Sit on It

(Pictured: Potsie, Ralph, Richie, and the Fonz discuss vital issues of the day.)

Forty years ago this week, I was finishing up my sophomore year in high school by locking down my class schedule for the fall. For the first time, we were permitted to schedule classes ourselves instead of taking what they told us to take when they told us to take it. The baseball team, of which I was equipment manager, won one game and lost two. John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” was the new #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 dated May 8th, while the previous week’s #1, “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers, plunged to #9. “Silly Love Songs” by Wings and Silver Convention’s “Get Up and Boogie” were new in the Top 10. The hottest record in the Top 40 was the Rolling Stones’ double-sided hit, “Fool to Cry” and “Hot Stuff,” which leaped from #46 to #20.

What’s at the top of that May 8th chart is the soundtrack of my life, and it plays in my head without the need for any other hardware. Down at the bottom, however, the going gets weird. That stuff is on the flip.

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(Pictured: a streaker intruded on the closing ceremonies of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, because of course he did.)

Here’s more about my 1976 daybook, rebooted from a series of posts that originally appeared in 2009.

The majority of the notes in the book are the birthdays of famous people and weird holidays, which must have seemed important to me back then, although I can fathom no reason for them now except chronic geekitude. I occasionally took a break from the trivia to note the scores of games I was interested in, or involved in. I occasionally noted news items, the weather, days off from school for snow, or the word “HOT” in all caps (as on July 10, when it was 104 degrees in Madison). On July 17, I noted the start of the Summer Olympics in Montreal, and Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10s in gymnastics on the 19th and the 21st. On the 20th, I noted the Viking I landing on Mars.

But details of my day-to-day life are maddeningly sketchy. On Thursday February 5, I wrote “Make yourself do it!,” which undoubtedly involved asking somebody for a date. (This I did not do. Suffering in unrequited silence was how I rolled back then.) On Sunday the 8th, we celebrated my paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary with an open house in the church basement. Somewhere I have a photo of myself manning the guest book that afternoon, 70s resplendent in a loud plaid sport coat and bright red polyester pants. On March 1, the day after my 16th birthday, I stayed home from school with a cold.

On Thursday, March 4, I wrote, “lights out 11:30AM.” This was the beginning of the fabled ice storm of 1976, one of the most powerful winter storms ever to bash my part of Wisconsin. The electricity would stay out until Sunday March 7, when I wrote “lights on after 76:19 with none.” A note on the Saturday of that weekend says, “Appointment at WEKZ 8-830AM.” I presume I got there despite the weather—it was the first in the series of Saturday morning hang-outs at the station which I hoped would result in a job. On April 14 I would write, headline fashion, “WEKZ Wants Me During the Summer,” but it turned out that they didn’t. They never officially offered me a job, and when I stopped hanging out at the station for free, they decided I wasn’t interested anymore, which is crazy, because I was obsessed with radio. That’s why Monday, March 15, had been a noteworthy day: “CFL Switches to Easy Listening: Where Can We Go to Rock and Roll?” I was listening that afternoon during one of the most extraordinary radio format changes in history.

Later in March, my closest friend got his driver’s license, and we went “cruising” (our word) that night. On Tuesday April 6, I wrote: “Got class ring & report card (eesh),” which refers to a C+ in plane geometry and a D+ in chemistry. Bad grades didn’t get me grounded, however. That weekend, there was a basketball marathon at our high school—teams signed up to play for an hour at a time, and games ran from noon Friday through midnight Sunday. A bunch of us went to the local drive-in theater on Friday night and then played games at midnight and 5AM. I had never stayed up all night before.

The next week, on April 13th, 1976, I got my driver’s license. Then April rolled on and turned to May: Getting a copy of Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief (April 17), my cousin’s confirmation (April 25), going to see The Exorcist at the drive-in (May 2). I was equipment manager of my high-school baseball team that spring; the season ended on Tuesday May 25, the same day I bought a compilation album called Silver Bullets. On May 29, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I wrote, “Bought ’72 Hornet.” I didn’t actually buy it—my parents did—but it was going to be mine. I have always remembered the car as a ’74. Did I get it wrong there, or have I had it wrong ever since?

In the next installment: The height of summer comes—and goes, without actually achieving any height.

“Let Me Tell You What I Heard About a Man Today”

(Pictured: Merle Haggard, on set for a performance of “Okie From Muskogee” on ABC’s Music Scene in October 1969.)

