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The Stakeout (Part II)

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This is the second part of a middle-school fiction piece I wrote a few years ago. In part 1, it was Friday, February 7, 1964. Our young hero and his uncle, both huge Beatles fans, tried to get into the Plaza Hotel in New York City where the Beatles were staying on their first American visit. When they failed, Uncle Aaron guessed that the Beatles would have to rehearse on Saturday before playing The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night, and he suggested they stake out the theater. 

When we got there at 7:00 on Saturday morning, the police had already put up barricades to keep the street clear for the Beatles whenever they got there. So we waited, and so did a few hundred of our closest friends, some of the same crazy crowd from the day before at the Plaza. This time, we were at the front, so if there was anything to see, we’d see it.

It seemed like we’d been there forever when a couple of limousines rolled up behind the barricades, and people started cheering and screaming and waving their signs. We saw four shadows jump quickly from the first limo and hustle through the stage door.

A bunch of official-looking people trailed along behind the second limo on foot. Suddenly Aaron yelled, “Rube! Hey, Rube!” One of the official-looking people turned to look . . . and then walked over to where we were standing. “Rube!” Aaron cried. “What’s going on?”

“Aaron!” he said. “How long has it been, anyhow?”

“Not since we graduated from college in ’59! What are you doing here?”

Rube gestured at the cameras around his neck. “Photographer. The Beatles are doing a photo shoot in Central Park this afternoon, but I get to tag along this morning.”

“Are they going to rehearse now?” Aaron asked.

“Yeah, they are.” And then, even though we were in the middle of a crowd of kids cheering, chanting, and screaming, Rube’s next words seemed to echo forth from a silent place in the center of the universe. He said to us: “Do you want to come inside and watch?”

I have never passed out in my life, but at that moment, I almost did.

We went toward a gap in the barricade, only to be met by the same man-mountain of a guard who had stopped us the previous day. “No admittance,” he growled. We’re going to jail, I thought. Then Rube stepped in and said, “Reuben Jefferson, New York Journal photographer. These two are with me.” Unbelievably, the guard let us through—and he winked at me as we passed. There were shouts of disappointment from the crowd: “Hey, why do they get in? Come back! No fair!” But we were in.

Ten minutes later, we stood with a knot of people on the side of the stage, staying as close to Rube as we could, fearing that if got separated, we’d get thrown out of the theater, or worse. The Beatles came out and took their places, Paul, George, and John from left to right, and Ringo above and behind them on drums. One of them, either Paul or John, counted off the first song, and they began to play.

If you want to know what happened next, I can’t really tell you. I know that they practiced five songs altogether, and “She Loves You” was the third one, but just like you, I have to rely on the history books for the rest of it. All I remember of that half-hour with the Beatles is a mixture of shock and joy.

The next night, 70 million people watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the first time most Americans had ever seen them play. Most, but not all. A handful of us had seen them already.

The Stakeout

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In 2009, a client contracted me to write several historical fiction pieces for middle school readers. Even though I do not consider myself a good writer of fiction, I wrote ’em, submitted ’em, and cashed the checks. I never learned precisely how they were used (which is not all that unusual in my line of work), and I have no idea whether they’re still in print somewhere. Technically, they don’t belong to me anymore. But I’ve posted a couple such pieces in the past, and what follows is another one. If the client wants to cease-and-desist me, that’s fine. The piece was written for middle school students, so it requires some exposition, and it uses a couple of tropes that are a little shopworn. Despite all that, it ain’t bad, and I hope you like it. 

You know the Beatles, right? The rock band from the 1960s? You can ask your mother and father, or maybe your grandparents, to tell you about them. Most people think they were the greatest group in music history. I’ll tell you this: On February 9, 1964, when they were on TV, on The Ed Sullivan Show, over 80 percent of the country watched them play. It was the first time most people had seen them.

Most people, but not everybody. Not me.

My pen pal in London, England, had sent me one of their records, “She Loves You,” for Christmas in 1963. I’d since heard other some Beatles songs on the radio, and I loved them. By luck, I had Friday, February 7, off from school. That was the day the Beatles were to land in New York, so my Uncle Aaron and I drove into the city to stake out the hotel where they were going to stay.

