Turn the Beat Around

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: White Sox announcer Harry Caray interviews helmet-and-fatigues-clad Steve Dahl, organizer of Disco Demolition Night in Chicago, on July 12, 1979.)

I asked what you wanted to read about here, and some requests came in.

Tom asked a simple question: why was disco so hated compared to other forms of music? Simple question, but maybe not a simple answer. Speaking personally, I was as big a disco-hater as anybody, because I was a teenage boy when the phenomenon blew. Many white boys my age felt that disco was an attack on everything we held dear. It seemed cheap and mindless, a product rather than an art form. It was in reality none of those things, but that’s the way we perceived it.

In general, the anti-disco backlash—which took many forms, but was epitomized by what happened at Disco Demolition Night in Chicago in the summer of 1979—was partly racist, given that most disco performers and a lot of disco fans were black or Latinx. It was partly sexist, given that many of the major disco stars and fans were women. And it was partly homophobic. The secret history of disco, which is not so secret anymore, is that it gained a strong foothold in gay culture before it gained a strong foothold anywhere else. Not that we knew or cared much about gay culture per se; many Midwestern white boys considered disco dancing something that real men didn’t do. (Unless it was a slow dance, and half-a-grope at that.) And that was enough to turn us off.

Not that 19-year-old me, reading about Disco Demolition Night as it happened (and I was on the air that night, and I recall telling my listeners about it), would have acknowledged that my motivations were racist, sexist, and/or homophobic. Disco, disco performers, and disco fans as a whole were simply The Other. They were different from us. Disco people did not love the superior music we loved, and the music they loved seemed not just inferior but foreign.

I did not dislike every disco record I heard on the radio, and in fact I would have taken a contrarian’s pride back then in telling my fellow young white boys, “That’s just a great record and it doesn’t matter that it’s disco.” But on the whole, I was about as guilty of “othering” disco as the young dudes who stormed the field at White Sox Park.

If you’re interested in exploring the history of disco, Peter Shapiro’s Turn the Beat Around is a book I rely on. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture by Alice Echols is very good too.

On the subject of books, David asked for recommendations of books and/or movies relating to the history of radio, and mentioned a few I’ve already tipped him to. One I have mentioned here recently is 9XM Talking by Randall Davidson. It’s about the early history of public broadcasting in Wisconsin, but the best part for a general reader is the story of the literal birth of radio broadcasting as we know it today. The story begins in 1914, when radio stations at universities began broadcasting weather reports in Morse code. The University of Wisconsin’s 9XM still exists today as WHA, the 5,000-watt flagship of Wisconsin Public Radio. A couple of other books within convenient reach in my office include Border Radio by Bill Crawford and Gene Fowler, which covers the phenomenon of the border blaster, from goat-gland entrepreneur John R. Brinkley to Wolfman Jack; and Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio by Tom Lewis, which was turned into a Ken Burns documentary.

Adam asked for my take on the Shadoe Stevens era of American Top 40. Stevens hosted the show after Casey’s departure in 1988 until the show folded in 1995. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Shadoe Stevens edition of the show—I’d stopped listening to Top 40 radio by 1988 and the show ceased to register with me. I don’t find any complete Shadoe shows at YouTube, so if somebody could send me one, I’d be happy to listen and report back.

Connor, who says he’s “one of your younger readers,” asked me to expand One Day in Your Life to the new millennium. Well hell, I didn’t know we had younger readers, Connor, so keep your eyes open for your request to be fulfilled in the near-to-intermediate future.

If there’s something I can do for you, dear reader, please get in touch via the comments or a private message.

Please Don’t Say We’ll Never Find a Way

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Eric Clapton grins at the camera, Johnny Cash stands at attention, and Jim Gordon checks out a cymbal during a taping of The Johnny Cash Show in November 1970.)

In recent weeks, I’ve written about “Free Bird” and “Stairway to Heaven,” so it’s only fitting that we bring the classic-rock warhorse troika to completion with a look at “Layla.”

Eric Clapton had written “Layla,” about his unrequired love for George Harrison’s wife Patti, as a ballad. When Clapton and Duane Allman met and started playing together, it was Allman who developed the riff that turned it into a rocker. The song’s second half came from a piece Derek and the Dominos’ drummer/pianist Jim Gordon was working on while the band was making Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The story is told that Gordon was taking advantage of unused studio time for his own solo project; when Clapton found out, he said he wouldn’t make an issue of it if he could have that piano piece. Producer/engineer Tom Dowd got the idea of splicing the rockin’ guitar take to the piano piece, and “Layla” became “Layla.”

