Measuring Life

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“It’s graduation week at my old school.” I wrote that line in a post 13 years ago this week, and it’s true again. I had a nephew graduating from my old school then; this week it’s a niece. Here’s more of that old post, with commentary. Some links have been updated or added.

The Mrs. and I have no children of our own, so we watch our nephews and nieces grow, and we measure our lives by theirs. It’s not just living vicariously through their experiences. It’s re-living too.

Another of our nephews is ending his junior year. At the end of that year, I was in love, and I felt like I had life pretty much figured out. That was the summer I started off by working at the gas station and the grocery store, but early August I had quit one job and been fired from the other. Got your life figured out? Not so fast, kid.

That nephew is one of the lucky people who set his eye on a very specific dream job and then got it. It’s too soon to know how everything will turn out for him, but so far, so good.

Still another nephew is wrapping up eighth grade. Sometime that spring—and it might as well have been the last week of May—we had that fire in our house, the one that reshaped the whole summer.

I used to believe that nephew was going to become either a novelist or a stoner. He is neither today, but he still has a unique personality among our entire brood.

A couple of our nephews just turned 10. Like they are, I would have been wrapping up fourth grade. One of them is deeply into sports, as I was. The other is a bright, earnest little guy who reminds me of myself, nurturing his pet obsessions and eager to be liked. Let’s hope for his sake he doesn’t go full geek over the next several years, as his uncle did.

The one who was deeply into sports still is, a talented college baseball player who graduated this week and now has to figure out what’s next beyond baseball. The “bright, earnest little guy” did not go full geek; he soon became the coolest person in any room he walked into, and he still is.

I have one niece and one nephew who are turning eight this year; one is finishing second grade and the other first. In my life, those years were time without a calendar, as all time was before the fall of 1970. In first grade and half of second, I rode the bus to Lincoln School … Midway through second grade, many of my friends and I transferred to newly built Northside School, which seemed like a great adventure then, but was also a lesson in the profound effects of change.

The niece is now in college. The nephew went to tech school and got off to a rocky start in his chosen career, but things are better now. I have no doubt that he’s been imbued with the same sense of responsibility his father and his uncles got growing up, and he’ll be fine.

How many kids are left to count? A nephew who’s six, a niece who’s five, a nephew who’s four—representing years that are hazier still, first days of kindergarten and days before that, toys on the dining room floor, overnights at Grandma’s house, and back to the very beginning of everything.

The nephew who was six grew up believing he was bound for college, then decided college was not his proper path and found a better one. The nephew who was four is an athlete like his brother. Since my original post was written, we added one more niece, who will soon be 12, and we look forward to seeing who she’s going to be.

The nephew who graduated in 2010 is married now and is one of the good people in this world. The niece who was five in 2010 is the one graduating this weekend, bound for the college The Mrs. and I attended, which pleases us greatly.

I worry for these kids. Their futures are deeply uncertain, through absolutely no fault of their own. I have not asked any of them if they’re worried, however, and I don’t plan to. When you are young, the future is what it is. You face it a day at a time, and you do the best you can in the moment. I hope these kids will do better with their moments than my generation did with ours.

Stagger Lee Is Everywhere

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Here’s a 2009 post from the archives that seems worth repeating. As usual, it has been edited a bit to update the hyperlinks and to eliminate some writerly tics from the past. 

“Stagger Lee” is one of the great American folk songs. It’s derived from the story of a man named Lee Shelton, a ghetto figure in St. Louis just before the turn of the 20th century. He was known as Stagger Lee, or Stagolee, or Stack-o-Lee, or something similar, and on Christmas Eve 1895, he murdered a man named Billy Lyons in a bar. According to author Cecil Brown, who wrote a book on the song and its history, Shelton was a well-known pimp in a rundown area of the city called Deep Morgan. Shelton and Lyons were drinking together amicably until an argument erupted and Lyons took Shelton’s hat. Shelton demanded it back, Lyons refused, Shelton pulled a .44, Lyons pulled a knife, and Shelton shot him dead. Shelton ended up in prison, dying there in 1912, age 41.

