From approximately 2003 through sometime in 2009, I contributed to a political blog called Best of the Blogs, which no longer exists. While it lasted, it was great fun: one of the contributors had been one of the first staff writers at Rolling Stone; another was a former military man based in Japan; still another punctuated his opinions with different colored fonts and occasionally feuded with his fellow contributors. (He’s still online, and still quirky, as I discovered entirely by accident a few days ago.) On the flip, there’s another post I wrote for the site back in 2007, which might still be of interest to readers a decade later. It’s got nothing to do with the usual run of stuff around here, so read it if you want, or don’t.
My first blog, The Daily Aneursym, existed from 2003 through 2006. I still think some of the best writing I ever did was at that site, even though it had only about a half-dozen regular readers. From approximately 2003 through sometime in 2009, I also contributed to a political blog called Best of the Blogs. It no longer exists, but I found an online archive of posts a while back, and killed most of a day reading through it. Most of my stuff there was highly topical (for example, lots of detailed inside baseball about the 2008 presidential campaign, from the early primary process through Election Night), but I found one piece that might be of interest a decade later. It’s got nothing to do with the usual run of stuff around here, so read it if you want, or don’t.
(Pictured: Blood Sweat and Tears.)
I have over 28,000 songs on my laptop. The other day, the album version and single edit of BS&T’s “And When I Die” shuffled up within about 50 songs of each other, which struck me as an excuse to reboot this post from 2011. Rereading it now, I think it might be one of the better things I ever wrote.
I can’t remember the first time I heard Blood Sweat and Tears’ “And When I Die,” which went to #2 in the fall of 1969.
I’m not scared of dyin’ and I don’t really care
If it’s peace you find in dyin’, well then, let the time be near
That seemed pretty odd to me. How could someone be unafraid of dying—and even go as far as to wish the time was near? I tried not to think about what it implied.
Eventually, BS&T’s music got too old for Top 40 and A/C and they were relegated to oldies stations, and apart from “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and “Spinning Wheel,” their songs were rarely anthologized. I’ll bet I went a decade or more without hearing “And When I Die.” But then came the day I heard it again.
If it’s peace you find in dyin’ and if dyin’ time is near
Just bundle up my coffin ’cause it’s cold way down there
I hear it is cold way down there, yeah
Crazy cold way down there
I was past 40 years old now, much different from the person who’d first heard the song, and I couldn’t believe how different it sounded to me.
And when I die, and when I’m gone
There’ll be one child born in this world to carry on, to carry on
It was like learning that a knick-knack that had sat on a shelf for years was actually a valuable relic. It took on a significance I never knew it possessed.
Now troubles are many, they’re as deep as a well
I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell
Swear there ain’t no heaven and I pray there ain’t no hell
But I’ll never know by livin’, only my dyin’ will tell, yes only my dyin’ will tell, yeah
Only my dyin’ will tell
When I was first hearing the song, I still believed in Heaven, Hell, God, all of it. By the time I reached my 40s, I believed in none of it—but I also believed, as I do today, that we’ll never know by dying. The Greek philosopher Epicurus said something like, “Where we are, death is not; where death is, we are not.” I don’t believe we’re going to perceive what’s happened to us, or even that something has happened to us. We’ll just go and be troubled no more, and that sounds like peace to me.
Freed from the need to live in preparation for where we think we’re going after life is over, why wouldn’t we want to get the most out of the only world we know?
Give me my freedom for as long as I be
All I ask of livin’ is to have no chains on me
All I ask of livin’ is to have no chains on me
And all I ask of dyin’ is to go naturally
The phrase “no chains on me” is a phrase of the time in which Laura Nyro wrote “And When I Die,” although the sentiment is timeless. And the wish to go naturally is something that’s existed in all of us since each of us figured out that there are nastier ways to go.
