The Line That’s Missing

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(Pictured: Mary Chapin Carpenter onstage in 2018.)

I was so young when I first heard Elton John’s “Your Song” that it was years before I realized the terrible majesty of  “If I was a sculptor / <chuckle> But then again, no.” Bernie Taupin would eventually be famed for poetical inventions that ranged from Dali-esque surrealism to complete gibberish, but even he couldn’t come up with something better in place of that line.

But then again (see what I did there), there’s admirable honesty in admitting you’re beaten and that you need to get the song out the door and onto the album. In her song “Stones in the Road,” Mary Chapin Carpenter sings:

And now we drink our coffee on the run
We climb that ladder rung by rung
We are the daughters and the sons
And here’s the line that’s missing

That kind of thing seems qualitatively different from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” where the lack of a suitable line is actually a suitable line:

Well we got no class
And we got no principals
And we got no innocence
We can’t even think of a word that rhymes

If you know other examples of throwaway lines like these, please share them with the entire class.

On Another Matter: I have not tweeted a lot of worthwhile reading material lately. Maybe it’s a function of the way Twitter is circling the drain, or maybe my attention span is shot. But here are a few things:

Continue reading “The Line That’s Missing”

Thanksgiving at the Ends of the Earth

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I am not going to get anything new written for Thanksgiving, I’m sorry to say. But there’s this, which I wrote 10 years ago this week, and is worth another look.

There was a time when I was willing to pack up and move anywhere for a radio job. As a young jock, I felt I had to be ready to seize opportunities wherever they could be found, and so I wasn’t shy about applying for jobs a long way from my familiar Wisconsin/Iowa stomping grounds: Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina. I never got close to landing any of those, although in late 1983 I wound up in Macomb, Illinois. I can still conjure up the way it felt to be there in those first few months. Even though we were but four hours from where I had grown up, it seemed like we’d gone to the moon. I began describing Macomb as “not the ends of the earth, but you can see them from there.”

At least I wasn’t alone. I had dragged The Mrs. to the middle of nowhere with me. I was lucky in that regard.

Fast-forward about three years. In 1986, we hired a young, single guy to do middays on our AM station in Macomb. Seems to me he had come from somewhere in Michigan, although I wouldn’t swear to it. I wasn’t involved in his hiring (which is another story entirely, and not the one I want to tell today), so I didn’t know much about the guy beyond what I could pick up around the office. And what I picked up mostly was his powerful loneliness. He came to work every day and didn’t say much, did his airshift professionally enough, and then went home to who knows what. Didn’t have a wife, didn’t have a dog. What he did have was a shy, wary look in his eye, and he moved with the slow gait of a man breasting a snowstorm.

His isolation there on the wild Illinois prairie seemed so profound that The Mrs. and I took pity on him. I had to work on Thanksgiving morning and we were staying in town, so we invited him to share our Thanksgiving dinner. It was nothing fancy, turkey roll and gravy out of a jar, and we ate it on our laps in front of the TV watching the Packers play the Lions. (His interest in the game is what makes me think he was from Michigan.)

I can’t tell you that we ended up knowing him better by the end of the afternoon because we didn’t. Neither can I say that he and I remained friendly colleagues long afterward, because I had one foot out the door already and would be gone within a month. I have no idea what became of him. A Google search reveals two or three people with his name. One of them has a Facebook page with pictures that look like a family, and I kind of hope that’s him.

So today’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, unless it’s this: if on this Thanksgiving Day you don’t have to be taken in by strangers who will still be strangers at the end of it. Better to have people to spend it with who know you well, understand how you are, and love you anyway.

This year, we have the good fortune to be spending the day with my parents, who are still living at home at the ages of 89 and 86. (As they understand us, we, too, know them well, understand how they are, and love them anyway.) I am grateful to them for all they made possible, and continue to make possible.  

I am grateful to you as well. That people actually found this website, read it, and continue to do so, and have done so for 18 years, is still kind of gobsmacking to me. (Thank you for understanding how it is and reading it anyway.) Thanks also to those of you who take the time to comment, frequently, occasionally, or somewhere in between. Collectively, we continue to make each other smarter, and in a world as dumb as this one, that’s no small thing. 

Gus Dudgeon Is Dead and I Don’t Feel Too Good Myself

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(Pictured: Britney Spears and Elton John in 2013.) 

Some Britney Spears stans got mad at me the other morning when I tweeted that her hit collaboration with Elton John, “Hold Me Closer,” is the worst record of Elton’s career. “We don’t care about your opinion,” “OK boomer,” that kind of thing. (I don’t recall asking any rando who doesn’t follow me for their opinion, but you know how it goes.)

