Archive for the ‘2007/10 (October)’ Category

The Power Of The Flea

May 17, 2011

Originally posted October 19, 2007

I wrote briefly a while ago about the pile of books waiting on my table to be read. Well, there’s been progress: the books are no longer piled on my table. They’re now all on a shelf on the new bookcases we put together last weekend.

Now I can see the other stuff that’s piled on the table next to the computer: records to rip, magazines to recycle, photodiscs to edit and save, and a whole raft of CD’s to catalog and date. But this is progress – not that long ago, I couldn’t see the photodiscs.

The number of books waiting to be read, however, never seems to diminish. That’s fine with me; along with music, reading is one of the major joys of my life, and – just as with music – my tastes are wide-ranging. (As I write that, I nod to myself that the same is quite evidently true of Casey, the proprietor of the blog titled The College Crowd Digs Me. Readers should stop by.) And the anticipation of reading a good book can be almost as pleasurable as the reading itself.

One of the better ones I’ve read in the past few months had the odd title Justinian’s Flea. It’s the first book written by William Rosen, who was a senior executive at two major publishers for more than twenty-five years, and it’s a great read, for those who love history. The flea of the title is the insect that sparked one of the great epidemics of bubonic and pneumonic plague in the ancient world in about the year 540 of the Common Era (previously tagged A.D.). The epidemic came out of Alexandria in Egypt, crossed the Mediterranean to Constantinople – where Emperor Justinian reigned – and then swept across southern Europe. (Constantinople is now Istanbul, Turkey, and at the time was the capital of the Roman Empire.)

Rosen’s thesis, and it makes sense, is that the disruption caused by the various waves of the epidemic – which devastated the areas that are now Turkey, Greece and Italy along with the modern Middle East and Mediterranean Africa – moved the focus of the ancient world from the eastern Mediterranean west to the areas that became Italy, France and Germany. The various waves of the plague lasted more than a hundred years and were remarkably widespread; reports of the time show outbreaks in Britain in the years 664 and 684. The waves of epidemics devastated the empire; Rosen notes that in the first two years of the epidemics, four million of the twenty-six million subjects of the Roman Empire perished, about sixteen percent. Within just more than forty years, the population of the empire was down to seventeen million. (If a plague were to strike the United States and its three hundred million citizens with the same ferocity and results, forty-eight million people would die in the first two years, with another fifty-seven million perishing in the next forty or so years.)

It’s a fascinating book: Rosen examines in fine detail how Justinian rose to become emperor, how the empire itself was shrinking, having lost Gaul (modern-day France) and Britannia in recent times, how the plague bacterium found (and still finds today) its hosts and how the fleas that host the plague then infect the rats that carry the plague wherever they go, which is almost always where humans go. And he tracks the results of the epidemics of plague, putting forth the theory – a theory supported by the historical record and the inferences that can be made from those records – that modern Europe’s long-ago beginnings sprouted from the devastation of the Roman Empire by the plague.

Today’s music
I do have music to share today, and it has nothing to do with the plague or the Roman Empire or infected rats or the rise of medieval society. I doubt that I can find a smooth transition from those topics to the music, so I won’t even try.

I pulled out today one of the records that’s been sitting in my pile of things to rip to mp3s almost from the time I got my turntable last Christmas. In the early days of the blog, I shared New Routes, the 1969 album the British pop singer Lulu recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with the help of the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section. When I pulled New Routes out of the stacks, I also grabbed Melody Fair, another album Lulu recorded in the U.S., in 1970 at the Atlantic South-Criteria Studios in Miami. The tag from the used record store on Melody Fair said it was only in fair shape, so I’ve been reluctant to put it on the turntable and see what happened.

But I did so this morning, and I’m fairly pleased. There are a few more clicks and pops than I like, but they’re not so frequent as to make the record unlistenable. And it turns out to be a pretty good album.

Lulu had some help with it, of course. The Dixie Flyers – Jim Dickinson on piano and guitar, Charlie Freeman on guitar, Mike Utley on organ, Tommy McClure on bass and Sammy Creason on drums – provide the bulk of the backing. The full complement of the Memphis Horns came to Miami: Andrew Love and Ed Logan on tenor sax, Floyd Newman on baritone sax, Wayne Jackson on trumpet and Jack Dale on trombone.

Background vocals came from the Sweet Inspirations as well as from Eddie Brigati (of the Rascals), David Brigati, Carol Kirkpatrick and Chuck Kirkpatrick.

And the whole thing was produced by Atlantic stalwarts Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin.

