Category Archives: Uncategorized

Made for October

Embed from Getty Images

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

Embed from Getty Images

(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.

Born at the Right Time

Embed from Getty Images

When I was a younger man, I believed that the people I grew up with had a magical bond. We saw so much together and did so much together, lived life’s most tumultuous period of change together, that we would just naturally ride into the future on the same ship for as long as time lasted. We wouldn’t be together in space, but having once been together in time meant that we would always be together in time.

But what about the people I met in the college dorm, people with whom I lived in even closer proximity than my school friends from back home? We, too, went through a tumultuous period of change together. But there was less magic in it. It wasn’t a community. It wasn’t a ship built to sail through time. It was just an accident of geography.

Then I started thinking that maybe everything else was an accident of geography, too. I took Job A instead of Job B, then quit Job B in favor of Job C. I didn’t choose the people who were my colleagues at A, B, or C. They were just there, like office furniture. And even more fundamental: what if my mother had married somebody from her hometown instead of a man from the next town over? What if my grandfather had stayed where he was born, in northern Illinois, instead of buying land just over the state line? I’d still have gone on a journey with a group of people, but it would have been a completely different group of people, different people to love, and hate, and be indifferent about.

I eventually started believing that the bond was actually contingent, random, and perhaps, because of that, meaningless. Sure, I have individual friendships—close, rewarding, beautiful friendships—with people I grew up with, people I met in college, people I have worked with. But that thing about the magical bond from childhood and the ship sailing into the future, all of us together? Too romantic. Not the way the world is. Just an accident of geography.

Continue reading →

An Autobiography With No Words

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Henry Mancini in the studio, circa 1970.)

(Before we begin: this seemed like a great idea when I thought of it. Now that it’s finished, I’m not so sure anymore.)

Fifty years ago this week, three instrumentals were in the Billboard Top 10: “Grazin’ in the Grass,” “The Horse,” and “Classical Gas.” After digging into my own instrumental music stash, I discovered that I can tell my life story to approximately age 20 entirely in instrumentals.

“Theme From A Summer Place”/Percy Faith. The #1 song on the Hot 100 on the day I was born, and the definitive easy-listening hit. Also on the radio that same week: “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross, less monumental but more significant in the mythology of this blog, for I imagine it as one of the first songs I ever heard, lying on the little bassinet in the kitchen, as Mother went about her daily routine with the radio on.

“Alley Cat”/Bent Fabric. When I was two, I apparently had a little dance I would do whenever “Alley Cat” came on the radio. Kids dancing to “Alley Cat” is now an Internet genre all to itself, so I was clearly ahead of my time—possibly for the only time.

“A Walk in the Black Forest”/Horst Jankowski. This is the first song I can remember thinking of as a favorite, having heard it on our hometown radio station, presumably when it hit in 1965 and for years thereafter, “taking us up to news time.” See also “Last Date” by Floyd Cramer.

“Summer Samba”/Walter Wanderley. I have written before of certain long afternoons during which my brother and I would amuse ourselves with toys in the living room while my mother did household chores with the radio on. Certain instrumentals popular in the mid 60s conjure up this image when I hear them today, and “Summer Samba” is one of the most reliable.

“Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet”/Henry Mancini. When I was in fourth grade, a reporter from the school newspaper (a sixth grader) asked me some questions for a student profile. To “what’s your favorite song,” I responded with “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet,” which may have been the last thing I heard on the radio before I went to school that morning. But it also confirmed me as one of the world’s biggest nerds, which remains accurate.

“Time Is Tight”/Booker T. and the MG’s. This struck me differently than “Summer Samba” and the rest of the instrumentals popular just a couple of years earlier. It activated some strand of DNA that had lain dormant for the first nine years of my life—or maybe it’s truer to say it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.

“Scorpio”/Dennis Coffey. I’d been buying 45s for about a year when I bought this. To be added to my collection over the next couple of years: Coffey’s “Taurus,” “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter, “Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and “TSOP” by MFSB. I found—and still find—all of them to be equally crankable.

