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The Tale of a Crowded Decade

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(Pictured: the Madison skyline from Lake Monona. The low building on the lake at the right is Monona Terrace, a project proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 that wasn’t actually built until 1997.)

There are two ways to read a book you find absolutely riveting. You can devour it in one or two sittings, or you can ration it out a chapter at a time in hopes of making it last. I have been doing the latter with the brand-new Madison in the Sixties by Stuart Levitan, a local journalist, historian, and broadcaster.

Madison, Wisconsin, is sometimes known as Berkeley by the Lake or 77 square miles surrounded by reality. It has a unique pull. Many of us who live here romanticize Madison (right or wrong) as better-run, better-educated, more diverse, and just generally cooler and more together than other places. (And if you think the image we have of the city doesn’t extend to ourselves for being smart enough to live here, think again.) Many Madisonians look back on the 1960s as the decade when the city—and by extension, ourselves—got that way.

Levitan’s book is not a cultural history. Its goal is not to narrate a barefoot, tie-dyed idyll of sex, drugs, and campus unrest soundtracked by the Beatles. Instead, Levitan follows several major themes that extended through the entire decade: the city’s struggles with civil rights and urban renewal; repeated attempts to build a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed civic center on the shore of Lake Monona; growth and change in the Madison public schools and at the University of Wisconsin; and the protest era. In the course of his research, Levitan read every 1960s edition of the city’s two major daily newspapers, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times, and the UW paper, the Daily Cardinal. Year by year, he follows his major themes, but he also includes other notes that provide added flavor. Some of my favorites follow.

—In 1963, a contest was held to design the city’s flag. Two teenage boys submitted the winning design, which has remained largely unchanged for 55 years. Right after the Common Council adopted the flag, they proudly hung it in chambers. Where nobody noticed it was upside down. For three years.

—In February and October 1967, there were two major anti-war protests against on-campus recruitment by Dow Chemical. But another protest that year, utterly forgotten today, was just as purely Madison. In 1966, University Avenue through the campus was converted to a one-way going west. But planners also built a single wrong-way bus lane to facilitate mass transit, separated from the rest of the street by a low cement divider. In May 1967, after a UW student was hit by a bus and lost a leg, students rallied to protest the wrong-way bus lane, but the protest turned into a riot with 5,000 students and 25 arrests. In response, city officials increased the number of stoplights on University Avenue crossings as a safety measure. The one wrong-way lane is still in use today as a bike lane; I had crossed it approximately a million times before I learned its history. (Fixed. Ed.)

—In January 1968, plans were announced for the Camp Randall Music Festival, to be held in the university’s football stadium in May. A Chicago promoter planned to bring Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Association, and Bill Cosby to town as headliners. It didn’t happen, although the Doors did come to town that fall.

—In April 1968, the UW needed a new basketball coach, and offered the job to the 28-year-old coach of Army, Bobby Knight. After the deal was done, university officials gave the story to a local reporter. But when it hit the paper, Knight balked, claiming he hadn’t yet told officials at West Point, or even his wife, and he backed out. One wonders how hoops history might have changed if Knight, who would take over at Indiana University in 1971 and win three NCAA championships, had come to Madison.

If you live here, or if you know this town, you’ll be as riveted by Madison in the Sixties as I have been. It may mean less to you otherwise, but it wouldn’t be entirely without interest. Many issues playing out here during that crowded decade were being worked out elsewhere too. Madison is not the only city in America that became what it is today during the turbulent, fascinating 1960s.

Levitan maintains a Facebook page with stories and pictures from the book. He’s also done a series of Madison in the Sixties features for local radio station WORT. 

Who’s Walking Through That Door?

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(Pictured: Fleetwood Mac, 2018, with Mike Campbell at center in the hat and Neil Finn on the right.)

