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Bad, Wild, and Crazy

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(Pictured: police look for clues in the house where Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered by members of the Manson Family on August 10, 1969.)

In August 1969, I spent a few days with my favorite cousin at his house. I remember picking up the paper one afternoon to read a story about some terrible murders that happened in Los Angeles. I didn’t recognize the names of anyone involved, although they would become familiar to me as I read the papers over the next several months: Tate, LaBianca, Folger, Frykowski, Sebring, Parent, Manson, Van Houten, Krenwinkel, Atkins, Kasabian, and others. By the time I started listening to the radio in 1970 and hearing news on the hour, Charles Manson and his family members were on trial. Over the years, the Tate-LaBianca murders and the Manson Family held a grim fascination for me; at some point in high school, I would read prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s story of the case, Helter Skelter, in a single weekend.

Fifty years after the murders—a half-century to the very weekend—I read another book about the case in a couple of days. Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill claims that the theory of the case advanced by Bugliosi—that the murders were inspired by Manson’s interpretation of the Beatles’ White Album and were intended to start a race war—was simply not the reason, and that Bugliosi hid and/or distorted evidence in his desire to get a conviction that would advance his career. (One of Bugliosi’s colleagues, reviewing O’Neill’s research, told the author that it would be sufficient to get the 1971 verdicts against the Manson Family overturned.)

As to exactly what was the reason for the killings—that’s where it gets murky. O’Neill shows time and again the strange ways in which Manson was seemingly protected by the LAPD and the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department and by various probation officers, but he never found out why. He explores Manson’s connections to music-industry figures Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher, but doesn’t connect many dots. Before he’s done, O’Neill gets into the possibility that the FBI’s political surveillance program, COINTELPRO, and the CIA’s Operation CHAOS program, which spied illegally on Americans perceived as domestic enemies, might have been involved in the case. O’Neill even suggests a possible connection between the Manson murders and the famous CIA mind-control program MK-ULTRA.

As it is my practice to look sideways at MK-ULTRA—it is frequently a one-size-fits-all explanation for all manner of lunacy—I found the last part of the book disappointing. The first half, in which O’Neill retells the story of the murders and the trial, and details his ten-year investigation into what happened, is much better. If you have an interest in the Tate-LaBianca case (and especially if you read Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter back in the day), O’Neill’s book is worth reading. It’s a well-written and fast-moving tale of events that still retain the capacity to shock, and the unsolved mysteries that still surround them a half-century later.

Also on the Reading List: If murder and mind control don’t appeal to you, read Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the 80s Changed Hollywood Forever, by Nick de Semlyen instead. It’s about the period from Animal House through Groundhog Day, late 70s to early 90s, when Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, and John Candy were among Hollywood’s most prominent stars. Not every one of their movies was good—if Chase was offered more than one project at a time, he frequently chose the worst one, and Aykroyd had more misses than hits—but the best of them (Animal House, Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop, Groundhog Day) are among the most reliably entertaining films ever made. They did not replay the same premise every weekend. Their stars and their filmmakers had recognizable personalities and styles. The movies were not focus-grouped into existence and marketed the same way.

Wild and Crazy Guys is a fast read, partly because you don’t want to put it down, not necessarily because it’s filled with previously unknown revelations, which it isn’t, but because it covers a bygone-and-much-missed era in pop-culture history, a time when Hollywood’s ambitions weren’t as small as they are today. It will make you want to dig into your DVDs, visit the public library DVD section, or find a stream to revisit movies you remember from decades ago.

To Be There in the Garden

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(Pictured: peace and love, man.)

Back in the middle of the 1980s, on the air one August day, the news guy and I talked a little about the anniversary of Woodstock. Later that day, one of the station’s sales reps flagged me down in the hall. “I heard your bit about Woodstock this morning,” she said. “I was there, you know.”

“Really?” I said. I did some math in my head. “You must have been pretty young.”

“I was 13, but I was there.”

That seemed plausible enough. “You should come on the show tomorrow morning and we’ll talk about it.”

And so she did, but what she claimed to remember about Woodstock were things anybody who had ever heard of Woodstock would know, whether they’d been at the show or not. When I prodded her for personal recollections, they were hazy to the point of incoherence. The interview was pretty much worthless, and although I didn’t confront her about it, I was convinced that she had lied to me. She hadn’t been there at all.

