Lead in the Water Pipes

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(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.

Work Ethic of a Hobo

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(Pictured: Piano Cat is judging this website and finds it lacking.)

Yesterday was this website’s 17th [!] anniversary. In keeping with long-established custom, here are some of my favorite posts since the last anniversary in 2020.

The best book I read in the last year was James Kaplan’s two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman. Stories from the book led to several posts: about a TV interview where Sinatra expected to be treated like a president but wasn’t; about the odd kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr.; about the writing of a song inspired by Sinatra’s breakup with actress Ava Gardner; and about separating Sinatra the gifted artist from Sinatra the often-terrible person.

More recommended reading: Jeffrey Melnick’s Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family, about Manson before the Tate-La Bianca murders and his cultural impact long afterward. He wanted to be a folk-rocker and insinuated himself into that scene. He is also frequently credited with inspiring a famous song years after he was locked away in prison, but he did not. Also recommended: Fab Fools: The Last Ever Untold Beatles Story by Jem Roberts, which locates the Beatles along the spectrum of British comedy from the 50s to the new millennium. One part of the book discusses the Beatles cartoon series. David Wondrich’s Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924 is also worth your time. Among other things, it discusses the importance of blackface minstrelsy to American popular music, which made me remember the minstrel show in my hometown.

We dug into the history of certain obscure performers and/or songs, or as far as one can dig with the attention span of a goldfish, the work ethic of a hobo, and a word count in mind. In this past year, we learned about the King Family; about the strangely affecting single recorded by an action movie star; about a familiar folk-rock hit of the mid-60s and the interesting career of the woman who made it; about the impossibly handsome mid-90s hitmaker whose biggest song is often mistaken for Elton John; about a famous song that owes its longevity to basketball; about a series of heavily ethnic comedy albums of the mid-60s; about how one of the most famous characters of the 70s inspired recording artists and became one himself; and about two of the most iconic Christmas hits as they celebrated their 50th anniversaries.

Further digging: we learned about Elton John’s brief 1975 tour in support of the album Rock of the Westies, and about the bizarre belief that kids of the late 60s were using peanut butter and mayonnaise to get high.

We noodled with the idea of finding the greatest single weekly Top 10 of all time, here and here. An even more foolish errand might be to find the single greatest Hot 100 of all time. Further noodling: what do we mean when we say that a song is “pretty”? And what’s the real difference between mono and stereo?

We got a lot of help from readers this year. One helped track down an obscure singer we mentioned here one time. Another did the research on songs that stayed stuck at the same position on the Hot 100 for several weeks each; several chimed in to answer a chart question I idly posed one day. I also borrowed the reminiscences of a friend who was on the air the night John Lennon was shot. Not everybody who reads my stuff is inspired to be helpful, however. I have received plenty of hate mail over the years. Read some here and here.

I wrote a lot of posts about American Top 40, and you can find them all by using the category menu and choosing “American Top 40.” A couple of specific 2020 posts to read: about the 1972 show guest-hosted by Dick Clark, and about the show hosted by Shadoe Stevens that I turned off before it was over.

There was plenty of the usual navel-gazing around here, including two posts about “Maggie May,” touch football, and the coming of autumn (here and here). I tried to answer a friend’s honest question: “why don’t you let stuff go?” Also, I did a podcast episode about the five nights I spent in the hospital last fall and what I learned while I was there.

And yet again, I grossly overused the editorial “we.”

Thanks for your continued patronage of this Internet feature. Thanks also for your kind words, both here, on social media, and in private messages about the new/old radio gig. All of it is much appreciated.

I Did a Thing

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Here is the thing:

For the last 15 years, I have been a weekend/fill-in DJ and jack-of-all-trades with the stations of Mid-West Family Broadcasting in Madison, Wisconsin, mostly on Magic 98 and Q106. In May of this year, the person who’d been doing the afternoon show on Magic 98 left the company. After filling in for several weeks, I was offered the opportunity to replace her on a permanent basis, and I took it. So every weekday from 3 til 7 US Central, you can find me here.

After all of the job losses during the radio industry’s COVID year and even before that, my ending up with a full-time radio job is something I never expected. And it feels like the right time for me to take it, even though I know several people of my exact age who have retired this year.

Slackers.

I have never had formal retirement as a life goal, and after nearly two decades participating in the gig economy, in which you generally work until you fall into the sweet embrace of death, the concept doesn’t register. From the age of 11, the only thing I ever really wanted to do—even when I was doing other things, like teaching or working in publishing, on somebody’s formal payroll or as a freelancer—was to be on the air someplace. So I plan to keep doing it until A) it ceases to be fun and/or rewarding; B) I’m no longer able to drag my ass into the studio; or C) management decides they don’t want me anymore. Whether that’s a year from now, five years from now, or longer, who knows. I’ll just keep showing up, until I don’t.

Since there’s some of the word count left, here’s some stuff you might have missed recently on my Twitter feed. Continue reading “I Did a Thing”

Magic Man and Other Tales

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(Pictured: Nancy and Ann Wilson on stage with Heart in 2019).

Here a story I didn’t have room for last month when I was writing about Charles Manson’s musical connections, and his attempts to ingratiate himself with various players on the Laurel Canyon scene. In his book Creepy Crawling, author Jeffrey Melnick deals with the rumor that Heart’s 1976 hit “Magic Man” is about Manson, and that any money the song earned was turned over to him. It’s easy to understand how people might leap to that conclusion, considering that the song is about a charismatic man with seemingly hypnotic power attempting to win over a young woman whose mother prefers that she come home.

