The Foundation That Did Not Rumble

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(Pictured: Robert Kennedy campaigns in Indiana on May 7, 1968.)

We can never know how it really was. We try, in our own lives, to remember how it really was. We study the history of bygone times in hopes of learning how it really was. What was it really like to come ashore on D-Day, or to be a peasant farmer on a 14th century English manor? We read memoirs and news reports, we study the evidence and the reconstructions, and we get a sense of it, but we can never know how it really was, in the moment, for the people who were living it.

What do we know, for example, about the spring of 1968? Mostly broad outlines. A bitter presidential campaign is underway. Social movements are blooming: minorities continue work for racial justice, and we perceive stirrings of women’s liberation and gay liberation. We see hippies trying to get back to the garden, and well they might, for it is a violent age, and not just in Vietnam and on the front lines of protests around the world. In the month of May, Martin Luther King has just been shot, and Robert F. Kennedy soon will be.

As we look back from here, in 2023, it seems that seismic shocks were rumbling the nation’s foundations. But were they, really?

A few years ago, I wrote about Los Angeles radio personality Dick Whittinghill, and my piece included an aircheck of his KMPC show from June 10, 1968, which I described as “a remarkably calm half-hour of radio.” Recently, I spent some time noodling with the Billboard Easy Listening chart dated May 18, 1968.

And I thought about my parents.

Over the years, I have asked them what they remember about various historical events, but their impressions are often fragmentary. Dad was cleaning manure out of the chicken house on the day of JFK’s assassination; they woke up my youngest brother, who was not yet three, to watch the astronauts walk on the moon. But they cannot tell me how it really felt to be alive in the moments when history was made, not the way I crave to know it.

That they cannot do so used to strike me weird, but it shouldn’t have. The big events of our times are always projected against a backdrop of the mundane (which is the One Day in Your Life mission statement, basically). And certainly, what looks mundane to us now didn’t seem that way to them then.

In the spring of 1968, my parents were 35 and 32 years old. They had been married not quite 10 years. They had three sons aged eight, six, and almost two. Dad ran a dairy farm with his father; Mother was busy taking care of the house and raising their boys. Such responsibilities were anything but mundane, not if they wanted the kids to eat, and to grow up into civilized adulthood. In the spring of 1968, as in every other spring, Dad had cows to milk (twice a day, seven days a week), crops to plant, and literally dozens of other tasks contending for his time; Mother had chores of her own, plus kids to wrangle.

For them, the news was something that came on the radio at 7:25 and noon, and on TV at 6 and 10, but if it wanted significant attention from them, it had to elbow its way past the responsibilities of their everydays. They did not kill time  contemplating their place in the great sweep of history, not like their oldest son would do one day. They may have, from time to time, considered how much trouble there was in the world, and how much change. But as long as they kept doing what they needed and wanted to do each day, the foundation they were building—a farm, a home, and a family—did not rumble, and would not.

No doubt there was privilege involved in not having to concern themselves overmuch with Vietnam, or civil rights, or gay rights, but in their defense, Dad and Mother were not alone. Millions of people like them went about their days focused on running their businesses and their households, and raising their kids. And they often did so while listening to their local equivalents of KMPC and Dick Whittinghill.

What were they hearing, specifically ? I am up against my self-imposed, completely arbitrary word limit for this post and I have not even begun to discuss that. So tune in again later this week.

Meet the Swingers

By 1966, the youth market was growing exponentially. Moguls and money-men had dollar signs in their eyes. For The Youth themselves, there was the allure of stardom, of hearing your songs on the radio, singing on TV, posing for magazine covers, being the name on everyone’s lips. (And dollars, too.)

And into this exciting era came the Swingin’ Six. Their album For the First Time!, released in January 1967, was a mix of original songs and covers. The music is mostly in the pocket for 1967, if not all that distinctive; a couple of Internet writers compare them to the Jefferson Airplane and the Mamas and the Papas, but they lack the edge of those groups, and some of their song choices are a little suspect. At the time, absolutely everybody was recording “The Impossible Dream” regardless of whether it was a good idea, and there is no way to make “Round and Round” sound like anything other than ripe cheese. Their busy cover of Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone” is, well, I don’t know what the hell to call it.

