Category Archives: Repeat Posts

A Lot of Music in It

(Pictured: Emerson Lake & Palmer.)

In the summer of 2009, I wrote a four-part series based on a daybook I kept during 1976. It wasn’t a diary; it was a page-a-week calendar on which I noted various bits of trivia day by day: celebrity birthdays, odd holidays—and, most significant now, brief notes about things happening in my life. It had been boxed away for a very long time, and when I rediscovered it, I hoped that it might help me better understand why 1976 has a hold on me that I’ll never shake. The first part follows, slightly edited.

Like all other years, 1976 had a lot of music in it. On Sunday January 11, the family made a trip to the mall in Madison, and I bought Kraftwerk’s Autobahn album. The next week, I noted that I had borrowed Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery album from a friend. (I borrowed Frampton Comes Alive! from another friend that spring, although I didn’t write it in the daybook. I ended up buying him a replacement after somebody stole it out of my locker.) On February 29, I celebrated what would have been my fourth “real” birthday, and among the gifts I received was Station to Station, David Bowie’s latest album, which I got on an 8-track tape. I bought a couple more albums in March: Queen’s A Night at the Opera on the 12th and Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon on the 14th.

The juxtaposition of those two albums amuses me now: Queen defiantly asserted “no synthesizers” on A Night at the Opera‘s liner notes, while Tangerine Dream was entirely electronic, and that’s why I bought it, even though I’d never heard of Tangerine Dream. I got it in a cutout bin for a couple of bucks, imagining it would be full of the proggy synthesizer pyrotechnics I was into at the moment. What it was, however, was ambient music, which was a fairly big leap for me (Autobahn notwithstanding). The album is still up here in the office somewhere, although I don’t think I’ve listened to it more than a couple of times. I decided to stick with prog rock. On July 16, I bought Rick Wakeman’s No Earthly Connection.

As the summer began, I started noting the names of the artists that were being featured every night on Madison’s WIBA-FM, starting with Monty Python on June 1. Other artists featured that month: Jethro Tull, the Charlie Daniels Band, the Beatles, Paul Butterfield, Brian Auger, Ace, Pablo Cruise, Little Feat, and Alice Cooper. I would keep it up all summer. When Paul McCartney and Wings (June 2) and Elton John (July 28 and 30) played concerts in Chicago, I wrote that down, too. At the top of each weekly page, I noted the Number-One songs and albums of the week, taken from the various countdown shows I followed religiously. On July 3, I listened as WMAQ, Chicago’s big country station, counted down the top 76 country records of all time—such was my chart geekery in that summer.

So what the daybook indicates first and foremost is that music was everything to me in 1976—but that wouldn’t have been news to anyone then, and it isn’t news to you now.

In the next installment: brief and maddeningly incomplete glimpses of teenage life.

April 9, 1976

(Pictured: Helen Reddy, circa 1976.)

(This is a repost from 2014. Perspective at the end is from 2016.)

April 9, 1976, is a Friday. Frisch’s Big Boy Restaurants in the greater Cincinnati area invite you in for fish fillets tonight with fries, salad, and a roll for $1.60. It’s the second day of the major-league baseball season, but only two games were played yesterday; 16 teams open their seasons today, including the Chicago Cubs, who lose to the Cardinals 5-0 in St. Louis. On a trip to Texas, President Ford visits the Alamo in San Antonio during the morning and then goes to Dallas. He throws out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ season opener, staying only for the first inning. In the first pro sports event at the new Seattle Kingdome, Pele scores two goals as the New York Cosmos defeat the Seattle Sounders in pro soccer, 2-1. Folksinger Phil Ochs, most famous for “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” hangs himself; he was 35. A strong earthquake kills eight people in Ecuador. In Nagoya, Japan, a 13-year-old boy takes a series of photos that seem to show a UFO. In Syracuse, New York, the Onondaga County Public Library unveils its new logo. In Madison, Wisconsin, the first edition of a new weekly newspaper, Isthmus, is laid out in the living room of one of its co-founders.

