Context Gets Lost

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(Pictured: Robert Klein, in an acting role on Love American Style, 1973.)

It’s time again to plunder my drafts file for fragments that never added up to a full post.

If you read the history of modern stand-up comedy, you’ll notice how many major stars, up to Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld, mention Robert Klein as an influence. His most famous of several albums is Child of the 50s, which came out in 1973. Comedy does not always translate over time. Styles change, context gets lost, new comics shift the paradigm of what’s funny. But Child of the 50s is still consistently hilarious 45 years after its original release. Although Klein’s growing-up stories are set in a faraway time and for many of us, a faraway place—the Bronx—they’re still relatable, because we all dealt with school discipline, subtitute teachers, and lunch ladies. We all watched TV shows that annoyed us, listened to the radio, dealt with surly retail clerks, and tried to get a date. The reference points have changed, but the experiences remain universal.

You can hear all of Child of the 50s here. It’s observational like Seinfeld and absurdist like Martin, but at the same time firmly in the stand-up mainstream of the early 1970s. Klein’s act wasn’t so foreign that a network variety show couldn’t book him.

On the subjects of television and of lost context, there’s this:  

The CBS reboot of Murphy Brown was big news at our house because we loved the original series. But boy is the new Murphy not good. At its best, the original series delivered uprorariously funny takes ripped from the headlines; the reboot just can’t. The show’s attempts to mock and/or parody Trump, Republicans, and conservative media come off either too broad or just toothless. Yes, our current reality is hard to satirize. But the new Murphy Brown is positively wheezing; you can almost see the cast worrying that it just ain’t funny.

It seems obvious that Murphy Brown‘s audience will be people who watched the show 25 years ago, but the producers, and possibly CBS too, are reluctant to accept it. In fact, the single best joke in the entire reboot so far was ruined because of that reluctance. Tyne Daly, who plays the crusty owner of Phil’s, the bar where Murphy and her colleagues hang out, delivers a speech about her toughness that ends with “I spent 20 years in one of the toughest divisions of the NYPD.” The audience in the studio—and in the living room at our house—laughs uproariously at the cleverness of the callback to Daly’s role as a detective on Cagney and Lacey. Instead of leaving well-enough alone, however, the writers add the line, “Parking enforcement.” Which turns a funny bit of fan service into a lame joke that could have been on Sgt. Bilko 60 years ago.

And finally: last summer, somebody tweeted a record chart from 1974 and asked, “Worst year ever?” This bit was a response that never went anywhere.

When the list of #1 hits includes “The Streak,” “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “Annie’s Song,” “The Night Chicago Died,” and “You’re Having My Baby,” all of which topped the Hot 100 between Memorial Day and Labor Day 1974, it makes you wonder. American taste had gotten mushy during that Watergate year. It would take somebody smarter than me to explain what happened between the spring of 1973 and the summer of 1974 to make this happen to the Top 40. Soul music was turning to disco, novelty records and earworms with the artistic depth of commercial jingles were becoming massive hits, and straight-up rock ‘n’ roll was scarce. Maybe the news from Washington was so bad that we thought silly, non-threatening music could take our minds off of it.

I was about to say that if that last bit had been true in 1974, we’d be up to our ears in silly, non-threatening music in 2018. But a recent piece at Pitchfork argues that today’s hits actually reflect our morose times and our uncertain future pretty well. But those reflections are far more passive than those of two generations ago. In a world of streaming, shuffling, and skipping, music doesn’t get in our faces like it used to. Neither do the people who make it. Their main job, and the job of their music, is simply to be there when we turn it on.  

Please tune in again next time for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, or whatever the hell this is. 

Who’s Walking Through That Door?

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(Pictured: Fleetwood Mac, 2018, with Mike Campbell at center in the hat and Neil Finn on the right.)

