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