Past and Future

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(Pictured: this llama is my energy today—talking, but not willing to exert himself beyond that.)

It’s time for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, in which I sift the seeds and stems in my Drafts file in hopes of finding enough to roll one post.

As of this summer, I am newly out of the gig economy, working for The Man every day for the first time in 18 years, and he’s taking up a great deal of the inspiration/research/noodling time I used to be able to devote to this website. And so I strongly feel this old paragraph: 

From the time my brothers and I were seven or eight, we had small farm chores to do: helping feed the cows and getting the equipment ready before the evening milking, or gathering eggs, back when we still had chickens. The year I turned 12, I was expected to drive a tractor on the farm, helping with the crops. The small farm chores took maybe 15 minutes at the outside. Work on the tractor—driving the cultivator to uproot weeds from the corn, or the rake to get hay ready for baling—took several hours at a stretch. Dad was good enough to pay by the hour, which was something not all of my friends’ dads did, but being forced to give up a morning or an afternoon because the job needed to be done now was different.

A job you do by choice (“Sorry, I can’t fill in on the afternoon show today, I have plans”) vibes differently than one that has the first claim on your time every day. That’s not a complaint, just an observation.

On thinking of the future and then finding oneself there, written well before events of the last 18 months: 

As a kid, I could project myself forward in time if I chose. In second grade, when I read that Halley’s Comet would return to Earth in 1986, I presumed I would be around to see it. Not long after that, I figured out that I would likely be alive in the year 2000 (and that I would be 40 years old, which was an abstract concept entirely meaningless to eight-year-old me). Since 2000, however, I’ve had a harder time with this kind of projection. It’s partly because the older you get, the shorter your future is. But it’s also because the 21st century feels like a foreign country to me, and I’m not so comfortable living in it.

This happens all the time, of course. Every generation watches the passage of time erode what it thought was settled. Every generation tries to modify its outlook to reflect the changes it knows are normal and natural. And every generation eventually throws up its hands in exasperation and yells “you damn kids stay off my lawn,” and for the same reasons: what we used to value seems to be valued less; what we understood back then is less comprehensible now; the rules that used to apply no longer do.

As of 2021, this century seems even more foreign to me. There’s no way to make these times feel normal by any standard I know. As bad as the last 18 months have been, there’s a real sense this summer that we are heading for something exponentially worse in America, and I fear it. 

Here’s the middle and end of a story:

You get over stuff like that, of course, and I did. I saw her once a few years later, but I didn’t try to speak to her, because I doubted she would remember me, and why should she, really.

More time goes by. It’s decades now. In the Facebook era, she reappears through a friend-of-a-friend connection. I look at her profile. Lives out west, married and divorced, grown children. I am not tempted to friend her.

Still more time. Then one night, there we are, in the same room. We stop. We look each other up and down, a surreptitious glance at name tags. “Hi.” “Hi.” “How are you?” “Fine.” “It’s good to see you.” And that’s pretty much it.

Not long after, I write a thing, in which I talk about the bonds that people have, bonds that surpass time. In it, I mention that among those we are bonded to are “people we need to apologize to, and people who need to apologize to us.”

And I get a message from her. She read it, and she says it tugged her heartstrings. Then she wrote, “I think I need to apologize to you.”


The Anchor

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I wonder if Charlie Watts, Tom T. Hall, and Don Everly ever met.…

It’s hard to write tribute posts for the biggest stars because others can do it better. There’s no point in my aggregating a bunch of the stuff I’ve read about Charlie Watts in the last 24 hours either, since you have likely read most of it, too. It is, like it was after the passing of Little Richard and Glen Campbell, like trying to drink from a firehose. It becomes overwhelming and you can’t absorb anymore.

