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.

Heaven Help Us All

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(Pictured: the Temptations on stage.)

I griped last spring about how when you turn on the radio in this era of political turmoil and rampant disease, the music you hear is totally escapist. It’s not true that no artist has anything to say about current reality, only that the records you hear most often on pop and country radio do not. In our heads, we compare today’s hits to those of 50 years ago, “War” and “Ohio” and “Fortunate Son,” and we think that all pop music was politically aware and had something to say. But back in 2012, I wrote this:

[I]t’s worth remembering that even at the height of the 1960s, when the personal became political and many people read revolution into every act, many stars avoided saying anything. Even the Beatles, avatars of the counterculture, didn’t sing against the war in Vietnam—their message was, well, foggy enough not to offend anybody: “all you need is love.” (John Lennon would eventually take a clear stand, but it was more generally anti-war than it was specifically anti-Vietnam.) Neither did the Beatles sing about injustice, poverty, racism, sexism, or any other -ism.

At Motown, the Temptations began engaging with the real world once Norman Whitfield moved into the producer’s chair on records including “Runaway Child” and “Ball of Confusion.” Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit “Heaven Help Us All” is one of the most powerful and wide-ranging political statements ever to hit the Top 40. Each of the three big singles from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On forced listeners to confront a different critical issue: the legitimacy of young voices (“What’s Going On”), the environment (“Mercy Mercy Me”), and economic inequality (“Inner City Blues”). It’s interesting to note that the Temps and Stevie kept singing about political issues well into the 1970s, long after most white artists had given it up.…

I’d correct that paragraph to say that the Supremes’ “Love Child,” produced by a team of Motown staffers called the Clan, beat “Runaway Child” to the radio by a couple of months at the end of 1968. Also, I might have better described “Heaven Help Us All” as a “social statement.” Moving on:

By the middle of the 1970s, however, there was precious little political content in radio pop. I remember reading one commentator who suggested that the lightweight goofiness of the Top 40 circa 1975 was a reaction to the politics of the previous decade, Vietnam to Watergate—that people wanted to escape when they turned on the radio, and there’s definitely something to that idea. It would be another decade before the real world intruded on the radio in any significant way, with Band Aid and Live Aid and USA for Africa, and they were qualitatively different from the political pop of the late 60s and early 70s. The issues involved were held at arm’s length—practically nobody listening to those songs knew a starving person in Africa, but in years before, millions knew people affected by the war in Vietnam, people suffering in urban poverty, people oppressed by racism.

It’s true that in the late 70s, the first wave of punk rock addressed Britain’s reality after several years of economic and social crisis, but it had a relatively small number of rabid American fans. Moving further on:

As the Me Decade turned ever more inward, it would occasionally produce music that inadvertently commented on the wider world. In 1978, Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg recorded “The Power of Gold.” Its lyric was intended as a personal zinger—but it can also be read as an indictment of a whole society and our individual responses to it. And that indictment is even more potent now than it was [42] years ago.

You’re a creature of habit
You run like a rabbit
Scared of a fear you can’t name

And also:

The women are lovely
The wine is superb
But there’s something about the song that disturbs you

We’re busted: we know that the way we live and perhaps even the way we think are unsupportable, but to acknowledge it directly would be admitting that we’re interested in changing it. And although we give lip service to change, we are in no wise ready to make the necessary sacrifices that would result in change.

We’re more used to sacrifice than we used to be, but is it enough? Millions of us masking up, staying home, and washing our hands hasn’t been enough to stop the virus. Is voting for new leadership to stop the political rot enough? What is still required of us? What else must we do?

Len Barry, by the Numbers

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(Pictured: the Dovells, with Len Barry on the far left.)

Len Barry came out of Philadelphia at the turn of the 60s, out of Overbrook High School (alma mater of Wilt Chamberlain and other pro sports stars, along with rapper/actor Will Smith and members of the Delfonics) and the Coast Guard, at a time when when record moguls tried to make stars out of any young man who could carry a tune. He joined the Dovells, a vocal group that scored a handful of hits between 1961 and 1963, most famously “You Can’t Sit Down,” “The Bristol Stomp,” and “Bristol Twistin’ Annie.”

In 1965, Barry hit under his own name with “1-2-3,” which was a smash, going to #1 in Cash Box and #2 on the Hot 100. Thanks to oldies radio, it was once one of those records everybody knew, at least until oldies stations stopped playing 60s music. Among the musicians and singers backing Barry on “1-2-3” were guitarist Bobby Eli, a childhood friend and longtime collaborator of Barry’s who became one of Philadelphia’s major studio stars, especially with the group MFSB; keyboard player Leon Huff, future architect of the Philly soul sound; trumpeter Lee Morgan, famed jazz player pickin’ up a check one year removed from his hit “The Sidewinder;” Valerie Simpson, future Motown songwriter; and members of the Tymes, who had hit in 1963 with “So Much in Love.”

