Could I Have This Dance?

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(Pictured: this is what people think it’s like to be a party DJ. Go ahead and keep thinking that.)

The role of the party DJ has changed a great deal since I was doing it back in the 90s. Where we played CDs and even a few cassettes, music is all digital now. In addition to music, DJs now often provide photo booths, karaoke, and other stuff. At the last few weddings I have attended, the DJ rarely spoke; he wasn’t putting on a show around the music, as we used to do. And that’s fine. Times change.

I have written a few times over the years about wedding DJ work. For example, in 2011:

Clients and wedding guests could be terrifically gracious, inviting us to have dinner, a piece of wedding cake, or a drink at the open bar. But they could also be shockingly rude, peremptorily demanding this and that. And a couple of times, we felt physically threatened. One family had paid to rewire the reception hall after it was determined the electrical panel on the rickety stage in the middle of the room (in a decrepit hall, in a decaying town) couldn’t handle the smoke machine in addition to the DJ rig and the light rig. The smoke machine cost extra, and this family obviously wanted it badly, but on the night of the wedding, The Mrs. and I could not get the notoriously temperamental thing to function. So there we were, on a low stage surrounded by the entire cast of Deliverance, all violently pissed off that they weren’t getting the goddamn smoke they paid for, although the cigarette smoke in the room should have been more than enough.

There were more physical threats than there should have been, actually. On another night in another hall, a guest wanted to use our microphone to make a toast, which we did not allow. He and his knot of friends were not happy; after the party ended and we were packing up, I wasn’t sure they were going to let us out. Guests would frequently ask if they could look through our CDs, which we also never allowed; one of them told us that since we were paid help, we should let guests do whatever they wanted.

The thread connecting all of the bad experiences was alcohol. After another party, at midnight while we were packing up, the father of the bride wobbled over and started criticizing the job we’d done. For a few minutes I was sure he was going to stiff us the $300 he owed. At another party, the extremely young bride and groom got drunk in the limo between the church and the reception; she was weepy and he was catatonic, and dealing with them required a very light touch.

There was another bride who wasn’t drunk, but who could have benefitted from a couple of drinks. She came over to request “YMCA,” which packed the dance floor, but when I followed it with KC and the Sunshine Band and not a solitary soul left the floor, she came back on the dead run to accuse me of “ruining her wedding by playing disco.”

But there were many good things to remember, too. The Mrs. and I worked for a DJ service, which would book the parties through a particular hour, but the client had the option to purchase an extra hour if they chose, and if they did, that money went directly into our pockets. It was a validation of the job we’d done when the groom or the father of the bride came up to us at quarter-to-eleven with a wad of cash to ask if we could stay until midnight. (Drunk-in-the-limo couple bought an extra hour that night.) We made it a point to play at least one set of music the couple’s grandparents and other older guests could dance to, which back in the 90s was music from the 40s; they would look at us with appreciation as they swayed to “Moonlight Serenade.”

My last experience as a party DJ was a brief turn in the booth at a friend’s wedding in 1999. I have been asked to do it a couple of times since but have always turned down the requests; I don’t have the equipment, or the desire. But for the few years The Mrs. and I did it, we had fun with it.

Let’s Remember a Guy

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(Pictured: the man himself, 2008.)

There’s a thing that’s gained popularity lately, thanks mostly to the writers at Defector, who started doing it on slow days at their former website, Deadspin: “let’s remember some guys.” It’s pretty simple: you come up with the name of an athlete from out of the past and discuss your memories of him. They didn’t invent it, however. “Remembering some guys” has been going on for as long as men have had time to talk about sports. (Somebody on Twitter, I forget who, suggested that men talk about guys as a way to have deep and involved conversations without having to discuss emotions, hopes, dreams, and the sort of stuff men are often not comfortable sharing with one another. I think that’s probably true.) 

A related activity involves the collection of unusual names. To do this in the modern world, you walk a line that didn’t exist years ago. You gotta ask whether it’s racist to note the unusual-ness of certain Black athletes’ names that include nonstandard capitalization and punctuation marks. Although it’s worth noting that some of the strangest names you can find right now are among pro golfers and lacrosse players, two of the whitest sports in America. 

