“After 1986, What Else Could Be New?”

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(Pictured: Billy Joel picks up a guitar, 1986.)

It’s a reasonably common literary trope, I guess: that fading, end-of-summer vibe, the last couple of weeks of summer vacation when you were still in school, or an August week or weekend spent away from work, at the lake or in the mountains in adult life. Such tales almost always involve something slipping away, changes coming, holding on to something precious, that kind of thing. It’s a fertile field for a memoirist to plow, and you’ve read a lot of stuff like that. (And not just at this website, where we specialize in it.)

What we can’t always see clearly is what those times felt like while we were living them. Did I look at the calendar back there in, say, August 1972, see the first day of school looming there, and think, “I should hang onto these days because they will soon be gone”? How about August 1976, as my summer of all summers turned toward the autumm of all autumns? Or August 1986, by which time I was out in the working world? Did it feel to me like summer was fading, or was I too busy with the day-to-day routine of programming a radio station and hosting a morning show?

Today, there are narratives, but they’re retroactively applied. For 1986, it’s not just the narrative of a summer, but of the arc of my career and ultimately, my life. Today, I know that I had already made a critical choice that would change the course of my career. And the narrative had a second part that had nothing to do with the first: leaving my radio station in December and moving to a new city in January 1987.

If, in my head, the summer of 1986 had a narrative while I was living it, it wasn’t either of those.

That’s a weird way to introduce a few thoughts about the American Top 40 show from August 16, 1986, but it’s what I found myself pondering as the show went along. I have just enough of the word count left to get started; we’ll finish it up in a future installment.

40. “Two of Hearts”/Stacey Q. During the football season of 1986, I made a bet with a DJ friend on the outcome of a game between the colleges in the towns where we worked. The loser had to sing along with “Two of Hearts” on the winner’s show. I hated “Two of Hearts” back then. Today I realize that what I hate is the stuttering electronic “I-I-I-I-I-I need you” effect. The rest of the song isn’t nearly so awful.

(I won the bet.)

38. “Take It Easy”/Andy Taylor. I have utterly no memory of “Take It Easy,” but I do remember the spate of Duran Duran side projects, including Arcadia, Power Station, and various solo singles. Apart from Power Station, none of them did much for me, and I dug Power Station because I was a Robert Palmer fan.

37. “Modern Woman”/Billy Joel. “Modern Woman” is probably meant to sound like a progressive take on 80s relationships but it comes off smug nevertheless; Billy can’t hide his condescension even though “she’s got style and she’s got her own money.” Notable lyric line: “After 1986 what else could be new?”

36. “Digging Your Scene”/Blow Monkeys
34. “The Captain of Her Heart”/Double
I adored “Digging Your Scene” back then, and I still like it today, even though the Blow Monkeys sound to me like they want to be funky but not break a sweat. “The Captain of Her Heart” represents an impressive level of white-boy soul for two dudes from Switzerland.

35. “Hanging on a Heart Attack”/Device. Device was fronted by Holly Knight, who would become one of the most esteemed songwriters in the business over the next three decades. I can’t say whether or not I like “Hanging on a Heart Attack,” but I can tell you that few records sound more like 1986.

Coming in the next installment: songs of the summer, songs that disappeared, and a ton of iconic 80s stars and hits including Huey Lewis and the News, Genesis, Wham, Lionel Richie, Madonna, and a bunch of others. Stay tuned.

[jingle out]

Bad, Wild, and Crazy

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(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.

To Be There in the Garden

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.

“In the Privacy of Our Own Lives”

 

For the last several months, Antenna TV has been running Maude in the early evenings, and I catch it from time to time. Recently, the channel repeated the famous two-part episode “Maude’s Dilemma,” in which she finds herself pregnant at the age of 47 and struggles with the decision of what, if anything, to do about it.