But the most profound wisdom in “And When I Die” is this:
And when I die, and when I’m dead, dead and gone
There’ll be one child born in our world to carry on, to carry on
So there I am, a man in his 40s, hearing a familiar song transformed, and being transformed by it. Why yes—if it’s peace you find in dying, well then, yes, let the time be near. All I ask of dying is to go naturally. And when I’m gone—when each of us is dead, dead and gone—there’ll be one child born in the world to carry on. The children that follow us might tread more lightly than we, they might be wiser than we, and they might acquire the vision and the wisdom to solve the problems our generation lacks the will to face.
Far from being odd—or scary, or delusional, or demented—“And When I Die” is actually a damned optimistic song.
(Pictured: the Irish Rovers, circa 1968.)
One St. Patrick’s Day, my boss took me out for dinner at a bar owned by his wife’s family, and I got loaded on green beer. (I don’t recommend it.) Another year, the station’s jocks were scheduled to walk in our town’s St. Pat’s parade, dressed in green-trimmed tuxedos and handing out green-tinted carnations. However, a strong thunderstorm rolled through just as the parade was lining up. We got caught in it, trying to take refuge at one point under the overhanging back end of the nearby Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. (I don’t recommend that, either.) Although the parade went on after a delay, it went on without the four of us, who had gone back to the station to wring out our rented suits.
I don’t have any other St. Patrick’s Day memories, and the most Irish thing about me is all the Van Morrison records I own. But I’m not writing about Van today.
(Pictured: the Cars, 1979.)
One night just after school started in 1979, I was on the air at the college radio station when the studio telephone rang. It was the associate editor of the campus newspaper. “We’d like somebody to write a music column for the paper every week,” she said, “and I can’t think of anyone better qualified to do it than you.”
The editor happened to be a former girlfriend of mine, and that was my main qualification for the gig. I had no other legitimate credentials at that point. I’d been on the campus station for less than a year, and I had neither a recognizable on-air style that made me unique nor a golden ear for picking the hits. What I did have was passion for music and the ability to cobble together strings of sentences in English. It was this that she remembered, and so “Stick ‘Em In Your Ear” was born.
Working at a radio station gave me access to new music, concert news, and the occasional concert ticket. Because the station was populated by other music freaks, we often talked, and more often argued, about our preferences and prejudices. As a result, my opinions came to be passionately held and in my columns, bluntly expressed.
I still have clips of these columns somewhere, but I am not proud of them. The young man who wrote them comes across as pompous and arrogant, utterly convinced of his own rectitude and completely lacking empathy for anyone else. Also, the writing is pretty rough. Even the best columns have a tossed-off, stream-of-consciousness feel to them, because that’s how I wrote in those days. When you think you’re perfect just the way you are, you don’t bother to edit.
Thirty-seven years ago this week, the paper published its last edition of the calendar year. In my column that week, I listed my top albums and singles of 1979. Here’s the album list:
2. The Long Run/Eagles
3. Minute by Minute/Doobie Brothers
4. In Through the Out Door/Led Zeppelin
5. 52nd Street/Billy Joel
6. Breakfast in America/Supertramp
7. Rickie Lee Jones
8. Get the Knack
9. Time Passages/Al Stewart
10. Spirits Having Flown/Bee Gees
And the singles:
1. “What a Fool Believes”/Doobie Brothers
2. “Cruel to Be Kind”/Nick Lowe
3. “Heart of Glass”/Blondie
4. “Goodbye Stranger”/Supertramp
5. “Rise”/Herb Alpert
6. “Bad Case of Loving You”/Robert Palmer
7. “Let’s Go”/Cars
8. “Tragedy”/Bee Gees
9. “Goodnight Tonight”/Wings
10. “Sail On”/Commodores
It strikes me that those aren’t bad lists, even after all this time. On the singles list, I overrated “Rise” and “Goodnight Tonight,” and I liked “Heart of Glass” a lot more then than I do now. (If I were ranking these 10 songs now, “Sail On” might be #1.) About Candy-O, I wrote, “It typifies what the late 70s have been about, rockwise.” I don’t agree with that now. Candy-O is actually a break with 70s styles and a precursor of the polished, chilly, danceable 80s rock that MTV would make famous. Including the Bee Gees on both lists was an act of reverse iconoclasm, in which I praised an act most of my readers would have hated—although I still think the dramatic “Tragedy” is pretty good.