The trouble with “Hold Me Closer” is not the performances. “Tiny Dancer,” “The One,” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” the songs that are sampled to create the track, are all perfectly fine. Britney’s performance it is what it is, and it doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the production of the record. The guys who produced it are so impressed with themselves that they seem not to have bothered to actually listen to it. Andrew Watt has his head so far up his own ass it’s a wonder the reporter could hear him talk. He and his partner did little more than to loop the words “hold me closer tiny dancer” for three minutes and bury them in a beat. They put across a hook, but in the most primitive manner possible.

(There is an “acoustic version” of the record, which still has too much echo, but at least you can hear the music. Hard to believe the same guys made it.)

Some of Elton John’s 70s records are phenomenally busy, with all kinds of stuff going on in them, but the man who produced them, Gus Dudgeon, never forgot that he was making music. Today, producers everywhere have decided that audio effects—echo, reverb, phase and pitch shifting, auto-tune, etc.—are equivalent in importance to the voice of a singer or the sound of an instrument, which is as sensible as a chef making an entire entree out of condiments. The most egregious example I’ve yet heard is “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals, which is made up almost entirely of audio effects. (I wonder if the people in Glass Animals even like music.)

It’s possible that that the “OK boomer” thing (which was clever for about five minutes two years ago, and anybody who still thinks it’s a sharp retort needs to up their game a lot) is accurate, though. I am a product of the era of big speakers and headphone listening, when producers created expansive soundscapes with the intention that the little things be heard. (At the same time, I was also listening to AM radio which, even with its lesser fidelity, sounded vastly better than much of what we hear now.) Younger listeners don’t know anything but production styles intended for lossy audio formats, cheap earbuds, and the loudness war. They don’t relate to what I hear, or can’t hear.

There’s a story about a radio station that changed from a current-based format to all-80s. The chief engineer was asked how he’d changed the audio processing to make the station sound so much better than it had before. He hadn’t done a thing, however—the station was merely playing music that had been produced with a different aesthetic. Yet even music made in earlier times can be subjected to modern techniques. Recently, I needed a copy of “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes and Jeremiah for my radio show, but the only one I could find was on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. That version has been brickwalled, however, which reduces the magical sound of the original to dynamics-free mush. If I were an artist or a producer who had slaved over the mixing and mastering of my music back in the day, I would consider such treatment of it to be an act of violence.

On Another Matter: On the heels of the news Saturday night that Elon Musk is going to let Donald Fking Trump back on Twitter, I announced that I would be leaving the platform, but I was too hasty. After some communication with followers and some further reading about how others are responding to the Trump return, I have been convinced to stay, and I will, for now. My eventual hope that one of two things will happen: A) that I will be able to build up a list of Instagram follows that provides value similar to my list of Twitter follows; and/or B) Mastodon becomes easier to use. And in any event, this website of mine isn’t going anywhere.

We Are at the Vet

(This post has nothing to do with anything that usually appears here. Just go with it.)

On a November Monday 30 years ago, the morning crew arrived at the radio station, a little pre-fab house in the country, to find a bedraggled cat sitting on the front stoop. It invited itself inside, hopped up on the couch in the reception area, and went to sleep. On Friday of that week, the cat came home with me, and stayed five months shy of 20 years. Sophie wanted nothing more than to spend her days sitting on my lap while I worked on the computer in my office and to spend her nights sleeping at my hip, the purest embodiment of love I have ever known. We had other cats: Abby, our first, who died in 2006, and the sisters Meeka and Maizie, who died in 2019 and this past summer. But Sophie was my favorite, and as we do not intend to have any more cats, she will hold that title for all time. 

During her last couple of years, Sophie went to the vet two or three mornings a week for intravenous fluids to help her failing kidneys. While I sat and waited, I wrote cat haikus, which I posted on Twitter. Most of them were written in 2011 and 2012, the year Sophie passed, although a couple were written several years later, after we’d acquired Maizie and Meeka. 

Cat haiku morning
Working here and there all day
Beer haiku tonight

Cat is at the vet
Time for vet haiku again
Cuz why the hell not

Screw the cat haiku
Cat got up at 3:30
I need sleep haiku

At the vet today
Wearing my thrift store denim
Yes, they are used pants

The cat got to ride
In the new car to the vet
She was not impressed

At the vet again
Might as well pass the time by
Writing vet haiku

Two cats at the vet
First one cat, then the other
Then I have a beer

Cat is at the vet
Didn’t win Mega Millions
How to pay the bill?