When Maude tells her daughter that she’s pregnant, Carol responds: “You don’t have to have the baby.” Maude says, “What am I supposed to do? Trade it for a volleyball on Let’s Make a Deal?” Carol says, “You don’t have to, Mother. It’s legal now.” Just “it,” for the moment, although later, Carol uses the word in question: “When you were young, abortion was a dirty word, but it’s not anymore.” By the late 60s, a number of states had either decriminalized or legalized abortion under certain circumstances; New York state, where Maude is set, had revised its law in 1970, allowing abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy.

(It’s interesting to me that some of the same states that were first to modify their abortion laws 50 years ago to permit them are among those that have passed draconian anti-abortion laws in recent months.)

There is no character in the episode who explicitly argues against abortion, although Maude’s own uncertainty offers a degree of balance to the issue. (At the request of CBS, there’s a brief appearance by a overworked mother of four who is pregnant with a fifth, yet happily accepting of it.) The majority of the episode is devoted to Maude and her husband, Walter, failing to communicate. Each one believes that the other knows what they want and that there’s no need to ask. For a while, any of four outcomes seems possible: they both want the baby, they both don’t, she wants an abortion and he doesn’t, and vice versa. In the end, however, they finally talk about it directly, and Maude admits she doesn’t want the baby. Walter says, “For you, Maude, and for me, in the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.”

The episode ends there. And in the next week’s episode, the cast moves on to another sitcom situation, the abortion unmentioned.

When “Maude’s Dilemma” aired in November 1972, about two months before the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide, a couple of CBS affiliates refused to carry it, but apart from that, it caused no widespread controversy. After Roe v. Wade, however, the outrage machine cranked up. Maude had become one of the biggest hits on TV in its first season, and before “Maude’s Dilemma” was repeated on August 14 and 21, 1973, religious organizations put pressure on individual CBS stations. Affiiates in Milwaukee, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle, and 20 to 25 other cities refused to air the repeats. Even with the affiliate defections, however, “Maude’s Dilemma” attracted an audience of 65 million on its second time around.

“Maude’s Dilemma” was a brave episode of television for 1972, even after the taboo-breaking success of All in the Family. And it was especially brave considering that the first part of “Maude’s Dilemma” was only the show’s ninth episode. It’s entirely possible that it was produced before the series had even premiered. The network’s first reaction to the script outline was, in producer Norman Lear’s words, “You’re out of your mind. You’re crazy.” But CBS didn’t step in and stop it. There was a sense, as critic Noel Holston wrote, that the legal decisions had settled the abortion issue.

“Maude’s Dilemma” wasn’t the last time episode writer Susan Harris sparked controversy. In 1977, she created Soap, which outraged various self-appointed guardians of decency even before it premiered due to its explicit sexuality. And it wasn’t the last time she worked with Maude stars Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan, either. Harris also created The Golden Girls.

The full episode of “Maude’s Dilemma”—not the hacked-up Antenna TV version I saw—is available at the top of this page and at YouTube, at least for now. If you watch at YouTube, you will want to avoid reading the comments, as they demonstrate the utter shitshow that the abortion debate has become since the days when abortion was viewed as settled law, when it was a decision that properly belonged “in the privacy of our own lives” and nowhere else. Given what seems to me the likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be overturned in 2020, “Maude’s Dilemma” is worth watching in 2019.

As It Happened

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(Pictured: pop-culture icons collide in August 1977.)

Let’s take a look inside the edition of Billboard magazine dated August 13, 1977.

There’s been a drastic fall-off in patronage at certain New York City discos due to the .44 Caliber Killer, or as he’s better known, Son of Sam. Although at least four of Sam’s victims have been shot after leaving discos, police don’t think he’s targeting disco patrons specifically. It’s more likely that discos provide easy access to his preferred type of young victim. Police have increased patrols around discos in Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Meanwhile, clubs in Manhattan and on Long Island have seen increased patronage, likely from people fearful of patronizing clubs in their own neighborhoods.

As it happened, the killer, real name David Berkowitz, was captured on August 10.