The Mrs. and I still talk about the night we went to an outdoor show starring, among others, the Drifters, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Temptations. This was in the late 80s, so these were not the original editions of the groups. If I’m recalling correctly, there were several touring groups calling themselves the Drifters back then, and links of each to the original Drifters were fairly tenuous. Paul Revere was still leading the Raiders, although Mark Lindsay and Freddy Weller (who sang lead on “Indian Reservation”) were long gone. (Whoops: see below.) The Temptations were the closest to the real thing—Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin were still in the group then, as was Richard Street, who had joined the Temps in 1971 but who had sung with Williams and Franklin in the Distants as far back as 1959. We didn’t really care about the details, though. We had a marvelous time with several other couples. How much we paid to get in, I don’t remember. Maybe five bucks per person, tops? Whatever it was, it seemed fair to us 30 years ago.

Tonight, a show called The Music of Cream hits my town, Madison. It features Kofi Baker (son of Ginger), Malcolm Bruce (son of Jack) and Will Johns (nephew of Eric Clapton and son of producer/engineer Andy). The original Cream last played together in 2005. Since then, Jack Bruce has died (in 2014) and Ginger Baker’s health has declined. He’s 79, and Eric Clapton is 73. Cream isn’t walking through that door, but The Music of Cream is. Tickets start at $25—fair enough for what, despite the family connections, is a tribute band. The original Cream reportedly turned down a lot of money for a tour in 2005. Today, were it possible, how much would a show with Ginger Baker, Clapton, and Malcolm Bruce command per ticket? Never mind that’s it’s two-thirds of the original band and they’re 50 years older. Would people be asked to pay $100? $150?

In the early days of the Beatles, Ringo Starr famously said that he expected to open a couple of hairdressing shops after the Beatles petered out. He could not foresee the way no band beloved by baby boomers ever has to die. The Drifters, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Temptations never did, and even in 2018 they still haven’t.

But should they?

Days after Glenn Frey passed in 2016, Don Henley announced that the Eagles were done, but his accountants apparently talked him out of it, and now the band goes on with Frey’s son in his father’s place and country star/former Pure Prairie League member Vince Gill along for the ride. Shortly after Walter Becker’s death a couple of years ago, his family sued Donald Fagen to keep him from going on the road as Steely Dan, but Steely Dan went on a lucrative tour with the Doobie Brothers this summer, and they’re playing dates in the UK with Steve Winwood next year.

And then there’s Fleetwood Mac, which fired Lindsey Buckingham, an integral part of the group for over 40 years, and hired a guy from Crowded House and one of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers to take his place. It’s one thing for a middle-tier band to hire new guys and keep playing county fairs and casinos, like the Little River Band, which has one guy left from its heyday (and he joined in 1980, closer to the end of the band’s chart run than to the beginning). But it seems different to me when a top-drawer superstar act does it and still commands big coin for a ticket. If you paid between $69.50 and $229.50 to see Fleetwood Mac in Milwaukee last month, what did you get? Fleetwood Mac without Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac doing “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Free Fallin'”, Fleetwood Mac doing “Go Your Own Way” without the guy who sang and played lead on it—isn’t that essentially a tribute band? Is “Take It Easy” sung by Deacon Frey or “Lyin’ Eyes” sung by Vince Gill really by the Eagles, or is it something else?

In true-blue late-capitalism fashion, the marketplace decides. If people are willing to pay the freight, the show goes on. But where does it end? In this climate, what’s keeping Paul and Ringo from calling up Dhani Harrison and Julian Lennon and hitting the road as the Beatles?

Not a damn thing, actually.

A Thin Disguise

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(Pictured: the Eagles and some friends take a bow.)

We live in a world where old guys like me have to continually check ourselves regarding our interactions with women. For example, I grew up in a time when it was perfectly normal, and even considered polite, to compliment a woman on her appearance. I don’t do that anymore, except with The Mrs., because I don’t want to risk making work colleagues feel uncomfortable. I check myself to see whether I interrupt or overtalk or mansplain. I’ve even discussed these sorts of things with the women in my life. I don’t do it out of a desire to be a social justice warrior. I do it because I was taught to be decent to other people as best I can.

That I grew up halfway enlightened is a credit to my parents, and especially to Dad, who was a liberated husband and father before it was cool. In 1964, black activist Stokely Carmichael was asked about the position of women in his movement, and he responded, “Prone.” Joke that it was, it expressed a truth commonly held for years thereafter: that a woman’s proper place was, if not taking care of her man in his home and in his bed, than at the very least, taking care of him in his bed. The womanizing excesses of rock stars and athletes were well-known then, especially in the 70s, but as something they—or any man, powerful or otherwise—were entitled to by virtue of being men. A woman who insisted on what she felt she was entitled to—taking charge of her own desires, or her own life choices—was likely to find herself branded as an oddball, an outcast, a rebel, or a threat.

