I have had Elton John on the brain lately. Here and There accompanied me in the car for several days a couple of weeks back, and entirely by accident, Caribou did last week. Caribou was the first Elton John album I bought with my own money while it was a hit. (My brother had its predecessor, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, although I’m not sure when he bought it.) I can remember the day I got it, an autumn Saturday in 1974 after “The Bitch Is Back” had hit the radio.
I was concerned that my parents might not approve of “The Bitch Is Back,” but they had never raised any objections before about what I listened to. There were no complaints about “hear him whip the women just around midnight,” or “Let’s Make a Dope Deal,” or about “The Bitch Is Back,” either. They just wanted me to keep the volume down—hard to do with “The Bitch Is Back,” which rocks harder than almost anything else Elton ever did, with the possible exceptions of “Stinker,” a track from side 2, or ”Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”
After “The Bitch Is Back,” there’s “Pinky,” a song about a girl who’s “as perfect as the 4th of July.” At that moment of 1974, I knew one myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, even as I couldn’t work up the courage to tell her, and “Pinky” didn’t help matters one bit. However, it brightened my mood considerably to crank up “Grimsby,” country twanger “Dixie Lily,” and the goofy “Solar Prestige a Gammon,” with its lyrics of utter gibberish, which bounces along on one of the most fetching instrumental tracks Elton’s band ever performed. Over on side 2, “I’ve Seen the Saucers” was the track I liked least back in the day, although it sounds pretty tremendous now. The singer has been abducted by aliens and comes back bearing great knowledge, which in 1974, I didn’t feel like I needed. Today I’d listen.
What struck me about Caribou the other day is how dated some of it sounds. The lead single, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” hasn’t worn well at all. “Pinky” and “Solar Prestige a Gammon” contain Moog synthesizer lines that mark them indelibly as early 70s material. The same sound is heard on the last track, “Ticking.” But that’s the only way in which “Ticking” is dated. It’s the story of a mass shooting in New York City, in which a crazed young bar patron, his mother’s voice continually scolding in his head, kills 14 people with a gun. There have been many years, many killers, and many killings since “Ticking,” but they leave us with the same sick, sad, horrible feeling, the same questions why, and the same realization that we’ll never really know why the killer’s “brains just snapped.”
Caribou has been reissued with four bonus tracks, including “Sick City” and “Cold Highway,” which were the B-sides of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “The Bitch Is Back.” Neither is particularly noteworthy. Also included in the reissue are two songs out of time: “Pinball Wizard,” which came out in 1975 and more properly belongs with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and “Step Into Christmas,” which was a hit at the end of 1973 and would be a better chronological fit on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
Long post short: Caribou, good album, listened to it a lot back then, listen to it a lot now, think you’d like it too.
I cleared some space in the garage for a delivery of firewood the other day, but that’s the only seasonal task I have, and it took all of five minutes. We live in a condo, so there’s no garden to clear out, no leaves to rake, no storm windows to put on. We never owned a house until we lived in Iowa City at the turn of the millennium, and during those two years, I did what needed to be done around the place and precious little more. I am not a person who takes pleasure in working with his hands, unless they’re on a keyboard.
I’ve never had a knack for it. Maybe it’s because I never had develop the knack, although I suspect otherwise, for I have been helpless for as long as I can remember. We had Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs at home when I was a kid, but I could never build anything. I managed to get through a required industrial arts course in middle school with all 10 fingers, but it was a near thing. From that day to this, I have lived by Clint Eastwood’s dictum that a man’s got to know his limitations. It doesn’t matter that I come from a long line of farmers, people for whom fixing and rigging and tinkering becomes second nature, because they often have neither the inclination, time, nor money to have it done for them. One of my brothers still farms, and the other was a professional carpenter for a long time and does things with tools that seem one click north of magic to me. The Mrs., born and raised in the city, has greater aptitude with tools than I.
However: There is something about autumn that makes me regret this shortcoming. I should be able to secure my domicile so that the wife and cat may pass the winter safe and warm, storing up nuts for the winter like the squirrels do. But my most viable option is to hope that the street to the nut store gets plowed so I can go there when it snows.
