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.

Peaceful Sleep in Shady Summertime

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(Pictured: Tom T. Hall, on stage in 1976.)

I wonder if Tom T. Hall and Don Everly ever met. It’s possible, I suppose, Nashville contemporaries who traveled down every road to perform. Everly’s passing is a monumental one; now only Jerry Lee Lewis remains from the original class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, records like “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and “Wake Up Little Susie” are like redwoods, eternally strong and great, and if it’s difficult to find anybody under the age of 50 who can sing a lick of them, that’s their loss.

Despite Everly’s passing, I’m going to continue with my original plan for today, which is to reboot part of a thing I wrote about Tom T. Hall 10 years ago, almost to the date of his death. Although he wrote a bunch of famous songs sung by others, including “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” “Hello Vietnam,” “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” and “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew,” I spotlighted five hits worth hearing in the man’s own voice.

“The Ballad of Forty Dollars” (#4 country, 1968). Hall’s first Top-10 country hit, and a great example of the observational, storytelling style that makes Hall’s music so compelling. Why the song is called “The Ballad of Forty Dollars” doesn’t become clear until the very last line.

“Salute to a Switchblade” (#8 country, 1970). Hall served in the military in Germany during the late 50s, and “Salute to a Switchblade” describes the adventure of a young American in a beer hall who tries to pick up a fraulein without knowing she has a jealous—and well-armed—husband. Hall’s parenthetical observations at the end of each verse are hilarious.

“The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” (#1 country, #42 pop, 1971). When Hall was seven years old, the man who taught him how to play guitar died. Clayton Delaney was not the man’s real name; neither was he the kindly old man you envision when listening to Hall’s tribute—“Clayton” was only 19 or 20 years old when he died.

“Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” (#1 country, 1972). This might be the loveliest melody Hall ever wrote, and it’s a beautiful arrangement, with those shimmering countrypolitan string flourishes so common in Nashville productions of the 60s and 70s. It’s a lovely lyric, too: “That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime / And old dogs and children and watermelon wine.”

[“Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” is far better than I described it in 2011, and I’ve come to love it more in the last 10 years. It seems almost miraculous now, as close to perfection as anything ever gets.]  

“I Love” (#1 country, #12 pop, 1973). “I Love” was Hall’s biggest pop hit, deceptively simple and moving, and it even manages to be funny, when Hall gives up the opportunity to make an obvious rhyme with the word “vine” …

Bonus track: Hall wrote Bobby Bare’s hit “(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn.” It’s a song that takes me deep into memory, with vivid associations.… The sound is pure late-60s countrypolitan, but the lyric is a powerful lesson for writers everywhere: good storytelling is not only about what you put in, but what you leave out.

[Bare’s version of “(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn” is fine—all except for those parentheses—but you might as well hear it in Tom T.’s voice.]

[Further bonus tracks: “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” and “The Homecoming,” another song where the power of the tale is in what Hall doesn’t say. Don’t write in to ask, “What about ‘I Like Beer’?” It’s fine, but it’s not in the ballpark we’re playing in today.]

Besides “I Love” and “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” Hall hit the pop charts four other times, with “Me and Jesus,” “That Song Is Driving Me Crazy,” and “Sneaky Snake.” … “Watergate Blues,” bubbled under the Hot 100 in 1973 at the very moment Congressional hearings into the scandal were on TV every day.

Hall charted with “May the Force Be With You Always” in early 1978 while Star Wars was new; he hosted the flyover country TV staple Pop Goes the Country in 1980 and 1981. His last charting records were in the mid 80s; his last album was released in 2007.

What Tom T. Hall did ain’t easy. Effortless humor is hard. Making personal experiences universal is hard. Subtlety is hard. We live in a time when lots of people in Nashville are faking it, but ultimately, you’ve either got the gift or you don’t. Tom T. Hall’s gift was real—real people, real country, and real good. 

What I Learned From 70s TV

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(Pictured: Buddy Ebsen, star of Barnaby Jones, 1976.)

We learn a lot about life based on the media we consume, and it’s been true for almost 100 years. When Paul Henried put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them both, and handed one to Bette Davis in the 1942 movie Now Voyager, a whole generation of men took notice. Television brought role models into every home: teenagers learned how to dress and talk and move from other teens on TV; millions of aspiring rock musicians were born the night the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show. Suburban kids who have never met a Black person adopt the look and speech patterns of rappers. Young athletes spike the ball and flip the bat like the pros do. Grown-ass adults internalize what they see on TV as the “right” way to behave, until they’re acting like reality show divas, or electing one president.