There’s an argument, of course, that her inability to remember proved exactly the opposite: “if you can remember it, you weren’t really there.” In the only lengthy piece I ever wrote about Woodstock, I called that “one of the snottiest catchphrases the 60s generation ever dreamed up.” A portion of that piece—which was posted here in 2006 but was based on something unpublished that I wrote in the late 90s—is below, with a couple of links added to relevant pieces written since.

Scratch an ex-hippie, and many will wax lyrical about “three days of peace, love, and music” and the magical community that sprang up in the countryside, where people got stoned, played together in the flowers and the mud, danced for hours to unbelievable music, and spontaneously formed the forever indivisible Woodstock Nation. Well, not exactly. . . . The significance of Woodstock is a bit overrated, I think. For all the talk of “Woodstock Nation,” it’s worth noting that the nation was primarily white, middle-class, and East Coast. And for all the talk of Woodstock marking the climax of the 1960s, it’s just as much the off-ramp. A little more than three months later, the communal ethos of Woodstock would go horridly sour at Altamont. A year after Woodstock, the antiwar movement that was as much the generation’s glue as the music suffered a fatal blow at Sterling Hall. From there, it became a duel between Woodstock veterans who claimed that if you remembered it you weren’t there and an ever-growing number of people who claimed to have been there but really weren’t. 

That’s the extent of my take on Woodstock. I would revise it to mention Kent State in addition to Madison’s Sterling Hall bombing as nails in the counterculture coffin, but aside from that, I’ll stand by the rest of it. Woodstock interests me as the catalyst for other festivals that I have studied more extensively, including the Iola People’s Fair and the Wadena Rock Fest, and as one of the last landmark events of the 1960s, before the calendar turned to 1970, but its significance, in terms of long-lasting historical impact, is indeed overrated. Its main legacy, thanks to the success of the soundtrack album and film, was the realization that hippie culture could be monetized succesfully—as it has been ever since. Certain performances on that weekend remain iconic a half-century on. Leaving aside the question of how and how long it affected individuals who were there that weekend, whatever Woodstock did to affect the broader American culture was done and gone within a couple of years.

But as a totem? That’s where Woodstock lives, and why it lives. For all the mud and the drugs and the unwashed thousands, it possesses a kind of purity as a place before the world was born: our world, the one we live in today. A world that in the five decades since Woodstock promised much and delivered some of it, but that also failed to deliver much of what it could have. A world that is now moving swiftly backward, immolating itself in sacrifice to the gods of greed, hate, and death—pretty much the opposite of everything Woodstock is supposed to have stood for.

So let us read about Woodstock this weekend. Let us watch the movie again. (Or the recent PBS documentary.) Let us listen to the music made at Woodstock. Let us take a few hours’ respite from 2019’s hell of our own making and be there in the garden one last time.

A Life in Folk Rock

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(Pictured: Steve Forbert, 2019.)

In the 70s, rock station WIBA-FM in Madison had a show called The Quiet Hour. Every night between 6:00 and 7:00, they played nothing but acoustic music, including lots of folk and jazz. During our first semester in college, my dormitory roommate and I loved it, as an antidote to the junk favored by many of the other guys on the floor. In the fall of 1978, an album frequently heard on The Quiet Hour was Alive on Arrival by a new singer/songwriter named Steve Forbert. I liked it.

A year later, Forbert’s second album, Jackrabbit Slim, arrived with a complete helping of new-Dylan hype on the side. It was in the hot rotation at the campus radio station for quite a while, and in the hot rotation at my apartment for months also. Cut one on side one, “Romeo’s Tune,” became a big radio hit. At the end of 1980 came Forbert’s third album, Little Stevie Orbit. I adored the lead single, “Get Well Soon,” but when I brought the album home, I found it a lot less distinctive than Jackrabbit Slim and Alive on Arrival, and it didn’t get played much after the first few times.

I lost track of Forbert after that. So did everybody else, as a dispute with his label limited him to just two albums between 1982 and 1992. (A third album, originally set for release in 1983, didn’t see daylight until 2009.) Streets of This Town (1988) and The American in Me (1992) were critically acclaimed, if not big hits. They did, however, mark his return to regular recording. Since 1995, he’s released 12 studio albums and three live ones. [Late edit: Depending on how you count compilations and special editions, it’s more than 15 albums. Let’s just call it “a lot.”] Last fall came his most recent record, The Magic Tree, and a memoir called Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock.