At ARSA, a newspaper clipping from Salt Lake City shows a radio station there was ranking “Layla” among its top hits in December 1970, but it didn’t begin to get real traction as a single until March 1971. Although it would get only to #51 on the Hot 100 during that chart run, it was a smash in several cities that spring, most notably at WIXY in Cleveland, where it was #1 for three weeks. It was a Top 10 hit in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Denver, and it got airplay on influential stations including WPGC in Washington, WCFL in Chicago, KOIL in Omaha, and KFRC in San Francisco.

The original single release in 1970 contained the first part of the song only. In the spring of 1972, “Layla” was re-released as a single after being included on the compilation albums History of Eric Clapton and An Anthology by Duane Allman (who had died in a motorcycle crash the previous October). One issue of the single contained the full 7:06 version, but Discogs shows another version with “Layla Part 1” on one side and “Layla Part 2” on the other. For what it’s worth, I don’t remember hearing the full version on the radio when it ran to #10 on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1972—only the first part. Every American Top 40 show I have heard from that period includes the short version.

I don’t think I heard the full version of “Layla” until I was in high school, maybe five years after it first came out. In college, all of us considered it a classic. Because the college station played it from History of Eric Clapton, we also considered it a Clapton song (as distinct from Derek and the Dominos), and lots of fans still think of it as one.

Part of that is due to the MTV Unplugged version, which got to #12 on the Hot 100 in the fall of 1992, and won the Grammy that Clapton should have won two decades before. On the record, Clapton is heard saying, “See if you can spot this one,” before breaking into an acoustic version of Allman’s riff. I loved the unplugged “Layla” the first few times I heard it, due to its novelty. Now I hear a version without sweat or emotion, with sound quality so pristine that it sounds vacuum-sealed—a characteristic it shares with other MTV Unplugged recordings in my library.

“Stairway to Heaven” has the graceful lines of a sculpture. “Free Bird” is a sad parting that somehow turns into a fireworks display. In the first half of “Layla,” Clapton roars his pain at everyone within earshot; in the second half is the exhausted knowledge that comes afterward: roar all you want, son, but you love her still.

Summer-Turning-to-Fall

Embed from Getty Images

These days, the sunlight is rich with the gold of September. If I have a muse, it’s on days lit like this that she comes down and does what she does.

/waits/

/waits/

/waits/

What the hell, muse?

Let me put on some music from bygone days of summer-turning-to-fall. That should wake her up.

/listens/

/listens/

/listens/

What the hell, muse?

Maybe I’ve run out of things to say about the songs of summer-turning-to-fall, the most significant ones, from back in the 70s when I was young. As I listen, in the car, on the interstate or just running around town, to teach or to go nowhere in particular, I find I’m not really hearing individual songs anyway.

I’m not hearing anything.

I’m feeling a vibe.

The vibe is partly happy. Those summers-turning-to-fall were a good time to be a kid like me, with a road to the future that seemed smooth, wide, and limitless. The vibe is partly secure. My brothers and I never wanted for a thing. Our parents worried about the corn crop and the Cold War, about paying the light bill and saving for our college tuition, so we didn’t have to. The vibe is partly expectant. I knew that I was going to be on the radio someday—knew it. Also, there were opportunities and adventures ahead—involving school and sports, and later, girls, and part-time jobs to put money in my pocket, and graduation, and college. And then to conquer the world.

It has been so long: 40-plus years to damn near 50. I don’t know what those numbers are supposed to feel like, because they’re not numbers I ever thought I’d have to to deal with. Not that I didn’t think I’d live this long—only that when you’re a kid, the idea of being almost 60 is so abstract as to be meaningless.

I don’t know what to say that means anything about traversing that number of years. And whether you have passed a few more or a few less, you probably don’t, either.

The passage of all that time means the vibe is partly sad. Familiar places have changed irrevocably. People I loved are gone. My parents were young and vigorous, and now they’re elderly. Back then, they looked out for us. They knew what to do, and they did it. Today, we are the ones who have to look out for them, and also worry about the tariffs and the fascists, about paying the cable bill and saving for our retirement—and feel, at least some of the time, like we’ve got no fking idea whether we’re doing it right.

(And not only that: Nixon, Ford, and Carter or Donald Trump? Who’d you rather have now, America?)

