I often say that certain repeat posts are “rebooted,” meaning that I have tweaked them a bit to add or remove content, or to make cosmetic changes. This post is a straight-up repeat, as it appeared on January 5, 2010, eight years ago today. Only the title is different.
They say that people with terminal diseases tend to hang on through the holidays and then expire in January. I don’t doubt it. Before the holidays, you move through your days with a lightness of spirit. You feel like giving and forgiving. After the holidays, you’re back on the treadmill, and everything reminds you of the various traps you’re in. December snow is magical; in January, it’s just something that can damn well get you killed if enough of it falls.
When I was in radio full-time, January had a couple of defining characteristics beyond free-floating misery. As the slowest advertising month of the year, January meant less time spent writing or producing commercials, which freed up more time for tasks that were often neglected the rest of the year. What I called “January jobs” included throwing out old tapes that were no longer needed, catching up on filing, or maybe just trying to find the surface of my desk underneath the debris of the past year. The best thing about the January jobs is that they required relatively little concentrated attention, and they left plenty of time for two-hour lunches.
Frequently January would bring a boat show or a bridal show. The best kind were the ones that the station did not have to plan, where we could just promote them and do a remote broadcast or two. Such broadcasts should not be confused with entertainment, however. Unless a listener is immediately interested in buying a boat or getting married, the live broadcast from the boat show or the bridal show can be spectacularly dull. And there’s something vaguely obscene about encouraging people to drop 20 large on a boat or a wedding, particularly during those periods when the economy’s gone to hell—which, in small-town Iowa during the 1980s and early 90s, was every year.
Many stations do a January promotion geared to the Super Bowl. At a couple of the places I worked, this involved giving away a catered Super Bowl party for 12 or 20 people along with a big-screen TV rental for the day, back when big-screen TVs were monstrosities few people owned, and not something you could hang on a wall, as they are today. That’s a pretty good prize by the standards of small-market radio, but the winners weren’t necessarily immunized against the misery of January. One year, our winner was extremely unhappy about getting the big TV for only one day, even though the contest promos and official rules had made it very clear. Eventually, she made us feel like she was doing us a favor by accepting the prize, and I wanted to have the sponsor deliver the damn thing to my house.
People can be surprisingly petty when they’re getting something for nothing. One of my stations gave away a ski weekend in Colorado once—airfare to and from Denver, transportation to the resort, weekend accommodations, ski equipment, a package so great we wondered how we’d ever gotten it to give away in the first place—only to have the winner complain that it didn’t include the 10-minute ride from his house to our local airport. “You mean I have to get to the airport on my own?”
But maybe the cantankerous contest winners were cantankerous because it’s January. This month sucks.
Here’s another Christmas post from the past, specifically 2009, slightly edited.
There’s no time of the year when the shades of the past crowd around us like they do on Christmas. People we’ve loved and lost, memorable days spent with the people who still share our lives with us, moments we can’t forget—they’re all coming back this weekend, if they haven’t come back already.
I remember . . . when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. In our town, Santa met his public in a lovely double-wide donated by the local mobile home dealer and parked on the town square. One night my brother and me, maybe aged six and four at the time, shyly walked in with our parents. Santa took one look at us and then called us by name: “Well, it’s Jim and Dan Bartlett!” Since then, I have never doubted the jolly elf’s existence.
I remember . . . that first magical radio Christmas, the one that changed everything.
I remember . . . when I sent a half-dozen roses to a girl I was trying to lure away from another guy, making sure they’d arrive on Christmas Eve. It worked. Three years later she moved in with me just before Christmas, and we went to the local discount store to buy Christmas decorations for the apartment. We bought a “first Christmas together” ornament that we still have, 35 years later.
I remember . . . the year I picked up my brother and his girlfriend at the airport on Christmas Eve. When I arrived, there was a crisis. When the luggage came off the plane, one piece was missing: the carrier with her dog. It turned out that instead of running him through the baggage carousel, they put him out at a different door nearby. He wasn’t missing for more than a few minutes, but they were some long and upsetting minutes.
I remember . . . waking up with the flu one Christmas morning. That was the year my grandfather was in the hospital, and my grandmother was staying at our house. So in my misery on that day, I was ministered to not only by The Mrs., but also by my mother and my grandmother. If you have to get sick, that’s definitely the way to go.
That Christmas was the last one with my grandfather, who died the next summer. The rest of my grandparents have followed him now. They were always such an important part of the holiday, Christmas Eve with my father’s parents and Christmas Day with my mother’s, that in certain ways the holidays have never felt right without them. But life requires us to adjust, and so we have. Year by year, we’ve made new memories. They may not seem as vivid as the memories from earlier years, but give ’em time.
