I Get Around

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(Pictured: Dionne Warwick with Burt Bacharach at the piano, 1971.)

I have a 60s playlist sourced from the Time-Life AM Gold and Classic Rock series, and another of MOR that comes from the Lifetime of Romance series. I dipped into both of them on a recent all-day car ride, and here are some notes.

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Kick Out the Jams, Brothers and Sisters

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(Pictured: a completely spontaneous and not-at-all-orchestrated demonstration of support for Tipper Gore and the PMRC during congressional hearings in 1985.)

Thanks to all for your comments on naughty language in radio songs last Friday.

Mike helpfully linked to Ultimate Classic Rock’s list of songs with cuss words. A lot of the songs were never radio staples, however—in some cases, such as “Star Star,” precisely because the language was so far beyond the pale. Some of the obscenities are barely understandable (the supposed “I wanna fuck you” in the middle of “Do You Feel Like We Do”) or even audible (Paul’s expletive on a missed note in “Hey Jude.”) And many were edited for radio, with edits often more widely heard than the originals: “Who Are You,” “Jet Airliner,” “Kick Out the Jams,” “Hurricane.” As is the case with songs I mentioned in my earlier post, none of these lose very much for being edited. In fact, the radio edit of “Jet Airliner,” which replaces the line “funky shit going down in the city” with “funky kicks going down in the city” and adds a vocal harmony line to the replacement, represents an improvement.

But not all of the bad words got snipped. I think I can remember hearing “don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit” in “Money” on AM radio back in the day, but I am not sure I trust the memory. (The blanked version sounds quite odd and foreign to me, however.) While many radio stations edited the line “haven’t seen a goddamn thing” from “Life in the Fast Lane,” it’s my understanding that the Eagles’ label never put out an official edit. “I’m so awful goddamn glad I’m not in your shoes,” from the Guess Who’s “Bus Rider,” was even printed in one of those song-lyric magazines I used to buy when I was a kid.

Album-rock radio always had a greater tolerance for rough language than Top 40. Neither programmers nor listeners seemed to care much. A certain level of maturity was assumed, and nobody made much of it. Today, so-called “active rock” stations are playing songs with obscenity-filled lyrics that glorify violence. Their audience accepts it, and life goes on.

As a culture, our grip on bad words in pop songs has always been kinda slippery. Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” ended up a Top-10 hit in 1974. A year later, on “Bad Blood,” Neil Sedaka sang “the bitch is in the smile.” But in 1977, radio stations went out of their way to edit “it’s a bitch, girl” out of “Rich Girl.” Two years after that, nobody looked sideways at “go on and cry in your coffee but don’t come bitchin’ to me” in Billy Joel’s “Big Shot.”

The ebb and flow of naughty language in pop songs and on pop radio would be a good subject for further study, albeit maybe by somebody who doesn’t have the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo. To the extent that there’s a difference today in how people react to such language, it started back in the mid-80s with Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Council, and their campaign to warn parents about music with explicit lyrics. (That campaign, however, was focused on songs that didn’t get any radio play, and eventually jumped the shark when a Frank Zappa album got the “explicit lyrics” sticker despite being entirely intrumental.) But the ethos that fueled Mrs. Gore’s campaign—“who will save the children?”—remains today, fortified by a media superstructure that enables the weaponization of outrage, leaving little room for nuance, and certainly not for arguments about artistic freedom, personal choice, or the First Amendment. People getting amped about the content of a song in 1975 (for example) could make noise in their local community or with their local radio station. Today, some mom in West Overshoe who’s Big Mad about “abedefu” can write about it on WorldNetDaily today and be on Newsmax tomorrow, and the day after that, a whole segment of the country will be aflame with godly indignation, the kind that launches political careers.

In a nation where half of the electorate is drunk on weaponized outrage and going out of its way looking for stuff to be offended by, blanked and edited pop songs are likely to remain a part of the scene. And it’s not hard to imagine the lyric content of pop songs becoming a political issue again, eventually. But that’s a topic for another day, or maybe for The Sidepiece.

You Can’t Say That on the Radio

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(Pictured: singer and songwriter Gayle on stage, earlier this month.)

(Do I need to do a language warning here? OK, you’re warned.)

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What We Were

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(Pictured: the Ramones in 1978. Not the Reagans’ kind of people.)

I appreciate your comments at this website. All of us together have been making us each of us smarter individually for a long time. Readers catch me in mistakes or offer perspectives I either did not consider or do not share.

If there’s a type of comment that bothers me, it’s this kind: a drive-by (on a 10-year-old post) from somebody who has likely never visited this site before, who got here via a Google search, read one post, and decided that what the world most needs to know is that “I think this thing you like actually sucks.” Nothing constructive or insightful, just the Internet equivalent of egging somebody’s car.

