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.

Faking It

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(Pictured: a Van Halen cover band guitarist. Hang on, I’m being told this is actually country star Jake Owen.)

It is time again for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, in which I plunder my Drafts file for bits that never added up to full posts. First, some radio shop talk:

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got as a young jock was from a program director who told me that when you’re reading a commercial script for a paying client, it shouldn’t sound the same as the weather forecast. Your job is to sell, he told me, to make the product or service sound good or useful or fun or important so that listeners will want to buy it. To do that, you have to engage with the script. Getting the selling words and phrases across is only part of it. It’s also a matter of infusing the words with an intention that the words be heard and acted upon. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a soft sell for a jewelry store or a yelling spot for a car dealer—your goal is to connect with your listener in such a way that at the very least they’ll think, “Yeah, I’ll definitely consider that,” if not “Hot damn, I need to go buy that right now.”

After a while, how you make this connection becomes kinda automatic. “OK, this is an ad for a bank, I gotta do it this way.” “Next one is plugging the county fair, OK, that’s going to go like this.” It’s a natural consequence of experience. You get so you can do it pretty quickly. There’s an old wisecrack that says, “Once you learn how to fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.” Ideally, however, you don’t want the listeners to feel like you’re faking it. You want to sound like you’re communicating directly with them, one real human being to another, instead of just reading words off the page.

On the subject of faking it, one of the top songs in country music right now is “Best Thing Since Backroads,” yet another lifestyle-signifier-checklist record, recorded by Jake Owen, who grew up on the beach and whose first aspiration in life was to play professional golf. So he’s not exactly a shitkicker, but he did get into the right career at the right time in history.

Country music was born quite literally on front porches and in roadside bars in Appalachia and the rural South, created by people who spent most of their days picking cotton or mining coal or whatever the hell, doing their best to win something in a society stacked against them. Even after Nashville turned into a slick hitmaking machine, the most popular country music was grounded in real places and real experiences. There are still country artists working that ground today, but they aren’t getting played on the radio much. To me, the greatest sin mainstream radio country commits today isn’t trend-chasing, or even marginalizing female artists—it’s the cynical way it treats authenticity. It continues to pay lip service to it, with songs about dirt roads and small towns, but they’re written and recorded (and listened to and bought) by people who grew up in the suburbs and went to state universities. Hand them a fishing pole and they couldn’t tell you where the worm goes.

In 21st century America, consumerism is everything, and it doesn’t matter how you sell the product as long as it’s bought. As consumers, we don’t care about how stuff is sold to us. So if mainstream country music has nothing to do anymore with the places it came from, there’s practically nobody left to object.

It also grinds my gears that “backroads” is one word when it should be two. 

And finally, something new, written today: 

Sometimes you come across a creative endeavor so wildly unique that you wonder how somebody could even conceive it, let alone turn that wild-ass idea into something real. Take for example Hamilton, which The Mrs. and I saw the other night. But being gobsmacked by the creativity of something doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to like it. My feeling had nothing to do with my general dislike of hip-hop; that part was fine. Hamilton felt overstuffed with characters and plotlines; I found it difficult to follow, and it was at least 45 minutes too long. All credit to Lin-Manuel Miranda for bringing his wild-ass idea to life, and all respect to the millions of people who have enjoyed it, but it was a long night for me.

Meet the Bickersons

I don’t think it’s a spoiler for this week’s episode of Better Call Saul to say that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul finally made their long-awaited return as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Listening to the two argue, Saul Goodman says, “I was enjoying the Laurel and Hardy vibe, but I’m not such a fan of the Bickersons.”

Who?

Continue reading “Meet the Bickersons”

“I’m Here to Bring Inspiration”

(I knocked this piece off in about an hour this morning, which is not the way I usually write. If it seems half-baked, that’s why.)

I’m not religious. As I think back on it, I’m not sure I ever was. I did all of the things you do when you grow up in a church, but it was largely because it was what was expected of me, rather than out of genuine commitment to what it meant. I prayed by myself at night from the time I was just a kid, and while I hoped I was being heard, I never knew for sure. In our mid-30s, Ann and I joined a church, and for a while we were very active in it. For the first time in my life, I felt like prayer was actually having concrete results. But it wasn’t long before the connection was terminated. I don’t know why it happened; it just did. And after doing a lot of reading and studying and thinking over the next couple of years, I decided that I was wrong about the connection. Ain’t nobody up there, not Yahweh or Allah or Zeus or Thor or any other supernatural being. When I thought I was talking to God, I was talking to myself.

Accepting that was incredibly liberating. I had lived the first 40 years of my life with the internalized notion that I was being watched and judged, and the knowledge that I could not live up to the standard that I was being judged by. My mental health, such as it is over these last 20 years or so, is vastly improved by the belief—no, the knowledge—that I am responsible for my actions only to the people who are affected by them. Not some dude in a celestial palace, a guy I won’t meet until after I’m dead, and who laid down the rules thousands of years ago, when people couldn’t explain why it rained without recourse to magic.

Some people will tell you that the human brain is wired for religion. I doubt it, if by religion they mean rituals involving holy books and black robes. If we’re wired for anything, it’s probably to crave connection. We don’t want to be alone. Also, we’re wired to find purpose. We don’t want to feel like rats in a maze, running around for no reason. This wiring is why we formed societies in the first place, when groups of people not related by blood decided to live together. You can call the connection and purpose religion if you want, although you don’t have to. It’s enough to want to be part of a group of people that shares something all find important, and which uses that important thing to animate the way they live.

Some people go to church on Sunday to affirm that they are not alone, and to affirm their purpose for carrying on. Some of us find that affirmation elsewhere.

Last night, Ann and I saw Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt in concert. Mavis, who is 83 years old now but performs like a much younger person, comes out of the gospel tradition, and every one of her songs had a religious bent—but not a sectarian one. Mavis’ religion does not tell you how to vote and who to hate. She said at one point, “I’m here to bring joy. I’m here to bring inspiration.” Her songs argued that we’re in this world together, and that while the road is sometimes hard and long, we must keep going forward, together. They were all infused with the hope that we might someday get to the place where love and brotherhood prevail, and even when the road is at its roughest, we must not lose our determination to walk it, together. Bonnie’s message, discussing her long years of activism and her fears and hopes in this moment, was less explicit, but not much different. Her music is the expression of a soul on the same journey that Mavis describes.

Today, the religion of millions in America is a terrible, destructive force that diminishes our humanity and will, if undefeated, destroy our planet. The religion of Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt—a belief in the importance of human connection and common purpose that stands outside of ancient dogma and modern prejudice, driven by both the hope that we will achieve that connection and purpose and the determination to do so—is the only religion that will save us, the only one we need.