Friday Evening Videos: “I Can’t Hold Back”

Where are we going tonight, Mr. Peabody?

Three decades into the past, Sherman, to the year 1984… my sophomore year of high school. There, that’s me, now… the kid by the Coke machine who’s trying to look far more self-assured than he ever actually felt. At least the baby fat is finally starting to come off, thank God, so I no longer look like such a marshmallow.

That’s what she called me once, on the bus coming home from middle school, an eon or so earlier… her “little marshmallow.” In my naivete, I had thought it was cute back then, a term of endearment, but more and more in the autumn of 1984, I’m realizing that it wasn’t meant as benignly as I’d taken it. Marshmallow… soft and white. Yeah, that was me. Or at least it had been. But now things are changing. I am changing. And one of these days, soon, I’m going to figure out how to make her notice me. How to make her like me. I mean like-like me, not just, you know…

Yeah. Good luck with that, kid.

I had just turned fifteen in the fall of 1984, the beginning of my sophomore year, and if I wasn’t the youngest person in my class, I was definitely near the low end of the spectrum. And I had a terrible crush on an older woman. She was a junior, a girl from the neighborhood that I’d known since the seventh grade. But despite our history and our proximity, we may as well have been living on different planets. She had her driver’s license and a car. She went on dates. She had boyfriends. And I was just some lame pudgy kid she’d once teased on the school bus on the way home. But I had my hopes. After all, I’d seen all those movies. I knew how this was all supposed to go: My efforts to impress her would seem to go nowhere, but in the end I would finally win her over after some other guy had treated her like shit, and we’d have this great uplifting moment when she asks me to forgive her and I’d tell her there’s nothing to forgive, and we’d kiss and fade to black… (Pretty in Pink hadn’t come out yet to contradict my romantic fantasies; to this day, I still think Molly Ringwald totally picked the wrong guy. Infuriating damn movie.)

Anyhow, not only could I imagine that triumphant final scene in all its cinematic detail, I even had the perfect song in mind to play over the closing credits (so to speak): “I Can’t Hold Back” by Survivor.

Originally formed in 1978, the band Survivor finally scored a tremendous breakthrough hit in 1982 with “Eye of the Tiger,” the theme song from the film Rocky III (although the version we’re all familiar with from constant radio play — still! — is actually somewhat different from the one used in the movie). The following year, however, the band’s lead singer Dave Bickler was forced to leave the group because of health issues.  He was replaced with a gentleman named Jimi Jamison, who would deliver three more top-ten hits for Survivor throughout the rest of the decade.

“I Can’t Hold Back” wasn’t one of them — it peaked at only number 13 on the Billboard Top 100 — but it remains my favorite Survivor song, in no small part because of Jamison’s performance. His voice is remarkable in the world of rock vocalists for the way it so smoothly conveys such a range of emotion — longing, uncertainty, passion, and in the end, confidence and joy — in short, everything I was feeling from moment to moment during my sophomore year of high school. In addition, the song’s lyrics feature some surprisingly poetic turns of phrase, and even though the synths give it a far more poppy sound than the bombastic “Eye of the Tiger,” it’s still unquestionably a rock song. (The reprise of the line “Turn the pages of desire” followed by the guitar snarl and drum punctuation at about 2:41 — the moment in the video when Jimi starts making out with the starlet on the train — never fails to make me want to pump my fist in the air.)

I had the song on 45 rpm record, and I recall playing it over and over in my room late at night all through my sophomore year of high school, as I gazed out my window at the night sky and longed and dreamed. I still love this song, even 30 years later. So naturally it was the first thing that came to mind when I heard a couple weeks ago that Jimi Jamison had died of a heart attack at the age of 63. In recent years, he’d been performing off and on with Survivor as well as pursuing solo projects, and there had been some talk of the band touring with both Jamison and Dave Bickler alternating lead on their respective hits. There was even some rumbling about a new album. I regret that those things won’t happen now, and that I never got to hear him sing live.

As for that girl that I had such a case on, the junior who’d once called me her marshmallow… I didn’t even get as far with her as Ducky got with Andie. I did find the courage to ask her for a slow dance at one overcrowded, sweaty, midwinter stomp, but that was the extent of it. I eventually got the message and stopped embarrassing myself… and her as well, probably. I’ve bumped into her a couple times in the years since. And I don’t intend to sound unkind, because I know that it’s me that’s changed and not her so much… but I no longer see what the big damn attraction was in the first place…