Could I Have This Dance?

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(Pictured: this is what people think it’s like to be a party DJ. Go ahead and keep thinking that.)

The role of the party DJ has changed a great deal since I was doing it back in the 90s. Where we played CDs and even a few cassettes, music is all digital now. In addition to music, DJs now often provide photo booths, karaoke, and other stuff. At the last few weddings I have attended, the DJ rarely spoke; he wasn’t putting on a show around the music, as we used to do. And that’s fine. Times change.

I have written a few times over the years about wedding DJ work. For example, in 2011:

Clients and wedding guests could be terrifically gracious, inviting us to have dinner, a piece of wedding cake, or a drink at the open bar. But they could also be shockingly rude, peremptorily demanding this and that. And a couple of times, we felt physically threatened. One family had paid to rewire the reception hall after it was determined the electrical panel on the rickety stage in the middle of the room (in a decrepit hall, in a decaying town) couldn’t handle the smoke machine in addition to the DJ rig and the light rig. The smoke machine cost extra, and this family obviously wanted it badly, but on the night of the wedding, The Mrs. and I could not get the notoriously temperamental thing to function. So there we were, on a low stage surrounded by the entire cast of Deliverance, all violently pissed off that they weren’t getting the goddamn smoke they paid for, although the cigarette smoke in the room should have been more than enough.

There were more physical threats than there should have been, actually. On another night in another hall, a guest wanted to use our microphone to make a toast, which we did not allow. He and his knot of friends were not happy; after the party ended and we were packing up, I wasn’t sure they were going to let us out. Guests would frequently ask if they could look through our CDs, which we also never allowed; one of them told us that since we were paid help, we should let guests do whatever they wanted.

The thread connecting all of the bad experiences was alcohol. After another party, at midnight while we were packing up, the father of the bride wobbled over and started criticizing the job we’d done. For a few minutes I was sure he was going to stiff us the $300 he owed. At another party, the extremely young bride and groom got drunk in the limo between the church and the reception; she was weepy and he was catatonic, and dealing with them required a very light touch.

There was another bride who wasn’t drunk, but who could have benefitted from a couple of drinks. She came over to request “YMCA,” which packed the dance floor, but when I followed it with KC and the Sunshine Band and not a solitary soul left the floor, she came back on the dead run to accuse me of “ruining her wedding by playing disco.”

But there were many good things to remember, too. The Mrs. and I worked for a DJ service, which would book the parties through a particular hour, but the client had the option to purchase an extra hour if they chose, and if they did, that money went directly into our pockets. It was a validation of the job we’d done when the groom or the father of the bride came up to us at quarter-to-eleven with a wad of cash to ask if we could stay until midnight. (Drunk-in-the-limo couple bought an extra hour that night.) We made it a point to play at least one set of music the couple’s grandparents and other older guests could dance to, which back in the 90s was music from the 40s; they would look at us with appreciation as they swayed to “Moonlight Serenade.”

My last experience as a party DJ was a brief turn in the booth at a friend’s wedding in 1999. I have been asked to do it a couple of times since but have always turned down the requests; I don’t have the equipment, or the desire. But for the few years The Mrs. and I did it, we had fun with it.

And What Have You Done?

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(Pictured: John and Yoko on The Dick Cavett Show, September 1971.)

Today is the official 50th birthday of another one of the holiday season’s most famous warhorses: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

The phrase “war is over if you want it” dates back to 1969, and a billboard campaign John and Yoko ran in 12 cities around the world. On October 28, 1971, Lennon, his band, and producer Phil Spector went to the Record Plant in New York City to record a song incorporating it. The band included guitarists Hugh McCracken, Chris Osborne, Teddy Irwin, Stuart Scharf, and Lennon himself. Jim Keltner played drums and sleigh bells, and Nicky Hopkins played piano and glockenspiel. That weekend, at a second session, Klaus Voorman overdubbed his bass part; at the same session, strings and the voices of the Harlem Community Choir were added.