But it isn’t all uncomfortable. A couple of originals give the group a more interesting personality, especially “Pack Your Bag” (which was released as a single) and “For the First Time.” Another original, “Bad News,” wants to be trippy but doesn’t really get there, although I like it. The contrast between the folk rock the Six wrote and the adult standards they covered indicates that may have been some push-and-pull between what the Six themselves wanted to do and be, and what their producer, record-industry veteran Harry Meyerson, and their label, Decca Records, wanted them to do and be. If so, it’s a familiar story.

The Swingin’ Six were put together by a wannabe mogul named Ronn Cummins, and nearly all of what we know about them comes from the liner notes Cummins wrote for their album. Steve Burnett, John Fisher, Pat Lanigan, and Richard Neives were all musicians who had done Broadway, television, and nightclub work. Ann Rachel and Carol Richards were stage actresses and sang on commercial jingles. If Cummins inflated the significance of his group’s credits (and he almost certainly did), he also makes clear that the Six were ambitious kids who were already putting in the work, chasing success in showbiz. Cummins himself had been such a person, with Broadway and recording credits of his own before (and after) becoming a talent manager.

On December 24, 1966, Billboard reported that the Swingin’ Six would appear at a New York club before the release of their album in January. Cummins was confident that they would be big. Billboard wrote that he was already auditioning musicians for two more groups, “and he will also create a ‘farm system’ for the Swingin’ Six to provide replacements for the group should it become necessary.”

Spoiler alert: it would not become necessary. The Swingin’ Six made some TV appearances, but their single did not hit (although WWDC in Washington listed the B-side, “The Green Door,” for at least one week). Their album did not hit. In fact, no member of the Swingin’ Six went on to anything like stardom, although Burnett had a few post-Six musical credits.

The only reason to remember them today is for a separate gig. In 2021, I wrote about how the federal government enlisted popular TV shows to promote savings bonds. Shows from Father Knows Best to WKRP in Cincinnati were part of the effort. But the feds produced public service announcements and short films for many other purposes. The short films might appear on TV as interstitials, to fill time between the end of a game or a movie and the next scheduled program, or they might be shown by community groups for public education. In 1967, the Post Office was launching the ZIP Code program, and part of the task was explaining to Mr. and Mrs. Average American what the codes were and why it was important to use them. So they hired the Swingin’ Six to appear in a 15-minute film introducing ZIP Codes, with production numbers and original songs by Steve Burnett. The film is both cheesy and charming, and it’s educational, too: I was today years old when I learned that each five-digit ZIP Code breaks down into three parts with specific meanings.

I am not the person to write a book about how governments use popular culture to sell programs and ideas to the governed, but I’d read it. And if somebody wrote it, the Swingin’ Six should be in it.

Whitebread Woodstock

Alpine Valley Music Theater is in Walworth County, Wisconsin, an hour from Madison, a half-hour from Milwaukee, and 90 minutes from Chicago. When it opened in 1977, there was little else like it. It was, for a time, the largest outdoor amphitheater in the country.

A Facebook group recently featured the picture you see here, of the Alpine Valley lineup for its inaugural season. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Boz Scaggs was the first headliner, on June 30, 1977. So this ad appeared not long after that. Reserved seats, inside the covered pavilion, were $10; general admission, on the enormous lawn that sloped upward from the stage, was generally $7 or $8. (In current dollars, that’s approximately $48 reserved and $36 on the lawn.) Service charge per ticket order: 25 cents. The 1977 lineup was skewed heavily toward adult-appealing acts: Roy Clark, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Bobby Vinton. The predominance of rock bands was not far off, however.

In 1979, my buds and I saw the Doobie Brothers there. We paid something like $13.50 a ticket ($53 today). It seemed like a lot, but we considered it well-spent as we sat in the pavilion maybe 20 rows back from the stage, passing a wineskin back and forth, feeling like kings.