New movies in theaters include All the President’s Men starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford and Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. On daytime TV, Foster Brooks ends a week co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show; guests today include Gloria Swanson, Frankie Valli, and Geraldo Rivera. The Merv Griffin Show welcomes Kaye Ballard, Jack Jones, comedian Charlie Callas and impressionist Marilyn Michaels. In prime time, the animated special The First Easter Rabbit, featuring the voices of Burl Ives and Robert Morse, airs on NBC, and so does The Rockford Files. CBS airs an episode of Sara, starring Brenda Vaccaro as a schoolteacher in an 1870 Colorado town. She will be nominated for an Emmy, but the show will end after 13 episodes.

Rush plays the Indianapolis Coliseum with special guests Ted Nugent and the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver. On separate bills, Genesis and Donovan play New York City. The Electric Light Orchestra and Journey play Huntsville, Alabama. Bruce Springsteen plays Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.

The Midnight Special airs on NBC following Johnny Carson. Host Helen Reddy welcomes Fleetwood Mac, who perform a blazing version of their new hit “Rhiannon.” Also on the show, Gary Wright, Barry Manilow, Queen, and Hamilton Joe Frank & Reynolds, who perform “Fallin’ in Love” with Reddy and their recent hit “Winners and Losers,” and then come back for a second spot doing “Every Day Without You.”

Perspective From the Present: I was equipment manager of the high school baseball team, and we had a scrimmage on that Friday after school. That night, a couple of friends and I went to the local drive-in theater for what I recall as some terrible movies (although I don’t remember what they were), killing time until midnight. The Key Club at my high school was putting on a marathon basketball game that weekend, in which teams signed up to play for an hour at a time from Friday afternoon through Sunday night. I was on a team scheduled to play at midnight and again at 5AM, so the night of April 9 and 10, 1976, marked the first time I ever stayed up all night. Spring break (known to us then as Easter vacation) started on Monday the 12th. On the Tuesday the 13th, I passed my behind-the-wheel test and got my driver’s license; on Wednesday the 14th, the local radio station said they’d hire me for the summer—although they didn’t follow through on that.

An eventful few days, for sure. And now 40 years behind us.

Shot in the Dark

(Pictured: a woman gets a swine-flu shot.)

(You may have forgotten that In the spring of 2009, there was a swine-flu scare. It sparked memories of the swine flu scare of 1976. I wrote about it in March 2009.)

As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam, it never takes this blog very long to get back to 1976. This week, however, we’ve all gone back. The burgeoning swine flu outbreak has inspired memories of the previous swine flu threat, which was one of the top news stories of 1976. There’s a pretty good summary of the story right here and a timeline of newspaper headlines from the period here, which reminded me of a lot I had forgotten.

The scare started in February, peaked in March and April, and spiked again in early August after the Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak in Philadelphia (which had nothing to do with the swine flu). As summer turned to fall, preparations to vaccinate all 220 million Americans for swine flu were underway. The government rolled out a couple of public-service announcements to encourage people to participate.

It’s impossible to gauge whether the PSAs helped, or how much. In the weeks before the vaccination program began, polls showed only about half of Americans were planning to get the shot. Vaccinations began in October, and reports of adverse reactions to the vaccine began almost immediately. Weeks of intense controversy followed. By the time the vaccination program was suspended in December, after the vaccine was linked to the paralyzing neuromuscular disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome, between a quarter and a third of Americans had been vaccinated. The rest of us decided we’d rather take our chances with the flu. As I recall, there was no panic at my house. I did not live through my favorite year in the shadow of impending doom, because it wouldn’t have been my favorite year if I had. We must have discussed whether to get vaccinated, but I don’t think any of us did. As it turned out, the flu itself killed exactly one person—a soldier at Fort Dix who died in February, and whose death started the whole scare. Swine-flu vaccine killed 25 others and sickened about 500. By late 1978, the government faced over $2 billion in claims from people who said they’d had vaccine reactions.