So what did all that come up to?

As I said, it’s a pretty good record, and there are times when it kicks into a nice southern groove, sometimes syrupy slow, sometimes more up-tempo and sometimes with a sweet gospel feel. The best of those are: “Move To My Rhythm,” “To The Other Woman,” “Sweet Memories,” “Saved” and a quirky cover of the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine.”

One that comes close is “I Don’t Care Anymore,” a disquieting tale of a southern country girl’s descent into prostitution (a pretty tough topic for 1970, as I think about it). The central problem with that track – and it’s a problem that arises in bits and pieces through the album – is that Lulu’s voice doesn’t have the grit to quite pull it off. Doris Duke’s version, on her I’m A Loser, also from 1970, works much better, and I can imagine Dusty Springfield also getting to the heart of the song in a way Lulu could not. (As I did some digging, I learned that the song was written by R&B legend Jerry [Swamp Dog] Williams along with Gary Bonds and Maurice Gimbel. I wonder if Gary Bonds is the same as Gary U.S. Bonds of “Quarter to Three” fame?)

The rest of the tracks – with one exception – are good pop efforts that don’t seem to owe a lot to the pedigrees of the backing musicians or to the locale in which they were recorded. The one track that doesn’t work – to my ears – is “Vine Street,” a more-than-quirky Randy Newman tune.

Overall, Melody Fair is a pretty good album, and – as I noted above – the sound is pretty good, if not perfect.

Good Day Sunshine
After The Feeling Is Gone
I Don’t Care Anymore
(Don’t Go) Please Stay
Melody Fair
Take Good Care Of Yourself
Vine Street
Move To My Rhythm
To The Other Woman
Hum A Song (From Your Heart)
Sweet Memories

Lulu – Melody Fair [1970]

Bettye LaVette Covers Dolly Parton

May 17, 2011

Originally posted October 18, 2007

It seemed like a good idea to look at some Bettye LaVette today, so I wandered around YouTube this morning, getting sidetracked occasionally, finding stuff by Stephen Stills and Manassas and a great live performance of “Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane.

Eventually, I got myself focused and found a performance LaVette did for a Belgian television network in November of 2005. It’s a firey performance of “Little Sparrow,” a Dolly Parton tune that LaVette included on her 2005 album, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise.

[The video I originally posted has been deleted. This appears to be the same performance; if not, it’s just as good.]

A Baker’s Dozen from 1972, Vol. 2

May 17, 2011

Originally posted October 17, 2007

It was in early 1972 that I began my slide into an addiction that persists to this day. Just like in the songs and the movies, it was because of a woman. And an older woman, at that.

I was a college freshman. She was a sophomore. And the addiction was coffee.

It was about midway through my first year of college, and I stopped one Friday morning to say hi to the secretaries in Headley Hall, the building where I’d worked briefly as a janitor the summer before. As I chatted with Ginny – who wasn’t all that much older than I was – her new part-time assistant, a student, came to her desk with a question. Ginny introduced me to Char, a sophomore. She smiled, I smiled, she went back to work and I said goodbye to Ginny and went off to class.

My plans for that weekend were more elaborate than usual. I still lived at home, but two or three times during that first year of college I spent a weekend staying with friends in one of the dorms on campus. We’d hang around the dorm or hit some parties Friday night, recuperate on Saturday, and do the same thing Saturday night and generally act like college kids. The weekend would start as soon as I finished my two-hour stint as a janitor in the Business Building that afternoon. I’d head from there to my dad’s office in the library, grab the overnight bag I’d left there that morning, and then walk to the dorm where Rick and Dave lived.

As I headed down a staircase in Stewart Hall toward the tunnel to the Business Building, I heard a voice greet me. It was Char, the young lady I’d met that morning. We talked for a few minutes and then she asked what my plans were for the weekend. I told her I was staying on campus, and then – emboldened by who knows what – asked if she wanted to hang around with me and with my friends that evening. She agreed. So we spent a good chunk of time with each other that evening, and we spent an hour or so talking and cuddling in a little lounge in her dorm Sunday afternoon. I called her Monday evening, and for the next few months, we saw each other frequently.

One evening after a movie, we stopped to have something to eat. I ordered a soda to go with my food, and Char ordered coffee. Looking back, we were both kids, of course, but to me, as we sat there, she seemed so much more adult sipping her coffee than I did slurping Coke through a straw. That thought stayed with me, and the following Monday, when I had an hour to kill at the student union before heading off to sweep floors at the Business Building, I took a cup of coffee to my table.

