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Choruses of Angels

I have a friend who’s a church organist. The other day she posted an article on Facebook listing 20 Hymns Your Kids Should Know, which suggested that certain religious classics aren’t heard all that much anymore, and which inspired this post.

As a practical matter, religious belief is useless to me. Religion still holds some interest as a cultural expression, however, and that’s a subject I have written about before. Modern translations of the Bible, which are intended to be truer to the original texts and more relevant to modern readers, have removed the poetry, the mystery—the very artistry—that used to be intrinsic to the Bible. Thus, a great deal of the Bible’s appeal is removed, too.

Church music been rendered similarly modern. Dragged to church one Sunday, I heard a band made up of church members clatter through their repertoire of Christian rock covers so poorly that it barely qualified as a joyful noise. But church music doesn’t just sound different than it used to—its depiction of the relationship between God and man is different, too. In a world where we can customize and personalize everything exactly the way we want it, religious belief and religious custom are not exempt. In a more democratic age, less comfortable with arbitrary authority, people want God to be less imposing: not so much the Lord Most High but a Kindly Sky Grandpa. And it’s not just that. Lots of modern religious music is concerned with how you fit God into your plans. More traditional music, especially the old hymns that are falling out of fashion, is concerned with the opposite: about how you fit into God’s plans.

The church I grew up in (which still stands today) was built in 1916, with three floors and a million steps—concrete ones outside and creaky wooden ones inside—and two tiny bathrooms for a congregation of over 1200. It was probably the first public place I ever visited, as a babe in arms. I was baptized there and confirmed there. It was, until I became a teenager and could extricate myself from the requirement of regular churchgoing, a significant site of my social life, second only to school. And it occurs to me that a number of my memories of the place have to do with those old hymns.

The church had a gigantic organ. If there were pipes, I never knew where they were, but whatever and wherever it was, the thing was loud. The organist, Mrs. Seaton, was a virtuoso, and way into playing it. Sometimes, when we reached the final verse of a particularly powerful closing hymn, she’d jump an octave as if she were summoning up a chorus of angels, thus bringing the service to a rousing conclusion. I knew enough about music to know I loved the way that sounded, although certain members of the congregation were not so impressed. “She plays like we’re in a rented cathedral,” one of them groused, although it’s not clear to me precisely what he meant.

When I was very little, we were EUBs (Evangelical United Brethren), but we became Methodists after the EUBs and the Methodists merged in 1968. And in church, we sang Old Hundred after the offertory, all the great carols at Christmas, and Protestantism’s greatest hits the rest of the year: “Come Thou Almighty King,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “The Church’s One Foundation,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and “Holy Holy Holy.” Writers of traditional hymnody intended their works to be an offering suitable to the Lord Most High. Such inspiration is where the melodies get their power and the lyrics get their punch: “Father all glorious / O’er all victorious / Come and reign over us / Ancient of days” or “Let every kind and every tribe / On this terrestrial ball / To Him all majesty ascribe / And crown Him Lord of all.”

Nobody writes like that anymore, and a lot of churches don’t sing like that anymore. Theological considerations aside, it seems like a net loss to the culture, when some of the most powerful and inventive music of the last 300 years is replaced by something more appealing to the palate but less nutritious to the soul.

My October

(A fragment.)

She doesn’t come around as often as I would like, because we do not always get what we want.

(She is one of those who has taught me that lesson.)

But she’s always with me, even when I’m not with her.

She was there when dreams came true, and when nightmares became real.

She’s in the music I love the most, and in nearly every word I have ever written here.

Hello, October. I have missed you, and seeing you again is everything.

The Oddball

The name of Tiny Tim brings up a constellation of images: the long, stringy hair; the ukulele; the falsetto singing voice; the blowing of kisses. Wasn’t he on Laugh-In? Didn’t he get married by Johnny Carson or something? He’s the subject of a new biography, Eternal Troubadour: the Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, by Justin Martell with Alanna Wray McDonald. Between 1968 and 1971, Tiny Tim, real name Herbert Khaury, was one of the most recognizable pop stars in the world.

In December 1967, after gaining notoriety performing live in Greenwich Village, Tiny Tim went into a studio with producer Richard Perry and arranger Artie Butler to record the album God Bless Tiny Tim. It included a number of the old-fashioned songs Tiny revered, several going back to the Pioneer Era of Recording, alongside newer songs, including Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.”

