A Baker’s Dozen from 1979

Originally posted June 14, 2007

When I think back on it, 1979 is another one of those years that kind of blurs around the edges. I was living in Monticello, working at the newspaper there. I was telling stories, finding news, paying bills and building a life. The fact that the life I was building came undone a few years later doesn’t negate the effort or the time invested, or the results at the time.

It was a pretty good time, as I loved what I was doing. But it was a time that – looking back – is indistinct, as if I’m trying to view it through thick glass. A couple of things, work- and news-related, do stand out. Monticello is home to one of the two nuclear power plants in Minnesota, and when one of the two reactors at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant had a partial meltdown that spring, we were presented with our lead story for the next week: How did it happen? Could it happen to the plant here? How does the safety record of the company in Pennsylvania compare to that of the company here? Does the accident make people here more uneasy about nuclear power? And so on.

It was a hard issue to deal with, one that requires a reporter not only to understand a complex technology but also to be able to explain it to his readers in a way that’s easy to read and understand. There’s a thin reporting line between being technically obtuse and condescendingly simple, and that was one of the times when that line was difficult to find. But it was fun.

Fun? It was fun reporting on an accident that – had things gone only a little bit differently in Pennsylvania – could easily have killed or hurt a lot of people?

Well, yeah. Reporting can be an odd business, and I suppose the people who get into it might be – many of them, anyway – a little odd as well. There is a rush that comes along with a big story. Now, I was far removed from Pennsylvania, but it was still a kick to go out and gather and collate and present information about those major events and how they affected those of us in our area. There was a little extra adrenaline rush that week as I and the other members of our small news staff put together several stories about Three Mile Island for the next week’s edition.

That adrenaline rush is a hard thing to explain, except to another reporter/news junkie, and then it needs no explaining. When big things happen, when we cover major stuff, we reporters operate in kind of a duality. In the spring of 1990, when I was editing two weekly newspapers in rural Kansas, a string of tornadoes ripped through our coverage area one night. The next day, I drove from town to town, farm to farm, interviewing people about their fears during the night and seeing their grief in the daylight. I was kind, I was gentle, and the larger part of me, as I recorded their losses and their tears, grieved with them; they were my neighbors. But there was that part of me – and every reporter knows this portion – that was thinking, as I aimed the camera or asked the next question, “Man, what a great story!”

That adrenaline rush was there as I reported and wrote about nuclear power in the spring of 1979, and it was there later that year as truckers around the state, fed up with rising fuel prices, threatened a strike. Our photographer and I, trying to find more truckers to talk to, found ourselves in the midst of a convoy heading down a freeway toward a truckers’ meeting, a meeting at which it was made clear – with many angry faces and a few threats – that we were not welcome. We left, and later that day, as I filled my car at one of the local stations, I sympathized with the truckers. After all, I was paying 79 cents a gallon for gas, and at the time, that was a high price.

It’s not often that the life of a small town intersects with larger events that capture the attention of a state, a nation, the world. Reporters always look for those connections, for they make it easier to tell the stories of all our lives. Reporters, after all, are storytellers

And here are some songs from that year, 1979, when the stories that I told included nuclear power gone wrong and anger on truckers’ faces.

“Sign on the Window” by Jennifer Warnes from Shot Through The Heart

“Stumblin’ In” by Suzi Quatro and Chris Norman, RSO single 917

“Gotta Serve Somebody” by Bob Dylan from Slow Train Coming

“Rise” by Herb Alpert from Rise

“Look Out” by Albert King from Live Wire: Blues Power

“Run for Home” by Lindisfarne from Back and Fourth

“Last Train To London” by Electric Light Orchestra from Discovery

“Full Force Gale” by Van Morrison from Into the Music

“Half the Way” by Crystal Gayle, Columbia single 11087

“That’s All Right Mama” by Rick Nelson, unreleased remix from Memphis sessions

“Need Your Love So Bad” by the Allman Brothers Band from Enlightened Rogues

“Don’t Cry Sister” by J. J. Cale from 5

A few notes about the songs:

Jennifer Warnes “Sign on the Window” is to my mind one of the finest interpretations of a Bob Dylan song available. The single from Shot Through The Heart was “I Know A Heartache When I See One,” which hit No. 19 on the Top 40 chart and the Top Ten on the country charts. The album didn’t sell well, despite the hot single and strong performances on other cuts, and, according to All-Music Guide, Warnes didn’t release any new material until Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of Leonard Cohen songs, came out in 1987. That was also the year, of course, when Warnes and Bill Medley had a No. 1 hit with “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from the film Dirty Dancing.

“Stumblin’ In” was a piece of fluff from Suzi Quatro and Chris Norman that completed the destruction of Quatro’s credibility as a rocker, a process that had begun when she took the role of Leather Tuscadero on the ABC comedy Happy Days two years earlier. I’m not sure how much of a rocker she actually was, although some of her stuff seemed to have some nice crunchy power chords. Anyway, fluff can be successful, and “Stumblin’ In” reached No. 4 early in 1979.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” is what happened when Bob Dylan got religion and believed once again in his songs as agents of change. From the first of Dylan’s three so-called Christian albums (the others were Saved and Shot of Love), “Gotta Serve Somebody” – and the entire Slow Train Coming album, for that matter – also shows what happens when a performer works with a strong cast. In this case, Dylan went to Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama, brought along Mark Knopfler, bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Pick Withers, and used Barry Beckett on keyboards and the Muscle Shoals Horns.

Herb Alpert’s Rise came out of sessions that were originally intended to present the trumpeter in a disco context. Those sessions did not work – a fact for which I, for one, am grateful – and Alpert turned to other work. The edited version of “Rise” was No. 1 for two weeks that August.

Probably the least-known group or performer on today’s list is Lindisfarne, a British folk-rock group that had several well-regarded albums in the first half of the Seventies. Back and Fourth was the group’s first album on Atco, after time spent at other labels, notably Elektra. It’s a not-bad album, but it doesn’t have quite the British character that informed the group’s earlier albums, especially Fog On The Tyne and Nicely Out Of Tune. AMG says “Run For Home” is “Springsteen-like” and received some FM airplay in the U.S. likely because of that. I don’t recall hearing it back then, but I like the song.

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