About two months later, Char and I went different directions, which saddened me. But I was young, and after some grieving, there was always the prospect of someone new on the next stairway. So I walked on.

And more than thirty-five years later, I’m still drinking coffee.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1972, Vol. 2

“Heart of Gold” by Bettye LaVette, Atco single 6891

“Soft Parade of Years” by Dion from Suite For Late Summer

“Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul, Philadelphia Int. single 3521

“All Down The Line” by the Rolling Stones from Exile On Main Street

“Woman’s Gotta Have It” by Bobby Womack, United Artists single 50902

“Gypsy” by Van Morrison from Saint Dominic’s Preview

“(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes” by The Band from Rock of Ages

“Nobody Like You” by Bread from Baby I’m-A Want You

“Harvest” by Neil Young from Harvest

“Hold On This Time” by Fontella Bass from Free

“Both Of Us (Bound To Lose)” by Manassas from Manassas

“Cry Like a Rainstorm” by Eric Justin Kaz from If You’re Lonely

“Hearsay” by the Soul Children, Stax single 119

A few notes on some of the songs:

Bettye LaVette’s standout cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” was part of Atlantic Records’ attempt to make LaVette the star she likely should have been. Recorded in Detroit, where she’d recorded earlier in her career, the record tanked, as did a single recorded in Muscle Shoals later that year. After that, Atlantic pulled the plug on LaVette’s album Child of the ’70s, which was finally released – with extra tracks – not all that long ago by Rhino. It’s worth finding. (Thanks to Red Kelly at The A Side for the info and the tip.)

I do recall hearing Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” at least once while sipping a cup of coffee in the student union. It would have been in the fall of the year, though, when Paul’s record was No 1 for three weeks and was almost inescapable. It’s still a great record. (Billy Paul isn’t quite a One-Hit Wonder, as he reached No. 37 with “Thanks For Saving My Life” in the spring of 1974. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one.)

The more I listen to “All Down The Line” and the tracks that surround it, the more certain I am that Exile On Main Street is the best album the Rolling Stones ever recorded and almost certainly one of the best five albums of all time.

“(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes,” which Chuck Willis wrote and took to No. 24 in 1958, was one of The Band’s perennial concert favorites. This version comes from Rock of Ages, the live recording of a New Year’s Eve performance at the end of 1971, with horn charts put together for the event by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. The album is a great one, and it’s available in an expanded version that includes ten bonus tracks, including three tracks with Bob Dylan.

“Cry Like A Rainstorm,” done here by its writer, Eric Kaz, is more familiar in versions by Bonnie Raitt on Takin’ My Time from 1973 and by Linda Ronstadt on Cry Like a Rainstorm – Howl Like the Wind in 1989.

The Soul Children’s “Hearsay” is just a great piece of Stax music.

‘The Lights Shine Down The Valley . . .’

May 17, 2011

Originally posted October 16, 2007

I still wonder who Mary was.

Oh, not the young lady I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the girl with whom I had a college romance during a long-ago spring. The Mary I wonder about is the one whose arms Ian Sutherland longed for, the girl who inspired “Arms of Mary.”

I don’t know if “Arms of Mary” qualifies as an obscure song or not. I tend to think it does, at least here in the U.S. In Britain, the version recorded by the Sutherland Brothers & Quiver got as high as No. 6 on the UK’s Top 40 chart during the late spring of 1976. In 1978, on this side of the Atlantic, the Canadian group Chilliwack recorded the song and released it as a single on the Mushroom label; it got to No. 92 on the Cash Box chart and then fell off.

There are a few other versions of the song floating around. A country-ish version was included on Born Yesterday, a 1986 release from the Everly Brothers. The British pop band Smokie recorded a version of the song that was released in a recent box set. As I’ve been unable to track down much information about that recording, my sense is that it’s a 1970s-era recording that remained unreleased until the box set.

Keith Urban recorded a version that was released as a single in 1991, but it didn’t make the charts. That same version is included on the Keith Urban [1991] album that was released in 1997.

Three other versions of the song popped up during the 1990s: Guitarist Leo Kottke included a sweet instrumental on his Peculiaroso album in 1994; Boizone, the Irish boy band that launched Ronan Keating’s career, included the tune on its Said and Done album in 1995. And Dutch singer Piet Veerman covered the song in 1992 on his album In Between.

Since the turn of the century, All-Music Guide has four versions listed, by Kevin Kennedy, Dominic Kirwan, Jim Neyerlin and the group Oizone. I’ve heard none of those, and in fact, until I checked AMG this morning, had heard of none of the performers.

