(Pictured: a modern view of Chicago in autumn.)
Thursday, September 23, 1971, was the first day of fall. News headlines that morning included accusations that President Nixon had lied about the purpose of recent bombing raids in North Vietnam. A new report suggested that the earth’s climate was cooling. A coroner’s jury ruled that a woman who fell from the 90th floor of Chicago’s John Hancock building died accidentally. The Pittsburgh Pirates clinched the National League Eastern Division championship the previous day. In the wake of the recently announced move of the Washington Senators to Dallas, Senators fan Nixon told reporters he would switch his baseball allegiance to the California Angels.
Larry Lujack was on the air at WLS in Chicago, where he’d held down mornings for a year. I recently came across an aircheck of the 7 to 8AM hour of that show. The aircheck is unscoped, which means it contains complete songs and newscasts as well as full commercial breaks. Such airchecks are comparatively rare; it’s more common for airchecks to be “scoped”—that is, to have jock-talk only, with music, commercials, and news edited out.
Many of the songs on the aircheck are hits of the moment: “If Not for You,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but also Dawn’s charming “What Are You Doing Sunday,” which WLS charted as high as #3 while it was making only #39 on the Hot 100. It also includes the Fifth Dimension’s version of “Never My Love,” which prompts Uncle Lar to say it’s so good he wants “to take the cartridge out of the machine and eat it.” Also heard: Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” by Jerry Reed, which Lar misidentifies as “Amos Moses,” Reed’s hit from earlier in 1971. On the Klunk Letter of the Day, a regular Lujack feature, a listener writes to say that Lar blew her mother’s mind on an earlier show by playing a Roy Orbison song, so he plays “Candy Man,” which he calls Orbison’s best song ever. The last song heard on the aircheck is an oddball: “Who Will Answer” by Ed Ames, a 1968 hit that is trippy enough for the late 60s and straight enough to appeal to the housewife demo.
The aircheck includes a full newscast on the half-hour by Lyle Dean, who anchored news from the 60s to the new millennium alongside Chicago legends: not just Lujack but Clark Weber, Fred Winston, and Bob Collins. The Cubs and White Sox scores get mentioned a couple of times within the hour, as does Nixon’s transfer of baseball allegiance. The Senators’ move is also the subject of Howard Cosell’s regular Speaking of Sports commentary, which is also heard in full.
As a kid, I was weaned on my hometown station’s morning show, which unfolded so precisely that we never had to look at the clock—we knew what we needed to be doing by what we were hearing. So when the aircheck got to the regular morning broadcast of The Secret Adventures of the Tooth Fairy (a two-minute serialized superhero parody created by advertising genius Dick Orkin in the wake of the legendary Chickenman), it felt like time for the bus to be getting to school. Back then, when Cosell’s commentary came on at about 7:55, we would often get off the bus, just minutes before the first bell rang. And on that Thursday morning 46 years ago, I was almost certainly listening, on my way to another day in sixth grade at Northside School.
Lujack does quick bits in and out of songs, goofs on the weather, the traffic, and a laundry soap commercial, and talks about a recent jock meeting at the station. “We have them every couple of weeks,” he says, “so the program director can tell us we’re not as great as we think we are.” At this one, the staff teased night jock Kris Erik Stevens for his flowered shirt and his long hair, calling him a hippie communist.
Larry Lujack, on a normal day in his natural habitat, rasps and pauses and smirks and sometimes sounds like he’s badly in need of more coffee. He was not the honey-voiced fast talker of Top 40 legend (not like Kris Erik Stevens, whose delivery I have imitated for 40 years whenever I want to “sound like a DJ”). But by September 23, 1971, he was one of most important people who would ever come into in my life. At the age of 11, I already knew that I wanted to be on the radio, just like my old Uncle Lar.
(Pictured: Shelley Fabares and Elvis Presley on the set of Clambake, 1967.)