A murder ballad telling the story of Stagger Lee began circulating through the south and west in the early 20th century. Versions were cut as early as the 1920s, and Brown reports that there are over 120 blues and jazz versions of it. Folklorists John and Alan Lomax recorded it during their field expeditions in the 30s and 40s. It reached the pop market when Lloyd Price took his version to #1 in 1959. Since then, it’s been recorded by, well, everybody, including Bob Dylan, Bill Haley and the Comets, Wilson Pickett, Neil Diamond, Ike and Tina Turner, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Huey Lewis and the News, James Brown, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The Grateful Dead and the Clash are among the artists who have done variations on the original, although to talk in terms of variations doesn’t mean very much—as a folk song, “Stagger Lee” varies by definition. Each artist who tackles it tends to make it his or her own, although versions from Lloyd Price on down have usually focused on Stagger Lee and Billy as gamblers rather than murderer and victim.

Lee Shelton was said to be a powerful and charismatic man, tough and fearless. In some early versions of “Stagger Lee,” he does battle with the Devil himself. A figure of such rough independence is naturally attractive to young men who want to be like him. Author Greil Marcus suggests that the figure of Stagger Lee appears over and over in African-American culture. Brown quotes Marcus:

Stagolee was ‘Muddy Waters’s cool and elemental ‘Rollin’ Stone’; Chuck Berry’s ‘Brown-Eyed Handsome Man’; Bo Diddley with a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind; Wilson Pickett’s ‘Midnight Mover,’ Mick Jagger’s ‘Midnight Rambler’ . . . When the civil rights movement got tough, [Staggerlee] took over. And Staggerlee would come roaring back to the screen in the 1970s, as Slaughter, Sweet Sweetback, Superfly.’

Brown also links Stagger Lee to rap music and hip-hop style.

You almost certainly have a version or two of “Stagger Lee” in your music library. For example, Samuel L. Jackson performed it in the 2007 movie Black Snake Moan. Jackson’s version (which is extremely NSFW) focuses on the murderous part of the story. One version that focuses on the gambling tale is as far opposite of Jackson’s performance as it’s possible to get: the one by Tommy Roe, his last Top 40 hit, in the fall of 1971. I suspect that if Jackson’s character in Black Snake Moan ever heard it, he would likely want to pop a few motherfkin’ bullets into Roe for blasphemy, but anyone who digs the bubblegum like I do should be OK with it.

Listening to the two versions back to back is a vivid illustration of how malleable a folk song can be.

On Another Matter: I have written here over the years about a handful of albums I consider to be my all-time favorites, but I lack the work ethic to make anything like a definitive list. So I respect what Eric Berlin is doing at Pop Thruster: a “personal super biased, incredibly subjective take on what my best 1,000 albums are, ranked in painstaking order over the course of doing research for nearly a year, Rob from High Fidelity style.” You will agree with some choices and argue with others, which is really the point of such a project. Get started with the list here.


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(Pictured: the Stones and the Hell’s Angels onstage at Altamont. The stage was only three feet high. At one point, a long piece of string was the only barrier between it and the fans.) 

I recently listened to a 2022 episode of the great Let It Roll podcast in which host Nate Wilcox talked with journalist Joel Selvin about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 Altamont concert. Selvin wrote a book about Altamont in 2016, and here’s a piece of what I wrote about it back then, edited slightly. 

In the fall of 1969, the Rolling Stones, strapped for cash, scheduled a brief tour of America for November. They would be followed by documentarians Albert and David Maysles and hoped to cash in with a concert film, a la Woodstock. A free outdoor festival, doubling as a rock ‘n’ roll summit between San Francisco and London, would provide the perfect ending to the tour and the film. What resulted is a story full of twists and turns that ends up a horror show, described in the fascinating new book Altamont: the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.

The Stones played standard arena shows in big cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and in college towns including Fort Collins, Colorado; Auburn, Alabama; and Champaign, Illinois. But the free festival was supposed to be the capper. It was originally set for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Stones’ appearance (alongside the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane) would be revealed only at the last minute as a surprise. Bu the surprise aspect was quickly scuttled, and then bungling management required the concert to be moved, first to Sears Point Raceway north of San Francisco and then, less than 36 hours before the announced concert date (December 6, 1969) to Altamont Speedway, a broken-down track about 40 miles east of Oakland.