The Mrs. and I still talk about the night we went to an outdoor show starring, among others, the Drifters, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Temptations. This was in the late 80s, so these were not the original editions of the groups. If I’m recalling correctly, there were several touring groups calling themselves the Drifters back then, and links of each to the original Drifters were fairly tenuous. Paul Revere was still leading the Raiders, although Mark Lindsay and Freddy Weller (who sang lead on “Indian Reservation”) were long gone. (Whoops: see below.) The Temptations were the closest to the real thing—Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin were still in the group then, as was Richard Street, who had joined the Temps in 1971 but who had sung with Williams and Franklin in the Distants as far back as 1959. We didn’t really care about the details, though. We had a marvelous time with several other couples. How much we paid to get in, I don’t remember. Maybe five bucks per person, tops? Whatever it was, it seemed fair to us 30 years ago.

Tonight, a show called The Music of Cream hits my town, Madison. It features Kofi Baker (son of Ginger), Malcolm Bruce (son of Jack) and Will Johns (nephew of Eric Clapton and son of producer/engineer Andy). The original Cream last played together in 2005. Since then, Jack Bruce has died (in 2014) and Ginger Baker’s health has declined. He’s 79, and Eric Clapton is 73. Cream isn’t walking through that door, but The Music of Cream is. Tickets start at $25—fair enough for what, despite the family connections, is a tribute band. The original Cream reportedly turned down a lot of money for a tour in 2005. Today, were it possible, how much would a show with Ginger Baker, Clapton, and Malcolm Bruce command per ticket? Never mind that’s it’s two-thirds of the original band and they’re 50 years older. Would people be asked to pay $100? $150?

In the early days of the Beatles, Ringo Starr famously said that he expected to open a couple of hairdressing shops after the Beatles petered out. He could not foresee the way no band beloved by baby boomers ever has to die. The Drifters, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Temptations never did, and even in 2018 they still haven’t.

But should they?

Days after Glenn Frey passed in 2016, Don Henley announced that the Eagles were done, but his accountants apparently talked him out of it, and now the band goes on with Frey’s son in his father’s place and country star/former Pure Prairie League member Vince Gill along for the ride. Shortly after Walter Becker’s death a couple of years ago, his family sued Donald Fagen to keep him from going on the road as Steely Dan, but Steely Dan went on a lucrative tour with the Doobie Brothers this summer, and they’re playing dates in the UK with Steve Winwood next year.

And then there’s Fleetwood Mac, which fired Lindsey Buckingham, an integral part of the group for over 40 years, and hired a guy from Crowded House and one of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers to take his place. It’s one thing for a middle-tier band to hire new guys and keep playing county fairs and casinos, like the Little River Band, which has one guy left from its heyday (and he joined in 1980, closer to the end of the band’s chart run than to the beginning). But it seems different to me when a top-drawer superstar act does it and still commands big coin for a ticket. If you paid between $69.50 and $229.50 to see Fleetwood Mac in Milwaukee last month, what did you get? Fleetwood Mac without Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac doing “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Free Fallin'”, Fleetwood Mac doing “Go Your Own Way” without the guy who sang and played lead on it—isn’t that essentially a tribute band? Is “Take It Easy” sung by Deacon Frey or “Lyin’ Eyes” sung by Vince Gill really by the Eagles, or is it something else?

In true-blue late-capitalism fashion, the marketplace decides. If people are willing to pay the freight, the show goes on. But where does it end? In this climate, what’s keeping Paul and Ringo from calling up Dhani Harrison and Julian Lennon and hitting the road as the Beatles?

Not a damn thing, actually.

Still Havin’ Fun

Every year around this time I hear “Still the One” by Orleans and wherever I am, I’m not there anymore. I’m gone to a different autumn, the one in 1976.

“Still the One” first shows up at ARSA on a survey from WAVZ in New Haven, Connecticut, dated July 18, 1976. A day later, KCBQ in San Diego charted it, and stations across the country added it steadily after that. It first cracked a local Top 10 on August 9, hitting #8 at KCPX in Salt Lake City. On the Hot 100, “Still the One” debuted on July 31, all the way up at #69. It went to #51 the next week and into the Top 40 at #38 on August 14. After a nice jump to #27 on August 21, it slow-cooked the rest of the way up: 22-20-18-16-13-10-7-6-5, reaching its peak on October 23. The song recorded its first local #1 at WAVZ on October 3. It also hit #1 in some smaller cities: Waterbury, Connecticut; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Springfield, Illinois. It made #2 at KHJ in Los Angeles and at WISM in Madison. In Chicago, WLS charted it as high as #6. As October turned to November, “Still the One” started on its way out of the Hot 100, falling from #5 to #26 for the week of October 30. It was gone from the Top 40 the week after that, November 6. The last of its 18 weeks on the Hot 100 was November 27. While “Still the One” ran the charts, Orleans was on the road opening for Jackson Browne, and their album Waking and Dreaming went to #33 in Billboard.

