(Pictured: Merle Haggard, 1993.)
(I wasn’t planning to post again until Saturday, but stuff happens.)
Linus believes the Great Pumpkin will choose his pumpkin patch because of its sincerity. “Everywhere you look, there’s not a shred of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” If that seems quaint, it’s because we can no longer tell the difference between the two. In fact, we don’t care. The appearance of sincerity is enough for us.
Looking like you care is often every bit as useful as actual concern. It’s a guise you take on, and then take off when people are no longer watching. I do it myself, and so do you. We are often required to demonstrate concern about things that don’t really matter to us. We do it to please an employer, a customer, a spouse, or a family member when we wouldn’t give it a second thought otherwise. To navigate these situations, the appearance of sincerity is usually enough. (It’s certainly less emotionally taxing than maintaining the real thing.)
But when many of us are projecting an image that may not reflect what’s in our hearts—from the workplace to the marriage bed to wherever the hell—real sincerity lands like a punch in the face. Honest emotion and true wisdom legitimately earned are to the appearance of sincerity what a glass of straight Kentucky whiskey is to one of those fruit-flavored Bud Light concoctions. You’re knocked square on your ass; you realize that your phony bullshit is just playacting, and there’s a whole ‘nother level of real out there.
As I write this, it’s been about two hours since I learned of the death of Merle Haggard. Oddly, this loss hurts me more than the recent deaths of Glenn Frey and Keith Emerson, even though the music of the Eagles and Emerson Lake and Palmer ranks far higher on my personal hit list than that of Hag. Losing Haggard is painful because the truth-tellers are going, and they’re making damn few new ones. When they’re gone, we’ll lose whatever chance we have at knowing what’s real and what isn’t.
Merle Haggard did not project the appearance of sincerity. He sang with authority. He wasn’t acting like a country singer, like those dudes singing about dirt roads and skinny-dippin’ in the crick despite having a suburban upbringing and a college education. He was doing the only thing he could do, based on who he really was, on the places he’d really come from, on a life he lived a day at a time.
“I turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole / No one could steer me right but mama tried,” goes one of his most famous songs. I remember being horrified by that image when I first heard it as a kid—even more so when I realized that Haggard had done time, that he must have known boys just like the one in “Mama Tried”—and probably could have ended up as such a boy. Years later, at a time supposed to be “morning in America,” he wondered aloud whether the good times were over for good. And as I played that record on the radio, a young man in his early 20s just starting out, I worried that he might be right.
When authority speaks, you’d best pay attention.
Saturday night is not always a party. Sunday morning does not always bring redemption. We are not destined to win all the time, in love or in anything else. Country music—any form of art, really—is lying to us if it fails to acknowledge all that. In truth, the only thing we know for sure is that we’re gonna have to deal with some shit. Maybe times will get better, and maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be a happy ending, and maybe there won’t.
Merle Haggard sang about that, at the end of 1973, a recession-wracked year that was just the beginning of an awful time in America’s national life, in the only way he could: with mingled pain and hope, and a willingness to face the future even though it comes with no guarantees. He sang with sincerity, honest emotion, and true wisdom legitimately earned.
“If We Make It Through December” was Merle Haggard’s lone Top 40 hit, reaching #28 on January 19, 1974; it spent four weeks at#1 on the country chart in December 1973 and 1974, and is his second-biggest country hit of all time behind only “Okie From Muskogee.” I haven’t seen it mentioned much amongst the many Haggard tributes online since yesterday, but to me, it’s his monument.
One of the more fascinating incidents in Elton John’s landmark-stuffed year of 1975 was the all-day concert he headlined at Wembley Stadium on June 21st. Supporting acts included Rufus, Joe Walsh, the Eagles (of which Walsh was not yet a member), and the Beach Boys. On that fine afternoon, the Beach Boys gave the crowd all the summertime they could handle—and set the bar almost too high for Elton to clear. Elton’s decision to play all of his then-new album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy caused many in the crowd to leave before the headliner was finished.
Almost 10 years ago, the live performance of Captain Fantastic got an official release as the second disc of a deluxe edition of the original album. The live disc also included performances of “Pinball Wizard” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” from Wembley. The deluxe edition gives the impression that Captain Fantastic was the whole show, beginning with BBC Radio DJ Johnnie Walker introducing Elton, and Elton taking over to introduce his new album. We hear him apologize for the high price of it in English record shops, and then he warns that some people might be bored by hearing the whole thing but they’re going to play it anyway.