The most intriguing version of the song I’ve come across is the one that I found credited to a singer named Pete Gardner. It’s a folky recording by a fellow with an appealingly gruff voice. It sounds to me like something from the 1970s.

Now, given the rampant inaccuracies that populate the ’Net, that could be entirely wrong. I’m thinking that it is. There was a Pete Gardner who played drums in the second lineup of the British band Fools Dance in the 1980s. There’s a Pete Gardner who has done some acting, according to a Google search. But neither of those seems to have any connection with the folky style of the recording I found.

AMG has a listing for a Pete Gardner, but he’s a photographer. I think I’ve run through all of the various sites I use when tracking down obscure musicians, and none have a Pete Gardner listed. There’s a page for Pete Gardner at AOL Music, but it’s utterly blank, so that means nothing.

If today’s Tuesday Cover truly was recorded by someone named Pete Gardner, then it’s one of the most obscure records ever, as a combined Google search for the terms “Arms of Mary” and “Pete Gardner” results in that extreme rarity: A Google shutout. No documents among the millions – billions? – cataloged by the search engine’s webcrawlers have that combination of terms.

So if it’s not Pete Gardner, who is it? I have no clue, although I admit that after a nearly sleepless night, I may be missing something obvious this morning. So, in the hopes that one of the people who wander by this blog might know, I’m going to post the recording.

If you know who this singer is, leave a comment, please.

Pete Gardner? – “Arms of Mary” [1970s?]

Faces & A Whiff Of Strawberries

May 17, 2011

Originally posted October 15, 2007

We finished a long-term project over the weekend, the Texas Gal and I: We put together that last of four large bookcases and got the last of our books out of storage and onto the shelves. Some of the boxes of books we opened in the past few weeks have been packed and stored since about the time we moved to St. Cloud five years ago, so we’d pretty much forgotten what was in them. We’ve got some books we didn’t recall at all, and we’ve got some books that are likely going to be making a trip either to the used book store downtown or to Goodwill on the west end.

And some other things popped out of the boxes, too. In one box of old books – packed away during the summer of 1999 when I shifted from one south Minneapolis apartment to another – I found three large photos of my Denmark group from my college days, one from our time there and two from our 1994 reunion. I’ve recently been sorting through keepsakes and papers from that time, looking to put together a scrapbook, and I’ve been wondering for some time where those photos were.

Along with the photos, I found a thin booklet the size of a standard sheet of eight-and-a-half by eleven paper. Its white front shows the 1971-era seal of St. Cloud State and the title The Register. It’s only sixty-two pages thick, and forty-eight of those pages are filled with portraits of some of the students entering St. Cloud State as freshmen that fall, kind of like a senior yearbook in reverse.

The book has pictures of about 860 incoming students out of a freshman class that I’d estimate had about 2,700 students in it (the total enrollment of St. Cloud State at the time was about 11,000). So, about a third of the new students had filled out information sheets and sent them in along with their photos sometime during the summer. (I’ve never known whether The Register was a moneymaking venture or a public service; there are forewords by leaders of one fraternity and one sorority and a few ads. Whatever it was, I think it existed for only one year.) And paging through those forty-eight pages of portraits – most of them senior year pictures from high school – is a time trip.

In the book, I see the faces of people with whom I spent many hours laughing and partying but whom I haven’t thought of for years. I see the faces of at least a few young women with whom I fell in and out of love. I also see the faces of some people who I still see and talk to regularly – one of them, like me, a veteran of that first St. Cloud State program in Denmark.

And memories rolled in as I paged through the book. As they did, they carried a soundtrack, of course:

One sunny Saturday, my pals Rick (a new Rick, not the one who lived across the street) and Dave and I sat on a concrete wall in front of the food services building, waiting to board a bus to a football game; a nearby radio provided the sound of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

A couple of weeks later, Rick, Dave and I – accompanied by a group of girls we’d recently met – wandered past a pick-up game on one of the outdoor basketball courts near the dorms. The introduction to Rod Stewart’s ”Maggie May” comes from speakers in a nearby window.

Several of those girls lived in an overflow housing area on the upper floors of Carol Hall, a one-time private home, and whenever I visited anyone there, I was almost certain to hear, from one room or another, the strains of Carole King’s Tapestry album, sounds that even now can pull me back in time. (I was also almost certain, during a visit to the upper floors of Carol Hall, to smell strawberry incense, and to this day, the scent of strawberries also sends me back to the autumn of 1971.)