Barry continued to chart after “1-2-3,” but nothing broke as big. In 2011, I told the story of what happened next—one of the great moments in record marketing, a speculation on my part that nevertheless has the ring of truth:

Flash forward to the summer of 1968. Len Barry, three years removed from his biggest hit, is on a new label, and the new label is looking for a score. The thought process is easy to follow: Len Barry is best known for “1-2-3.” Ergo, if we want to get radio stations to notice his new release, shouldn’t it be called “4-5-6”?

Not an unprecedented thought in the entertainment biz then or now—if people like something once, make it a second time and they’ll probably like it again. But there was a flaw in the plan: Somebody would have to write a song called “4-5-6.” What in the hell would a song called “4-5-6” be about? A house number? An area code? A batting average?

It was at this moment some anonymous record executive was seized with a stroke of brilliance worthy of an era 40 years in the future, when no promotional gimmick is too shameless and people will fall for anything. Barry had recorded a song called “Now I’m Alone,” a weeper about a man who has lost his wife and family. In June 1968, that song was released under the title “4-5-6 (Now I’m Alone).”

Never mind that the numerals 4, 5, and 6 do not appear anywhere in it—a radio programmer who remembered “1-2-3” might be persuaded to give it a listen when it crossed his desk, just because of the title on the label.

As it turned out, “4-5-6” didn’t become a hit, although a few stations picked it up. At WRIT in Milwaukee, it rose as high as #14 in August 1968.

A more successful Barry project was the 1969 instrumental hit “Keem-o-Sabe” by the Electric Indian. He originally produced it for his label, Marmaduke, which he co-owned with Philadelphia DJ Hy Lit, although it didn’t become a national hit until after United Artists picked it up. Although Barry likely wrote “Keem-o-Sabe” (and recorded a vocal version of it), it’s credited to Bernice Borisoff, Barry’s mother, and another Philadelphia record mogul, Bernie Binnick. The musicians are all Philadelphia studio cats including Eli, Vince Montana, and other future members of MFSB. Wikipedia claims Daryl Hall is on it too.

From the 70s to the new millennium Barry stayed in the entertainment biz, producing and performing, and he even wrote a novel about growing up in Philadelphia. He died in his home town last week at the age of 79. There’s more about his life and career here.

One More Thing: I was on the air Saturday when the major news organizations called the presidential election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, so I got to tell the people about it. I even broke the format to do it—on the country station, talk breaks have been severely curtailed for a couple of months now—but old radio dogs know when to bark, and it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission anyway. Reading that bulletin was one of the highlights of my radio career.

Some Halloween Horrors

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(Pictured: noted occultist Jimmy Page summons up demons or something, while Robert Plant looks on approvingly.)

So it’s Halloween time again, the second-biggest holiday of the year next to Christmas. What follows are some Halloween horrors for your delectation. Some of these I wrote about for Halloween in 2005, and some I did not.

“Monster Mash”/Bobby “Boris” Pickett. The happy comic-book version of Halloween, which reached #1 at Halloween of 1962. Parrot Records tried rereleasing it in 1970, and while it made the Hot 100 again, it didn’t stick around long. In 1973, thanks to a radio DJ in Milwaukee, Parrot got another bite at the apple, and this time, a new generation of 13-year-old record-buyers (of which I was one) pushed it back into the Top 10. In the middle of the summer. Which tells you a lot about the 1970s.

“Sympathy for the Devil”/Rolling Stones. What makes “Sympathy” particularly disturbing is the story of the line “I shouted out ‘who killed the Kennedys?’” It was written as “who killed John Kennedy,” but the recording session took place the morning after Robert F. Kennedy was shot, so Mick made a change on the fly—before RFK actually died. Like “Monster Mash,” another record I bought the year I turned 13 was the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks 1964-1971. “Sympathy for the Devil” was new to me then. I wondered if I’d be going to Hell just for listening to it. Because I am older and wiser now, I know that the answer is yes.

“Tubular Bells”/Mike Oldfield. As used in The Exorcist, this record is a perfect fit. Somber and hypnotic bells explode into chaotically distorted guitar and bass and then return, sounding somehow far more ominous than before. But the radio single is a three-minute excerpt from a longer work. The entire Tubular Bells album is one you really ought to hear: it’s a kaleidoscope of musical sounds and textures that foreshadows new-age music but is far more interesting.