In January 1968, Tiny Tim was introduced to TV producer George Schlatter, about to launch Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, who booked him for the first episode. Without telling Dick Martin in advance, Dan Rowan brought Tiny on stage and then walked off, leaving an incredulous Martin to watch Tiny perform. A couple of weeks later, Tiny appeared again, only this time he sang “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips With Me,” a song from his album that had been a hit for crooner-guitarist Nick Lucas in 1929.

On April 3, 1968, “Tip-Toe” was released as a single. The next night, Tiny Tim made his first appearance on Tonight (the night of the day Martin Luther King was murdered). A New York Times profile and a second appearance with Carson came before the end of the month. And on April 27, “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips With Me” cracked the Bubbling Under section of the Hot 100. Two weeks later, it entered the Hot 100 at #83, and it steadily rose from there, eventually peaking at #17 for the week of June 29, sharing the Top 20 with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Mony Mony,” and “Mac Arthur Park.” (Also among the nation’s top songs that week was “Here Come the Judge” by Shorty Long, boosted by the popularity of “here come the judge” as a Laugh-In catchphrase.)

God Bless Tiny Tim charted in May and eventually rose to #7 on the album chart. Tiny Tim would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and Hollywood Palace with Bing Crosby, an appearance in which he and Bing traded obscure song snippets from old Crosby movies. A brief meeting with George Harrison resulted in Tiny recording a couple of lines that appeared on the Beatles’ 1968 Christmas record.

In June 1969, Tiny met Victoria Budinger, a 17-year-old girl from Haddonfield, New Jersey. Although he was perpetually in love with somebody (and had a habit of giving an engraved trophy to the girl he loved the most each year), he fell especially hard for Vicki, and proposed to her in August. (He was 37 years old at the time.) He appeared on Tonight in September, where he brought Vicki onstage and gave her a ring. The same night, Carson asked Tiny if he wanted to get married on the show. Tiny accepted; Vicki was horrified. But on December 17, 1969, the wedding—and it was an actual wedding, with a minister and attendants amidst a bower decorated with 10,000 tulips—took place during a taping of the show, on which Florence Henderson and Phyllis Diller also appeared. It was estimated that upwards of 40 million people watched that night, the highest-rated Carson show until his retirement episode in 1992.

Tiny’s story continues after that, ending with his death in 1996 at the age of 64. You can read the rest in Eternal Troubadour if you’d like, although the book is simply not very good. It’s tediously detailed and about half again as long as it needs to be, and riddled with typographical errors. (My favorite: one of Tiny’s backup singers would “occasionally bear her breasts onstage.” As would each of us, if we went onstage.) And as I sat down to write this post, I cursed aloud its lack of an index.

Although Martell says his intention is to reveal Tiny Tim as more than an oddball curio, it’s pretty clear that’s all Tiny was. A few years of unlikely success were followed by a quarter-century’s unraveling, as Tiny’s life grew ever more unsavory. What comes through the strongest in Martell’s book is that Tiny Tim was too much of an oddball to suffer any other fate.

The Economics of Stardom

(Pictured: this early Led Zeppelin shot gives you an idea of how small were the venues they played between 1969 and 1971.)

I have been reading David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971, The Year That Rock Exploded, and I could blog about it until approximately Christmas. Better you read it yourself—even if you are as passionate about the history of popular music as I am, you will find yourself surprised by some of the stories of 1971, and interested in Hepworth’s insights.

One of his early chapters discusses the unique nature of British rock touring at the time. Only the Beatles had been able to fill stadiums, and they hadn’t toured since 1966. Typical concert venues at the turn of the 70s were clubs or concert halls that seated only a few hundred people; the biggest and most prestigious, the Royal Albert Hall in London, seated only 4,000. Bands made most of their money from touring and not record sales, so it wasn’t unusual for a band to work all week, recording or at day jobs, and then play several shows on the weekend. Led Zeppelin was the first act to break out of the small halls and into larger arenas, where the financial take would be bigger.

Here in the 21st century, the circle has come back around: record sales are sufficiently low and streaming revenue such a relative pittance that stars make most of their money on the road once again. But the economics of touring are different now; Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, hosted a remarkable variety of stars from the 60s to the 80s, acts that would often play here and then play the next night in Milwaukee, 90 miles away. Now, however, major Madison shows are extremely rare; the arena that hosted them back in the day, the Dane County Coliseum, seats maybe 11,000 for concerts, which is not big enough anymore. Big stars are more likely to skip Madison and play in Milwaukee, where the Bradley Center can seat around 19,000. And Milwaukee doesn’t get acts like it used to, either.

