(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.
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.
(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.”
(Pictured: the Raiders, whose 1971 hit “Indian Reservation” has an interesting backstory.)
In this cursed year of 2016, which has cost us so many people we love and led to so much misery besides, you may have failed to notice the death of singer/songwriter John D. Loudermilk in September. He was 82, and he died having written or co-written a number of songs in the late 50s and early 60s that were once quite familiar, and may still be familiar to the sort of geek who hangs out in these parts: the garage-rocker “Tobacco Road,” first recorded by the Nashville Teens; “Waterloo,” a big country hit for Stonewall Jackson; “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” recorded by the Casinos and later by Eddy Arnold; “Abilene” and “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” both hits for country-pop singer George Hamilton IV; the Everly Brothers’ “Ebony Eyes”; “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” made famous by Eddie Cochran; “Norman,” “Paper Tiger,” and “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry),” recorded by Sue Thompson; and the country smash “Talk Back Trembling Lips,” a #1 country hit for Ernest Ashworth, with pop covers by Johnny Tillotson and others.
(Digression: listening to some of these songs while writing this post, I found it remarkable how many of them I remember hearing on Mother and Dad’s radio before I had one of my own. You couldn’t turn on country radio in the late 60s without hearing something by John D. Loudermilk, apparently.)
Loudermilk hit the Hot 100 four times himself: his version of “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” released under the name Johnny Dee, hit #38 in 1957, and “Language of Love” reached #32 in 1961. He also hit the country chart twice between 1963 and 1965. Loudermilk’s most famous song, however, is “Indian Reservation (Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian).” He recorded it himself in 1960, and Englishman Don Fardon hit #20 on the Hot 100 with his version in 1968. In the summer of 1971, “Indian Reservation” became a #1 hit for the Raiders in a version that sounds a lot like Fardon’s.
“Indian Reservation” plays a part in one of the most infamous moments in the history of American Top 40. Casey Kasem considered Loudermilk’s story of how the song was written to be the most incredible tale he ever presented. Loudermilk told AT40 that after his car got stuck in a mountain snowdrift during a blizzard, he was kidnapped by a group of Cherokee Indians, including one who called himself Chief Bloody Bear Tooth. They held him hostage, performing Indian rituals and torturing him. When they found out he was a songwriter, they asked him to write a song about the struggles faced by American Indians. He refused, and the torture got worse. Finally, figuring it was his only chance at survival, Loudermilk consented to write the song, and his captors let him go after four days. After a few years, when the song became a big hit, the Cherokees’ message finally got out.
Casey told the story on a 1971 edition of the program and repeated it in November 1975 (on an edition of AT40 recently rebroadcast around the country), emphasizing again how it was the most unbelievable tale AT40 had ever told.
Unbelievable is right. The story was a complete fabrication, a trick played by Loudermilk on his AT40 interviewer. This much is true: he was asked by a Cherokee tribal leader to write a song about the Indians’ plight, but it didn’t require any torture to get him to consent. Years later, Loudermilk learned that his great-great grandparents were Cherokee, and that they had been marched west on the infamous Trail of Tears.
John D. Loudermilk didn’t really try to hide the fact that he made the whole thing up. According to his New York Times obituary, the liner notes of his 1971 album Volume 1: Elloree include the words, “P.S. My regards to Bloody Bear Tooth.”
(Pictured: Muhammad Ali speaks to students at St. John’s University in 1971.)
I wasn’t going to write about Muhammad Ali. Others have more interesting things to say and will say them better. But I found myself thinking about growing up in the 70s while Ali was becoming the legend we lost last week. This post is off-topic in that it has nothing to do with music, but squarely on-topic in that it’s very much about the time to which this blog is forever returning.
Back in the days when hamburgers cost a dime and a family of four could eat for less than five bucks, when I was no more than five or six years old, we sat down in a fast-food restaurant, and at a table nearby was a black family.
I had never seen a real live black person before. There was a mother and father and a couple of kids about our age—in other words, a mirror image of us, except for the black part—and we watched them eat the way you’d watch a family of exotic animals in the wild. (I have tried to think of a kinder way to describe it, more than 50 years later, but it’s the only simile that fits.)
I will not tell you exactly what was said around our table as we watched, what my parents told us about black people, only that it was not said with malice; it was the kind of misinformation that came from having utterly no personal experience with them apart from hearsay. They didn’t know any black people, and I doubt they had ever met any, or even seen many, growing up as they did in the rural Midwest from the 30s to the 50s. Nevertheless, in that time, and in the 1960s I’m talking about here, lily-white Midwesterners casually threw around the words “darkie” and “nigger” (although my parents did not), and those words made clear that whoever such people were, they were not like us.