Selvin’s book paints the rolling disaster in moment-by-moment detail—Mick Jagger comes off as astoundingly naive, refusing to permit police on the grounds—along with the out-and-out grifting by some of the participants. For example, a mysterious guy named Jon Jaymes was in charge of transportation and security and signed the contract with the owner of Altamont Speedway, but he wasn’t on the Stones’ payroll or anyone else’s, and it’s unclear how he managed to attach himself to the tour. When Jagger decamped for Switzerland on December 7th with the tour proceeds, $1.8 million in cash, he and the Stones left behind a trail of unpaid bills.

The bad juju that enveloped Altamont was the product of forces that the Stones were capable of unleashing but could not control. Since they last toured America in 1966, the country had changed. Concert crowds were no longer made up of screaming teenyboppers. The news was grimmer—Vietnam was a deeper quagmire and Richard Nixon, the least-trusted politician in America among young people, was in the White House, fostering anger and mistrust. The drugs were heavier: at Altamont, psychedelics and wine were the drugs of choice; in Selvin’s telling, musicians, concert crew, photographers, and a significant percentage of the crowd were tripping all day long. The crowd deserves a share of the blame for the violence that plagued the show. Although the Hells Angels, famously hired to handle security for $500 worth of beer, were accomplished lawbreakers (and were themselves addled by drugs and alcohol), they found concertgoers more than willing to egg them on. Even Meredith Hunter, the man whose stageside murder by one of the Angels was captured by the Maysles’ cameras, was high and looking for a fight.

Well before December 6th, 1969, it was clear that Altamont was haunted. The signs were everywhere. Without the guardian angels or the dumb luck that had favored Woodstock, it was a flashpot waiting for a match.

In the podcast, Selvin notes that the famous $500 worth of beer wasn’t a payment for security but merely a hospitable gesture that grew out of a meeting between concert organizers and the Angels. Also, Altamont was where Woodstock’s luck ran out: Woodstock impresario Michael Lang was the one who convinced skeptical organizers that Altamont Speedway, abandoned, trash-strewn, and grim, would be a fine site for the show.  

You should read Selvin’s book, if you haven’t. And you should listen to Let it Roll too. Its mission is to cover the entire history of popular music, from 1800s minstrelsy to EDM. No matter what you’re into, there’s probably an episode that talks about it. 

The Patron Saint of Broadcast Manor

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January came in with a quickness this year, not January-the-month but January-the-vibe. The holidays disappeared like they never really happened, and there’s nothing to look forward to now but two or three months of crappy weather surrounding the daily routine. In the interest of getting something up here this week, here’s a post from April 2013.

In 1979, while I was still immured in the dorm, several of my friends rented a house in the country. Since all of them were radio and television majors, the place was quickly named Broadcast Manor. And since a couple of them would be graduating in the spring of 1980, I was already making plans to move in that fall. Alas, I never did—we lost the house, for reasons I can’t recall. Maybe the owner sold it, maybe he didn’t want to rent it anymore, I forget. But the spring semester could not end until one last epic party, famed among those who were there as the House Destruction Party. We didn’t actually destroy anything, except many, many brain cells. There’s a picture taken the morning after, with all the survivors gathered around a boom mike in the dining room, that’s one of my most cherished artifacts of college.

(Note from 2023: the boom mike in the dining room is emblematic of just how crazy we were for our chosen careers in radio and TV. A few in the picture are still in the biz, but many more are no longer. A couple never found media jobs after college.)

Broadcast Manor lived on that fall, albeit on a much smaller scale. Two of the guys, Jim and Bill, took a two-bedroom apartment in town. I moved in, sharing a room with Jim, while Bill’s friend Tom took the other available space. (Two Jims was not confusing to anybody, since practically nobody called me Jim back then, but that’s a story for another time.) The four of us were not especially compatible. Jim and I liked to party, while Bill and Tom’s idea of a big Friday night was going to dinner with their girlfriends at 5:00 and coming home to watch TV. At least once, Bill and Tom got home to 30 people in the living room after Jim and I forgot to tell them about the party we were planning.