The music accompanying this post has nothing to do with the subject of this post—it’s just something cool that popped up on shuffle the other day. Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” is one of the songs on my Desert Island list, three-and-a-half perfect minutes that have stayed with me since I first heard the song on the radio in the spring of 1972. Here’s a Canadian TV performance from that year on a show called Rollin’ on the River, which was hosted by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition long before Kenny Rogers became the household name he would be at the end of the 1970s.
In 1993, Aimee Mann covered “Baby Blue.” Her version was included on a 1996 Badfinger tribute album called Come and Get It, and it’s definitely worth a click.
Friday morning, 5:15. “Are you awake?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “because you’ve been tossing and turning all night.”
Silence. And then: “I think I need to quit my job today.”
In 3 1/2 years, I had never really been happy there; I’d taken the job not because I wanted to do the work, but because the job was in Madison. I worked with a wonderful group of people, and I was being paid quite literally more money than we could spend. But the work itself was tedious and unsatisfying. I had stopped giving a damn about it at least a year before, but I was clever enough to fake my way along, keeping up a facade of being engaged and proactive. But even that was beginning to slip, and I was spending my days mired in misery. (It was during this time that I started blogging—on company time—to kill the long afternoons when I either had nothing to do, or nothing that I wanted to do.)
October was annual evaluation time. On a Monday, I was asked to write a self-evaluation to be used in the session with my supervisor—but my various attempts to write it during the succeeding days kept coming out like a resignation letter. On Thursday, a major project on which I had spent several months was very publicly shot down by one of the company’s top-ranking officers, in front of a lot of people. Which brought us to Friday morning at 5:15. By 6:00, The Mrs. and I had figured it out. I knew some people from whom I thought I could get freelance work, so we decided to risk it.
On Fridays, I had a regular weekly one-on-one with my supervisor, a kind and intelligent woman who was in no wise responsible for my unhappiness—only on this day, she wanted to postpone it until Monday. I knew that if I didn’t quit that day, I wouldn’t, so I convinced her to give me 10 minutes at 2:30. At 2:25, 2:27, 2:29, I sat in my cubicle going back and forth. Was I being hasty, or was this the right thing to do? Even as I closed the door of the conference room, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to say—but the first thing that came out of my mouth was “I’m here to give you my two weeks’ notice.”
That decision was like leaping off a diving board in the dark and hoping there’s water in the pool—and as it turned out, there was. The water has stayed in the pool for eight years now. It’s just another example of the way fate has packed so many of the best and worst moments of my life into the month of October.
This October I will not have a lot to say that’s new. I continue to be swimming in remunerative labor, as I’ve been since late August. That’s good for me and the people I owe money to, but not so good for the readership. I set up our ongoing series of repeat posts as much for me as for you—to keep me from writing here for free when I need to be clocking billable hours. Fortunately, the seven previous Octobers of this blog’s life yield a decent harvest of reading material, some of which I’ll repeat here. Watch the “Real Stupid in Real Time” feed on the right for tweets pointing up other posts from the archives, including a boatload of “One Day in Your Life” posts. I intend to write new posts when I can, but as was the case in September, I’m not sure how often that will be.
On the flip, a couple of October hits from my Desert Island list.
(Hot damn, it’s a new post.)
It’s been nearly five months since I wrote anything about my Desert Island list here. And I guess it’s because I wonder whether it ‘s interesting to anyone but me. It’s not packed with forgotten gems that never made it on the radio, or unknown acts that never got their due. It’s not calculated to impress anybody with my quirky taste, unless you think that being a Top-40 nerd is quirky. I have been living with some of the songs for more than 40 years, from the AM radio in the bedroom I shared with my brother at home to the iPod on which I have loaded road music for use in my wife’s car, and I keep coming back to them when I could be listening to other stuff. Here are five (more than five, actually) from the Desert Island list that I haven’t written about yet, all of which were on the radio in Septembers gone by, and in no particular order.