The children of the 1970s knew who Elvis Presley was, and we heard a handful of his songs on the radio as current hits before he died in 1977. But his movies didn’t register as strongly, at least not with me. You had to stay up pretty late if you wanted to see them on TV, but that was fine. Seeing them was not a high priority; there wasn’t anything among them I felt I absolutely had to see, not the way I wanted to see all of the classic monster movies of the 30s. Over the last month, however, I’ve had my own Elvis film festival. On the flip, read what I thought about what I saw.
(Pictured: Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods on American Bandstand, 1974.)
One of my nephews started his freshman year in high school last week. On his first day, I found that I couldn’t remember a single damn thing about my first day in high school, which would have been in 1974. (I’d like to think it’s because my memory is full rather than failing, but anything’s possible.) Then I listened to the American Top 40 show from September 7, 1974. I didn’t remember specific incidents as much as I remembered who that freshman was, and how it felt to be him: game for a challenge but nervous about it, optimistic but wary, holding on to what was familiar as a compass for navigating the stuff that wasn’t.
This chart sits right between the seasons, with songs I’d been hearing on AM all summer and songs I would be hearing when I discovered FM that fall. The latter also provide the soundtrack for one of those autumns I remember as especially happy and secure, although it almost certainly was not. The usual handful of notes is on the flip.
(Pictured: bluegrass icons Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who gained fame recording music for the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, put on gangster garb for themselves.)
I started in country-music radio in the late 70s. At that time, unlike pop and rock stations, country stations didn’t seem to be playing much from the late 60s. Look at the survey from WLBI in Denham Springs, Louisiana, a small town just east of Baton Rouge, dated September 1, 1968. I count only four songs—“Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” by Eddy Arnold, and Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”—that were getting much airplay in the late 70s and early 80s, at least at the stations I was familiar with. The rest—not just the songs, but many of the performers who sang them—were becoming footnotes to country music history then. Today, they’ve been footnotes for a long time. Among the footnotes, we find the following:
5. “Clean the Slate in ’68″/Jim Nesbitt. Nesbitt was a South Carolina radio and TV personality who first hit with a talk/singing novelty called “Please Mr. Kennedy” in 1961. He later recorded a string of politically themed talk/singing novelties, including “Lookin’ for More in ’64,” “Still Alive in ’65,” and “Heck of a Fix in ’66,” all of which made the Billboard country chart. “Clean the Slate in ’68” was not so big (except in Denham Springs), and “Still Havin’ Fun in ’71” was even less so. “Clean the Slate” name-checks several major 1968 presidential candidates including “bushy haired Bobby,” who had been assassinated in June—and which might account for the fact that few stations touched the record. WLBI is the only one shown at ARSA.
10. “It’s All Over But the Crying”/Hank Williams Jr. Until the late 70s, when he took on the outlaw persona he still maintains today, Hank Williams Jr. was a fairly conventional country star. In 1968, he starred in the film A Time to Sing, in which he plays a young man who becomes a professional singer to help save the family farm—and gets to romance the completely delicious Shelley Fabares while he’s doing it. Based on the trailer, Hank Jr. doesn’t appear to be much of an actor, although the movie is admirably diverse, co-starring the Clara Ward Singers and an R&B group called the X-Ls. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), it was originally to be titled The Hank Williams Jr. Story, despite the fact that its plot isn’t biographical in the slightest. “It’s All Over But the Crying” is from the soundtrack.
19. “Happy State of Mind”/Bill Anderson. If you remember Bill Anderson at all, it’s probably as a TV personality: a frequent game-show panelist in the 70s, and 40 years ago this fall the co-host with Sarah Purcell of a game show called The Better Sex. In the 80s and 90s, he hosted cable TV talk shows. But before all that, between 1958 and 1980, Anderson hit the country charts 58 times, including seven #1 hits and seven more that peaked at #2. Five of his songs crossed over to pop; the biggest was “Still,” which went to #8 in 1963. Bill Anderson is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the 60s “countrypolitan” sound, which was intended to have upscale appeal: tasteful orchestrations, little or no twang, and soft-spoken Southern accents. (Not for nothing is he known as “Whispering Bill.”) This November he’ll turn 80, and he’s still performing.