But I feel obligated to write something, because the Stones have been part of my life and my music collection from the beginning. I bought “Brown Sugar” on a 45 in 1971, and the first real album I ever owned (as distinct from a couple of K-Tel compilations) is Hot Rocks: 1964-1971. After that, however, I didn’t know much about the band beyond what I heard on the radio; not until relatively late in life did I go back and closely listen to entire albums from the 60s and 70s and start collecting bootlegs. I am one of the heretics who likes Black and Blue. I never saw the Stones live; on their 1981 American tour, they played in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a couple of hours from where I went to college, and why we all didn’t go I can’t remember. In the years since, I have listened to a fair amount of live Stones and am generally underwhelmed by it; they always sound vastly better to me in the studio.

At their peak—and your list of peaks will vary; mine include Let It Bleed, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Sticky Fingers (“Brown Sugar,” “Bitch,” and “Dead Flowers” above all), Exile on Main Street (“Tumbling Dice” above all), “Heartbreaker,” “Start Me Up,” and yes, Black and Blue—they lived up to the incredibly outrageous title of The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Some critics tried to tear that reputation down while the Stones were earning it; two generations of music fans born since their heyday don’t necessarily buy it either. But go and listen to your own list of peak Stones and tell me it’s not true.

I spent some of this morning listening to isolated Charlie Watts drum tracks. It’s the nature of drums that we often don’t notice them, or we only pay attention on a solo or when a fill rises to the front of the mix, but on the isolated tracks, you can hear the things a masterful drummer does that a listener may perceive only on an unconscious level. For example, you don’t necessarily notice that Charlie’s drums on “Start Me Up” are practically martial, or how similar are his tracks on “Gimme Shelter” and “Honky Tonk Women.”

Everybody knows that being in a rock band was basically Charlie’s day job. His real passions were playing jazz, breeding horses and dogs, and watching cricket. He had never missed a Stones show in 56 years, however, and so the Stones’ plan to go out without him this fall was a much bigger deal than the reporting of it indicated. Based on some of what I have read, the Stones’ tours the last 30 years depended on Charlie; had he not been willing to go (or had not received the compensation he sought; since he was not a songwriter, his financial participation in the Stones was different from Mick and Keef’s), they might never have happened.

So here in 2021, he must have been a lot sicker than we knew, although the rest of the Stones clearly knew.

A remarkable fact about Charlie Watts is that he did not partake in the smorgasbord of sex and drugs that surrounded the Stones; that any young, rich, talented, indestructible man of the 1960s could resist such temptation is hard to imagine. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that Charlie had trouble with heroin, when it wasn’t fashionable anymore. And while Bill Wyman slept with literally thousands of women and Mick’s bedpost has hundreds of notches, Charlie married Shirley Shepherd in 1964 and when the day job was done, he went home to her and their daughter Seraphina. And as much as those of us who have worshipped at the Stones’ altar for all these years are saddened by his passing, our loss is nothing like theirs.

So here’s to a real one, indispensible to the creation of an unparallelled body of art but always on his terms, and a firm anchor in the eye of that crossfire hurricane. It’s a cliché to say we shall not see his like again, but, well, you know.

Peaceful Sleep in Shady Summertime

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(Pictured: Tom T. Hall, on stage in 1976.)

I wonder if Tom T. Hall and Don Everly ever met. It’s possible, I suppose, Nashville contemporaries who traveled down every road to perform. Everly’s passing is a monumental one; now only Jerry Lee Lewis remains from the original class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, records like “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and “Wake Up Little Susie” are like redwoods, eternally strong and great, and if it’s difficult to find anybody under the age of 50 who can sing a lick of them, that’s their loss.

Despite Everly’s passing, I’m going to continue with my original plan for today, which is to reboot part of a thing I wrote about Tom T. Hall 10 years ago, almost to the date of his death. Although he wrote a bunch of famous songs sung by others, including “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” “Hello Vietnam,” “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” and “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew,” I spotlighted five hits worth hearing in the man’s own voice.

“The Ballad of Forty Dollars” (#4 country, 1968). Hall’s first Top-10 country hit, and a great example of the observational, storytelling style that makes Hall’s music so compelling. Why the song is called “The Ballad of Forty Dollars” doesn’t become clear until the very last line.