“Who Do You Think You Are”/Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (1974). The best of all descriptions of this song is in the liner notes of the Rhino Super Hits of the 70s volume that includes it: “the great lost Buckinghams record.” Just as they did with “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” in the summer of ’74, the Heywoods’ cover version outperformed a British original. “Who Do You Think You Are” was cut by both Jigsaw (of “Sky High” fame) and a band called Candlewick Green, whose version just missed the Top 20 in the UK. The Heywoods’ version has a drive the Candlewick Green version lacks, and it polishes the hooks until they sparkle like diamonds.
“Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”/Chicago (1973). There are actually three Chicago songs on my list, none of which I have written about: “Beginnings,” “Dialogue,” and this. “Beginnings” is ambitious and magisterial. Both “Dialogue” and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” are records made great by building tension and then releasing it: “Dialogue” at the end of Part 1, when Peter Cetera sings, “I always thought that everything was fine” before a single electric guitar starts Part 2, and again at the end, when “we can make it happen” is stopped in mid-syllable, and “Feelin’ Stronger” after its stupendous bridge, about 2:30 in. In those ways and several others, both records prove that it’s the little things that matter. “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” is also one of the greatest top-of-the-hour songs in radio. (For what it’s worth, this sounds like a 45 version—more bass, more punch.)
“Beautiful Sunday”/Daniel Boone (1972). Another pleasure I have felt guilty about for years, although I’m trying to get over it. If you can’t figure out why a person might find some charm in this, maybe we shouldn’t be seeing each other anymore.
“Jimmy Loves Mary Anne”/Looking Glass (1973). No guilt here. This is a record we’ve praised repeatedly in the past, and for good reason: It’s cooler than all of us on the best day any of us ever had. Somebody’s blog—and I’m sorry to say I forget whose—tipped me to the fact that the guitar solo on the record gets its unique sound thanks to a Leslie amplifier, normally heard powering the Hammond B3 organ.
“Maggie May”/Rod Stewart (1971). There are two Rod Stewart songs on the list, both of which hit in the fall, “Maggie May” and “You Wear It Well,” a smartly observed lyric about the power of memory, which charted a year later. I have frequently pondered the arc of “Maggie May” in my life—when I bought the 45 at the age of 11, it was because I liked it on the radio. I really didn’t get the lyrics beyond the sound of them. It remained a favorite for the next 30-plus years, always welcome on my radio shows and on record or CD. When I began fooling around with the idea of music as memoir in the mid 1990s, I seized upon the line “It’s late September and I really should be back at school” as especially resonant, autumn being the season in which everything began. Today, a couple of weeks shy of 40 years since the song hit Number One, I realize that “Maggie May” performs, for those of us who love it, the function great art is supposed to perform: It tells us who we are. And who we’ve been. And now that we’re 40 years older, who we’re going to be.
So I’m driving home from the radio station the other night listening to the vintage American Top 40 show when Casey plays “Old Fashioned Boy” by Stallion, and I am suddenly transported back to the spring of 1977, when the song spent a couple of weeks on the Top 40 and got a little bit of play on the stations I was listening to back then. It’s slick, hooky, AM-radio pop that, if it were a confection, would be cotton candy, because it melts away to nothing so fast and it leaves you wondering where it went. Here’s YouTube DJ Music Mike to play it for you.
As I listened to it for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long, the verse, the refrain, the solo, the key change, and the refrain to the fade, I was struck by just how many records like it I dug back then. Lots of bands used that light, tasteful, adult guitar sound to greater advantage than Stallion did—Pablo Cruise and Player spring to mind, although their records were generally less busy than Stallion’s. Also unlike Stallion, each of those bands has a song on my Desert Island list.
Pablo Cruise had a bit of credibility as an album-oriented act thanks to their first two albums, their self-titled 1975 release and Lifeline in 1976. But they broke through as pop stars in 1977 with A Place in the Sun and the single “Whatcha Gonna Do,” which rose into the Top 10 late that summer. Here it is, from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, featuring the most impressive collection of white-guy Afros you’ve seen in a long time. It rocks a bit harder live than it does on record.
