Category Archives: Tributes

Change of the Guard

(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.

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Burning Love

(Pictured: Elvis in the 70s.)

On the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, we present 40 things about Elvis, observations personal and otherwise:

1.  We heard about the death of Elvis while on our last-ever family vacation.
2.  I didn’t want to go, but there was no way I was going to be left unchaperoned for a week with my girlfriend just back from Europe.
3.  The public brouhaha surrounding the death of Elvis looks familiar now, but in 1977, it was something new.
4.  Elvis’ death was not mentioned in People magazine until three weeks later.
5.  There are a lot of people who think he’s not really dead.

6.  In 1954, when young Elvis was interviewed on WHBQ in Memphis, one of the most important questions concerned what high school he attended.
7.  When he said, “Humes,” the audience instantly knew that Elvis was white.

8.  Elvis’ first national TV appearances were on the The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show, six times between January and March 1956, followed by two appearances with Milton Berle.
9.  He appeared on The Steve Allen Show in July 1956, when Allen made him sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound wearing a tuxedo, the sort of dick move for which Allen was famous.
10.  January 6, 1957, the night Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and was shot only from the waist up, was the day my wife’s parents got married.
11.  The 1/6/57 show was Elvis’ third appearance on Sullivan in four months.
12.  The opening track of his Christmas album, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” was pretty strong stuff for 1957, although the moaning, heavy breathing, and other lascivious noises some critics claimed to hear throughout the album just aren’t there.
13.  The oft-told tale that Irving Berlin hated the Elvis version of “White Christmas” and tried to get it banned is apparently false.

14.  The only Elvis movie I have seen start-to-finish is Girl Happy.
15.  It’s terrible, all except for Shelley Fabares, who is perfection.
16.  Throughout the 1960s, long as Elvis’ movies laid golden eggs, Colonel Tom Parker wouldn’t kill the goose, even when Elvis began to object.
17.  Imagine if he’d been managed by a forward-looking businessman like Brian Epstein.
18.  All of Elvis’ most famous songs of the 50s were enormous country hits, but he was entirely absent from the country charts during the movie years between 1961 and 1970.

19.  Between the summer of 1969 and the fall of 1970, Elvis hit the pop Top 10 with “In the Ghetto,” “Don’t Cry Daddy” and “The Wonder of You,” and #1 with “Suspicious Minds.”
20.  During this period, “Kentucky Rain” made it only to #16. If you are surprised by anything you are reading here, that might be it.
21.  “The Wonder of You” is the first Elvis record I can remember hearing on the radio.
22.  This was not long before Elvis made his famous visit to the White House.
23.  “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” which charted early in 1971, is one of my favorite Elvis performances, but “Suspicious Minds” is #1.
24.  During the week of October 28, 1972,  “Burning Love” was kept out of the #1 spot on the Hot 100 by Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling.”
25.  Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” was in the Top 10 the same week, a good one for 50s icons.

26.  On June 25, 1977, Elvis hit the Hot 100 with “Way Down,” which was listed along with its B-side, “Pledging My Love.”
27.  The record hit #40 on July 16, then went 36-35-31-31 before falling to #47 on the chart dated August 20, four days after Elvis died.
28.  Because Billboard was always behind the street, “Way Down” fell to #53 on August 27, but zoomed back to #35 on September 3.
29.  During the week of September 10, the two hottest records within the Top 40 were “Way Down” and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” both up 11 spots.
30.  “Way Down” peaked at #18 on September 24 and remained in the Hot 100 until November.
31.  It hit #1 on the Billboard country chart of August 20, 1977.
32.  The first Elvis tribute record, “The King Is Gone” by Ronnie McDowell, debuted on September 10 and reached #13 on the Hot 100 at the end of October.
33.  The greatest of all Elvis tribute songs, however, is Mojo Nixon’s “Elvis Is Everywhere.”

34.  During a 1977 visit to my town, Madison, Wisconsin, Elvis saw two guys fighting outside a gas station and got out of his limo to stop it.
35.  There’s a historical marker on the site.

36.  If you have not read Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis biography, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, you must.
37.  Also worth reading today: Professor O’Kelly talks about seeing the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue; Any Major Dude With Half a Heart has two Elvis posts with music: one featuring Elvis covers and another featuring movie songs.
38.  The second post in the history of this blog was about Elvis.
39.  One of the few music pieces I ever sold was about our 1997 visit to Graceland (first part here, second part here, third part here).
40.  As I argue in my Graceland piece, Elvis represents both what Americans dream of and what we fear. If he had not existed, we’d have had to invent him.

I Hear You Singin’

(Pictured: Glen Campbell on The Johnny Cash Show, 1969.)