The official American release date for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” backed by “Listen, the Snow Is Falling,” on green vinyl, was December 1, 1971. However, WMEX in Boston charted it on its survey dated November 18, with a picture of John and Yoko on the survey cover. The caption reads: “Their brand-new Christmas song played on 1510 only days ago already makes ‘MEX top 30.” (On the WMEX chart, the song is listed as “Christmas, and the War Is Over” by the Plastic Ono Band, and it’s shown in its second week on.) The song appears on surveys dated December 1 in Philadelphia and Hartford, and later that week in Seattle, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, so it was clearly on the air, or at least in the pipeline, before December 1. It has 69 listings at ARSA at Christmas 1971, and eventually made the Top 10 in Seattle, Boston, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Youngstown, Ohio. WCFL in Chicago charted it for a single week, WLS not at all. It appeared on Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart for one week in 1971 and three weeks in 1972, and would reappear when Billboard rebooted the chart in the 80s.

“Happy Xmas” was not released in the UK until 1972, owing to a dispute over Yoko’s songwriting credit. It made #4 on Britain’s national charts in that year. If you didn’t buy the single, you had to wait until 1975 for it to appear on an album, the Lennon compilation Shaved Fish, in medley form with “Give Peace a Chance.”

For years, I included “Happy Xmas” in the mythology of my first radio Christmas in 1970, impossible though it was. It may have been part of the WLS Holiday Festival of Music in 1971, although it’s more likely that I began hearing it regularly starting in 1972. It eventually became one of the holiday’s treasures, Lennon’s voice ringing out like a Christmas bell signaling the season. In 1980, Lennon was murdered at Christmastime, and it was strange to hear “Happy Xmas” that year. It didn’t make me sad; it made me angry, and it was several years before I could enjoy it again.

Any song that gets 50 years of radio play is going to alienate some listeners. As I have written several times about several Christmas songs, there’s a plausible argument that nobody really needs to hear “Happy Xmas” again.

Except we do. Especially now.

Continue reading “And What Have You Done?”

November 26, 2004: There’s Always That One Person

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(Pictured: Alicia Keys and Usher perform in 2004.)

I am occasionally asked to bring this feature into the new millennium, so here.

November 26, 2004, was Black Friday. Network news reports tonight say that retailers expect this year’s holiday sales figures to be similar to those in 2003, and that gift cards are growing in popularity among holiday shoppers. The networks also report on the continued unrest surrounding the disputed presidential election in Ukraine and the request by political groups in Iraq that elections scheduled for January be postponed due to continuing political violence there. Speaking briefly with reporters in Texas today, President George W. Bush doesn’t have much to say. He hopes the Iraqi elections will go forward as scheduled and that the Ukraine crisis “will be resolved in a way that brings credit and confidence to the Ukrainian government.” Also during his five-minute press availability, Bush teases a reporter he does not recognize for being unshaven. In Duluth, Minnesota, it snows today; it is the latest date recorded for the first measurable snowfall of the season since records have been kept.

Three of the nation’s top college football teams are in action today. Sixth-ranked Texas defeats #22 Texas A&M 26-13 and #14 LSU blows out Arkansas 43-14. Thirteen games are played in the National Basketball Association. The Seattle Supersonics run their league-best record to 12-and-2 with a 92-79 win over New Jersey.

The top movies at the box office this weekend include National Treasure, starring Nicholas Cage, and The Incredibles. Two holiday-themed movies, Christmas With the Kranks and The Polar Express, are also in the top five. On TV tonight, CBS airs Joan of Arcadia, JAG, and the top-rated show of the night, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. ABC presents Eight Simple Rules, Complete Savages (a sitcom starring Keith Carradine as a single dad raising five sons, executive-produced by Mel Gibson), Hope and Faith, Less Than Perfect, and 20/20. FOX airs the 2002 theatrical movie Mr. Deeds, starring Adam Sandler. NBC has two episodes of Dateline NBC, including a two-hour retrospective on Tom Brokaw’s 22-year career as anchor of NBC Nightly News. Brokaw will leave the anchor chair to Brian Williams after next Wednesday’s broadcast.

On the Billboard Hot 100, “My Boo” by Usher and Alicia Keys is #1 for a fifth week. (“There’s always that one person that will always have your heart / You never see it coming ’cause you’re blinded from the start”) “Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Snoop Dogg is #2. On the adult-contemporary chart, “Heaven” by Los Lonely Boys is in its ninth week at #1. The top song on Hot Country Singles is “Mr. Mom” by Lonestar. The new #1 album on the Billboard 200 is Encore by Eminem.