Because black people were not like us, when Muhammad Ali refused to report for induction into the military in 1967, and when he returned to boxing in 1970 and became famous once more for his outspokenness, he was not especially well-liked in my lily-white Midwestern world. I can’t remember what I thought, but March of 1971, many in my world rooted for quiet Joe Frazier to shut loudmouth Ali up. And even as Ali’s fame grew—and as we became more accustomed to flashy black athletes, and we granted greater respect to African Americans in general—there was still resistance to him. Watching him verbally spar with Howard Cosell on Wide World of Sports was entertaining, but it could be jarring at the same time. Nobody else talked like that. Nobody either black or white, but Ali’s blackness, because it was alien to so many, made his flamboyance seem especially outlandish. When he lost to Leon Spinks in February of 1978 (a rare fight that was on broadcast TV in prime time when we could see it), many people were happy the next morning that Spinks had shut loudmouth Ali up. He was the most famous man in the world, yes, but universally beloved, not yet.
Ali’s reputation, from the 60s to the 80s, was a more problematic thing than we like to remember. Not because of him—hindsight and the judgments of history have shown us that Ali was being the only man it was possible for him to be. It’s because of us, and how we thought about him and those like him.
I believe I am–and I hope that you are—kinder and wiser than we once were toward those whose experiences we do not, cannot share, those of other races, genders, and sexual orientations. Muhammad Ali’s uncompromising pursuit of what he needed to be helped show us how we needed to be. It was not his responsibility to earn our respect. It became our responsibility to give it to him.
(Pictured: Prince takes a bow after playing the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI in 2007.)
After Prince died last month, I wrote a post about him that never got out of the drafts folder, because the day after his death was not the time to be critical of any aspect of his work. I’m not sure a month later is the right time, either, but one paragraph of that post seems worthy of the light of day.
From “Soft and Wet” on forward, you’d have a hard time finding an artist more consistently sexual/sensual than Prince. Michael Jackson sang about matters physical even though it was hard to imagine him even speaking to a woman, let alone bedding one. In the 80s, at least, Madonna was as much about teasing as she was about actually getting it on. Prince, on the other hand, often sounded like he’d just extricated himself from a partner (or two, or three) and hurried out of the sack to make the session. Sometimes, his viewpoint was pubescent: “Sugar Walls,” which he wrote and produced for Sheena Easton, is built on a metaphor that’s only sexy if you’re 12 years old; “U Got the Look,” a duet he cut with Easton, contains the lines “If love is good / Let’s get to rammin'”; Rolling Stone‘s obituary notes that he wanted Vanity, one of his protegés, to call herself “Vagina.” His “Darling Nikki” bears a great deal of responsibility for the Parents Music Resource Center and the parental advisory stickering of albums.
I’m not a prude—not by a long shot—but the sexual content of Prince’s records seemed pandering to me, at least to the person I was in the 80s. It seemed to me then that his focus on sex was a cheap way of getting noticed, and that he was capable of better. But I understand now what a significant aspect of his artistic vision it was. Certain artists in more recent times have tried going the same way—Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and Beyoncé, for example—but Prince got there first. And probably best.
Plausibly Related: I have not mentioned it here or on Twitter, although I did post a note on Facebook when it happened: my father-in-law died on April 12. (Today would have been his 80th birthday.) Hal had been in failing health for two or three years, and in a nursing home on Cape Cod for about a year. The Mrs. had just visited him during the first weekend in April, and he went into the hospital for the last time a few days after that. We were on the Cape a couple of weekends ago for a memorial service; at some point this summer, there will be a service in western Iowa, where he will be buried next to Ann’s mother, who died in 1992.
I have written about my father’s collection of polka 45s and my mother’s talents as a piano player. But Ann’s parents didn’t seem to be into music all that much. I never saw a record collection in any of their houses; Ann says they had only a few Christmas albums. When she and her siblings were growing up, her parents listened mostly to classical music or easy listening on the radio, but strictly as background. They weren’t consciously putting on Mozart, or anything like that.
After Hal remarried, he seems to have gotten into music a bit more, most likely influenced by his new spouse. A couple of years ago, as he was divesting himself of possessions he didn’t need or want to keep, we inherited a box of CDs that contained some jazz and several terrific Time-Life easy-listening compilations—Henry Mancini, Mantovani, Roger Williams, and so on. The box also contained Robert Palmer’s 1992 album Ridin’ High, a album of jazz and pop standards.
There is one rock ‘n’ roll story that involves Hal. He had a sister who lived in the Seattle area, and after one visit there, he told us about a friend of his sister’s he had met. The friend said her daughters played in a band.
“I think you might know who they are,” Hal said. “The Wilson sisters.”
We thought about it for a second. “You mean Heart?”
“Yes, that’s it.”