When it came time for stations around the country to chart the top hits of 1976, “Still the One”‘s highest placing was at KCBQ, where it ranked #3 for the year, behind Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee. The only other station at ARSA to show it in the year’s Top 10 is WDRC in Hartford, at #8. At WAVZ, where it first hit and spent two weeks at #1, it ranked #15 for the year. WLS had it at #73; On American Top 40‘s year-end countdown, it ranked #82.

In 1977, “Still the One” stayed in the public eye and ear when ABC adopted it as the promotional theme for its new fall season, even giving its Muzak-y, Johnny Mann Singers-style version a full-length video treatment. The song was a fitting choice given that ABC was the top-rated TV network at the time. “Still the One” returned as ABC’s fall theme in 1979, with a series of promos featuring network stars riding in hot-air balloons.

In 2007, I met Larry Hoppen, who was one of three Hoppen brothers to play in Orleans. He was with an outfit called the Rock and Pop Masters, which toured the country presenting a smorgasbord of 60s, 70s, and 80s stars. (On that day, they ranged from Robbie “Steal Away” Dupree to Joe Bouchard from Blue Oyster Cult.) I asked Larry if they thought, when they formed the band in 1972, that they’d still be in it 35 years later. He said they did not, but that when “Still the One” became such a big hit, it gave them enough momentum (and sufficient royalties, no doubt) to stay with it. He said of himself and his brothers, “Our parents played music all their lives, to age 75 and 81, and we’ll probably do the same thing.” Larry Hoppen did indeed play music all his life, but he died in 2012 at the age of 61.

Even after it dropped out of current playlists and was no longer getting a boost from ABC, “Still the One” never went away. That sound—gently rockin’ guitar with just the right amount of riffage, the distinctive harmonies of the Hoppen brothers, and easy to sing along with—was as squarely in the pocket for 70s Top 40 radio as anything ever was. But it has a timeless quality, too. Forty-two years later, you still hear it on the radio now and then.

Art Goes to War

With the centennial of Armistice Day coming this weekend, here’s something off-topic.

The picture was taken 100 years ago. The young man in the military uniform regards the camera with a unsmiling gaze meant to express determination. It is a look I don’t remember seeing. Years hence, he will almost always look at his grandsons with a kindly twinkle. The determination is there because Arthur E. Bartelt of Winslow, Illinois, age 20, is going off to lick the Kaiser.

We don’t know how Art came to be in that uniform. As America’s involvement in the Great War intensified, he would have been required to register for the draft in either August or September 1918. This third registration was the first to include men under the age of 21, but it’s likely he had already volunteered by then. I never thought to ask him, and my grandmother, whom he would not meet until the 1920s, wasn’t able to remember. It is likely that he had completed his stateside training and was set to go to Europe when the Armistice intervened, because below his picture in the photo frame hangs a medal that belonged to him, inscribed with the words “welcome home.” So he received his welcome even though he never left.

Grandpa Art changed the spelling of his last name from Bartelt to Bartlett sometime in the 1920s. (We don’t know the why of this either. It may have been to reflect the way people in northern Illinois pronounced the name. A better story I’ve also heard is that he changed it to spite his father, my great-grandfather, with whom he didn’t get along.) He has been gone since 1986. I have a million questions I wish I had asked him, and not just about his military service or his father. I suspect that his military records were among those destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Eighty percent of the Army’s records of personnel who served between 1912 and 1960 were lost.