What’s missing from these lists is what was missing from our radio station: punk and new wave, with the exception of Blondie and Nick Lowe, whom we considered new-wavey. Also missing: the kind of adventuresome music associated with college radio. We were Top-40 and album-rock fans, as well as aspiring disc jockeys. We wanted to play the hits by the bands we loved, the ones we heard on the radio. Our station played a few songs by new, below-the-radar bands, but most of them left most of us cold. (If we’d paid better attention, we might have realized they resembled the Cars more than they did the Eagles or Doobies.)
About the time this list was published, I was elected program director of the campus radio station, which gave me an entirely new way to inflict my vanity, egotism, and lack of empathy on other people. But that’s a story I’ve told before.
(Rebooted from a post that first appeared on December 6, 2005. Hot damn, I’ve been at this a long time.)
On April 24, 1976, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels did his famous on-air bit inviting the Beatles to reunite on the show for $3,000. Michaels didn’t think they’d really show up, but he also stationed a young staffer at the front door of 30 Rock just in case, fearing that the elderly security guard on the Saturday night detail might not recognize the band members. Nobody knew then that Paul McCartney and John Lennon were watching the show at Lennon’s apartment in the Dakota—or that for a few minutes, they discussed grabbing a cab and heading to the studio.
I don’t remember whether I was watching SNL on that particular night. I’d like to think I was, though, because it makes for an attractive memory: upstairs in my room, late at night, the house is quiet, the windows are open with a spring breeze bringing sounds of the farm in from outside, and the old black-and-white TV lights up the room. (That particular set was one of my oldest and dearest childhood friends. My parents bought it for the basement when I was maybe 10, and it survived long enough to take its place in my first post-college apartment.)
In the end, John and Paul reacted just like regular people often do when confronted with one of those late-night, wild-hair, wouldn’t-it-be-something-if-we-did-it opportunities—they decided they were too tired and didn’t. That’s reassuring, in a way. Not so much that they could be a lot like us, but that we could be a lot like them.
Later that fall, after SNL began its second season, they got one of the Beatles to appear.
The second-season episode of Saturday Night Live that aired on November 20, 1976, is nothing special as comedy. Apart from the opening of the show, which features host Paul Simon in a turkey outfit, and a famous commercial for Quarry, the cereal made from stone, the sketches are among the least clever or interesting in SNL‘s brief history up to that point. It’s the music that makes the show a landmark, and specifically, the musical guest: George Harrison.
Early in the show, Simon and Harrison duet on “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound” (above), two unique voices blending with acoustic guitars that is one of the series’ loveliest musical moments. George’s verse on “Homeward Bound” is especially beautiful. The sequence looked great, too, shot through a filter that softened the video and made it seem almost dreamlike.
For the first time, the show began with an announcement that portions of it were prerecorded—later, Simon mentions that Harrison has “brought two films with him.” In a few years, we’d call them videos, for songs from George’s then-new album Thirty Three and 1/3. “Crackerbox Palace” was directed by Eric Idle of Monty Python. (See if you can spot Idle’s cameo. You’ll have to be very quick.) “This Song” would have been on the radio the night of the SNL broadcast. The video features a cameo by Ron Wood as a female juror.
November 20, 1976, represented the moment at which Saturday Night Live completed the arc from buzzworthy new show to must-see to cultural icon. When they could get a Beatle, instead of simply joking about paying them $3,000 to appear, it wasn’t just a TV show anymore.
(Rebooted from a couple of ancient posts.)