“Salute to a Switchblade” (#8 country, 1970). Hall served in the military in Germany during the late 50s, and “Salute to a Switchblade” describes the adventure of a young American in a beer hall who tries to pick up a fraulein without knowing she has a jealous—and well-armed—husband. Hall’s parenthetical observations at the end of each verse are hilarious.

“The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” (#1 country, #42 pop, 1971). When Hall was seven years old, the man who taught him how to play guitar died. Clayton Delaney was not the man’s real name; neither was he the kindly old man you envision when listening to Hall’s tribute—“Clayton” was only 19 or 20 years old when he died.

“Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” (#1 country, 1972). This might be the loveliest melody Hall ever wrote, and it’s a beautiful arrangement, with those shimmering countrypolitan string flourishes so common in Nashville productions of the 60s and 70s. It’s a lovely lyric, too: “That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime / And old dogs and children and watermelon wine.”

[“Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” is far better than I described it in 2011, and I’ve come to love it more in the last 10 years. It seems almost miraculous now, as close to perfection as anything ever gets.]  

“I Love” (#1 country, #12 pop, 1973). “I Love” was Hall’s biggest pop hit, deceptively simple and moving, and it even manages to be funny, when Hall gives up the opportunity to make an obvious rhyme with the word “vine” …

Bonus track: Hall wrote Bobby Bare’s hit “(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn.” It’s a song that takes me deep into memory, with vivid associations.… The sound is pure late-60s countrypolitan, but the lyric is a powerful lesson for writers everywhere: good storytelling is not only about what you put in, but what you leave out.

[Bare’s version of “(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn” is fine—all except for those parentheses—but you might as well hear it in Tom T.’s voice.]

[Further bonus tracks: “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” and “The Homecoming,” another song where the power of the tale is in what Hall doesn’t say. Don’t write in to ask, “What about ‘I Like Beer’?” It’s fine, but it’s not in the ballpark we’re playing in today.]

Besides “I Love” and “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” Hall hit the pop charts four other times, with “Me and Jesus,” “That Song Is Driving Me Crazy,” and “Sneaky Snake.” … “Watergate Blues,” bubbled under the Hot 100 in 1973 at the very moment Congressional hearings into the scandal were on TV every day.

Hall charted with “May the Force Be With You Always” in early 1978 while Star Wars was new; he hosted the flyover country TV staple Pop Goes the Country in 1980 and 1981. His last charting records were in the mid 80s; his last album was released in 2007.

What Tom T. Hall did ain’t easy. Effortless humor is hard. Making personal experiences universal is hard. Subtlety is hard. We live in a time when lots of people in Nashville are faking it, but ultimately, you’ve either got the gift or you don’t. Tom T. Hall’s gift was real—real people, real country, and real good. 

Rock and Roll Never Forgets, But I Do

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(Pictured: Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band, on stage in 1977.)

My summer of 1977 was defined by two big things: I had two jobs and eventually lost them both (one I quit, one just sort of fizzled out), and my girlfriend spent a month in Europe while I pined for her at home (a trip I should have been on, and one I passed up for reasons that seem stupid to me now). There were other things, like softball and a family vacation and hanging out with the guys, but the details are all gone in the haze.

I had intended to use what I can still recall to write one of those wistfully philosophical essays of mine, looking back through the lens of Top 40 music to say Something Important about the summer of 1977, or the summer of 2021, or something. But when I tried to write it, there was nothing there. So you get this rundown of what else was on the Hot 100 below the Top 40 during the week of August 20, 1977, instead.

41. “It Was Almost Like a Song”/Ronnie Milsap
57. “Knowing Me, Knowing You”/ABBA
While she and I were very happy in August 1977, it wasn’t long before metaphors started ganging up on us.

42. “A Real Mother for Ya”/Johnny Guitar Watson. Most of the local chart action on  “A Real Mother for Ya” came from R&B stations, but Top 40 station WKTQ in Pittsburgh charted it in the same Top 10 with James Taylor and Andy Gibb. Watson, a long-established blues star and the original Gangster of Love, performed quite literally up until his death in 1996, suffering a fatal heart attack on stage in Japan.

