Team Christine

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(Pictured: Christine, 1979.)

Celebrity deaths can inspire a number of different reactions. They range from “hmmm,” to curiosity (morbid or otherwise), to a straight-up punch in the gut.

Christine McVie’s death yesterday was a punch in the gut.

Many, many young men of the 70s and 80s were on Team Stevie, and why wouldn’t you be? Beautiful, mysterious, bewitching, a tempestuous siren, you’d have to be made of stone not to respond to her. But some young men of the 70s and 80s realized right from the jump that they were out of Stevie’s league, even at the long distance of fandom. And if those young men were fans of Fleetwood Mac, they—I—joined Team Christine.

But Christine McVie wasn’t a consolation prize. Nerds like me believed then—and still do—that hanging around with cool people would make us cool by association, and Christine McVie was cool. A cool look, cool instrument (I am a frustrated keyboard player), cool voice, and a laid-back manner that seemed to glide above whatever drama was going on in front of her keyboard rig. We know now, of course, that Christine was as much in the thick of the drama as any other member of Fleetwood Mac, the drugs and drinking, the romantic entanglements, the chaos surrounding the biggest band going at an especially wild time in music history. And when she left in 1998, she was exhausted by it.

I’m going to play a couple of Christine’s songs on my radio show Saturday night. One of them is going to be “Warm Ways,” a track from Fleetwood Mac that is everything great about her, languid and romantic singing, beautiful and ethereal keyboard textures. What the other one is going to be I haven’t decided yet. “Over My Head”? “You Make Loving Fun” (which she wrote during an extramarital affair with the band’s lighting guy, but told John McVie it was about her dog)? Go off the board for “Come a Little Bit Closer”? “I’d Rather Go Blind” from The Legendary Christine Perfect Album? The entire Legendary Christine Perfect Album?

You’ll have to tune in and find out.

This 2017 interview with Christine for Mojo is highly recommended. The interviewer, Andrew Male, is one of my favorite follows on Twitter.

I now find myself short of my usual word count. Instead of simply shutting up, I’m gonna post part of what I originally meant to post today. It’s on the flip.

Continue reading “Team Christine”

A Woman Not to Be Trifled With

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(Pictured: Loretta Lynn, 1976.)

By now you know that Loretta Lynn died yesterday at the age of 90. As I write, I can think of four or five people whose takes on Loretta’s life I am eager to read. I have no doubt that they’ll be vastly superior to this one. The thing I can satisfactorily do, however, is to summarize her career on the record charts and noodle with some half-assed conclusions.

Loretta had 69 entries on Billboard‘s country Top 40, starting with “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in 1960. Sixteen of those went to #1; the first, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” in 1967, staked out territory that Loretta would occupy for years thereafter: a woman not to be trifled with. Yes, she sang songs of love and devotion, but she also demanded love and devotion from her man in return. And she was not shy about standing up for herself and the life she valued: try to steal her man and you’re going to “Fist City,” the title of her second #1 song in 1968. As the 60s turned to the 70s, the iconic hits continued to flow, including the autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the humorous wife-and-mother drudgery of “One’s on the Way.” She recorded classic duets with Conway Twitty: “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “As Soon I Hang Up the Phone,” and “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” Her last Top 10 hit was in 1982; her last Top 40 entry was in 1985. Her last chart single of any sort was a tribute-album remake of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert in 2010. She released her final album, Still Woman Enough, in 2021.

Chuck Klosterman suggests that years from now, Chuck Berry will stand for all of rock ‘n’ roll music in the same way that John Philip Sousa stands for all of march music. Might Loretta Lynn eventually perform a similar function for country music? If that ends up being true, one record in particular might be a major reason why.

Birth control pills were an essential accessory for the liberated, urban woman of the 1970s. But what about women who were not, did not, or could not consider themselves to be “liberated”? What about those living in rural or small-town nowhere, places reached by the culture of the cities, but not necessarily the values? Lynn herself described the lives such women led in “One’s on the Way.” She knows what Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch, and Debbie Reynolds are doing with themselves, but “here in Topeka,” the housework and child-wrangling never end, and oh by the way, I’m pregnant again.

