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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.

Etched Into History

In the summer of 2004, I found myself with a lot to say about music. But the blog I had at the time, the Daily Aneurysm, was focused on politics and current events, and music didn’t really fit there. So, 10 years ago today, I established this blog. For a while, I kept both of them going, writing at the other place one or more times a day and here one or two times a week. But by 2006, I was sufficiently fatigued by news and politics that I gave up the Daily Aneurysm and made this my main blog. It’s been my Internet home ever since. Our anniversary tradition is to present a list of my favorite posts since the last anniversary, so here we go, with each one annotated Twitter-style, in no particular order. (To find favorite posts from other years, click here.)

—We traveled in time to the “semi-sex orgy” that rocked Milwaukee three weeks before Woodstock, and went back to a rock festival we had visited previously.

—A reader took us along on his epic journey to a different rock festival.

—We looked into the search-engine phrases that bring people to this lightly trafficked corner of the Internet.

—In 1980, I briefly pondered quitting school in favor of a radio job, which I probably should have done but eventually did not.

—We cranked up the most unlikely shredding in the history of rock guitar.

—We got acquainted with a former researcher for American Top 40 and learned about the show from the inside (part 1 here, part 2 here).

—The shades of the past crowded around us, and made us weep.

—A genuinely un-hip 70s TV hero got caught up in the disco craze, while one of his contemporaries proved to be a little more with it.

—One of country music’s hippest heroes got caught up in TV, to his eventual disdain, during what proved to be a very fertile era for rock on TV.

—We heard the alternate-universe version of a song that became part of one of rock’s most beloved recordings.

—And then we did it again.

—We read the morning paper on November 22, 1963, hours before that day was etched forever into history.

—We corrected a widely misremembered piece of Beatles trivia, and elaborated on what we found.

—And then we corrected another bit of trivia people often get wrong.

—We read the comments on our posts to find people defending Dan Fogelberg (and then we tried defending him ourselves).

—We listened to a record that could only have hit in the 70s and two other oddities, one recorded by an unknown who eventually became a star in a different field, and the other by someone who would become one of the most famous people in human history.

—We met a legend, and heard from several others in their prime.

And for a 10th consecutive year, we grossly overused the editorial “we.”

Many thanks to all of you who still bother to come here regularly. I am grateful for your attention, your contributions, and your friendship. Don’t forget that this blog has a companion Tumblr site, which I encourage you to visit, because it includes stuff that never gets mentioned here that is along the same lines as the stuff that does get mentioned here, in addition to all of the posts that appear here.

Push-Ups With the Professor

If you have watched TV at all recently, you have seen an Apple commercial touting the iPhone and its fitness apps, using an odd, martial song encouraging you to touch your toes 10 times every morning, and concluding with “go you chicken fat go.” As you might have guessed, this is an old bit of popular culture being repurposed ironically.

“Chicken Fat” was written by Meredith Willson, famed for The Music Man, and originally sung by Robert Preston, who originated the role of Professor Harold Hill, The Music Man‘s leading man, on Broadway in 1957 and in the 1962 film. (The Apple ad uses a new recording that sounds a lot like Preston’s original.) It grew out of President Kennedy’s 1961 push to improve physical education in American schools, and after it was recorded, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce bought thousands of copies and sent them to schools across the country. They were used in phys ed classes for years after that—I know, because I remember doing the exercise routines described in the song in my own grade-school days, sometime in the late 60s, probably.

By the time I was working out to “Chicken Fat,” I would have already been a fan of The Music Man, although I don’t think I connected the two back then. It was the era when absolutely everybody in small-town America went to the local high-school musical, and we saw The Music Man as a family. There was something about the songs and/or the character of Professor Harold Hill that grabbed me. My parents bought a copy of the soundtrack, which I listened to often, so it didn’t take long before I learned the words to every song—and I still know most of them. Lots of people do. One evening in college, The Music Man was on one of the movie channels we got because I lived with aspiring TV engineers who were able to hack into the cable, and I had it on while I was doing the dishes. One of my roommates came home, and before long we were duetting on all of the songs, me in the kitchen, him in the living room.

Preston had won a Tony for playing Harold Hill on Broadway, but he wasn’t the first choice for Hill on screen. Movie mogul Jack Warner wanted Frank Sinatra—even though it’s impossible to imagine him as a hammy Indiana con man (“Gary, Indiana, Conservatory of Music, gold medal class of ’05”). Cary Grant was also offered the part, but he maintained that only Preston could do it. The Music Man was the first opportunity boys of my generation had to fall in love with Shirley Jones, who played the female lead, Marian; we would have another when she became Shirley Partridge in 1970. And you can’t watch the movie without spotting then-child actor and future film director Ron Howard as Marian’s little brother. (It’s on TCM this coming Sunday afternoon, BTW.)

The Music Man is also notable for its unlikely connection to the Beatles. “Till There Was You” was a song Paul McCartney had picked up from an older cousin, and it became part of the band’s repertoire in Hamburg. It’s not the best song in the show, though: that would be “Goodnight My Someone,” which uses the same tune as the film’s famous theme, “Seventy-Six Trombones,” slowed to ballad tempo, and is as beautiful a thing as you’re going to hear today.

