Somewhere, Eventually

You may have read that ESPN laid off a bunch of people earlier this week. While many were not household names, some had high profiles, including NFL reporter Ed Werder, NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, radio host Danny Kanell, college basketball analyst Andy Katz, and baseball analyst Jayson Stark. (And college football reporter Jesse Temple, a name familiar to Wisconsin fans.) I don’t know any of these people personally, although I’m familiar with their work. But anybody in media should be able to feel a great deal of empathy for all of them, because many of us have experienced precisely the same thing.

In my broadcasting career—in a field where everybody gets fired sooner or later—I have been fired four times.

—The first was when I declined taking over the morning show at KDTH because A) I didn’t feel ready to take it on, and B) they weren’t willing to pay me any more for the increased responsibility, hours, and pressure.

—The second was the famous “industrial espionage” firing in Macomb, in which my employers outsmarted themselves right into the very situation they thought they were preventing.

—The third time in the Quad Cities, when I was turfed by the worst person I met in all my years of broadcasting.

—The fourth was in Clinton, Iowa, when the owner decided to get rid of the burnout case, and he ended up doing me an enormous favor.

If you’ve ever gotten a sizable electric shock, getting fired is just like that. A jolt—physical, not metaphorical—goes through your entire body and you become disoriented. Then, still feeling the effects of the jolt, you walk to what used to be your desk, pick up a few personal things, and stumble to the parking lot, where you get into your car and sit there in silence before you start it up, trying to get your brain around what the fk just happened. Then you have to go home and tell your spouse what happened. She puts on a brave face, and so you try to put one on too—after all, she says, you’re talented, and somebody else will want you, somewhere, eventually.

You know she’s right, and so you go on.

The “somewhere, eventually” is the most difficult part, of course. Can I get a job in the same town so we don’t have to move? Or not? Do we have enough money in the bank to get by for a while? How much? And for how long? Or not?

The Mrs. and I were generally pretty lucky. KDTH let me work for six weeks after they told me I was out, so I had time to find another job, and I missed only one paycheck while segueing from one to the other. In Macomb, I picked up part-time radio work across the street within a couple of weeks of getting fired, and full-time work a few weeks after that, but staying afloat was a near thing. (I could reach over into the file cabinet next to my desk right now and pull out the box from the free government cheese we got during those weeks.) It was maybe six weeks between leaving the station in the Quad Cities and starting in Clinton, but we had a little money in the bank by then. After Clinton, I wanted out of radio altogether, and thanks to Ann’s job, I had the luxury of taking nearly a year to find my “somewhere, eventually.”

The ESPNers who lost their jobs will find their next “somewhere, eventually,” although for many, it will mean less prestige and fewer dollars. But before that happy day, there’s still the jolt, the stunned silent moments, the brave face, the financial arithmetic. There’s the leaving-behind of a comfortable perch, a familiar routine, and friendly colleagues. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where, or what you do, whether it’s covering the Dallas Cowboys, cracking wise on the radio, or working the night shift at the sub shop. If you like your job and you wish you could keep it, the feeling of having it suddenly taken away is pretty much the same.

Let the Time Be Near

(Pictured: Blood Sweat and Tears.)

I have over 28,000 songs on my laptop. The other day, the album version and single edit of BS&T’s “And When I Die” shuffled up within about 50 songs of each other, which struck me as an excuse to reboot this post from 2011. Rereading it now, I think it might be one of the better things I ever wrote.

I can’t remember the first time I heard Blood Sweat and Tears’ “And When I Die,” which went to #2 in the fall of 1969.

I’m not scared of dyin’ and I don’t really care
If it’s peace you find in dyin’, well then, let the time be near

That seemed pretty odd to me. How could someone be unafraid of dying—and even go as far as to wish the time was near? I tried not to think about what it implied.

Eventually, BS&T’s music got too old for Top 40 and A/C and they were relegated to oldies stations, and apart from “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and “Spinning Wheel,”  their songs were rarely anthologized. I’ll bet I went a decade or more without hearing “And When I Die.” But then came the day I heard it again.