Over the past weekend I spent several hours on airplanes, time made far more bearable by Merle Haggard: The Running Kind by David Cantwell, published in 2013. It’s not a biography of Haggard, although it does tell the story of his life in a roundabout way; it’s a series of essays mostly about Haggard’s songs, albums, and influences, focusing largely on his most fertile period, from the middle of the 1960s through the middle of the 1980s. On Monday, I spent the day listening to the Haggard compilation Down Every Road: 1962-1994.

I have said many times that I became a radio listener partly because my parents were listeners. Before I had favorite stations of my own, I was exposed to whatever they were listening to—polkas and WGN and a lot of country music. And as I listened to Haggard’s early hits this week, I can’t claim to have recognized them, exactly, but the sound was unmistakable. During the middle-to-late 60s, Haggard’s songs (and country music in general) had a particular style—so much so that when Cantwell was quoting the lyrics of songs I didn’t know, I could hear them, and when I played them on Monday, the words came out mostly as I had imagined. Also, country music of that period conformed to a particular sonic template, not always twangy and “down home” (whatever that means, exactly), but often quite smooth, graceful, even gentle, as Nashville’s “countrypolitan” sound pushed for crossover success. Haggard’s songs about hard times, failed love, drinking to excess, and/or the urge to roam are never undignified, even at their most raw and honest, and that includes his most famous crossover hits during this period, “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”

Despite the time I spent in the 1970s absorbing my parents’ country music by accident and my years as a country radio DJ shortly thereafter (1979 to 1984, approximately), not all of Haggard’s biggest hits were familiar to me. True, I knew a lot of them: “Mama Tried,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “If We Make It Through December,” “The Running Kind,” “If We’re Not Back in Love By Monday,” and others. But a couple of them were revelations to me, none greater than his 1972 #1 single, “Carolyn,” a dark, literary twist on the old-fashioned cheating song. (The title of this post is a line from “Carolyn.”)

By the time Down Every Road reached its fourth quarter, it included songs I could remember playing on the radio while they were popular, and a few I hadn’t heard since then. I’d forgotten how great “Misery and Gin” is. On “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” Haggard takes an extended guitar solo of the sort that was (and is) rare on country records. I was enthralled again by “Pancho and Lefty,” technically a duet with Willie Nelson on which Haggard sings only the last verse. (I have dug that song for nearly 35 years now; Cantwell doesn’t care for it, and spends a couple of pages explaining why.) And I remember thinking in 1983, as I do now, that if you want to play one song to showcase Haggard’s voice, “That’s the Way Love Goes” is the one to pick.

You don’t have to be a Haggard fan to appreciate The Running Kind, although it certainly helps if you are. To get a taste of it, read about Haggard’s 1969 Music Scene performance here, in which he had to follow Sly and the Family Stone, and in which he subverted a snotty introduction by program host Tom Smothers.

Not every prolific artist’s life, influences, and worldview can be seen clearly through the prism of their work. The souls of some artists remain hidden even after we’ve listened to them for years. But you can read Merle Haggard’s soul through the music he made, and especially in the book David Cantwell wrote about that music. Both of them—the songs and the book—are very much worth your time.

Got to Be Somebody

(Pictured L to R: three guys who could sing and/or write you some great songs: Joe South, Tommy Roe, and Billy Joe Royal.)

Here’s another edition of One Week in the 40, in which we listen to songs that spent a single week in Billboard‘s Top 40, hence the name. Several of the acts in this edition are famous for one other song, but are not technically one-hit wonders, in some cases because of the songs we’re listening to here.

Bobby Hebb is a fine example. The only song of his most people can name is “Sunny,” which threatened to become a standard after it rose to #2 late in the summer of 1966. But the week “Sunny” fell off the Hot 100, it was replaced by Hebb’s soulful version of the country standard “A Satisfied Mind,” which made it to #39 on November 5, 1966.

The trippy “98.6” by Keith was a Top-10 hit early in 1967. But Keith made it to #37 with the Hollies song “Tell Me to My Face,” a song much beloved at this blog in its version by Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg, on April 15, 1967.

We could easily turn this into a game. I’d say “James and Bobby Purify,” and you’d almost inevitably come back with “I’m Your Puppet,” a #6 hit in the fall of 1966. But the Purify cousins made the Hot 100 eight times in two years and the Top 40 three times in all, with another song peaking at #41. “Wish You Didn’t Have to Go” made #38 for the week of February 25, 1967, but crashed out of the Hot 100 two weeks later.