Her 1975 hit “The Pill,” however, offers an escape from that life: “There’s gonna be some changes made right here on nursery hill / You’ve set this chicken your last time cuz now I’ve got the pill.” How must that have sounded to women who had never considered that there was something more to life than being pregnant every other year? That’s a feminist concept, and a life-changing one, and it came in over the radio while the chores were being done. “The Pill” even slyly appealed to the roosters, suggesting there could be practical benefits for them, too, when Loretta sings, “Feelin’ good comes easy now since I got the pill.” “The Pill” also showed that country music could adapt to and reflect changing times without losing its way, or selling its soul.

There were radio stations that wouldn’t play “The Pill,” of course. It got to #5 on the Billboard country chart, the poorest performance (relatively speaking) of any Lynn record since 1970. It was the last of her four singles to cross over to the Hot 100, peaking at #70. (Her biggest pop-chart hit was a duet with Conway, “After the Fire Is Gone,” which got to #56 in 1971.)

Chuck Berry and John Philip Sousa influenced countless musicians who came after them. Loretta Lynn did too, and if modern mainstream country music is irretrievably broken from the past she represents, that’s not her fault. Her great achievement is that even though she became one of the queens of Nashville, with all the trappings of success, it was always possible to trace a line in her music back to the Kentucky holler in which she was born.

(Footnote: although Lynn wrote many of her songs, Shel Silverstein wrote “One’s on the Way,” and she shares credit on “The Pill” with three other writers.) 

Let Me Be There

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(Pictured: Olivia Newton-John, 1976.)

For all of my most important time as a listener, Olivia Newton-John was there, from “If Not for You,” which I first heard during my long ride on the school bus in the fall of 1971, to “Let Me Be There,” which I bought on a 45 just before I stopped buying 45s, to “Soul Kiss,” which I played on the radio as a Top 40 DJ in 1985.

I’m not gonna tell you I liked all of her records. A 15-year-old boy was more likely to make fun of the corny lyrics of “Please Mr. Please” or her breathy-to-squeaky delivery on “I Honestly Love You,” and I did. I knew enough about radio in 1981 to understand the appeal of “Physical” and why it stayed #1 for so long, but it was never going to capture any of my jukebox money. Most of the hits from her imperial phase, post-Grease/early 80s, didn’t do much for me one way or the other—at the time.

But I go back and listen to that stuff now and I’m like, damn, she was really good. And she was. Nothing else sounds quite like “Magic.” “You’re the One That I Want” is pure joy (and the joy is thanks to her, since John Travolta mostly yodels the whole time). I saw somebody online call “A Little More Love” a new-wave record, and it’s worthwhile to listen to it again with that thought in mind. I am not sure she ever sounded better than on her version of the Bee Gees’ “Come on Over,” which came out at the height of her country-crossover period. (Bonus points for the album cover photo, which you can admire for three minutes and 45 seconds if you click that link.) And I find “Sam” to be pretty great, too, and I did so even when I was 17 and could never have admitted it to anybody.

“Sam” is a Hollywood pop production, not the sort of thing ONJ was known for, really. Although her 70s records were plenty slick, there was a straightforwardness to them also: what you see is what you get. As the 70s got further along and the going got weirder, her girl-next-door appeal is easy to understand. Between 1974 and 1976 she scored seven straight #1 hits on Billboard‘s adult-contemporary chart. All of them crossed over to the country chart, and six of them made the Top 10 there. For 1974 she won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award—the year of “Let Me Be There,” “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” and “I Honestly Love You,” which won Record of the Year at the Grammys for the same year, and was #1 on the Hot 100.

ONJ was never off the radio in 1976 and 1977, although she didn’t make much noise on the Hot 100. (“Sam” got to #20.) Then came Grease. After “You’re the One That I Want,” which was #1 quite literally all over the world, she hit #1 two more times in America and made the Top 10 seven times beyond that by 1984. Her last Billboard Top 40 hit was “Soul Kiss,” although “The Best of Me” was an AC Top 10 in 1986. In 1988, she got to #62 on the Hot 100 with “The Rumour,” written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, co-produced by Elton, with Elton on piano and vocals, and Davey Johnstone on guitar. (“The Rumour” is an absolute banger loaded with radio hooks, but it came along several years too late; on the video for “Soul Kiss,” she achieves levels of smokin’ hotness only hinted at by the likes of “Physical.”)

