(Pictured: How I remember my 16th birthday. There was cake, but the rest of it is hazy.)
Sooner or later, this blog always comes back to 1976. A couple of weekends ago, AT40 repeated the show from February 28, 1976—the week of my 16th birthday—and I’ve been listening to it in the car this week.
I remember coming down for breakfast on February 29th—a Sunday—and hearing my mother say, in the gently mocking tone she occasionally took with us when we were kids, “There’s Jim, sweet 16 and never been kissed.” I didn’t think she was particularly funny, however. I had been kissed by then, although not often enough to suit me, and not by anyone recently.
Mom would always make us a cake for our birthdays, or something other than a cake if we wanted it; one year she made me a fabulous chocolate pudding dessert with graham-cracker crust, and I think we put candles on a pizza for one of my brothers once. We were usually photographed holding our cakes, standing in the same general spot in the dining room every year, so a picture was probably taken that day. Birthday custom also permitted us to either request a favorite meal at home or to go out someplace to eat. I seem to recall that I chose dinner (which would have been the noon meal back then) at a little hole-in-the-wall pizza joint on the edge of town.
During the very week of my birthday—starting on Thursday and continuing through the next weekend—we’d experience an epic ice storm that remains one of my most vivid memories of growing up. But the Sunday of that week is mostly blank.
The February 28, 1976, edition of AT40 doesn’t help much. In fact, the show isn’t particularly memorable at all. It gets off to a slow start, with five songs in a row that were all relatively new, none of which became a significant hit then or is especially memorable now. The first hour ends with a backward-looking streak: the Salsoul Orchestra’s disco version of the 1942 Jimmy Dorsey hit “Tangerine,” Tony Orlando and Dawn covering Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” the Beach Boys’ 1966 hit “Good Vibrations” as an extra, and Dr. Hook’s cover of Cooke’s “Only Sixteen.” Hour #2 starts better, with Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” ELO’s “Evil Woman” (heard in its rare 45 edit with what I think is an extra snip by the AT40 engineer) and Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “Tracks of My Tears.” That’s followed by one of my favorite AT40 train wrecks, Foghat’s “Slow Ride” followed by Donny and Marie’s “Deep Purple.” Casey breaks them up with an anecdote about record mogul Mike Curb, noting that Curb can identify “all of the chart hits of the last 20 years by artist and record label.” Up at #21, listeners are once again forced to sit through the CB-themed novelty “The White Knight” by Cledus Maggard. (Everyone has some shameful things in their past that defy explanation, and the popularity of “The White Knight” is one of America’s.) At #15, Casey spends a minute or two sketching the career of singer/actor Al Jolson while introducing the disco version of “Baby Face,” a song first published in 1926 and made famous by Jolson in the early 30s. As always, the hits get bigger as the numbers get smaller. Some of the songs in the Top 10—“All By Myself,” “Dream Weaver,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”—are still capable of snapping me back to the ice storm, but not the Sunday before.
I suppose that the lesson is this: not everything we’d like to consider a totem is really a totem. Not every artifact is sacred. I’d like the AT40 show from my 16th birthday, back there in the year that means more than all the others, to be one of the treasures in the museum of my personal history. But it’s not going to be. Some things are just amusing old junk.