While nothing would ever rival the House Destruction Party, we had a couple of ragers. One was a M*A*S*H party—come as your favorite character—for which Jim and I dressed in matching bathrobes as the Hawkeye Brothers. Another was a beach party, although I think the entire theme might have been a sign saying “beach” that pointed to the upstairs bathroom, where we had filled the tub with water and dyed it blue. One party brought out the cops, and we were shanghaied by Bill and Tom into Friday-night carpet-shampoo duty in the aftermath of another.

Jim, Bill, and Tom all graduated in the spring of 1981, and I took in new roommates for the summer and fall, two of whom were named Dave. Two Daves was not confusing to anybody, since one of the Daves was never called Dave. The Dave who was called Dave was a childhood friend of mine, and a big hit at our first party of the fall, although I didn’t do a good job of introducing him, apparently. I was asked repeatedly on Monday, “Who was that guy who kept refilling my beer on Saturday night?”

He was popular.

College party stories are dime-a-dozen. Everybody’s got them, and everybody thinks theirs are interesting. And there’s also this: everybody thinks their party music was better than anyone else’s. Our party tapes were created from radio station record libraries, and were pretty solid as a result. (For the record, it was “Green Grass and High Tides” that prompted the neighbors to call the police.) But when I think of the typical Broadcast Manor blowout, the memory is always accompanied by the same song: Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita.”

I see that apartment, keg in the kitchen, the stereo cranked, living room full of people, every one of  ’em chanting along, if they can manage to get the words out through the beer fog: “Your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money / Your papa says he knows I don’t have any money.” And right at the end: “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” Everybody’s smiling, laughing, shouting, eyes bright, souls without care, having as much fun as is possible with both feet on the floor.

In all the years since, I’ve never had that much fun again.

Liberal Interpretation

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(Pictured: Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, 1968.)

They don’t make politicians like they used to.

Everett McKinley Dirksen represented Illinois in the House from 1933 to 1949 and in the Senate from 1951 to 1969, and was famed for what he said (“a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money”) and how he said it, in a resonant voice that was once the embodiment of how a distinguished senator should sound. And that voice gave Dirksen an unusual distinction—the oldest person ever to put a record into the Billboard Top 30.

Late in 1966, the United States was embroiled in Vietnam and the antiwar movement was beginning to stir, but the country was not yet as divided as it would become. With troops in the field and debacle not yet apparent, millions of Americans of all ages still fell back on the reflexive patriotism we’re all born with, and in that atmosphere, Dirksen’s recording “Gallant Men” caught on. It hit the Hot 100 on December 24, 1966.

(The words to “Gallant Men” were written in the 1950s by a young man who had majored in economics at Fordham. At the time of writing, he was serving in the army, and was the announcer for the U.S. Army Band. Charles Osgood would spend the rest of his life behind one microphone or another, including 50 years at CBS radio and television.)

In 1964, Robert F. Kennedy was elected to the Senate from New York. As his brother’s political heir, he was one of the Senate’s most visible members, and undoubtedly a future presidential candidate. Imitating the Kennedy voice had already proven lucrative, as the success of Vaughn Meader and The First Family had shown a few years before. Now another group of comedians took that voice as raw material.

Chip Taylor had written the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” Now he teamed with an actor named Bill Minkin to create a version of “Wild Thing” billed to Senator Bobby. A producer in the booth is heard to tell Bobby “this is an answer to Senator McKinley’s hit record.” He exhorts Bobby to “give it a little more liberal interpretation” but later says “not so ruthless, Senator”—a purported willingness to do anything to win was frequently cited by RFK’s critics—and Bobby himself tells Ethel to get all the kids out of the studio, a reference to his well-known large family. As novelty records go, it’s genuinely funny.

