(Pictured: ABBA says hello from 1976.)
Up here in Wisconsin, we got our first snow a month ago. On a gray day last week, a cold rain took the last of the leaves from the trees. The best part of autumn is behind us now. It’s bittersweet to see it go, but before it did, I spent some time in bygone autumns, with a couple of American Top 40 shows.
This stretch, as heard on the show from October 30, 1971, provided another motherlode of AM radio pleasure:
28. “Everybody’s Everything”/Santana
27. “So Far Away”/Carole King
26. “One Fine Morning”/Lighthouse
25. “Stagger Lee”/Tommy Roe
24. “Only You Know and I Know”/Delaney and Bonnie
23. “Birds of a Feather”/Raiders
22. “Ain’t No Sunshine”/Bill Withers
21. “Have You Seen Her”/Chi-Lites
20. “Easy Loving”/Freddie Hart
19. “Inner City Blues”/Marvin Gaye
18. “Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey”/Paul and Linda McCartney
A person such as I, who grew up in the supercharged AM radio atmosphere of boss jocks and call-letter jingles, can live for a mighty long time in the headspace created by those 11 songs. Or these seven:
10. “I’ve Found Someone of My Own”/Free Movement
9. “Peace Train”/Cat Stevens
8. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”/Joan Baez
7. “Do You Know What I Mean”/Lee Michaels
6. “Imagine”/John Lennon
5. “Theme From Shaft”/Isaac Hayes
By the time I got this far on the list, I had long since left 2019. It was 1971 again, and I was in the bedroom I shared with my brother, across the hall from Mother and Dad, with my green plastic Westinghouse tube-type radio, the one with the big dial, with a tiny bit of masking tape on it to mark WLS, since the thing had a tendency to drift. That fall, in the afternoons home from school, evenings after supper, weekend days, all the time, I devoured the radio joyfully, not just the songs but the jocks and the jingles and the atmosphere, because I already knew that radio was my calling.
As I listened to these songs again, I was there, and I had no desire to come back.
But I had to, because you have to.
Not long after, I listened to the show from November 13, 1976. It, too, has a stretch of songs that I find seriously pleasurable, but in the end it evokes an entirely different feeling:
25. “You Don’t Have to Be a Star”/Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.
24. “I Never Cry”/Alice Cooper
23. “Play That Funky Music”/Wild Cherry
22. “I Only Want to Be With You”/Bay City Rollers
21. “A Fifth of Beethoven”/Walter Murphy
20. “Magic Man”/Heart
19. “The Best Disco in Town”/Ritchie Family
18. “Nights Are Forever Without You”/England Dan and John Ford Coley
17. “She’s Gone”/Hall and Oates
16. “You Are the Woman”/Firefall
15. “More Than a Feeling”/Boston
The average onlooker probably considers this a load of forgettable cheese, and some of it certainly is, but I am incapable of hearing it that way. These songs took me to a place I’ve written about before, where 16-year-old-me had the world by the tail. I had my day-to-day concerns, but nothing I couldn’t handle. All good things were mine, or eventually would be. The road to the glowing future was smooth and wide and straight, and all I had to do was keep to it and I’d get there.
I hear this stretch of songs now, and the clash between the two people, the boy who didn’t know what he didn’t know and the older man who does, drowns out most everything else. I can’t live in that country the way I can live in my 1971 bedroom. The most I can get is the occasional spike of joy—like at the climax of “More Than a Feeling,” just as the wall of guitars gives way for that Louie-Louie bass line to kick in for the last time, and where for just a moment I remember everything—but it doesn’t stay.
Which is why I keep going back, like an addict in thrall to another kind of spike.
These shows have some fine moments beyond these stretches. The top 10 of the 1971 show is a list I’ll never get tired of hearing. (Even “Yo-Yo.”) The top of the 1976 show is harder to love, as anything with “Muskrat Love” and “Disco Duck” would be, but there’s “Rubberband Man” and “Rock’n Me” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to take the curse off. And even “Muskrat Love” and “Disco Duck” are indispensable. Without them, the fall of 1976 wouldn’t have been quite what it was.
What it continues to be.
We do not always listen to old songs simply because we want to be transported back in time. But sometimes we do.