To bring this discussion back to the ostensible subject of this blog: “Remember (Christmas)” by Nilsson made the Billboard and Cash Box charts in late December 1972 and stuck around well into January ’73. It lasted that long partly because the lyrics don’t mention the word “Christmas” or contain any sort of holiday imagery. But it’s a Christmas song nevertheless, because it’s all about calling up the shades that crowd around. The people we’ve loved and lost. Memorable days spent with the people who still share our lives with us. Moments we can’t forget.
They’re all coming back this weekend.
Listen . . . they’re here now.
(Note to patrons: I’ll be on Magic 98 for a little slice of “98 Hours of Christmas Magic” on Sunday between 9AM and noon. This feature will be on hiatus until the New Year unless somebody important dies (rest well, Dick Enberg, one of the voices that will forever echo in the ears of sports fans my age). New posts will appear at One Day in Your Life tomorrow, on Christmas Day, and on New Year’s Day, so be sure to stop over there.
I don’t know which of the thousands of posts that have appeared here since 2004 is my favorite. If forced to choose, I might pick this one, which first appeared in 2011. It’s appropriate to repeat this year, the 50th anniversary of the release of the song that provides the title.
On December 24, 1969, the Capital Times, the afternoon newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, hit the streets with the words “Merry Christmas” emblazoned above the masthead. Its front page, however, was not so merry. Headlines included “Children’s Doctor Shortage Becomes Acute in Madison,” “Arab Summit Breaks Apart in Disarray,” and “Plane, Missile Firms Get ‘Christmas Gifts.’” Its page-one feature story began with the following lede: “Bringing up a retarded child is a challenge to love, to care, and to sacrifice. At Central Colony, there are six children waiting for someone willing to meet that challenge.” The story was headlined, “‘Have You Found a Family For Me?,’” and included pictures of Brenda, Pauncho, Jeffrey, Tom, Jerry, and Wally, all under the age of 12, all of whom would be spending another Christmas at the state home for the developmentally disabled.
I was reading that paper in my office the other day, in the deepening dark of winter twilight, thinking about what a remarkably depressing picture it paints of the world on Christmas Eve 1969, a day of loneliness and want, failure and war. And at that precise moment, the laptop music stash shuffled up Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas”: “Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys / Playing with bombs like kids play with toys” and “Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars / When we have learned what Christmas is for” and “Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land / With no hungry children and no empty hands.”
Stevie, you son of a bitch.
I had to stop reading, turn off the computer, and go do something else. I couldn’t take any more.
The next morning, I looked up the same day’s edition of the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison’s other daily paper. Its front page bannered an article about the success of the paper’s annual Empty Stocking campaign to benefit the needy, and it included items about gifts being airlifted to POWs in North Vietnam and poor families in Mississippi, plus a photo of an Amish man driving a horse-drawn sleigh in Kalona, Iowa, which received six inches of snow the day before. Also on the front page was the King James version of the Christmas story.
Why was this front page so different from the one on the Capital Times the same day? The answer was under the headline “On This Day, All the News Is Good.” “In keeping with a long Christmas tradition, The Wisconsin State Journal today carries no stories of disaster, crime, or violence on this front page.”
On December 24, 1969, which front page was more truthful? Was it the Capital Times, with its stories of the challenges faced by individuals, the Madison community, and the world, challenges that pay no attention to the calendar? Or was it the State Journal, telling of children who get what they need, of kindness in the midst of hardship and war, and of the birth of Jesus?
I don’t know. Surely the State Journal describes the world as we would like it to be, fitting on Christmas, when we are closer to being the people we imagine ourselves to be than on any other day of the year: filled with love for our fellow creatures, warm and secure in our traditions, caring and generous toward the whole world. And it feels so good and so right that we start thinking that maybe we can learn to live in that light the other 364 days of the year.
Stevie feels it, too: “Someday all our dreams will come to be / Someday in a world where men are free.” But just as the Capital Times’ editors understood that our challenges don’t cease to challenge us just because it’s Christmas Eve, Stevie Wonder knows it too. And he knows that on December 26th, we’ll be back in a place that’s a long way from where we wish we were. Sure, it could happen: Someday all our dreams could come to be. Sure, the world could be made free from loneliness and want, failure and war. But not on a happy timetable: “Maybe not in time for you and me.”
“But someday at Christmastime.” Because as sure as Christmas comes again, we never stop dreaming of the things that could be.
This month, I’m going to repeat a couple of Christmas posts from the archives. This one originally ran in 2010 and has been edited ever so slightly.
The TV specials A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are sometimes called “timeless,” in that they appeal to viewers in the new millennium just as they did to viewers in the mid 1960s when they first appeared. But there’s a plausible argument that they’re actually quite dated.