43. “Star Wars Theme- Cantina Band”/Meco
110. “Star Wars Theme”/Dave Matthews
Choose your flavor to enjoy alongside the London Symphony Orchestra version at #21 in this week: disco thump or brassy beat with a guitar solo out of nowhere. (Do I really have to say it’s not that Dave Matthews? Work with me, people.)

44. “Nobody Does It Better”/Carly Simon
49. “Jungle Love”/Steve Miller Band
51. “Boogie Nights”/Heatwave
52. “I Feel Love”/Donna Summer
59. “Cat Scratch Fever”/Ted Nugent

68. “Help Is on Its Way”/Little River Band
73. “Just Remember I Love You”/Firefall
80. “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”/Crystal Gayle
Several songs that would dominate the radio until Christmas were lining up outside in the August heat.

46. “The Greatest Love of All”/George Benson. “The Greatest Love of All” was originally heard in the 1977 movie biography of Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. In 1986, Whitney Houston would blow America’s doors off with it; bombastic as it is, her version is better.

47. “Way Down”-“Pledging My Love”/Elvis Presley. Elvis died on Tuesday, August 16, and the 8/20/77 American Top 40 show aired with only the briefest mention of him (“Way Down” was the current #1 country hit). The timing of his death didn’t allow enough time for AT40 to send a special segment to affiliates, like the one sent after John Lennon’s Monday night murder in 1980.

48. “Rock and Roll Never Forgets”/Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. Failing to make the Top 40 (it peaked at #41 the week before) didn’t keep “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” from becoming one of Seger’s most-frequently-played radio songs over the next couple of decades.

75. “Down the Hall”/Four Seasons. After their successful run of hits in late 1975 and 1976, the Seasons tried to keep their disco/nostalgia hybrid roll going with the album Helicon. If you can find any obvious radio hook in “Down the Hall,” you’re ahead of me.

83. “You’re the Only One”/Geils. From the album Monkey Island, which was credited simply to Geils, and the last J. Geils Band album for Atlantic Records. “You’re the Only One” is an uncharacteristic soft rocker featuring Magic Dick getting his Stevie Wonder on and Seth Justman playing lovely keyboards.

87. “Can’t You See”/Marshall Tucker Band. “Heard It in a Love Song” had been a big hit earlier in 1977, but as time went on, “Can’t You See” became much more famous. When Sirius/XM counted down the top 100 songs of the classic-rock era a few years ago, it was something like #5.

92. “My Cherie Amour”/Soul Train Gang. This was a studio group put together by Soul Train impresario Don Cornelius and partner Dick Griffey. Their album was produced by Simon Soussan, once credited by none other than Casey Kasem as the world’s foremost authority on disco. One member of the Gang, Gerald Brown, would join Shalamar, but leave before their mainstream success around the turn of the 80s. Their version of “My Cherie Amour” is inoffensive, but ultimately unnecessary.

“Inoffensive, but ultimately unnecessary.” That’s not a bad slogan for this website, actually.

At the Edge of the Universe

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Continuing with our 1977 theme this week, here’s a look inside the American Top 40 show from the week of August 20, 1977.

40. “That’s Rock and Roll”/Shaun Cassidy
28. “Da Doo Ron Ron”/Shaun Cassidy
“Da Doo Ron Ron” is a fabulous update of the Phil Spector Wall of Sound by producer Michael Lloyd. “That’s Rock and Roll” is not even a half-inch deep.

38. “Hard Rock Café”/Carole King. Carole King was only 35 when she recorded this, but fashions had changed so much since she last charted early in 1975 that she and her song both sound geriatric.

37. “It’s a Crazy World”/Mac McAnally. If you remember “It’s a Crazy World,” which is about as 70s as the 70s got, we should probably have lunch sometime.