Uncle Aaron was more like an older brother than an uncle to me. He wasn’t about rules; he was just about fun. When I played my Beatles record for him, he liked it as much as I did. The stakeout was actually his idea.

When we arrived at the Plaza Hotel, a squadron of policemen was trying to hold back the hundreds of kids hoping to catch a look at John, Paul, George, and Ringo. There were people holding signs that said, “We love you” and “Beatles 4-Ever.” I thought that maybe we’d be able to sneak into the hotel through the crush of people, but there was no sneaking with those cops around.

Then Uncle Aaron said, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s tell them we’re guests at the hotel and we’re trying to get back into our room.”

“Do you think that’s going to work?”

“It might, if we do it right. When we get to the front, you tell the guard that we’re guests, and we just want to get back to our room. If you could manage to cry a little, that would be even better.” I hadn’t cried since I was eight, but I was willing to take my best shot.

We spent the next 20 minutes inching to the hotel door, but when we got there, a mountain of a security guard blocked our passage. He looked like six kinds of mean in a big, ugly bag. When I imagined him taking us to jail for trespassing, it was easy to squeeze out some tears. “Sir . . . we’re guests at the hotel, and we’ve been gone all day.” I sniffed loudly. “We just want to get back inside so my uncle can lie down and rest.” Sniff. “He hasn’t been well.”

I thought the bit about Uncle Aaron being sick would clinch the deal until the guard said, “Can I see your hotel key, kid?”

Thinking quickly, I said, “We lost it.”

The guard’s face creased with a sour, sarcastic grin. “Kid, do you know how many people have told me that today? Back off.”

Inching back into the crowd, I said, “At least we got an A for effort. Ringo’s mother wouldn’t have been able to get past that guy.”

“You aren’t giving up, are you?” I guess I probably was, but Aaron wasn’t. “They’re playing on the Sullivan Show Sunday night. Now, it’s just a guess, but I bet they’ll have to practice tomorrow sometime. Why don’t we stake out the theater?”

To learn what happens next, read the next installment, coming Friday. 

Multifarious Serendipity

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(Pictured: Blue Oyster Cult onstage, 1978.)

A few years ago I made a CD for the car called “Multifarious Serendipity.” It’s a mix of college radio faves, minor hits from the AM Top 40 era, and miscellaneous tunes from here and there. I play it on shuffle so I never know what’s coming. The other night, the gods of shuffle were busy creating themes for me.

“L.A. Goodbye”/Ides of March
“Soul Drippin’/Mauds
“Lake Shore Drive”/Aliotta Haynes and Jeremiah
This is some grade-A good stuff right here. “L. A. Goodbye” peaked in the 70s on the Hot 100, IIRC, but went to #5 on WLS in the spring of 1971. The Mauds came out of the same Chicago scene that produced the Ides, the Shadows of Knight, the New Colony Six, and other bands. The crazy-good “Soul Drippin'” was recorded in 1968. Musicians on it include James Pankow, Lee Loughnane, Walter Parazaider, and Robert Lamm. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), their experience making “Soul Drippin'” inspired them to form a band of their own. “Lake Shore Drive” is a miracle, a perfect diamond fallible human beings could not have created. It must have come from some higher intelligence than ours.

The Longer You Do It the Better It Feels:
“Suspicious Minds”/Elvis Presley
“Hot Love”/T. Rex
“Let It Shine”/Santana
Each of these has a long, repetitive section that lasts until the fadeout but could easily go on for another 20 minutes and I’d keep listening. I bought “Hot Love” on a 45 in 1971 and it’s still around here somewhere. “Let It Shine” was a minor Hot-100 hit in 1976, and it’s pretty damn cool. It starts with some purely 70s wakka-wakka guitar before the conga player starts getting it on, then an electronic bassline comes thumping in. The drummer gets to working on the groove, a synth sizzles in with the instrumental hook, and you’re like hot damn this is fantastic.

And Elvis is, of course, Elvis.

A Really Terrible Segue:
“Charity Ball”/Fanny
“My Hang-Up Is You”/Freddie Hart
“Charity Ball” is a banger we’ve loved around here since always. It went to #3 on WLS as it was squeaking only to #40 on the Hot 100, and I would wonder if oldies and classic hits stations in Chicago play it (and “L. A. Goodbye,” and “Soul Drippin’,” and other monster local hits) today, if I were still a naive young radio boy. Freddie Hart came up at this blog just last Friday, and whatever I said then still applies.