Take the overarching themes of both. Linus believes that the Great Pumpkin will appear on Halloween night in the pumpkin patch that is the most sincere, and he admires his patch by saying, “There’s not a shred of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” The war between sincerity and hypocrisy has been over for a long time—in significant ways, not only are we unable to tell the difference, we don’t care that we can’t. Charlie Brown is troubled by the commercialism of Christmas, but nobody’s troubled by the commercialism of the holiday anymore. (Even the right-wingers battling in the so-called War on Christmas, who claim to be defending the “real” meaning of the season, mostly want salesclerks to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” when they hand back your credit card.) So the philosophical underpinnings of both shows have largely crumbled over the last half-century.
There are other, smaller instances where the changed times between then and now are clearly visible. In The Great Pumpkin, the kids get cookies and popcorn balls for trick-or-treat. Nowadays, such homemade treats would be tossed into the garbage by parents fearing fiendish acts of neighborhood terrorism. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy says that Christmas is run by a big Eastern syndicate, but in modern America, “syndicate” is heard almost exclusively as a verb and not a noun. (It’s still used in other countries to refer to criminal enterprises, though.) When Charlie Brown decides that a Christmas tree would set the proper mood for the Christmas play, Lucy tells him, “Perhaps a tree! A great big shiny aluminum Christmas tree! Maybe painted pink!”
In 1965, Lucy’s line neatly encapsulated the episode’s basic conflict between the commercialism of the holiday and the “real” meaning of Christmas. Years later, kids watching may have no idea what Lucy is talking about. If you remember the 1960s, however, you may remember how aluminum trees were once all the rage. Said a newspaper ad of the early 1960s: “The modern Christmas tree is one that lasts . . . designed of sparkling aluminum and naturally tapered to a realistic finish.” As realistic as fluttering, silvery aluminum can be, that is. But if you purchased such a tree, paying anywhere from $1.99 for a two-foot table model to $16.95 for a best-quality seven-footer (nearly $180 in current dollars), you probably wouldn’t just slap it down in the living room and leave it be. Sometimes an aluminum tree would be decorated with ornaments of all one color, but sometimes not. Because the apotheosis of the shiny aluminum Christmas tree was achieved by using a color wheel, which would provide changing hues of red, blue, yellow, and green to reflect off the tree. The color wheel would create a spectacular, cutting-edge, Christmas vibe in any modern 60s home.
You will remember that Charlie Brown bypassed the spectacular artificial trees at the Christmas-tree yard and chose a sad little pine tree instead. To him (and to Charles Schulz), an artificial tree represented a step too far into the world of commercial artifice, away from what’s “real” about Christmas. In our time, we’ve taken that step and countless more. Just like fish who don’t know they’re wet, millions of us neither know nor care that that commercial artifice is the world in which we live.
(Pictured: Debby Boone, #1 with a bullet, 1977.)
Maybe it was the thinning ozone thanks to aerosol deodorant and hair spray. Maybe it was all that polyester. Or maybe there was a deeper reason, something that’s always been part of who we are, and is still part of us today.
“You Light Up My Life,” recorded by Debby Boone, was released on August 16, 1977. (That’s the same day Elvis Presley died, although the autopsy showed no correlation.) Its chart debut came on September 3rd at #71. It went to #58 the next week, then into the Top 40 at #35 for the week of September 17th. It zoomed from #35 to #21 the next week, then to #15, and then, during the week of October 8, took a mighty leap from #15 to #3. The song hit #1 40 years ago this week, on October 15, 1977, where it would stay for 10 weeks, the longest stretch at the top for a single song since 1956.
Week after week during the fall of 1977, other songs stormed the heights of the Hot 100 but none could take it: “Keep It Comin’ Love” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon, “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle all peaked at #2, Carly and Crystal for three weeks each. Finally, during the week of December 17, the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” reached the second spot, and it took out the queen on December 24, 1977.
It may surprise you to learn that “You Light Up My Life” spent but a single week at #1 on the adult contemporary chart. Nevertheless, its pop-chart dominance makes it the #1 single of the 1970s.
After the song fell out of the Hot 100 in February 1978, it stayed topical for a while. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song (from a movie also called You Light Up My Life). It tied for the Song of the Year Grammy with “Evergreen,” and was nominated for Record of the Year but lost; Debby Boone won the Best New Artist Grammy. But after the spring award season, “You Light Up My Life” seemed to vanish from history, like a Soviet official declared a nonperson who never officially existed. It never had the kind of afterlife on radio playlists that such an enormous hit would be expected to have. It’s as if collective embarrassment over the embrace of such bland schlock caused people to repress the memory entirely.
It’s arguable that the same impulse repressed Debby Boone’s career. She returned to the Hot 100 only twice, with “California” and “God Knows,” both in 1978. She did a bit better on the country charts, where “You Light Up My Life” had peaked at #4, scoring a #1 hit in 1980 called “Are You On the Road to Lovin’ Me Again.” Eventually, she moved into Christian music (no surprise given that she had imagined the “you” in “You Light Up My Life” to be God), acted on the stage, raised a family, and wrote children’s books.
