When I heard that Donna Summer died yesterday, I was sadder than I should have been. Sadder by a mile than at any other recent celebrity death. I do not currently own any Donna Summer music, never saw her perform, and haven’t even really heard her name in years. But when I started reading the stories and seeing the discography, it made sense: She was the soundtrack of my teenage life. There were no iPods then, not even Walkmen. We all listened to the same thing, and on the radio.
When disco started in the mid-70s, there was a dividing line drawn through my group of friends, between those who scorned the synth dance music and those who loved it beyond reason. I was on the side of love. Guys I knew would drive to New York to get the latest vinyl. Saturday nights were reserved for Disco Vinnie Peruzzi, who DJ’d on WEZE AM—an EZ listening station all the rest of the time–before moving to Kiss 108, which exists solely because of the popularity of disco. The drinking age was 18 then, so going to clubs was what we did. The Mad Hatter in Southie (the HATTAH! Wednesdays were Drink n’ Drown night, ooooooooooooh), Uncle Sam’s at Nantasket Beach (I remember the night all of the 8-tracks were stolen out of my boyfriend’s car), Boston Boston on Lansdowne Street (when you wanted to get dressed up). We danced. And lots of the songs we danced to were by Donna Summer.
She was not the only one of course. Her passing has made me think of music by The Trammps, Tavares, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Dr. Buzzard and the Original Savannah Band, Chic, and so many more. But Donna Summer was, as most tributes to her have noted, the Queen of Disco. It is such a cliché, but at my wedding reception, I insisted that Last Dance be the last song played, and I made all my friends dance with us. So much joy.
What I am feeling then, I think, is not sadness so much as nostalgia. A term made up of two Greek roots (nostos = returning home, and algos = pain/longing), nostalgia is defined as a “sentimental recollection, a mixed feeling of happiness, sadness, and longing when recalling a person, place, or event from the past, or the past in general.” Listening to Donna Summer’s music again, I am smiling when remembering a time in my life that for decades I thought of either deliberately-not-at-all or with pain. Her passing, rather than taking some of my younger days, has given some of them back. And this time, I know it’s for real.