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Vinyl Confessions

A couple of weeks ago, we got a new piece of furniture for the living room—a low shelving unit to replace the tall, rack-like thing that has held the DVR, DVD player, CD player, and turntable for maybe 10 years. It is, in what seems to be the story of our lives, not quite right, not quite what we’d prefer if we had our druthers, but it’ll do. It takes up less space, which is a major consideration in a place as tiny as ours.

What kept us from replacing the old unit sooner was the necessity of un-wiring all the electronics and then wiring ‘em up again. It would mean digging into the nightmarish forest of cords hidden behind, taking everything apart, and then trying to remember how it was hooked up in the first place, with the consequent threat to our marriage that such a project always seems to evoke. We still haven’t sorted it out; the TV is hooked up through a different input than it was, and I can’t figure out how to play the Dish Network music channels through the stereo like we used to. (We are still married.)

Not everything is back in place, though—I decided not to hook up the turntable.

This is not as drastic as it seems. I can’t remember the last time I actually used the turntable. If it were four or five years, I wouldn’t be surprised, nor would I be surprised if it were longer than that. But packing it away means I no longer have easy access to a working turntable for the first time since, well, ever. From Dad’s little portable to the console stereo in the living room to the first record player I could call my own and through all the iterations of my home equipment since, there’s always been a turntable. But we simply don’t have a need for one anymore. If we listen to music in the living room, it’s usually the Dish Network music channels. I occasionally put in a stack of CDs, but I’ll bet we haven’t used the turntable for an evening’s listening in 20 years.

And that’s not the only reason. If it’s been four or five years since I used the turntable, it’s been at least that long since I bought any vinyl. And I have a confession to make: crate-digging, which used to be something I enjoyed immensely, no longer holds much interest for me. I will occasionally flip through a box of records in an antique store, but the days when I could get lost for hours among sizable stacks are over. I still discover plenty of old stuff that’s new to me via the Internet, and I’m OK with that. I don’t miss owning the physical objects—and I’m completely out of space to store them anyhow.

Many years ago, before the advent of the USB turntable, I bought a CD player with a recording well, thinking it would be good for converting vinyl to digital, but it was a disappointment from the moment I took it out of the box. The recording well never really worked properly—the machine was astoundingly sensitive to vibration and would glitch at random in mid-recording, ruining the blank disc; although it was supposed to recognize silence between songs and create individual tracks, it never did, and so every album was essentially a single long track. The thing should have gone back to the store the day after I got it home.

I’d like to have a USB turntable. If I did—if I could easily convert vinyl to digital—I might pick up the crate-digging habit again. But until I find room on my desk—room that doesn’t currently exist and is unlikely to exist in the foreseeable future—for better or worse, we’re a turntable-free house.

One More Thing: This past weekend I was once again lucky enough to enjoy the hospitality of whiteray and the Texas Gal in Minnesota, where spring remains but a rumor although the liquor stores are well-stocked with good beer, so who cares. I’m grateful to them and their menagerie of cats for making me feel at home in their home.

Largely Unnecessary

If you read this blog, you probably also read Neck Pickup (and if you don’t, you should). The other night, the artist formerly known as Kinky Paprika took up the task of naming his least-favorite artists, and the pitfalls inherent in doing so. Is it fair to list a performer without knowing their whole catalog? What if someone you like has a terrible period mid-career that you dislike? Is it the performer you hate, or the whole genre? Picking the worst is a more difficult task than it seems like it should be.

Beyond all that, tastes change. As a pre-adolescent, raised on the Partridge Family, I hated Creedence Clearwater Revival, but I got over it. When I got to college, AC/DC was all the rage among my peers, but I detested them. Once I realized that Bon Scott approached the whole thing as a put-on—made even clearer by the way his replacement, Brian Johnson, failed to get the joke—I lightened up on them. Conversely, I adored Emerson Lake and Palmer when I was a teenage prog-rock fan; only now do I hear their frequent absurdity.