Another band of similar musical weight came along just as “Whatcha Gonna Do” was moving into recurrents. Player hit #1 early in 1978 with “Baby Come Back,” a nice-enough radio record, but the one that I am taking along to the Desert Island came that summer: “This Time I’m in It for Love.” It probably appealed to me more on the basis of the lyrics than the music—the incurable teenage romantic in me liked the idea of refusing to settle for anything less than the real thing. It, too, has that same light guitar sound, the opposite of what guitar gods like Clapton and Page were doing, something that sounds to me now like the distilled essence of the late 70s.
(Another Player song, “Prisoner of Your Love,” probably ought to be on the Desert Island list. Despite being an absolute hook-monster, it made it only as high as Number 27 in Billboard in the fall of 1978, when I adored it.)
Recommended Reading: It’s often noted that the transition to CDs and now to downloads has caused us to miss out on the distinctive pleasures of album art. But until yesterday, I don’t think anybody had noticed how we’ve also lost “the mundane beauty of blank cassette tape insert cards.” Tip of the baseball cap yet again to Dangerous Minds, which needs to be a regular stop on your Internet rounds. It’s one of the most consistently fascinating websites I know of. (If you’re on Twitter, follow Richard Metzger.)
Thirty-four years ago this week, as spring began to break for real over southern Wisconsin, one of the songs I couldn’t get out of my head was “Couldn’t Get it Right” by the Climax Blues Band. It broke into the Top 40 at the end of March and peaked at Number 3 on the Hot 100 toward the end of May. It seemed to be on the radio constantly, on whatever station I listened to, and why not? It’s a fine funky clatter that even the most vocally challenged fan could sing along with. I did, and I do. “Couldn’t Get it Right” is an artifact from a very happy season in my life, and it’s been on my Desert Island list as long as I’ve had one.
Like many British musicians who came up in the late 60s, the members of the Climax Blues Band were fans of American blues. They were originally known as the Climax Chicago Blues Band, although they dropped the “Chicago” in 1970, reportedly to avoid confusion with Chicago Transit Authority. They also became a more conventional rock band in the early 70s, scoring significant hit albums with FM Live in 1974, Stamp Album in 1975, and the 1976 release Gold Plated, which contains “Couldn’t Get it Right.” Their 1979 album Real to Reel contains the superb “Children of the Nighttime,” which deserved to be a smash but was not. They had one smash left in them, however: the 1980 album Flying the Flag contained “I Love You,” which was miles removed from both Chicago blues and “Couldn’t Get it Right.” Allmusic compares it to Badfinger or Paul McCartney, and neither is a bad comparison. “I Love You” is as powerfully and irresistably romantic a record as either of those artists ever made. It blew out the phones at radio stations back in the summer of 1981, and on those occasions when it plays now, people will still call wanting to know, “What was that song?” How it reached only Number 12 in Billboard I have no idea.
After “I Love You,” the Climax Blues Band got lost in shifting musical tastes, although they continued to record steadily through 1988. Since then, they’ve made only two albums, one in 1993 and one in 2004. An edition of the band still exists today. It contains none of the founding members, although lead vocalist Colin Cooper was part of the band until his death in 2008.
You’ve heard “Couldn’t Get it Right” and “I Love You” a million times. (A million and one if you clicked the links above.) So be sure to listen to “Mole on the Dole” from the 1973 album Rich Man, which features a most surprising instrument taking the solos. And dig “Children of the Nighttime,” below.
Recommended Reading: Sound engineer Roger Nichols, nicknamed “the Immortal” by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for his work with Steely Dan, died earlier this month. Here’s his New York Times obituary. And also, the headquarters of Malaco Records, the Mississippi label that produced “Groove Me,” “Mr. Big Stuff,” and other, lesser-known landmarks of southern soul, was leveled by a tornado last weekend. The building that housed the label’s master tapes was among those destroyed. Find out more at Flea Market Funk. While you’re there, consider this provocative question: “Is Record Store Day a Bunch of Bullshit?”, and the response from the folks who organized the event.