We have occasionally pondered here why Olivia Newton-John and Helen Reddy, two stars of unsurpassed magnitude in the 70s, did not find a place on good-times/great-oldies radio in the 80s and 90s. Hits by female rock and disco stars had more staying power than those by straight-up pop singers. Also, their biggest hits sounded fairly dated as soon as disco came to town, if not before. ONJ’s reinvention in Grease came at precisely the right time.

I am a bit surprised and more than a little pleased at the outpouring of affection and respect for ONJ on social media in the last 24 hours. Once again, history knows what we did not always recognize in the moment.

And Also: Lamont Dozier’s passing at age 81 won’t get the notice of ONJ’s, but as The 60s at 60 pointed out this morning, Motown as we know it would not exist without Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland. The songs they wrote are as vital to our lives as oxygen.

To Absent Friends

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(Before we begin: today’s post, like Friday’s, is one that has nothing to do with the ostensible subject of this blog. You are, as always, not obligated to read it. I promise to return to music stuff later in the week.)

Continue reading “To Absent Friends”

The Person in the Mirror

The death of Howard Hesseman over the weekend came as a surprise, but it probably shouldn’t have. So many people who are important to us are well past their Biblical three-score-and-ten (Hesseman was 81), and the losses are going to multiply. Hesseman’s death apparently came after complications from colon surgery, which hits me close to home.

Every single obit of Hesseman mentions Dr. Johnny Fever and WKRP in Cincinnati in the first sentence, although he spent as many seasons as history teacher Charlie Moore on Head of the Class in the middle of the 80s. He was a master comedic improviser going back to his days with The Committee. Michael McKean paid tribute to Hesseman’s improv skills on Twitter the other day, and said that his role in This Is Spinal Tap was devised literally 24 hours before it was shot. Hesseman’s first acting credits included The Andy Griffith Show and the 60s reboot of Dragnet, for which he was billed under his early stage name “Don Sturdy.” He actually worked in radio for a while, at KMPX in San Francisco, and he even dated Janis Joplin.

For a lot of us in radio, the person we see when we look in the mirror is Dr. Johnny Fever. He’s as funny and cool as we’d like to imagine we are. But it’s more than just having the right line at the right time. A lot of radio jocks will tell you that what’s especially great about Howard Hesseman’s portrayal of Fever is how realistic it is. In a post about the people of WKRP from 2015, I wrote:

There are lots of Johnny Fevers in real stations: they’ve been in big markets and small, been married and divorced, seen and done things that make for good stories. Now they’re a little older, a little tired, and would just like to find a place to fit in, and be as happy as possible in an industry structured to make happiness elusive. (I suspect Johnny would agree that you can love radio, but you shouldn’t expect it to love you back.)

In the second-season episode “Mike Fright,” Johnny explains to Bailey how radio works. He tells her that he simply talks into the microphone and his voice goes “out through the wires,” and “once a week, whether you need it or not, somebody comes in here and gives you a check for $38.”

He says it with his characteristic insouciance. But once you watch the entire series and you know who Johnny Fever is, you hear how it epitomizes his character, and you hear the accumulated wisdom in it. Series creator Hugh Wilson wrote the line, but some of its wisdom had to have come from Howard Hesseman himself. He knew what it was like to work in radio, and he knew people who were still in the industry. His delivery carries the weight of lived-in truth. There’s his description of the weird alchemy of radio—just how does his voice go to all of the places it goes? Who knows? Clearly, it matters that a DJ’s voice goes places, because somebody pays you for putting it onto the wires. But you had better learn to take your satisfactions where you can (“whether you need it or not”), because they aren’t going to pay you very much.

People talk about the scene where the station changes format (“boooooooger”), but his explanation of radio is a more definitive Johnny Fever scene.