“Captain Howdy”/Simon Stokes. More Exorcist flavor: Nick Stokes was a musician from Reading, Massachusetts, who recorded a bunch of singles under a bunch of names in the 60s. “Voodoo Woman,” credited to Simon Stokes and the Nighthawks, crept onto the Hot 100 at the end of 1969. In 1974, he cut “Captain Howdy” for the relatively new Casablanca label. Although the reference is obscure now, many more people in the summer of 1974 knew what it meant: Captain Howdy was the name of the demon possessing Regan in the movie. The song got airplay on some big stations, including WCFL in Chicago, WIXY in Cleveland, WAKY in Louisville, and WMYQ in Miami, and it reached #90 on the Hot 100.

“Kashmir”/Led Zeppelin. In what pit of sonic hell did Zeppelin find the edgy, menacing sound of this record? says it’s the drums stomping in 2/4 time while the musical theme plays against it in 3/4 time. Whatever it is, it’s damn creepy. In college, there were DJs who were reluctant to play it late at night if they were alone in the building.

“The Witch”/Rattles. The Rattles formed in Hamburg, Germany, in 1960, and “The Witch” got some airplay in the States in the summer of 1970. It was a Top-10 hit in Rochester, New York, and Wausau, Wisconsin, along with Memphis and Fargo. Despite its demonic laughter, general psychedelic freakout vibe, and copping a bit of the Twilight Zone theme, it somehow resisted becoming a Halloween perennial.

“Witchy Woman”/Eagles. We’ve largely forgotten now, but the Eagles were slow starters. “Witchy Woman” was their first Top 10 hit at Halloween 1972, and they wouldn’t score another until two albums and two years later. “Witchy Woman” is a great radio record because it sounds great whatever it’s next to. The loud guitar bite and tom-tom-style drums in the introduction make a fabulous transition out of practically anything.

“Thriller”/Michael Jackson. Time was that this song got more airplay at Halloween than all of the other songs on this list combined. (That’s probably not true anymore now that so many stations have dropped Jackson’s music over sexual assault allegations.) But it’s really kind of lame. Jackson’s attempt to capture the feel of a classic horror movie sounds like he’s never actually seen one. Better to just surrender to the groove and not think about it beyond that.

Real to Reel at the Dew Drop Inn

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(Pictured: Gary Strater and Steve Hagler of Starcastle, on stage in 1977.)

I recently came across a thing that I wrote in 2009, after digging into the now-defunct tour history page for the group Starcastle, the central Illinois prog-rock band I’ve mentioned here many times. It painted an interesting picture of the life of a hard-working band that made it to the B-list and became modestly successful, until they weren’t anymore. Here’s a bit of that, slightly edited.

. . . . The tour history begins in 1973, when the band was known as Mad John Fever. For the next two years, they played lots and lots of bars, a few high school gyms, and a Ramada Inn. They occasionally shared a bill with big names, opening for Blue Oyster Cult, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Stories (in Platteville, Wisconsin, where I would go to college years later), Captain Beyond, and the Strawbs.

They were known as Pegasus for the Strawbs gig; at some point late in 1974 they had changed their name, and they promptly got in trouble with another Illinois band that already had the name. So they put some other likely choices into a hat and drew one. No name could have been better than Starcastle for the Yes-styled prog rock they would play over the next several years.

The tour history for 1975 is sketchy, as the band worked on their first album. . . .  In January 1976, they open for another conglomeration of heartland prog-rockers, Kansas, at the University of Missouri in Columbia. A month later they open for Gary Wright in St. Louis, but the next two nights they’re playing bars in southern Illinois before they open for the Electric Light Orchestra in Chicago. A week later they hook up with Kansas again (and Rush) for a show in the Chicago suburbs.

In two weeks of March 1976, following a bar gig in Mattoon, Illinois, Starcastle plays on bills with Journey, the J. Geils Band, Styx, and Peter Frampton. The next month, they alternated college gigs with spots on bigger arena shows (ELO, Rush and Thin Lizzy, Blue Oyster Cult and Styx). As their profile grew in 1976, they got some extended gigs, opening for both Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull for about a week at a time. They opened for Fleetwood Mac at shows in Green Bay and Madison during July.

In December 1976, Starcastle joined up with Boston (their CBS/Epic labelmates) for the first time. The two bands would spend much of February and March 1977 on the road together. A February 10 show on Long Island added East Coast legends Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes to the bill. (On March 6, 1977, Boston and Starcastle played Madison.) Through the remainder of 1977, Starcastle appeared with artists including Manfred Mann, ELO, Journey, Gary Wright, Rush, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Foreigner, Styx, Utopia, Kansas, and Robin Trower. Some of these were headlining gigs. Starcastle had released two albums in 1977, Fountains of Light in January and Citadel in October. . . .

