Bird Watching

(Rebooted from a post first appearing in April 2009.)

Mark Fidrych [who died in April 2009] is a name known to some sports fans, although memories have grown dim; non-fans may never have heard of him. He was a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who came to the big leagues in 1976. He had an odd pitching motion, a mop of curly hair that stuck out from under his cap, and was nicknamed “the Bird.”  He had some strange habits on the pitcher’s mound, grooming it with his hands and talking to the baseball. He was clearly thrilled with being a major-leaguer, like a kid who had been plucked off a playground at random and put in uniform. And for the last four months of the baseball season that year, nobody in American popular culture was more famous.

The Fidrych legend grew to the proportions it achieved because there was relatively little coverage of baseball then compared to now. Readers of box scores knew he was something special, but you had to see him to fully appreciate him. That wasn’t as easy then as it is today, when every big-league game is on TV somewhere, and anything unusual that happens is on SportsCenter and YouTube within hours. In 1976, if you didn’t live in Detroit or another American League city, you probably weren’t going to see more than a few highlights of Fidrych in action. Baseball teams put some games on local TV or regional networks, but in 1976, there were only two nationally televised baseball games each week, and only one in prime-time. On June 28, 1976, ABC’s Monday Night Baseball was the focus of sports fans the country over as we watched Fidrych beat the New York Yankees 5-to-1. After the game (as you can see in the video above), roaring Detroit fans refused to leave Tiger Stadium until he came out for a curtain call. In the middle of our Bicentennial summer, the Bird became more famous than any of the Founding Fathers. (The next spring, he made the cover of Rolling Stone, with a profile by rock journalist Dave Marsh.)

Just after Fidrych beat the Yankees, he was named starting pitcher for the American League in the All-Star Game. The Tigers won only 74 games all year; Fidrych won 19 of them. He would be named American League Rookie of the Year and finish second in the Cy Young award balloting for best pitcher in the AL. He led the majors in earned-run average. But he hurt his knee in spring training during 1977 and his arm shortly thereafter. His injury, a torn rotator cuff, would be routinely fixed today; in the 70s, it ended careers. Over the next four seasons, Fidrych would pitch in only 27 more games. His last big-league game was in 1980; his career record, 29-and-19.

I was sorry to hear of Fidrych’s accidental death at age 54 because we had something in common, the Bird and me—1976 was the best year he ever had, too.

The Church League

It occurs to me that this post has nothing to do with the ostensible subject of this blog apart from being part of The 1976 Project. So it goes. Click through to read it if you want, or not. Up to you.

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Juke Joint Night (Part 2)

Here’s the second part of a short story I wrote a few years ago about a young boy’s encounter with bluesman Robert Johnson. (Part 1 here.)

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Juke Joint Night

Several years ago, one of my clients asked me to write a bunch of historical fiction pieces. I do not consider myself a good writer of fiction, but I am good at cashing checks, so I wrote ’em.

Technically, my client owns the story I am about to post. But since I don’t make any money from this site and the readership is vanishingly small, I’m going to put it up anyhow and they can cease-and-desist me if they want. Although it’s about music and musicians, it’s on Off-Topic Tuesday because it’s fiction. Part 1 of the story is on the flip.

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Get the Action Goin’

(Pictured: Andrea True.)

We’re out driving on a stifling summer night. In the distance, we see some lights. It’s a fair or a festival or something, so let’s park and wander in.

Over there, a crowd of people are disco-dancing to a band. Gotta give ’em credit for workin’ it like they are, as hot as it is tonight. On the bandstand, beneath the lights, it’s even hotter. The band is sweating more than the dancers are, and the singer, who started the evening with big 70s hair that has now wilted in the humidity, is working harder than all of ’em. That’s not stopping her, though. Neither is the fact that she doesn’t sing very well—the band is into the music, the crowd is into it too, and at the height of summer, that’s enough to make a party. For this is the summer of 1976—disco is starting to happen, but the beat has yet to become mindless, and sweat is not yet merely a fashion accessory. The band is playing their biggest hit, and to the extent that it’s mindless, it’s at least mindless in a charming way. More important—to the dancers, and to us—it also has more than its share of erotic attraction. The latter is no accident. The singer has deliberately worn as little as possible to this particular gig. As it turns out, she’s got plenty of experience with that kind of thing.

Andrea True wanted to be a serious actress, but it didn’t work out that way, and although she can be spotted as an uncredited extra in The Way We Were, most of her film credits would be in adult films, such as Sexual Freedom in the Ozarks, The Wetter the Better, and Deep Throat Part II. In 1975, she found herself stuck in Jamaica, and while she was there, a friend who was also a record producer brought down a track he’d been working on. They ended up with a master tape of a song that contained a sly reference to her former career: “Get the cameras rollin’ / Get the action goin’.” Once they sold it to a label, it became the signature song of her career, “More More More.”