“In Thee”/Blue Oyster Cult
“Killer Cut”/Charlie
When Blue Oyster Cult’s Mirrors album arrived at the college radio station in the summer of 1979, it wasn’t what we were expecting, not after Agents of Fortune, Spectres, and the live album Some Enchanted Evening, and the hits “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla.” Anybody who thought BOC sounded little like the Byrds on “Don’t Fear the Reaper” had that opinion confirmed by “In Thee,” which is actually pretty great. Charlie, meanwhile, was one of those bands that opened for everybody during their heyday, including the Doobie Brothers, Styx, Foreigner, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. They made seven albums in seven years from their first one in 1976. “Killer Cut,” in which the band gives advice on how to make a hit record, peaked at #60. (Vintage video here. Drummer Steve Gadd is not the Steve Gadd of session fame; it’s another guy with the same name, which must be both inconvenient for him and not.)

“Love and Loneliness”/The Motors
“Trapped Again”/Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
“Lady of the Lake”/Starcastle
All of these are college favorites. “Love and Loneliness” is a Great Big Statement, portentous lyrics in a gigantic, inflated production that makes “Born to Run” sound understated. “Trapped Again” somehow avoided charting anywhere, according to the database at ARSA, despite the presence of Bruce Springsteen and the fact that it kicks ass all day. “Lady of the Lake” I’ve mentioned here many times, ridiculous Illinois prog-rock that somehow ends up awesome just the same.

Multifarious Serendipity is a great companion on a long trip, and I have lots more miles in my future over the next couple of months, so maybe there will be another post like this at some point. Or maybe not. It’s a gamble.

Some Songs of Some Years

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(Pictured: Dolly Parton.)

So the other day I was looking at the list of the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year award winners, as one does. Some notes follow:

1968: “Honey”
1969: “The Carroll County Accident”
1974: “Country Bumpkin”
Today’s mainstream country has largely abandoned storytelling in favor of love songs and party songs. There was a time, however, when stories were one of the defining characteristics of the genre. Bobby Russell’s “Honey” has a narrative arc that audiences of 1968 couldn’t get enough of. If you hate “Honey” for its treacly sentimentality, you’ll really hate “Country Bumpkin,” another tale of love, domesticity, and death,  written by Don Wayne. But as a prime example of country music’s storytelling art—a long, happy relationship described in three vignettes—you can hardly improve on Cal Smith’s recording. As for “The Carroll County Accident,” written by Bob Ferguson and recorded by Porter Wagoner, it plays out like a bit of detective fiction before its final twist.

1970: “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” This song tells a story too, about loss and the coping with it, and after listening to it for nearly 50 years (in Johnny Cash’s magnificent recording), I still can’t quite tell how Kris Kristofferson did it. Image follows image and by the end of the song, you’re longing for something you can’t even name. Every time.

1971/1972: “Easy Loving.” Written and recorded by Freddie Hart who, you may remember, has his own one-man fan club at this blog. “Easy Loving” won this award two years in a row, although voters in 1972 might just as easily have chosen “My Hang-Up Is You,” which clones “Easy Loving” and was #1 on the country charts even longer than the OG.

1973: “Behind Closed Doors.” Just as old-school country fans decry the stuff that gets on the radio nowadays, the “countrypolitan” sound of the 60s and 70s was also controversial. String sections, tasteful keyboards, and choirs ooh-ing, aah-ing, and/or whispering replaced twang and yee-haw as Nashville went for a more upscale audience. Kenny O’Dell’s “Behind Closed Doors” (which was #8 adult contemporary and #15 on the Hot 100 as recorded by Charlie Rich) was the most countrypolitan thing to hit #1 in 1973.

1975: “Back Home Again.” This was the year that Charlie Rich famously set fire to the envelope after announcing John Denver as the winner of the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award. That doesn’t change the fact that “Back Home Again” is the best thing Denver ever wrote, and the best song I know about returning to a place you love and the people who live there. “Back Home Again” hit #1 country in late 1974, a year that’s remarkable for its number of classics: the list of the year’s #1 songs includes Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “Love Is Like a Butterfly,” “Room Full of Roses” by Mickey Gilley, and Billy Swan’s “I Can Help.”