There was much more to Elton’s set that day, however. Before playing Captain Fantastic in its entirety, Elton packed a set with hit songs from the previous couple of years: “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” “Rocket Man,” “Candle in the Wind,” “The Bitch Is Back,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” The set included a couple of off-the-wall choices: “Dixie Lily” from Caribou, and “Chameleon,” a song that would appear on the 1976 album Blue Moves. Elton even brought back “I Saw Her Standing There,” which he’d famously performed with John Lennon in New York the previous November. Only then did he and the band play Captain Fantastic start to finish.
A bootleg of the full Wembley show recently turned up at The Ultimate Bootleg Experience, but it’s not really the bonanza it appears to be. It opens with the Walker intro from the deluxe edition, then cuts to a pretty terrible audience recording of the first set: you can hear Elton and his piano but you can’t make out much else. The Captain Fantastic performance comes straight from the deluxe edition CD in copyright-infringing full-fidelity stereo. Still, it’s good to hear the whole thing (as much as it’s possible with such a crappy recording), and it makes it more understandable why Elton’s fans might have decided to pack it in before the show was over. You’ve been out in the sun all day and you’ve heard a lot of music. Elton’s played all of his hits, but the next 45 minutes is going to be stuff you don’t know, so why not call the day good enough and go beat the traffic?
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is that Elton had recently fired almost all of his band, some of whom had been playing with him since he still lived in his parents’ house. Only guitarist Davey Johnstone was retained, although several of the new players were musicians Elton had known and played with years before. The Wembley show was their first official gig together. At about the same time, the new band was recording the followup to Captain Fantastic. Rock of the Westies was being recorded mostly in Colorado (hence its name), so the band was zipping back and forth across the Atlantic that summer like most people go to the office.
Somebody should write a book about Elton’s remarkable 1975. I’m not the one to write it, but I’d definitely read it.
(Pictured: Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, and James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop.)
In the summer of 1970, film director Monte Hellman saw a Los Angeles billboard with James Taylor’s face on it, and he believed he’d found a star. So he created a movie for him, which turns up on Turner Classic Movies every now and then: Two-Lane Blacktop.
Two-Lane Blacktop is about two drifters with a ’55 Chevy who eventually get into a cross-country race with another driver. Taylor was cast as a character known only as the Driver. Four days before principal photography began, Hellman still didn’t have Taylor’s co-star. He eventually settled on Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, figuring Wilson’s real-life experience with cars would translate into his on-screen role as the Mechanic. Completing the cast were 16-year-old Laurie Bird as the Young Girl, and Hollywood veteran Warren Oates as GTO, the driver of the other car in the race.
Two-Lane Blacktop was shot on location across the country, and it shows an America that no longer exists, one of small-town diners, full-service filling stations, and hitch-hiking as reliable transportation. Like many youth films of the ’70s, there’s not really much of a story to it. The atmosphere of lonely alienation is the point of the film—the Driver and the Mechanic are silent as much as they speak, and while each of them seems to have an interest in the Young Girl, neither one does much to communicate it to her. (GTO is a livelier character, spinning a variety of tales about who he is and where he’s going, depending on who he’s talking to.)
It’s too much to say that Two-Lane Blacktop put a curse on its stars. Nevertheless, three of them came to tragic and/or early ends, while another was probably lucky to avoid one. Taylor, in his only movie role, was addicted to heroin while the movie was filming, and for years thereafter. From time to time he would come up missing on the set, and was said to be off fixing at the time. His co-star Wilson was also an enthusiastic user of drugs and alcohol. He died on December 28, 1983, drowning while swimming off the California coast—coincidentally about the same time Taylor was kicking his drug habit for good. Laurie Bird, who played the Young Girl, was only 16 when filming began in 1970. She appeared in only two other films, including the 1977 Oscar-winner Annie Hall. She became a photographer, and she took the cover shot for Art Garfunkel‘s 1977 album Watermark. She and Garfunkel were romantically involved. In June 1979, aged just 25, she committed suicide in the apartment she and Garfunkel shared. Warren Oates, whose performance as GTO was considered Oscar-worthy by some, died young too. Oates, who appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies in the ’60s and ’70s, is probably best-known for his portrayal of Sgt. Hulka in the Bill Murray film Stripes. It was one of his final performances. Oates died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 53.
