(Pictured: Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, and James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop.)
In the summer of 1970, film director Monte Hellman saw a Los Angeles billboard with James Taylor’s face on it, and he believed he’d found a star. So he created a movie for him, which turns up on Turner Classic Movies every now and then: Two-Lane Blacktop.
Two-Lane Blacktop is about two drifters with a ’55 Chevy who eventually get into a cross-country race with another driver. Taylor was cast as a character known only as the Driver. Four days before principal photography began, Hellman still didn’t have Taylor’s co-star. He eventually settled on Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, figuring Wilson’s real-life experience with cars would translate into his on-screen role as the Mechanic. Completing the cast were 16-year-old Laurie Bird as the Young Girl, and Hollywood veteran Warren Oates as GTO, the driver of the other car in the race.
Two-Lane Blacktop was shot on location across the country, and it shows an America that no longer exists, one of small-town diners, full-service filling stations, and hitch-hiking as reliable transportation. Like many youth films of the ’70s, there’s not really much of a story to it. The atmosphere of lonely alienation is the point of the film—the Driver and the Mechanic are silent as much as they speak, and while each of them seems to have an interest in the Young Girl, neither one does much to communicate it to her. (GTO is a livelier character, spinning a variety of tales about who he is and where he’s going, depending on who he’s talking to.)
It’s too much to say that Two-Lane Blacktop put a curse on its stars. Nevertheless, three of them came to tragic and/or early ends, while another was probably lucky to avoid one. Taylor, in his only movie role, was addicted to heroin while the movie was filming, and for years thereafter. From time to time he would come up missing on the set, and was said to be off fixing at the time. His co-star Wilson was also an enthusiastic user of drugs and alcohol. He died on December 28, 1983, drowning while swimming off the California coast—coincidentally about the same time Taylor was kicking his drug habit for good. Laurie Bird, who played the Young Girl, was only 16 when filming began in 1970. She appeared in only two other films, including the 1977 Oscar-winner Annie Hall. She became a photographer, and she took the cover shot for Art Garfunkel‘s 1977 album Watermark. She and Garfunkel were romantically involved. In June 1979, aged just 25, she committed suicide in the apartment she and Garfunkel shared. Warren Oates, whose performance as GTO was considered Oscar-worthy by some, died young too. Oates, who appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies in the ’60s and ’70s, is probably best-known for his portrayal of Sgt. Hulka in the Bill Murray film Stripes. It was one of his final performances. Oates died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 53.
(Adapted from a couple of pieces in my WNEW.com archives.)
April 9, 1976, is a Friday. Frisch’s Big Boy Restaurants in the greater Cincinnati area invite you in for fish fillets tonight with fries, salad, and a roll for $1.60. It’s the second day of the major-league baseball season, but only two games were played yesterday; 16 teams open their seasons today, including the Chicago Cubs, who lose to the Cardinals 5-0 in St. Louis. On a trip to Texas, President Ford visits the Alamo in San Antonio during the morning and then goes to Dallas. He throws out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ season opener, staying only for the first inning. In the first pro sports event at the new Seattle Kingdome, Pele scores two goals as the New York Cosmos defeat the Seattle Sounders in pro soccer, 2-1. Folksinger Phil Ochs, most famous for “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” hangs himself; he was 35. A strong earthquake kills eight people in Ecuador. In Nagoya, Japan, a 13-year-old boy takes a series of photos that seem to show a UFO. In Syracuse, New York, the Onondaga County Public Library unveils its new logo. In Madison, Wisconsin, the first edition of a new weekly newspaper, Isthmus, is laid out in the living room of one of its co-founders.
New movies in theaters include All the President’s Men starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford and Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. On daytime TV, Foster Brooks ends a week co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show; guests today include Gloria Swanson, Frankie Valli, and Geraldo Rivera. The Merv Griffin Show welcomes Kaye Ballard, Jack Jones, comedian Charlie Callas and impressionist Marilyn Michaels. In prime time, the animated special The First Easter Rabbit, featuring the voices of Burl Ives and Robert Morse, airs on NBC, and so does The Rockford Files. CBS airs an episode of Sara, starring Brenda Vaccaro as a schoolteacher in an 1870 Colorado town. She will be nominated for an Emmy, but the show will end after 13 episodes. Rush plays the Indianapolis Coliseum with special guests Ted Nugent and the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver. On separate bills, Genesis and Donovan play New York City. The Electric Light Orchestra and Journey play Huntsville, Alabama. Bruce Springsteen plays Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.