So anyway: this piece appeared in its original form at my first blog, The Daily Aneurysm, on May 21, 2006. A slightly revised and edited version has been sitting in my Drafts file for nearly 10 years, going back to when I first had the idea of repeating old Aneurysm posts here. I looked at it the other day after a brief Twitter exchange about great baseball names, and added the link in the first paragraph.

Over the years, I have collected odd names. It’s easier now than it used to be. Some of the names parents hang on kids today seem so strange, and sometimes so flatly cruel, that you can’t help but notice them. I am thinking here of the parents who wanted to name their son Tim, but for whom Tim was simply too pedestrian, so they named him Tymme, or the parents who created future strippers by naming their daughters Wytnee or Lynzi.

I was collecting athlete names first, however. It started way back in the 60s and 70s, with names like Pedro Borbon and Cephus Weatherspoon. But despite my experience with odd names, nothing prepared me for the latest one I found: Boof Bonser. Boof is a pitcher who will make his major-league debut for the Minnesota Twins today [5/21/06] against the Milwaukee Brewers.

In defense of his parents, Boof’s name is self-inflicted. His parents named him John Paul. (John Paul Bonser isn’t a bad rock-star name, actually—a chainsaw lead guitarist in a heavy-metal band, maybe.) Somebody nicknamed him Boof at some point, and he legally changed his name to Boof a few years ago.

When I first heard the jokes about Boof, I laughed along with them. But that was before I realized his name has magical powers. When you speak the name “Boof Bonser” aloud, something happens. You have to smile. Endorphins are released.…All the trouble in the world seems mitigated by the fact that there’s a guy named Boof walking around and sharing it with us.…

Try it.

It’s particularly fun to say if you do it like a ballpark announcer.

Boof Bonser started 60 games for the Twins in three years, including a start in the 2006 ALDS. In 2009, he appeared in only one minor-league game, so I suspect he was injured that year. After the 2009 season, the Twins traded him to the Red Sox, but he appeared in only two games for them in 2010 and was released in June. The A’s picked him up, and he appeared in 13 games, the last one in October 2010, at the butt-end of the season. After that, he was signed by the Mets, Giants, and Cleveland organizations, and pitched in the minors without making it back to the Show. In 2013 he pitched in China and in the independent Atlantic League. Lifetime major league record: 19 wins, 25 losses, earned-run average 5.12, and WHIP 1.459. 

If you would like to remember some other guy, please do so in the comments. 

The Men at the Mike

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(Pictured: Bob Uecker interviews Reggie Jackson in the locker room after the Yankees win the 1977 World Series. This post isn’t really about Uecker, though.) 

The Milwaukee Brewers’ playoff run brought renewed attention to Bob Uecker, who’s done Brewers radio for 50 years and is still in top form at age 87, and a damn legend whose like will never be seen again. (This recent MLB.com profile is absolute gold.) Over the years I have written about some of my favorite sportscasters. Here’s a reboot of some of that. 

My voice of the Badgers was Earl Gillespie, a Wisconsin sports legend who broadcast the Milwaukee Braves on radio from 1953 through 1963 before going into TV. By the 70s, he did Wisconsin Badgers football games on a statewide radio network, and his voice was as much a part of my youth as those of Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, and the rest of my Top 40 heroes. His color man was Ted Moore, who had a significant claim to fame of his own as the man at the radio mike during the Green Bay Packers’ glory years of the 1960s. Together, Gillespie and Moore provided the soundtrack for several years of autumn Saturdays. Gillespie would say “First down for Bucky Badger!,” and introduce commercial breaks by saying, “Now before the next kickoff, listen to this.”

Those early 70s Saturdays had their own rhythm. Games almost always kicked off at 1:00. Around halftime, East Coast final scores would come trickling in, from places like Harvard and Holy Cross. At halftime of home games, the broadcasters would always pause so the fans at home could hear the fans at the game sing Wisconsin’s traditional song, “Varsity.” And late in the season, the games would end as night began to fall.

