Kari, my first college girlfriend, had Upstairs at Eric’s on cassette. We caught each other’s eye during freshman orientation, and I remember pointing her out to John in the crowd. I lamented afterwards that I wasn’t able to find her to talk with her after the assembly, and John matter-of-factly informed me that on a campus of 15,000 I was bound to run into her again. Sure enough, crossing campus one night soon thereafter with my newly found group of friends, we passed her. Even more amazing, I learned that our new friend Jennifer knew Kari because they were both in the vocal program.
Kari went to a high school and school district with the same name as mine, but that was located in Northwestern Ohio, which always amazed me (perhaps the first hint that my world wasn’t quite as unique as I had previously thought). She had done some modeling in high school, and although she looked every bit the punk when we dated – dyed hair, dark makeup, black wardrobe, piercings – her striking beauty still shone through with an exotic hint. She’s the girlfriend who pierced my cartilage the night of the Bizarre Love Triangle.
I went to Kari’s parent’s house once while we were dating. I remember her hometown seeming every bit as rural as mine (perhaps more so), but I don’t remember if I spent the night or not. Her parents’ house was close enough to Bowling Green that it’s possible we just went there one weekend afternoon. I do know I brought her home to my parents’ house one long weekend while we were dating. I introduced her to my high school punk friends and took her to Thursday’s.
Much like the intertwined relationships of college and young adulthood, there was a certain incestuous nature to the alternative bands of the ’80s. The tangling of rosters was always fascinating to me: The Cure’s Robert Smith playing with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Electronic’s Pet Shop Boys/New Order/Smiths lineup, the Mission UK/Sisters of Mercy connections, and on and on. And then there’s Vince Clarke...
Clarke helped found Depeche Mode and contributed three hits to their Speak & Spell debut, “Dreaming of Me”, “New Life”, and “Just Can’t Get Enough”, then left the band. He hooked up with Alison Moyet and produced two albums in the same number of years under the Yaz banner (Yazoo in the UK). Before teaming up with Andy Bell to form Erasure – his longest lasting musical partnership – in 1985, there was a detour as The Assembly (producing the Feargal Sharkey fronted single “Never Never”).
If there is a godfather of ’80s college alternative synth, it’s Clarke. But among the considerable body of Clarke’s work (or the entire genre of synthpop, for that matter), it was never more organic than Yaz’s output. 1982’s Upstairs at Eric’s has a surprising warmth to it, owed in no small part to Moyet’s vocals. Even in the late ’80s, it still felt fresh and connected with us on so many levels.
My relationship with Kari imploded spectacularly before the first semester ended. It was entirely my fault, and I don’t know that we ever made it back to being anything more than the fringes of civil in each other’s presence for the remainder of my time on campus. But there were so many nights we spent on the deck of the campus library seeping well into the early morning hours where we poured our hearts out to each other, living the drama that only a college-aged couple can. The chiming ballad of “Only You”, though, remains one of my favorite songs of the era. It’s when wrapped in that aural warmth that I can close my eyes and still see Kari’s face from all those years ago, and remember how fortunate I was to have known her.
On a musically related sidenote, possibly the only synthpop act to come close to matching the lushness of Yaz was the (equally) criminally short-lived early 2000s Akron band, 20goto10. Classically trained vocalist Sara Eugene’s pipes were every bit as haunting and full as anything Moyet has done.