The Midnight Special airs on NBC following Johnny Carson. Host Helen Reddy welcomes Fleetwood Mac, who perform a blazing version of their new hit “Rhiannon.” Also on the show, Gary Wright, Barry Manilow, Queen, and Hamilton Joe Frank & Reynolds, who perform “Fallin’ in Love” with Reddy and their recent hit “Winners and Losers,” and then come back for a second spot doing “Every Day Without You.”
Perspective From the Present: Helen Reddy is Australian, but I get distracted listening to her by trying to figure out what the hell her accent actually sounds like. She does not seem to have rehearsed “Fallin’ in Love,” and then she ad-libs an awkward introduction to “Winners and Losers,” but it’s not enough to spoil the song, which is insanely great. Somebody preserved this thing for 38 years, and the YouTube video is a little jumpy, but you can watch it right here.
In the fall of 1979, two of the biggest bands in the world released long-awaited new albums within three weeks of one another: the Eagles with The Long Run and Fleetwood Mac with Tusk.
Although record buyers loved the Eagles that fall, sending the album and its lead single, “Heartache Tonight,” to #1, one prominent critic definitely did not. In a Rolling Stone review that appeared in newspapers around the country in November, Dave Marsh wrote: “[W]hat can you say about a band which spends three years working on an album whose best song is one the inimitable Joe Walsh wrote for a movie soundtrack (‘In the City’ from ‘The Warriors’), and which contains such inanities as ‘We thought we could change this world—with words like love and freedom.’ The fact that this pack of cliche-mongers is one of the biggest ‘rock’ bands today is perhaps the most pathetic commentary I know about the current state of the musical world.”
The reviewer for a local paper in Ohio was kinder: “The Eagles, consummate musicians that they are, have honed a finely-produced and excellently-executed album into what should prove to be another tour de force.” Contrast “excellently executed” with Marsh’s assessment of Don Henley—”a fine singer, but he’s a lame drummer.”
The Eagles could simply let negative reviews roll off because of all the money rolling in, although the amounts seem tiny by standards of our time. A department store in Madison, Wisconsin, was selling The Long Run on vinyl for $5.67 and on tape for $5.97. Eagles fans in the Philadelphia area could get into the band’s November 18 show at the Spectrum for $7.50 or $10, although the top tickets, priced at $12.50, were sold out.
If it had been up to Fleetwood Mac and its record label, Tusk would not have been out until later in the year. The intent was to release it just in time for it to find its way into Christmas stockings by the millions. But then an advance copy on cassette was leaked to a radio station in Cleveland. The station’s program director told a reporter, “To ensure its delivery, I had to buy a seat for [the tape] on a commercial flight.” He picked it up at the airport, drove it to the station, and put it on the air immediately. In succeeding days, other stations obtained copies of the album. As a result, Warner Brothers decided to release it officially in mid-October. (The title song had come out as a single in mid-September, also probably sped to release by the leak.)
When Tusk was released, I was doing a show on the campus radio station called Virgin Vinyl, on which I would play the week’s new releases. I tracked Tusk in its entirety the very night it came in, just as I was had played the lead track from The Long Run on the day it came in the mail.
Early in 1980, “Tusk” was featured on the TV music show Solid Gold. No way they were getting Fleetwood Mac to appear, but they could get the USC Marching Band to show up in the studio, and their performance was then intercut with the official “Tusk” video.
YouTube commenters are notoriously dim, but not the one who observed, “Stevie Nicks twirling a baton . . . there are probably sexier things on this planet, but none come to mind at the moment.”
(From a pair of posts written for the now-defunct WNEW.com.)
The wire-service story appearing in newspapers around the country 40 years ago did not generally appear on front pages. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it was on page 15. In San Mateo, California, it was on page 3. A few newspapers picked up the more immediate and personal story written by a couple of student journalists at Northwestern Louisiana University—a review of the last concert by Jim Croce.
