It’s a pleasant July evening, only a year or two ago. I have just finished a little speech I had to give when a man walks up to me. “Jim?”
I clap on the smile a radio guy claps on when he’s doing an appearance and somebody wants to meet him. “Hi!”
The man extends his hand to shake mine. A moment passes. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
I had met Tim when he started attending my school in fifth grade. I don’t remember when I first met Alan. I may have known Randy since kindergarten. We played football, basketball, and softball at recess and we often sat together in the cafeteria, and although each of us moved within a larger circle of friends, the four of us had a bond.
Alan lived in a small subdivision on the edge of town where the houses backed up to farmland. One night in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, we decided to go camping in the woods behind Alan’s house. We rounded up a couple of pup tents, sleeping bags, flashlights, and a stash of 12-year-old-kid food—plus a radio, provided by me. And late on a Friday afternoon, we carried our load into the woods.
We had trouble finding a good spot for a campsite, or at least that’s what we told ourselves. It’s just as likely that we found the woods, which were pretty thick, to be a bit less than hospitable. So we set up our tents in a cleared hay field just beyond the trees. We wanted very badly to build a fire, but Alan’s parents had told him that was out of the question. Fortunately, it was the height of hot summertime, so staying warm that night wasn’t going to be a problem. (Alan’s parents knew that warmth is not the main reason 12-year-old boys are interested in fire anyway.)
After we set up our campsite, we went exploring. I expect that we also brought a ball and gloves, or maybe a football to toss. As evening turned into night and it got too dark to risk one of us failing to catch the ball, we started talking: about sports, about school, about our friends, and eventually, about girls we liked. This was a big step for guys our age. Each of us knew that the others were interested in girls in the general sense, but singling out specific ones was risky. If you didn’t trust your friends to keep your secret, it was likely to get onto the grapevine, and then everyone would know.
We didn’t fall asleep until very, very, very late that night. I remember hearing the overnight jock on WLS, a guy I had never heard before. Because the radio was on the whole time, some songs we heard that night will remind me of it forever after: “Lean on Me” and “How Do You Do,” “I’ll Take You There” and “Where Is the Love.”
I woke up early on Saturday morning and crawled out of the tent to take a leak, wondering if the guys in the other tent were awake yet. It couldn’t have been much past 6AM before everybody was up, and we decided pretty quickly that we’d had enough camping. We folded up the tents, packed our stuff, and went back to Alan’s house to get some breakfast.
And the years passed.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
He introduces himself, tells me about his job, about his family, grown children and a grandbaby on the way. The conversation lasts only a minute or two. As we part, I picture pup tents in a field and 12-year-olds telling secrets. I hear a radio that stayed on all night. And I think about how long ago it was, but how close it still seems.
(Whenever we can’t find another picture that seems appropriate, we’re gonna post one of Linda Ronstadt.)
This blog began on July 11, 2004. That makes today its 13th anniversary. As is customary, here’s a list of some favorite posts since last July 11. (Find other anniversary greatest-hits posts here.)
—Every one of us, whether we work in radio or not, was once a starry-eyed beginner on our first day. Later, some of us become victims of job burnout. And some of us get fired. Those who are still working in radio need to to answer the following question: “What am I doing on the air every day that nobody else can do?” And every small-town radio station needs to ask itself, “Why are we doing the same stuff today we did in 1974?”
—A couple of posts about former Los Angeles radio jock Humble Harve Miller (here and here) continue to get lots of hits from people searching for information about the scandalous events that derailed his career and sent him to prison. A post about hosting an all-request radio show became the most commented-on post in months. Also popular amongst the readership were two posts answering radio questions (here and here). If you have a question, send it in.
—The summer of 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, “a celebration of the Beatles before the drugs took hold.” Three years before the release of that album, the Beatles stormed the charts in their first official compilations. And six years before that, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, an album that required Top 40 stations to make some decisions, because it had no single.
—I reviewed a biography of Tiny Tim that tried too hard to turn its subject into someone more important than he was, and a Steely Dan reference book that tested the patience of a super-fan. Joel Selvin’s book about Altamont was a million times better than either one.
—Several posts ranked the tracks on certain famous albums, including Boston, Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, and Hotel California. A tweet of mine about whether anyone had ever made three albums in a row as good as Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street got a lot of response.
—This blog has a TV category, and we’re not afraid to use it. I wrote about the music of M*A*S*H and some impressions of the last half-dozen seasons of the show after watching them for the first time in many years. Other posts discussed Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, watching 38 K-Tel record album commercials in a row, and an obscure animated series of the 60s with some good music.
—A post about The Partridge Family that originally appeared at Popdose is one of my favorite posts I ever wrote for anybody.