The jacket Art wears in the picture was eventually handed down to my brother, who wore it out during his college days in the early 80s. (I still have the pants, somewhere.) Although I have pictures of Art in a suit, I always think of him in bib overalls, with a chambray work shirt underneath and the engineer-style cap he always wore on his head. The only variations came in the summer, when it was really hot. He would shuck the chambray shirt and work in bibs alone, and he sometimes broke out a safari hat with a wide brim to keep off the sun.

Art farmed every day of his life until he was in his mid-80s, and he put far younger men to shame. When we were in high school, my brother had a friend who, whenever he needed $10, would come over on a summer day and unload hay wagons for a few hours, often alongside Grandpa Art. On one especially hot afternoon, my brother’s friend came into the kitchen, grabbed a soda from the fridge, threw himself down at the table, and exclaimed, “That old man’s incredible.”

One day, two or three years after his health had made it impossible for him to work as he used to, Art decided to get the ladder, climb up the side of his house, and clean the gutters. He had a heart attack, fell off, and died at age 88. Sad, yes, but during the last half-hour of his life he felt useful and was almost certainly happy, and we should all be so fortunate as to go out that way.

Grandpa Art and Grandma Vera, so stoop-shouldered she was nearly bent double, lived on the other end of our farm, in a house that my brother and his family occupy now. They were fixtures in our lives. When we were little, we’d see one or the other, or both, almost every day. While they were incredibly kind to my brothers and me, my sense is that they were not nearly so kind to my father, their only son. I wasn’t old enough to understand what went on when it was happening. Now that I’m older, it’s a subject I haven’t pursued. I’d rather remember them the way I do.

Other Duties As Assigned

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I am not actively looking for a full-time radio job, but if I see a job listing that intrigues me, I’ll make the appropriate inquiries. I saw one a few weeks ago for an operations manager gig in a small market. The initial posting made the job sound like the kind of thing a radio veteran such as I might be well-suited for, so I responded to the e-mail address and asked them to send the job description. It follows here, edited to eliminate any potential identifying information. Square brackets are my annotations, parentheses are in the original.

Hosting mornings 6AM-noon Monday thru Saturday [on one station, voice-tracked] plus other fill-ins as needed on [other station in the group] plus remotes and public appearances, including walking in and attending parades

Office hours of 8:30AM-5PM (with some time set aside to voice Monday morning news on Sunday night; no in-studio visit or time required)

News for [other station in the group] at 6AM, 7AM, 8AM, noon, 4PM, and 5PM Monday thru Friday (approximately three stories each with actualities)

Serve as production director for [both stations]

Creative writing and production submission to voice talent

Commercial production and client coaching

Imaging for [one station] and some for [other station in the group] as assigned

Maintaining EAS and public file for [both stations]

Downloading and uploading weekend syndication

[weekly public service program] recording and production

Weekend talent scheduling

Social media postings

Help with [e-mail list maintenance]

Help with website maintenance

Studio and office maintenance (windows/garbage/recycling/vacuum)

Other duties as assigned

Broadcasters wear a wider variety of hats nowadays as ownership groups pare expenses to the bone. It’s not unusual to have multiple duties across multiple stations in a single group. However, as I read this, there’s no way this job gets done in the specified office hours of 8:30 to 5. Even if you assume an operations manager is normally going to work 10-hour days to make it a 50-hour week (which is not unusual, especially in a small market), that’s still not going to be enough time. Between voice-tracking a six-hour show, doing news, and handling production and imaging, this job will require a minimum of three to five hours in a recording studio every single day. Only after that could you start thinking about tackling the rest of your responsibilities—down to emptying the wastebaskets, vacuuming the floors, and washing the fking windows.

And by the way, it’s going to be a seven-day job a lot of the time, because many remotes and public appearances are going to be on Saturdays, and you’re also expected to have “time set aside to voice Monday morning news on Sunday night; no in-studio visit or time required.” It’s nice of them to let you do it from your home studio—if you have one, and you’d damn well better get one. But even if the newscasts are only three stories long, somebody still has to write them and gather the actualities they require, either by making calls to local newsmakers or picking up soundbites from some network news source. Who’s going to be responsible for that every single day?

I think I know who.