1977: “Lucille”
1979: “The Gambler”
Kenny Rogers’ two most iconic hits, the first written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum and the second by Don Schlitz. Then as now, Nashville was powered by songwriters and writing teams whose job it was to provide grist for the recording mills. But Bowling, Bynum, and Schlitz (and Bobby Russell, Bob Ferguson, Kenny O’Dell, and many others, including Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam, below) knew how to tell engaging, involving stories—both what to leave in and what to leave out—and they took obvious pleasure in using the English language in clever and creative ways. “You got to know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run” is great stuff. Between the dearth of storytelling and a proclivity to name-check celebrities and consumer products in lyrics, modern Music Row songwriting isn’t in the same league.

1980/1981: “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” With apologies to Steve Goodman and David Allan Coe, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the perfect country-and-western song. It’s said that George Jones didn’t like this Braddock/Putnam song when it was first pitched to him, but his performance, married to Billy Sherill’s magnificent production, made it one of the greatest performances in American popular music, any genre, any era.

It should win the CMA’s Song of the Year every year, actually.

The Tale of a Crowded Decade

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(Pictured: the Madison skyline from Lake Monona. The low building on the lake at the right is Monona Terrace, a project proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 that wasn’t actually built until 1997.)

There are two ways to read a book you find absolutely riveting. You can devour it in one or two sittings, or you can ration it out a chapter at a time in hopes of making it last. I have been doing the latter with the brand-new Madison in the Sixties by Stuart Levitan, a local journalist, historian, and broadcaster.

Madison, Wisconsin, is sometimes known as Berkeley by the Lake or 77 square miles surrounded by reality. It has a unique pull. Many of us who live here romanticize Madison (right or wrong) as better-run, better-educated, more diverse, and just generally cooler and more together than other places. (And if you think the image we have of the city doesn’t extend to ourselves for being smart enough to live here, think again.) Many Madisonians look back on the 1960s as the decade when the city—and by extension, ourselves—got that way.

Levitan’s book is not a cultural history. Its goal is not to narrate a barefoot, tie-dyed idyll of sex, drugs, and campus unrest soundtracked by the Beatles. Instead, Levitan follows several major themes that extended through the entire decade: the city’s struggles with civil rights and urban renewal; repeated attempts to build a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed civic center on the shore of Lake Monona; growth and change in the Madison public schools and at the University of Wisconsin; and the protest era. In the course of his research, Levitan read every 1960s edition of the city’s two major daily newspapers, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times, and the UW paper, the Daily Cardinal. Year by year, he follows his major themes, but he also includes other notes that provide added flavor. Some of my favorites follow.

—In 1963, a contest was held to design the city’s flag. Two teenage boys submitted the winning design, which has remained largely unchanged for 55 years. Right after the Common Council adopted the flag, they proudly hung it in chambers. Where nobody noticed it was upside down. For three years.

—In February and October 1967, there were two major anti-war protests against on-campus recruitment by Dow Chemical. But another protest that year, utterly forgotten today, was just as purely Madison. In 1966, University Avenue through the campus was converted to a one-way going west. But planners also built a single wrong-way bus lane to facilitate mass transit, separated from the rest of the street by a low cement divider. In May 1967, after a UW student was hit by a bus and lost a leg, students rallied to protest the wrong-way bus lane, but the protest turned into a riot with 5,000 students and 25 arrests. In response, city officials increased the number of stoplights on University Avenue crossings as a safety measure. The one wrong-way lane is still in use today as a bike lane; I had crossed it approximately a million times before I learned its history. (Fixed. Ed.)

—In January 1968, plans were announced for the Camp Randall Music Festival, to be held in the university’s football stadium in May. A Chicago promoter planned to bring Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Association, and Bill Cosby to town as headliners. It didn’t happen, although the Doors did come to town that fall.

—In April 1968, the UW needed a new basketball coach, and offered the job to the 28-year-old coach of Army, Bobby Knight. After the deal was done, university officials gave the story to a local reporter. But when it hit the paper, Knight balked, claiming he hadn’t yet told officials at West Point, or even his wife, and he backed out. One wonders how hoops history might have changed if Knight, who would take over at Indiana University in 1971 and win three NCAA championships, had come to Madison.