In 1980, we saw the Eagles, with general admission tickets this time. I have written about this show before, and years ago I found what purports to be a bootleg of the very night we were there. Wineskins were banned by then; you had to pay $4 for a paper cup of Budweiser that would be warm by the time you got back to your spot on the lawn. (Four dollars in 1980 is equivalent to about $14 in 2023, about what places like Alpine Valley get for a beer nowadays.) You could bring in as much weed as you wanted, however, and we joked that next year, they’d be selling joints at the concession stands for $6 each.

A feature of the 1980 show was the worst traffic jam I have ever been in. People tended to trickle into the parking lots hours before the show (because this is Wisconsin, tailgating is just assumed), so getting in was not a problem. Getting out, however, was nightmarish. It took us hours to get to the exit. So when we went back for the Doobie Brothers in 1981, we were ready. We knew that after the show, it would be at least an hour before the car would move even one inch, so we tailgated afterward. And it turned out to be a good idea; on that night, we were told from the stage that it was the biggest crowd in Alpine Valley history. Based on that Wikipedia article, capacity would have been 37,000, although I am not sure the venue was that big at that time.

By 1982, I worked in a town 2 1/2 hours away, so getting to a show was more difficult. When Bruce Springsteen played there in 1984, we were momentarily tempted, but we were also five hours away by then. So I have never been back to Alpine Valley.

Alpine Valley continued to book a string of major shows every summer, including a three-night stand by the Rolling Stones in 1989. (Our friend Professor O’Kelly was there one night.) On August 26, 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan and four other people were killed after a show when their helicopter crashed into a nearby ski hill. I could be completely wrong about this, but my sense is that the crash ended Alpine Valley’s heyday. In recent years, it’s been home mostly to jam bands—the Grateful Dead and its successor acts, Phish, the Dave Matthews Band. Jimmy Buffett has rarely missed a year at Alpine Valley since the middle of the 90s. But where Alpine Valley once hosted shows frequently, in most years now there’s only a couple, and in some years, even pre-COVID, there were none. This year, its lone booking is the Outlaw Music Festival, with Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, and Alison Krauss, in August. General admission for the Outlaw Music Festival is $35, which is pretty reasonable for 2023. But it’s equivalent to nearly $120 in 1980.

The days when you could sit on the lawn, smoke a joint, and see Kansas and Todd Rundgren for seven dollars are long gone. And in those days, the phrase “Alpine Valley Music Theatre” was magical. A concert at Alpine Valley was not just a show, it was an experience. My three nights loom large in memory still. A night at Alpine Valley, outdoors, on a hill, in a crowd of thousands, was as close as a whitebread Midwestern teenager such as I was going to get to Woodstock.

Thanksgiving at the Ends of the Earth

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I am not going to get anything new written for Thanksgiving, I’m sorry to say. But there’s this, which I wrote 10 years ago this week, and is worth another look.

There was a time when I was willing to pack up and move anywhere for a radio job. As a young jock, I felt I had to be ready to seize opportunities wherever they could be found, and so I wasn’t shy about applying for jobs a long way from my familiar Wisconsin/Iowa stomping grounds: Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina. I never got close to landing any of those, although in late 1983 I wound up in Macomb, Illinois. I can still conjure up the way it felt to be there in those first few months. Even though we were but four hours from where I had grown up, it seemed like we’d gone to the moon. I began describing Macomb as “not the ends of the earth, but you can see them from there.”

At least I wasn’t alone. I had dragged The Mrs. to the middle of nowhere with me. I was lucky in that regard.

Fast-forward about three years. In 1986, we hired a young, single guy to do middays on our AM station in Macomb. Seems to me he had come from somewhere in Michigan, although I wouldn’t swear to it. I wasn’t involved in his hiring (which is another story entirely, and not the one I want to tell today), so I didn’t know much about the guy beyond what I could pick up around the office. And what I picked up mostly was his powerful loneliness. He came to work every day and didn’t say much, did his airshift professionally enough, and then went home to who knows what. Didn’t have a wife, didn’t have a dog. What he did have was a shy, wary look in his eye, and he moved with the slow gait of a man breasting a snowstorm.