I am a child of the 1970s, and like everyone else, I was shaped by what I saw on TV growing up. I was less overt about it than many; apart from briefly wishing I could be cool like Keith Partridge, I didn’t set out to imitate anyone specifically. But I did learn some life lessons, especially from watching cop shows. The trouble is that now, decades later, when I rewatch those same shows, like Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, and Barnaby Jones, I find that many of the lessons I learned from them are untrue.

For example, there’s a lot less diabolical laughter than I was taught to expect. Real-life villains don’t waste time laughing about their plans; they just go off and be bad. Related: in real life, people tend to laugh at jokes, or things that are clearly funny. On 70s TV, it was common for people to react to disappointment or surprise by laughing uncontrollably, which you just don’t see on your average day.

There is also a lot less slow-acting poison being administered on the average day. Your boss never comes to you at 10AM (laughing diabolically) and says he poisoned your coffee, and that if you want the antidote, you’ll have to finish your project by the end of the day. Related: 70s TV cop shows taught us that it is very easy to put poison in somebody’s beverage, and that they will drink it without noticing anything and fall over stone dead within a couple of minutes. Sadly, this is not true in real life, however convenient it might be.

There is also a lot less truth serum and hypnosis being used in real life than I expected. Practically nobody is faking his or her own death, and real-life plastic surgeons aren’t nearly as skillful as the ones on TV.

I expected a lot more people to have hidden caches of diamonds, and/or to be sucked into quicksand.

In my adult life I have learned, contrary to what I saw on cop shows, that if you punch a guy in the face once, you probably won’t kill him. Also, a person who is knocked out cold or diagnosed with a concussion will not be able to return to normal activities within minutes or hours. Joe Mannix could do it—repeatedly—but not you or me.

In the real world, as opposed to the world of 70s TV cop shows, a car that goes off the road and down into a ditch or ravine will not automatically explode like Hiroshima.

One other thing I have learned from watching 70s TV cop shows in the new millennium that I didn’t know back then: apparently, none of these shows had anybody on staff whose job it was to say, “this script sucks and we shouldn’t do it.”

Continue reading “What I Learned From 70s TV”

On the Distant Shore

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(Pictured: Jimmie Rodgers, on the right, with the Everly Brothers, 1970.)

I follow a lot of creative people on Twitter, and several of them have said that creative work has been difficult during the last year, between the pandemic, the political upheavals, and everything else in the world. It is a measure of my relative privilege that I have not experienced this myself . . . until recently. Since early in 2021, it’s like a door slammed shut or a spigot turned off.  I wrote Sidepiece posts after the attack on the Capitol and the inauguration, but that’s it. At this site, the pace will pick up a little next week, as I have a bunch of stuff in the can I wrote around New Year’s. Until then, and beyond that, who knows. 

It has occurred to me that I never said anything about Phil Spector after his death a couple of weeks ago. There are lots of people in the world who fashion themselves as mad geniuses but few who come by the label honestly. Nobody disputes that he was a terrible human being. Nobody should dispute the power and beauty of the records he produced, his influence on producers and performers who followed him, or the fascination of his strange life.

It is the official position of this website that we should not judge the value of the art by the character of the artist, or there won’t be anyone left but Christian rockers and the boring young singers Nashville extrudes these days. But not everybody agrees. I saw the following take after Spector’s death: “We shouldn’t play his records anymore. Let him be forgotten.” Easy to say, but desperately unfair. Darlene Love told Rolling Stone (in a piece I’m not linking to, since RS is now paywalled and I’m pretty crabby about it) that Spector gave her “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and with it, her career, and why would she give that up? Even Ronnie Spector, who knows better than any of us how rotten Phil was, separates the man from the music she made with him. If artists intimately connected with him believe their work with him should still be heard, who are we to say they’re wrong?

Also: I didn’t hear anybody suggest we should stop listening to “Instant Karma,” All Things Must Pass, or the Ramones’ End of the Century—only the girl-group records. And that opens an interesting window into gender politics, I think, but we ain’t going there today.

“OK,” as I frequently say to my students, “new topic.”

Among performers who first made their mark in the 1950s, only a handful still walk among us. One of those performers died last week: Jimmie Rodgers. He is not the Singing Brakeman, one of the founding fathers of country music. This Jimmie Rodgers scored a handful of hits in the late 50s that made it into the good times/great oldies pantheon for a while, and anybody halfway conversant with the early rock ‘n’ roll era should know them. “Honeycomb” was a #1 hit; “Secretly,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” and “Uh-Oh I’m Falling in Love Again” all made the Top 10; “Bimbombey” peaked at #11. All of them came in 1957 and 1958.