Andrea True was more than a one-hit wonder. Her first showbiz break, according to a story Casey Kasem told in 1976, was a local TV show she got as a teenager through her local chapter of Junior Achievement. (Her quick thinking while stuck in Jamaica is further indication of her head for business.) And she would hit the Hot 100 three more times. “New York You Got Me Dancing” would reach #27 in 1977; “What’s Your Name, What’s Your Number” would reach #56 in 1978. Her followup to “More More More” was a song called “Party Line.” It peaked at #80 on the Hot 100 late in the summer of 1976. I never heard it then, but it’s become a favorite since then, mostly because it sounds like six extra minutes of “More More More.”

(Check this November 1976 clip from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, in which she performs “More More More,” “Party Line,” and “Fill Me Up.”)

Even after her musical successes, she made a few more adult films, although by the late 70s she was considered a bit too old for prime roles. What happened to her after that is hazy. Her 2011 obituary said she had worked as an astrologer and a substance-abuse counselor.

At some point in the late 1970s, while I was still living at home, Andrea True played a bar gig in my hometown of Monroe, Wisconsin. I wasn’t old enough to get in, but I know she sang what had been one of the signature songs of my favorite summer.

(Rebooted from a 2007 post with some new material.)

Followers of Fashion

(Pictured: Billy Casper, 1966 U.S. Open champion, lines up a putt.)

The world turns a day at a time, and before too long, 50 years have gone by. But the week of June 18, 1966, is a week that has, in a sense, never really ended.

From top to bottom, the Billboard Top 40 contained an astounding bounty of music, and to listen to the radio in that week—in that summer, in that year—must have been remarkable, and hard to turn off. The top four songs held their positions from the previous week: “Paint It, Black,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?,” “I Am a Rock,” and “When a Man Loves a Woman.” “Monday Monday” had just dropped out of the Top 10. Also on its way down: Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and #23” Also in the Top 20 were hits by the Four Seasons (“Opus 17”), the Beatles (“Paperback Writer”), the Animals (“Don’t Bring Me Down”), and James Brown (“It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”). The highest-debuting record of the week within the 40 was “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells. Great soul stars were everywhere: Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, Sam and Dave, the Supremes, the Temptations. The week also sparkled with indelible singles by less famous acts: “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” by the Chiffons, “Red Rubber Ball” by the Cyrkle, “Oh How Happy” by Shades of Blue, “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love” by the Swingin’ Medallions, and the Standells’ “Dirty Water.”

(The bottom of that week’s Top 40 contains three songs from our One Week in the 40 list—each placed within the Top 40 for a single week. The Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” jumped from #41 to #36 for the week before falling back to #44 the next week. At #39 was “S.Y.S.L.J.F.M. (The Letter Song)” by Joe Tex, and at #40 sat “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me” by country star Eddy Arnold.

Elsewhere that week:

Sunday, June 19, was Father’s Day. Ed Wynn, whose career as a comedian ran from vaudeville to television, and whose son, Keenan Wynn, also became a prominent actor, died at age 79. Many dads watched the U.S. Open golf tournament, where Billy Casper come from seven strokes behind over the last nine holes to catch Arnold Palmer and force an 18-hole playoff for the championship. On Monday the 20th, Casper won the playoff by four shots. Five doubleheaders were played in the majors on Sunday; only six games were played on Monday. The Baltimore Orioles and San Francisco Giants led their leagues as the week began.

The week before, the Supreme Court had ruled that police must read suspects their rights before questioning them. On Monday, the House of Representatives sent the Freedom of Information Act to President Johnson on a 307-0 vote. (Johnson, who would have preferred to keep much non-classified information secret, reluctantly signed the bill on the Fourth of July.) Later in the week, the Senate cast a unanimous vote for a package of new regulations for automobile safety, mandating that all new cars be equipped with seat belts, shoulder belts, rear-view mirrors, hazard lights, door locks, and other safety features beginning with the 1968 model year. The Organization of American States voted to withdraw peacekeeping troops from the Dominican Republic. Johnson had sent about 22,000 American soldiers to the Dominican Republic the year before to intervene in the country’s civil war, in hopes of stopping a Communist takeover.

The constitutional rights of the accused, the right of citizens to know what their government is doing in their name, to what extent the government has a duty to protect the health and safety of citizens, the proper way to project American power abroad—we have never really stopped discussing those issues. Much as we have never stopped listening to the songs that soundtracked them a half-century ago.

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