His isolation there on the wild Illinois prairie seemed so profound that The Mrs. and I took pity on him. I had to work on Thanksgiving morning and we were staying in town, so we invited him to share our Thanksgiving dinner. It was nothing fancy, turkey roll and gravy out of a jar, and we ate it on our laps in front of the TV watching the Packers play the Lions. (His interest in the game is what makes me think he was from Michigan.)

I can’t tell you that we ended up knowing him better by the end of the afternoon because we didn’t. Neither can I say that he and I remained friendly colleagues long afterward, because I had one foot out the door already and would be gone within a month. I have no idea what became of him. A Google search reveals two or three people with his name. One of them has a Facebook page with pictures that look like a family, and I kind of hope that’s him.

So today’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, unless it’s this: if on this Thanksgiving Day you don’t have to be taken in by strangers who will still be strangers at the end of it. Better to have people to spend it with who know you well, understand how you are, and love you anyway.

This year, we have the good fortune to be spending the day with my parents, who are still living at home at the ages of 89 and 86. (As they understand us, we, too, know them well, understand how they are, and love them anyway.) I am grateful to them for all they made possible, and continue to make possible.  

I am grateful to you as well. That people actually found this website, read it, and continue to do so, and have done so for 18 years, is still kind of gobsmacking to me. (Thank you for understanding how it is and reading it anyway.) Thanks also to those of you who take the time to comment, frequently, occasionally, or somewhere in between. Collectively, we continue to make each other smarter, and in a world as dumb as this one, that’s no small thing. 

Gus Dudgeon Is Dead and I Don’t Feel Too Good Myself

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(Pictured: Britney Spears and Elton John in 2013.) 

Some Britney Spears stans got mad at me the other morning when I tweeted that her hit collaboration with Elton John, “Hold Me Closer,” is the worst record of Elton’s career. “We don’t care about your opinion,” “OK boomer,” that kind of thing. (I don’t recall asking any rando who doesn’t follow me for their opinion, but you know how it goes.)

The trouble with “Hold Me Closer” is not the performances. “Tiny Dancer,” “The One,” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” the songs that are sampled to create the track, are all perfectly fine. Britney’s performance it is what it is, and it doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the production of the record. The guys who produced it are so impressed with themselves that they seem not to have bothered to actually listen to it. Andrew Watt has his head so far up his own ass it’s a wonder the reporter could hear him talk. He and his partner did little more than to loop the words “hold me closer tiny dancer” for three minutes and bury them in a beat. They put across a hook, but in the most primitive manner possible.

(There is an “acoustic version” of the record, which still has too much echo, but at least you can hear the music. Hard to believe the same guys made it.)

Some of Elton John’s 70s records are phenomenally busy, with all kinds of stuff going on in them, but the man who produced them, Gus Dudgeon, never forgot that he was making music. Today, producers everywhere have decided that audio effects—echo, reverb, phase and pitch shifting, auto-tune, etc.—are equivalent in importance to the voice of a singer or the sound of an instrument, which is as sensible as a chef making an entire entree out of condiments. The most egregious example I’ve yet heard is “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals, which is made up almost entirely of audio effects. (I wonder if the people in Glass Animals even like music.)

It’s possible that that the “OK boomer” thing (which was clever for about five minutes two years ago, and anybody who still thinks it’s a sharp retort needs to up their game a lot) is accurate, though. I am a product of the era of big speakers and headphone listening, when producers created expansive soundscapes with the intention that the little things be heard. (At the same time, I was also listening to AM radio which, even with its lesser fidelity, sounded vastly better than much of what we hear now.) Younger listeners don’t know anything but production styles intended for lossy audio formats, cheap earbuds, and the loudness war. They don’t relate to what I hear, or can’t hear.

There’s a story about a radio station that changed from a current-based format to all-80s. The chief engineer was asked how he’d changed the audio processing to make the station sound so much better than it had before. He hadn’t done a thing, however—the station was merely playing music that had been produced with a different aesthetic. Yet even music made in earlier times can be subjected to modern techniques. Recently, I needed a copy of “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes and Jeremiah for my radio show, but the only one I could find was on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. That version has been brickwalled, however, which reduces the magical sound of the original to dynamics-free mush. If I were an artist or a producer who had slaved over the mixing and mastering of my music back in the day, I would consider such treatment of it to be an act of violence.