(Two of Rodgers’ songs were adapted into commercial jingles embedded in baby-boomer DNA: “Honeycomb” was used to plug Post’s Honeycomb cereal, and “Uh-Oh I’m Falling in Love Again” was the basis for the slogan “Uh-oh, Spaghetti-O’s.”)

Once the hits slowed down, Rodgers remained visible, largely on TV variety shows. In typical turn-of-the-60s, cash-in-with-the-kids fashion, he got lead roles in a couple of movies, as a Civil War soldier in The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come and a World War II dogface in Back Door to Hell. In 1967, Rodgers was seriously injured in a beating incident, which he blamed on the Los Angeles police but which may have been ordered by mobbed-up record executive Morris Levy after Rodgers insisted on royalty payments he hadn’t received. In 1969, he starred in a summer replacement for The Carol Burnett Show on which Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner were regulars. Rodgers continued to record through the end of the 1970s and to perform for a few years after that.

Jimmie Rodgers was 87; Phil Spector was 81. Their deaths, coming close upon those of contemporaries Hank Aaron (86), Larry King (87), and Gregory Sierra (83), add to the number of icons we leave behind on the ever-more-distant shore, as we sail on.

The Last Words

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(Pictured: a young man holds a sign in tribute to John Lennon, 1980.)

Mark was a colleague of mine, another part-time DJ at KDTH, a country station in Dubuque, Iowa, back at the turn of the 80s. He worked a 10-to-midnight shift on Mondays, and a few years ago on Facebook, he wrote about his experience on the night of December 8, 1980:

As I usually did about 10 minutes before my airshift was to begin, I found my way to the newsroom to clear the AP wire and prepare for a little sportscast I did after the 10:00 news.

The moment I arrived in the newsroom, the mechanical AP wire went absolutely apeshit, with a tremendous, clanging racket of bells such as I’d never heard. In those days they didn’t ring the warning bells on the wire often and when they did it was always news of some import, usually a flash or breaking news. I checked the wire just as the flash headline was printing out, JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD.

Immediately, I ripped the story from the wire and ran from the newsroom into the air studio, and gave it to the woman I was about to replace on the air …. She read it on the air, choking up while she read it, and played “Imagine” immediately after. We unilaterally decided to play all Lennon or Beatle songs for the rest of the night, and none of the usually cantankerous country fans even called to complain.

While I was pulling my airshift on the AM station, the program director of our automated FM station called to ask the news guy and myself to dub off as many Beatle/Lennon songs as we could find and feed them into the automation system …. coming within an eyelash of airing “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” on the radio, the very night its singer and songwriter was assassinated….

Somehow, I managed to get through my airshift. Immediately after signing both stations off the air, I went up on the roof of the station as I often did, rolled up a fat joint, smoked it, and allowed myself a good cry. This horrible, obscene thing was just too much to bear. 

I looked back at Radio and Records to see how the industry reacted to the murder in real time. It devoted much of the front page of its December 12 issue to a montage of pictures and a written tribute. Inside, under the heading “The Last Words,” it was reported that John and Yoko spent three hours late in the afternoon of December 8 being interviewed for the RKO Radio Network, and how afterward, the Lennons caught a ride with the RKO guys to the Record Plant studio. The article mentions waiting for Lennon to sign an autograph for a fan outside the Dakota. We know now, of course, that the fan was Mark David Chapman.

The magazine also detailed how program syndicators were scrambling to accommodate the Lennon story, in many cases updating year-end programs that had already been produced. It was reported that “Watermark has dropped a regularly scheduled hour of its American Top 40 for this weekend in favor of a specially-produced retrospective on Lennon.” That did not actually happen, although Casey’s producers made available an alternate program segment that stations could drop into the already-produced show to replace “(Just Like) Starting Over,” which was at #4 for the week. The AT40 production staff was also forced to update a feature earlier in the show about the top posthumous acts of the rock era.

In the December 19 issue, it was reported that a radio station in Baltimore had planned a memorial benefit with proceeds going to a gun-control group, but its lawyers advised that the Fairness Doctrine might require the station to give an organization such as the National Rifle Association equal time to respond. The event was canceled, and the station instead donated proceeds from an earlier event featuring Beatles movies to one of Lennon’s favorite charities.

On the Contemporary Hit Radio page, columnist John Leader wrote about radio’s response to the murder, how stations tossed their regular programming out the window on that night, how they opened the phones just to let people talk, how they helped arrange public memorials, and more. Leader concluded:

Radio can and should be so much more than the playlist, commercial log, and jock schedule. Radio is communication on a very personal and basic level. Radio is entertainment and companionship. Radio is always there with the flexibility to respond to the needs of its listeners. 

Last week radio did itself proud in the worst and the best of times.