(Adapted from a couple of pieces in my WNEW.com archives.)
April 9, 1976, is a Friday. Frisch’s Big Boy Restaurants in the greater Cincinnati area invite you in for fish fillets tonight with fries, salad, and a roll for $1.60. It’s the second day of the major-league baseball season, but only two games were played yesterday; 16 teams open their seasons today, including the Chicago Cubs, who lose to the Cardinals 5-0 in St. Louis. On a trip to Texas, President Ford visits the Alamo in San Antonio during the morning and then goes to Dallas. He throws out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ season opener, staying only for the first inning. In the first pro sports event at the new Seattle Kingdome, Pele scores two goals as the New York Cosmos defeat the Seattle Sounders in pro soccer, 2-1. Folksinger Phil Ochs, most famous for “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” hangs himself; he was 35. A strong earthquake kills eight people in Ecuador. In Nagoya, Japan, a 13-year-old boy takes a series of photos that seem to show a UFO. In Syracuse, New York, the Onondaga County Public Library unveils its new logo. In Madison, Wisconsin, the first edition of a new weekly newspaper, Isthmus, is laid out in the living room of one of its co-founders.
New movies in theaters include All the President’s Men starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford and Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. On daytime TV, Foster Brooks ends a week co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show; guests today include Gloria Swanson, Frankie Valli, and Geraldo Rivera. The Merv Griffin Show welcomes Kaye Ballard, Jack Jones, comedian Charlie Callas and impressionist Marilyn Michaels. In prime time, the animated special The First Easter Rabbit, featuring the voices of Burl Ives and Robert Morse, airs on NBC, and so does The Rockford Files. CBS airs an episode of Sara, starring Brenda Vaccaro as a schoolteacher in an 1870 Colorado town. She will be nominated for an Emmy, but the show will end after 13 episodes. Rush plays the Indianapolis Coliseum with special guests Ted Nugent and the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver. On separate bills, Genesis and Donovan play New York City. The Electric Light Orchestra and Journey play Huntsville, Alabama. Bruce Springsteen plays Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.
The Midnight Special airs on NBC following Johnny Carson. Host Helen Reddy welcomes Fleetwood Mac, who perform a blazing version of their new hit “Rhiannon.” Also on the show, Gary Wright, Barry Manilow, Queen, and Hamilton Joe Frank & Reynolds, who perform “Fallin’ in Love” with Reddy and their recent hit “Winners and Losers,” and then come back for a second spot doing “Every Day Without You.”
Perspective From the Present: Helen Reddy is Australian, but I get distracted listening to her by trying to figure out what the hell her accent actually sounds like. She does not seem to have rehearsed “Fallin’ in Love,” and then she ad-libs an awkward introduction to “Winners and Losers,” but it’s not enough to spoil the song, which is insanely great. Somebody preserved this thing for 38 years, and the YouTube video is a little jumpy, but you can watch it right here.
In the fall of 1979, two of the biggest bands in the world released long-awaited new albums within three weeks of one another: the Eagles with The Long Run and Fleetwood Mac with Tusk.
Although record buyers loved the Eagles that fall, sending the album and its lead single, “Heartache Tonight,” to #1, one prominent critic definitely did not. In a Rolling Stone review that appeared in newspapers around the country in November, Dave Marsh wrote: “[W]hat can you say about a band which spends three years working on an album whose best song is one the inimitable Joe Walsh wrote for a movie soundtrack (‘In the City’ from ‘The Warriors’), and which contains such inanities as ‘We thought we could change this world—with words like love and freedom.’ The fact that this pack of cliche-mongers is one of the biggest ‘rock’ bands today is perhaps the most pathetic commentary I know about the current state of the musical world.”
The reviewer for a local paper in Ohio was kinder: “The Eagles, consummate musicians that they are, have honed a finely-produced and excellently-executed album into what should prove to be another tour de force.” Contrast “excellently executed” with Marsh’s assessment of Don Henley—“a fine singer, but he’s a lame drummer.”
