Originally posted March 30, 2009
The Texas Gal and I watch Friday Night Lights and enjoy it immensely. Based around the lives of the members of the fictional Dillon Panthers in West Texas, the show is about much more than high school football. It’s truly one of those rare television shows that finds its drama in the small workings of day-to-day life. That’s not to say that it’s entirely subtle, but it’s character-driven, and the folks who live in Dillon are generally finely drawn, not caricatures. They are folks who are changing – many of them young people who do so as they take on the hard work of growing up, of course – and sometimes the changes are surprising, just as they are in real life.
The episodes currently playing on NBC on Friday evenings were shown last fall on a satellite service, and during this season, as in the previous two, the producers do pretty well in fitting their characters’ stories into the subfolders of high school life, high school football and life in West Texas. There aren’t a lot of obvious mistakes. But I think I spotted one in the episode that ran last Friday.
The week’s climactic scene dealt with a confrontation between J. D. McCoy, a ninth-grade quarterback new to town, and his father. Nothing wrong with the drama, but in the scene – which followed a football game – J.D. was shown wearing a letter jacket with a “D” on the front and a football patch on the sleeve. Now, maybe they do things differently in Texas, but I’ve never heard of a high school where you could wear a varsity letter on a letter jacket before you’ve earned it. And being new to town, J.D. couldn’t yet have done so. (Maybe I’m wrong and there are places like that. Anyone know?)
It’s not a big deal, but for a show that generally gets the details right, it stood out. And it reminded me of my letter jacket.
I was a manager, not an athlete. I spent three seasons going to wrestling practices and keeping the scorebook; two seasons at football practices, hauling balls, pads and other stuff around; and one season tending to the training room for track. And among the rewards for doing all that stuff were three varsity letters and the right to wear a letter jacket.
It was March 1970 when I finished my second season as a wrestling manager. Near the end of the month, I got a letter in the mail from the high school’s athletic director. The letter granted me permission to go to Fitzharris Athletic downtown and buy a St. Cloud Tech letter jacket. So the following Friday evening, my folks and I went into Fitzharris and I presented the letter to the clerk. Shortly after that, I walked out wearing an orange and black jacket. The next day, my mom sewed a tiger head on the front, my name on the pocket and the year “71” on the sleeve. I remember how smooth the leather (or maybe simulated leather) sleeves were, a condition I wanted gone as soon as possible, as it identified me as a newbie.
(I got my actual letter, my “T,” at the athletic banquet that spring. I put it away in a box, as the tradition at Tech at the time was to wear the tiger head on the jacket instead of the letter. I never knew anyone who put his letter – and it was an exclusively male group in the early 1970s – on his jacket.)
Looking back, it’s amazing how much that jacket mattered to me: It made me feel as if I belonged somewhere. And I think I wore that jacket to school every day from then on, even as the weather turned warmer in the spring and then – during my senior year – even though there were days when the temperature dropped below zero. The other guys did the same, I think: If you’d earned the right to wear a letter jacket, you wore it.
I continued to wear the jacket around town during my first year of college. (For those interested, the etiquette for wearing your high school jacket during your college days was to remove your high school letter [or tiger, in my case], your graduation year and any patches other than your name.) Most likely, it was sometime during the spring of 1972, as my freshman year at St. Cloud State was ending, when I took the jacket off for the last time. By the time I got home from Denmark two years later, my mom had packed it away. And there it stayed until I took it with me when we closed the place on Kilian a few years ago.
It’s in a closet again, near the back, its usefulness gone. I certainly won’t wear it again. I have no one to leave it to, and I doubt that anyone else would want it. But I also doubt that I’ll ever get rid of it.
A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, March 28, 1970)
“Give Me Just A Little More Time” by the Chairmen of the Board, Invictus 9074 (No. 9)
“Psychedelic Shack” by the Temptations, Gordy 7096 (No. 24)
“Reflections of My Life” by the Marmalade, London 20058 (No. 51)
“Rag Mama Rag” by The Band, Capitol 2705 (No. 58)
“Run Sally Run” by the Cuff Links, Decca 32639 (No. 77)
“Miss America” by Mark Lindsay, Columbia 45125 (No. 117)
A couple of weeks ago, I called “Give Me Just A Little More Time” by the Chairmen of the Board “chirping and warbling and absolutely wonderful.” It’s all that and more, one of the really great singles that I think tends to be a little overlooked. At the time of this particular chart, the record had just dropped from its peak position at No. 3; it would slide to No. 30 by April 25, its fifteenth week in the Hot 100, and then tumble completely out of sight by the next week’s chart.
‘Psychedelic Shack” seemed utterly weird at the time, especially for the Temptations, a group with records like “My Girl,” “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” in its pedigree. But “Shack” is what happened when producers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong were handed the reins. With “Psychedelic Shack,” the Whitfield and Strong pushed the boundaries they’d stretched with the No. 6 single “Cloud Nine” in late 1968, and “Shack” went to No. 7. The follow-up, “Ball of Confusion,” went to No. 3. (This is the album track and has the same running time as the single, but I don’t remember ever hearing the knocks on the door when the record played on the radio; maybe they were there, or maybe there was a radio edit without them. I don’t know.)
When it was on the charts, “Reflections Of My Life” seemed musically adventurous and lyrically important. I’m not sure how well “Reflections Of My Life” holds up as a piece of philosophy these days. I mean, “The world is a bad place, a bad place, a terrible place to live” isn’t Nietzsche; it isn’t even Lennon, for that matter. But the music, on the other hand, does owe something to Nietzsche (Jack, who worked with Phil Spector, not that German dude), with its horns and Wall of Sound-ish references. Maybe I’m still hearing this one with the ears of a high school junior, but man, I still love this record! At the end of March, it was still on its way up the chart, heading for a peak of No. 10.
I heard the second half of “Rag Mama Rag” on the radio – probably late at night on WLS from Chicago – sometime during the early months of 1970 and was frozen, staring at the radio as the song played out with its fiddle and honky-tonk piano. I didn’t catch the title or the name of the group, and I wondered for a long time what the hell it was I’d heard. I mentioned it to a few people I knew, and from my description, they said it sounded like country and they were sure I couldn’t have heard it on a Top 40 station. I quit asking people about it, and it wasn’t until the following Christmas when Rick gave me The Band that I learned what it was I’d heard. Utterly unlike anything being played at the time (probably well-defined as Americana before anybody thought about such a label), “Rag Mama Rag” never really had a chance of making the Top 40. It peaked at No. 57 the week of March 21; three weeks later, after eight weeks in the Hot 100, the record had dropped out.
“Run Sally Run,” the Cuff Links’ follow-up to their No. 9 hit “Tracy,” lasted six weeks in the Hot 100, with the March 28 position of No. 77 being its peak. There really were no Cuff Links, of course. What you got on the record was bubble-gum master Ron Dante and a bunch of studio musicians. Still, it wasn’t awful: It was fun, it had a good beat and you could chew it!
As I’ve noted here before, I do have a difficult time being at all objective about the Top 40 music of the second half of 1969 and all of 1970. Although I’d heard Top 40 before that – it would have been hard for any American kid to escape it – I’d not really listened until the late summer and autumn of 1969. So, as I’ve also said here before, when I think about and write about the music I heard during that period, I’m thinking and writing about old friends. Two of those friends are Mark Lindsay’s singles, “Arizona” (No. 10 in early 1970) and “Silver Bird” (No. 25 in the late summer of 1970). The single posted here is one that came in between the two, and to my mind, it’s a better single. Credited only to J. Kelly at All-Music Guide, the song is an allegory casting America as a young girl, with a nifty, if somewhat predictable, lyrical twist: “Do you miss America? I know I do.” The record, which peaked at No. 44, is pure pop with nothing of rock about it, and – not recalling it at all from 1970 – I wonder if the implicit political commentary kept programmers from playing it.