I need to write a little about Glen Campbell, but it’s daunting. My Twitter timeline exploded with goodness in the hours following the announcement of his death yesterday. I couldn’t possibly summarize it, or do as well as other writers. (The image of the Internet as a firehose of information has rarely seemed more appropriate.) But I can cobble together an annotated list. Campbell enjoyed great success on the pop and country charts, but his strongest performance came on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, including a run of 14 out of 15 singles making the Top 10 between 1968 and 1971. So according to those numbers, here are the Top 10 Glen Campbell hits:

10.  “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” (#2 EL, #31 pop, #7 country, 1971). A Roy Orbison cover in which Campbell, his backup singers, and an orchestra get their Ray Charles on.

9.  “It’s Only Make Believe” (#2 EL, #10 pop, #3 country, 1970). From the fabled fall of 1970, this version stomps the 1959 Conway Twitty original into fine powder.

8.  “Don’t Pull Your Love”/”Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” (#1 EL, #27 pop, #4 country, 1976). More than a lot of the other songs on the list, this medley is clearly an artifact of its time. “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” fits Campbell’s voice and style better than “Don’t Pull Your Love.”

7.  “Try a Little Kindness” (#1 EL, #23 pop, #2 country, 1969). If you asked me to pack one Glen Campbell record for the desert island, it would probably be this one.

6.  “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L. A.)” (#1 EL, #11 pop, #3 country, 1976). One night early in my radio career a kid called the studio to ask for it, except he referred to it as “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in a Lake).”

5.  “Sunflower” (#1 EL, #39 pop, #4 country). Written by Neil Diamond, and maybe a little too country for the Top 40 stations that had propelled “Southern Nights” to #1 a couple of months before.

4.  “Rhinestone Cowboy” (#1 EL, #1 pop, #1 country, 1975). The Mrs. tells the story of going on a family vacation during this song’s summertime chart run, and how her four-year-old sister picked it off the radio and sang it, continuously, until it came up in the radio station’s rotation again.

3.  “Southern Nights” (#1 EL, #1 pop, #1 country, 1977). The first time you heard this, it burned itself into your brain, and every time you heard it after that, it stayed with you, continuously, until it came up in the radio station’s rotation again.

2.  “Galveston” (#1 EL, #4 pop, #1 country, 1969). “Galveston” is perfect; there’s not one thing you can imagine that could make it any better. It did six weeks at #1 Easy Listening and three weeks at #1 country. The week it reached #4 on the Hot 100 (4/12/69), it trailed only the Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” by Blood Sweat and Tears, and “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe. (“Dizzy” had recently kept CCR’s “Proud Mary” out of the #1 spot, so Tommy Roe will have a lot to answer for on Judgment Day.)

1.  “Wichita Lineman” (#1 EL, #3 pop, #1 country, 1968/69). This, too, is what perfection sounds like. “I am a lineman for the county / And I drive the main road / Searching in the sun for another overload.” Dude works for the telephone company, or maybe it’s the power company, neither of which is a profession that often makes its way into song. But Jimmy Webb’s genius is that he took this not-easy-to-relate-to job and mined it for metaphors (“I hear you singin’ in the wires”) that anybody could understand. Like “Galveston,” it did six weeks at #1 Easy Listening, and it was a #2 country hit. The week “Wichita Lineman” hit #3 on the Hot 100 (1/11/69), giants walked the earth: it stood behind only “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and the Supremes/Temptations collaboration “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” Also in the Top 10 that week: Stevie Wonder, the Temps and Supremes as individual acts, and “Crimson and Clover.”

(Back in 2012, I wrote a thing for Popdose about Campbell’s Wichita Lineman album, which you can read here.)

If you expected to find “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” here, so did I. But it made only #12 on the Easy Listening chart and #26 on the Hot 100, although it was a #2 country hit in 1968. “Gentle on My Mind,” Campbell’s famous theme song, was #8 Easy Listening, but reached only #30 on the country chart in 1967, and #39 on the Hot 100 when it was re-released a year later.

People drinking from the firehose today are either being reminded or learning for the first time of Glen Campbell’s towering importance to popular music in the last half of the 20th century. We shall not see his like again.

Just Can’t Wait

(Pictured: sometime in the 70s, J. Geils (L) plays guitar as Peter Wolf (R) spontaneously combusts.)

Last night, following the death of guitarist J. Geils, Billboard published a list of the J. Geils Band’s biggest Hot 100 hits. The top two are easy to guess. “Centerfold” did six weeks at #1 in February and March of 1982. During the week of March 27, “Centerfold” sat at #7 and “Freeze Frame” at #10. The latter eventually spent four straight weeks—the entire month of April—at #4.