Perspective From the Present: We spent Thanksgiving 2004 with Ann’s family in Virginia. Here’s a page from my journal about Friday, November 26:

We had been playing with puzzles early in the evening, and later, while some of the family was making smores out on the deck, [my niece, Jocelyn, who was two] realized she had lost her sippy cup, which she carries constantly. We searched for it high and low, upstairs and down, and when Laura finally found it, joy reigned supreme. “My sippy cup!” she exclaimed while jumping up and down. (Her favorite thing to do is jump up and down and giggle, which just melts me every time I see it.) She was so excited at finding her sippy cup that she ran back outside without filling it up. I ran after and pointed this out to her. She ran back inside and grabbed the handle of the refrigerator, pulling with all her might, grimacing as she was unable to open it. After I helped her, she grabbed the gallon of milk and gave it to me, again so excited that she ran out of the house without filling the sippy cup. Well, maybe you had to be there, but it was the most sweetly hilarious thing I’ve ever seen. Later, Cheryl took her downstairs to get ready for bed, and I assumed I wouldn’t see her again until morning. But just as I was about to turn in myself, they came back up and Cheryl said, “Jocelyn wants to sit on your lap until it’s time to go to bed.” And so she did, playing with my beard and snuggling and giggling, and leaving me utterly smitten yet again.

Jocelyn is 19 now, already an accomplished young woman on the way to greater things. But I have to admit that I sometimes miss the little girl.

Free Fall

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Here’s a piece of something I wrote in 2011, with hyperlinks added.

On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving in that year, a guy named Dan Cooper got aboard a Northwest Orient Airlines flight in Portland, Oregon, for a 30-minute flight to Seattle. After takeoff, he told a flight attendant that he had a bomb in his briefcase. He asked for $200,000 and two parachutes. The plane landed in Seattle, Cooper got what he wanted, and the plane took off again. Cooper instructed the pilots to head generally southwest toward Mexico City, but at the minimum air speed and at no more than 10,000 feet, and to leave the rear door open and the exit stairway down. About 30 minutes after takeoff from Seattle, the pilots felt a bump, apparently caused by the weight shift when Cooper jumped out of the plane and into history.

You do not remember when Dan Cooper hijacked the plane and jumped out. The guy you remember is named D. B. Cooper. The process by which Dan Cooper—the name under which the man’s ticket was purchased—became D. B. Cooper is unclear. Walter Cronkite called him “D. A. Cooper” in a broadcast the next night, but by the time the wire services picked up the story on November 26, D. B. is how he was known, and it’s how he’s been remembered ever since. D. B. Cooper is a better name anyhow, more befitting the enigma to which it’s attached.

Cooper became famous as someone who had audaciously outwitted everybody and got away with it.  But as much as we’d like to think that he made it to Mexico and spent the rest of his life happily drinking margaritas and banging senoritas, that’s not the way to bet. The FBI has insisted for 40 years that he probably didn’t survive the parachute jump, and about $6,000 of his cash was found along the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington, in 1980. But nothing like a body has ever been found. Several people have been fingered as, or claimed to be, Cooper, but the FBI’s case file remains open.

The FBI closed the file in 2016. After so long, we no longer need to know who he was or what happened to him. Not knowing makes for a better story.

I have spent some time this week free-falling into the past, back to Thanksgiving 1971.

Morning TV, parades, balloons, floats, bands, New York, Detroit, Toronto, Santa Claus on the last float, and now the holidays can start.

Coats on, three boys 11, 9, and 5, unbuckled in the back of the ’65 Comet, over the river and through the woods we sing, to the house in which Mother was born. Loud greetings at the back door, hello hello everyone.

The men tell jokes and visit while the women finish cooking. Kids want candy from Grandpa’s jar on the kitchen counter, but you’ll spoil your appetite.

Seventeen of us around the table, two grown cousins and seven more between the ages of five and 12. I am happy to sit near a girl cousin one year older, my first crush. Grandpa, left-handed, sits next to my left-handed cousin, Grandma sits at the head of the table (although she never sits for long), each of them not much older than I will be in 50 years.

Turkey and stuffing, potatoes and squash and gravy, corn and peas, cranberry sauce, rolls with butter, glass of milk—and pie and cookies, and rosettes and sandbakkelse, Scandinavian holiday treats. An uncle asks, “Did you get enough to eat?”