On September 1, New York’s WNBC will switch to a rock format, according to new program director Bob Pittman. Pittman, age 23, is best known for his recent success at country station WMAQ in Chicago; he’s bringing WMAQ personality Ellie Dylan with him to do mornings on WNBC. The current WNBC air staff, including morning host Don Imus, has been sacked, although WNBC will continue to be the national radio flagship for NBC News. Another prominent WNBC personality, Cousin Brucie Morrow, broke off contract talks after being told the new format “didn’t require a high-priced voice.” He plans to continue contributing music features to WNBC-TV and to write an autobiography. He also wants to “shop around for a metro-area radio station he can own and operate the way he thinks radio should be run.”

Among the winners at the recent 10th annual International Radio Programming Forum Awards in Toronto: WROK in Rockford, Illinois, as the Grand International Radio Station of the Year, “for its community leadership and its high levels of programming excellence.” Gary Owens of KMPC in Los Angeles was honored as Grand International Personality of the Year. The award for major-market Top 40 personality of the year was a tie between John Landecker of WLS in Chicago and Dan Ingram of WABC in New York. American Top 40 took the award for best regularly scheduled syndicated program. In a related item, American Top 40 has once again been named the most popular program on Armed Forces Radio by AFRTS program directors around the world.

An all-day bill headed by Peter Frampton smashed the concert attendance record at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium on July 31, drawing nearly 60,000 fans. Also on the bill that day: the Steve Miller Band, Styx, and Rick Derringer. Ticket prices ranged from $10 to $12.50. Other recent top-drawing shows included Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, who attracted 40,000 during a four-night stand in suburban Detroit, and Emerson Lake and Palmer with opening act Journey, who drew 10,000 on one night in Vancouver and 15,000 the next night in Seattle. Other major bills on tour at the moment: Bad Company with the Climax Blues Band, Alice Cooper with Burton Cummings, and America with Poco.

On the Hot 100, the top three songs are the same this week as last: “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb, “I’m in You” by Peter Frampton, and “Best of My Love” by the Emotions. The highest debut within the Top 40 is the London Symphony Orchestra recording of the Star Wars theme at #28. The highest Hot 100 debut is “Cat Scratch Fever” by Ted Nugent at #70. On Top LPs and Tape, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is #1 again. CSN by Crosby Stills and Nash makes a strong move to #2. Barbra Streisand’s Superman, Frampton’s I’m in You, and Love Gun by KISS round out the Top Five.

On Billboard‘s Hits of the World charts, “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer is #1 in Britain. On the Hot Soul Singles chart, “Float On” by the Floaters takes over the #1 spot from the Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23,” which slips to #2. The top two songs on the Easy Listening chart are the same this week as last: “My Heart Belongs to Me” by Barbra Streisand at #1 and “It’s Sad to Belong” by England Dan and John Ford Coley at #2. “Rollin’ With the Flow” by Charlie Rich is #1 again on the Hot Country Singles chart, just ahead of Elvis Presley’s double-A sided hit “Way Down”/”Pledging My Love.”

As it happened, Elvis would die on August 16.

A correction of a story from the August 6 edition says that contrary to what was reported, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” is not in the public domain. “A federal judge ruled that the tale of the old tree is not copyrightable. The song is.”

Teacher Needs a Beer

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If you have read this website for a while, or if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you have heard me talk about the teaching job I have, which puts me on the road for a few weeks every spring and fall to help high-school students prepare for the ACT and SAT college entrance exams. Another season will begin in September.

When I launched this podcast in June, I said that some episodes would not have anything to do with either music or radio, and the latest episode is the first one that does not. It’s about that teaching job and my life on the road doing it, and it’s called “Teacher Needs a Beer. ” You can listen to it right here.

You can find all episodes, old and new, at my Soundcloud. The podcast is also available at Google Play, TuneIn, and Stitcher, if you happen to use any of those platforms. I have been asked about its availability via Apple Podcasts; they won’t currently validate it, and I’m not sure if they ever will, but keep hope alive, I guess.

However you listen to the latest episode, I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please consider giving it a good rating or review on whatever platform you use.

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