If you live here, or if you know this town, you’ll be as riveted by Madison in the Sixties as I have been. It may mean less to you otherwise, but it wouldn’t be entirely without interest. Many issues playing out here during that crowded decade were being worked out elsewhere too. Madison is not the only city in America that became what it is today during the turbulent, fascinating 1960s.

Levitan maintains a Facebook page with stories and pictures from the book. He’s also done a series of Madison in the Sixties features for local radio station WORT. 

Who’s Walking Through That Door?

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(Pictured: Fleetwood Mac, 2018, with Mike Campbell at center in the hat and Neil Finn on the right.)

The Mrs. and I still talk about the night we went to an outdoor show starring, among others, the Drifters, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Temptations. This was in the late 80s, so these were not the original editions of the groups. If I’m recalling correctly, there were several touring groups calling themselves the Drifters back then, and links of each to the original Drifters were fairly tenuous. Paul Revere was still leading the Raiders, although Mark Lindsay and Freddy Weller (who sang lead on “Indian Reservation”) were long gone. (Whoops: see below.) The Temptations were the closest to the real thing—Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin were still in the group then, as was Richard Street, who had joined the Temps in 1971 but who had sung with Williams and Franklin in the Distants as far back as 1959. We didn’t really care about the details, though. We had a marvelous time with several other couples. How much we paid to get in, I don’t remember. Maybe five bucks per person, tops? Whatever it was, it seemed fair to us 30 years ago.

Tonight, a show called The Music of Cream hits my town, Madison. It features Kofi Baker (son of Ginger), Malcolm Bruce (son of Jack) and Will Johns (nephew of Eric Clapton and son of producer/engineer Andy). The original Cream last played together in 2005. Since then, Jack Bruce has died (in 2014) and Ginger Baker’s health has declined. He’s 79, and Eric Clapton is 73. Cream isn’t walking through that door, but The Music of Cream is. Tickets start at $25—fair enough for what, despite the family connections, is a tribute band. The original Cream reportedly turned down a lot of money for a tour in 2005. Today, were it possible, how much would a show with Ginger Baker, Clapton, and Malcolm Bruce command per ticket? Never mind that’s it’s two-thirds of the original band and they’re 50 years older. Would people be asked to pay $100? $150?

In the early days of the Beatles, Ringo Starr famously said that he expected to open a couple of hairdressing shops after the Beatles petered out. He could not foresee the way no band beloved by baby boomers ever has to die. The Drifters, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Temptations never did, and even in 2018 they still haven’t.

But should they?

Days after Glenn Frey passed in 2016, Don Henley announced that the Eagles were done, but his accountants apparently talked him out of it, and now the band goes on with Frey’s son in his father’s place and country star/former Pure Prairie League member Vince Gill along for the ride. Shortly after Walter Becker’s death a couple of years ago, his family sued Donald Fagen to keep him from going on the road as Steely Dan, but Steely Dan went on a lucrative tour with the Doobie Brothers this summer, and they’re playing dates in the UK with Steve Winwood next year.

And then there’s Fleetwood Mac, which fired Lindsey Buckingham, an integral part of the group for over 40 years, and hired a guy from Crowded House and one of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers to take his place. It’s one thing for a middle-tier band to hire new guys and keep playing county fairs and casinos, like the Little River Band, which has one guy left from its heyday (and he joined in 1980, closer to the end of the band’s chart run than to the beginning). But it seems different to me when a top-drawer superstar act does it and still commands big coin for a ticket. If you paid between $69.50 and $229.50 to see Fleetwood Mac in Milwaukee last month, what did you get? Fleetwood Mac without Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac doing “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Free Fallin'”, Fleetwood Mac doing “Go Your Own Way” without the guy who sang and played lead on it—isn’t that essentially a tribute band? Is “Take It Easy” sung by Deacon Frey or “Lyin’ Eyes” sung by Vince Gill really by the Eagles, or is it something else?

In true-blue late-capitalism fashion, the marketplace decides. If people are willing to pay the freight, the show goes on. But where does it end? In this climate, what’s keeping Paul and Ringo from calling up Dhani Harrison and Julian Lennon and hitting the road as the Beatles?

Not a damn thing, actually.

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