From a series about Octobers of the 1970s, here a bit that originally appeared on October 6, 2006.
I’m looking at a yellowed newspaper clipping of the team picture of the 1971 Northside Browns, undefeated champions of the Grade Football League’s sixth-grade division who, minutes before, finished thrashing the South Raiders 13-0 for the title. I’m in the back row, on the left, clashing ridiculously in a striped shirt and striped pants of entirely different patterns, hands on hips, doing my best to look like a grizzled gridiron warrior flush with victory. The moment the photo is taken marks the pinnacle of my sorry athletic career. I wasn’t much of a contributor to the championship. The city park and rec department made the schedule and provided officials, but the teams had no coaches, so we scrubs had to depend on the starters to take themselves out of the game to let us play, which they rarely did. But I was there, and I remember the feeling, on those golden September and October afternoons, as deliciously intense. The outcome of those touch-football games mattered to me in a way very few things have mattered since.
The year before, in the fifth-grade division, my team finished second. My elementary school was big enough to field two teams, and if I’m recalling correctly, we lost the championship game to our classmates. I don’t remember much about the game, but it had to be especially intense going up against the same people we played against at recess every day.
More about the photo and some extremely fine music on the flip.
There are 14 of us in the photo. Some of the guys I still know: One is a college professor. I run into another at University of Wisconsin hockey games sometimes. One was my mother’s boss for a while before she retired. Another runs his family’s construction company. Still another is a banker. Some of the guys I’ve lost: Two of my best friends at that moment are in the picture, but they would be strangers to me now if I saw them on the street. Right in the middle of the picture is a classmate who was already a gifted athlete in sixth grade. Even in a still picture, you can see it—he’s bigger and stronger and faster and tougher than the rest of us, the kind of kid whose athleticism makes coaches dream of championships. What we didn’t know then was that after dominating performances in junior high, he would play only a couple of years of high school football before washing out. We’d eventually learn he was gay, although I don’t know whether one had anything to do with the other.
What I remember most about those games now, more than the intensity and more than my teammates, is the light. We’d stand there on the field with the late afternoon sun in our eyes and the shadows lengthening, and if we looked around, over the baseball diamonds and the swimming pool and the shelter houses, we’d see the trees in Recreation Park crowned with color and glowing in that light. And that’s probably the best thing to remember, because it’s the easiest thing to recapture. By some odd alchemy involving memory and time, the light has encoded itself into some of the records I was listening to back then. . . .
One of those songs was “All Day Music” by War. The record made it only to Number 35 in Billboard during the week of October 2, 1971, although it had peaked at Number 4 on WLS three weeks earlier, in the midst of one of the Top 40’s most glorious seasons. (Also in the Top 10 at WLS that week: Aretha’s “Spanish Harlem,” “Stick Up” by Honey Cone, and the spectacular “Take Me Girl I’m Ready” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, which did but Number 50 on the Hot 100.)
“All Day Music” was the lead single and title song of War’s fourth album, which wouldn’t come out until November. It’s gorgeous: the organ line that first comes in around the 1:15 mark is one of the half-dozen most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anywhere. But what makes “All Day Music” a keeper for all time is its peaceful, easygoing vibe. It’s the sound of a bunch of friends lounging on a hillside in the sun, sparking up some weed or handing a wineskin around, trying to make an autumn afternoon last as long as possible.
That picture was beyond my experience in 1971, of course, and today, it’s not what I think of first. As I wrote in 2006, “When I hear [“All Day Music”] today, I’m standing on that sideline again, hoping to get into the game. Several lifetimes later, it’s OK that I don’t have many memories of actually playing—as long as I can see the light.”