Happy, secure, confident in the future. I miss the way that feels. Sometimes I’m shocked by how much I miss it. In a not-insignificant way, the vibe is painful.

Here in 2019, listening to the music and feeling the vibe, I think, this is no good. I should turn the music off. Engine roar and highway whine must be better than this.

But they aren’t, so I don’t. Because this music, from summer-turning-to-fall, has done everything for me since I first heard it. Everything. Got me out of bed, put me to sleep, pumped me up, calmed my soul, gave me strength. Probably even saved my life a time or two.

Your music, from whatever years and seasons mean the most to you, has done similar work. Probably even saved your life a time or two.

I don’t know if happiness, security, and confidence exist anymore in this horrible time we’re living through. But I suppose that if there’s anything left to hope for in this summer-turning-to-fall of 2019, it’s that the music we love might save us all again.

Elsewhere and Else-Time

Embed from Getty Images

(This didn’t end up what it started out to be. Sometimes you just gotta hit “publish” and let it go.)

It is the last week of August, 1965. American soldiers are fighting in the Dominican Republic, Gemini 5 is flying in space, Shania Twain is born, and Moonlight Graham dies. Hit songs include “Help,” “I Got You Babe,” and “Do You Believe in Magic.” I am standing at the screen door, clutching the only item I am required to take to Miss Morgan’s kindergarten class on the first day: a red-and-blue plastic mat to lie on during “resting time.” The door has one of those aluminum grates in it, a letter “B” in the middle, and I am peering outside through the bars. As I wait for the unfamiliar school bus to intrude on the familiar view through the window, the world seems a lot bigger than it ever had before.

It is the last week of August, 1969. The Gulf Coast is cleaning up from Hurricane Camille, and top songs include “Sugar Sugar” and “A Boy Named Sue.” On the first day of fourth grade, Mrs. Goodmiller introduces us to a new student, David. She says he has just recovered from open-heart surgery. On that day, I decide that I will make friends with David. We will go through a lot, and put each other through a lot, over the years to come. We’ll fight, rebuild our friendship, fight again, rebuild again. We will be college roommates briefly, and he will stand up in my wedding. His heart trouble will kill him at age 23, and I will never have another friend so close.

It is the last week of August, 1979. The top movie at the box office, as it has been for much of the summer, is Alien. WKRP in Cincinnati and M*A*S*H are big on TV. “My Sharona” and Get the Knack are atop the Billboard charts. I am hanging out in the office at the campus radio station with some friends as new freshmen come in. As I first wrote back in 2006: “On this particular afternoon, a girl walked in and started looking around. She was wearing a red-and-white striped sweater—which she filled out extreeeemely well—and had long dark hair down to her waist, dark eyes, and a distinctive nose. ‘Holy crap,’ I said to my friends. ‘Who’s that?'”

(I have been married to that girl for 36 years now.)

It is the last week of August, 1984. The Chicago Cubs and New York Mets are in a pennant race no one saw coming after they duked it out for last place in 1983. President Reagan announces the Teacher in Space program, and the shuttle Discovery takes off on the program’s 12th mission. Radio playlists are crowded with hits that will become iconic, including “What’s Love Got to Do With It” by Tina Turner and “If This Is It” by Huey Lewis, plus two by Prince, “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” At my radio station, we’re getting ready to throw the switch on a Top 40 format this Saturday. I am wired with anticipation, planning and fixing and tweaking. It feels like my whole life has been leading up to this.

Some days we walk into with both eyes open, knowing that they are going to be memorable, like five-year-old me on the way to kindergarten. Some days’ importance we don’t recognize until later, like that day in fourth grade, or the day of the format change (which, I realize now, is the most exciting single day of my radio career). The big days come with memories that can keep us going through the years.

But most days are ordinary. We spend them pushing whatever rock we’re pushing up whatever hill we’re fated to push it up. And at days’ end, we reach the top, the rock rolls down, and we’ll push it again tomorrow. This time of year, it’s those ordinary rock-pushing days I wish I could better recall. Every fall, when I see kids lined up at the bus stop, there’s something inside me that wants to say to them, “Make sure you remember everything.” But I never do it. First of all, you can’t remember everything. And second, when you’re five or nine (or 16 or 19 or 24 or 37 or 43 or whatever you are), only one thing would seem more absurd to you than the idea that your ordinary days are worth remembering: the amount of time you’ll eventually spend trying to remember them, when you are elsewhere and else-time.

Bad, Wild, and Crazy

Embed from Getty Images

(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

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.