The “Magic Man” tale isn’t true (and the rumor was persistent enough that Ann and Nancy Wilson debunked it in their 2013 memoir Kicking and Dreaming), but 1976 provided fertile soil for Manson-related rumors. Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 account of the Tate-La Bianca case, Helter Skelter, had just been turned into a highly rated TV miniseries. Manson’s renewed presence in popular culture made him especially potent as what Melnick calls a “culture-generator.”

Manson wasn’t the only culture-generator in the middle of the 1970s. Melnick mentions that a lot of people believe that Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl” is about Patty Hearst.

Since there’s space left today, here’s some recent recommended reading from the last couple of weeks:

Continue reading “Magic Man and Other Tales”

You’re Reading It, You Title It

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(Pictured: Badfinger.)

It is time for some Links and Notes, with worthwhile stories I’ve highlighted on Twitter recently. 

—Our Internet friend Scott Paton, a former researcher at American Top 40, has had a long and varied career in broadcasting and publishing. His first-person stories of meeting and hanging out with Brian Wilson and other stars in the Beach Boys’ orbit are golden.

—This conversation between Mavis Staples and country star Chris Stapleton is great and highly worth your time. So are the stories from Mark Rivera, longtime sax player in Billy Joel’s band.

—Several Motown and Stax artists participated in an oral history of touring life in the South during the days of legal segregation. Key quote from soul singer William Bell: “Three or four years ago, you started seeing the attitudes popping back up. And I’m going, ‘Have we not learned anything yet?'”

—For a while in the late 60s, the R&B editor of Billboard was a white guy, and it occasionally got awkward.

—I took a music appreciation course in the seventh grade, and when the teacher played Switched-On Bach for us, it blew my mind. It’s still a remarkable piece of work, and the story of its creator, known then as Walter Carlos and today as Wendy Carlos, is just as remarkable.

—Please Kill Me is a website that covers music, art, culture, fashion, poetry, and movies from the 60s to now. Read their recent story on the difficult and sad history of Badfinger.

—It got swamped by the news during Election Week, but the death of original Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman is worth noting, because he took some very famous pictures of very famous people.

—Last week was the 50th anniversary of the Exploding Whale of Oregon. This is truly one of the weirdest stories you will ever read, and it is extremely well-told here.

—Although WRIT was the first Top 40 radio station in Milwaukee, WOKY is the more fondly remembered. The building in which it was located still stands today, converted mostly to offices, although vestiges of the old radio days remain in what the building’s owner calls the MilWOKY Center. OnMilwaukee.com’s excellent Urban Spelunking series took a look.

—The return of Stevie Nicks’ composition and Fleetwood Mac’s recording of “Dreams” to the Hot 100, thanks to that viral video of the skateboard guy, is a reminder that songs written by a single person have grown rare, and nothing is more rare than a #1 song written by one person. Billboard ran down the numbers: In the 1970s, 44 percent of #1 hits were written by a single writer; in the 2010s, just four percent; in the last three years, none. Hit songs today routinely credit a half-dozen people or more. A geezer such as I thinks to himself that an individual human vision is more likely to result in worthwhile art than something bolted together by committee, although there’s an alternate viewpoint. Author Ted Gioia points out that the creation of ASCAP meant that songwriters were assured of getting paid for their creative contributions, but musicians, engineers, and producers might not be. Crediting them as writers allows them to get fair compensation in the form of performance royalties from radio airplay.

—Gioia wrote about one of the most unlikely interpreters of the Great American Songbook: Willie Nelson. His 1978 standards album Stardust is a masterpiece, but Willie has recorded standards frequently ever since, and he’s got a gift for it.

—When Rolling Stone came out with its revised list of the Top 500 albums of all time earlier this fall, I was torn. As a Guy With Opinions About Music, I felt like I should read it. But at the same time, I’m not as young as I used to be, and my clock is ticking. So I didn’t read the whole thing. I did read a couple of articles about it, however, including this one from the New Yorker about the futility of the whole enterprise. They ask: how can you rank Joni Mitchell, the Notorious B. I. G., and Ornette Coleman side-by-side?

That’s all I’ve got today. Thank you for your continued support of this Internet feature, even when it sucks. 

Sunsets and Shellfish

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(Pictured: sunset in the Virgin Islands.)

When I was writing about WIBS, the radio station in the U.S. Virgin Islands that changed its call letters to WGOD back in 1985, it slipped my mind that my old boss, Gene, was doing radio in the Islands back in the 80s. He e-mailed to say that he was a friend of the man who built WIBS, and that after the station was sold, he told the new owner that there was no way that the WGOD call letters would be approved. “I nearly dropped over when I heard he got them.”

Gene said the new owner asked him to train his sales people. (“He had no clue about radio, he owned a trucking company.”) But the owner needed some training himself. Gene says that for religious reasons, the guy didn’t want to advertise restaurants that sold shellfish. “I told him then, you might as well beg for money because this is one of the top vacation destinations with abundant seafood, many of which have shells. You’re eliminating more than half of your prospective advertisers.” Swiftly, the owner got over his Old Testament issue, and WGOD is still on the air today.

The original WIBS “had beautiful views from one of the highest peaks in the VI,” Gene says. “The station had a large free-standing tower and the studios were built under the legs. The tower eventually came down in one of the hurricanes.”

(When I was working for Gene in the early 90s, I wondered why he’d leave the Virgin Islands for Iowa. I remember him telling me that he missed the weather. In the Islands, he said, it was sunny and 82 every single day except for three days in August when there would be a hurricane. That wasn’t the only reason he came back to the continental U.S., but for an old radio guy, it’s a persuasive one.)

Continue reading “Sunsets and Shellfish”