(Topic for future consideration: the remarkable stasis of the Hot 100 during certain weeks of the early 80s. We’ve touched on it occasionally, how in some weeks the chart would barely move at all. For example, during one of the weeks “Freeze Frame” was at #4, the top 6 positions remained unchanged from the previous week, and the other four songs in the Top 10 merely swapped positions. It’s got to do with Billboard‘s methodology at the time—this was the era of the “super star” or “super bullet,” as explained by a reader a few years ago. Somebody with a decent work ethic ought to look into it.)

You may be surprised to learn that the third-most-popular J. Geils hit on the Hot 100 is not “Give It to Me,” but the marvelous “Must of Got Lost,” which went to #12 during the first week of 1975 and is my favorite thing the band ever did. “Give It to Me” ranks fourth, reaching #30 in the summer of 1973. The list also includes “One Last Kiss,” which somehow crept to #35 during the disco-drenched winter of 1979; “Love Stinks” (which lead singer Peter Wolf now performs as a bluegrass number); “Angel in Blue,” the third single from the Freeze Frame album; and the raucous “Looking for a Love,” which scratched to #39 in January 1972.

There’s one song missing, but it’s not because I didn’t try.

I came up in radio at the end of the era in which local music directors could still use their own ears to make hits. The guy who programmed D93 in Dubuque was one of them, having built up a modest collection of commemorative gold records and attaboys from bands and labels for being among the first in the country to play certain hits. But for every gamble that paid off, there were others that didn’t, and as a result, the station played its share of stiffs that went nowhere.

In the summer of 1980, at WXXQ in Freeport, I was not hired as the music director, but the guy who had the job let me do it anyway. And I figured that if other music directors could turn certain records into hits, I could too. I have written many times about how I jumped on Billy Joel’s “Sleeping With the Television On,” sure it was going to be a smash, but there were a couple of others. I added “Stupefaction” by Graham Parker and the Rumour, most likely because I was a young acolyte of Bruce Springsteen by 1980, and Parker/Springsteen comparisons were in the air that summer. (Vintage video here.) And the first time I heard it, I was damn well sure that “Just Can’t Wait,” the third single from the J. Geils album Love Stinks, was going to eclipse both “Come Back” and “Love Stinks,” and I was going to be one of the first music directors in the country to get on it.

It made the Hot 100 for five weeks, reaching #78 in its second week on and then slowly fizzling out.

As I listen to “Just Can’t Wait” now, it doesn’t sound quite so great as it did then. The best part is the opening riff, and the refrain sticks in your head, but the verses sound pretty weak, and Peter Wolf has sung lots of stuff much better. So maybe America was right about it, and I was wrong.

Not for the first time, and not for the last.

My social media feeds were full of tributes to J. Geils last night and this morning. I’m not surprised. My peeps have excellent taste. Jeff at AM, Then FM, has two great stories. Somebody I don’t know personally, Charlie Pierce of Esquire, tweeted last night that of the 10 best concerts he’s ever seen, three of them were by the J. Geils Band. Lots of people whose curiosity has now been piqued are about to discover why the band is considered one of the great live acts of all time. Good for them.

Chuck’s Children

I can’t remember when I first heard of Chuck Berry. I dimly knew of him before “My Ding-a-Ling” hit the radio in 1972, and I suspect I knew he was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, but that’s it. As the 50s pop culture nostalgia wave crested in the middle of the 1970s, he would have been just another member of the gallery—and I choose the word gallery deliberately instead of pantheon, because they were just guys to me then—the people whose music invoked the vibe of an era I wasn’t old enough to remember.

It would be a few years before I learned more about Chuck Berry, and it’s likely that my education came from a syndicated radio show. At my first paying radio job, it was my responsibility to play the tapes of Sunday at the Memories, hosted by longtime Colorado jock Ray Durkee. Although the show spanned many decades, Durkee loved the 50s the most, and the first historical context I had for Chuck Berry probably came from him.

Since then, I’ve learned that it’s hard to overstate Chuck Berry’s place not just in music history, but in history, period. Charles Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, tweeted Saturday night that Berry was “the primary author of the Declaration of Independence,” which is a superb metaphor for what Berry did. His music was liberation on 45: in his songs, kids didn’t have to be dutiful students and couples didn’t have to keep one foot on the floor. Like Thomas Jefferson in his Declaration, Chuck Berry told us that the course is ours to chart; we don’t have to answer to oppressors just because they say we do, or because we’ve answered to them up til now. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that any teenager who ever rebelled against a parent, a teacher, a cop—any authority figure—is one of Chuck’s children.

A lot of the memorializing of Berry mentions his jail time, his tax troubles, his insistence on being paid in cash, and his quirky performing style in recent years (performing in medley form, rarely a whole song, baffling the pickup bands who backed him as they tried to keep up). But all of that is trivia, and it doesn’t erode Chuck Berry’s place on rock ‘n’ roll’s Mt. Rushmore.