Forbert tours almost continuously—this year, according to his website, through the beginning of August he’s played 65 shows in the United States and Europe. He plays both big cities—Minneapolis, Chicago, and Cleveland just within the last couple of months, for example—and small towns, like Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, where I saw him on Friday night. Fort Atkinson is an old river town about 45 miles east of Madison, and he played a charming joint called Café Carpe. (Not “car-pay,” as in something French, but “carp” as in the fish.) The performance space is in the middle of the building, between the bar/dining room and a spacious screened-in deck that overlooks the Rock River. Capacity is 60 people, so small that if you buy a ticket in advance, they put a sticker with your name on the back of your seat. (I had to wait a bit before I could find mine; the woman who ushered me to it had to finish washing some dishes in the kitchen first.) I was in the second row, maybe six feet from the stage, which is only a step, raised maybe six or eight inches. The room was full of Forbert fans, many of them more serious than I, some in Forbert T-shirts. They bantered with him and he bantered back, performing songs from past and present in a show that ran a little under two hours with an intermission. It had the feel of a guy showing up in your living room to play some tunes, and I’ve never been to a show quite like it.

Forbert is 65 years old now, but he sounds pretty much the same as he did when he first came to New York from Mississippi. He has played Café Carpe before; “four or five times,” he told me as we talked briefly after the show. It’s a fitting venue for a guy with guitar and a bag full of harmonicas, which is how he started out, busking in the streets of the nation’s biggest city during the late 70s, a time and place where you would not have bet on his brand of folk-rock as a growth stock.

As it happened, Alive on Arrival is just long enough that I was able to listen to nearly all of it on the drive down to Fort Atkinson, and most of Jackrabbit Slim on the way back. I was listening to the 2013 reissues of both, which feature some fine songs that got left in the vaults. Little Stevie Orbit has since gotten a similar archival reissue, and I wonder if I should go get that one and give it another chance. I definitely want to check into some of the other Steve Forbert records I have missed since the 80s.

The Place Where It Happened

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Today marks 15 years since this website began. Over 2,300 posts later, I have put a second website of mine to sleep, but I have also started a podcast, so I am in no immediate danger of running out of ways to waste time I could be spending on personal enrichment or professional advancement (or just cleaning up my office). In keeping with anniversary custom, here are some of my favorite posts since last July 11:

—I wrote about several 40th anniversaries this past year, none more personally meaningful than my 40th high-school class reunion. (I keep looking for reasons why that post is too revealing, too sappy, too something, but I can’t find any, so it must be OK.) There was also the 40th anniversary of my first real radio show, the 40th anniversary of my first paying radio job (as distinct from college radio), and an incident of radio conflict from the spring of 1979.

—After former Los Angeles DJ Humble Harve Miller died in June, my old posts about the 1971 murder he committed spiked in traffic—the day after his death I got 10 times the visits I usually do. I wrote a new post intended to summarize information from the original posts, and it’s still getting hits.

—Also among the most heavily trafficked posts in the history of this site are the ones about the Iola People’s Fair, a 1970 Wisconsin rock festival (which is one of the subjects of my first podcast episode). Late last winter I found myself in central Wisconsin, so I went looking for the place where it happened.

—There were other radio stories: about the craft of radio news, about disc jockeys who talk too much, about the current state of the AM band, about an absurd job description, and about the birth of the classic-rock radio canon in the late 70s. Last fall, in the runup to a controversial “presidential alert” from the Emergency Alert System, I wrote about the history of early warnings by radio, and the plan to create a network of radio stations immune to apocalypse.

—On the subject of controversy, I waded into last December’s kerfuffle over “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and started a small amount of ferment amongst the readership with my take on the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes.”

—I like writing deep dives into the history of individual hit songs. Over the past year some of the better ones involved “Moonlight Feels Right,” Ronnie McDowell’s Elvis tribute “The King Is Gone,” Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and an obscure oldie from the 50s, in a post that inspired a surprising number of comments.

—Here in Madison, local author, historian, and broadcaster Stu Levitan published the great Madison in the Sixties last fall, and I wrote about it. Part of my radio gig involves producing a talk show that runs on one of the stations in our group; I moved over to the host microphone for two interviews with Stu, one on the book in general and another on Madison’s history of protest. I am not much of a talk-show host, but I had a blast doing them. You can hear them at the latter two links.