On Another Matter: On the heels of the news Saturday night that Elon Musk is going to let Donald Fking Trump back on Twitter, I announced that I would be leaving the platform, but I was too hasty. After some communication with followers and some further reading about how others are responding to the Trump return, I have been convinced to stay, and I will, for now. My eventual hope that one of two things will happen: A) that I will be able to build up a list of Instagram follows that provides value similar to my list of Twitter follows; and/or B) Mastodon becomes easier to use. And in any event, this website of mine isn’t going anywhere.

Say It Again

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(Pictured: Taylor Swift poses for the paparazzi at the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2022.)

It occurs to me that this post is a riff on stuff I’ve riffed on before. It’s a greatest-hits compilation, I guess.

When the new Hot 100 comes out this week, Taylor Swift will hold the top 10 positions, thanks to her new album Midnights. This will break the record currently held by Drake, who had nine in September 2021 after the release of Certified Lover Boy. I can imagine the fantods Canadian publicist and prolific Twitter-er Eric Alper is having over this, but I’ll never know, because he blocked me last fall for criticizing his fluffing of the chart achievements of Drake and Ariana Grande as if they represented achievements equal to or greater than those of earlier musical eras.

Because they fking don’t. Will say again: you cannot compare chart data from the period we live in now, when you can download or stream an artist’s entire catalog, or cherry-pick the songs from a single album, while sitting on the couch in your jammies at 6AM on a Sunday, with an era when it was necessary to get off the couch, get dressed, and go to a store to buy a piece of plastic. It’s a lesser level of commitment, by quite a lot. The Billboard Hot 100 from the week in 1964 when the Beatles had the top five positions is different by an order of magnitude from what Drake and Taylor Swift have done in more recent times. Nobody had ever done what the Beatles did then, and nobody ever did it again, not even them—not until the way in which we consume music changed, to an extent that people of 1964 would not recognize.

I am certain that all of the tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would have made the Top 10 of the Hot 100 in the first week if the album had been released in a download world. (Well, maybe not “Within You, Without You.”) Same with Michael Jackson’s Bad in 1987. (Not Thriller though, which took a while to catch on, and created the world into which Bad detonated, one in which even elevator-music radio stations played “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”) Albums from the 80s that are famed for having multiple Top-10 singles—Born in the USA, Can’t Slow Down, and Thriller—were popular for two solid years. But are people still listening to Drake’s Certified Lover Boy one year on?

You can’t penalize the superstars of the 60s, 70s, and 80s because technology evolved. They aren’t automatically lesser simply because their music wasn’t as easy to consume. Midnights will not be judged for all time by its chart performance this week; the true test will be how many people are still listening to it years from now.

On Another Matter: The death of Jerry Lee Lewis, the last surviving member of the inaugural class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, does not seem to have inspired the same outpouring of online tribute as the deaths of Fats Domino and Little Richard, stars with less problematic biographies. The BBC’s obituary referred to Jerry Lee’s life as “a toxic cocktail of scandal, addiction, and violence.” Perhaps we find it harder to celebrate the life of such a person. “Their music was great, but …” puts more emphasis on whatever follows the “but.”

I have said many times that it is neither fair nor feasible to judge the value of the art by the personality, or the pecadillos, of the artist. If you, personally, are repulsed by the art of Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Phil Spector, Jerry Lee Lewis, or somebody like them because of what they have done and said, you’re entitled to shut them out of your life. But don’t expect them to give up their places in history, or the critical laurels they justly earned. Thriller and “Be My Baby” are still magnificent works of art even if their creators turned out to be monsters.

Will say again: once you start conflating personal uprightness with artistic merit, there’s no place to stop. Some of the most beloved and influential artists of the last 60 years were spouse abusers, were involved with underage girls and boys, embraced Satanism and Nazism, consumed entire pharmacies, and/or became science deniers. If you say we should listen only to music by “good” people, you’re asking us to give up pretty much everybody, starting with the Beatles, and to live in a world where the radio stations play nothing but Carrie Underwood records.