(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.
(Pictured: British newspapers headline the death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997.)
I have written previously about being on the air the afternoon Michael Jackson died, and about reading the bulletins on the morning of the Challenger explosion. Twenty years ago tonight, I was on the air at the classic-rock station when Princess Diana died. (It was early in the morning of August 31, 1997, in Europe, but the evening of August 30 in the States, and the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend.)
We did not do breaking news on that station, of course. Our conventionally wacky morning show had newscasts, but it was the barest of headline services. A hard news item that could break through at any other time of the day had to be very, very big.
I was doing the all-request show that night. If our studios were connected to the Internet, it was an extremely new development, and I can’t say for sure whether I got the first bulletin that way. Although the company still had a news department, I wasn’t in the habit of looking at the wires. I suppose somebody from one of the other stations in the building could have come in and told me. Maybe a listener called up and told me. By some method, I tracked down a bulletin, although I didn’t read the first one, which was about the princess and a car accident. But later in the evening, when it became clear that it was a serious accident, I decided to go on with it. An hour later, the bulletins I was seeing made it clear that Diana had died in the accident, so sometime after 11:00 I delivered the news.
There was no consultation with the program director before I did it. I made the decision entirely on my own hook, as a veteran jock smart enough to recognize that this was the kind of news story even we shouldn’t ignore. That’s not intended to make me sound like a hero. It’s more an illustration of the fact that if you smack a mule in the head with a two-by-four, you can get his attention.
That show was one of the last ones I did at that station, as we were getting ready to move from the Quad Cities to Iowa City. It may have been the next-to-last week, which would mean my final show was September 6, 1997. Somewhere, I still have a tape of that last show (and I think I saved the tape of the Diana show, too). I talked about it being my last show, and I am sure I played some songs because I wanted to hear them. My ego was/is such that I undoubtedly played every phone call I got from people saying the show wouldn’t be the same without me.
Long before that night, I had chosen the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” as my last record. The last request I played was for “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilburys, which seemed cosmically appropriate. I gave a little speech at my last break, thanking the audience and thanking the program director for putting up with me. Then it was into the Beatles and I was done, except for a back-of-the-studio, off-mike response to the overnight guy during his first break, when he told the audience how much the station would miss me.
I didn’t think of my exit from the Quad Cities as the end of my radio career, although I had no plans to return to radio anytime soon. And I didn’t. Over the next several years, I would do a few sports broadcasts, but I wouldn’t do a music show again for nearly nine years.