Forty years ago this week, “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck reached #3 on the Hot 100, where it would stay for two weeks. It had been inescapable on the radio long before that, however, having cracked the Top 10 in some markets around the country as early as mid-May. The record is as 70s as it gets, all Mini-Moog and marimba, with a singalong lyric about listening to the radio in the car by the water with a beautiful girl (who wears a “class of 7-4 gold ring,” meaning she would be around 60 years old now). While your mileage may vary, it has always sounded to me like the distilled essence of my favorite summer.
Five years ago, I struck up a Facebook chat with David Shaver, Starbuck’s keyboard player. (You can see him in the video above, a live performance on The Midnight Special; he’s the second keyboard player, not the lead singer.) What follows is taken from a post I wrote about our chat.
“I was not a member when the record was [made],” David told me. “There were so many Mini-Moog overdubs on the album that when ‘Moonlight’ started up the charts, they realized they needed to hire another keyboard player in order to reproduce the sounds live. I also played an ARP String Ensemble to reproduce all the string parts.” . . .
Once the record hit the charts (in April 1976), things began to move fast for Shaver and Starbuck. “Opening for Hall and Oates in Macon, Georgia, was the first show I played. They were huge at the time.” Other shows followed. “The biggest show we did was opening for Boston at the Hollywood Sportatorium in Florida. I heard the sound of 16,000 screaming vocal cords and at that moment I knew what Beatlemania felt like. We played with Styx at the Atlanta Omni for Toys for Tots.” (Based on information at a Styx fansite, that show was on December 5, 1976, and also featured Boston, the Manhattans, and Dr. Hook, which is a pretty damn good concert bill in any decade.)
David says, “It was certainly one of the most exciting times of my life. We were being treated like rock stars, where two months prior we were playing night clubs! I met Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Don Kirshner, Dinah Shore, Dick Clark, Peter Marshall. Once on American Bandstand, some girls in the audience made a big fuss over me and the cameras zoomed in on me in my blue Hawaiian shirt. My one and only closeup. My big 15 minutes. I’d give anything for a copy of that video!” . . .
David Shaver is still playing today, years after his rock-star adventures. “I am very happy to be performing in a show band called Glow. We’re based out of Atlanta and have some of the best vocalists in the Southeast. We play every weekend! Concerts, weddings, corporate parties, and a few select dance clubs. We just opened for the Little River Band a few months back.” Because Glow is a show band, David says, “Our song choices are focused 100 percent on the dance floor,” so “Moonlight Feels Right” is not part of their regular repertoire. But he also says, “Back in 2004/2005 I played in a wedding band and we did a great version of “Moonlight.” I did my best at imitating the marimba solo on the keyboard. Not an easy task!”
David recently posted pictures on Facebook of rehearsals for a Starbuck reunion that’s happening in August. Forty years since “Moonlight Feels Right,” what he and I share is this: no matter how far 1976 recedes into the rearview mirror, that song will always bring it back.
(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.)