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.
What the hell, muse?
Let me put on some music from bygone days of summer-turning-to-fall. That should wake her up.
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.
(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.
(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.
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.
(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.
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.
—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.