(As recently as three years ago, it felt as though American society was beginning to evolve beyond these attitudes. Today, they’re highly fashionable again, at least among a certain class of moron.)

Take the Eagles as one example of how these attitudes worked. In a lot of Eagles songs, a woman is present to stroke the ego of a man, or as the object of his desire, sexual or emotional. But if she becomes more than just a passive plaything—if she gains power, especially sexual or emotional—she becomes an obstacle to the man getting what he deserves. In one famous case, a woman who merely tries to live her life the best way she can gets judged for it in terms of what she’s doing to the man in her life.

One way to read the theme of the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” is that we do whatever we must do to best live with the life choices we have made. It’s beautifully played, sung, and produced. It was on the radio during a season I remember fondly. But its easy-rockin’ feel hides a viciousness inside of it.

You remember the story. A young woman marries a rich old man, but she discovers that money is no substitute for youthful passion. So she sneaks away to find that passion with a man her own age, and later feels guilty about having done so. Anyone listening, man or woman, can probably imagine themselves in the woman’s place. I feel compassion for her. I suspect that many listeners do, and that Don Henley and Glenn Frey were happy to make us feel that way. But that last verse is cruel:

My oh my, you sure know how to arrange things
You set it up so well, so carefully
Ain’t it funny how your new life didn’t change things
You’re still the same old girl you used to be

The story goes that Henley and Frey were inspired to write the song by the sight of a younger woman and older man together in a Hollywood restaurant, and Frey’s instant assumption that their relationship had to be based on a lie. And so, rather than pointing out that you can’t run away from who you are—an observation most of us would find reasonable—they’re standing up for a rich old man they consider the real victim. “Take your unhappiness and suck on it, you conniving, cuckolding bitch. You’re the same whore you were back when you had nothing.”

Closer to It

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(Pictured: Brian Auger with Julie Driscoll and Aretha Franklin, 1968.)

I am just off another couple of days spent on the road, listening to music from my USB stick. Here’s a little bit about some of it.

Closer to It!/Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express. When other people play air guitar, I am an air keyboard player. It has less to do with the two years of piano lessons I took than it does with how much I love the sound of keyboard instruments, including the Fender-Rhodes electric piano, the Hammond B3 organ, and the Moog synthesizer. Auger plays keyboards on Closer to It! with the showy virtuosity of a guitar hero, but he never makes just noise. On the album-opening “Whenever You’re Ready,” the organ is the rock-solid foundation of the track. On “Happiness Is Just Around the Bend,” the electric piano rocks like crazy. Auger’s not a technically great singer, but he makes it work, especially on “Compared to What” and on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” (Hear the whole album here.)

Digression: I first heard of Closer to It! in a used-record store one Saturday afternoon, along with my friend Lance. This particular store played music at ear-bleeding levels, and on this particular day, it wasn’t anything either of us, then both in our 40s, would have been interested in. We’d been there awhile when the store stereo went silent, long enough for the clerk to put on something new. After he did, Lance and I made eye contact across a rack of albums and took off for the front of the store at the same moment to find out what we were hearing. The clerk wouldn’t sell the store’s copy, but by the end of the weekend I was on the Internet searching for it, and within a couple of weeks, I had my own copy of Closer to It!—a Spanish CD release that came in the mail from actual dang Spain.

City to City (Collector’s Edition)/Gerry Rafferty. I wrote about this edition of City to City a few years ago, and I was largely dismissive of the bonus disc containing mostly demos and “Big Change in the Weather,” the non-album B-side of “Baker Street.” Listening again last week, I liked that part of the album a lot better. The elaborate production of the finished tracks made City to City a #1 smash, but the demos could have made a perfectly good album on their own. And “Big Change in the Weather” was good enough to be an A-side.