34. “Don’t Worry Baby”/B. J. Thomas. On the original, the Beach Boys sing, “She told me, baby when you race today just take along my love with you.” Thomas changes “race today” to “leave today,” turning it from yet another car song into something universal.

33. “Edge of the Universe”/Bee Gees. “Edge of the Universe” is from the album Here at Last … Bee Gees … Live, recorded during a single Los Angeles concert in December 1976. They generated a fair number of screams from their audience, but nothing like they would eventually do. In 1979, a friend of mine took his little sister to see them here in Madison, and he said the screaming was the single loudest noise he’d ever heard.

Casey does a feature on the most successful married couple in chart history. Not Sonny and Cher or the Captain and Tennille, he says, but Les Paul and Mary Ford, who charted most of their biggest hits in the pre-rock 50s. I suspect they’re still #1, but if they’re not, I’m sure somebody will tell me.

32. “Slide”/Slave. I could never remember if this was “Slide” by Slave or “Slave” by Slide. It had been #1 on the R&B chart, and it’s got enough guitar skronk to appeal to white kids. This is its peak on the Hot 100.

30. “Keep It Comin’ Love”/KC and the Sunshine Band
27. “My Heart Belongs to Me”/Barbra Streisand
26. “You’re My World”/Helen Reddy
25. “On and On”/Stephen Bishop
24. “Swayin’ to the Music”/Johnny Rivers
I spent the first hour of this show thinking how difficult it was to access 17-year-old me, listening to these songs as the summer of 1977 began to turn toward fall. And then came the second hour.

23. “Strawberry Letter 23″/Brothers Johnson
15. “Smoke From a Distant Fire”/Sanford-Townsend BAnd
If we have lunch over our shared memory of Mac McAnally but you tell me you don’t like either of these, I’m sticking you with the check.

22. “Cold as Ice”/Foreigner
17. “Give a Little Bit”/Supertramp
16. “Telephone Line”/Electric Light Orchestra
14. “Barracuda”/Heart
12. “Handy Man”/James Taylor
11. “Don’t Stop”/Fleetwood Mac
9. “You and Me”/Alice Cooper
8. “Just a Song Before I Go”/Crosby Stills and Nash

This chart has its share of goofballs (see next entry) but it’s also loaded with established, respectable rock acts. “Telephone Line” is the best thing on the show, unless it’s “Strawberry Letter 23” or “Smoke From a Distant Fire.”

18. “Telephone Man”/Meri Wilson
13. “Float On”/Floaters
Heaven help the listeners of radio stations that insisted on playing “Telephone Man” every couple of hours like it was the latest Peter Frampton hit. “Float On,” meanwhile, is absurd, but it was the #1 soul song in this week and would eventually get to #2 on the Hot 100.

EXTRA: “Let’s Stay Together”/Al Green. No, wait, maybe this is the best song on the show, the answer to a listener question about the #1 soul song of the 70s so far. “Let’s Stay Together” spent nine weeks at #1 on the soul chart in early 1972. Nothing would equal that mark until 1982: Stevie Wonder’s “That Girl.” Marvin Gaye would do 10 weeks at #1 with “Sexual Healing” starting later that same year.

6. “Whatcha Gonna Do”/Pablo Cruise
5. “Easy”/Commodores
4. “I’m in You”/Peter Frampton

3. “Higher and Higher”/Rita Coolidge
Hot damn, this show sounds so good right here. As I have written before, I am an unapologetic “Higher and Higher” fanboy. Rita and producer Booker T. Jones don’t try to remake Jackie Wilson, and as a result, they make something that is quintessentially 70s and insanely great.

2. “I Just Want to Be Your Everything”/Andy Gibb
1. “Best of My Love”/Emotions
You couldn’t escape these records. For seven straight weeks in August and September, both were in the Top Three. Each of them had two runs, a long one and a short one, at #1. “Best of My Love” is a record I respect more than I like; considering the ubiquity of “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” that summer, opinions about it are irrelevant.