The new economics of stardom are particularly visible in country music. Every major star hits the road in the summer as part of a package. Sometimes two A-listers go out together, as Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert are doing on a few dates this year, and as Chesney and Jason Aldean did last year. More often it’s one big star packaged with acts of lesser stature. This summer, for example, Luke Bryan is headlining a tour with Little Big Town and Dustin Lynch. “Lesser stature” is relative, however: both LBT and Lynch have scored #1 hits within the last year.

Lynch is indicative of a relatively new phenomenon in country, one that hasn’t really translated to pop music yet as far as I can tell: country artists are releasing singles that are intended to get a reaction from the concert audience. Lynch’s recent single “Hell of a Night” is built on a riff that owes more to Lynryd Skynyrd or Def Leppard than to anything from Nashville. The record itself is forgettable, but that big riff is going to sound awesome on the stage, which is the point. Aldean’s current single, “Lights Come On,” is even more unsubtle—powered by a giant riff but otherwise generic, “Lights Come On” is a country checklist song (blue collar/Budweiser/Friday night) that’s mostly about attending a Jason Aldean concert, and the song is absolutely intended to be a show opener. Even in mainstream country marketing and promotion, this level of calculation is remarkable.

There is a defense, for this kind of thing, though. The Nashville suits behind Dustin Lynch and Jason Aldean, and the artists themselves, are no more interested in making bank than Led Zeppelin and their legendary manager Peter Grant were 45 years ago. (Hepworth makes this very point when discussing Zeppelin’s work ethic.) The main difference is the amount of bank there is to make. And if some fans today believe that the hype surrounding an act, and the falling for said hype, is just as important a part of the experience as listening to the music, that’s not new, either. Hepworth notes that bands as big as Roxy Music were interested in redefining art as a plastic commodity as early as 1971.

But all of this just my opinion. I could be completely wrong.

What to Do Right and How to Do It Wrong

I read not long ago that the average blog lasts only four months. Somehow this one has lasted 12 years as of today, which is both remarkable longevity and a phenomenal waste of time. Here’s a rundown of my favorite posts since last July 11th. (You can see other such lists from previous years here.)

I reprinted the first piece of music writing I ever got paid for, about a trip to Graceland in 1997. It required three installments to get it all in—first one here, second one here, third one here. I got paid for a story about a young boy’s life-altering visit to a juke joint in 1938 Mississippi. (Part one here, part two here.) It’s one of the few pieces of fiction I’ve written that wasn’t terrible. A nonfiction piece, Playing Games With Names, seemed worthy of purchase by somebody, although no one would, so I gave it to you for free.

A post called Adventures on the B-Side, whose topic is easy enough to discern from the title alone, ended up one of the most-commented-upon in the history of this blog. Another well-commented post was Key Changes, topic also easy to discern. Oddly, practically nobody chose to comment on a post about which songs and stars of the last 50 years are still going to be popular 50 years from now. One of the best comments that any post ever got came in response to The Board Operator, a radio story about being at the bottom of the broadcasting food chain. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

I had to create a new post category for tributes, with the deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson, and Merle Haggard. (And Bob Elliott, and Muhammad Ali, and Prince, and Billy Paul and . . . .) On the subject of categories, visit One Week in the 40 for a now-concluded series of posts that ran from December through June about songs that spent a single week in Billboard‘s Top 40. And of course, there’s The 1976 Project, revisiting old posts and occasionally putting up new ones about this blog’s favorite year. A lot of them are worthy of inclusion on this list, but there’s not room, so here’s one I’m particularly proud of.

I had a brief enthusiasm this past spring for ranking songs on albums, including Rumours and Some Girls, along with a collection of pop covers Elton John made as an anonymous session singer. I also ranked tracks on the Eagles’ two greatest hits albums from bottom to top. (First album here, second album here.) Also concerning the Eagles: while many artists have successfully opened the vaults to expand and improve upon classic releases, their only foray into releasing the previously unreleased was largely a farce.