And then, on Sunday games: 

It’s fashionable to criticize Joe Buck, currently the top baseball and football voice of Fox Sports, for his minimalist style, but Ray Scott, who called Packer games and four Super Bowls for CBS in the late 60s and early 1970s, was sports broadcasting’s original minimalist, always letting the game unfold and the broadcast breathe, never using two sentences when one would do, or six words when five were enough. [Uecker is a minimalist as well.—Ed.] But Scott’s great gift (and where Joe Buck often fails) was in effectively capturing the drama of the game with those well-chosen words. For a young boy just beginning to follow the NFL, he was the voice of God. He seemed larger than life and made the games seem that way, too. I can hear him now: “Starr brings the Packers to the line on third down and 14.” Even in memory, I sit up a little straighter and lean in closer to see what happens next. There are not many play-by-play guys working today who can do that.

As I travel around the country, I hear many high-level play-by-play broadcasters who don’t seem very good, but then I realize how spoiled we are up here in Wisconsin between Uecker and Brian Anderson, who does Brewers TV and national games for TNT and TBS, Wayne Larrivee on Packers football, and Matt Lepay on Badger football and basketball (and occasionally Brewers TV). Each of them deeply understands what seems so obvious, but which many sports broadcasters miss: their entire job is to either tell people what’s happening (on radio) or to elaborate on what they’re seeing (on television) as clearly and effectively as possible. They are not there to entertain. The star of the broadcast is the game and the team or teams they are covering. Oddly, that dedication to not being the star of the broadcast makes them a major attraction—entertaining, even—to those of us who enjoy their work.

My original piece on listening to Badger football began as follows, and it’s a good way to end this one. 

October 11, 1969: The Wisconsin Badgers, riding a 23-game winless streak, get a late touchdown pass from Neil Graff to Randy Marks and beat Iowa 23-16. It’s the first win for the Badgers since the 1966 season finale, a streak eased only by a tie with Iowa in 1967.

November 23, 1974: The Badgers meet Minnesota in their traditional season finale. Wisconsin tailback Bill Marek rushes for 304 yards and five touchdowns as the Badgers destroy the Gophers, 49-14. The Badgers end the ’74 season with seven wins and four losses, their first winning season since 1963.

I saw both of those games. They weren’t on TV, and I didn’t have a ticket—but they were on the radio, and that was enough.

September 7, 1978: Who Are You?

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(Pictured: Keith Moon and Annette Walter-Lax at the London premiere of The Buddy Holly Story on September 6, 1978.)

While it’s pleasant to read your old stuff and think, “Yeah, that’s still pretty good,” sometimes you read your old stuff and go, “Dear goddess I hope nobody saw this.” The post below first appeared in 2007, before I’d figured out the form of One Day in Your Life posts, and the original has some other problems. So here it is again, rebooted.

September 7, 1978, was a Thursday. At Camp David, President Carter referees a tense day of secret meetings between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, negotations that will result in the Camp David Accords later this month. In Iran, a month of anti-Shah demonstrations reaches its peak as two million rally against the regime in Tehran. The Shah imposes martial law; the next day, Iranian troops will kill thousands of demonstrators. In London, Bulgarian expatriate writer and journalist Georgi Markov is walking to work at the BBC when he feels a stinging pain in his thigh. Four days later he will be dead of ricin poisoning, delivered by a KGB agent’s umbrella. By proclamation of Mayor Michael Bilandic, it’s Peace Day in Chicago. The Italian-American Club of Livonia, Michigan, publishes its first newsletter. In Bayside, New York, the Virgin Mary appears to Veronica Lueken, who had been seeing her regularly since 1970. Lueken is told: “Satan, Lucifer in human form, entered into Rome in the year 1972.” Some will interpret the statement as meaning that Pope Paul VI was replaced by an impostor in 1972, and that the so-called Third Secret of Fatima, historically believed to refer to the end of the world, actually refers to a Russian takeover of the Catholic Church. Future actor Devon Sawa and future pro hockey player Matt Cooke are born. General George P. Hays, who won the Medal of Honor in World War I and commanded troops in Europe during World War II, dies at age 85.

