Death by Power Ballad: Dennis DeYoung, “Desert Moon”

Written by Death by Power Ballad, Music

Rob Smith ruminates on memories, old friends, and Dennis DeYoung’s “Desert Moon,” in the latest Death by Power Ballad column, only at Popdose.

With a name like Rob Smith, I’m as good as invisible on the Internet, impervious to Google searches, Facebook lurkers, my parents, and old girlfriends bearing grudges. There are 361,455,989.35 people with my name (or some variation thereof—Roberts, Bobs, Robbs, etc.), give or take a couple dozen, and all but ten or twelve of us live in blessed obscurity. As long as I don’t mind the occasional ribbing about “my band” or “my bowling game” or “the University of the West of Scotland,” I can go about my business with no fanfare whatsoever.

Except, maybe I can’t. Back in August, an old friend I hadn’t seen in almost 25 years tracked me down, using little but a series of Google searches and my parents’ current address. In a shot in the dark worthy of the finest sniper (or the coolest Ozzy Osbourne video), he zeroed in on this very excellent pop culture site, read a few pieces, and sent an email. Target acquired. Target hit.

Thus tracked down, I was compelled to revisit a time and place I’d relegated to the deep, dark sinkhole of my memory. From second through tenth grade, I was incarcerated in a variety of parochial schools, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. The best and worst years of my sentence were served at an insidious institution down south, a place whose administrators proudly wielded the Bible like cavemen used to wield clubs, not to instruct or comfort, but to exert power over their charges. Think of the school in The Wall, only with southern accents. My reactionary responses to religion and conservative politics were formed by my time there—pretty much in direct opposition to the things I was “taught” by the oppressive, God-obsessed half-wits who ran the place, and the hypocritical snitches peppered among my classmates, who enforced school policies outlawing rock music, physical boy-girl contact, and general lustful behavior from within the student body, all the while enjoying the fruits of same for themselves.

My friend and fellow inmate—we’ll call him Bubba, cuz I don’t want to assume he’d be okay with being a subject here (though I don’t think he’ll mind)—wasn’t like that. We were kindred spirits—he didn’t understand his parents, but figured they were wrong about pretty much everything; he loathed having to go to church on Sunday, then spending Monday through Friday in extended church services, held in classrooms; he maintained a healthy collection of lustful urges, as did just about every person our age.

Best of all, Bubba loved music, and our friendship was founded on the sounds coming out of the radio. After he got his drivers license, our Friday and Saturday nights were more often than not spent driving aimlessly around town and outlying areas, stoked out of our minds on the freedom of highways and boulevards, with his meager car radio cranked to dash speaker-destroying volume. We had tapes, too; my steadily growing record collection provided us with a library of self-programmed cassettes, enabling us to match the music to the prevailing mood of an evening, regardless of what that mood might be.

The mood was tuned mostly to the arena rock of the day—your Billy Squiers, your Jefferson Starships, your Journeys and Foreigners and Scorpions and Queens and the like. Billy Idol was big; Van Halen was bigger. Mid-Eighties Kiss (“Heaven’s on Fire,” “Tears are Falling,” “Lick It Up”) might have been the biggest, cuz they were cool and dirty and, most importantly, our school excoriated them as the devil’s henchmen. What was good enough for Lucifer was good enough for us.

I’d lost track of Bubba maybe 20 years ago; hadn’t seen him in 24 years, since I was 16. He’d pop into my mind now and then, but I had put distance—both physical and emotional—between myself and my parochial school days. For better or worse, he was a casualty of that distance, a bright spot of memory in the midst of a dark time.

I met Bubba for dinner a couple weeks ago. I am currently an older, fatter, balder, gray-bearded extension of my 16-year-old self, and I sort of expected something similar from him. No dice—I recognized him from across a parking lot. Yes, he’s a little stouter, his speech deeper and a little slower (damn, but he could talk a mile a minute back then), his hair more salt than pepper. But it was definitely him, no doubt about it. We shook hands and hugged, had dinner, and talked for a couple hours, recapping our lives and laughing at memories both shared and rediscovered. He’s been married a year longer than I; my son is a year younger than his. Our parents are all still alive; old conflicts have given way to more mature understanding, the years mellowing attitudes and softening some stances.

We talked about the music, how it had sustained us then and keeps us going now. I gifted him with two mix CDs containing 30-odd tracks we used to listen to back in the day—a double-album soundtrack to adolescent exploits too cool to be forgotten.

One of the crowning tracks on the discs was Dennis DeYoung’s first solo hit, the title track to his album Desert Moon. It’s a tale of meeting one’s first love years later, of reminiscing about their time together and feeling the twinge one usually feels in those situations—of regret, yes, but also a sweetness born of warm memories and of reconnection, however brief. Typical of DeYoung’s music, the keyboards are front and center, cut through on occasion by a woefully under-processed guitar. Drums are nonexistent in the first two verses, as the protagonist and his ex meet by chance, at a train station. This leads to drinks, and to catching up:

The waiter poured our memories into tiny cups
We stumbled over words we longed to hear
We talked about the dreams we’d lost, or given up
When a whistle cut the night
And shook silence from our lives
As the last train rolled towards the dune

As the train rolls, the drums roll in with it, and the singer into the chorus:

Those summer nights when we were young
We bragged of things we’d never done
We were dreamers, only dreamers
And in our haste to grow too soon
We left our innocence on Desert Moon
We were dreamers, only dreamers
On Desert Moon

Memory can be selective, or cloudy, leaving one to brag of things that never took place, or that took place differently. Lose too many brain cells in the interim, and entire years could be lost in the fog. DeYoung gets it right here, and though I was reconnecting with a good friend and not a lover, I vouch for this sentiment, for the truth lodged somewhere in those memories, in reminders of a haste to grow up and move on.

The grand musical gesture is both DeYoung’s genius and his Achilles heel. Employed properly (think “The Grand Illusion,” and not Kilroy Was Here), he can grab an emotional moment and hurl it high into the atmosphere. He does it in “Desert Moon,” but only for a brief moment. Coming out of the largely drum-free guitar solo section, he brings the drums back in, trailing an ascending synth line into the third verse, cracking the song wide open in the first two lines:

I still can hear the whisper of the summer night
It echoes in the corners of my heart

It’s such an evocative rumination, encapsulating the essence of the song in just 18 words. It’s the memory of an earlier, happier time, when he was unencumbered by the vagaries of age and the responsibilities of adulthood, when all that mattered was the present moment—a summer night, an adventure, a tender instance he’d vowed to never forget—a promise kept for half a lifetime. In the song, the music emanates from this moment, in the bright keyboards and exuberant pulse; in life, memory explodes from such moments, so simple to live through, so heartwarming to recall.

I’m glad my friend found me, and that we are once again communicating, that we have met once and intend to do so again, that we can laugh at the things we used to laugh about and share with one another conversations about the things that mean most to us now. I’m glad he opened up memories I hadn’t considered in too long, reminding me of the good that existed even in an unfortunate and uncomfortable period and place. I’m happy to have that connection with him that music has always brought us, happy to hear those echoes in the corners of my heart.