—American Top 40 shows provide a lot of the ideas for this blog. I wrote about the show’s tradition of July 4 weekend specials, and the 1974 show that helped me put the “idiot” into “idiot savant.” Another show inspired a post about a family tableau that’s almost certainly a lie, and another discussed the single biggest whopper Casey Kasem ever told.
—The long-running feature One Day in Your Life became its own blog in January of this year. The last ODIYL post to appear here looked back to December 23, 1966. Also during the Christmas season, we paid tribute to one of “one of the most popular human beings of the 20th century.”
—I wrote about rediscovering a compilation CD I made and then forgot about, about Watergate songs, and about the songs that woke up the astronauts. I imagined a 1972 kitchen-table scene in New Haven, Connecticut, and a Louisiana Sunday in December 1941. And I wondered how, or whether, the children of this era will listen to their music 40 or 50 years from now.
—If I had asked her the question I couldn’t bring myself to ask her, she would probably have said yes.
The future of this blog is that it will continue to hump onward pretty much like it does now. To each of you amongst the readership, my many thanks.
Last summer, I wrote about a series of cassettes I made called the Magnum Opus, which went out to the curb because I had no real need to keep them anymore. I am still holding on to dozens of cassettes containing various songs I dubbed from radio station copies and other sources (even though I don’t have anything to play them on). What follows is excerpted and edited from an ancient journal entry inspired by one of them. It repeats some stuff I have noodled about previously at this blog, although it occurs to me I probably noodled about it in this journal entry first.
On these tapes, I have historically made little attempt to organize by artist or genre. Weird juxtapositions are part of the fun. I was listening in the car this morning when CCR’s scarifying “Born on the Bayou” was followed immediately by the lush “Mr. Lucky” by Henry Mancini, an orchestrated instrumental punctuated with big slabs of overripe organ.
“Mr. Lucky” gave way to “Summer Samba” by Walter Wanderley. Unlike “Mr. Lucky,” “Summer Samba” comes with associations, not specific events as much as the color and angle of the light, the feeling of a time when Saturdays lasted forever, and when the best way to spend them was playing in the barn or the machine shed. When we were unmistakably children, safe in the bosom of the family, perhaps vaguely aware of Vietnam and civil rights, but untouched by their implications. “Summer Samba” was followed by “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross. It was popular about the time I was born, so the images it inspires are made from something other than experience. I listen hard to imagine a time when such a gentle thing could have been on the radio, and I wonder what it said to people who took it to heart.
All of these songs seem like artifacts from an innocent world, which is both a distortion and absolutely true. A distortion, because we were never as innocent as we like to think, and absolutely true, because nothing like them would ever make it big in our cynical age.
More instrumentals followed, and I was distracted by the car wash, but the hangover of this little trip back in time is with me now, an hour or so later. And I wonder what the hell it all means, this involuntary coming-unstuck-in-time. Is it a symptom of age? Evidence of the fact that my life today is neither what I expected nor what I wanted it to be? Or is it for the same reason I have always time-traveled—because the past seems happily manageable while the present seems chaotic and the future looks dark and menacing?
Maybe manageable isn’t the right word. Maybe malleable is better. What we love about the past may be that it’s happily malleable. We can make of it what we like. What we remember is not what really was. If we were granted our wish to go back to whatever season we would like to relive, we would certainly be shocked at how foreign it seems. And so we travel in time at our peril, especially if we expect to learn lessons we can use in the present. (Would that the conservatives who want to turn back the clock to 1958 or 1948 or 1888 understood this.)
But I find comfort in such travel, however unfaithful to reality it may be.
It was Kurt Vonnegut who wrote about being “unstuck in time,” in Slaughterhouse-Five. He explained that residents of the planet Tralfamadore are able to live in all of their moments at once. When they look up into the night sky, they don’t see points of light, they see streaks of spaghetti. They see everywhere a star has ever been and everywhere it will ever go. When a Tralfamadorian dies, his fellows do not mourn. They recognize that at one particular point, yes, he’s dead, but there are many other points at which he’s alive and well.
Although I lack the Tralfamadorian ability to see every moment at once, I do what I can. Sometimes I remember my parents as younger, my grandparents as living, old friends as not lost. I hold my girlfriend’s hand in the 70s. Forty people sing along with “Born to Run” in my college apartment. Ann walks up the aisle to me in 1983. We laugh ourselves silly at a wedding in the 90s. Sometimes I just look at the color and the angle of the light.
(Pictured: the Beatles pose with the Sgt. Pepper album jacket, May 1967.)
Being for the benefit of your eyeballs in the wake of the weekend:
Thinking about Gregg Allman, it occurs to me that the Allman Brothers Band’s greatest achievement may have been that as Southern rock proliferated in the 70s, nobody else ever successfully pinched their sound. A lot of bands sounded like they were imitating one another (Lynryd Skynryd to .38 Special to Molly Hatchet to the Outlaws to Blackfoot and onward), but the Allmans never sounded like anybody else. Although they could boogie if they chose, being a goodtime boogie band was never their identity the way it was for some of their contemporaries.