Many government officials suggested in succeeding years that the Ford Administration had little choice but to do what it did, although it’s worth noting that the director of the Centers for Disease Control got fired over the debacle in early 1977, so even back then, there was a perception that the whole thing was goofy. In the end, the swine-flu fiasco had a lot in common with many other things we did during the 1970s: It seemed like a good idea at the time even though it looks pretty silly now.

Riding the Storm Out

(Rebooted from a post that originally appeared in March 2011. Of the nearly 2,000 posts in the history of this blog, this very lengthy one is one of my half-dozen favorites.)

Forty years ago today, on March 4, 1976 (which was a Thursday), an ice storm smashed into southern Wisconsin. Rain began falling during the morning commute; as the day went on, the rainfall continued, eventually setting a record, while the temperature hovered right around freezing. Up to five inches of ice coated tree branches and power lines, causing them to break. Ice-covered electrical transformers exploded, as shown in a dramatic photo on the front page of the Madison Capital Times on Friday, March 5. Strong winds on Thursday night and Friday brought down more trees and power lines. Even worse than the lack of light and heat was the shortage of water, as pumping stations powered by electricity shut down.

An hour to the south of Madison, the mayor of Monroe declared a state of emergency on Thursday, telling reporters that half the mature trees in the city were down or damaged. City crews cleared broken branches from the streets with snowplows. Up to half the homes in the city were without power. Shelters were set up at the Armory and City Hall.

At our farm southwest of Monroe, we lost the lights at about 11:30 on Thursday morning. It was a common occurrence in those days—the power would go out a few times each summer during thunderstorms, although it was rare for it to happen in the winter. If I’m recalling correctly, my father had a generator by this time, purchased after the Palm Sunday tornado of 1965. It would provide enough power to milk his cows, but the generator was never used to power the house. We had to hunker down and ride it out. For a while it seemed like an adventure, until we kids realized that our well had an electric pump, and water was about to get scarce. I can still remember how my mother went off when one of us flushed a toilet by force of habit at some point on Thursday evening. That, and the sound of the wind howling around the dark, cold farmhouse.

By Friday evening, the power situation was getting better; the winds had died down a little, permitting crews to repair some lines, but it would be a long time before all of the darkened rural areas would get power back. (Ours wouldn’t return until Sunday afternoon.) And so my brothers and I were packed off to stay with friends in town. Travel conditions had improved enough so that my high school’s basketball team could play its regional tournament game in Platteville, an hour away; the friend I was staying with went to the game, but for some reason I didn’t. (It was just as well—Monroe lost 73-39 to Madison West.)

The basketball game showed that even in the face of an historic event, the day-to-day stuff of life continued. Some of that stuff is on the flip.

Continue reading →

Smart Enough to Figure

Here’s a reboot of a post from 2006 about a series of events that took place in November and December of 1994.

On the first working day of 1994, I got fired from my full-time radio gig. I spent that year working part-time in radio, looking for a job in (or, preferably, out) of the broadcasting industry. In November, I answered a blind-box ad in a trade magazine for a jock job that matched my qualifications—and got it. They’d advertised it as being “in the Milwaukee area,” although it turned out to be in Racine, Wisconsin, which is about 30 miles south of Milwaukee, far enough to be its own radio market with nearby Kenosha. But it was close enough for The Mrs. and me, so we made plans to move.

The general manager and I decided that I would start in January, but he asked if I’d consider coming to town on a couple of weekends in December to do some client remotes. Sure, I said. The first weekend, the program director and I did a remote broadcast at a jewelry store. Between segments, the PD—we will call him Chuck because that is not his real name—shared with me a few tales that sounded pretty far out of school, about the incompetence of the owner, the ineptitude of the staff, and the station’s lousy equipment, none of which had been apparent to me when I interviewed. I didn’t say much, but I kept careful mental notes.

