What We Were

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the Ramones in 1978. Not the Reagans’ kind of people.)

I appreciate your comments at this website. All of us together have been making us each of us smarter individually for a long time. Readers catch me in mistakes or offer perspectives I either did not consider or do not share.

If there’s a type of comment that bothers me, it’s this kind: a drive-by (on a 10-year-old post) from somebody who has likely never visited this site before, who got here via a Google search, read one post, and decided that what the world most needs to know is that “I think this thing you like actually sucks.” Nothing constructive or insightful, just the Internet equivalent of egging somebody’s car.

For some people, the strongest urge in life is not for food or sex, it’s to correct strangers online. I try to imagine having the ego to do that, but I can’t.

Last week, I got a comment that I honestly don’t know how to take. Reader Bob wrote, “You’ve become like my father in his latter years … calling hard-disk drive space ‘memory.'” The most charitable way to take that is as a compliment on my voluminous capacity for recollection (albeit Google-aided). I might also take it as a suggestion that I spend too much time noodling with the past, and that my memories have blurred into an undifferentiated mush of information that no longer passes for knowledge.

Which one it is doesn’t matter, really, and I don’t choose to be offended if it’s the latter. Bob is not a drive-by reader; he’s part of this community. But he happened to comment on the same day I found something in the archives that is about being stuck in the past, and whether a person can change. I wrote it after spending some time reading a now-defunct nostalgia website whose tagline was “you are what you were.” I have edited it a bit.

I may claim that in my head it’s still 1976, but I know I am not the same person I was in 1976—and thank goodness for that. The kid who lived through the unforgettable seasons of that year had no idea how much he didn’t know about life, and [he] wouldn’t have listened if you had tried to tell him so. And when I get nostalgic about those wild nights in college, I forget that the kid participating in those wild nights was, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, quite an asshole.

I suspect that all of us have been people we are glad to no longer be, even as we cling to the memory of having been those people.

I have, from time to time, gotten reacquainted with people I’ve known since childhood but had been out of touch with for years. Generally, we discovered that the adult versions of ourselves were far more likable than the younger versions had been. Time had sanded away our most maddening qualities, but it had left much of the good in us intact.

So we are not necessarily what we were, no. If we’re lucky, we might still retain the best of what we were.

Links and Notes: I am still trying, and mostly succeeding, at spending less time on Twitter. It has made a modest difference in my mental health, and I intend to keep staying off. But I am still finding worthwhile stuff on it now and then, and here’s some of it:

Continue reading “What We Were”

One Night at the Firehouse

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: L to R, Richard Pryor, Lou Gossett, David Cassidy, Shirley Jones, and Susan Dey in a still from “Soul Club.”)

I found this post in the archives the other day. 

January 29, 1971: The Partridge Family is in its first season, part of ABC’s fondly remembered Friday night lineup. The family’s #1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” is still on the radio, and in another week their followup single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” will bubble under on its way into the Hot 100 and eventually, the Top 10.

On this particular Friday night, the Partridges have a problem. They’ve been booked into a club in Detroit, but it isn’t the posh hotel ballroom they’re expecting—it’s an old firehouse in a neighborhood they clearly find questionable, even nobody comes right out and says so. They park the bus, they go inside, and after a minute or two, one of the owners of the club slides down the pole. The actor on that pole had been knocking around big-time showbiz since his first network TV appearance in 1964. He appeared several times on The Ed Sullivan Show doing Cosby-style standup, nothing like the revolutionary character-based material that would make him a household name beginning in 1974.

In the Partridge episode “Soul Club,” Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett play brothers who have opened the Firehouse as a neighborhood social club where “our people” can meet and hang out. They were expecting the Temptations to perform, but a booking agent screwup sent the Temps to Tucson and the Partridges to Detroit. Neighborhood boss Heavy, from whom Pryor and Gossett have borrowed the money to start up, is the one who orchestrated said screwup, and he threatens to call their note.

While hanging out in the club office (decorated with a Jimi Hendrix poster and one for famed California underground radio station KPPC), the Partridges get an idea: a block party, at which they’ll play, in hopes of making enough money to keep the club afloat. Keith says, “I’ve got an idea for a new song! It’s an Afro thing.” Pryor arranges it for a string section, which Danny recruits from the local Afro-American Cultural Society, and which is intended to stand for the local chapter of the Black Panthers. The block party is a hit (even if Keith’s song, “Bandala,” is about as African as Keith himself), the note is paid, the club is saved, and the Partridges promise to play there again someday. Palms are slapped and awkward soul shakes are exchanged, Danny is made an honorary member of the Afro-American Cultural Society complete with revolutionary black beret, there are laughs all around, and we fade to black.