If it’s peace you find in dyin’ and if dyin’ time is near
Just bundle up my coffin ’cause it’s cold way down there
I hear it is cold way down there, yeah
Crazy cold way down there

I was past 40 years old now, much different from the person who’d first heard the song, and I couldn’t believe how different it sounded to me.

And when I die, and when I’m gone
There’ll be one child born in this world to carry on, to carry on

It was like learning that a knick-knack that had sat on a shelf for years was actually a valuable relic. It took on a significance I never knew it possessed.

Now troubles are many, they’re as deep as a well
I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell
Swear there ain’t no heaven and I pray there ain’t no hell
But I’ll never know by livin’, only my dyin’ will tell, yes only my dyin’ will tell, yeah
Only my dyin’ will tell

When I was first hearing the song, I still believed in Heaven, Hell, God, all of it. By the time I reached my 40s, I believed in none of it—but I also believed, as I do today, that we’ll never know by dying. The Greek philosopher Epicurus said something like, “Where we are, death is not; where death is, we are not.” I don’t believe we’re going to perceive what’s happened to us, or even that something has happened to us. We’ll just go and be troubled no more, and that sounds like peace to me.

Freed from the need to live in preparation for where we think we’re going after life is over, why wouldn’t we want to get the most out of the only world we know?

Give me my freedom for as long as I be
All I ask of livin’ is to have no chains on me
All I ask of livin’ is to have no chains on me
And all I ask of dyin’ is to go naturally

The phrase “no chains on me” is a phrase of the time in which Laura Nyro wrote “And When I Die,” although the sentiment is timeless.  And the wish to go naturally is something that’s existed in all of us since each of us figured out that there are nastier ways to go.

But the most profound wisdom in “And When I Die” is this:

And when I die, and when I’m dead, dead and gone
There’ll be one child born in our world to carry on, to carry on

So there I am, a man in his 40s, hearing a familiar song transformed, and being transformed by it. Why yes—if it’s peace you find in dying, well then, yes, let the time be near. All I ask of dying is to go naturally. And when I’m gone—when each of us is dead, dead and gone—there’ll be one child born in the world to carry on. The children that follow us might tread more lightly than we, they might be wiser than we, and they might acquire the vision and the wisdom to solve the problems our generation lacks the will to face.

Far from being odd—or scary, or delusional, or demented—“And When I Die” is actually a damned optimistic song.

Don’t Leave Me This Way

Scene 1: It is the spring of 2017, and I am teaching a class of high-school juniors. I do an icebreaker in which I ask each student one of a half-dozen different questions, and one of them is “name a band or performer you like.” The kids do not name a single artist I’ve heard of, nor do any two people mention the same artist. They aren’t listening to the top of the Top 40, or they’d mention Ed Sheeran, the Chainsmokers, the Weeknd, Bruno Mars, Drake, or Rihanna. I wonder if they’re sharing a generational musical experience at all, or if they’re part of small circles that rarely overlap other circles.

Scene 2: It is the spring of 1977, and I am a high-school junior. I live every non-school moment with the radio in my ear, where the top of the Top 40 sizzles with springtime energy, including Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” “The Things We Do for Love” by 10cc, “Dancing Queen,” and “Rich Girl.”

Scene 3: Back in 2017, I am in the car, listening to an oldies station on AM. It’s a gorgeous afternoon, sunny and warm, and the car is powered as much by the radio as it is by gasoline. “Summer in the City,” Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes,” “I Hear a Symphony,” War’s “Low Rider,” and on and on, every one memorable, every one uptempo, every one by itself enough to make one grateful to be part of the generation that created it.

It is hard for me to imagine that 40 years from now, after I’m long dead and my students are the age I am today, that they will feel the same kind of generational solidarity with the music of the 00s and 10s that I feel when I listen to the music of the 60s and 70s. It’s not just that they don’t listen to the kind of mass-appeal radio stations we had back then. It’s got something to do with the music itself.