Here’s my PIN number
Just take whatever it costs
Call me when I’m broke

We are at the vet
The cat is quite unhappy
“They’re gonna do WHAT?!”

Cat haiku today
Is made up entirely
Of obscenities

We are at the vet
They named a wing after us
Back two cat$ ago

We are at the vet
The cat protesteth loudly
As if I give a

Cat is at the vet
Yada yada yada ya
Da yada yada

We are at the vet
Animal tranquilizers?
Shoot me up with some

We are at the vet
Where do you suppose they keep
The really big drugs?

We are at the vet
Sleet and rain will not deter
Nor lethargy stop

Cat is at the vet
Yup, we’re at the vet again
Where else would we be?

Cat is at the vet
Cat is always at the vet
How’d we get so old?

Cat is at the vet
Cat is always at the vet
Owner in same rut

On this fine spring day
We experience the new
Except at the vet

Morning at the vet
The cat is brown, white, and gray
Owner is just gray

At the vet again
Poetic inspiration
Is hard to come by

Cat is at the vet
Owner extremely grumpy
You finish the poem

We were at the vet
We did not feel like writing
Find your own damn poem

Two cats, two vet trips
Write vet one really big check
Then go drink two beers

Cat is at the vet
She is going to outlive me
Which is just fine, thanks

Cat is at the vet
She just might live forever
I hope that I don’t

At the vet again
Elderly cat is fading
Owner fading too

One last cat haiku
Sophie has left the planet
But never our hearts

Picking the Hits

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One reason I got into radio was to play the music I liked to listen to, but I quickly learned that musical fandom or expertise doesn’t matter very much. Radio is the thing you’re into, not merely music. Your job is the presentation: executing the format and providing value to your audience, and to advertisers who are paying to reach them. It can’t hurt to be a fan or an expert, but it’s not necessary unless you’re doing a specialty show of some kind. A radio jock can do just fine most of the time without an especially deep understanding of the music they’re playing, especially in a world where Google exists. I play Ed Sheeran on my show literally every day while being not remotely interested in him, yet when I talk about him, you can’t tell. I did country radio for a long time, and it was the same way: fake it ’til you make it. A person who works for a rhythmic CHR station can quite easily be someone who listens to Americana driving home. Some DJs don’t even like music all that much.

I am convinced that the number of radio jocks who would pick their own music every day if they could is vanishingly small. It’s not our job. I don’t want to pick it on weekdays because I need to concentrate on my presentation. I pick only a few on my weekend speciaty show and let the scheduling software do the rest because I want to concentrate on my presentation.

Any given radio station, especially in a small or medium-sized market, may not be creatively involved in selecting what songs to play and how often to play them. Back in the day, stations would make playlist decisions based on national charts such as those compiled by Radio and Records, which meant they were following the lead of larger and more influential stations. Today, the same stations might rely on airplay data from Mediabase—still following the lead of other stations. While stations may fiddle at the margins with individual titles in their “gold” libraries, the older songs they continue to play, most will be pretty conservative, playing the same hits from the past that similar stations are continuing to play. There are exceptions: stations with adventuresome music programming philosophies, those who can still afford to pay for local music research, or those trying to differentiate themselves from close competitors in the same format. But when margins are so thin—when, in a rated market, one-tenth of a share point can translate to thousands of dollars in advertising revenue—Rule Number One is frequently Safety First.

Some individual jocks do pick their own music. So-called “free-form” radio, programmed by the person on the air, still exists in a few places, although those places tend to be listener-supported stations or subscription-based satellite radio. But even when free-form was practiced by commercial stations that had to attract and satisfy advertisers, it usually wasn’t a free-for-all. Jocks often had limits; for example, they might be told that they had to play cuts from certain currently popular albums, and they might even have been limited to specific cuts from those albums.

Certain free-form jocks developed a following. You’d listen to them and think, This guy’s taste is just like mine. But it was actually a neat trick. “This guy’s taste” had to reflect the taste of lots of different kinds of people, to bring as many people as possible into the tent and keep them there. And so even on a free-form show, there was always architecture in place behind the scenes that conformed to a philosophy and was meant to achieve a goal. Also behind the scenes was frequently a lot of work in advance. A free-form music show, like any other radio show, succeeds to the extent that the person hosting it has prepared for it before they begin. You can’t just walk into the studio and say, What do I feel like playing tonight? 