The little secret about WKRP in Cincinnati is that across the entirety of the series, it’s not quite as good as you remember; a lot of episodes drag in the middle or are doomed from the start by ill-advised premises. But many individual scenes are as funny as anything you’ve ever seen on television, and many of those feature Hesseman. And as long as veteran radio jocks long for a place to fit in, to be who they are, to love what they do, and are willing to take $38 a week to do it, Johnny Fever will never die.

The Anchor

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I wonder if Charlie Watts, Tom T. Hall, and Don Everly ever met.…

It’s hard to write tribute posts for the biggest stars because others can do it better. There’s no point in my aggregating a bunch of the stuff I’ve read about Charlie Watts in the last 24 hours either, since you have likely read most of it, too. It is, like it was after the passing of Little Richard and Glen Campbell, like trying to drink from a firehose. It becomes overwhelming and you can’t absorb anymore.

But I feel obligated to write something, because the Stones have been part of my life and my music collection from the beginning. I bought “Brown Sugar” on a 45 in 1971, and the first real album I ever owned (as distinct from a couple of K-Tel compilations) is Hot Rocks: 1964-1971. After that, however, I didn’t know much about the band beyond what I heard on the radio; not until relatively late in life did I go back and closely listen to entire albums from the 60s and 70s and start collecting bootlegs. I am one of the heretics who likes Black and Blue. I never saw the Stones live; on their 1981 American tour, they played in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a couple of hours from where I went to college, and why we all didn’t go I can’t remember. In the years since, I have listened to a fair amount of live Stones and am generally underwhelmed by it; they always sound vastly better to me in the studio.

At their peak—and your list of peaks will vary; mine include Let It Bleed, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Sticky Fingers (“Brown Sugar,” “Bitch,” and “Dead Flowers” above all), Exile on Main Street (“Tumbling Dice” above all), “Heartbreaker,” “Start Me Up,” and yes, Black and Blue—they lived up to the incredibly outrageous title of The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Some critics tried to tear that reputation down while the Stones were earning it; two generations of music fans born since their heyday don’t necessarily buy it either. But go and listen to your own list of peak Stones and tell me it’s not true.

I spent some of this morning listening to isolated Charlie Watts drum tracks. It’s the nature of drums that we often don’t notice them, or we only pay attention on a solo or when a fill rises to the front of the mix, but on the isolated tracks, you can hear the things a masterful drummer does that a listener may perceive only on an unconscious level. For example, you don’t necessarily notice that Charlie’s drums on “Start Me Up” are practically martial, or how similar are his tracks on “Gimme Shelter” and “Honky Tonk Women.”

Everybody knows that being in a rock band was basically Charlie’s day job. His real passions were playing jazz, breeding horses and dogs, and watching cricket. He had never missed a Stones show in 56 years, however, and so the Stones’ plan to go out without him this fall was a much bigger deal than the reporting of it indicated. Based on some of what I have read, the Stones’ tours the last 30 years depended on Charlie; had he not been willing to go (or had not received the compensation he sought; since he was not a songwriter, his financial participation in the Stones was different from Mick and Keef’s), they might never have happened.

So here in 2021, he must have been a lot sicker than we knew, although the rest of the Stones clearly knew.

A remarkable fact about Charlie Watts is that he did not partake in the smorgasbord of sex and drugs that surrounded the Stones; that any young, rich, talented, indestructible man of the 1960s could resist such temptation is hard to imagine. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that Charlie had trouble with heroin, when it wasn’t fashionable anymore. And while Bill Wyman slept with literally thousands of women and Mick’s bedpost has hundreds of notches, Charlie married Shirley Shepherd in 1964 and when the day job was done, he went home to her and their daughter Seraphina. And as much as those of us who have worshipped at the Stones’ altar for all these years are saddened by his passing, our loss is nothing like theirs.

So here’s to a real one, indispensible to the creation of an unparallelled body of art but always on his terms, and a firm anchor in the eye of that crossfire hurricane. It’s a cliché to say we shall not see his like again, but, well, you know.