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. 

There But for Fortune

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(Pictured: the New Christy Minstrels perform at the halftime show of Super Bowl IV in 1970. As an indicator of changed times, you can’t do better.)

Since this is a week for potentially dubious historical theorizing, here’s something I wrote in 2012, with annotations.

Among the CDs in my archives is a Time/Life compilation called The Folk Years, released in 2002, which stretches the definition of the genre to snapping. One does not generally think of Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Sonny and Cher, or Nilsson as folk acts, but there they are, and so are Glen Campbell, Chad and Jeremy, and Dion. All of them may have once walked down a street with an acoustic guitar on their backs, but they’re not folksingers the way Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger are. [Although they were often folk-inspired.—Ed.] Some of this is because Time/Life repeatedly anthologizes whatever they can get the rights to, which explains why the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Mamas and the Papas are on every Time/Life set having anything to do with the 60s–-Classic Rock, AM Gold, The Folk Years, etc. Some of it is probably to make the set as commercially attractive as possible—Paxton, Tim Hardin, and the New Christy Minstrels won’t move late-night TV viewers to dial that 800 number as effectively as Peter Paul and Mary and the Spoonful might.

So The Folk Years is not anything like a comprehensive history of the genre in its heyday. But when you weed out the questionable inclusions, a couple of impressions remain about what’s left.

[And now to the theorizing.—Ed.]

American popular music repeatedly assimilated African-American forms into the mainstream, from slave-era songs adapted by blackface minstrels in the late 19th century to the development of jazz in the early 20th to the hybridization of blues and country that gave birth first to R&B and later to rock ‘n’ roll in the mid 20th. It occurs to me that folk gives us a glimpse of what American pop might have sounded like without those influences. Baez and Paxton had beautiful voices and the acoustic guitars that accompanied them glittered like diamonds, but there’s no Elvis anywhere in those records. (Elvis was a white guy, but you know what I mean.) Even though folksingers often adopted and adapted Negro spirituals and traditional songs, they sometimes bleached the soul out of them entirely. Example from The Folk Years: “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight” by the Limeliters, which wants to be a spiritual, but ends up so stiff you start to fear the singers will break a hip. [Compare the version by Joe and Eddie.—Ed.]

Although folk prized its rural roots in addition to its ethnic ones, you do not imagine the artists on The Folk Years singing on front porches; instead, you picture them in ramshackle coffeehouses found on gritty urban streets. The popularity of folk on college campuses in the early 1960s confirms this image. The songs may have celebrated roamers and ramblers, but most fans were neither. I suspect that for some—fans and singers both—folk was fashion, representing how they wanted to be as distinct from who they actually were. In their defense, however, although that sort of thing happened with other genres and fans, and it still does. . . .

Trying to be something you’re not might account for how painfully jive some of this stuff sounds. I’m thinking of the Limeliters again, trying to sound black and being unable to. One of the biggest hit singles of the folk boom, the New Christy Minstrels’ “Green Green,” is marred by Barry McGuire’s faux-gospel exhortations. Folk’s preoccupation with relevance can become wearying after a while (which is why the 1980s-vintage Saturday Night Live game show, “Make Joan Baez Smile” was so funny), but some attempts at levity were disastrous. The Serendipity Singers’ “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” and “Beans in My Ears” sound like nothing so much as clueless adults trying to do something the kids will like [or: “like something a group of middle-aged middle-school teachers might do to sublimate an unmet desire to get laid”—Ed.]. . . .

All that said, however, folk musicians were capable of astoundingly beautiful music: “Today” by the New Christy Minstrels leaves me beautifully wrecked every time I hear it; “There But for Fortune” might be the greatest thing Joan Baez ever did; the version of “500 Miles” by the Journeymen, featuring future California folk-rock stars John Phillips and Scott McKenzie, just might be the definitive one.

As always, I crave your two cents’ worth, because this is just my opinion and I could be completely wrong.

The Night It Hit the Fan

The video embedded above is from 1970, in which Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam explains how he did a famous piece of animation. A hand repeatedly tries to pull a fig leaf from the crotch of Michelangelo’s David and finally succeeds, to reveal underneath a talking head that says, “We’re not going to allow this kind of filth on screen.” A giant “Censored” stamp comes down and the animation ends. The bit is seen in the Python TV series and also in the film And Now for Something Completely Different.

In 1978, I was co-editor of our high school’s literary magazine, and we decided to participate in the school’s fine arts festival that spring by showing a movie. In those pre-videocassette days, you’d rent a movie on 16MM—there used to be companies that provided them—and show it for a couple of bucks a ticket. With Python-mania at its height in 1978 and several Python fanatics on the staff of the magazine, a showing of And Now for Something Completely Different was perfect. So we rented it, publicized it heavily, and planned to show it on a Thursday and Friday night in the high school lecture hall.

The Thursday night showing was not particularly well attended, as we guessed it would not be. Friday was going to be the big night. Five minutes before Thursday night showtime, however, a whole family showed up—Mom, Dad, their high-school-aged son (who was a year or two behind me), and three much-younger siblings. We were not sure what they were doing there, but we collected their $2 a head and rolled the film for them, and the two dozen other people who had showed up.

