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”

The Message

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(Pictured: Madison, last Saturday, before it hit the fan.)

(Life on Lockdown returns today with political content ahead. Read it or don’t, be offended or not. It’s up to you.)

We read about George Floyd’s murder, and we react to it in horror. Then we read about the riots and other protests around the country, and we react in horror to them as well. It makes us sad and angry. We wish none of it was happening.

But here’s something lots of well-meaning people are saying: From comfortable living rooms—and comfortable privilege—they want to take the moral high ground above the fray. “Both sides are at fault. The cops shouldn’t have killed George Floyd, but the people of insert big city name here shouldn’t have burned shit down in response. How can America hear what they’re saying when all they see is people on TV breaking windows, starting fires, and looting stores? That’s not the message they should be sending.”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen that, drinks would be on me until time should be no more.

But guess what, Mr. and Mrs. Respectable White People? The riots are the message. People of color have been trying for decades to get privileged white people to see and hear and comprehend the injustices they face and to help do something about it. But nothing ever changes. Asking peacefully hasn’t changed anything. Colin Kaepernick tried it, and some of the same people decrying the current violence turned him into a pariah for it. Voting hasn’t changed anything either, and organized voter suppression efforts aimed at minorities make clear that for them, it isn’t supposed to.

What else would you have them do?

If we have reached the point in this country where people have exhausted all the lesser options, and burning shit down is the only way to effect real change, there’s a great temptation to say that we ought to let it burn. But there’s a broader issue that has nothing to do with burning shit down. After watching police in city after city abuse the legal, civil, and human rights of their fellow citizens night after night—citizens whose only crime, in the vast majority of cases, is exercising their Constitutional right to free assembly—and with the President of the United States ready to unleash the military for the same purpose, it’s hard to argue that the current system is worth saving.

An automatic default to “all violence is bad” without trying to understand why certain people might find violence to be a legitimate response to repression plays into the hands of Donald Trump, who is weaponizing the violence for far more nefarious and destructive ends than broken windows and graffitized buildings. And eventually, not even the moral high ground will save you. Today it’s people of color protesting brutal policing. Tomorrow it could be privileged white people fighting injustices that burst through the doors of comfortable homes in respectable suburbs.

But Jim, can’t you think of something else to write about today? Well, sure.

Continue reading “The Message”