As a radio guy, I hear artists as makers of specific songs, and that makes it hard for me to evaluate their work across the board. A good example is Blake Shelton. He’s capable of making great records—“Honey Bee,” from a few years ago, is one of the great radio songs in any genre, and more recent hits like “God Gave Me You” and “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking” are genuine country songs that would have been popular in any era. “Boys ‘Round Here,” on the other hand, might be among the half-dozen worst records since Edison—its utter stupidity (and contempt for its presumed audience) is remarkable. So do I like Blake Shelton, or don’t I? Yes and no.

Fashions get in the way. The relentless beat-heavy nature of the Top 40 these days is exhausting, as is the modern style of production, in which records have the dynamic range of the dial tone. Listening to some of these records is like being beaten by a rubber hose. Use something like Audacity to look at their waveforms and you’ll see just how cranked up they are, all the way to the top of the waveform. This violates what anybody who works with sound used to be taught—levels should peak “in the red,” but not too far in the red, lest the sound distort. The phenomenon of hitting the top is known as “brickwalling”—and it’s not just new records that suffer from it. Many old recordings are being remastered this way, to conform to radio’s desire for and listeners’ tolerance of louder sound, thereby destroying the original dynamics. Every once in a while, the people who remaster the Casey Kasem repeats will brickwall them, and it only proves that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

Now that I’ve drifted a great distance from this post’s original premise, I’m not sure I can get back. I don’t need to hear anything from today’s made-by-TV singers in any genre. Based on what I’ve heard on the radio, John Mayer and Coldplay have mastered the dubious art of making music devoid of any reason to care about it. Bridging the gap from contemporary to classic rock, Jon Bon Jovi is a noisy hack. John Mellencamp, apart from one magnificent album (Rain on the Scarecrow) and some scattered singles, is largely unnecessary to me. Pat Benatar is completely unnecessary. Because my disdain for Elvis Costello causes pain to some people I like, I have tried to get over it, but I just can’t. And there’s Fogelberg, of course. But for each of these artists (even John Mayer), I can name at least one song that I don’t mind. So yeah, this process is more difficult than it seems like it should be.

If you like Coldplay or Elvis Costello, or anybody else I mentioned, don’t take it personally. Enjoy ‘em. There are artists you don’t like, I’m sure. And I’d like to know who they are.

Two American Stories

This post seemed like a good idea when I thought of it, but I have been unable to get it the way I imagined it. You’ll have to tell me what you think of its premise.

Although a lot of big radio hits today are catchy as hell, they aren’t really about anything. Katy Perry is a champion and you’re gonna hear her roar, although the reason why is neither particularly clear nor especially interesting. People are going down to the club or pursuing dreams or learning lessons, but in a solipsistic way that leaves those of us on the outside of their experiences mostly to nod along with the beat without feeling anything one way or the other. Not so in the 1970s. Thirty-eight years ago this month, two American stories were in the Top 40 together, ones with which lots of listeners could identify.

C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” is about a cross-country trucker caravan orchestrated via CB radio. C. W. McCall was the alter ego of a Midwestern advertising executive named Bill Fries; he wrote the words while a partner, Chip Davis (later famed as the impresario of Mannheim Steamroller), wrote the music. “Convoy” is sufficiently well-written to keep you listening even after you know how it turns out, and Fries-as-McCall is a charming storyteller.

Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” is about boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who, along with another man, was convicted of a 1966 triple murder in New Jersey. Although they were granted a new trial amid accusations of perjury and racism, they were convicted a second time in 1975. When Dylan released “Hurricane” late that same year, Carter had yet to be re-sentenced; while the record rode the charts he got life, although the conviction would be overturned, and he was freed in 1985. “Hurricane” is not so much a story as a polemic, one Dylan was forced to tone down at the insistence of his record label’s lawyers, who feared libel suits from those Dylan called out by name. It’s occasionally overwrought and ham-fisted as it claims Carter’s innocence (it’s doubtful that the cops seeking to pin the murder on Carter told a witness “don’t forget that you are white”), but Dylan’s anger is palpable, and the song’s rambling structure makes it feel like a collection of newspaper clippings collected by a passionate advocate.