TL, DR: Programming music on the radio is not the job lots of people think it is. It’s both harder and easier than it seems.

This post was supposed to go up on Friday but I decided it needed a little more editing that I wouldn’t have time for. I am not convinced it isn’t still fundamentally flawed in some way. Radio jocks, ex-jocks, and interested bystanders, I welcome your comments.

November 9, 1997: Something for the People

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(Pictured: Leann Rimes performs in 1997.)

November 9, 1997, was a Sunday. It is cold and/or wet over much of the northern half of the United States today, although the southeast and southwest are sunny. Headlines on the morning newspapers include President Clinton’s address at a dinner hosted by the Human Rights Campaign honoring Ellen DeGeneres. It’s big news for a president to speak to the nation’s largest gay and lesbian group, but Clinton does not follow Vice-President Gore’s lead in praising the newly-out DeGeneres for getting Americans to “look at sexual orientation in a more open light.” Press Secretary Mike McCurry says, “That’s not an area he [Clinton] wants to particularly highlight.” The Sunday newspapers also preview the trial of accused Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, whose trial will begin this week. Today, Clinton speaks with Tim Russert on the 50th anniversary broadcast of Meet the Press. Also today, Hurricane Rick strikes southwestern Mexico; it’s the second hurricane to hit the region in a month, following the more powerful Hurricane Pauline.

Many Wisconsin football fans are hung over. The Badgers beat Iowa 13-10 yesterday, Wisconsin’s first win over the Hawkeyes since 1976. Today, the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers beat the St. Louis Rams 17-7; the 8-and-2 Packers are tied for first in the NFC Central Division with the Minnesota Vikings, who beat the last-place Chicago Bears 29-22. The Indianapolis Colts drop to 0-and-10 after losing to the similarly wobegone Cincinnati Bengals; the Colts will get their first win of the season next week—over Green Bay.

At Office Max, you can get an IBM Aptiva or Compaq multimedia computer for $999, monitor not included. Each has a 2.1 gigabyte hard drive and 16MB of RAM. Each comes with a fax modem and runs Windows 95. If you need a new car, Ahrens Cadillac Oldsmobile in Madison, Wisconsin, will put you behind the wheel of a new 1998 Cutlass for $18,900.

The top movie at the box office is the sci-fi adventure Starship Troopers, which easily outdistances the rest of the competition on its first weekend. On TV tonight, CBS has the two highest-rated shows, 60 Minutes and  Touched by An Angel, which are followed by Ken Follett’s The Third Twin, the first part of a two-part TV movie. Fox comes in second for the night with King of the Hill, The Simpsons, and The X-Files. ABC has two movies back to back: Angels in the Endzone and Into Thin Air: Death on Everest. NBC primetime includes Dateline NBC, the sitcom Men Behaving Badly, and the 1995 theatrical movie Outbreak.

On the Billboard Hot 100, the top seven songs hold their positions from the previous week: Elton John’s double-sided “Candle in the Wind 1997” and “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” is #1 for a fifth straight week. (It will stay in the #1 spot for nine more weeks, until mid-January.) Elton is followed in order by “You Make Me Wanna” by Usher, “How Do I Live” by 15-year-old country star Leann Rimes, “Four Seasons of Loneliness” by Boyz II Men, “All Cried Out” by Allure Featuring 112, “My Love Is the Shhh!” by Somethin’ for the People Featuring Trina and Tamara, and the double-sided “You Were Meant for Me” and “Foolish Games” by Jewel. The biggest mover in the Top 40 is “Feel So Good” by Mase, up from #29 to #14; the highest debut is “Spice Up Your Life” by the Spice Girls, in its first week on the Hot 100 at #32. Number one on the Billboard 200 album chart is The Firm: the Album by the hip-hop group The Firm. The top song on the country chart is “Love Gets Me Every Time” by Shania Twain. “How Do I Live” is in its 10th straight week at #1 on Billboard‘s adult-contemporary chart.

Perspective From the Present: I took a publishing job in Iowa City during the summer of 1997, and we lived in a four-plex in a small town nearby. One neighbor did a lot of hunting and fishing, seemingly to feed his family; we were periodically graced with the sight of animals and fish being dressed out on the patio deck adjacent to ours. Our landlords were an ineffectual woman and her belligerent husband, whom we eventually nicknamed “Dumb and Dumber.” They were the last landlords we ever had to deal with; we would buy our first house, in Iowa City, a year later.

This post is by reader request. If there’s a date you’d like to read about, send me an private message (and some advance warning). I’ll be happy to have the assignment.