Do you like this game? Let’s play again. I say “Brenton Wood” and you say . . . “Gimme Little Sign,” most likely, because it was a Top 10 hit in the fall of 1967. A few freaks might come up with “The Oogum Boogum Song,” which contains one of the more pernicious hooks of the 1960s. It reached #34 during the week of June 24, 1967, and was gone from the Hot 100 two weeks later.

(Never mind the not-technically-one-hit-wonders theme; we should probably be doing a crashing-out-of-the-Hot-100 theme instead.)

Let’s jump ahead a few years. Marie Osmond hit the charts a lot with Donny, but can you name a hit she charted under her name alone? I’m thinking of “Paper Roses,” which was a Top-10 hit in the fall of 1973. She’s on our list for “This Is the Way That I Feel,” in which she goes for a soul-diva vibe, with predictable results. It reached #39 for the week of June 4, 1975 1977.

In 1978, “Kiss You All Over” by Exile went to #1. Their followup hit, “You Thrill Me,” is actually a pretty decent record. It reached #40 for the week of February 3, 1979—and then fell out of the Hot 100 entirely, because of course it did.

(Four years later, Exile relaunched as a country act and bagged 10 #1 hits between 1984 and 1987, including the insanely great “Woke Up in Love.”)

All right, back to the game. I say “Rickie Lee Jones” and you say . . . “Chuck E.’s in Love.” But another track from her debut album, “Young Blood,” hit #40 for the week of September 1, 1979 (and she’d hit the Hot 100 two more times, in 1981 and 1984).

There are a few artists on this list for whom you could probably name two hits, like Jackie DeShannon (“What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart), even though she put 16 onto the Hot 100 between 1963 and 1980. “Love Will Find a Way” was her only other Top 40 hit, reaching #40 on December 6, 1969. With Billy Joe Royal, you might name “Down in the Boondocks” and the great “Cherry Hill Park,” but “I’ve Got to Be Somebody,” written by Joe South, spent the week of January 15, 1966, at #38. And with Rick James, “Super Freak” and “You and I” may come to mind, but maybe not “Cold Blooded,” which was #40 for the week of September 24, 1983. (Abbreviated Soul Train clip here.)

We have a few songs yet to cover, so watch for future installments of this feature.

A Lot of Music in It

(Pictured: Emerson Lake & Palmer.)

In the summer of 2009, I wrote a four-part series based on a daybook I kept during 1976. It wasn’t a diary; it was a page-a-week calendar on which I noted various bits of trivia day by day: celebrity birthdays, odd holidays—and, most significant now, brief notes about things happening in my life. It had been boxed away for a very long time, and when I rediscovered it, I hoped that it might help me better understand why 1976 has a hold on me that I’ll never shake. The first part follows, slightly edited.

Like all other years, 1976 had a lot of music in it. On Sunday January 11, the family made a trip to the mall in Madison, and I bought Kraftwerk’s Autobahn album. The next week, I noted that I had borrowed Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery album from a friend. (I borrowed Frampton Comes Alive! from another friend that spring, although I didn’t write it in the daybook. I ended up buying him a replacement after somebody stole it out of my locker.) On February 29, I celebrated what would have been my fourth “real” birthday, and among the gifts I received was Station to Station, David Bowie’s latest album, which I got on an 8-track tape. I bought a couple more albums in March: Queen’s A Night at the Opera on the 12th and Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon on the 14th.

The juxtaposition of those two albums amuses me now: Queen defiantly asserted “no synthesizers” on A Night at the Opera‘s liner notes, while Tangerine Dream was entirely electronic, and that’s why I bought it, even though I’d never heard of Tangerine Dream. I got it in a cutout bin for a couple of bucks, imagining it would be full of the proggy synthesizer pyrotechnics I was into at the moment. What it was, however, was ambient music, which was a fairly big leap for me (Autobahn notwithstanding). The album is still up here in the office somewhere, although I don’t think I’ve listened to it more than a couple of times. I decided to stick with prog rock. On July 16, I bought Rick Wakeman’s No Earthly Connection.