Around the table the adults linger over coffee and light up smokes. Too cold to be outside but we go anyway, me and my brothers and our favorite boy cousin.

The afternoon unspools, football on the TV, fuzzy through rabbit ears. At mid-afternoon Grandma gets out leftovers and we eat again. There are cows to be milked and we have to go home. Names are drawn for the Christmas gift exchange. At the back door we say goodbye, love you, see you soon.

We bump along rural roads through the late-autumn afternoon, 20 minutes home, past fields partly harvested, trees mostly bare, sure of the way and secure in the only life we know, with days and years to come.

Fifty years to come, and now 50 years gone, and a lesson is left behind: you can’t be sure of the way. Life is a free fall. You may have a plan—like D. B. Cooper did—but where you land may not be up to you. 

It’s What You Want

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(Pictured: ABBA on Saturday Night Live in November 1975. They were one of the few acts in the history of the show to lip-sync, because Lorne Michaels didn’t believe they could sing live.)

We have spent a lot of time in 1971 around here lately. Let’s come forward in time a bit and listen to the American Top 40 show from November 22, 1975.

39. “Theme From Mahogany”/Diana Ross
38. “I Write the Songs”/Barry Manilow
34. “Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players
Seven songs debut on the show in this week. Three of them would reach #1 in January 1976.

37. “For the Love of You”/Isley Brothers
23. “S.O.S.”/ABBA

19. “I Only Have Eyes for You”/Art Garfunkel
18. “Eighteen With a Bullet”/Pete Wingfield

14. “Miracles”/Jefferson Starship
12. “Lyin’ Eyes”/Eagles

8. “Low Rider”/War
Any one of these could be the best song on the show were it not for #13 below. The ultra-smooth “For the Love of You” would get to #22 during Christmas week. That “Eighteen With a Bullet” would end up at #18 in some week was inevitable. And as I’ve said before, “Lyin’ Eyes” is another case of Glenn Frey and Don Henley revealing themselves as terrible people through the lyrics they write, but at the same time, it’s beautifully performed and anchored in time and place, so sue me if I still like it.

36. “The Last Game of the Season”/David Geddes. Casey answers a listener letter asking which song debuted the highest on the chart in 1975. In the Top 40, it’s “Old Days” by Chicago, which came on at #17 back in the summer. On the Hot 100, it was “The Last Game of the Season,” which had come on the previous week at #44. My tolerance for 70s cheese is higher than most people’s, and I’ve heard “The Last Game of the Season” many times, but this time, I couldn’t make it to the end.

33. “Brazil”/Ritchie Family
32. “I’m on Fire”/5000 Volts
25. “Our Day Will Come”/Frankie Valli
Three flavors of early disco. The Ritchie Family was a studio group created by Village People impresario Jacques Morali. 5000 Volts was a real group, although due to a contractual issue, lead singer Tina Charles did not appear when the group performed “I’m on Fire” live and on TV. “Our Day Will Come” takes three minutes to do not very much.

28. “Secret Love”/Freddy Fender. Fender had two big country-to-pop  crossover hits in 1975, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” “Secret Love,” made famous by Doris Day, was not destined to be the third, but Fender sings the hell out of it.

27. “Venus and Mars-Rock Show”/Paul McCartney and Wings. Casey welcomes new stations to the AT40 family this week, including KSTT in Davenport, Iowa. I’ve mentioned KSTT before as a dominant local station that was every bit as hot and fun and important to its community as bigger and more famous major market stations were. By 1975, it had been a Top 40 powerhouse for nearly 20 years.

15. “My Little Town”/Simon and Garfunkel. In October, Garfunkel’s Breakaway and Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years came out within two weeks of each other; between the two release dates, Paul and Artie sang together on the second episode of Saturday Night Live.

13. “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play)”/Spinners. I have said before that “Games People Play” is my favorite single of all time, another genius production by Thom Bell, arresting from the first second, smooth and soulful all the way home. It’s a time-and-place record for me, certainly, but I have listened to it so often since the fall of 1975 that it’s not as firmly anchored there as others on this show.

