(Pictured: 1975 collaborators Elton John and Neil Sedaka.)
Listen: it is a Saturday evening in the fall of 1975. My family—Mother, Dad, 15-year-old me, and my brothers, who are 13 and 9—gathers around the kitchen table for supper, pot roast and mashed potatoes with canned peas, and ice cream for dessert. We eat, and Dad goes back outside to milk his cows. While Mother cleans up in the kitchen, the TV comes on in the living room, and my brothers bicker over what to watch. To avoid their ruckus, I take the book I am reading onto the sunporch, a room on the south side of the house, where the console stereo sits. Thanks to the windows on three sides, I can see into the night, the well-lighted barn to the west, the lights of neighboring farms to the east, the occasional passing car that zips quickly along Melvin Road.
In my head, the scene has a soundtrack, and it is found on the American Top 40 show dated November 1, 1975: “Island Girl,” “Miracles,” and “Who Loves You,” “Bad Blood,” “Heat Wave,” and “Low Rider,” “It Only Takes a Minute,” “Fly Robin Fly,” and all the rest.
The music plays, and I watch the scene from 41 years’ distance. The good smell of supper is still in the air, and the house is warm, thanks to the old oil-burning furnace. Warm, too, is the enveloping embrace of family, five of us as one, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, one that never wavers in its love or its peace.
Whenever I think of the fall of 1975, that is always the image I recall.
In his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut created Bokononism, a religion based on the concept of foma, or harmless untruths. The main tenet of Bokononism is, “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” It’s OK to believe in lies, then, as long as they make you a better person and nobody gets hurt.
That scene of a family Saturday night? Almost certainly it’s one of my foma. The scene may have played out that way once, starting with pot roast and ending with me and my book, but it’s wrong to remember all of them that way. We did not always love each other. We were not always peaceful. Both my 13-year-old brother and I squabbled with Mother (he remembers it was more frequently me; I remember that it was more frequently him), and there were certainly some nights when supper would have been possible only after we called a truce. After supper, one or the other of us would have stomped back upstairs, turning up the music to hide in or sullenly watching the old black-and-white, all the while grousing about terrible life was.
But after all these years, what does it hurt to remember it a better way? Bokononists believe that because everything is a lie anyhow, a lie that does no harm is something a person can live by, and live very well.
I can’t evaluate the music on the 11/1/75 AT 40 dispassionately; it’s so potent as a whole that it’s hard to separate into parts. It feels to me like there are damn few clunkers. The show is edited strangely, although whether it was in 1975 or by its present-day producers, I don’t know: we get barely a minute of “It Only Takes a Minute” and “Fly Robin Fly,” but two songs Casey bills as “oldies” (the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation,” with which Casey tells the bogus story of its creation), and four full minutes of Leon Haywood’s “I Wanta Do Something Freaky to You,” which is two minutes too much.
And on the subject of edits: Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood,” in which the line “the bitch is in the smile” is changed to “the promise in the smile.” I don’t remember hearing “Bad Blood” edited like that on other AT40s I’ve written about, or on any radio station, ever. Odder still: a few weeks later, when AT40 counted down the top hits of 1975, the bitch was back.