“I’ve flown 700,000 or 800,000 miles just this past year,” the story quoted Croce as saying from the stage 40 years ago tonight, on September 20, 1973. “I’m starting to feel it now, too. You know, jet lag.” The story continues: “Then he gave his last concert before 2,000 laughing and cheering students at Northwestern Louisiana University’s Prather Coliseum. An hour later, after closing with ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown,’ he was dead in the wreckage of an airplane.” After the 35-minute performance that night, Croce’s plane hit a tree on takeoff, killing six people in all, including Croce, his guitarist Maury Muehleisen, his personal manager Ken Cortese, road manager Dennis Rast, comedian George Stevens, and pilot Robert Elliott.
At age 30, Croce had been on the scene for only a year, scoring the top-10 hit “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and taking “Leroy Brown” to #1. Three more top-10 hits would follow within the next six months, including the #1 hit “Time in a Bottle.” He remained one of the most popular singer-songwriters in the business through the late 1970s, as fans dug deeper into his catalog and discovered other characters as memorable as Jim, the “pool-shootin’ son-of-a-gun,” and Leroy Brown.
Four decades later, Croce remains one of the great what-ifs of popular music. One of his producers, Tommy West, saw beyond Croce’s potential as a musician in a news story published later in the week of his death. “He was only beginning to scratch the surface of what I think would have been a truly big career,” said West. “I wouldn’t call him a superstar because that has overtones of rock things and it went more beyond that. I think Jimmy could have been a Will Rogers or a white Bill Cosby.”
West was correct inasmuch as he suspected Croce would expand his horizons beyond music. He likely would have had to. Croce’s literate, confessional, acoustic songs would have had trouble finding a mass audience in the discofied late 70s and the jaded 80s, not like they had between 1972 and 1974. He seems a likely candidate to have become like Jimmy Buffett, a multimedia Renaissance man, a writer of short stories and books, a dabbler in other fields from acting to entrepreneurship, but always returning to his guitar and his songs.
Here’s a BBC-TV clip recorded the summer before Croce’s death, featuring Muehleisen on guitar, on what would become Croce’s last top 40 hit, “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues.”
(From my WNEW.com archives, revised a bit to reflect today’s anniversary.)
(Promotional announcement: I’ll have something very cool for you at this blog starting Monday, which will more than make up for the lack of interesting content this past week. I guarantee it.)
Were you a stereo geek? They were the guys—and they were always guys—who obsessed over their sound equipment. They could talk for hours about wow and flutter and signal-to-noise ratio, and they bragged about the wattage of their systems and the size of their speakers. You’d go over to a stereo geek’s house and he’d put on an album you’d never heard of, crank it up until the pictures on the walls were moving, and with a gleam in his eye, wait for you to react to the glory of the sound. If you were a fellow-traveling geek, you might get the same gleam. If you were not—if you were, like me, a guy who liked music but wasn’t particularly obsessed with sound—you’d try to think of something complimentary to say before your brain started leaking out of your ears.
Here’s a 1984 TV report on the hot new technological breakthrough, the compact disc. While the reporter describes Frank Maiale as a “connoisseur of music,” it’s pretty clear that he’s actually a connoisseur of sound equipment. Watch.
There are several clues to Frank’s stereo geekdom. First, his giant rack of equipment: turntable, tuner, amplifier, equalizer, and other silvery boxes to perform various esoteric functions. Second, his turntable, which in one shot seems to be equipped with a stability device to hold the album absolutely still. Third, after a lifetime of collecting music, he’s got only 600 or 700 albums, which is tiny by serious record-collector standards. Fourth, the breadth of his collection: “from modern electronica to classical acoustic.” But the single biggest clue is when Frank is asked to describe the advantages of the CD: “It’s clean. There’s no noise.”
The “clean” sound of the CD—no clicks, no rumble, and the amazing way in which the sound would rise up from absolute silence—was a major attraction for early adopters. For “clean” was the mantra of the stereo geek. The sound of the music was the thing, and not the music itself. Frank’s record purchases—modern electronica to classical acoustic—would show off the quality of his sound system first and foremost. For those in search of the cleanest possible audio, the CD promised nirvana. A stereo-geek friend once told me, “I don’t care what I listen to as long as it’s clean.”