As the summer began, I started noting the names of the artists that were being featured every night on Madison’s WIBA-FM, starting with Monty Python on June 1. Other artists featured that month: Jethro Tull, the Charlie Daniels Band, the Beatles, Paul Butterfield, Brian Auger, Ace, Pablo Cruise, Little Feat, and Alice Cooper. I would keep it up all summer. When Paul McCartney and Wings (June 2) and Elton John (July 28 and 30) played concerts in Chicago, I wrote that down, too. At the top of each weekly page, I noted the Number-One songs and albums of the week, taken from the various countdown shows I followed religiously. On July 3, I listened as WMAQ, Chicago’s big country station, counted down the top 76 country records of all time—such was my chart geekery in that summer.

So what the daybook indicates first and foremost is that music was everything to me in 1976—but that wouldn’t have been news to anyone then, and it isn’t news to you now.

In the next installment: brief and maddeningly incomplete glimpses of teenage life.

Across My Universe

(Pictured: the Beatles on TV, 1968.)

In April 2006, I began using LastFM to keep track of the music that plays on my laptop every day. In 10 years, it’s recorded over 153,000 plays. In a recent post, I wrote about the top jazz artists on the list. This post is about the non-jazz stars I listen to most. I’m not going to count these down because there’s not much suspense, really.

1. Van Morrison. Because my library plays on shuffle most of the time, it privileges artists with more tracks. And I have a ton of Van Morrison, so a day without Van is most likely a day when I’m not on the laptop. Most-played track: “Caravan.”

2. Elton John. It figures that a child of the 70s such as I would still be listening to Elton John. Most-played track: “Your Song,” primarily because every single live album and bootleg contains a version of it, so it’s inescapable.

3. Fleetwood Mac. I liked Fleetwood Mac’s radio hits well enough, but I didn’t start exploring their back catalog until the last decade. The pre-Buckingham/Nicks years were spectacular, even if the records didn’t sell much. Most-played track: “Monday Morning.”

4. Rolling Stones. Like Fleetwood Mac, the Stones were a band I liked on the radio, but I didn’t listen beyond the hits until relatively recent times. At their peak, they really were the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Most-played track: “Brown Sugar,” which is news on par with the sunrise.

5. Steely Dan. Officially my favorite band. I have many, many bootlegs in addition to all of their officially released material, and I’m not quite sure how they’re not #1 on this list. Most-played track: “Josie,” which is because they play it at every show and it’s on every bootleg, and not because it’s a favorite. I can name quite literally 50 Steely Dan songs I like better.

6. Beatles. New data indicates indicates that two-thirds of the people listening to the Beatles on Spotify are under the age of 35. This is happening while oldies radio has largely dropped them (and other artists from the 60s) in the belief that they’re relevant only to those of us approaching retirement age. Radio remaining slavishly loyal to ancient dogma and refusing to keep up with the times? Color me shocked. Most-played track: “Across the Universe.”

7.  Boz Scaggs. I suspect I get more enjoyment from any random Boz cut than from any other artist who pops up on shuffle. Most-played track: “Lowdown,” and how. Various live versions rank #1 on my Boz list, and the studio version from Silk Degrees is #2.

8.  Rod Stewart. Rod has been in my music library even longer than Elton, ever since I bought “Maggie May” in the fall of 1971. Most-played track: “Mandolin Wind,” from Every Picture Tells a Story. 

9.  Bruce Springsteen. My most-played Springsteen album is The Seeger Sessions, and six of my most-played tracks are from that album, with “Erie Canal” and “Pay Me My Money Down” tied for first. That strikes me weird, but it’s OK: “Pay Me My Money Down” would be among my favorite Springsteen songs of any era, if I made a list.

10. Rosanne Cash. There’s no artist currently working for whom I have greater respect than Rosanne Cash. Although “daughter of Johnny Cash” will be in the first line of her obituary, she’s not overshadowed by him. She’s created her own great art and her own indelible image. And if you dip into her four-decade catalog at any point, you’ll find something highly worthwhile. Most-played track: “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” which is one of her father’s songs.

Add these 10 to the top five jazz artists in my earlier post (Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, Jimmy McGriff, Kenny Burrell, and Willis Jackson) and you have my 15 most-played artists. The next five are Lucinda Williams, the Eagles, Richard Groove Holmes, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the Electric Light Orchestra.

My single most-played track is one I haven’t mentioned to this point: “Ruby My Dear” by Thelonious Monk. LastFM doesn’t differentiate very well between versions of the same song on different albums. I have four different versions of “Ruby My Dear,” so its prominence is mainly a shuffle anomaly. But I don’t mind. Here’s a good version.


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