For some people, the strongest urge in life is not for food or sex, it’s to correct strangers online. I try to imagine having the ego to do that, but I can’t.

Last week, I got a comment that I honestly don’t know how to take. Reader Bob wrote, “You’ve become like my father in his latter years … calling hard-disk drive space ‘memory.'” The most charitable way to take that is as a compliment on my voluminous capacity for recollection (albeit Google-aided). I might also take it as a suggestion that I spend too much time noodling with the past, and that my memories have blurred into an undifferentiated mush of information that no longer passes for knowledge.

Which one it is doesn’t matter, really, and I don’t choose to be offended if it’s the latter. Bob is not a drive-by reader; he’s part of this community. But he happened to comment on the same day I found something in the archives that is about being stuck in the past, and whether a person can change. I wrote it after spending some time reading a now-defunct nostalgia website whose tagline was “you are what you were.” I have edited it a bit.

I may claim that in my head it’s still 1976, but I know I am not the same person I was in 1976—and thank goodness for that. The kid who lived through the unforgettable seasons of that year had no idea how much he didn’t know about life, and [he] wouldn’t have listened if you had tried to tell him so. And when I get nostalgic about those wild nights in college, I forget that the kid participating in those wild nights was, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, quite an asshole.

I suspect that all of us have been people we are glad to no longer be, even as we cling to the memory of having been those people.

I have, from time to time, gotten reacquainted with people I’ve known since childhood but had been out of touch with for years. Generally, we discovered that the adult versions of ourselves were far more likable than the younger versions had been. Time had sanded away our most maddening qualities, but it had left much of the good in us intact.

So we are not necessarily what we were, no. If we’re lucky, we might still retain the best of what we were.

Links and Notes: I am still trying, and mostly succeeding, at spending less time on Twitter. It has made a modest difference in my mental health, and I intend to keep staying off. But I am still finding worthwhile stuff on it now and then, and here’s some of it:

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One Night at the Firehouse

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(Pictured: L to R, Richard Pryor, Lou Gossett, David Cassidy, Shirley Jones, and Susan Dey in a still from “Soul Club.”)

I found this post in the archives the other day. 

January 29, 1971: The Partridge Family is in its first season, part of ABC’s fondly remembered Friday night lineup. The family’s #1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” is still on the radio, and in another week their followup single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” will bubble under on its way into the Hot 100 and eventually, the Top 10.

On this particular Friday night, the Partridges have a problem. They’ve been booked into a club in Detroit, but it isn’t the posh hotel ballroom they’re expecting—it’s an old firehouse in a neighborhood they clearly find questionable, even nobody comes right out and says so. They park the bus, they go inside, and after a minute or two, one of the owners of the club slides down the pole. The actor on that pole had been knocking around big-time showbiz since his first network TV appearance in 1964. He appeared several times on The Ed Sullivan Show doing Cosby-style standup, nothing like the revolutionary character-based material that would make him a household name beginning in 1974.

In the Partridge episode “Soul Club,” Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett play brothers who have opened the Firehouse as a neighborhood social club where “our people” can meet and hang out. They were expecting the Temptations to perform, but a booking agent screwup sent the Temps to Tucson and the Partridges to Detroit. Neighborhood boss Heavy, from whom Pryor and Gossett have borrowed the money to start up, is the one who orchestrated said screwup, and he threatens to call their note.

While hanging out in the club office (decorated with a Jimi Hendrix poster and one for famed California underground radio station KPPC), the Partridges get an idea: a block party, at which they’ll play, in hopes of making enough money to keep the club afloat. Keith says, “I’ve got an idea for a new song! It’s an Afro thing.” Pryor arranges it for a string section, which Danny recruits from the local Afro-American Cultural Society, and which is intended to stand for the local chapter of the Black Panthers. The block party is a hit (even if Keith’s song, “Bandala,” is about as African as Keith himself), the note is paid, the club is saved, and the Partridges promise to play there again someday. Palms are slapped and awkward soul shakes are exchanged, Danny is made an honorary member of the Afro-American Cultural Society complete with revolutionary black beret, there are laughs all around, and we fade to black.

According to David and Joe Henry, authors of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, “Soul Club” was a backdoor pilot for a future series starring Pryor and Gossett. It’s hard to know how serious the backdoor pilot talk really was. By 1971, the time was surely right for a TV series focused on African-American characters, but a series set in a club that supposedly attracted national acts would be tough to sustain without actually getting some of those acts to appear. (In addition to the Temptations, the name of James Brown is also dropped in “Soul Club.”) At that point, Gossett had more acting experience than Pryor, having previously co-starred in the Revolutionary War series The Young Rebels. Pryor was already earning a certain reputation for trouble. In her autobiography, Shirley Jones remarked that Pryor was “drugged up” during filming. He would return to small TV and movie roles for another three or four years.

