Following The Train Of Thought

Orginally posted December 16, 2008

You know how your train of thought sometimes gets so switched that you spend a few moments wondering how in the heck your thoughts ended up where they did? I frequently find myself tracking back, trying to figure out, say, how a consideration of tax policy morphed into a memory of my eating Tater Tots at a long-closed restaurant with a guy named Gary and then into a recollection of my long-ago internship at a Twin Cities television station.

Actually, the links are all there: From wondering about what kinds of changes our current economic woes will bring to national and state tax policies, I thought about the first time I realized how much of a bite taxes took out of a paycheck, when I worked on the lawn-mowing crew at St. Cloud State in 1971. Then I pondered walking home that summer, always past the warming house in the park, which in summers was used as an outpost of the city’s recreation program for kids. Most days when I walked by, out from the warming house popped a cute young lady named Kathy who – I realized one day in utter shock – had a crush on me. She was far too young for me to dally with, being just about to start high school while I was about to enter college. Besides, I knew her brother, Gary. And the last time I saw Gary in those days was shortly after I came home from Denmark in 1974, when he and I ate Tater Tots and drank beer in a restaurant called the Chateau Villa (yeah, it means “House House’), a place that no longer exists. But then, lots of places that were my haunts back then no longer exist, among them the apartment where I lived for three months in the Twin Cities while I took my internship at the television station. And the TV station, for that matter, has changed – some years ago it became a network affiliate with a very slick news department, as opposed to the “wing it and see if it works” news and sports departments that the same station had as an independent when I started there in December of 1975.

I was in the sports department, which was made up of three guys who presented about a ten-minute segment on the 9:30 p.m. news show six days a week. (I’m positive there was no news show on Sunday, or I’d have been asked to work at least once on a Sunday, and I never was.) Two of those men – guys by the name of Joe Boyle and Roger Buxton – did play-by-play and commentary, respectively, for frequent live broadcasts of Minnesota North Stars hockey games and basketball and hockey games of the University of Minnesota Gophers.

The third member of the sports department that winter was a legend in sports broadcasting, certainly in the Upper Midwest and – I think – nationally. He was Ray Scott, and anyone who watched professional football in the 1960s knew his voice, if not his name. For years, he was the television voice that brought the Green Bay Packers and their championships – they won titles in the 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967 seasons – into the living rooms of folks nation-wide. As a Vikings fan, I hadn’t been all that pleased about the Packers being on television so much in the mid-1960s. But ten years later, I found myself working with one of the men whose own work had led me to sportscasting as something I thought I wanted to do.

Several times during the three months I was at WTCN, as it was then called, I got a chance to talk to Scott about his profession and experience. One of the better lessons I learned from him about televised sports is that there are times when less talk from the sportscaster is better, and sometimes no talk is best. The visuals, he said, can often carry the story that’s being told. I don’t recall the broadcast styles of other sportscasters of the era all that well, but to name two, I always thought that Lindsey Nelson talked too much and it seems to me, looking back, that Jim McKay could be pretty terse when he needed to be. But no one, it seemed to me both then and now, was as good at it as Ray Scott: “Starr. Dowler. Touchdown!” he’d say, and he’d let the images on the screen of quarterback Bart Starr, receiver Boyd Dowler and the fans in Green Bay’s Lambeau Field carry the narrative.

That’s not far from standard procedure these days (or at least not for the most part, although there are still television sportscasters who talk too much). And I think Ray Scott who was one of those who pioneered that, throwing away the old conventions of radio and finding a new approach suitable for the newer medium of television.

Anyway, I learned an immense amount from him and from the other two guys in the sports department. My writing got crisper. I learned how to tell a story quickly and how to keep my words from getting in the way of the picture, during both live events and the nightly sportscast. I got to meet a lot of Twin Cities sports and sports media figures, all but one of whom were gracious and friendly to the kid from St. Cloud who was trying to learn the business. (Readers would be correct to infer that I met one horse’s ass; I won’t name him, but his behavior was so boorish that it astounds me to this day.) It was a marvelous time, full of hard work and fascinating people.

I got pretty good at reporting, at writing for television and at the technical requirements of preparing a script for broadcast. Good enough, in fact, that several times during the second half of the quarter – on those nights when all three sports guys were out of town and a news reporter without much of a sports background delivered the evening sportscast – I prepared the entire sports package and was listed as a producer in the newscast credits. Heady stuff for a twenty-two year old kid!

Here’s a selection of tunes that were around during the first weeks of that heady time:

A Six-Pack From The Billboard Hot 100, December 13, 1975

“Low Rider” by War, United Artists 706 (No. 18)

“Convoy” by C. W. McCall, MGM 14839 (No. 29)

“Evil Woman” by the Electric Light Orchestra, United Artists 729 (No. 40)

“Baby Face” by The Wing and A Prayer Fife & Drum Corps, Wing And A Prayer 103 (No. 43)

“Play On Love” by Jefferson Starship, Grunt 10456 (No. 75)

“Golden Years” by David Bowie, RCA 10441 (No. 82)

A few notes:

War was a pretty funky group that had a good run of singles (as well as issuing some pretty good albums) in the early and mid-1970s, with twelve singles reaching the Top 40. The best of the singles was likely “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” which went to No. 16 in 1972 or “The World Is A Ghetto,” which reached No. 7 in early 1973. “Low Rider,” which went to No. 7 (and was No. 1 for a week on the R&B chart), came near the end of War’s run; the group would reach the Top 40 only twice more.

I know, I know. “Convoy” is one of those singles that people either love or hate, and a lot more seem to fall into the latter category. C. W. McCall was actually William Fries, an advertising guy who created the McCall character for the midwestern Metz Baking Company. (Oddly, Joel Whitburn, in his Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, lists the company as the “Mertz Bread Company,” which seems to be an uncharacteristic error.) “Convoy” was the second hit for Fries as C.W. McCall; “Wolf Creek Pass” was at No. 40 for one week in March 1975. For me, “Convoy” is a great period piece, up there with mood rings and pet rocks. But what caught my eye about the record today is that a week earlier, it had been at No. 82 and jumped fifty-three places in one week.

I never quite got the idea behind the Electric Light Orchestra, but the group’s twenty Top 40 hits in an eleven-year period tell me that I’m likely in the minority. I do like “Evil Woman,” and I also enjoy “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” (No. 9 in 1975), “Telephone Line” (No. 7 in 1977) and a couple of others. But the bulk of the group’s catalog leaves me pretty unmoved. “Evil Woman” peaked at No. 10.

“Baby Face” – like “Convoy” – is one of those hits that can make you shake your head and wonder about public taste, I suppose. Except that I like this one, too. Disco hadn’t yet worn out its welcome when “Baby Face” came along (Saturday Night Fever, which to me marks the real beginning of disco madness, was still a little more than a year from release), and it was fun to hear it coming out of the radio speaker as I drove home from the television station late at night. The single, I think, had a briefer edit on the A-side with a longer version, presented here, on the B-side. (Is that right, Yah Shure?) It peaked at No. 14.

“Play On Love” was the second single Jefferson Starship released from its Red Octopus album. The first was an edit of “Miracles,” which had gone to No. 3 earlier in the autumn of 1975. “Play On Love” didn’t make the Top 40, peaking at No. 49.

David Bowie’s “Golden Years” had just entered the Hot 100. The follow-up to Bowie’s No. 1 hit “Fame,” the new single would peak at No. 10 in early 1976. It would take Bowie almost five more years – until late 1981 – to reach the Top 40 again.

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