In his book 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, Andrew Grant Jackson cites a 2012 academic study that examined the tempo and key of more than 1,000 hit songs released between 1965 and 2009. Researchers determined that in the 1960s, 85 percent of pop songs were in a major key, but during the 00s, only 42.5 percent were. Hits of the 60s averaged 116 beats per minute and ran about three minutes; hits of the 00s averaged around 100 BPM and ran about four minutes. Jackson writes, “Our culture perceives songs in major keys with fast tempo as happy and uplifting, whereas slow, minor-key songs are interpreted as sad, serious, complex, and sophisticated.” The bottom line is that today’s music is slower and sadder than music used to be. Skating the thin line between pleasure and pain by listening to sad songs has been a part of the pop-music experience for nearly 70 years now. But in recent years, as you trace the historical curve of that line, it seems like pain has become almost the norm.

The stereotype of an oldies radio listener is of an old person trying to recapture his or her youth. There’s something to that. A song like “Low Rider” comes with a set of associations that I enjoy remembering. But there’s certainly more to it than just simple nostalgia. Many people who aren’t old enough to remember when “Summer in the City” was a hit enjoy it, and there’s data to prove it: it’s my limited understanding that when radio stations do music research with listeners, 90s music tends to do poorly compared to stuff from the 80s [late edit: and other decades, too–Ed.]. The continuing popularity of 70s music with people of all ages is easy to see even without research data. And maybe all of it has something to do with the historical curve of that line.

Will oldies stations of the 50s—the 2050s—play the hits of the 90s, 00s, and 10s the way oldies stations today play the hits of the 60s, 70s, and 80s? I suspect not. And if they don’t, the reason may be a simple one: Who wants to feel serious and sad all the time? Or even 42.5 percent of the time?

Just Can’t Wait

(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.

Get Back

(Pictured: John Lennon’s handwritten draft of “A Day in the Life,” up for auction in 2006.)

In 1972, a New Jersey-based company called Audiotape, Inc., took advantage of the patchy nature of copyright law to put out a massive Beatles collection called Alpha Omega: four vinyl discs, also available on 8-track tape, containing 60 songs, ranging from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to solo recordings (“Imagine,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” “Bangla Desh”), sourced from American Capitol albums. It was advertised on TV and radio, and plans were made for a second set before the Beatles and their barracuda manager Allen Klein stepped in to stop it. The demand for Alpha Omega led Capitol/EMI to release two official Beatles compilations in April 1973: the red 1962-1966 and the blue 1967-1970.

As I have written before, I just missed the Beatles as a going concern. “The Long and Winding Road” ended its run on the Hot 100 after the week of July 25, 1970 (falling clear out from #21), and I started listening to the radio about six weeks later. I’d heard of them, of course, having watched the cartoon series based on their exploits. heir songs remained staples of Top 40 radio after July 1970, and I undoubtedly heard plenty of them. Beatle music was as ubiquitous as light and air, whether you could remember hearing them as Top 40 hitmakers or not.

I eventually bought the blue album, but I don’t think it was in 1973 because I was still buying only singles then. However, when I visualize first listening to it, I’m in the downstairs bedroom I shared with my brother, but I’m not sure that’s possible, unless we moved to separate rooms upstairs somewhat later than I’ve always believed.

Which songs on 1967-1970 were most familiar to me at that moment I don’t remember. I was fascinated by “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life,” and I didn’t know quite what to think about “I Am the Walrus,” so I am guessing they were new to me. (My favorite “new” Beatles song, however, was “Across the Universe.”) I was surprised to learn that “Fool on the Hill” was a Beatles song: at that point I knew it only from the 1968 version by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 that I would have heard on my parents’ radio station.

When The Mrs. and I became Mr. and Mrs. and merged our record collections, she had a copy of 1962-1966. Because it spans the years when the US and UK versions of Beatles recordings were often very different, the vinyl 1962-1966 contains some oddballs, including fake stereo versions of “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which were replaced for the CD reissues in 1993 and 2010. (Wikipedia runs down the differences here.) The 1967-1970 album contains less of this kind of thing, although it does contain the first album releases of the single versions of “Let It Be” and “Get Back.”

During the week of May 26, 1973, 1967-1970 hit #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, taking out Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. The 1962-1966 album sat at #3, its chart peak. The next week, 1967-1970 would lose its place to Paul McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway, which would be taken out by George Harrison’s Living in the Material World three weeks later.