The next weekend, the general manager invited me to his house for dinner. “There are a couple of things you need to know,” he told me as he handed me a beer. “First, there was a little problem with your remote last weekend.” It turns out the client had been very dissatisfied with my performance. He apparently didn’t like what I said on the air or how I was dressed, despite the fact I said and wore the same things I’d said at and worn for every remote I’d done in my life—and despite the fact that the store was full of listeners spending money the whole time I was there. The general manager downplayed the objections, although he did let slip that the station’s absentee owner had parachuted into town from his suburban-Chicago home for the sole purpose of assuaging the client.

“The other thing you need to know,” said the GM as he handed me a second beer, “is that Chuck gave his notice this week.” He had been the station’s third PD in the last eight months. During the interview process, I had vehemently insisted that I had no interest in being program director of the station, ever. Now the job was looking me right in the face, on top of the other stuff I’d learned about the station since I took the job.

It made for a long and sleepless night at the Super 8.

The next day, Chuck and I did our remote. We talked more about the station and about his decision to leave. I asked a lot more questions this time. As we were pulling into the station’s parking lot afterward, I said to him: “You don’t have to answer this question if you don’t want to, but if you were me, would you take this job?” Chuck, without pausing for a second (and to his eternal credit), said, “No.”

Monday morning, back home in Iowa, I called the general manager and told him I wouldn’t be coming to work for him after all. I felt bad about it, because he was a decent guy, but I’m sure he was smart enough to figure out the reason why.

Otis

(Pictured: Otis Redding with the Bar-Kays, 1967.)

Here’s a post that first appeared at this blog 10 years ago today, about something that happened 48 years ago today. It’s been edited a bit, because anything that old is gonna need some.

Early in the new millennium, our ABC-TV affiliate here in Madison celebrated its 50th anniversary with a special on its history, featuring lots of clips and stories from people who worked both in front of the cameras and behind them. Among the many news clips was footage of debris from Otis Redding’s airplane being removed from Lake Monona following the crash that killed him and all but one member of his band. What the cameraman remembered most was what the station couldn’t show, then or now: he filmed crews pulling up Redding’s seat, with Otis’ body still strapped into it.

It happened on December 10, 1967. It was a foggy and miserable Sunday in the Madison area. Commercial flights were grounded because the weather was so bad, but that’s why Redding had his own plane—an up-and-coming star couldn’t stay on the rise if he was going to miss gigs. He and his band, the Bar-Kays, were coming into town from Cleveland for a show at the Factory, a downtown club on Gorham Street (a location that’s a bookstore today).

Many stories about Redding’s death erroneously claim the crash happened after the concert, a la Buddy Holly, but the twin-engine Beechcraft was on final approach to Truax Field around 3:00 in the afternoon for the show that night. Due to the weather, it apparently had to make a second approach, and circled out over Lake Monona. Nobody’s quite sure what happened next—not even the National Transportation Safety Board—but just before 3:30, the plane crashed into Lake Monona, not far from where the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center stands today.

Three days before the Madison crash, Redding had recorded a new song. The recording wasn’t finished yet—Otis had whistled one part of the song and intended to write another verse later. The song was “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” and it became a classic almost instantly upon its release, but it’s also had the effect of skewing the way people think about Otis. It was quiet and introspective, and made it easy to picture a wistful troubadour strumming a guitar at the edge of the water. (Ironic, given how he died.) “The Dock of the Bay” was utterly unlike anything he’d recorded before—far different than the deep Southern soul tunes for which he was known, and so different that record company officials didn’t want to release it. But because it’s one of the few Otis tunes that endured in the oldies-radio pantheon, it’s all many folks know about him.

Redding wasn’t a legend on December 10, 1967—that would come only after “The Dock of the Bay.” The direction his career might have taken after 1967 is one of music’s most intriguing what-ifs.

(Further recommended reading: this 2007 piece about the crash from our local alt-weekly.)

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