The only band in the Allmans’ league as Southern rock innovators was the Marshall Tucker Band. So I shouldn’t really have been surprised when Tucker’s “Can’t You See” checked in at #5 on Sirius/XM’s list of the 100 most influential songs from the first classic rock era (1965-1975), counted down over the weekend. You can guess a lot of what’s on the list without seeing it: “Stairway to Heaven” and “Layla” were #1 and #2, and the top 10 included “All Along the Watchtower,” “Hotel California,” “Gimme Shelter,” “White Room,” and others. I knew going in that I wouldn’t hear anything shocking. (The biggest surprise to me apart from “Can’t You See” was the complete omission of “Like a Rolling Stone.”) But I also knew that there wouldn’t be any clunkers, and it made for a mighty entertaining eight hours of radio on our long weekend car trip.
We also spent some time listening to the new Sirius/XM Beatles channel. My first impression is a weird one: it doesn’t play enough Beatles. It’s playing lots of the members’ solo work, as well as songs produced or inspired by them, and/or featuring one or more of them as sidemen. I could get used to that, I guess, but I’d still like to hear more of them together. One thing that needs to die a swift death, however, is the sprinkling of Beatle-themed novelty records. Their curiosity value is far outweighed by the fact that most of them are horrid, and they trivialize what they’re supposed to celebrate.
Tomorrow (Thursday, June 1), the Beatles Channel will celebrate Pepper Day with the new edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The broadcast will feature commentary from Giles Martin, son of George, who oversaw the 50th anniversary reissue, and will start at 5
:00 PM Eastern time. To be historically accurate, however, S/XM should be airing it continuously all day and for the next several days, because that’s how people listened to it after its release 50 years ago. Rolling Stone critic Langdon Winner famously wrote about taking a cross-country car trip the week after Sgt. Pepper‘s came out, and how he heard it quite literally everywhere; it was he who observed that the consciousness of Western civilization hadn’t been so united since the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which settled the Napoleonic Wars. (That’s debatable, but an impressive bit of erudition all the same.)
For whatever my opinion is worth, I don’t think Sgt. Pepper is the “best” Beatles album, but not because I don’t like it. It’s because Rubber Soul and Revolver are just as innovative and important in their own respective ways. As Winner suggested, Sgt. Pepper‘s greatest impact was as a cultural event—no album release in history was ever more eagerly awaited, and no new album was ever consumed more greedily, more thoroughly, by more people at the same time.
Amanda Marcotte of Salon suggests that Sgt. Pepper was an unfortunate moment in rock history because of the way it re-gendered the Beatles in particular and rock music in general, from an art form driven by the tastes of young people, especially young women, to the tastes of men, especially older men. I don’t agree with everything in the piece—and you should know that Marcotte has written in the past that she’s no fan of the Beatles—but you should read it anyway. The Guardian‘s John Higgs says that Sgt. Pepper‘s inclusive vision of what it meant to be English is badly needed in a nation divided by Brexit and its upcoming election. He observes that because modern conservatism is all about exclusion and division, it can’t produce great art, because a great work like Sgt. Pepper unites people. All of us, no matter who we are, in England or in America.
(Pictured: Atlantis blasts off for the final space shuttle mission, 2011.)
On January 19, 1974, the astronauts orbiting the Earth aboard Skylab were awakened by a medley of appropriate music. For the military men aboard, Commander Gerald Carr and pilot Bill Pogue, the ground crew relayed recordings of the Air Force song “Wild Blue Yonder” and the Navy standard “Anchors Aweigh.” For the civilian scientist, Ed Gibson, they played Steppenwolf’s “Earschplittenloudenboomer.”
Popular Mechanics recently published a fascinating story on the history of astronaut wakeup music, which you should read. The tradition began in 1965 during the mission of Gemini 6, when Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were awakened by a special version of “Hello Dolly,” modified to “Hello Wally,” and recorded by Jack Jones. Although not every crew was awakened by music every morning, the tradition continued through the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. An 89-page NASA report, compiled in 2015, lists all of the songs, which were generally selected by the leaders of the ground crew, who were astronauts themselves.
Often, the music had some connection to the flight crew, military songs or college fight songs, or they refer to some aspect of the mission. The music on the last day of one space shuttle mission was “The End” by the Doors; for another mission, Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home.” But the Doors actually made their first appearance in 1972, when “Light My Fire” was used to wake the astronauts aboard Apollo 17 on the day they made a rocket burn to leave lunar orbit. Some other surprising choices from the early years—surprising given that the astronauts would have been members of the pre-rock World War II/Korean War generation: “Eli’s Coming,” “Joy to the World,” and “Out in the Country” by Three Dog Night, Jim Stafford’s “Spiders and Snakes,” “Paralyzed” by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (sent to the crew of Skylab in November 1973), and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Redneck Mother,” which awakened the American crew of the Apollo/Soyuz mission on July 24, 1975.
