar dressed like a human candy cane, and what’s the first-aid kit for? What’s Sting reading, and will he pontificate about it?
If, like me, you grew up with a Rolling Stone subscription, these stars felt invincible, with unlimited budgets and indomitable swagger. It looked like all the celebrities were part of one big blowout, and sometimes, in Goldsmith’s book, that seems to be the case, where Tina Turner is having a party, and Bob Geldof, Joan Baez, and Sting are holding back the self-righteousness with magnums of champagne.
Imagine that it’s 1986, and you’re at the table with a pixie Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones (not that one; the other one), and Paul Shaffer, drinking beer on tap and blinding each other with their shiny blazers, except for Hynde, who doesn’t care, because it’s all pretending anyway.
As a kid, it almost looked like posing for the pictures was more important than the actual music. That’s not true for the real artists here—Goldsmith’s lens captured Bill Evans, Paul Simon, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Philip Glass, and Dylan, for God’s sake.
But, for some, posing was the point, just a taste for the 99 percent. There’s Prince and there’s Hynde, peering at you, way, way up there. You will never get into this kingdom. You don’t have the password. Or maybe you do. Calling something a coffee-table book is a euphemism when the subject is the 80s. Imbibe the apropos substance, gaze at the stars, and feel invincible. —David Yaffe
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. You can read his Substack here