According to David and Joe Henry, authors of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, “Soul Club” was a backdoor pilot for a future series starring Pryor and Gossett. It’s hard to know how serious the backdoor pilot talk really was. By 1971, the time was surely right for a TV series focused on African-American characters, but a series set in a club that supposedly attracted national acts would be tough to sustain without actually getting some of those acts to appear. (In addition to the Temptations, the name of James Brown is also dropped in “Soul Club.”) At that point, Gossett had more acting experience than Pryor, having previously co-starred in the Revolutionary War series The Young Rebels. Pryor was already earning a certain reputation for trouble. In her autobiography, Shirley Jones remarked that Pryor was “drugged up” during filming. He would return to small TV and movie roles for another three or four years.

TV historian Tom Hill ranks “Soul Club” at #81 on his list of the 100 best TV sitcom episodes of all time. In an era when popular entertainment prized “relevance,” it certainly had that, even while swaddled in a blanket of Hollywood cheese. And it’s one of those grand collisions between pop-culture icons you’d never expect to mention in the same breath.

If you watch, be sure to notice to the way the Black neighborhood is portrayed at first as an alien world, in which the Partridges are meant to stand for the viewer, who is presumed to be a fellow white suburbanite. (The idea of whiteness as the default condition of humanity is textbook white privilege.) “Soul Club”‘s attempt to bridge the gap between the white folks watching and “our people” is the kind of “relevance” that helped move network TV toward more inclusiveness, but it also reveals just how far was left to go in 1971.

Living Theatre

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: let this shot of a happy festival-goer, taken at Knebworth, England, in the 70s, stand for all the naked hippies who enjoyed all of the festivals everywhere, and who are somebody’s grandparents today.)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Mar y Sol Pop Festival in Puerto Rico which, like other festivals of the era, was staged in half-assed fashion and was fortunate not to turn into a greater debacle than it did. I wrote about it during my 2008-2012 tenure with CBS Interactive and the website of radio station WNEW. I repeated the post here in 2013; this reboot revises and adds some hyperlinks. 

By the spring of 1972, the bloom was off the rock festival rose. yet eager promoters were still willing to try putting them on, and fans would attend if they could. In April 1972, the Mar y Sol festival attracted about 50,000 fans to an oceanside site in Puerto Rico.

A festival planned for the previous November had fallen through—and Mar y Sol nearly did, too. New promoter Alex Cooley had chosen Easter weekend for the festival—an extremely important weekend in heavily Catholic Puerto Rico—and Puerto Rican officials, who had welcomed the idea of Cooley’s involvement at first, were suddenly not so supportive. The week of the show, a judge issued an injunction against the festival on the grounds that drugs were being sold at the site, only to reverse the injunction a day later and let the festival go forward.

About 25,000 people had arrived by Friday March 31. On April 1, the day’s headliners included B. B. King and the Allman Brothers Band; on the 2nd, Alice Cooper and Emerson Lake and Palmer performed. Faces and the J. Geils Band were the top stars on Monday the 3rd; Black Sabbath was also scheduled that day, but they were unable to get to the festival site from the airport on the gridlocked roads. Other performers were sprinkled throughout the weekend, including an unknown from New York State named Billy Joel, whose set wowed the crowd, even if nobody can remember clearly whether it was on the 1st or the 2nd.

The vibe at the festival was ominous: armed gangs roamed the grounds, one concert-goer was murdered in a fight gone wrong, and several people drowned in the ocean. The biggest enemy was the sun; the festival medical tent saw more cases of sunburn than anything else. And by the end of the weekend, island authorities had had enough. Cooley had to be smuggled off the grounds because he was the subject of an arrest warrant. About 3,000 people had come down from the mainland, taking advantage of combined flight-and-ticket offers. It took three days to get them all home, because the fine print hadn’t made clear that most of the return flights would be on standby.