—I wrote a bunch of tributes again this year: to Daryl Dragon of the Captain and Tennille; to Dr. Hook’s Ray Sawyer; to the quintessential Man of the 70s, Burt Reynolds; to one of the few real heroes I’ve ever had in my life; and to three stars who passed more-or-less together in May.

—After finishing the second volume of Gary Giddins’ biography of Bing Crosby last spring, I made some notes about Bing’s career.

—I crossed “seeing Booker T. Jones” off my bucket list, and I posted a bit of short fiction about another significant musical event (part 1 here, part 2 here).

—In the winter of 1971, the movie Love Story and its theme song dominated popular culture like nothing else. I also wrote about the modern-day reboot of a TV program that first premiered in the same season, and one of its spinoffs.

—We looked into old Billboard magazines several times over the year. In one of them, we found out how jukebox operators were stocking their machines at Christmas 1972.

I thought for a while I was going to get through this post without using the editorial “we,” but nah.

To see more of the best stuff on this site over its many years, click “jb’s greatest hits” at the top of this page.

The readership has commented than 8,000 times since 2007, making me and everybody else who reads this stuff smarter. As always, my thanks to each of you.

Tight Indeed

Booker T. Jones (in the hat) and his son Ted (on guitar), lit fortuitously while playing “Green Onions.”

(Note to patrons: If you subscribe to this site via e-mail, you got at least some of the following post yesterday afternoon, when WordPress decided to publish it before I finished writing it. I suppose it’s futile to fight back against our encroaching robot overlords, but I continue to try.)

In the spring of 1969, I heard a song on my parents’ radio station that I liked. There was something about the way the notes came together, or maybe its organ sound, or something in the rhythm. I remember being a little frustrated because the song didn’t have any words, and so I couldn’t tell what it was called. At least not until the day I heard the announcer say, “That’s Booker T. and the MGs with ‘Time Is Tight.'” I liked the sound of both the name “Booker T. and the MGs” and the phrase “Time Is Tight.”

I’d hear Booker T. and the MGs from time to time in years to come. WLS played their last hit single, “Melting Pot,” for a while in the spring of 1971. At the end of the 70s, I knew that Booker T. produced Willie Nelson’s brilliant Stardust and Pretty Paper albums. When Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn became sidemen for the Blues Brothers, I knew where they’d come from. In the 90s, I bought In the Christmas Spirit, the incredible holiday album by the band, but for a long time it was the only Booker T. and the MGs music in my collection. In the early 00s, I picked up the three-CD compilation Time Is Tight, which covered the group’s glory days, from 1962 to 1971. I read Rob Bowman’s Soulsville USA, the history of Stax Records, and it was most likely not until then that I realized that Booker T. and the MGs were the house band on all the great Stax hits. The depth of Booker T.’s musical knowledge and the breadth of his band’s experience was astounding. After that, I got every Booker T. and the MGs album I could lay my hands on.

Last winter, it was announced that Booker T. would headline Metro Jam, a daylong free music festival in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a town on Lake Michigan between Green Bay and Milwaukee about 2 1/2 hours from Madison. And so, we block out Saturday, June 15, and when the day comes, we make the trip to the show.

On a chilly, gray night, the band comes out on a little outdoor bandshell and hits up a low, rumbly opening that turns into a simmering groove, then Booker T. walks out, moving like the 74-year-old man he is. He smiles broadly, accepting the cheers from the crowd, sits down at the organ, and plays the opening lines of “Hang ’em High.”

It sounds so good that the night immediately becomes more than just another concert.

He plays “Green Onions,” “Hip-Hug Her,” “Soul Dressing,” and other familiar songs. He mentions the MGs’ Beatles tribute album McLemore Avenue and once having had lunch with George Harrison before he plays “Something.” He picks up a guitar for a lovely and surprising version of “Purple Rain,” which has been part of his shows for several years. He plays some blues and his son, lead guitarist in the band, sings.

During the first set, I go up toward the stage and join the people standing there, not so much because we can’t see all that well from where we’re sitting (although we can’t), but because I want to be close to where this magnificent stuff is coming from. I eventually return to our seats, but I’m not there very long. During the second set, I’m drawn back up to the front, and I am there when the band plays “Time Is Tight.”