21. “Destroyed by Man”/Mel Tillis. The depressing tale of a girl gone wrong, and I mean really depressing: “Men don’t respect her / But still they hold her hand / She was created by Heaven / Now destroyed by man.” Jesus, Mel.
25. “Like a Rolling Stone”/Flatt and Scruggs. The famed bluegrass pickers recorded an album called Nashville
Submarine Airplane, in which they covered familiar pop songs of the day including “Catch the Wind,” “Universal Soldier,” “Gentle on My Mind,” and four Dylan songs: “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “The Times They Are a-Changing,” “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” The latter would get as high as #2 at WLBI and make the Top 10 at a country station in Boston. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Lester Flatt disliked this change in the duo’s direction so much that it led to his 1969 split with Earl Scruggs after nearly 25 years.
Go on, click that last link. You know you want to.
(Pictured: Walter Becker, onstage in 2016.)
I really don’t know what to say.
Through the middle of the 1970s, Steely Dan was merely a band I heard on the radio, although I liked whatever I heard. Under the right conditions, “Do It Again” can still transport me back to the winter I turned 13 and how I tried to figure out just what the hell it was about—and not just the song, but everything else that was happening to me in that season. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” reminds me of the summer of 1974, and how I spent it hanging out in the musty basement of our house after the fire in the upstairs that spring. In each of the next two summers, there were Steely Dan songs on the radio that I didn’t hear nearly often enough to suit me: “Black Friday” and “Kid Charlemagne.”
Then came “Peg,” at the end of 1977. I had never heard a sound like that sound—not from Steely Dan or anybody else—and it blew my mind. I got Aja for Christmas that year (after a couple of months of begging, no doubt), and I played it constantly for the next several months. I went out and bought every other Steely Dan album I could get my hands on, and by the summer of 1978 I had them all, and I got everything new that came out after. When I got my first CD player in the late 80s, one of the first discs I bought was a Steely Dan compilation. One of the most pleasing gifts I ever received was the Citizen Steely Dan box set. In the download era, I have acquired literally dozens of bootlegs. For 40 years this fall, Steely Dan has been my favorite band of them all.
I have been fortunate enough to see the band live three times: in 2000, in 2007, and again in 2013. At the 2013 show, it was clear that Walter Becker wasn’t moving particularly well—in fact, he didn’t move much at all, standing stiffly and sometimes looking uncomfortable, and I recall reading that in succeeding years, he would sometimes perform sitting down. He had missed shows earlier this summer, but all indications were that he would return to the band. Now, of course, he will not.
Steely Dan started as a conventional band, but by Katy Lied in 1975 was down to Becker, Donald Fagen, and the best session players in New York and Los Angeles. Sometimes Becker was like a session cat himself—he’s not on “Peg” at all—and Steely Dan’s ever-shifting studio lineup was such that I couldn’t tell you if he played some famous solo, or if it was some other big-time player. (He never took a lead vocal until the band’s tours in the 1990s.) I was not too concerned with who played what. To me, Becker and Fagen were a hive-mind, architects of a sound that nobody else could hear. That sound—which eludes my ability to describe, although I know it when I hear it, words and music, cool and funky, dissonant and harmonious, funny and cynical and ominous and ultimately inscrutable—has been in my head and heart since I was a teenager. And it’s always going to be there, at least until I follow Walter Becker to wherever he went yesterday.
The first iteration of this post included an attempt to rank my favorite Steely Dan songs. (The list included “Change of the Guard,” a track from Can’t Buy a Thrill, which gave this post its title.) I might post the list eventually, but this is not the day for it. And it’s likely that such a ranking is a fool’s errand. Ask me tomorrow and I’d probably rank today’s list in an entirely different order, and the day after that, the list might be 10 entirely different songs. Steely Dan is like that with me. I never get enough, and I never want the same thing twice in a row.
Rest well, sir. And thank you for everything.