7. “Feelings”/Morris Albert. Casey says that “Feelings” has been around for 23 weeks (on the Hot 100) and that it has recently started moving up the chart again after slipping down. It had peaked at #6 on October 25 and then fell to #7 and #9 before creeping back up to #8 and then to #7 in this week. After falling out of the Top 40 in mid-December, it would make two more upward turns before exiting the Hot 100 in late January. Its 32-week run was the longest of 1975.

4. “Island Girl”/Elton John
3. “Who Loves You”/Four Seasons
2. “Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention
1. “That’s the Way (I Like It)”/KC and the Sunshine Band
Silver Convention is up from #16 the week before; KC leaps from #6 to #1, taking out Elton after three weeks. Casey notes that “Island Girl” had made Elton the first act of the 70s to have five #1 singles.

Your mileage may vary, but at 46 years’ distance, this show still sounds like 70s Top 40 glory to me, full of songs that are inventive, hooky, uptempo, and fun. If you turn on the radio to be entertained, it’s what you want.

Uncle Sam Wants You

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(Pictured: silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin appear at a Liberty Loan drive during World War I.)

If you are of a certain age, you remember savings bonds. You may have owned one, or been given one as a gift. A savings bond was essentially a loan of money from a purchasing citizen (your grandmother, for example) to the federal government. Upon maturity, the bond could be cashed in for the amount of the principal plus interest. This kind of citizen funding had a long history in America, going back to the Revolution and the Civil War.

Sales of bonds during the world wars were frequently promoted by celebrities, especially movie stars. In the postwar era, without the urgency of a war to spark sales, the government continued to rely on celebrities to create interest, although these latter-day endorsements were of a somewhat different sort. Mr. Ed, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best produced special episodes designed to promote bond sales. They were not intended for broadcast; they were more likely to be shown at school assemblies and other civic presentations. They were usually short, although Father Knows Best did a full-length episode in which the Andersons subject their kids to 24 hours under totalitarian rule designed to show them the importance of investing in freedom, or something like that.

As the 1980s began, the American economy, struggling with the oil shocks and the end of the post-World War II economic boom, was in turmoil amid inflation and budget deficits. And so the U.S. government started promoting savings bond sales again. As in the 1950s and early 60s, several popular sitcoms produced special short episodes encouraging people to buy bonds through the Payroll Savings Plan, in which a portion of your paycheck was deducted to buy bonds. Cheers, Taxi, Benson, and WKRP in Cincinnati all made such episodes.

The WKRP episode, titled “A Sure Thing,” is dated 1980; “Uncle Sam Malone” is dated 1983. Where the bond drives during the World Wars stressed the patriotic aspects of buying them, the focus was now entirely on what buying bonds could do for you. The basic premise of each episode is largely the same: one or more characters is skeptical about buying bonds through the Payroll Savings Plan, but the rest of the cast persuades them of its awesomeness. (In the Cheers episode, Diane and Carla are skeptics; at WKRP, it’s Herb and Johnny.) The Cheers episode is actually funny, or at least it benefits from the presence of a live audience (or a laugh track). In the WKRP episode, the jokes, such as they are, fall flat, especially without the benefit of audience laughter. Both episodes require a lot of exposition; the Cheers episode leavens it with jokes, but the WKRP episode drones on and on. The WKRP episode ends with Johnny Fever in the studio playing “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays. One online writer speculates that permission for the song must have cost a bundle; I wonder if it was maybe a public-service freebie, just like the rest of the production.

My usual half-assed research process has not uncovered the Taxi or Benson episodes online. This kind of long-form public service announcement soon fell out of fashion, although the casts of television programs would continue to make shorter PSAs for various causes now and then, and still do, occasionally.

You can still buy savings bonds today, although you can’t tuck them into a grandchild’s birthday card. Paper bonds were discontinued in 2012; they’re entirely digital now. When the government can run on deficit spending forever, borrowing money directly from citizens who give money explicitly for that purpose is superfluous. The Payroll Savings Plan still exists too, but if you have a 401K, you’re probably not interested. Diane Chambers was excited about a seven-percent rate of return; series EE bonds issued between now and April 2022 are guaranteed to double in value after 30 years, but the annual interest rate is one-tenth of one percent, so if you cash out before then, you’ll get practically nothing.

The Internet may have poisoned discourse and made many of our fellow citizens functionally insane, but it has also helped preserve this sort of ephemera to remember. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.