But we’ve gotten off the subject, as we frequently do around here: “Chicken Fat.” I’m listening to it as I write, and I’m transported back to Northside School, in the gym, where one of those indestructible school phonographs blasts the song, turned up to the ragged edge of distortion, struggling to fill the echoing space, as 25 or 30 grade-schoolers bounce up and down at Preston’s instruction. Mr. Hubbard stands at the front of the room, wearing that odd half-smile he always wore, watching—participating some days, but most days just watching. Even kids who are somewhat averse to physical activity—like me, for example—find “Chicken Fat” to be fun, and damn catchy. Catchy enough to be instantly recognized when it appears out of nowhere nearly 50 years later.

Shall We Gather at the Zither

Last week’s post about graduating from pop to more sophisticated forms of music, and how it doesn’t generally happen, elicited a couple of comments that addressed additional dimensions of the subject, as I suspected it might.

Brian mentions the general decline in musical literacy. There’s little doubt that this is a thing that has happened, over both the long term and the short term. In the 19th and early 20th century, a piano was necessary furniture in every middle-class home. In the days before recorded music and other forms of plug-n-play entertainment, you had to make your own fun, and a spinet, parlor organ, zither (or whatever the hell) was how you did it. Educated young people were expected to know how to play.

But my sense of things is that the piano was also a more important part of the home in the late 20th century than it is here in the 21st. When were little kids in the 60s, my brother and I loved to listen to our mother play, and I took lessons myself, just long enough to learn to read music a little so that when I picked up the tenor saxophone in sixth grade, I was a bit ahead of the curve. My brother took guitar lessons before taking up the trombone (and becoming a more serious musician than I ever was). Lots of kids are in music education today, to be sure, but how many of them will still be playing when they’re grown? I have a remarkable number of friends and relatives whose kids are taking violin, which seems to me like the quintessential instrument you’ll give up before too long and never go back. You’re not going to whip out the violin at a party one night in your 30s, but you may sit down at the piano. The piano (and the guitar, too) encourages audience participation in a way the violin definitely does not. Would I have been interested in playing if my mother had been a violinist? Maybe, if she were a good one. She was good enough at the piano to make it seem like fun, and that was all we needed.

(I should point out here that I can still play one-fingered piano, but I rarely have the opportunity to do so, and I haven’t touched a sax in 35 years. I think my brother still has his guitar and his trombone, but I have no idea when he last tried to play either one. So perhaps there are some holes in my theory about the likelihood of continuing to play, which is news on par with the sunrise.)

Mark (whose blog The CD Project should be on your list of regular stops) reminds us that music doesn’t have to be classical to ask more of us, and notes that he wasn’t equipped to appreciate Kraftwerk, Joy Division, or David Bowie’s more challenging stuff as a teenager, but he gets them now. That’s my own experience with certain artists and albums as well. This isn’t because we’re smarter than we used to be; it’s more a function of having been through whatever mill we’ve been through, and the kind of person we’ve become as a result. Baby boomers and succeeding generations live in a world that doesn’t require us to grow up the way pre-boomers did, but we still put away childish things now and then. Maybe we’re more open to new experience; maybe the old experiences don’t get us off like they used to.

Your further thoughts along this line are encouraged over the holiday weekend.

Further Exercises in Self Promotion: Please visit this blog’s companion Tumblr site, which contains plenty of fabulous things I never get around to mentioning here, like this fabulous ad for the Mellotron (with free T-shirt offer), and a link to a magnificent New York Times Magazine piece on the search for Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, two legendary figures of vintage Delta blues, which might be the finest combination of journalism, storytelling, and history I’ve ever run across. Also: I am going to be on the air a lot starting today and repeatedly through the holiday weekend. If you enjoy my Green County shitkicker routine at this blog, check it out on the radio. Schedule and streaming links here.

On the Subject of Misery and Music


(Above: John Cusack in High Fidelity.)

I have mentioned before that I occasionally start posts that never get finished. Those fragments sit in electronic limbo until I get them out, polish them up, and make them do. Two of them are below.

You may know about PostSecret, a web project that started in 2005 in which people share secrets anonymously. One of the schools I visited recently did something similar—a student told me everyone, students, faculty, and staff, was given a 3-by-5 card and urged to write a secret on it, anonymously. Several of them were then posted in the room where I happened to be teaching. Some were flippant (“I pee sitting down, and I’m a boy”); some were ordinary (“I’m in love with someone who doesn’t know I’m alive”); some hid more than they revealed (“I’m afraid of outer space”).

And some are still haunting me. One student wrote that when he was five, he was molested by a family member. One girl said she’d recently been raped, but when she told her parents, they blamed her for it and punished her. Another confessed to thoughts of suicide, but said she believed it wasn’t fair to make her friends and family suffer for her problems.