“Pick Up the Pieces”/Average White Band. On the radio the night of my first kiss. See also “The Hustle,” learning to do it in gym class, and the socially sanctioned—even academically necessary—touching of girls.

“A Fifth of Beethoven”/Walter Murphy. Bridges the summer and fall of 1976. See also “Nadia’s Theme (The Young and the Restless)” for a further significant text from the fall of 1976.

“Star Wars Theme-Cantina Band”/Meco. I resisted my peer group’s mania for all things Star Wars in the summer of 1977 (except for this), mostly because that was how I rolled back then. Eventually, the iconoclasm of never having seen the movie became a thing. A few years ago, my nephews put in the DVD and I quietly fled the room, mostly so I could still tell people I’ve never seen it.

“Music Box Dancer”/Frank Mills. A hit during my first spring getting paid to be on the radio. On those rare occasions when I hear it today, it takes me back to that studio and makes me into the kid I was. He acted like he knew what he was doing, but in fact he did not know the most important thing: that he really had very little idea what he was doing.

We’ll end the story there. If you care to name an instrumental significant to part of your life story, add it in the comments.

Annual Custom

Embed from Getty Images

Today is this blog’s 14th birthday. In keeping with annual custom, here’s a rundown of some favorite posts that have appeared here since last July 11. You can find the rundowns for other years by clicking here, or visit “jb’s Greatest Hits” at the top of the blog anytime.

—The Sirius/XM Yacht Rock channel periodically cycles between the regular S/XM service and streaming only (it’s on the service again for the summer), but people are apparently finding it wherever it is. A post I wrote about it last July often gets as many hits in an average week as the new posts I write, which is both flattering and moderately depressing in similar amounts.

—I seem to have written more tribute posts in the last year than I did the year before, a year in which it seemed like death claimed a new victim in the music world nearly every week. I wrote about Glen Campbell, Fats Domino, Tom Petty, David Cassidy, Mel TillisVic Damone, and Walter Becker.

—Following Becker’s death, I ranked my favorite Steely Dan songs and their albums. I also ranked the songs on famous albums by Elton John, the Cars, and the Rolling Stones, which you can find by visiting the archives of The Re-Listening Project.

—We learned about the history behind several songs celebrating their 50th anniversaries: “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” “Snoopy’s Christmas,” and Henson Cargill’s country-to-pop crossover “Skip a Rope.” A Vietnam-era record not celebrating a round-number anniversary got the same treatment.

—There was, as usual, some stuff about radio at this blog this year: about how the way one station chose to promote itself had an unintended effect; about how to prepare for a radio show and how to keep ads voiced by clients from sounding as crappy as they often do; about the granddaddy of all holiday radio shows; and about one of the greatest of all radio DJs at work on a random day in 1971.

—We watched some TV, including the unlikely Starland Vocal Band Show from 1977 and a radio sitcom that predated WKRP in Cincinnati by a decade. We watched some Elvis movies. We read some books, including one about the impact of drugs on the Beatles and another about the secret history of 1968. We listened to American Top 40 after having a few beers. We traveled a bit, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Bob Dylan’s childhood home.

—One morning last summer, I went for a walk around my own childhood home—the Wisconsin farm I grew up on. Forty years ago this summer, it was nearly time to leave that home, as I graduated from high school. (All these years later, there are certain memories from that time I’d rather not relive.) I remembered another summer when I was a lot younger, and the way it came echoing back to me years later. And I wrote about the things we don’t know.

In this post, I have yet again badly misused and/or overused the editorial “we,” which is also in keeping with annual custom.

After a ridiculous number of years doing business at this stand (and at my other stand, One Day in Your Life), I remain grateful for your eyeballs. And more than just eyeballs—I have been gifted out of the blue with some wonderful stuff as a result of the relationships that this blog has fostered. As great as the stuff is, however, it’s the relationships that are the best thing about this blog. My thanks to all.

