Lead in the Water Pipes

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Donald Fagen onstage in 2017.)

Kurt Vonnegut famously said that future generations would look back on TV as the lead in the water pipes that slowly drove the Romans mad. That’s proven to be hyperbole, but social media has actually done it. Twitter and Facebook are quite literally killing people now and rendering others functionally insane to a degree television never could. Yet like rats who repeatedly press a button after receiving irregularly spaced rewards, we hit “refresh” again and again because amidst the toxic wave, we sometimes find something worthwhile. For example:

—There has been much Steely Dan news of late. The band postponed the first few dates of its current tour because of COVID, but also because of COVID, Donald Fagen has completed nearly enough songs for a new album. Since he was fairly clear in 2012 that Sunken Condos was going to be his last, we can count this as one of the few good things the pandemic has wrought. Two new Steely Dan/Fagen records were released last month, Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live and The Nightfly Live. I am more interested in the latter than the former, as I have no need to hear “Bodhissatva” or “Hey Nineteen” again. Northeast Corridor does, however, include the previously unreleased R&B cover “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry,” which has been closing Steely Dan shows for the last few years.

—Fagen also gave an interview in which he went deep into the process of music-making, his relationship with Walter Becker, and literature. He’s an interesting and unusual cat, but his interviews always leave me thinking that if I had the chance to meet him in the real world, I’d probably pass.

—Hooks and Harmony posted a good list of 20 important songs that peaked at #2. Plausibly related: If you are reading the Stereogum series in which Tom Breihan is writing about all of the singles to reach #1 on the Hot 100, you probably saw the little news nugget he dropped: he’s working on a book about the 20 most important #1 singles of all time.

—John Mellencamp is one of the first people I would kick out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He influenced nobody, and he’s there because he sold a lot of records over a long period of time. That said, however, I own some of those records, and I’m still playing some of his 80s hits on the radio regularly. Last week, he and Bruce Springsteen released a song called “Wasted Days,” in which their wizened voices combine to sing about the inevitable dwindling of time. I liked it a lot more than I expected.

—Old Grey Cat wrote about meeting Springsteen back in 2016. It’s likely that you’ll recognize yourself in his story.

—The forthcoming documentary Get Back, about the Beatles’ end-of-days, is going to significantly rewrite the band’s history. It will air on Disney Plus over Thanksgiving.

—In its 1950s and 60s heyday, WLAC in Nashville blasted R&B into 40 states and influenced an entire generation of kids, and musicians. Related: I am not the person to write a biography of WLAC DJ Hoss Allen, but I’d read one.

—On the subject of Nashville: one of the city’s most prolific musicians died last month. You’ve heard him play, even if you didn’t realize it.

—Lots of people have sung “My Way,” but it is ultimately one only Frank Sinatra could have done justice to, delivered with a bravado that was uniquely him. Ted Gioia wrote about what Sinatra’s performance means, and what it means to like that performance.

—We recently passed the 45th anniversary of the release of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. This oral history provides a great deal of insight into Stevie’s creative process.

—We also passed the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. The album’s producer, Butch Vig, is a Madison guy who ran a studio here for many years. Madison Magazine told the story of Nirvana’s early appearances in Madison, before anybody knew who they were.

—The Crystal Corner Bar is one of Madison’s famous nightspots, located in the heart of the city’s east side, an area where for a lot of people the 1960s never ended, in all the good and bad ways. In one way, however, the Crystal is still stuck in a different year—2004.

If you use Twitter but don’t follow me, head over to the feed in the right-hand column of this page and do so. Or maybe just delete your Twitter account entirely. Lead in the water pipes is good for nobody.

5 thoughts on “Lead in the Water Pipes

  1. mikehagerty

    The point that Peter over at Hooks & Harmony misses is that the Billboard chart only tracked the sale of singles, which was no true barometer of a song’s popularity.

    On his list of the great injustices is that Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You” was denied the #1 spot on the charts by Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” for nine weeks, followed by Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” for another week.

    Yes, but…

    At the same time as that singles tally was being run, FOREIGNER 4, the album, was number one and was six times Platinum. Livvy’s PHYSICAL LP peaked at #6, which means on its best week, there were five bigger albums, including Foreigner’s. Yeah, it went double Platinum, but that’s only a third of what Foreigner was doing.

    And Hall & Oates’ PRIVATE EYES album managed to get to #5 but was only single Platinum.

    Albums overtook singles in sales in 1969. 45RPM record sales peaked in 1974 and began a rapid decline after that—becoming a purchase largely made by pre-teens, teenage girls and adults seeking a copy of a novelty (like “Physical”). Any act whose fan base tended to buy their LPs was at a disadvantage on the singles chart.

    1. Chris Herman

      The Hooks & Harmony article left out the most egregious examples of chart robbery: Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing” blocking Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” from #1 in 1978. Not only was “Baker Street” a far better song, but it also lost at least one week at the top spot due to RSO Records and Billboard’s joint chicanery. To this day, I cannot listen to “Shadow Dancing” when it comes on the radio (which, fortunately, isn’t that often).

      On the matter of The KIngmen’s “Louie, Louie” being blocked by The Singing Nun, I’ll just repeat what I once said in the comment section of Breihan’s column. “Dominique”‘s long reign at #1 came right after the assassination of JFK when people were seeking spiritual solace so, in retrospect, its success was understandable. Still, even if “Louie, Louie” had managed to edge out “Dominique” during one of those weeks, I seriously doubt the PTB controlling radio and the recording industry in 1963 were going to let an amateurish, sloppily-produced, and (allegedly) obscene party record like “Louie, Louie” be the #1 record in the wake of a national tragedy.

  2. porky

    Regarding the story on WLAC, I love all the synergy about what Nashville is and isn’t. Mentioned in the story is Fred Carpenter who later recorded as Freddie North who took a song written by Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams and Gary US Bonds, “She’s All I Got,” and had it covered extremely successfully by Johnny Paycheck (it farted around the wrong end of the pop chart, but made it anyway, his only entry on that chart). Joe Tex (to some extent), Arthur Alexander, Solomon Burke, and Joe Simon all were considered crossover Black “country artists” (John R even guided Simon’s career).

  3. Oddly, given that I like the vast majority of Springsteen’s work (and like some of Mellencamp’s stuff), I was underwhelmed by “Wasted Days.” I thought some of the lyrics were lazy. I did like some of the video’s visuals.

  4. Wesley

    Regarding Tom Breihan’s announcement of his book on the 20 most important number 1 singles of all time–or rather since the Hot 100 began in August 1958–he’s confirmed that one of them will be “Vision of Love” by Mariah Carey. I’m not wild about that song or Carey as an artist for that matter, but I understand his reasoning he has for doing so.

    I have a bad feeling that given Tom is a millennial, he’s going to discount the first half of the survey period and “Vision of Love” will end up being among the first ten songs profiled chronologically. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that prior to “Vision of Love,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” will be a lock, as likely will “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson and “When Doves Cry” by Prince (or some other chart topper by those two artists, both of whom he’s praised to the hilt). Beyond that, I think we’ll be lucky to find more than four songs totaled before the 1980s being profiled in his book.

    Also, 20 seems like a small amount to profile on a chart with more than 1,000 entries. Seems like it’ll be a small book unless he goes off on too many tangent for each entry. I would’ve done the book on 50 of them instead, but I’m not the publisher, so it’s their call.

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