The top of the Billboard 200 was pretty solid during that Memorial Day week, also including the Edgar Winter Group’s They Only Come Out at Night (with the current #1 single, “Frankenstein”), Dark Side of the Moon, Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies, and The Best of Bread. Also within the Top 20: Talking Book by Stevie Wonder, Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, The Captain and Me by the Doobie Brothers, and Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill. Stevie, Elton, the Doobies, and the Dan would be among the top acts of the next decade, but in the summer of 1973, they all were left in the dust by the top act of the preceding decade.

You Can Check Out Anytime You Like

(Pictured: the Eagles on stage circa 1977 with a backdrop from the Hotel California album art.)

Between the last week of March 1977 and the beginning of July, the #1 album in America was either Hotel California or Rumours, a collision of giants that seems ever more remarkable as the years go by. Last spring I ranked the tracks on Rumours. This spring, Hotel California gets its turn. If you haven’t heard it all in a while, go here.

9. “Wasted Time (reprise).” Eighty-two seconds of strings reprising the main theme of “Wasted Time.” This actually works better on the CD, where it immediately follows “Wasted Time.” On vinyl, you had to walk over to the stereo and flip the record, and you were greeted with this. Dropping the needle on Side 2 and getting immediately to “Victim of Love” would have been much more satisfying.

8. “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” The most noteworthy thing about “Pretty Maids All in a Row” is how it showcases the Eagles harmonizing together without words. That sound is everywhere on Eagles records, and once you start noticing it, you realize how lovely a trademark it was.

7. “Wasted Time.” The Eagles were famous for having a high opinion of themselves, and on “Wasted Time,” you can tell they’re trying to make a Big Philosophical Statement. They nearly pull it off: the melody and the production are like nothing else they ever did, although the lyrics, which sure sound like they ought to be important, don’t make a whole lot of sense on the page. Some of the individual lines are striking, however, none more than “I could have done so many things baby / If I could only stop my mind.” Feelin’ you, man.

6. “Life in the Fast Lane.” I liked this a lot more in 1977 than I do now.

5.  “Try and Love Again.” This should have been a single. That ringing lead guitar would have sounded great on the radio.

4. “The Last Resort.” A better Big Philosophical Statement, about the taking of the West and the closing of the frontier. It suggests that every generation of Americans has had the urge to start over, but that urge comes from the fact that we never change, and that we learn nothing from all of the other new starts we made, so we’re fated to keep making the same mistakes. It’s just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1977.

3.  “Victim of Love.” If you have a vinyl copy of Hotel California, you can find these words etched in the Side 2 run-out groove: “V.O.L. is five-piece live.” For a band whose studio obsessiveness would soon approach Steely Dan levels, “Victim of Love” is already a throwback, with no overdubs and solidly kicking ass. “Victim of Love” was the B-side of “New Kid in Town” and was listed with it on the Hot 100, and it certainly got some Top 40 airplay during the latter’s winter run to #1. In the summer, WHYI in Fort Lauderdale would list “Victim of Love” on the station survey by itself, at about the time “Life in the Fast Lane” was riding high. Somebody at the station had a pretty strong jones for the twin guitars of Don Felder and Joe Walsh, apparently.

2. “New Kid in Town.” I wrote about this song on the 40th anniversary of its lone week at #1.

1. “Hotel California.” When “Hotel California” first hit Top 40 radio in February 1977, nobody had ever heard anything quite like it. We’ve all heard it so much in 40 years that it’s hard to hear it well anymore. Nevertheless, if you can make yourself notice, it’s got some cool little moments. Here’s just one: at the 5:30 mark, after the Felder and Walsh guitar solos build to a peak, Randy Meisner comes in, underpinning the guitars with an urgent, stabbing bass line, like a heartbeat out of control at the horror of being trapped in a place one could never leave. But then Meisner backs off. As Felder and Walsh repeat the same theme, Meisner’s bass becomes mere punctuation again, and “Hotel California” fades with the feeling that even the worst horror is something you can get used to.

And that, too, is just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1977.

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