Two American stories. “Convoy,” which ends with a triumphant “let them truckers roll 10-4″, describes a victory over The Man for little guys everywhere. Nobody’s going to tell them where they can go or how they have to get there. And while “Convoy” was at #1, millions of CB-using Americans in the real world were telling their government the same thing. Since the citizens’ band was marked out in the 1940s, the FCC had required CB users to be licensed, but in January 1976, with the CB craze at peak insanity, the field office in charge of issuing the licenses was buried by a million applications. At that point, if you wanted a CB, you simply went out and bought one, and went on the air without the legal sanction to do so. The license requirement outlived the CB craze, but it was a casualty of Reagan-era deregulation, finally dropped in 1983.

Two American stories. “Hurricane” is also about a little guy, in Dylan’s telling:  “[boxing is] my work, he’d say / And I do it for pay / And when it’s all over I’d just as soon go on my way.” Its story is one of profound anger at the everyday racism faced by black Americans (“the cops pulled him over to the side of the road / Just like the time before and the time before that”) and the more profound injustices that stem from it. That’s a more intractable problem than the one in which white Americans are persecuted by having to fill out a form, but by its very nature it’s one that white America can easily ignore.

Although Rubin Carter eventually won his freedom, the injustice at the heart of his story goes on. The little guys “Convoy” celebrates won a bigger victory.  It seems to me that “Convoy” (and its spiritual twin, the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit) represent significant milestones on the way to the Reagan 80s and the conservative era that followed, right down to the modern Tea Party. What’s their deal, after all, but glorifying ordinary (white) Americans who outfox those who are supposed to be smarter and more powerful than they are, and/or anyone who tries to tell them what to do?

In Which a Certain Internet Hack Says All the Kind Things He Can Think of About Dan Fogelberg

The glee with which I bash “Same Old Lang Syne” (which still sucks) should not be confused with a general hatred for Dan Fogelberg personally. While I would not rank him, as my English-teaching reader did, alongside Shakespeare and Howlin’ Wolf, I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy some of what he left behind after his death in 2007 at the age of 56.

I first heard Fogelberg on “Part of the Plan” in 1975. The album from which it comes, Souvenirs, is a literate and likeable country rock record, every bit the equal (and in some ways better) than what the Eagles were doing at the same time. Fogelberg’s followup, Nether Lands, doesn’t strike me quite so great, but it’s not awful, either.  In 1978, Fogelberg teamed with Tim Weisberg on Twin Sons of Different Mothers. The combination of Colorado folk-rock and light jazz seems weird on the surface, but it works—the album made the Top 10, was certified platinum, and contained a memorable hit single, “The Power of Gold.” (It also contains “Tell Me to My Face,” one of the angriest records you’ll ever hear, which deserved to be a hit.) In late 1979, Fogelberg released Phoenix. There’s some pretty fine rock on that record: the anti-nuclear song “Face the Fire” burns like the holocaust it warns against. But it contained the Top 10 hit “Longer,” and “Longer” ruined Dan Fogelberg. From that moment on, he would be an adult-contemporary balladeer, riding the wimp train up the charts again and again.

“Same Old Lang Syne” isn’t his only lyrically clunky hit single. In 1982, “Missing You” contained the immortal line, “I’m getting closer but I don’t know what to,” which is as perfectly empty a sentence as you can construct in English. He’s the guy who rhymed “consumed” with “exhumed” in “Make Love Stay” and “blood” with “stud” in “Run for the Roses.” And he would use rain as a symbol for tears more often than any writer should repeat any trope, especially a clichéd one. Also about this time, he developed a vocal tic, in which he’d enunciate syllables like he was daintily tiptoeing through a cow pasture trying not to step in anything. “Heart Hotels,” “Leader of the Band,” “Hard to Say”—they were all big hits, and every one of them has something about it that grates me like nails on a chalkboard.