Still more from the summer of 1977 is ahead, so stay tuned. 

A Summer With the Big Three

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(Pictured: Gina Lollobrigida in 1968. Va va va voom, as they said back then.)

There’s a list at Wikipedia that shows weekly TV ratings from 1948 through 2014. The page shows the top-rated show of most weeks and links to a source with a more detailed list. Alas, a lot of the links go to paywalled sites (which renders the page less than completely useful as a research tool), but as a high-level look at what we were watching over time, it’s pretty interesting.

In 1977, the TV season ended in April. (The May ratings sweeps that extended the season did not exist yet.) In any summer, until the new season began in September, the vast majority of primetime network programming would be reruns. Sometimes, popular episodes of the top shows would be similarly popular in reruns—with no home video or streaming, reruns were the only place to catch episodes you missed—but oddballs would often break through, too. The 1977 summer ratings winners were quite the smorgasbord. Some observations follow:

—Before the wide availability of premium cable and the advent of home video, network television was the only place to see Hollywood movies once they left theaters. (Few were important enough to get theatrical re-releases.) The network TV debuts of Gone With the Wind in 1976 and The Godfather in 1977 were enormous cultural events, but lesser theatrical films regularly drew big numbers, sometimes big enough to win the week. In the summer of 1977, the weekly ratings were topped at various times by High Plains Drifter, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Scalphunters, Breakout, and Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell—three westerns, an adventure set in Mexico, and, oddly, a 1968 Italian comedy starring Gina Lollobrigida. (The latter looks to have won almost by default during one of the lowest-rated weeks of the entire summer.) Theatrical movies would never again win as many summer weeks as they did in 1977.

—Muhammad Ali was at the peak of his boxing fame in 1977 and was a big-enough TV star to win the ratings. In May, he won a unanimous decision over Alfredo Evangelista, a fight so dreadful—Ali out of shape and barely trying, Evangelista basically a tomato can—that Howard Cosell apologized to the ABC audience during the broadcast for having shown it. Nevertheless, it drew 17.7 million viewers to rate #1. In September, Ali would have the #1 show on TV again, winning his last successful title defense against Earnie Shavers, a fight Shavers very nearly won.

—Although a lot is made every year about the terrible ratings for the baseball All-Star Game, NBA Finals, and World Series when compared to past years, such games still tend to rate well compared to the other stuff on network TV in any given week. (This year, the All Star Game ranked third for the week, behind two NBA Finals games.) So it was in the 70s, when the All-Star Game was routinely the #1 show of the week, as it was in 1977.

Charlie’s Angels had premiered in the fall of 1976, but it didn’t reach #1 in the weekly ratings until the summer of 1977, when it was the most-watched show of the week seven times. Its 1977 season premiere in September also won the ratings race, but it would hit #1 only one more time, with its 1979 season premiere.

—The oddest show to top the ratings in the summer of 1977 was Man From Atlantis starring Patrick Duffy. The show had premiered in the spring as a series of TV movies. The fourth movie was #1 for the week of June 20, 1977—a first-run program bobbing to the top in a sea of reruns. The movies were successful enough that Man From Atlantis was permitted to dock on NBC’s regular fall schedule, but it soon sank without a trace.

Somebody else will have to do a scholarly examination of ratings and trends—I’m just poking through the wreckage of the 1970s looking for shiny stuff. So there are completely different posts I could write. For example, in 1975, reruns of All in the Family were #1 in most weeks, just as the first-run episodes had been during the regular season. Stuff that barely registers today was must-see TV: in 1975, 1976, and 1978, the Miss Universe pageant was the #1 show the week it was broadcast, beating even the All-Star Game in 1975.

In a gazillion-channel universe, with cable and streamers and YouTube, you go looking for something to watch and you generally find it. In the three-channel universe, we watched whatever was on, and if that turned out to be two hours of Gina Lollobrigida, then hell yeah.

Watch this space for more summer-of-1977 content later this week. Also: a new Sidepiece went out this morning. Check your spam filter.