Let It Be/Beatles. I like this album a lot less now than I used to. The Phil Spector-ization of “The Long and Winding Road” would have made more sense if it had been on a Wings album in 1975 (but it works a lot better on “Across the Universe”). The Beatles created some great art while they were stoned, but “Dig It,” “Maggie Mae,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” are not examples of it. However: George Harrison’s “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue” are fine, and “Two of Us” should have been a single and would have been huge.

The Definitive Collection/Little River Band. One of the first CDs I ever bought, back in the late 80s, was the Little River Band’s Greatest Hits, the one with the blue cover featuring the bottom half of a swimsuit-clad woman in a swimming pool. That compilation, originally released in 1982, was replaced in 2002 by The Definitive Collection, which added some songs released before the band’s 1976 American breakthrough and included some post-’82 tracks. And a couple of those early tracks are fabulous. “It’s a Long Way There” was a modest American hit late in 1976 but is heard here in its full-length version; the Australian hit “Curiosity Killed the Cat” played in my head for hours after I heard it. Not only are the songs themselves really good, they’re beautifully recorded. I’m no audiophile, and I was listening in the car with road noise all around, but their clarity astonished me. I am guessing that in a quiet space with big speakers, you could hear the musicians’ heartbeats and the hum of the studio HVAC. I would have guessed that the band’s 1981 album with George Martin, Time Exposure, would have been their most beautifully made record, but these songs from years before, when nobody knew who they were, are better by a mile.

My travel season is over, thank the gods. But my USB stick will play on, even when I’m staying relatively close to home.

Made for October

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A while back, I saw a few people on Twitter ranking the months of the year, so I have spent some time trying to do it myself:

1. October
2. September
3. November
4. December
5. April
6. May
7. March
8. June
9. January
10. July
11. February
12. August

What February and August have in common is that they’re when the two most extreme seasons of the year start to overstay their welcome. We can still have 90-degree days in September, but September comes with the promise that they’ll soon be over. August only promises the likelihood of more. It isn’t all bad, though. For a lot of people—as it was for my family when I was a kid—August is vacation month. We could go away for a few days because the hay had been made and the oats weren’t ready yet. We’d get home and it wouldn’t be long before school would start, which never particularly bothered me.

I’d have ranked February higher when I was a kid because it’s the month my birthday is in, but screw that now.

Ranking November so high may seem weird to you, but November has much to recommend it: football and hockey, Thanksgiving (which is my favorite major holiday), the coming of winter seasonal beers, and the locking time. December gets a boost because I enjoy the trappings of the Christmas season, but also because I am a charter member of the Winter Is Better Than Summer Club. Motto: “You can keep putting clothes on, but you can only take so much off.” (But see March below.)

April gets the springtime nod over May and March because even if the boy leaves the farm, the farm never entirely leaves the boy, particularly during April. All that black, rich soil and the even rows of newly planted crops—I can see it and smell it even though I haven’t lived on a farm for nearly 40 years. March gets marked down because it’s usually the absolute butt end of winter. I remember actually cursing snowflakes as they fell one late March afternoon this year: “Isn’t this ##$%^@ing #%$ ever going to stop #@*ing falling, for #$@% sake?”

May is ranked where it is because it has to be someplace. Nothing interesting ever happens in May. It is the beige of months.

June is OK because of those nights before it gets too humid to breathe the air—in other words, before it becomes July. January is a letdown because the holidays are over, everything is one year older, and hockey season is in the midwinter doldrums. There is playoff football, but your team has to be in it. If they’re not, January is merely a long, cold slog to February, which is a slog of its own.

It will be no surprise to anyone who has regularly imbibed this pondwater that my favorite months of the year are September, now concluded, and October, back again. Our friend whiteray wrote about being an autumnal man a couple of weeks ago, and so am I. This change of season, from fruitfulness to harvest, from long days to short—from light to darkness—is our fate as creatures on this planet, compressed into a few weeks. In spring we grow, in summer we prosper and we frolic in the sun, but only for a while. In the fall, we start to feel our age, and we know where we’re going after that. But even while that inexorable process is taking us, we get to experience a few moments of beauty before we go.