In November 1981, the crew of the second space shuttle mission was awakened by specially produced episodes of “Pigs in Space,” a feature from The Muppet Show. A vogue for humorous wakeups and parody songs continued for the next several years. In 1988, a Houston radio producer and part-time tour guide at the Johnson Space Center, Mike Cahill, put together a number of elaborate productions for the crew of the space shuttle Discovery. Not long after, NASA issued an edict to cut the comedy, believing it made the shuttle program look frivolous. But the tradition of daily wakeup music continued. By the late 90s, the selections were often pretty hip—not surprising considering that one of the people selecting them was the esteemed Chris Hadfield, who would become the Internet’s favorite astronaut with his performance of “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station in 2013.
Some other cool tunes that awakened the astronauts: “Mr. Spaceman” and “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds (on a 1982 shuttle mission), Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (on numerous occasions starting in 1984), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1989), Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day” (1992), “Starship Trooper” by Yes (1994), “Time for Me to Fly” by REO Speedwagon (1996), and “For Those About to Rock” by AC/DC (2001). A 2002 mission included “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher, which, thanks to its inclusion in the movie Groundhog Day, became a regular wakeup song whenever a mission had to be extended due to bad weather on the ground, requiring astronauts to repeat their pre-landing routine an additional day. In 2005, Paul McCartney performed a live wakeup of “Good Day Sunshine” during a concert in Anaheim, California, which was beamed to the International Space Station and broadcast on NASA TV.
On July 21, 2011, the final day of the shuttle program, the Atlantis astronauts were awakened by Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America,” dedicated to all of the men and women of the three-decade shuttle program. By that time, however, the tradition of the musical space wakeup went back nearly 46 years.
(Pictured: Steely Dan on ABC-TV’s In Concert, 1973.)
When Steely Dan’s “Peg” hit the radio late in 1977, I fell in love. I got Aja for Christmas that year, and over the next few months, I bought all of the other Steely Dan albums. One of the first things I bought after I got my first CD player was the compilation A Decade of Steely Dan; I digitized the whole Dan library with Citizen Steely Dan in 1994. Seeing them live in 2000 was a bucket-list event; seeing them twice since then (plus Donald Fagen’s Dukes of September group with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald once) was icing on the cake. Counting the many bootlegs, I have something like 600 Steely Dan tracks in my music stash. They’re my favorite band of all time, is what I’m saying. And they have been my favorite band for nigh unto 40 years now.
So when I got the opportunity to write about a new book called Steely Dan FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About This Elusive Band, I leapt at it.
There are many, many volumes in the FAQ series, published by Backbeat Books. They are aimed at obsessive fans such as I, people who are presumably interested in “all that’s left to know,” beyond what we already know, about the bands we love. But because author Anthony Robustelli doesn’t try to prioritize what’s worth knowing about Steely Dan, his book ends up pushing even an obsessive fan over the brink of frustration.
Irrelevant tangents abound. For example: sometime around 1970, a friend of Becker and Fagen’s, Richard Lifschutz, got the idea of writing a musical that would have included some of the duo’s early songs, which existed at that time only as demos. He finished the book for the musical, Walt and Don read it, they didn’t pursue the idea, and that was that. But it takes Robustelli two pages to explain what I just did in two sentences. He includes an unnecessary detour into the history of rock operas (Tommy, Godspell, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar) and a followup on what became of Lifschutz, a guy whose life story would be of interest only to members of his family.
(Robustelli also makes the dubious contention that the unproduced musical, Ego, was actually the precursor to the current fad of musicals created from existing pop songs. Precursor in that it happened before others did, yes. Precursor in that Ego could have had the tiniest bit of influence leading to their creation, you gotta be kidding, dude.)
If you think you might want to read Steely Dan FAQ, be selective. The chapters on individual albums and tours are the most worthwhile. Your mileage may vary on the ones about Becker and Fagen’s early years—this is one place where pointillist detail is helpful in fleshing out character, but there might be too much for some readers. Skip the ones profiling session musicians, which cover absolutely everybody who ever played on a Steely Dan project in positively numbing detail. I flipped through the chapter detailing Becker and Fagen’s appearances as sidemen for other artists and took a hard pass. These chapters suffer most egregiously from the book’s main problem: a surfeit of detail, and an unwillingness, or an inability, to differentiate between what’s worth knowing and what isn’t.
If Steely Dan FAQ exasperated me—a Steely Dan super-fan—it’s likely to do the same to more casual fans, and even faster than it did it to me.