(Full disclosure: “Run for the Roses” does not merely grate; I wish that every existing copy of it could be gathered up and burned. It contains everything that’s horrible about Fogelberg’s music in four minutes. I’d rather hear “Same Old Lang Syne,” actually.)

In 1985, Fogelberg made a bluegrass album, High Country Snows, which is much beloved among people who like that sort of thing. He continued to score hit singles on the adult-contemporary charts in the late 80s, hitting for the last time with a cover of “Rhythm of the Rain” in 1990, which is quite good (and which nicks a bit of the Beatles’ “Rain” in the process). The last album released during his lifetime was 2003′s Full Circle. He finished an album while he was dying of cancer and directed his wife to release it after he was gone; Love in Time came out in 2009.

Look, I get why people like Fogelberg’s soft-rock stuff. A sensitive guy with a guitar will go a long way in this world, as will somebody who finds something people want and contrives to sell it to them. I even get why people like “Same Old Lang Syne,” although I think it’s because they read into it what they wish was there, and they ignore the plain evidence in the grooves of how dorky it is.

Shorter now: I am not especially open to persuasion on how great Dan Fogelberg is. Although it’s fun to watch people try.

Further Fab Four Firsts

(Edited since first posted.)

Back before Christmas, I dispelled the myth that Carroll James of WWDC in Washington played the first Beatles record ever heard on American radio, on December 17, 1963. It is, as I wrote at the time, a widely believed tale, especially since it appears in one of the most acclaimed of all Beatles biographies, Philip Norman’s Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation. But it’s flat wrong. WLS in Chicago was on “Please Please Me” as early as February 1963, and the preponderance of the evidence suggests that Dick Biondi of WLS was probably the first American jock to play it.

If not first to play any Beatles song, Carroll James was likely the first American DJ to play “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” on December 17. The charming story is that he got a copy of the UK single from a 14-year-old Beatles fan. I have also read that James was given a copy to help promote the Beatles’ first American concert, scheduled for DC on February 11, 1964. But according to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Capitol Records took legal measures to stop the proliferation of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which was scheduled for mid-February release, so maybe not. (The label may have looked into such measures, but they couldn’t have actually done much, given that they eventually set it for release on the 26th, especially since Christmas fell in that nine-day window between the 17th and the 26th.)

There are radio-station music surveys showing WGR and WKBW in Buffalo playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by late December, and they would likely have been playing it before they charted it, and within no more than a day or two of December 17. Again according to Wikipedia, the single made its way from James to other DJs in other cities, supposedly prompting Capitol’s legal steps, whatever they were. So perhaps the Buffalo stations got it that way.

Because of their proximity to Canada, WGR and WKBW may deserve credit for some American Beatles firsts, or close-to-firsts. Capitol had steadfastly resisted releasing Beatles product in the States until “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but had been putting out singles in Canada since the spring of 1963, although their September release of “She Loves You” was the first shipped in significant numbers. Before that, the Beatles singles that got American release on tiny labels like Vee Jay, Tollie, and Swan were imported to Canada by the Polydor label(no they weren’t, as the mighty Yah Shure clarifies below) and it would have been like falling out of bed for some radio guy in Buffalo to cross the border, buy a few, and bring ‘em back instead of waiting for Capitol to get off the dime in the States. But the Buffalo stations couldn’t have been playing Canadian copies of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in late December. It wasn’t released by Capitol of Canada until January 11, 1964.

“She Loves You” was another matter. It wouldn’t get an American release on Capitol until April 1964, but it had come out on Philadelphia-based Swan on September 16, 1963, the same day Capitol released it in Canada. It shows up on a number of Canadian stations at ARSA during the last couple of months of 1963, and on WGR for the week of December 27, although the station had been playing it for at least a week before. So WGR’s copy had to be either on Capitol of Canada or Swan.

But it was not a DJ in Buffalo who got a gold record for “She Loves You.” And it was not Dick Biondi—or Carroll James, for that matter—who was officially honored as the Beatles’ first American DJ/benefactor. That honor went to Dick “the Derby” Smith of WORC in Worcester, Massachusetts, who received a gold record from the Beatles for his efforts in promoting “She Loves You,” which was on WORC as early as November 1963.