In the majors, the New York Yankees open a four-game series by beating the Boston Red Sox 15-3; the Yankees will sweep the series to pull even in the standings with the Red Sox, who had a 14-game lead in mid-July. Six Five future Hall of Fame players appear in the game. TV5 in Platteville, Wisconsin, the campus cable TV station, previews the series on that night’s news broadcast; the sports anchor is an erstwhile radio broadcaster in his second week at college. Celebrity guests on Match Game ’78 this week are Robert Mandan, Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, Lee Meriwether, Richard Paul, and Betty White. NBC airs the premiere episode of the new series Grandpa Goes to Washington, starring Jack Albertson and Larry Linville. When it moves to its regular Tuesday slot, it will be on opposite another new series, CBS’ The Paper Chase. Both shows hope to pick up any viewers who aren’t watching Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, the two top-rated shows on TV.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are on the cover of Rolling Stone. The magazine contains a full-page ad for the new album by the Who, Who Are You. After attending the London premiere of The Buddy Holly Story with Paul McCartney and a post-premiere party at which he discussed with Eric Idle a role in the upcoming Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Keith Moon returns to a flat he and his girlfriend Annette Walter-Lax had borrowed from Harry Nilsson. Moon has been prescribed pills to help wean him off alcohol; he takes 32 of them, has a few drinks, and dies of an overdose. At WRKO in Boston, “Three Times a Lady” by the Commodores tops the chart again. There’s not a lot of movement: The most impressive moves are made by Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” jumping to #7 from #11, “Kiss You All Over” by Exile, climbing from #18 to #12, and “Hot Child in the City” by Nick Gilder, moving from #22 to #15. Debuting at #30 is the second solo single by Kenny Loggins, “Whenever I Call You Friend,” which features backing vocals by Stevie Nicks and Melissa Manchester. They’re a bit behind on this one in the Midwest—it won’t chart at WLS for a month yet. It will take the erstwhile DJ-turned-sportscaster mentioned earlier in this post a lot longer—several years—before he stops associating the record with his difficult transition to college life and just starts digging it.

In the Air Tonight

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(Pictured: MTV’s Martha Quinn with a remarkably normal-looking Ozzy Osbourne in 1983.)

MTV launched 40 years ago this Sunday.  I haven’t had time to write anything new about it, so here’s a reboot of some stuff I wrote in 2006 and 2011. There were lots of links in the originals but they’re all dead now, so I took ’em out and I don’t have time to put ’em back in. 

The first video ever shown on MTV was, famously, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles:

It had been a modest hit on good old-fashioned radio late in 1979–which, given its sonic oddness, was quite an accomplishment. With its iconic images of video screens rising from a pile of old radios, if it hadn’t already existed, MTV would have had to invent something like it for its first video.

Rather than showcasing the best that music video had to offer at that moment, the first hour’s music was entirely random. Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” was the second video, followed by the hideous “She Won’t Dance With Me” by Rod Stewart (lyric sample: “Got a hard-on, honey, that hurts like hell / If I don’t ask her, somebody else will”). The first hour also included “Little Susie’s on the Up” by Ph.D, which is frequently omitted by people listing the first hour’s videos because nobody had ever heard of it then or remembers it now. Also seen: “We Don’t Talk Anymore” by Cliff Richard, a remarkably geeky video even by the standards of 1981. Best song of the lot: either “Rockin’ the Paradise” [by Styx] or “You Better You Bet” by the Who. Best video of the lot: “Brass in Pocket” by the Pretenders, which is the one video from the first hour that most people would recognize if they saw it today.

Digression: MTV blasted to popularity in small- and medium-sized cities first, because it was easier to get cable clearances in those places than in major metropolitan areas. And once it became clear that MTV’s audience was going to be comprised largely of white suburban kids, that meant REO Speedwagon and Styx until you couldn’t stand it anymore.

Mark Goodman got the first VJ shift, and his smarmy personality was already on display, although he wasn’t quite as impressed with himself as he would eventually become. . . . One of the things he talked about was how you could write in for your free MTV dial position sticker. One of MTV’s big selling points was that the audio was in stereo, but TV channels didn’t broadcast in stereo back then, so TVs weren’t equipped for it. To get MTV in stereo, you had to hook your cable TV into your stereo receiver. You got a little gizmo that attached to the FM antenna port on the back of the receiver, into which you plugged a cable from the cable box. If it worked—a rather big “if” in my experience—instead of getting whatever signals you could pull down out of the ether, you would get whatever FM services the cable company was offering, including the audio from MTV. The purpose of the sticker was to help you remember where you should tune to get the MTV audio.