It’s taken as gospel that it’s harder growing up today than it used to be. Kids see more of the worst in the world a lot sooner than we did. They’re at the mercy of more predators—preying on their attention, their free time, their money, their naivete, their sexuality—than we ever had to deal with. They don’t necessarily need to bear the world’s worst by themselves, yet so many of them do just that.

And so do we.

Some of us, in the face of loneliness, isolation, and miscellaneous misery, find solace in music. But maybe the idea of solace is an illusion. Maybe misery is humanity’s default condition. Maybe it’s the way we’re supposed to be, only we don’t know it, and we multiply our misery by thinking it should be otherwise.

A better writer than I, novelist Nick Hornby, thinks we might bring it on ourselves, deliberately.

In the movie High Fidelity (and the novel from which it comes), John Cusack’s character wonders, “What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Well might one wonder.

It’s said that examples from the movies were critical in teaching young people of the 30s and 40s how to move, talk, smoke, and pitch woo—they copied what they saw on the screen. It’s hard to believe that kids from the 60s on forward, many of whom grew up with a radio in their ear, or kids today, who grow up with earbuds, aren’t similarly affected. And yet one might wonder. Teenagers who mainline death metal don’t all become rage-soaked nihilists; those who absorb contemporary country’s endless dirt-road/pickup-truck stereotypes go to college and move to the city. And then there’s all those love songs. If, as the Buddha is supposed to have said, “What we think, we become,” it’s a miracle we don’t all become lovesick loons from an early age.

We do become some of what we think, or hear. There are songs that get inside of us, songs we turn to for solace or celebration, songs that speak what sounds like the truth to us, songs that tell us who we are. The weird thing is that we don’t always know what they are until they appear in a particular moment, or at a particular time. And if they become part of us in response to pain, they sometimes do not ease it as much as they turn it into something weirdly pleasurable, even as the hurt goes on.

Like schadenfreude, the German word for taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, and saudade, the Portuguese that describes a melancholy longing for love lost, we need a word for the pleasure we derive from the pain that is existence. Nostalgia, which literally means “the pain of returning home,” is closer, but not quite right either.

Maybe the word is masochism. Yeah, that’s it.

And maybe this post adds up to nothing. If these were really good ideas, they’d have been full posts, and you’d have read them already.

‘Twas Ever Thus

(Above: The technology with which we listen to music grows and changes over time. Why doesn’t our taste in music do the same?)

A few years ago I wrote about the experience of seeing James Taylor in concert and noticing how it seemed less like people listening to music and more like a piece of baby-boomer performance art staged by the participants for their own enjoyment. A commenter happened by that old post recently and made a point that I have been noodling with ever since:

[W]hat I find perplexing is why so few of [the] baby boomers, of which I am one, have not graduated to more serious music. Where is Shostakovich or John Adams? There is music being made that does not just reflect our self image, but [asks] more of us. This I find to be one of the big disappointment of the boomer generation. We are stuck in a self reflective swamp.

That boomers are stuck in self-reflection is news on par with the sunrise—and as we begin to observe various 50th anniversaries from The Sixties, it’s only going to get worse. Anything that happens in our lives we find interesting partly because it happened to us. The critical mass of boomers and the position they occupy, especially in the media (which is the message today to an extent McLuhan could scarcely have imagined) multiplies this effect. I suspect that this is going to happen to every generation now as they take their turn at the wheel of the media’s culture machine, although maybe not to the extent it has with the boomers, since boomer culture is relatively homogenous while succeeding generations grow every more atomized.

As to why boomers “have not graduated to more serious music”—I don’t believe that’s the normal course of things, and it never has been. True, 19th century working classes adored Shakespeare, but often in settings that were considered lowbrow by more “cultured” classes, who eventually opened theaters of their own for the sort of art they preferred. During the 30s, jazz, more complicated and sophisticated than pop, was ascendant, but its fans and players weren’t necessarily taken seriously as artists by those who appointed themselves arbiter of such things. Young jazz fans of the 1930s who had kids in the 40s were wondering by the 1960s why their kids were listening to such frivolous crap, Elvis, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and so forth, just as those same kids wonder now what their children find appealing about hip-hop. Dial it back to the ragtime era of the early 20th century and it’s the same pattern. Why won’t the kids grow up and have better taste?

‘Twas ever thus.

We haven’t graduated to more serious music because we don’t listen the same way we take classes in school, with the goal of becoming ever more accomplished in a particular subject as time goes by—even when we take music seriously. Music is not information we acquire and on which we build additional structures of information, the way we do when we’re learning algebra or Spanish. It can be, but if it commonly was, we would indeed graduate from pop to jazz to classical—from the Beatles to Miles Davis to Shostakovich, perhaps. But music is, for most people, a diversion, a piece of the broader fabric of daily life. We don’t want it to “ask more of us” any more than we want sriracha to dominate whatever we’re eating. It’s a garnish, or a condiment. If we choose to do more with it or go different places with it, that’s a choice we make—but it’s not something we should expect of anyone, including ourselves, because life doesn’t work that way.

That’s just my opinion, and I could be completely wrong. And there may be dimensions to this discussion that I haven’t considered. What do you think?

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