So Rare

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: some guys who could play: L to R, Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Lionel Hampton.)

This post has been in my drafts folder for quite literally years, but today is its day. I started it after a reader asked me how come I never write about the 30s and 40s. 

I have written about the Pioneer Era of Recording, which spans the late 1800s to the middle of the 1920s. I think I’ve probably mentioned the pre-rock 50s a few times. But the era between has been neglected, so here we go.

The 30s are often said to be the decade in which jazz was America’s most popular music, but that’s not completely accurate. Based on the list of the decade’s #1 singles (as found in Joel Whitburn’s remarkable Pop Memories: 1890-1954), jazz arrives in 1932, when Louis Armstrong’s version of “All of Me” reaches the top. But a version of the song by Paul Whiteman, erstwhile King of Jazz whose music is not considered especially jazzy today, was on the charts at the same time. A bandleader who’s never been considered a jazzman, Guy Lombardo, was far more popular than Armstrong. During the first half of the 30s, Lombardo would hit #1 or #2 something like 15 times.

Jazz doesn’t start to dominate until what we call the Swing Era. Between 1936 and 1939, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman were frequent visitors to #1, even as Lombardo and Bing Crosby continued to get their share of time at the top. Glenn Miller scored his first #1 hit in 1939, although you’ll get some debate about whether to consider Miller a jazzman or a pop star. (Even recordings by ostensible jazz bands often had plenty of pop flavor, such as Artie Shaw’s “Frenesi,” which spent 13 weeks at #1 as 1940 turned to 1941.) The year 1941 belonged to Tommy Dorsey’s brother Jimmy with seven #1 hits that year alone. The World War II era was soundtracked by bandleaders Freddy Martin, Harry James, and Kay Kyser in addition to the Dorseys, Miller, and Goodman—and Lombardo, and Crosby, who was the most popular recording artist of the 20th century until Elvis came along.

The bands of the 1940s all had singers, some who would remain eternally famous, like Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey or Doris Day with Les Brown, and some who were famous in their time but no longer, such as the stable of singers who fronted Miller, including Ray Eberle, Tex Beneke, and Marion Hutton. And as World War II ended, you can begin to see the big bands fade out and solo singers take prominence. Perry Como hits #1 for the first time in 1945 and repeatedly in 1946; so do Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole, and Sinatra as a solo artist. By 1948, the Kay Kyser band is the last of the World War II big bands to hit #1; in 1949, nearly all of the #1 songs are by solo singers not fronting big bands, including Evelyn Knight, Mel Torme, Como, Vaughn Monroe, Vic Damone, and Frankie Laine. Guy Lombardo managed a #1 version of “Third Man Theme” in 1950, 23 years after his first #1, but he was the last of the famous bandleaders to reach the top.

Eras never break cleanly. Think of the start of the rock ‘n’ roll era in 1955 or the British Invasion in 1964, and then consider how older styles continued to thrive even after times had supposedly changed. So there’s a finer gradation to this story than I am relating here. Solo singers were popular throughout the 30s and 40s, as Crosby’s success indicates. Jimmy Dorsey scored a big pop hit with “So Rare” in 1957. Even without hit singles, editions of the dominant big bands sold albums, and they remained on the road in the 50s and 60s, albeit scaled down in size and itineraries. Stars such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie would remain popular live attractions until their deaths, Ellington in 1974 and Basie in 1984, as would Frank Sinatra until his death 20 years ago last month. Guy Lombardo was on national network TV every New Year’s Eve until the end of the 70s.

An edition of the Glenn Miller Orchestra is still on the road in 2018, over 70 years after Miller’s death. How long it will remain viable is a good question. We live in a society where “old school” means 10 years ago; before long, the music of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s will be entirely the realm of antiquarians. But while it lasted, it was pretty remarkable.

%d bloggers like this: