(Pictured: on November 20, 1975, Gerald Ford meets a Thanksgiving turkey.)
So now then: barring some sort of drama in the Electoral College, or barring him deciding to say before January 20th, “Screw it, I won, but it’s all yours, Governor Pence, and I’m outta here,” Donald Trump is gonna be president. Recently on Twitter, music writer Stephen Erlewine suggested we try to imagine him pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey, or attending the Kennedy Center Honors, or presiding over the Easter Egg Roll. But it’s farcical to think that this vulgar cartoon of a human being might plausibly perform those very American functions we expect of our presidents. Even Richard Nixon, the most painfully awkward public man of the 20th century, was able to do such things. But Trump? Come on.
It’s also difficult to see Trump as a family man, despite the role his three oldest children played in the campaign. Five kids by three different women does not conjure up images of breakfast around the family table. It’s easier with Nixon. He doted on his daughters, although Mrs. Nixon was sometimes more political prop than partner. (In the White House, he occasionally communicated with her by sending memos via his staff.)
In 1969, songwriter Jeff Barry and singer Andy Kim, contemplating the new family in the White House, wrote and recorded “Tricia Tell Your Daddy,” which imagined a breakfast scene “On a family Sunday morning / When he comes downstairs a-yawning / From his bed.” The song (also recorded by Jay and the Americans) asks the First Daughter to speak to her father about his great responsibility, about peace and poverty, and about love.
Tell him he’s the man, Tricia
The world’s in his hands, Tricia
Tell him that you’re not his only child
He’s everybody’s daddy for a while
“Tricia Tell Your Daddy” isn’t a protest song, exactly. It’s more a plea for understanding and a song of hope.
Forty-eight years later, asking this incoming president for understanding seems like a waste of breath. And while there’s hope among Trump’s constituency, that hope is almost certainly destined to be shattered. He’s not building a Mexican wall, he’s not deporting 11 million Muslims, and he’s not going to throw Hillary in jail. The sad likelihood is that the only people who’ll get exactly they want from a Trump presidency are those who want to gut public institutions and persecute gays and lesbians—and of course the American Nazi Party, the KKK, and other retrograde morons.
One of the more wrongheaded bits of analysis I saw in the wake of the election appeared on the morning after: “Trump’s election is going to be really good for artists.” Somebody even suggested it was the best thing to happen to punk rock in decades. But the future of art is not among the futures many of us are considering right now. It’s a stretch to presume that in a culture as atomized as this one, Trump might have a broad impact on art. While punk bands might be moved to rage, there’s not much evidence to suggest that mainstream musicians will respond to Trumpism in their work. Recently, consultant Fred Jacobs wrote about the general failure of rockers to engage as activists, and it’s no wonder. Everybody remembers what happened to the Dixie Chicks in 2003, and Jacobs reported that in more recent years even a star as big as Bruce Springsteen has been harshly punished by radio audiences for his activism. The most visible rock activist in the 2016 election cycle was probably Ted Nugent, but he had neither radio airplay or record sales to lose. There’s little reason to believe the risk of speaking out will be any less in Trump’s America than it was in Obama’s.
It’s possible, I guess, that I could be totally wrong about this. Maybe art will flower, songs of protest will ring out on the radio, and the next four years will be some kind of new artistic Renaissance. Stuff currently impossible to imagine may actually happen.
Because it already has.
The staff and management of this blog wish you and yours as happy a Thanksgiving as possible under the circumstances.
(Pictured: the Stones on stage at Altamont; L to R: Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and tour manager Sam Cutler.)
This blog has written extensively about the rock festival era, the period approximately between the Summer of Love and the summer of 1971, in which young people gathered on farms, at racetracks, at ballparks, and in other large venues for concerts featuring multiple headliners. Some shows lasted a single day, some for a weekend, and some even longer. Some were successful, and some were not. Pre-Woodstock gatherings at Golden Gate Park and other venues in northern California (including the Monterey Pop Festival) were largely peaceable and well-run. Woodstock itself seemed to have worked, although the historical record shows that it was repeatedly blessed by guardian angels or simply lucky. Other festivals became disastrous debacles, like the Iola People’s Fair in Wisconsin. From our vantage point over 45 years later, the average festival looks like a crapshoot: maybe you’d pull it off, but maybe you wouldn’t.
In the fall of 1969, the Rolling Stones, strapped for cash, scheduled a brief tour of America for November. They would be followed by documentarians Albert and David Maysles and hoped to cash in with a concert film, a la Woodstock. An outdoor festival, doubling as a rock ‘n’ roll summit between San Francisco and London, would provide the perfect ending to the tour and the film. What resulted is a story full of twists and turns that ends up a horror show, described in the fascinating new book Altamont: the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.
The Stones played standard arena shows in big cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and in college towns including Fort Collins, Colorado; Auburn, Alabama; and Champaign, Illinois. But the free festival was supposed to be the capper. It was originally set for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Stones’ appearance (alongside the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane) would be revealed only at the last minute as a surprise. Bu the surprise aspect was quickly scuttled, and then bungling management required the concert to be moved, first to Sears Point Raceway north of San Francisco and then, less than 36 hours before the announced concert date (December 6, 1969) to Altamont Speedway, a broken-down track about 40 miles east of Oakland.
Selvin’s book paints the rolling disaster in moment-by-moment detail—Mick Jagger comes off as astoundingly naive, refusing to permit police on the grounds—along with the out-and-out grifting by some of the participants. For example, a mysterious guy named Jon Jaymes was in charge of transportation and security and signed the contract with the owner of Altamont Speedway, but he wasn’t on the Stones’ payroll or anyone else’s, and it’s unclear how he managed to attach himself to the tour. When Jagger decamped for Switzerland on December 7th with the tour proceeds, $1.8 million in cash, he and the Stones left behind a trail of unpaid bills.
The bad juju that enveloped Altamont was the product of forces that the Stones were capable of unleashing but could not control. Since they last toured America in 1966, the country had changed. Concert crowds were no longer made up of screaming teenyboppers. The news was grimmer—Vietnam was a deeper quagmire and Richard Nixon, the least-trusted politician in America among young people, was in the White House, fostering anger and mistrust. The drugs were heavier: at Altamont, psychedelics and wine were the drugs of choice; in Selvin’s telling, musicians, concert crew, photographers, and a significant percentage of the crowd were tripping all day long. The crowd deserves a share of the blame for the violence that plagued the show. Although the Hells Angels, famously hired to handle security for $500 worth of beer, were accomplished lawbreakers (and were themselves addled by drugs and alcohol), they found concertgoers more than willing to egg them on. Even Meredith Hunter, the man whose stageside murder by one of the Angels was captured by the Maysles’ cameras, was high and looking for a fight.
Well before December 6th, it was clear that Altamont was haunted. The signs were everywhere. Without the guardian angels or the dumb luck that had favored Woodstock, it was a flashpot waiting for a match.
Ten years ago this month, this blog spun a theory that the last months of 1969 were haunted by a darkness you could hear on the radio. I developed it by cherry-picking the nation’s record charts, but Selvin’s book provides some halfway decent support for it—and I recommend it highly.
On April 24, 1976, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels did his famous on-air bit inviting the Beatles to reunite on the show for $3,000. Michaels didn’t think they’d really show up, but he also stationed a young staffer at the front door of 30 Rock just in case, fearing that the elderly security guard on the Saturday night detail might not recognize the band members. Nobody knew then that Paul McCartney and John Lennon were watching the show at Lennon’s apartment in the Dakota—or that for a few minutes, they discussed grabbing a cab and heading to the studio.
I don’t remember whether I was watching SNL on that particular night. I’d like to think I was, though, because it makes for an attractive memory: upstairs in my room, late at night, the house is quiet, the windows are open with a spring breeze bringing sounds of the farm in from outside, and the old black-and-white TV lights up the room. (That particular set was one of my oldest and dearest childhood friends. My parents bought it for the basement when I was maybe 10, and it survived long enough to take its place in my first post-college apartment.)
In the end, John and Paul reacted just like regular people often do when confronted with one of those late-night, wild-hair, wouldn’t-it-be-something-if-we-did-it opportunities—they decided they were too tired and didn’t. That’s reassuring, in a way. Not so much that they could be a lot like us, but that we could be a lot like them.
Later that fall, after SNL began its second season, they got one of the Beatles to appear.
The second-season episode of Saturday Night Live that aired on November 20, 1976, is nothing special as comedy. Apart from the opening of the show, which features host Paul Simon in a turkey outfit, and a famous commercial for Quarry, the cereal made from stone, the sketches are among the least clever or interesting in SNL‘s brief history up to that point. It’s the music that makes the show a landmark, and specifically, the musical guest: George Harrison.
Early in the show, Simon and Harrison duet on “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound” (above), two unique voices blending with acoustic guitars that is one of the series’ loveliest musical moments. George’s verse on “Homeward Bound” is especially beautiful. The sequence looked great, too, shot through a filter that softened the video and made it seem almost dreamlike.
For the first time, the show began with an announcement that portions of it were prerecorded—later, Simon mentions that Harrison has “brought two films with him.” In a few years, we’d call them videos, for songs from George’s then-new album Thirty Three and 1/3. “Crackerbox Palace” was directed by Eric Idle of Monty Python. (See if you can spot Idle’s cameo. You’ll have to be very quick.) “This Song” would have been on the radio the night of the SNL broadcast. The video features a cameo by Ron Wood as a female juror.
November 20, 1976, represented the moment at which Saturday Night Live completed the arc from buzzworthy new show to must-see to cultural icon. When they could get a Beatle, instead of simply joking about paying them $3,000 to appear, it wasn’t just a TV show anymore.
(Rebooted from a couple of ancient posts.)
There’s a new jock starting at my radio station today—her first full-time job—not long out of college, enthusiastic and ambitious with a lot of potential, but still with a lot to learn. And so I have been thinking about my first days at my first full-time radio job. I got promoted from part-time to full-time at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa, in February of 1982. Because of my part-time experience, I was somewhat familiar with how the place worked, but there was a certain learning curve all the same.
When I give career advice to college students, I remind them that they will be working closely with people who are not the same age as they are, possibly for the first time in their lives. Not everybody is going to have the same generational touchstones, value the same things, or understand the world the same way. Most important, those people are probably not going to perceive you the same way you perceive yourself. In jumping from part-time to full-time at the same place (no matter what the place), the culture shock is less because you will have met some of your colleagues already. But age difference is still something you need to recognize and adjust to.
When I started as a full-timer at KDTH, one of the biggest adjustments I had to make was to the number of people in the building. When you work nights and weekends, you often have the place to yourself. During the week, the halls bustle with salespeople, front-office people, creative-services people, engineers, clients, and other visitors. It took me a while to get used to that. Today, even though I’m used to the bustle, I still enjoy working on weekends or at night, because the building is quiet again.
When you’re a part-timer, you answer only to your program director, and you deal only with other jocks and listeners on the phone. As a full-timer, your constituency expands. You work with creative-services people and salespeople, and sometimes directly with advertising clients. Salespeople run the gamut. Some of them are thorough professionals who understand both their job and yours. Others understand theirs but don’t really get yours: “Look, I know this copy runs 28 seconds already, but I promised the client we’d put in the phone number twice. Can you cut it again? I have a meeting with him at 3:30.” (This inevitably happens when it’s 2:45 and you’re on the air at 3.) And some are clueless enough to make you wonder how they got hired in the first place. When you’re on your first job, negotiating the personalities in the sales department is daunting for a while.
There are a few people who work at a radio station but are not radio people. Their jobs involve the business end of the business—accountants, office managers, and the like. Sometimes they buy in, and they embrace the unconventional spirit that suffuses the best radio stations. Others never do. You’ll learn soon enough who’s in and who isn’t. Not buying in doesn’t automatically mean they’re bad people. It’s just that you’ll have to relate to them differently.
You’re under more pressure as a full-time jock, especially if you work in a rated market. You will be told what the ratings are. You will know how your daypart is doing. And if it’s not doing well, you will be expected to fix that. You will also have the pleasure of meeting with consultants who parachute in from out of town, critique your work, and then go back to where they came from. As a young jock, you will find these sessions to be extremely stressful. As you gain wisdom and experience, you will find these sessions to be extremely stressful.
My main memory of my first day at KDTH has nothing to do with what happened at the office. That night, my boss took me out for too many drinks, and afterward I spiraled unsteadily home, back to the furnished apartment I’d moved into the day before. On the way, I remembered that I needed to make a stop at the grocery store for critical supplies. I bought the following: an eight-pack of Coke in returnable bottles, a bottle opener, and a package of toilet paper. Which could be some sort of metaphor for the career that has followed on from that first day.
(Pictured: 1975 collaborators Elton John and Neil Sedaka.)
Listen: it is a Saturday evening in the fall of 1975. My family—Mother, Dad, 15-year-old me, and my brothers, who are 13 and 9—gathers around the kitchen table for supper, pot roast and mashed potatoes with canned peas, and ice cream for dessert. We eat, and Dad goes back outside to milk his cows. While Mother cleans up in the kitchen, the TV comes on in the living room, and my brothers bicker over what to watch. To avoid their ruckus, I take the book I am reading onto the sunporch, a room on the south side of the house, where the console stereo sits. Thanks to the windows on three sides, I can see into the night, the well-lighted barn to the west, the lights of neighboring farms to the east, the occasional passing car that zips quickly along Melvin Road.
In my head, the scene has a soundtrack, and it is found on the American Top 40 show dated November 1, 1975: “Island Girl,” “Miracles,” and “Who Loves You,” “Bad Blood,” “Heat Wave,” and “Low Rider,” “It Only Takes a Minute,” “Fly Robin Fly,” and all the rest.
The music plays, and I watch the scene from 41 years’ distance. The good smell of supper is still in the air, and the house is warm, thanks to the old oil-burning furnace. Warm, too, is the enveloping embrace of family, five of us as one, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, one that never wavers in its love or its peace.
Whenever I think of the fall of 1975, that is always the image I recall.
In his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut created Bokononism, a religion based on the concept of foma, or harmless untruths. The main tenet of Bokononism is, “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” It’s OK to believe in lies, then, as long as they make you a better person and nobody gets hurt.
That scene of a family Saturday night? Almost certainly it’s one of my foma. The scene may have played out that way once, starting with pot roast and ending with me and my book, but it’s wrong to remember all of them that way. We did not always love each other. We were not always peaceful. Both my 13-year-old brother and I squabbled with Mother (he remembers it was more frequently me; I remember that it was more frequently him), and there were certainly some nights when supper would have been possible only after we called a truce. After supper, one or the other of us would have stomped back upstairs, turning up the music to hide in or sullenly watching the old black-and-white, all the while grousing about terrible life was.
But after all these years, what does it hurt to remember it a better way? Bokononists believe that because everything is a lie anyhow, a lie that does no harm is something a person can live by, and live very well.
I can’t evaluate the music on the 11/1/75 AT 40 dispassionately; it’s so potent as a whole that it’s hard to separate into parts. It feels to me like there are damn few clunkers. The show is edited strangely, although whether it was in 1975 or by its present-day producers, I don’t know: we get barely a minute of “It Only Takes a Minute” and “Fly Robin Fly,” but two songs Casey bills as “oldies” (the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation,” with which Casey tells the bogus story of its creation), and four full minutes of Leon Haywood’s “I Wanta Do Something Freaky to You,” which is two minutes too much.
And on the subject of edits: Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood,” in which the line “the bitch is in the smile” is changed to “the promise in the smile.” I don’t remember hearing “Bad Blood” edited like that on other AT40s I’ve written about, or on any radio station, ever. Odder still: a few weeks later, when AT40 counted down the top hits of 1975, the bitch was back.
(Pictured: the Raiders, whose 1971 hit “Indian Reservation” has an interesting backstory.)
In this cursed year of 2016, which has cost us so many people we love and led to so much misery besides, you may have failed to notice the death of singer/songwriter John D. Loudermilk in September. He was 82, and he died having written or co-written a number of songs in the late 50s and early 60s that were once quite familiar, and may still be familiar to the sort of geek who hangs out in these parts: the garage-rocker “Tobacco Road,” first recorded by the Nashville Teens; “Waterloo,” a big country hit for Stonewall Jackson; “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” recorded by the Casinos and later by Eddy Arnold; “Abilene” and “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” both hits for country-pop singer George Hamilton IV; the Everly Brothers’ “Ebony Eyes”; “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” made famous by Eddie Cochran; “Norman,” “Paper Tiger,” and “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry),” recorded by Sue Thompson; and the country smash “Talk Back Trembling Lips,” a #1 country hit for Ernest Ashworth, with pop covers by Johnny Tillotson and others.
(Digression: listening to some of these songs while writing this post, I found it remarkable how many of them I remember hearing on Mother and Dad’s radio before I had one of my own. You couldn’t turn on country radio in the late 60s without hearing something by John D. Loudermilk, apparently.)
Loudermilk hit the Hot 100 four times himself: his version of “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” released under the name Johnny Dee, hit #38 in 1957, and “Language of Love” reached #32 in 1961. He also hit the country chart twice between 1963 and 1965. Loudermilk’s most famous song, however, is “Indian Reservation (Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian).” He recorded it himself in 1960, and Englishman Don Fardon hit #20 on the Hot 100 with his version in 1968. In the summer of 1971, “Indian Reservation” became a #1 hit for the Raiders in a version that sounds a lot like Fardon’s.
“Indian Reservation” plays a part in one of the most infamous moments in the history of American Top 40. Casey Kasem considered Loudermilk’s story of how the song was written to be the most incredible tale he ever presented. Loudermilk told AT40 that after his car got stuck in a mountain snowdrift during a blizzard, he was kidnapped by a group of Cherokee Indians, including one who called himself Chief Bloody Bear Tooth. They held him hostage, performing Indian rituals and torturing him. When they found out he was a songwriter, they asked him to write a song about the struggles faced by American Indians. He refused, and the torture got worse. Finally, figuring it was his only chance at survival, Loudermilk consented to write the song, and his captors let him go after four days. After a few years, when the song became a big hit, the Cherokees’ message finally got out.
Casey told the story on a 1971 edition of the program and repeated it in November 1975 (on an edition of AT40 recently rebroadcast around the country), emphasizing again how it was the most unbelievable tale AT40 had ever told.
Unbelievable is right. The story was a complete fabrication, a trick played by Loudermilk on his AT40 interviewer. This much is true: he was asked by a Cherokee tribal leader to write a song about the Indians’ plight, but it didn’t require any torture to get him to consent. Years later, Loudermilk learned that his great-great grandparents were Cherokee, and that they had been marched west on the infamous Trail of Tears.
John D. Loudermilk didn’t really try to hide the fact that he made the whole thing up. According to his New York Times obituary, the liner notes of his 1971 album Volume 1: Elloree include the words, “P.S. My regards to Bloody Bear Tooth.”