The next year, 1978, saw lots of dates with Styx, but also what must have been one of those all-day outdoor shows, with Ted Nugent, Mahogany Rush, Journey, and Eddie Money, in Louisville in July. By 1979, however, it was back to the bars: Starcastle’s album Real to Reel had bombed, CBS had dropped them, and lead singer Terry Luttrell and keyboard player Herb Schildt left. (Schildt would go on to a distinguished career in computer science.) So they played the Barn in Ottumwa, Iowa, Vogues in Indianapolis, and even the Dew Drop Inn in Danville, Illinois. They got a few arena shows in this period, including several dates with Head East in 1979 and 1980.

At some point in 1980 or ’81, Starcastle was back at my college, recruited at the last minute to replace another act that had canceled its appearance at the annual Homecoming concert. But that show wasn’t on the tour history page. And although there’s been a working edition of Starcastle in recent years, by 1980, they were pretty much history themselves. 

In the 70s, it was possible for a band like Starcastle to make a perfectly acceptable living in bars and at colleges, by professionally filling 45 minutes at the start of someone else’s arena show, and maybe, every once in a while, headlining an arena show themselves. I am not sure there’s a place for that kind of act anymore, or if that kind of act even exists, the kind of act whose manager might say to the promoter handling Kansas, “The guys can’t open Saturday night because they’ve got a bar gig in Mattoon, but you can put ’em down for Sunday.” 

Wishbone What?

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(Pictured: Wishbone Ash, on stage in the 70s.)

The Federal Communications Commission isn’t what it used to be. Its main task today is to facilitate the efforts of giant television, radio, and Internet conglomerates to take an ever-greater stranglehold on the marketplace and to help the bankrupt ones stay afloat. While it occasionally hands out fines to broadcasters for various legal and technical infractions, the Commission is not an entity the average dumb-ass disc jockey thinks about anymore. But it wasn’t always that way, as this college radio story from around 1980 indicates. 

We will call her Kristin, because that is not her name. Kristin was a pretty good newscaster, but she wanted to be a disc jockey, too. Alas, she was not good at it—without a script in front of her, she got flustered easily, and as a result, she didn’t have a great deal of confidence. That made nearly every break a walk on the high wire. I wondered why somebody who struggled so much and never seemed to get any more comfortable would keep on doing it.

Now, before I can tell you the rest of this story, I have to tell you a different one.

We have mentioned before how it used to be that the jock on the air was also the transmitter operator, required to pass a test and get a license from the FCC. The operator had to take regular readings of transmitter power to make sure the station was operating legally, and adjust power if it was not. If the station dropped off the air for some reason, it was that person’s responsibility to get it back on, and to document everything in the station’s transmitter log. It was made clear to every jock from Day One that all of this was Very Serious Business, because the FCC was always watching, like God. In addition, the transmitter operator/DJ bore the ultimate reponsibility for whatever got on the air. So we had our own homemade, bitch-free edit of “Rich Girl,” and why Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” bore a warning label regarding the single “shit” in the lyrics. Nobody wanted to be the person who brought down the hammer of federal justice.

One afternoon we heard through the grapevine that an FCC inspector had been in nearby Dubuque that morning. Word spread through the station like wildfire, and we immediately went on high alert, obsessively monitoring our transmitter to make damn sure we were legal. We got all the old logs in order, in case the inspector wanted to see them, and we probably picked up the place a little bit too, all in anticipation of the fateful visit.

As it happened, Kristin was on the air that afternoon, and the news that the FCC might be listening did absolutely nothing for her barely detectible confidence. On one of her first breaks, she cued up a Wishbone Ash record and promptly introduced it as Wishbone Ass. After it dawned on her that she had said “ass” on the air while possibly being monitored by the FCC, she was distraught. She was sure that she was about to get her license revoked, and the station’s, too. Some of us took more pleasure than we should have in her obvious discomfiture, but at the same time, we worried that she might be right.

As you might guess, however, the Great Wishbone Ass Incident didn’t cost anybody their license. The FCC didn’t show up that day, or on any other day as far as I can remember.

Years later, it seems to me that our concern about the FCC was not unlike a child’s concern about the monster under the bed: a mysterious presence, amorphous in the dark, ready to bite our heads off at the slightest provocation. We could feel it, even though we couldn’t see it. Surely, even back in the day, FCC field officers had better things to do than monitor 420-watt college radio stations. Nevertheless, we acted as though the monster was really there, because it seemed safer than to risk being eaten.

(Rebooted from a 2012 post.)