If you’re about to make fun of me for proudly professing my love of the song “Stay Gold” by Stevie Wonder, you certainly wouldn’t be the first. I get very nostalgic about music and what it has meant to me at different times in my life, so it makes sense that this particular song sticks with me. I remember first hearing it play over the opening credits of “The Outsiders” when I was ten years old. I didn’t understand its significance or message at the time, only that it vaguely had something to do with the movie. Many people jokingly say, “Stay gold, Ponyboy” or “Let’s do it for Johnny,” as if those are throwaway joke lines. Please allow me to explain my love for this song and film.
The Greasers, while representing the kids from the wrong side of the tracks, are an extremely tight pack that stick together like family. They revel in their youth and live for the moment. Like most groups of friends, there are different types that serve certain functions. Ponyboy is the sensitive dreamer that tragically lost his parents. Johnny is the quintessential abused and neglected child, nervous and perpetually twitchy from his experiences at home. Dallas is the hard ass that shows no weakness and absolutely takes no shit from anyone. Sodapop is the one that doesn’t quite fit in with the others, the one that might grow up and get out of the neighborhood. Darryl is the older brother that sacrificed becoming a Soc to raise his two younger brothers following the death of their parents. Two-bit is the relentless smart ass and jester that, at the end of the day, cares very deeply about those weaker than him. I can see bits of my childhood friends in these different characters.
The message of the movie can be summed up by the song’s title. Ponyboy is obsessed with Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” thus setting the film’s theme. He is philosophical in his outlook upon life and understands the value of youth with an insight beyond his years and upbringing. He knows that to be young is to be innocent and pure, to view the world through fresh eyes, and that to grow up is to become conditioned and jaded by life. He never wants to lose his childlike wonder, but understands that things will eventually cause him to do so (as the film bears out in the end). While hiding out in an abandoned church following the self-defense murder of an opposing gang member, Johnny dies the ironic death of a hero after his daring rescue of a group of schoolchildren trapped in a fire. Dallas then dies a villain after pointing a gun at police, delirious from grief over losing Johnny. Johnny remains optimistic as he dies, telling Ponyboy to “stay gold.” But Ponyboy has witnessed firsthand how Johnny’s nobility directly caused his death and has suffered yet another unfair loss. No one is saved.
I think about the actors in a movie that is now 32 years old. Patrick Swayze was the King of Awesome, starring in such gems as “Dirty Dancing,” “Roadhouse,” “Point Break,” “Ghost,” and “Donnie Darko”. He was an enormous presence in my experience of movies (which is considerable) and is now deceased from pancreatic cancer. Rob Lowe hawks Direct TV. Emilio Estevez coached the Mighty Ducks. C. Thomas Howell is C-List. Ralph Macchio was the Karate Kid and starred in “My Cousin Vinnie” before falling off the map. Tom Cruise, having played the minor role of Steve Randle, is now the biggest movie star on the planet and the personal reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard’s prolapsed rectum. The group scattered, just like most cliques of young friends. I’m reminded of Richard Dreyfuss’s superb line at the end of “Stand By Me” where he types “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” Fucking brilliant.
I remember sneaking out at night with my brother and Joe, running around the neighborhood and causing trouble. Spending the night at Matt’s and taking Vivarin to avoid sleep while we walked across town at 2:00am, dodging cars and hoping the girl we were going to visit would be awake. Or crashing at Jeff’s and playing pool and Nintendo, having to be extra careful if we wanted to leave because he was the one friend whose house had an alarm. Smoking cigarettes on Harmony’s nature trail with Joe, Matt, and Chris, learning to inhale and knowing that it was so fucking cool. Sneaking alcohol whenever we had the chance. Building tree houses. Playing “Ghost in the Graveyard.” Riding bikes all over town. Making the undeveloped part of Oak Hill Estates our personal playground. Egging houses and knocking on random doors well past midnight, only to hide in the bushes across the street, our veins pumping with adrenaline. Those are all memories I cherish and think of often.
But like all groups of friends we have scattered to the wind. Some to other states, some to wild financial success, some to fall off the map, but we all share our common origins. So when I wax nostalgic over Stevie Wonder’s excellent song I am recalling when all these things were happening. There was no thought of bills or responsibilities, of college or children, of mortgages or promotions, of tragedy and addiction. We were absolutely free and had endless possibilities. We were gold.
The world shapes and conditions us all. Some of us learn to adapt and others don’t. Even if I were to gather my old group of friends in the same room, the dynamics would not be the same. So all I have are my memories and my longing to re-experience those times. There is no going back. The feeling you got when you saw your first love. The excitement of landing your first job. The thrill of running free and knowing that you and your friends would be together forever. These are all solidly in the past. So click below and have a listen, really take in the lyrics, and relive the times you thought would last, the times when you were truly free. Stay gold.