In the end, what intrigues me the most is the last bit: “other duties as assigned.” What other duties could there possibly be when you’re already doing the jobs of DJ, operations manager, production director, news director/anchor, and janitor?

Yeah no, I’m not pursuing this gig any further, although I was tempted to play it out just to see what kind of salary they would offer. If they asked my requirements, I’d start at $125,000, since I’d be doing the jobs of three or four people—and $125K would be cheap for what they’d be getting. Hell, asking for an ownership stake wouldn’t be entirely out of line. But one person doing all of it for a single small-market salary—maybe $25K or $30K a year, but maybe less—is something no humane employer should expect, and something nobody with any other employment options should accept.

I’m sure this company will eventually find somebody who doesn’t blanch at this job description—somebody who has no idea how completely insane it is. But at least the poor bastard will get experience doing nearly everything a person on the programming side of a radio station has to do nowadays.

I understand the need for a company to operate as efficiently as possible, but how efficient is it to hire somebody for an impossible gig, burn them out, and have to hire someone else? Because that’s what’s gonna happen here.

A Thin Disguise

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(Pictured: the Eagles and some friends take a bow.)

We live in a world where old guys like me have to continually check ourselves regarding our interactions with women. For example, I grew up in a time when it was perfectly normal, and even considered polite, to compliment a woman on her appearance. I don’t do that anymore, except with The Mrs., because I don’t want to risk making work colleagues feel uncomfortable. I check myself to see whether I interrupt or overtalk or mansplain. I’ve even discussed these sorts of things with the women in my life. I don’t do it out of a desire to be a social justice warrior. I do it because I was taught to be decent to other people as best I can.

That I grew up halfway enlightened is a credit to my parents, and especially to Dad, who was a liberated husband and father before it was cool. In 1964, black activist Stokely Carmichael was asked about the position of women in his movement, and he responded, “Prone.” Joke that it was, it expressed a truth commonly held for years thereafter: that a woman’s proper place was, if not taking care of her man in his home and in his bed, than at the very least, taking care of him in his bed. The womanizing excesses of rock stars and athletes were well-known then, especially in the 70s, but as something they—or any man, powerful or otherwise—were entitled to by virtue of being men. A woman who insisted on what she felt she was entitled to—taking charge of her own desires, or her own life choices—was likely to find herself branded as an oddball, an outcast, a rebel, or a threat.

(As recently as three years ago, it felt as though American society was beginning to evolve beyond these attitudes. Today, they’re highly fashionable again, at least among a certain class of moron.)

Take the Eagles as one example of how these attitudes worked. In a lot of Eagles songs, a woman is present to stroke the ego of a man, or as the object of his desire, sexual or emotional. But if she becomes more than just a passive plaything—if she gains power, especially sexual or emotional—she becomes an obstacle to the man getting what he deserves. In one famous case, a woman who merely tries to live her life the best way she can gets judged for it in terms of what she’s doing to the man in her life.

One way to read the theme of the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” is that we do whatever we must do to best live with the life choices we have made. It’s beautifully played, sung, and produced. It was on the radio during a season I remember fondly. But its easy-rockin’ feel hides a viciousness inside of it.

You remember the story. A young woman marries a rich old man, but she discovers that money is no substitute for youthful passion. So she sneaks away to find that passion with a man her own age, and later feels guilty about having done so. Anyone listening, man or woman, can probably imagine themselves in the woman’s place. I feel compassion for her. I suspect that many listeners do, and that Don Henley and Glenn Frey were happy to make us feel that way. But that last verse is cruel:

My oh my, you sure know how to arrange things
You set it up so well, so carefully
Ain’t it funny how your new life didn’t change things
You’re still the same old girl you used to be

The story goes that Henley and Frey were inspired to write the song by the sight of a younger woman and older man together in a Hollywood restaurant, and Frey’s instant assumption that their relationship had to be based on a lie. And so, rather than pointing out that you can’t run away from who you are—an observation most of us would find reasonable—they’re standing up for a rich old man they consider the real victim. “Take your unhappiness and suck on it, you conniving, cuckolding bitch. You’re the same whore you were back when you had nothing.”

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