And Now for Something Completely Different is an anthology of bits from the first two series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One of the first sketches involves a phrasebook that mistranslates mundane Hungarian phrases into sexually suggestive English. Another sketch involving a marriage counselor ends with the counselor and the wife undressing behind a screen before a romantic tryst. This is followed a few minutes later by the fig leaf animation.

On this particular night, the fig leaf animation was followed by the family in the audience noisily getting out of their seats and marching up the aisle and out of the hall. The father demanded of the staff member at the ticket table, in Biblical tones, “Who is responsible for this abomination?”

That night, I knew nothing about the brouhaha, or if I did, I ignored it. The next morning, however, I arrived at school to hear myself being summoned by the public address system to the magazine advisor’s classroom. “It has hit the fan,” he said. “That family at the movie last night complained to the school board, and we have to show the movie to the board at 8:00 this morning.” As it turned out, we had to show it to one member of the school board, a woman I had known for several years because her daughter was a classmate. Perhaps that previous personal relationship saved the magazine—and our advisor—from as much trouble as we could have been in. (He told me years later that he was afraid he would be fired.) We were not permitted to show the film on Friday night, but that was the last I heard of the controversy.

It turned out that the family who had left outraged the previous night had come to the Monty Python movie under the impression that it was about an actual circus, with clowns and acrobats and suchlike. They did not own a TV set, having gotten rid of it years before to keep televised filth out of their very religious home. I asked our advisor, “Why is their backward attitude our problem?” Under the circumstances, he did well not to smack me upside the head in response.

If something similar happened today, the family would have gone to the media in addition to the school board, and the resulting shitstorm would have been epic—a Fox News profile of the religious family that was assaulted by pornography with the approval of the public school they support with their tax dollars. We were lucky to have been living in simpler times.

(Rebooted from a post first appearing in 2012.)

In My Distance

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From time to time over the years I’ve written about the seasonal teaching job I have. This season, I am teaching about as much as I normally would, but it’s all online, from the comfortable chair in my office. I miss traveling a little bit. I find that the best thing about the travel, apart from the off-day brewery stops, might be the little epiphanies, the little things you learn about life and everything else when you’re away from home and alone in your head for most of every day. This piece from 2016, slightly edited, is about one of them. 

The other night, I was driving around in the Minneapolis suburbs after teaching my class, looking for a place to get a quick sandwich.

The work is not strenuous—I do not unload freight cars—but it can be wearying. I have to be “on” for my students for up to six hours at a time, friendly and encouraging and responsive, and I spend most of the time on my feet. . . .  And it can be isolating: apart from interacting with my students, the only people I talk to most days are convenience-store and hotel clerks, waitstaff, and the occasional bartender.

Despite all this, I do not necessarily pine for home on these trips. The majority of my other work is always done on the laptop, so I continue to do it wherever I am; being away is merely a change of scene, like one of my trips to the bagel shop extended to a week. If I pine for anything on these trips, it’s the same things I pine for at home: lost innocence, second chances, that kind of thing.

I was in a hurry when I filled up the CD bag for the car ride, so I grabbed a handful of discs from the Time-Life Sounds of the Seventies series, which I bought back in the 90s. . . . I don’t listen to those CDs much anymore. When I do, they don’t contain any surprises—they’re made up of one old warhorse after another.

So I am trying to find a decent sandwich the other night and growing annoyed with my limited options. I am not really listening to the music, it’s just there, as I scan the horizon for something that’s not going to be too heavy for 9:30 at night (McDonalds, Burger King, etc.) or something that’s not Subway (which I eat only when there’s absolutely no alternative). So add to the weariness the growing desire to find some goddamn thing to eat so I can go back to the hotel and take off my shoes.

Then “After Midnight” comes on,” followed immediately by “Green-Eyed Lady” and “Fire and Rain,” all of which were on the radio that first fall I discovered it, the fall of 1970. And there it is: a glimpse of my lost innocence. For about 10 minutes, I am reminded how it was to be 10 years old, unformed clay, about to learn what I am supposed to be. I will learn it from Eric Clapton, Sugarloaf, James Taylor and all the rest of the people on the radio, especially Larry Lujack and the other WLS DJs. And since I am 10 years old, nearly all of what I have yet to do remains undone, so a river of second chances flows away in my distance.

Those songs, and the other songs from the fall of 1970 and in the years beyond, the ones that I hear in my head even without a radio . . . it occurs to me that they have done everything for me across all the years, everything but save my life, and I suppose they’ve probably done that too.

They told me who I would be, and now they tell me who I am.

If this were fiction, I would crest a hill and find a little diner with a perfect menu and a waitress who looks a little like my mother. But I end up buying a nondescript convenience-store sandwich and a bag of chips, because sometimes it gets late and you really need to get home.

Well, not home, exactly, but back to the hotel. Those old songs had already taken me home, to the place in my head and my heart that’s home, in a way no other place is ever going to be.