As the song washes over me, I feel a sense of awe at the 50-year journey from first hearing “Time Is Tight” on the radio as a boy to hearing it live on this night. And it occurs to me that what I am feeling must be what it’s like when a religious person is overwhelmed in the presence of the power and the glory.

Or to put it another way, “This is fking awesome, and I am so glad to be here.”

I have been fortunate to see some legendary stars doing their greatest songs live, including Paul McCartney doing “Yesterday,” Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind,” Steve Winwood doing “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and Mavis Staples singing “I’ll Take You There,” but Booker T. Jones playing “Time Is Tight” just might beat them all.

Behind the Final Curtain

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Certain records are so iconic, so much a part of popular culture, that it’s like they’ve always existed. But as I frequently note, there was a time when they were current radio hits competing for airplay like everything else. One of them is Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which was all over the radio 50 years ago this month.

(Did I need to link to that?)

The story goes that after a dinner with Sinatra at which Frank expressed a desire to retire, lyricist Paul Anka started imagining what Sinatra might say at the close of his remarkable career. He channeled Frank’s tough-guy patois into a lyric of defiance and triumph and married it to a melody he’d purchased from a couple of French songwriters. Sinatra recorded it on December 30, 1968.

“My Way” hit the Billboard Easy Listening chart on March 28, 1969, at #12, went to #4 the next week, and to #2 on the chart dated April 12, 1969, tucked in behind Glen Campbell’s “Galveston.” It spent the next three weeks at #2, behind “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the Fifth Dimension for two weeks and Andy Williams’ “Happy Heart” for one. After that, it stayed at #3 for three weeks before falling to #6, then #7, and finally out of the Easy Listening Top 10 during the week of June 7, 1969.

“My Way” wasn’t as big at Top 40 stations. It first appears on surveys at ARSA early in March, and it first cracks the Top 10 at WRKO in Boston on March 27. It took a while to catch on, with some Top 40 stations charting it high at the same time others were just debuting it. Over the course of its chart run, it was a Top-10 hit on Top 40 stations in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas/Fort Worth, St. Louis, and Denver. On the Hot 100, it debuted on March 29 and topped out at #27 during the week of May 10, 1969.

Sinatra may have been contemplating retirement at the end of the 1960s, but at that moment, he was not far removed from one of his most successful periods, commercially and artistically. He hit #1 on the Easy Listening chart six times in 1966 and 1967, and two of those went to #1 on the Hot 100 as well: “Strangers in the Night” and “Somethin’ Stupid.” Another three of those six would rank near the top of any respectable list of Greatest Sinatra Performances: his voice may never have sounded better than on “It Was a Very Good Year”, and on “Summer Wind,” he’s equally good, backed by a slinky orchestra arrangement that’s almost unbelievably cool. On “That’s Life,” like “My Way” a backward-looking tale of how he got over, Sinatra seems truly amused by it all.

On “My Way,” Sinatra sings of his victories and defeats, “I find it all so amusing,” but he doesn’t sound amused at all. And compared to those songs of a couple of years before, “My Way” is a little off the peak. His glorious tone and phrasing isn’t quite up to those earlier examples. Maybe he rushed it a little: the 12/30/68 session was held in the afternoon before he took off for New Year’s in Las Vegas. Maybe he didn’t really believe what he was singing. Although Anka once said, “I knew he liked it,” one of his daughters said he found its lyric self-serving and egotistical, and in the late 70s he told an audience, “I hate this song,” even as he continued to perform it.

At least two other versions of “My Way” have charted. Brook Benton’s soulful uptempo version made #72 in 1970, and the 1977 live recording by Elvis Presley, which hit after his death, out-performed Frank’s original on the Hot 100. Over five decades, the song has developed a cult of haters, and their reasons for dislike are legitimate enough. It was played for the first dance at Trump’s inaugural ball, and it’s likely that nobody in the world believes the central conceit of “My Way” pertains directly to him more than Donald J. Trump.

But to Mr. and Mrs. America, turning on their radios in the blooming spring of 1969, knowing what they knew about Frank Sinatra during his 30-plus years as a central figure of American popular culture, knowing the story of the kid from Hoboken who became an idol to millions of women, a role model for the mid-century man, and the confidante of both presidents and mobsters, the story he told in “My Way” resonated. It became an anthem for anybody who ever got punched and got back up again.

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