Personally, October has been a month in which I have experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows of my time as a creature on this planet. I fell both in love and out of it, performed deeds both great and terrible, acted both brave and cowardly. So beyond the sunlight and the leaves and the first fire in the fireplace and pulling up an extra blanket in the night, October is full of people and places and times to remember. Memories enough to make me believe that the man I have become, whoever and whatever he is, was made in October and made by October.

Made for October, too.

On the Stick

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(Pictured: Christine Perfect as your basic British bird.)

I drive a 2007 Ford Focus. It has 138,000 miles on it, the heater doesn’t work right, and one of the airbags needs to be serviced. I have vowed to drive it until the wheels fall off, and there’s little reason to believe they won’t do that very thing someday.

Nevertheless, I put a new stereo in it last month. This is in keeping with my long-held belief that a car is really just a music player equipped with really expensive chairs.

In addition to playing CDs and the radio, the new unit also has an auxiliary jack and a USB port. I can connect an iPod via the aux jack, but I prefer a USB stick. I have more than 250 albums loaded on a single 16-gig stick, and it’s awesome. No longer do I have to pack CDs or fiddle with them while I’m driving. The tunes could play uninterrupted for quite literally days. Right now, the stick is loaded with albums that are highly familiar. Blazing down midwestern interstates at 75 miles an hour is not the best time to explore the subleties of new music, I find. Here’s some of what I’ve been listening to.

Arc of a Diver, Back in the High Life and About Time/Steve Winwood. Nobody really needs to hear “Higher Love” or “The Finer Things” again, but if you put on “While You See a Chance” right now, I’d be there for it, and I will crank “Spanish Dancer” every time. About Time, from 2003, might be better than both of the others. I’ve mentioned before its excellent cover of “Why Can’t We Live Together” and one of the great album-opening tracks anywhere, “Different Light.”

Black and Blue and Blue and Lonesome/Rolling Stones. These two albums coming up back-to-back the other day pleased me greatly. I like Black and Blue more than most people do, although at its release in 1976, many critics questioned the Stones’ commitment. Blue and Lonesome, released last year, is nothing but committed—bruising electric Chicago blues that’s so authentic and so hardcore that it would be hard to remember who you were listening to were it not for Mick.

The Legendary Christine Perfect Album/Christine McVie. In 1970, after she left the British blues band Chicken Shack and before she joined Fleetwood Mac, the future Christine McVie, then known by her maiden name Christine Perfect, released an eponymous album. In 1976, with Fleetwood Mac becoming superstars, it was reissued as The Legendary Christine Perfect Album. I have loved this album for a long time, for its blues tunes, for its properly English late-60s psychedelia, and for Christine’s voice, smoky as it would ever be, but still very young. Hear the whole album here.

Cass County/Don Henley. This is Henley’s 2015 “country” album, although mostly that means it’s got lots of acoustic guitars and a little bit of steel, plus a bunch of high-powered guests from the country field: among them Miranda Lambert, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Lucinda Williams, and Dolly Parton, whose vocal on “When I Stop Dreaming” should be required listening for every young singer addicted to phony melisma. Dolly’s is the real thing, and she can’t help it any more than she can help breathing.

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Duets/Elton John. You know how I feel about Captain Fantastic, but Duets, which came out of the celebrity duet fad of the early 90s, ranks high on my list also. It includes fun covers of “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” (with Marcella Detroit, known back in the day as Marcy Levy, superstar backup singer and longtime Eric Clapton collaborator) and “I’m Your Puppet” (with Paul Young); the weirdly good “A Woman’s Needs” with Tammy Wynette (written by Elton and Bernie and produced by Barry Beckett); “The Power,” another Elton/Bernie original, righteously performed with Little Richard; and the gorgeous Cole Porter song “True Love” performed with Kiki Dee. Listen to the whole album here; the quite-romantic “True Love” video is here.

Boston/Boston. No matter how far I’ve gone or how long I’ve been away, some of the albums on this list (and others that I haven’t mentioned) will always take me home, back to a time and a place where we’d play our favorite albums over and over, we’d examine the covers and read the liner notes again and again, we’d thrill every time to a particular riff or lyric line, and we’d believe in our hearts that nothing else was ever going to make us feel quite like that again.

And we’d be right.

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