TV historian Tom Hill ranks “Soul Club” at #81 on his list of the 100 best TV sitcom episodes of all time. In an era when popular entertainment prized “relevance,” it certainly had that, even while swaddled in a blanket of Hollywood cheese. And it’s one of those grand collisions between pop-culture icons you’d never expect to mention in the same breath.

If you watch, be sure to notice to the way the Black neighborhood is portrayed at first as an alien world, in which the Partridges are meant to stand for the viewer, who is presumed to be a fellow white suburbanite. (The idea of whiteness as the default condition of humanity is textbook white privilege.) “Soul Club”‘s attempt to bridge the gap between the white folks watching and “our people” is the kind of “relevance” that helped move network TV toward more inclusiveness, but it also reveals just how far was left to go in 1971.

May 11, 1997: Deep Blue

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(Pictured: Garry Kasparov makes a move against computer opponent Deep Blue.)

May 11, 1997, was a Sunday.  It is Mother’s Day. Rain is forecast for the Northeast and Midwest, but the southern United States and Pacific Coast are mostly dry. Headlines on the Sunday papers include an earthquake in Iran that killed 2,000 people; more legal wrangling over the Whitewater real estate scandal involving Bill and Hillary Clinton; the agreement between NBC and the cast of Seinfeld to continue the top-rated show; and the ongoing match between Russian world chess champion Garry Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer, which is tied going into today’s final match. Today, Deep Blue wins.

At Radio Shack, you can get a new IBM Aptiva home computer with 3.1GB of memory, 16MB of RAM, a fast 33.6Kbps modem with fax, and a 166Mhz Pentium processor for $1999. If you’re in the market for a car, the Cherry Burrell Employees Credit Union of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is offering a 7.4 percent/60-month auto loan for 1996 or 1997 models, with higher rates and shorter terms for older models.

In the NBA, the Chicago Bulls, going for their fifth title in seven years, take a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series with an 89-80 win over the Hawks in Atlanta. Also today, the New York Knicks go up 2-1 on Miami with a 77-73 win. In the Western Conference semifinals, the Houston Rockets beat the Seattle SuperSonics 110-106 in overtime and lead 3-1. The other Western semifinal has the day off; the Utah Jazz lead the Los Angeles Lakers three games to one. Game five is tomorrow night in Salt Lake City. In the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, three series are decided today: the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, and Edmonton join Detroit in the conference finals. The Red Wings swept their semifinal series over Anaheim last week; game two of the series went 91 seconds into the third overtime before the Red Wings won it, five hours and 40 minutes after the game began. In Major League Baseball, the best record belongs to the Atlanta Braves, who beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-2 today.

Two new movies top the box office this weekend: The Fifth Element, a science-fiction thriller starring Bruce Willis, and Father’s Day, a comedy starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. Other top movies include Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. On TV tonight, CBS wins the night with part 1 of The Last Don, a miniseries based on the novel by Godfather author Mario Puzo, which stars Danny Aiello and Joe Mantegna. ABC airs the first episode of its own novel-based miniseries tonight, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. NBC Sunday Night at the Movies presents the theatrical release Timecop. Fox presents its regular Sunday-night lineup, which includes The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and The X-Files. Shows on the WB tonight include The Parent ‘Hood, The Steve Harvey Show, and The Jamie Foxx Show.

On this week’s Billboard Hot 100, “Hypnotize” by Notorious B. I. G. is #1 again this week, two months after Biggie’s death in a drive-by shooting. “You Were Meant for Me” by Jewel is #2. “Mmm Bop” by Hanson makes a big leap to #6 from #16. “Wannabe,” the first hit by the Spice Girls, is down to #10 from #6. Only three songs are new in the Top 40 this week: “G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T” by Changing Faces makes its Hot 100 debut at #28; “Don’t Wanna Be a Player” by Joe is at #34, and “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks debuts in the 40 at #37. Michael Jackson’s new song, “Blood on the Dance Floor,” makes its Hot 100 debut at #42. The #1 spot on the Billboard 200 album chart belongs to Share My World by Mary J. Blige. The #1 adult contemporary song is “For the First Time” by Kenny Loggins; #1 country is “One Night at a Time” by George Strait.

Perspective From the Present: I finished my teacher-ed program at the University of Iowa during the previous week, although I would take one additional course during the summer while hunting for a job. The lone offer I received was from a Catholic school in Illinois where I would have made as much money as I did on my last radio job. A couple of weeks later, I was offered a job by an educational publishing firm, which I took. I regret, a little bit, that I never taught beyond my student-teacher semester to see if I could do it without a net. But going into publishing was the right choice, and I’ve never regretted that.