‘One Small Step . . .’

Originally posted July 20, 2009

Like almost everyone else in the United States – and like so many elsewhere around the Earth, for that matter – I was watching television forty years ago this evening.

My folks, my sister and I gathered in the living room, gazing at our old Zenith, and watched Neil Armstrong descend the Eagle’s ladder and then take that first step onto the surface of the moon. And we continued to watch as he was joined by Buzz Aldrin and the two of them placed a U.S. flag and then gathered samples of lunar rocks to bring back to Earth.

I admit to being puzzled by the missing “a” from Armstrong’s ceremonial first words on the moon: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” But in the years since, he’s said that he intended to say it and he thought he said it, so that’s fine. Given the weight of the occasion (and granting him the missing “a”), I thought his first words were well thought out and appropriate. But they were ceremonial, and thus were missing the visceral truth of Aldrin’s first words when he left the Eagle and joined Armstrong on the lunar surface: “Magnificent desolation!”

We watched until the two astronauts went back into the Eagle after something like two hours exploring the lunar surface that evening. None of us said much in the living room that night, and I don’t know what my folks thought as they watched men bounce around on the surface of the Moon. I remembered President John Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to the nation to land a man on the moon and bring him home, and it seems to me – I was maybe eight at the time the challenge was laid down and fifteen when the Eagle landed on the Moon – that I took the existence and success of a lunar expedition as a given. (History and chance have since taught me, of course, that so many things could have gone wrong, but they didn’t. Then.)

But I wonder now what my parents felt and thought, both having been born less than half a century earlier in homes – like many of those in the United States at the time – that had no electricity. Did they marvel at the sight of men on another world? Or did they take it as a given, another accomplishment checked off the list in a world that supplied marvels one after the other? I don’t know.

I know I was fascinated by the landing and all the things that surrounded it. There was a Gulf service station not far from Tech High School, about a mile west of the Mississippi River. And during that summer, Gulf Oil was handing out sheets of heavy die-cut paper. By carefully punching out the die-cut pieces and then folding and inserting tabs into slots, one could make his or her own lunar module. Most of the kids I knew had picked up at least one, and each spent an hour or so carefully constructing the fragile model. I wound up with three of the paper models on a shelf in my bedroom. Even after the mission of Apollo 11 was finished successfully, I’d look at those fragile models and think of the real fragile and ungainly Eagle landing on the moon and then returning Armstrong and Aldrin to the Columbia and Michael Collins, in orbit around the moon.

Though I might not have put it into these words back then, I think what I was pondering was the slender margin of error that those three astronauts had successfully ridden, from the launch of the Saturn 5 rocket through the trip to the Moon and back to the splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Everything had to go just right, and it did. I think I was trying to figure out what that could teach me that I could apply to my life. And I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten there.

A Six-Pack From the Charts (Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending July 23, 1969)
“In The Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)” by Zager & Evans, RCA Victor 0174 (No. 1)
“Good Old Rock ’N’ Roll (Medley)” by Cat Mother & The All Night News Boys, Polydor 14002 (No. 25)
“Get Together” by the Youngbloods, RCA Victor 9752 (No. 44)
“On Campus” by Dickie Goodman, Cotique 158 (No. 51)
“Tell All The People” by the Doors, Elektra 45663 (No. 58)
“Your Good Thing (Is About To End)” by Lou Rawls, Capitol 2550 (No. 87)

The first single is either a listener’s worst earworm or a delightful piece of bad science fiction. Either way, it was inescapable during the summer of 1969, vibrating out of tinny speakers and car radios at least twice an hour, or so it seemed. A bit of research a while back by a blogger whose stuff I read regularly – I believe it was my colleague jb at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ – revealed that Zager & Evans hold the title of the greatest one-hit wonder of all time: “In the Year 2525” was in the Billboard Top 40 for twelve weeks, with an amazing six weeks spent at No. 1. This is one of those records that one either loves like a first-born child or hates like mold. I was a science fiction geek in 1969, so I never tired of hearing it come out of the speaker. In fact, this record might have been one of those that drew me toward Top 40 music during that summer when I was exploring new sounds.

“Good Old Rock ’N’ Roll (Medley)” by Cat Mother & The All Night News Boys is another one-hit wonder, this one from a band that’s kind of slipped through the cracks of time. I knew nothing at all about Cat Mother and the boys a year ago, and I still know very little (though I like what I have heard, mostly through the graces of Chuntao at Rare MP3 Music). The medley, which was the opening track of the band’s first album, The Street Giveth…and the Street Taketh Away, spent six weeks in the Top 40 and peaked at No. 21. The group released three more albums, closing down the presses after Cat Mother in 1976. “Good Old Rock ’N’ Roll (Medley)” pulls fragments from Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Big Bopper, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins/Elvis Presley and Buddy Knox in a little more than three minutes, kind of a whirling history of a portion of 1950s rock ’n’ roll.

The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” had originally been released in 1967 and had risen to only No. 62 in the Billboard Hot 100 before being re-released in 1969 with a different catalog number. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits notes that in 1969, the record “was popularized as the theme for the National Conference of Christians and Jews.” Whatever the reason, the record got as high as No. 5 the second time around, spending twelve weeks in the Top 40. Without digging too deeply into the timing, it seems to me that the record’s peak came in the autumn: its strains carry with them the sense of moonrise and the crackling dance of leaves falling from the oaks in the back yard.

With “On Campus,” Dickie Goodman struck again with his cut-in comedy formula. This one isn’t as witty as some of his other topical takes from over the years, but it wasn’t as lame as “Batman and His Grandmother” (which was the only one I ever bought).  The record didn’t make the Top 40. Goodman’s previous Top 40 hit had been 1957’s “Santa and the Satellite” and his next would be 1974’s “Energy Crisis ’74.” It didn’t miss by much, though: “On Campus” peaked at No. 45 during an eight-week stay in the Hot 100.

The version of “Tell All The People” I’m offering here is from the album The Soft Parade, and given the Doors’ and Elektra’s propensity for issuing widely different mixes on their 45s, I have no confidence at all that it’s the version that folks heard occasionally on their radios during the summer of 1969. I find it interesting for the use of horns, and for the fact that the writing credit for the single went solely to Robby Krieger; the Doors’ albums to that point had credited all songwriting to the group as an entity. One bit of speculation I saw (and I do not recall where I read it) suggested that Jim Morrison was unwilling to attach his name to a lyric that told listeners to “get your guns.” The record moved up one more spot to No. 58 during the last week of July, hovered there for another week and then fell out of the Hot 100 entirely.

I don’t have a lot to say about Lou Rawls’ “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)” but only because any comment I make is superfluous: It’s a great record by one of the great singers of all time. The record peaked at No. 18 in late September of 1969, the third of six Top 40 hits Rawls would have in his career.

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