“Wild Thing” charted a couple of weeks after “Gallant Men.” On January 21, 1967, the two records sat side-by-side on the Hot 100, “Gallant Men” at #29, its peak position, and “Wild Thing” at #30. The latter would peak at #20 during the week of February 11.

What happened next was probably inevitable. Taylor and Minkin created a record billed to Senator Bobby and Senator McKinley, a version of “Mellow Yellow.” It spent a single week at #99 in March 1967. (The B-side of “Mellow Yellow” is called “White Christmas/3 O’Clock Weather Report,” a takeoff on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night,” done in the style of Bob Dylan and credited to “Bobby the Poet.” You have to hear it to believe it.)

In early 1968, Dirksen would win a Grammy for the album containing “Gallant Men,” and within the year he would record two other spoken-word albums. Minkin formed a comedy group called the Hardly-Worthit Players (the name a takeoff on NBC’s evening newscast, The Huntley-Brinkley Report). There would be one more Senator Bobby record, “Sock It to Me Baby,” but its timing was disastrous. It bubbled under the Hot 100 on June 15, 1968, by which time it has undoubtedly been yanked from every radio station that played it. Nine days earlier, RFK had been assassinated.

This post has been reboted from one originally appearing here on June 5, 2013, and I might now quibble with my statement about the relative lack of debacle in and division over Vietnam in December 1966. Also, I have been unable to determine whether anybody older than Dirksen has made the Top 30 since 2013. He was 71 when “Gallant Men” reached its peak. In 2013, a 96-year-old retired truck driver from Peoria, Illinois, named Fred Stobaugh won a songwriting contest sponsored by a local recording studio, and a recording of his song went viral, reaching #42 on the Hot 100. He’s the oldest person ever to make the big chart, a mark previously set by 85-year-old Tony Bennett in 2011. For what it’s worth, Louis Armstrong remains the oldest person to hit #1; he was 62 when “Hello Dolly” went all the way in 1964. It’s a little hard to believe nobody older hasn’t ridden some momentary wave of YouTube or social media virality to the top in the last couple of decades. 

Plugged In

When your cat goes out but doesn’t come back in, or a stray dog comes begging at your back door, do you call your local radio station and ask them to announce it? Almost certainly not. But there was a time when people commonly did so, and radio stations were happy to read lost-pet announcements—and not just in small towns, either. Take a look at the survey from KFRC in San Francisco dated August 21, 1972. (The front and back covers are pictured here. Click to embiggen, because they’re beautiful. ) Stations frequently sold advertising on the back page of the weekly music survey, but without an ad, a station promo would do. And on this particular week, KFRC promoted its Petline: “Call day or night. If you have lost your pet or found someone else’s animal friend, we will try to help.”

We did this kind of announcement at KDTH years ago. You’d get a call—sometimes from a child—reporting that their dog was lost. It could be heartbreaking to take the description and the dog’s name, and to promise to read the announcement, all the while knowing that the odds of someone hearing the announcement and finding the animal as a result were slim. We also took pet-found announcements. The likelihood of reuniting pet with owner probably wasn’t any higher than with lost-pet announcements, but they were easier to take.

This sort of public service announcement was once just the tip of an iceberg. At KDTH, we kept a Rolodex full of other announcements for the jocks to read whenever there was time (like when you needed to fill a little time before the network news). Church chicken barbecues, ladies’ club bazaars, boy-scout fundraisers, community craft shows—if you sent us the details, we’d put the announcement into the rotation.

By the middle of the 1980s, the community-calendar/lost-animal PSA fell by the wayside. Maybe the demand for announcements started to exceed the supply of time, or the value of the time became just too great to give away. Maybe it’s that many of the events were of limited interest, and promoting them sounded cheesy and small-time. But it occurs to me now that for making a station sound plugged-in to its community, you could scarcely do better. Any individual announcement didn’t get on much, but in the aggregate, it sounded like the station knew everything that was happening everywhere. And when members of the sponsoring organization—or the owner of the missing cat—heard their announcement, even if they heard it only once, they felt as though the station really cared about them, and by extension, the community.

The first part of this post was rebooted from something that appeared here on August 21, 2009. What’s on the flip is new. 

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