This blog contains thousands of words (maybe millions by now) about listening to music, but far fewer about my attempts at being a musician. That’s because I wasn’t very good at it, and my career ended up a disappointment. A radio story about modest moments of fame achieved by more successful high-school musicians is here.

Ultimately, this whole blog is an ongoing road trip through the times of our lives, although I got briefly tired of traveling in a post called The Old Country. Last fall, in New Jersey, I looked for some places Bruce Springsteen made famous. In Minnesota, I went searching for something to eat but found something else entirely.

Quick hits:

—You can learn a lot just by listening to the radio—about what to do right and how to do it wrong—as shown in a post about two different American Top 40 shows recorded 11 years apart.

—A lot of what I do on the air I learned from the best newsman I ever knew.

—Another radio tale was written for the 30th anniversary of the day I started doing the morning show on a Top-40 station.

—History is written by the victors, but songs are written about the losers, which is why there have been so many songs involving the Chicago Cubs.

—Cheap Trick got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I was forced to surrender.

—One day when it popped up on shuffle, I live-blogged “We Are the World.”

—We noted the 50th anniversary of one of the most broad-based hit records of all time, a multi-format smash that came at a pivotal moment in history.

I am grateful to the ever-dwindling number of you who read this blog regularly. Thanks for your continued patronage.

The End of the Opus

I have written here previously that I no longer have a turntable hooked up at my house. Even before I unhooked it, I hadn’t used it for several years. I still have all my vinyl, however, taking up space here in the office. It’s still here mostly because I can’t think of a good way to get rid of it—and I would get rid of it. I am no longer interested in owning the physical objects—MP3s are fine with me.

We also have a substantial collection of cassettes. The Mrs. was a cassette buyer during her high-school days, and virtually all of the pre-recorded cassettes that are boxed up somewhere in the basement are hers. Over many years, I recorded a lot of albums (and later CDs) onto cassettes, and although I occasionally played them in the house, they got most of their play in the car.

Sometime in high school, I started making compilation tapes—8-tracks at first, then reel-to-reel tapes in college, and finally on cassette. In the early 90s, when I had a lengthy commute to and from work each day, I hit upon the idea of putting songs in chronological order. I started with 1976 because of course I did, but over the next few years, I assembled what I called the Magnum Opus. It eventually covered January 1969 through December 1979 and included every radio hit I could lay my hands on, from CD, vinyl, or cassette. I don’t recall how many tapes there were, mostly C-90s with a few C-60s mixed in (never C-120s—too fragile), but I am guessing I could have driven to Hawaii and back without repeating one. As I added missing songs to my vinyl and CD collections, I re-recorded sections of the Magnum Opus to fit them in.

During the 90s and 00s, I killed countless evenings and weekend afternoons working on it. Making a tape had to be done in real time, so it took a couple of hours to do a C-90.  It required physical manipulation of the source media, removing albums or singles from sleeves, putting them on the turntable and lowering the tonearm in the proper spot; unboxing and cueing up a source cassette to the right spot; that kind of thing. If several songs in a row came from CDs, I could program the CD changer to do the heavy lifting for me. My first cassette deck did not have a digital readout like my later ones, so as I got toward the end of each side of the tape, it was guesswork to see if a particular song was going to fit.

After I got a CD burner, I did not try to recreate all of the Magnum Opus on CD (although I did one year’s worth—guess which one). I do not have digital files for all of the vinyl and/or cassettes, and every time I think about going out to YouTube and trying to fill in the gaps, it scares me off. And compared to the analog/real-time tape-making experience, burning a CD feels like cheating.

My current car, which I bought in 2013, has no cassette deck. I own two different home-stereo decks, but neither one of them works anymore, and I haven’t seen the need to get them fixed. So there’s really no point in hanging on to the cassettes. They’re merely taking up space, and as I said at the top of this post, I am no longer interested in owning the physical objects that contain the music. So the other day, the Magnum Opus—however many cassettes it was, however many songs, from “Cloud Nine” by the Temptations through “Message in a Bottle” by the Police, which kept me company over tens of thousands of miles and something like 20 years—went out to the curb.

It was painful to do, and after I dumped them into the bin, I thought a couple of times about digging them back out. But our firetrap of a condo has too many physical objects in it to begin with, and while getting rid of the Magnum Opus won’t solve the problem, at least it doesn’t make it any worse. Everything dies, and for the Magnum Opus, it was time.

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