The Eagles could simply let negative reviews roll off because of all the money rolling in, although the amounts seem tiny by standards of our time. A department store in Madison, Wisconsin, was selling The Long Run on vinyl for $5.67 and on tape for $5.97. Eagles fans in the Philadelphia area could get into the band’s November 18 show at the Spectrum for $7.50 or $10, although the top tickets, priced at $12.50, were sold out.
If it had been up to Fleetwood Mac and its record label, Tusk would not have been out until later in the year. The intent was to release it just in time for it to find its way into Christmas stockings by the millions. But then an advance copy on cassette was leaked to a radio station in Cleveland. The station’s program director told a reporter, “To ensure its delivery, I had to buy a seat for [the tape] on a commercial flight.” He picked it up at the airport, drove it to the station, and put it on the air immediately. In succeeding days, other stations obtained copies of the album. As a result, Warner Brothers decided to release it officially in mid-October. (The title song had come out as a single in mid-September, also probably sped to release by the leak.)
When Tusk was released, I was doing a show on the campus radio station called Virgin Vinyl, on which I would play the week’s new releases. I tracked Tusk in its entirety the very night it came in, just as I was had played the lead track from The Long Run on the day it came in the mail.
Early in 1980, “Tusk” was featured on the TV music show Solid Gold. No way they were getting Fleetwood Mac to appear, but they could get the USC Marching Band to show up in the studio, and their performance was then intercut with the official “Tusk” video.
YouTube commenters are notoriously dim, but not the one who observed, “Stevie Nicks twirling a baton . . . there are probably sexier things on this planet, but none come to mind at the moment.”
(From a pair of posts written for the now-defunct WNEW.com.)
The wire-service story appearing in newspapers around the country 40 years ago did not generally appear on front pages. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it was on page 15. In San Mateo, California, it was on page 3. A few newspapers picked up the more immediate and personal story written by a couple of student journalists at Northwestern Louisiana University—a review of the last concert by Jim Croce.
“I’ve flown 700,000 or 800,000 miles just this past year,” the story quoted Croce as saying from the stage 40 years ago tonight, on September 20, 1973. “I’m starting to feel it now, too. You know, jet lag.” The story continues: “Then he gave his last concert before 2,000 laughing and cheering students at Northwestern Louisiana University’s Prather Coliseum. An hour later, after closing with ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown,’ he was dead in the wreckage of an airplane.” After the 35-minute performance that night, Croce’s plane hit a tree on takeoff, killing six people in all, including Croce, his guitarist Maury Muehleisen, his personal manager Ken Cortese, road manager Dennis Rast, comedian George Stevens, and pilot Robert Elliott.
At age 30, Croce had been on the scene for only a year, scoring the top-10 hit “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and taking “Leroy Brown” to #1. Three more top-10 hits would follow within the next six months, including the #1 hit “Time in a Bottle.” He remained one of the most popular singer-songwriters in the business through the late 1970s, as fans dug deeper into his catalog and discovered other characters as memorable as Jim, the “pool-shootin’ son-of-a-gun,” and Leroy Brown.
Four decades later, Croce remains one of the great what-ifs of popular music. One of his producers, Tommy West, saw beyond Croce’s potential as a musician in a news story published later in the week of his death. “He was only beginning to scratch the surface of what I think would have been a truly big career,” said West. “I wouldn’t call him a superstar because that has overtones of rock things and it went more beyond that. I think Jimmy could have been a Will Rogers or a white Bill Cosby.”
West was correct inasmuch as he suspected Croce would expand his horizons beyond music. He likely would have had to. Croce’s literate, confessional, acoustic songs would have had trouble finding a mass audience in the discofied late 70s and the jaded 80s, not like they had between 1972 and 1974. He seems a likely candidate to have become like Jimmy Buffett, a multimedia Renaissance man, a writer of short stories and books, a dabbler in other fields from acting to entrepreneurship, but always returning to his guitar and his songs.
Here’s a BBC-TV clip recorded the summer before Croce’s death, featuring Muehleisen on guitar, on what would become Croce’s last top 40 hit, “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues.”
(From my WNEW.com archives, revised a bit to reflect today’s anniversary.)