I was not a member of the geek tribe. My first stereo system was an inexpensive all-in-one unit, turntable and AM/FM radio, received as a gift from my parents circa 1975. (They still use the speakers.) When my dormitory roommate quit school in 1978, I bought his turntable, receiver, and speakers from him. The speakers in our living room today are the ones I bought in 1988.
In general, people care less about sound quality today than in the pre-CD era. Much of our listening is done through earbuds or computer speakers, and the quality of our downloaded MP3s is spotty, even on the ones purchased from reputable online stores. The sound geek is still with us, however. Today, he’s more likely to obsess over the quality of his home theater system than whatever he plays music on.
(Adapted from a piece in my WNEW.com archives.)
In mid-June 1966, the Rolling Stones released Aftermath. It’s notable because it’s the first Stones album to contain exclusively Jagger/Richards compositions, so it represents the same artistic leap forward as the Beatles’ album A Hard Day’s Night, the first Beatles album with no songs by outside writers. It’s also the first Stones album released in stereo, and the first one the band recorded exclusively in America, at RCA Studios in Hollywood during sessions in December 1965 and March 1966. Perhaps it was the California atmosphere that led the Stones to experiment with new sounds on the album, such as sitar and marimbas.
Also like A Hard Day’s Night, Aftermath appeared in different configurations in the UK and the United States. The American version was shorter—11 songs instead of 14—had different cover art, and used different mixes. The American version omitted “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Out of Time,” “What to Do,” and “Take It or Leave It,” but included “Paint It, Black,” the Stones’ current American single, as the first track. (This review from Allmusic.com sorts out the differences.)
“Mother’s Little Helper” would get a single-only release in the States in July, a couple of weeks after the release of Aftermath. The absence of the hot new single from the new album must have been a bit frustrating for Stones fans, although it didn’t keep them from buying either one. Aftermath became the Stones’ fifth straight top-10 album in America, and the first of three in a row to peak at #2 on the Billboard album chart. It contains several Stones classics in addition to “Paint It, Black” and “Mother’s Little Helper.” “Lady Jane” sounds like a number from Elizabethan minstrels 400 years removed in time from Chicago blues, while “Goin’ Home” is an 11-minute jam. “Stupid Girl” and “Under My Thumb” were controversial for the attitude they displayed toward women in an era of rising feminist consciousness.
Right after the album came out, the Stones came to America for a month-long concert tour. It would, in the style of that era, be a remarkably intense month, town after town, night after night, with precious little time off.
The tour was scheduled to begin in suburban Boston on Friday, June 24, but the Stones arrived in New York the day before. On that day, according to the fabulous Rolling Stones database for 1966, Bill Wyman did a session backing singer/songwriter John Hammond on a couple of blues numbers, joined by guitarist Robbie Robertson, eventually of the Band. The next day, the Stones held a press conference aboard a boat in the Hudson River to plug the tour. Another source reports that they spent some time with Bob Dylan that day also, but the Stones database doesn’t confirm it, so I dunno.
After the press conference, it was up to Lynn, Massachusetts, and a New Deal-era stadium called the Manning Bowl for the tour’s opening show. Sources conflict about what happened that night. One source says it was a rainy night, and 10 songs into the show, the Stones fled the weather. Many in the crowd of 8,000 decided to follow them, and police were forced to use tear gas to restore order. Another source says that the cops moved to calm crazed fans only about 20 minutes into the show, and used tear gas to move them back from the stage. On Thursday June 30 in Montreal, the show included another near-riot, this one because, according to Mick Jagger, theater security started randomly beating up fans.
After their first day off in 11 days, the Stones turned west, with a show on July 6 in Syracuse, then they visited Detroit, Indianapolis, and Chicago. While in Chicago, they jammed a bit with blues legend Jimmy Reed. A show in Houston on July 11 seems to have resulted in a fringe benefit: a supply of Mexican marijuana, which kept the band “wrecked every day,” according to Keith Richards, and papered over some of the ongoing conflict between Brian Jones and the others. Three days of off-time in California likely helped the mood, too, in advance of the tour’s final leg: nine shows in eight days before a tour-ending hop to Honolulu.
Here’s an incredible artifact: 29 minutes of the Honolulu show—which may have been the whole thing—with pretty decent audio quality, from July 28, 1966.
(Combined and edited from a couple of posts in my WNEW.com archives.)