That strikes me as a rather important bit of history, one that solidly preempts any claim Carroll James had to being the first American Beatle-jock, and it’s hard for me to believe that Philip Norman never came across it in his research for Shout! But I’ve got to be halfway compassionate, too—I have made similarly egregious mistakes at this low-rent blog many times over the years.

(Tip o’ the baseball cap to Matthew, the high sheriff at Ultimate Classic Rock, for tipping me to Dick Smith’s story, and for being so gracious about my correction to the site’s Carroll James story. Not everybody on the Internet would been civil about it.)

Jimi and JFK

Earlier this week we spent an evening watching PBS, back-to-back documentaries on Jimi Hendrix and the Kennedy assassination. Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’ is definitely worth your time. JFK: One PM Central Standard Time is less essential. (After 50 years, there’s not much left to see or say about the events in Dallas, although that particular program included an interview with the guy who pulled the first bulletin off the wire at CBS.) Watching the two back-to-back, it occurred to me that popular history has not served either Jimi or JFK particularly well. Both have been reduced to a handful of symbols.

If your local classic-rock station plays anything other than “Purple Haze,” “Foxy Lady,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” it’s a rare one. Those three songs, plus Jimi lighting his guitar on fire, playing the National Anthem, and dying in London are the popular shorthand for the man’s entire life. Those, and the perception that he was a drug-addled space cadet. Even accounting for the fact that Hear My Train A Comin’ was made with the cooperation and approval of Hendrix’s sister and glosses over his drug and alcohol use and his arrest record, the film makes clear that Jimi Hendrix was a serious artist, intent on pushing his music further and further, in a way that reminds me of John Coltrane. His growth as an artist over two years is pretty impressive; what struck me the other night is how much he improved as a singer—compare “Dolly Dagger” to anything on Are You Experienced?, for an example.

For JFK, it’s “ask not what your country can do for you,” Camelot, “ich bin ein Berliner,” Cuban Missile Crisis, hot wife, Marilyn Monroe, murdered in Dallas. The reality of him is far more subtle. His actions as president were often constrained by the knowledge that he’d just barely won in 1960—he’s said to have carried in his pocket a piece of paper with the number of votes by which he’d prevailed—and by anticipation of a tough reelection fight in 1964. He was slow on civil rights because he did not want to alienate Southerners. He bungled his early foreign policy maneuvers out of inexperience, yet in the most severe crisis of his presidency, he found precisely the right combination of firmness and flexibility to keep the missiles of October from igniting World War III. (And not just during October; it’s a popular misconception that the Cuban Missile Crisis ended neatly on October 28, 1962, but diplomatic maneuvers continued for months afterward, with great concern that the situation might flare again.) We’ll never know how we would have handled the escalating war in Vietnam, whether it would have swallowed him whole like it did LBJ, or if he’d have found a way to finesse it just as he finessed the Russians over Cuba. And then he went to Dallas.

But Kennedy-as-symbol is pretty important, too. Although he didn’t live to see the baby boomers take over the world, he was their avatar. The vast cultural changes that were unleashed in the years following his death were all implicit in his rise. Not only were the 1950s over, so was the dominance of people born in the 19th century, as JFK himself noted in his inaugural address.

It seems to me that we mourn Kennedy’s potential less than we used to. Fifty years of spiraling weirdness will do that. As for the potential of Hendrix, it would take a smarter person, one more versed in Jimi’s work than I am, to tell you what a Hendrix album of 1976, 1989, or 2001 might have sounded like. If he had continued to push the boundaries of his work, it’s possible that he may have ended up where Coltrane did—critically acclaimed, but also in a place where some former fans could not follow. That didn’t happen, however, and so we’re left with Hendrix-as-symbol: a man who took a handful of mid-century musical forms (blues, R&B, rock) and synthesized them into something new, a signal of the vast remix American culture would eventually become.

Your opinions and/or speculations about Jimi and JFK are welcome below.

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