A report on the festival in Creem magazine that summer captured the end-of-the-world feeling of Mar y Sol: “More than once during the three days, in fact we were to feel like a yellowing photograph in Life magazine; a living theatre re-enactment of hippiedom 1968 staged for the benefit of curious Puerto Ricans.”

A compilation album of music from the festival was released officially, but it’s long out-of-print. A portion of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s set was released on their From the Beginning box set; this bootleg is supposed to be the whole thing; Billy Joel’s performance has also been bootlegged. There was a plan to film the concert a la Woodstock, but it didn’t happen. When I first wrote this post, YouTube had what was what purported to be film from the show, although it was soundtracked by bands that did not appear there. And in any event, my typically shoddy research process has been unable to find it today.

“A living theatre re-enactment of hippiedom 1968 staged for the benefit of curious Puerto Ricans.” That’s a very perceptive comment from a writer of the moment. We know now how far the wheel had turned by early 1972, but it’s harder to assess the currents of history while they are carrying you along. It was probably easier when the subject was rock festivals, after a year or more of states and municipalities trying to legislate them out of existence. Perhaps, after a dedicated festival-goer had spent one too many weekends in one too many fields, where there was too much sun and too much dope and not enough drinking water, he or she might feel like they, and the world, had just gotten too old for it.

Rocks and Clubs

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: AC/DC clowns around, circa 1979.)

I grew up an AM radio geek without older siblings or older friends to get me into other stuff. When I dallied outside the Top 40, I got into prog rock. To the extent that I listened to hard rock at all, it was the kind that made the top 40 in the mid 70s, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Foghat, and such. (I had one friend who tried to turn me on to Rush, but I found it incomprehensible.)

I’d never even heard of AC/DC until I got to college, and I still remember the first time I played “Highway to Hell” on the radio. “What the fk is this supposed to be?” I asked no one in particular. AC/DC seemed to me not just illiterate, but pre-literate, Neanderthals who had discovered musical instruments and set about destroying them with rocks and clubs. This, of course, was the precise moment that the band’s popularity skyrocketed, particularly among the college-aged demographic circa 1980. I was about to hear a lot more AC/DC.

At one time or another, our college station played every single track from Back in Black, which I hated for the same reasons I’d hated Highway to Hell. It seemed to take no talent at all to do what AC/DC was doing: the same three or four chords, the same screeched vocals track after track, as unvarying as the dial tone and far less listenable. I understood that lots of people liked hard rock, but this was the worst hard rock I’d ever heard, and the overwhelming appeal it held for my peers eluded me entirely.

In the fall of 1980, if we’d simply tracked Back in Black over and over again, a significant percentage of our audience would have been satisfied. I was the station’s program director, and I was not satisfied. I once got into a shouting argument with the music director, the general gist of which was “there’s too much fking AC/DC on my radio station.” (His response was to pull Back in Black and replace it with something by Air Supply, which wasn’t really what I wanted, either.) The 1976 album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap got a re-release at some point that fall, and suddenly, we were playing three AC/DC albums in heavy rotation. It was a good thing I exited the PD’s chair at the end of the year.

But I got the job back in the fall of 1981, just in time for the release of For Those About to Rock. I did not hate it as much as I hated the other records. “Are those keyboards?” I asked no one in particular. I even found the title song somewhat listenable, although I said then (and I still believe now) that I’d like to hear it sung by a competent singer, as opposed to Brian Johnson, whom I believed then (and I still believe now) to be a talentless hack.

After I got out of college, I was able to avoid AC/DC for years. When I did the all-request show on a classic-rock station in the mid 90s, I had a no-AC/DC rule, although it was never mentioned on the air.

But at a different classic-rock station a decade later, after a new program director dumped a dozen of AC/DC’s top cuts into the library, I found myself able to recognize why people liked them way back when. They weren’t only hard and loud but remarkably tight and polished, and Bon Scott sang with a sly wink that made me believe he might just have realized how ridiculous AC/DC’s act was. (As opposed to Johnson, who sings like he really believes he’s fronting a troupe of rock gods.)

By the time that happened, however, I had already decided it was too much trouble to go on hating AC/DC. At my brother’s wedding in 2001, I had looked out onto the dance floor to see my mother, then in her mid-60s, dancing to “You Shook Me All Night Long.”

Shark . . . jumped.