Scientists think that the faces on Mt. Rushmore will be there eons from now. Chuck Berry’s influence might last about as long. Last summer, Chuck Klosterman published But What If We’re Wrong?, in which he tried to imagine which certainties of today might eventually be proven wrong, just as the certainties of 500 and 300 and 100 years have been proven wrong. As part of the thought experiment, he asked which single artist will stand for rock ‘n’ roll a century or two from now, just as John Philip Sousa stands for the entire genre of martial music from 100 years ago. Klosterman settled on Chuck Berry.

And there’s this: On April 22, 1978, Saturday Night Live broadcast the single greatest episode in its history. The last sketch of the night featured Steve Martin, Laraine Newman, Dan Aykroyd, and Jane Curtin as psychics predicting tomorrow’s headlines. Martin’s character predicted that a message from extraterrestrials would appear on the cover of the next week’s Time magazine, sent after they intercepted the famous Voyager Golden Record, which had been launched into space the previous August. Among other artifacts, the record contained audio samples of human culture, including “Johnny B. Goode.” “It may be just four simple words,” Martin says of the message, “but it is the first positive proof that other intelligent beings inhabit the universe.” And then he holds up the cover, which reads, “Send more Chuck Berry.”

They know. As we should.

I don’t do a lot of obituary posts at this blog because other people do them better than I do. Professor O’Kelly knocked out a beauty on Saturday night, for example. This piece from The Guardian, although it’s Anglo-centric and some of the references will be lost on Americans, is really good on Berry’s revolutionary role. Stephen T. Erlewine says that Berry was the sound of 20th century America. And you should read Peter Guralnick’s memories of Berry because you should read everything Peter Guralnick writes.

C’est La Vie

(Pictured: Greg Lake at a snowy rehearsal for an outdoor show in Montreal, 1977.)

We went to grade school together, and to the same church. When I started to really notice her, she was tall, with long hair, and glasses that made her look really intelligent (which she was), and I liked her.

She liked me, too, although not in the same way I liked her. I am sure you understand the difference.

It should have been easy. I should have been able to open my mouth and say, “Would you like to go to a movie/the dance/the game with me?” But I could not form those words in her presence.

One day, I hit upon an alternate plan. A conversation among a bunch of kids had gotten around to music, and she mentioned a group that she liked: Emerson Lake and Palmer. I had heard of them, but I hadn’t heard anything by them. And I made the following leap of logic: She likes ELP. If you listen to ELP, maybe you will like them too, and that might make her start to like you the way you like her.

I see now that there were some flaws in the plan, but 14-year-old me thought it made a lot of sense.

So I borrowed a copy of Brain Salad Surgery. (It might have been hers, actually; she was a kind and generous person even at 14. Or I may have snagged it from the public library.) Honesty compels me to report that I had trouble figuring out what she liked about it. I wouldn’t be confused for long, however. My adolescent prog-rock stage was not far off, and within a year or so, I became an ELP obsessive.

I was a keyboard nerd, so Keith Emerson was the focus for me. But Lake’s voice was the perfect instrument for the stories the band wanted to tell: the war between humanity and computers in “Karn Evil 9,” the brief and tragic love between a soldier and a nurse in the overlooked “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman” from the otherwise-disastrous album Love Beach, the wild west tale of “The Sheriff,” and whatever the hell “Tarkus” is about. Several of his songs from the Works albums, co-written with Peter Sinfield—especially “Closer to Believing,” “C’est La Vie,” “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight,” and “Watching Over You”—are powerfully romantic. Lake’s acoustic guitar work on “Lucky Man,” “From the Beginning,” and “I Believe in Father Christmas” is beautiful, and his electric solo on “Battlefield” from the live album Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends still blows me out of my chair.

In 1977, Emerson Lake and Palmer played two shows in Madison within an eight-month a five-month span. I went to both. If she went to either, it wasn’t with me. We were friendly all through school, though, and we stayed in touch after we went to separate colleges. One year, we were at the same New Year’s Eve party and she let me kiss her at midnight. She invited me to her wedding, and as I sat in the church, a guy in his 20s with his own life and his own wife, a little piece of my heart broke as she went up the aisle.

And suddenly, it’s 2016. Greg Lake dies, and somebody posts the story on Facebook. She comments, and I decide to jump on. “True story that you probably don’t know,” I write. “I started listening to Emerson Lake and Palmer because you said you liked them, and it was easier than asking you for a date.”

“I hope they brought you the years of happiness that they did for me,” she responds. “And I’d have probably said yes.”

Well.

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