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A Mutual Admiration Thing

(Pictured: the Osmonds rock the hell out at the Rainbow in London during a 1972 tour. Could this have been the night a famous rock drummer met the band backstage?)

Here’s another list of things I wish I had written that have turned up on my Twitter feed over the last couple of weeks:

—It’s worth noting that only a small fraction of all the music ever recorded has been released on CD or otherwise preserved digitally. The vast majority was/is on physical media such as records, tapes, and cylinders, and physical media is subject to physical deterioration. (As are we all.) Vox discussed the work of sound archivists and their efforts to save important cultural history before it vanishes.

—You may not know Jim Marshall’s name, but you’ve seen his work, including the iconic photograph of Johnny Cash flipping off the camera. A new book of his photographs of the Haight Ashbury scene deserves a place on any coffee table.

—It’s occasionally noted that Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” all by himself, and that John Lennon and Paul McCartney created some of the world’s most enduring music sitting on hotel beds by themselves, but the glorified rhythm tracks that become hit songs today often credit six or seven authors. It turns out there’s a reason for the proliferating credits, one both derived from and contributing to the fact that every pop record seems to sound the same as every other one.

—As part of its fascinating Steely Dan Sunday series, Something Else! Reviews has collected several outtakes and alternates and organized them into what would be a highly worthwhile new Steely Dan album, if Walt and Don were inclined to release it. Incline yourselves, Walt and Don.

—Glen Campbell is slipping away with Alzheimer’s Disease, but he’s managed to record a magnificent farewell called “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Unlike many singers of his age, Campbell has retained much of his range and still sounds very much like the singer he was 40 years ago—which makes his impending adios all the sadder.

—The new WKRP in Cincinnati complete series box set comes out at the end of the month. Shout! Factory has done heroic work trying to clear the original music, but they weren’t able to get permission for all of it. Thus the new set will contain some substitutions—and some other changes that run the gamut from understandable to bizarre. An intrepid poster at Home Theater Forum ran down the list of changes, which is fascinating. If you were already inclined to buy the set, do the changes have any effect on your decision?

—One of the highlights of the Ken Burns documentary Jazz is the segment on Coleman Hawkins’ recording of “Body and Soul,” a magnificent improvisation that represents a turning point in jazz history between big bands and bebop, was the first straight jazz recording to become a hit single, and is beautiful besides. It was recorded 75 years ago this month, and you should go and listen to it right now.

—You’d never guess that the Osmonds and Led Zeppelin had a mutual admiration thing going on, but they did. Read about “the secret history of Mormon heavy metal” here.

For more like this, follow me on Twitter. Also head over to this blog’s companion Tumblr site, which has much goodness along the same line, and other lines.

The Good Stuff

(Pictured: Jeff Lynne played his first show in 28 years last weekend. If you followed the author of this blog on Twitter, you’d have the bootleg already.)

My typically half-assed research efforts indicate that a relatively small percentage of you use Twitter, which is too bad, because I tweet a lot of stuff that I know will interest you. I show my Twitter feed in the right-hand column of this blog in the hope that you’ll see it. But the feed turns over quickly sometimes, and things disappear. So here’s a brief rundown of some of the better things I’ve tweeted within the last couple of weeks.

The Guardian has a feature called “The Music That Changed My Life.” Last week, I tweeted a piece that pretty much blows the doors off any other example of the music-as-memoir genre: “Phil Collins saved me from suicide.”

—I am on the radio all the damn time, and it never really occurred to me that the fade-out, once a common way for records to end, has just about vanished. Somebody at Slate noticed, however, and wrote a fascinating article about the reasons why.

—Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are a band we have loved around here since always. One of the cool things about them is their eclectic selection of covers. Last weekend at their annual Grand Point North Festival in Vermont, they did Elton John’s “Rocket Man” with help from singer/songwriter Rayland Baxter, and it’s definitely worth four minutes of your time.

—Saving Country Music is one of my favorite sites on the Internet. It’s where you can learn about Billboard‘s new “consumption” chart, which seems likely to replace the Billboard 200 album chart in coming years. (That name, “consumption chart,” makes its own commentary on the music business in 2014: we don’t listen or experience art as much as we suck it down, and that’s not a compliment.)

—Saving Country Music also wrote recently about the unlikely friendship between Muhammad Ali and Waylon Jennings.

—On September 16, 1964, Shindig! premiered on ABC. Ultimate Classic Rock presented an interesting oral history of the show that brought straight-up rock music to American TV for the first time.