This post is another repeat from March 2012. Additional note: for the last several years, the University of Iowa football team, which wears black at home, has taken the field to “Back in Black.” There is no video on YouTube that does justice to how cool it is, or how loud it gets in the stadium. I was there for the Iowa-Wisconsin game a few years ago and even I got amped, although I’m a Wisconsin fan.

Casey’s Christmas Countdown

Embed from Getty Images

Fifty years ago, on Christmas weekend, American Top 40 aired a countdown of the Top 40 Christmas hits of all time. I wrote about the show several years ago, and some of that post follows, with a couple of added notes and hyperlinks. 

It started off reasonably enough, with “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” by Elvis. But the six records that followed Elvis represented as horrid a stretch as any in AT40 history: “Santa Claus Is Watching You” by Ray Stevens, “The Happy Reindeer” by Dancer, Prancer, and Nervous, “Little Altar Boy” by Andy Williams, Dickie Goodman’s “Santa and the Satellite,” “Santo Natale” by David Whitfield, and “Baby’s First Christmas” by Connie Francis. “The Happy Reindeer,” a Chipmunks record in all but name with the same speeded-up voices, created an epic train wreck alongside the Williams record, which runs something like five minutes and seems twice as long. Goodman and Whitfield created precisely the same sort of mess.

After the wretched “Baby’s First Christmas,” the proceedings took a more positive turn with the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” and Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper,” only to crash to a halt again with Stan Freberg’s “Christmas Dragnet.” … The first hour ended with the Chipmunks version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” And thus another big problem with the show is revealed: specifically, too many Chipmunks records (three in all, counting “The Happy Reindeer”), and generally, too much novelty crap. It’s like Casey was possessed by the spirit of Dr. Demento.

Casey skipped certain songs that ranked among the Top 40—“Christmas Polka” by Guy Lombardo and the Andrews Sisters, “You’re All I Want for Christmas” by Frankie Laine, and “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen—supposedly because copies fit for air couldn’t be found. The omission of “Snoopy’s Christmas” is weird given that it was the most recent release on the list, and a giant hit besides

The second hour was a little better, although it’s hard to understand at [50] years’ distance the attraction of “Christmas in Killarney.” Up at #17, Casey mentioned that several versions of “Nuttin” for Christmas” had been popular in 1955, but he chose to play the ear-bleeding version by Ricky Zahnd instead of the more popular (but equally ear-bleeding) one by Barry Gordon. Also, having to put “Nuttin’ for Christmas” two spots away from the original “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Jimmy Boyd at #15 is solid evidence that mathematics is no damn good for anybody.

In addition to being heavy on the Chipmunks, the countdown was also loaded with Gene Autry tunes—three in all. No juxtaposition was more telling than the one between Autry’s versions of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Frosty the Snowman” and the Phil Spector-produced versions by Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and the Ronettes—the contrast between Autry’s rural honk and Spector’s citified “little symphonies for the kids” make clear what rock ‘n’ roll came to destroy, and why.…

In the third hour, listeners were still forced to sit through some dreadful records, including the Four Seasons’ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” all copies of which should be collected and burned. But it was in this hour that the show finally got to Nat King Cole and the Harry Simeone Chorale and “White Christmas,” all of which were legitimately classic in 1971 and remain so today.

Casey did another Christmas countdown in 1973. Several songs were heard in medley form, a few new ones were added, some were dropped. But the top seven were the same in both years, and Casey ended both shows with an extra: Bing Crosby’s “Silent Night” because, as I wrote in 2016, “a recap of America’s all-time Christmas favorites would have been inconceivable without it.” 

Next to the 1976 show with 40 years of #1 hits, the 1971 Christmas countdown is probably among the most sought-after shows among AT40 fans today. But it’s only a curiosity, because so much of the music borders on unlistenable. In 2013, I called the show “an epic disaster, and the worst installment in AT40 history.”

Today, maybe. But surely listeners of 1971 heard it differently. 

Note to Patrons: The death of Michael Nesmith over the weekend was a surprise, considering that he played a show with Micky Dolenz in Milwaukee just last month. I can’t add much to the chorus of remembrance about him, except to say that his 1970 hit “Joanne” remains one of the most evocative records from my first season as a young radio listener. Whenever I hear it, I’m there again, even now. That was Nesmith’s gift to me, and I’m grateful for it. 

Could I Have This Dance?

Embed from Getty Images

(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.