The very first commercial spot ever shown was for school supplies—some kind of expanding three-ring binder. Also in the first break, the only ad I’ve ever seen for Dolby technology, which was probably a trade for some of the equipment MTV was using. Later breaks included a classic Mountain Dew spot (idiots rolling downhill inside a giant inflatable donut, to the tune of “Give me a Dew”), an Atari spot with hot new games that looked like MS-DOS graphics, and a promo for the Movie Channel.

That those sponsors shelled out to be on MTV the first day is a bit of a miracle. At the moment MTV launched, it was on a single cable system in northern New Jersey.

You can find a lot of videos on YouTube purporting to be the first hours of MTV, and they’re all different. Likewise, sources differ on the exact video lineup in the first hour. My source for this post was the 2011 VH1 Classic rebroadcast of the first hour, and you’d think that they’d get it right.

My radio station is doing some special programming related to the anniversary this weekend. Putting it together, I learned that the video most played on the first weekend of MTV was “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, although it didn’t appear in the historic first hour. 

Coming Monday: more from the weekend of August 1, 1981. 

The Histories of Disco

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I came across this post in the archives a while back, and it holds up OK. It’s been slightly edited and annotated.  

Scholars who have examined the history of disco place its origins in the early 1970s, and locate them in the gay clubs of post-Stonewall New York City, where newly empowered gays were able to create and openly celebrate their own culture for the first time. Disco reached critical mass with the public in part because several key executives who supported and encouraged their record labels to market disco were homosexual themselves. The first disco records to break through to mainstream Top 40 appeared sometime in 1974 or thereabouts. As celebrities of the mid 70s embraced the disco scene and got publicity doing so, people far removed from the nation’s urban centers became interested in the disco experience, and clubs began to proliferate. The opening of Studio 54 in 1977 was national news, and it helped prime the pump for the disco explosion that rocked the country with the release of Saturday Night Live at the end of the year. In 1978, disco came to Holiday Inn lounges by the hundreds as John Travolta’s Tony Manero and the Bee Gees stood astride the pop world. But by this time, the people who had pioneered disco a half-decade before were proclaiming it dead. And within two years, it would indeed be dying, done in by a rock-n-roll backlash.

This isn’t entirely accurate. Disco never really died; it fell out of mainstream popularity and off the radio, which is not the same thing. The disco at your local Holiday Inn became a sports bar, but the clubs that had been disco clubs before disco was cool continued to thrive. And by 1982 or 1983, beats were back on mainstream pop radio, but in the guise of English bands with interesting haircuts. (*White* English bands, mostly, which opens a potentially interesting window we aren’t going to climb through today.) And it wouldn’t be long after that before hip-hop—with more beats you could dance to—got onto the radio, on its way to becoming the predominant genre in pop music.  

In the Midwestern United States of my teenage years, the history of disco went down another way entirely. For most of us, disco began as a radio phenomenon, although for a long time, it didn’t seem all that different from the rest of the stuff we were hearing on WLS, or whoever we were listening to. I was an R&B fan with catholic tastes, so I wasn’t automatically prejudiced against anything. Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Fly Robin Fly” by Silver Convention, and “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” by Tavares had a distinctive sound, but they did not seem like harbingers of a new era—they were just other ways to do R&B. Not until disco performers and their records became interchangeable, and you couldn’t tell by listening who was who, did I start to dislike the stuff. And that wasn’t until sometime in 1979.

A couple of years ago, in a Twitter convo, our man Larry Grogan said: “If the culture had stuck to the kind of wide-ranging things you’d hear at the Loft (funky rock, Afro funk, world music), all of which was danceable yet not homogenous, it would have made for a much more robust, interesting scene, instead of the fast-burning shit show it turned into.”

Every history of disco talks about its roots in the gay community—but out in the Midwest, we tended to miss that part of it entirely. To us, the Village People were did not signify particular types of gay men; they were just guys in crazy costumes. Neither did we get the in-jokes of “Macho Man,” “YMCA,” and “In the Navy.” It wasn’t until years later that the powerful symbolism of the Village People became obvious. That’s because in my town circa 1978, we were pretty sure we didn’t know any gay people, and gay culture—even the very idea that such a thing might exist—was a mystery. Homosexuality simply didn’t register. (We would discover in a year or two that one of the guys in our circle of friends was gay, but even after we found out, he seemed no different than the guy we’d known for years, so it didn’t matter.)

Originally posted 10 years ago today. Sweet mama we been at this a long time.