—When the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati came out on DVD several years ago, there was widespread disappointment over the fact that much of the original music was missing. Now, Shout! Factory is giving WKRP a complete-series DVD issue with most of the original music intact. It will be out on October 28th.

—Last weekend, Jeff Lynne did his first live show since 1986 in London’s Hyde Park. You can get the whole show from ROIO, and if you dig ELO, you’ll want to.

—Listen to 100 of pop, rock, and soul’s most famous bass lines played in a single 17-minute take, be gobsmacked long thereafter.

—Watch the trailer for I Am What I Play, a forthcoming documentary profiling four legendary album-rock DJs and their 40-plus years in the biz.

—Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles were on their second tour of the States. I tweeted a story about the DJ who introduced their Milwaukee show as well as a great piece about their show in Pittsburgh 10 days later.

—The Beatles cartoon series, which premiered in September 1965, is now up in its entirety at YouTube.

—Neither music nor radio-related, but interesting anyhow: way back in the pre-Internet days, a filmmaker did a mashup of Winnie the Pooh with Apocalypse Now, and it’s pretty great.

That’s plenty. If you want the rest of the good stuff in real time, you know what to do.

The Transformation

We know that memory is not history. If you’ve ever discussed the good old days with a friend and discovered that they don’t remember what you do—or that their memories of a particular event contradict what you “know” to be true—you understand memory’s unreliability. A spate of recent news articles has suggested that memories change all the time, for reasons both physical and psychological. It’s enough to make a person wonder if he can trust any of them.

So we can never know how it really was.

As heirs of the Enlightenment, we hold to the creed that anything worth believing must be founded on evidence—empirical truths that are apparent to everyone. So it follows that the question of whether our memories are true matters a great deal. (People are sent to prison all the time because of someone’s false memories.)

But not everything in which we believe is founded on such truths. Religion isn’t. There’s more hard, empirical evidence for the existence of Bigfoot and aliens than there is for the personal God of the Christian Bible, or Allah, or Zeus, or Odin. But the “truths” of religion are strong enough to live in the hearts of millions of people who order their lives by them. If you believe your god is real and you live your life as if it were, it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not. Your belief is real, and that’s the fact that matters.

When I write about the fall of 1970, three-and-a-half transformative months that began with a remarkable act of kindness by a neighbor girl in early September and ended with the most significant Christmas gift I would ever receive, I understand that the vivid details may not be real. Things may not have happened as I remember them, and may not have happened at all. That I was being transformed almost certainly never occurred to me. (Recognizing oneself mid-transformation isn’t guaranteed to happen to a guy in his 50s, let alone a boy of 10.)

But the belief that I was transformed? That belief is real. No matter how many years it took to recognize it, no matter how the shape of the transformation might have been affected by events that have happened since, the belief that I was transformed has nothing to do with empirical reality, and it doesn’t have to. My “memories” from the fall of 1970 have the power of myth. Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world. The ancients told them to explain the weather; today, religion tells them to give meaning to life in the face of certain death.

And I retell the myths of 1970 to explain how I got this way.

We take as our text today the WLS Hit Parade, September 14, 1970:

1. “Looking Out My Back Door”/Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Wondrous apparition / Provided by a magician”

2. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”/Diana Ross. “Remember life holds for you one guarantee / You’ll always have me”

3. “War”/Edwin Starr. “Who wants to die?”

4. “Julie Do Ya Love Me”/Bobby Sherman. “Are you thinking of me / Will you still be there?”

5. “Candida”/Dawn. “The future looks bright / The gypsy told me so last night”

Inscrutable mysteries. The yawning abyss of doubt and fear.

Abiding hope. Everlasting love.

When you’ve got a radio, you don’t need a church.

1984: The Flow of Days

(Pictured: Cub fans lose their minds watching the impossible happen in 1984.)

(Another post in a series.)

Some of life’s milestones we see coming. Many more we do not. Some years are full of them, as 1984 was for The Mrs. and me.

An Innocent Man: We started the year feeling marooned in Macomb, Illinois. The previous fall, I had naively taken a job that turned out to be terrible, and she was, as she puts it, “watching General Hospital professionally,” unable to find work of her own. In February, the terrible radio station fired me, and by March, times were bad enough to get us a chunk of that free government cheese they were handing out back then. As we got ready to celebrate our first wedding anniversary in April, however, things got better—the other radio station in town hired me, meaning we wouldn’t have to move for the second time in six months. They wanted me to start on the 9th, which was our anniversary, but were gracious enough to make it the 10th when I explained the significance of the date. It represented our first night out in months, dinner at Golden Corral and the new movie Splash, which has just opened.

Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like These: Not three weeks later, my best friend died. He’d been in and out of the hospital for several weeks before complications from his congenital heart condition did him in at age 23. The first death of a close friend was a wrenching transition. It turned out he had always known he was going to die sooner rather than later, although if any of his friends knew it at the time, nobody acknowledged it. But that knowledge explained the way he had lived his life since I had first met him in the fourth grade: he simply didn’t give a damn. Not in a negative way; he just didn’t let his heart condition dictate what he would do. If he had, he may have lived longer. Instead, he packed plenty of livin’ into his limited time.

Let’s Go Crazy: As summer unfolded, I got comfortable in my new job. Ann started working at the station too. Our new owner and a summer of preparation for the new Top 40 format consumed us, although I was also consumed by my beloved Chicago Cubs, during the miraculous season that resulted in the team’s first pennant of any sort since 1945. We bought tickets for a late-season game in St. Louis, which turned into a doubleheader thanks to a fortuitous rainout—and had the Montreal Expos obliged us by beating the New York Mets just once that weekend, we would have been there for the pennant-clincher. As it was, the moment had to wait for the next night. Somewhere in my archives I have a scrapbook I kept with Associated Press wire copy and newspaper articles about the game, including snapshots of the TV screen emblazoned with “National League Eastern Division Champions.” It was—even accounting for two Packers Super Bowl victories in more recent times and other very good days I have been fortunate enough to experience—the single happiest day of my life.

Lights Out: As the pennant chase reached its height, we joined the VCR revolution, buying one with a wired remote that snaked across the living room. On Friday nights we would go across town to Western TV and Appliance and spend $8 to rent three videos for the weekend. We scraped together movie admission now and then too, because 1984 was one of the most remarkable years in film history. Consider the first week of September: Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, Purple Rain, Revenge of the Nerds, Gremlins, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were all still in theaters.

If this were a fictional story, there would be a cherry on top to make it a coherent whole. But I do not recall how our 1984 ended. Did we visit family for Christmas? Did we see friends on New Year’s Eve? I don’t know. And it’s actually fine that the story of 1984 doesn’t have a scripted ending, because life seldom does. When we are young, we scarcely notice the flow of days, let alone the flow of years. That only comes when we’re old, and we look back, and we are unable to see anything else.

Robin Williams on Records

(Pictured: Gene Simmons, Robert Klein, Robin Williams, and Ace Frehley, at a taping of Klein’s radio show in 1979.)

(Couple of late edits below.)

Many of us get breaking news now by reading our Twitter timelines in reverse-chronological order—and when a celebrity’s name appears out of the blue a couple of times, we immediately start fearing the worst. So it was when Robin Williams’ death was announced the other night. Because I am old enough to remember when the comedy album was a thing, it didn’t take me long to start thinking about Williams’ work as it was heard on flat black pieces of plastic.

When The Mrs. and I merged our record collections, Williams’ 1979 album Reality . . . What a Concept was one of hers. At the time it was recorded (at live shows in New York and San Francisco), Williams was best known as the star of Mork and Mindy. If you’ve seen his 1978 HBO On Location special, some of the material will be familiar. On the album, as in the special, Williams bounces off the walls of the theater—he’s clearly got a structured performance in mind, but he ad-libs wildly before, during, and after each bit. It’s frequently hilarious, but sometimes it’s as exhausting to watch as it must have been to perform. (The fact that Williams was coked to the eyeballs contributed to the mania.) You can hear the whole Reality . . . What a Concept album here, although if you’d like a smaller bite, click here for “Come Inside My Mind,” in which Williams explains the workings of the brain of an actor who’s bombing on stage. The album was a remarkably big hit for a spoken-word/comedy recording, reaching #10 on the Billboard 200 in a 22-week run that began in July 1979. At the same time, Williams’ label, Casablanca, released a radio-only sampler called 44 Lines. My guess is that it’s just what the title implies: 44 lines from Reality . . . What a Concept that DJs could drop into their shows.

