School bus songs: Reunited and it feels so good

By SCOTT SAALMAN
Guest Columnist

As always, music is the shelter from the storm.
– Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone

My musical innocence was lost in the back of the school bus once I learned what “Afternoon Delight” was actually about.

“Rubbing sticks and stones together / makes the sparks ignite.”

“Skyrockets in flight.”

Yes, that song.

It was a one-hit wonder fueled by four-part harmony and double-entendre, one of the biggest-selling songs during our country’s bicentennial.

I was 11 when Starland Vocal Band topped the charts with “Afternoon Delight.” It was among my coveted collection of 45 rpm singles. The catchy tune made countless rotations in my bedroom. I sang every word, but I was clueless. I didn’t know double entendre from double-dipped ice cream.

I merely thought the man in the song went home at noon, and his wife surprised him with a spectacular lunch.

I blame this naivety on one word: nibbling.

As in “…but you’ve got some bait a-waitin’ / and I think I might / try nibbling a little / afternoon delight…”

Nibbling. As in food. I mean what else would a person want to nibble, if not, say, some decadent noon-time dessert?

My “afternoon delight” was eating the entire contents of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch straight from the box. Or gorging on Hostess Ding Dongs which were, back then, individually factory-wrapped in aluminum foil. Today’s plastic-encased Ding Dongs pale in comparison to the foil-wrapped version, never mind the jolt a ‘70s chewer might’ve experienced when an unseen shard of foil touched a tooth’s metal filling (the house lights flickered, but strangely, the TV reception improved).  

Skyrockets in flight—indeed!

The AM radio kept “Afternoon Delight” alive. On the school bus, I heard it in the morning going to school and in the afternoon heading home. From my middle row, the cause of the snickering from the older kids in back was lost on me.

Eventually, I aged my way to the back and came to understand “Afternoon Delight.” The school-bus-rear-row-birds-and-bees’ primer came as a shock. I began to question other songs, especially those with “nibbling” lyrics. In “Margaritaville,” when Jimmy Buffett sang “Nibbling on sponge cake,” did he really mean sponge cake? What next? “Little Red Corvette” isn’t really a car song?

Here during the Great Global Pause, School Bus Songs are my Comfort Songs, music that delivers a carefree childhood, when life was one coronavirus-free long-play K-tel album. I recently hit the motherlode of School Bus Songs via a Spotify playlist, called 70s AM Gold. These all-but-forgotten songs provide comfort in discomforting times as I take solo, social-distancing walkabouts throughout my hunkered-down neighborhood.

Reunited, and it feels so good.

It’s still enjoyable to hear Bee Gees baby brother Andy Gibb shadow dance. Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is still the best murder mystery in music. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” sings Bertie Higgins, and I return to Key Largo with “Bogie and Bacall.” It’s still fun to wind my “way down on Baker Street” with Gerry Rafferty, “Steal Away” with Robbie Dupree, and “Escape” with Rupert Holmes (especially now that Pina Coladas are legal).

When Stephen Bishop “puts on Sinatra and starts to cry” and Henry Gross tells us his lost dog “Shannon” is “drifting out to sea,” and Olivia Newton John pleads not to “play B-17,” my heart grows as heavy as the heart of that boy on the bus. And rehearing Ace, I realize I still don’t know the answer to “how long has this been going on?”

“Brandy” remains a “fine girl.” Apparently, she’s still not over the whiskey-soaked sailor who chooses the sea over her love. “Moonlight Feels Right” still feels right, and it’s still fun to be “Dancing in the Moonlight” with King Harvest. When Neil Diamond sings “Forever in Blue Jeans” I catch myself singing “Never in Blue Jeans,” since I haven’t worn anything but sweat pants and PJ bottoms for weeks, staying true to work-from-home protocol. And, yes, my mama still “loves me like a rock.”

“Sir Duke” puts spring into my step as Stevie Wonder reminds, “Music knows it is and always will / be one of the things that life just won't quit.”

My most-played Comfort Song during the pandemic is The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” It was released in 1965, well before my school bus years. Sadly, my introduction to its earwormy saccharine was Shaun Cassidy’s lame 1978 cover. Blessedly, that School Bus Song version did lead me to the original.

At two minutes and six seconds, “Do You Believe in Magic?” is arguably the happiest song ever recorded. It’s about the power of song, how music is the magic balm that soothes us, pulls us together, pushes us onward. No matter how down COVID-19 takes me (the body count, not knowing when I’ll see my wife again, the surrealism of a face-masked society, the idiotic conspiracy theories) and no matter how stifling, scary, serious, and abnormal life has become, this ‘60s song refills me with childhood wonder, joy, carefreeness and freedom—even more so now. If only for a couple minutes (there’s always replay).  

The song reminds “how the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me.” Walking with the sun at my back, I step into my shadow-self, and like my old school bus, the song takes me safely home. All is not lost. Music is magic. I believe.

Contact Scott Saalman at scottsaalman@gmail.com




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