“You Light Up My Life” got back into the news in 2009 when songwriter Joe Brooks, who also wrote and directed the You Light Up My Life movie, was accused of 91 counts of sexual assault against 11 women, some of whom he had lured to his New York apartment by dazzling them with his Oscar. He committed suicide before the cases could come to trial.
Despite the fact that many claimed to hate “You Light Up My Life” during its chart run, it was on most of the country’s radio stations every 90 minutes for a reason: millions of people absolutely fking loved it. Even with all that airplay, Mr. and Mrs. Average American, and more than a few of their children, bought the single or the album or the cassette because they couldn’t get enough of it on the radio.
“You Light Up My Life” has not endured all that well, but what it represents certainly has. Schlock remains one of America’s favorite mind-altering substances, as it always has been.
(Rebooted from posts first appearing in 2009 and 2010.)
(Pictured: Bobbie Gentry.)
Fifty years ago this week, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” hit #1 on the Hot 100. I submit to you that it’s one of the greatest short stories American literature has ever produced. Gentry sketches the scene around the family dinner table so effectively that we can almost smell the biscuits and coffee, and her closing image of the narrator throwing flowers off the Tallahatchie Bridge is haunting.
But good writing isn’t just knowing what to put in, it’s knowing what to leave out, and what Gentry leaves out is what makes her song a classic. Why did Billie Joe McAllister commit suicide, and why so suddenly? What were Billie Joe and the narrator spotted throwing off the bridge? As Mississippi cotton farmers might have said back then, what in the Sam Hill is going on here?
In 1976, the movie Ode to Billy Joe filled in the gaps: the narrator, named Bobbie Lee in the movie, and Billy Joe (spelled that way in the movie) are in love, but her family objects, claiming they’re too young. Billy Joe eventually jumps to his death out of homosexual guilt, and what the two of them threw off the bridge was Bobbie Lee’s ragdoll, a symbol for discarding her childhood.
And that’s the difference between good writing and bad writing right there.
Gentry once said that the song is “sort of a study in unconscious cruelty.” The family talks idly about Billie Joe’s death without realizing that the narrator was in love with him. Gentry also said, “What was thrown off the bridge isn’t that important.”
“Ode to Billie Joe” was apparently seven minutes long, originally—and who reading this now wouldn’t like to hear that? The final version, edited to four minutes, is Gentry’s demo with strings dubbed over, according to a fantastic Rolling Stone retrospective. It bubbled under the Hot 100 during the week of July 29 and went to #71 the next week. It rocketed to the top of the chart, going 71-21-7 and hitting #1 on the chart dated August 26, 1967. It spent four weeks at #1 and four more weeks in the Top 5 before going 14-29-43 and out in November. On October 14, the Ode to Billie Joe album knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top of the Billboard 200 and stayed for two weeks.
Most sources claim the song was recorded on July 10, 1967, but the first two listings for “Ode to Billie Joe” at ARSA are dated July 7 and July 9. The only way these listings make sense is if the song was recorded sometime earlier and released officially on the 10th, and that seems a far more likely scenario to me. WSGN in Birmingham, Alabama, which charted the song on July 7, shows it at #28 for the week of July 14 and #1 for the week of July 21.
In 1968, Gentry won three Grammys, including Best New Artist, and she was frequently seen on TV variety shows in succeeding years. She had a brief run with her own variety shows on the BBC and CBS in the early 70s, and was credited as co-writer of the Ode to Billy Joe movie. She hit the Hot 100 eight more times by 1970 and twice in 1976, with a re-release of her 1967 recording and a new version cut for Ode to Billy Joe.
In 1969, Gentry bought a piece of the NBA’s new Phoenix Suns, which she kept until 1987. (Other original partners in the Suns included Andy Williams, Henry Mancini, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, and Ed Ames. Original coach Johnny “Red” Kerr joked before the first game that he wasn’t worried about his starting lineup, but “who’s going to sing the National Anthem.”) In 1978, she married fellow singer Jim Stafford, and they had a son together. Gentry filed for divorce after 14 months, but the two stayed friendly and were spotted together by paparazzi as late as 1981.
On December 24, 1978, Gentry appeared on the Tonight Show. It was her last TV performance. She’s been out of the public eye entirely since 1982, and today, at the age of 73, she lives in a gated community in Tennessee. In 2016, a reporter tracked her down and called her house, asking for the person who is listed as the property owner of record. “There’s no one here by that name,” said the woman who answered the phone. Then, “she hung up,” the reporter wrote. “But there really isn’t any doubt. I talked, for about 13 seconds, to Bobbie Gentry.”
(Rebooted with much new material from a post originally appearing at Popdose in 2012.)