Williams won the Best Comedy Recording Grammy in 1980, but it would be three years before he made another full album. In the interim, he would continue to star in Mork and Mindy as well as in the movies Popeye (1980; a couple of flop singles were released featuring songs from the soundtrack) and The World According to Garp (1982; still my favorite performance of his). He did a second HBO special, An Evening With Robin Williams, recorded in San Francisco and representing the apex of his coke-fueled standup era. Several performances from that period ended up on his 1983 album Throbbing Python of Love. Casablanca also released a seven-inch sampler from the album to radio stations. (I’ve got a copy.) It includes “Elmer Fudd Sings Bruce Springsteen” and Williams’ impersonation of Jack Nicholson doing Hamlet (“To be or not to goddamn be . . . whether ’tis nobler to take the ca-ca or sling it right back at ‘em”). Throbbing Python of Love made the Billboard album chart, reaching #119 in a nine-week run beginning in April 1983. It also received a Grammy nomination, but didn’t win.

From that point on, Williams had more success at the Grammy awards than on the album chart. Live at the Met (1988) and Live 2002 (2003) both won for Best Comedy Recording. (Williams also won a comedy Grammy for his work in Good Morning Vietnam.) In 2009, the soundtrack from another HBO special, Weapons of Self Destruction, was released as a DVD and CD. It became the only Williams album not nominated for a Grammy. (Late edit: wrong. It got nominated too.) According to his discography at Allmusic.com, Williams also narrated a couple of kids’ albums, Pecos Bill (1988, with music by Ry Cooder; late edit: also a Grammy winner, for Best Children’s Recording) and The Fool and the Flying Ship (1991). The latter was from a PBS children’s series that featured a number of prominent actors narrating animated folktales.

I am not a person who believes in heaven. I believe that this life is all there is, and when we’re dead, we’re done. Nevertheless, I like to imagine Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, reunited after her death just yesterday, having to move to a different table in the bar because Williams, Richard Pryor (who gave Williams one of his first breaks in showbiz), and George Carlin are laughing too loud at the next table.

Moon Walk

Forty-five years ago this morning, Apollo 11 took off for the moon. (The farther in time we get from the mission, the more surreal it seems, that we actually went so far with technology so primitive compared to what we’ve got now—the cell phone in your pocket has vastly more computing power than all of NASA had in 1969.) Apollo 11 left footprints in more places than the moon. Shortly after the flight, references to Apollo 11 started turning up in pop songs.

—The most timely was probably the Dickie Goodman cut-in record “Luna Trip,” which spent a couple of weeks on the Hot 100 in September 1969, reaching #95. Like most Goodman hits, the clips used for the cut-ins provide a good summary of the big hits of the moment.

—On The Ballad of Easy Rider, which was being recorded during the Apollo 11 summer, the Byrds did “Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins,” a brief throwaway that nevertheless would have felt highly meaningful when the album came out that fall.

—Late in 1969, Joe Simon cut “Moon Walk (Parts 1 and 2).” It was recorded in Nashville with several of the city’s top studio cats and produced by influential DJ John R (Richbourg). It’s incredibly damn funky, although its connection to the Apollo mission is fairly tenuous at first—Joe tells his lady he can’t stop loving her while saying she’s got him doing the moon walk, whatever that means. Only later do things get a bit more explicit, when Joe explains the step and finally says, “Here come some rocks / A little of that moon dust  / Put it in your bag / Walk home with me now.” “Moon Walk” reached #54 on the Hot 100 in an eight-week run starting in January 1970.

—Also in 1969, a Belgian group called the Tenderfoot Kids recorded a song called “Apollo 11,” one of several singles they made in 1969 and 1970. The Internet knows precious little about it, and neither do I. I can’t make out much of the lyric, although the last of it seems to include an airport PA announcement of some sort. If the YouTuber who posted it is accurate, it reads (translated to English), “All those passengers to the space flight number one, please go to gate number12 for immediate embarkation.” Whoever the Tenderfoot Kids were, they must have listened to their share of Cream records, because “Apollo 11″ sounds just like it should be one. It didn’t chart in the States, and may never have been released here.

—Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull used lunar module pilot Michael Collins as a metaphor for loneliness in “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, and Me,” which appeared on Benefit, released in 1970: “It’s on my mind I’m left behind / When I should have been walking with you.”

—The best of the Apollo-themed songs was written by John Stewart (of Kingston Trio/Bombs Away Dream Babies fame) and first recorded by Reg Lindsay, an Australian country singer. (When I mentioned this song a few years ago, I said erroneously that Lindsay wrote it, because this is not a very good blog, really.) By the end of the 60s, Lindsay was dividing his time between Oz and Nashville, where he appeared several times at the Grand Ole Opry. His 1971 version of Stewart’s “Armstrong” was his first radio hit in Australia. In 1974, Lobo covered “Armstrong” for his album Just a Singer. It’s a touching song about the way the whole world stopped to watch the moon walk—which it did.

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