During the springtime of 1972, the girl I was dating (yes, her picture is in the book) would visit me at my part-time maintenance job. I spent ten hours a week cleaning and being available on the second floor of the old library, where the art department’s weaving classes had been moved. The cleaning took very little time, so Mary and I spent quite a few hours talking quietly at the far end of the building from the weavers, almost always to the sounds of Donovan’s greatest hits. The weavers’ favorite for some reason was “Mellow Yellow,” which I cannot hear without envisioning Mary’s smile as well as the phalanx of looms on the far end of the room.

This is not rare, I assume. I’m sure that every person whose youth was formed by music – whether that be music from the Beatles, the Clash, Nirvana or anyone else – has those vivid flashes of memory tied to certain tunes. It seems to me I’ve read somewhere that sound is the second-most likely sense to trigger memory. (The first, if I recall correctly, is smell, which makes sense; as I said above, one whiff of strawberries . . .) So it’s not surprising that the music of our youth – the years when we were deciding, in effect, who we would be – is the music that stays with us.

Today’s album is The Rill Thing, Little Richard’s comeback attempt from the summer of 1971. It’s not one that I ever heard when it came out, although I recall hearing the single “Freedom Blues” a couple of times when it was released a year earlier. It’s interesting for a couple of points:

First, most of the album, if not all – sources aren’t clear on this – was recorded at Muscle Shoals with the famed crew there: Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass and Barry Beckett on keyboards (with numerous folks on guitar, from what I can tell).

Second, this was the second part of Little Richard’s most conscious effort at a 1970s comeback. The Rill Thing came out on Reprise, as did The King Of Rock & Roll in 1971 and The Second Coming in 1972. Of the three, The Rill Thing is probably the best. Along with “Freedom Blues,” to me the best tracks are “Greenwood, Mississippi” and his idiosyncratic take on the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” (which was included here in a Baker’s Dozen from 1971 a while back).

This is a reformatting and re-upping of a post I found somewhere else, offered because it’s a better rip than I could have gotten from my vinyl. My thanks to the original poster, somewhere out there in blogland.

Freedom Blues
Greenwood, Mississippi
Two-Time Loser
Dew Drop Inn
Somebody Saw You
Spreadin’ Natta, What’s the Matter?
The Rill Thing
Lovesick Blues
I Saw Her Standing There

Little Richard – The Rill Thing [1971]

Saturday Single No. 36

May 17, 2011

Originally posted October 13, 2007

One of the nicest things about living in St. Cloud is that – for a city of about 60,000 – the area has a fairly wide range of cultural and entertainment offerings. That’s partly a result of some active organizations – both civic and commercial – that bring a good range of performing artists to the area. It’s also because of the presence here in the city of St. Cloud State University and in St. Joseph and Collegeville – about eight miles away – of, respectively, the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

We don’t go out much, the Texas Gal and I. We’re pretty much homebodies. But every once in a while, we see something in the local offerings that grabs us. And last weekend, we met our friends Sean and Stephanie for dinner and then the four of us headed out to St. Joe to the College of St. Benedict for a concert.

The program was one of numerous performances hosted during the academic year at the college’s Benedicta Arts Center. I’d been there frequently during my high school years. Two or three times a year, the St. Cloud Tech orchestra – in which I played cornet – would clamber onto a school bus and ride out to St. Joe and the arts center. Once there, we’d listen as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra gave a special afternoon performance for students in advance of its regular performance in the evening.

On the program last Saturday was something quite different: a performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the legendary South African vocal group formed by Joseph Shabalala in some forty years ago. (All-Music Guide says 1974, but the program from the concert says the group was founded in the early 1960s; Wikipedia says 1964.) The group’s three-part name – according to the program – comes from three sources: Ladysmith was the name of Shabalala’s rural hometown; “black” was chosen as a reference to oxen, “the strongest of all farm animals, and “mambazo” is the Zulu word for “axe,” a symbol of the group’s ability to figuratively chop down any singing rival that might offer a challenge.

The group was well known in South Africa for years but came to wide attention in the U.S. in 1986, when Paul Simon had Ladysmith Black Mambazo provide background – and sometimes, it seemed, foreground – vocals on his Graceland album. The move earned some criticism for Simon, as some observers saw it as a violation of the cultural boycott in place at the time against the apartheid government of South Africa. Those criticisms always struck me as silly, as the art and music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was, if anything, representative of the culture repressed by the apartheid system.

Since 1986 and especially since the dismantling of the apartheid system in the early 1990s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been one of South Africa’s most visible cultural symbols, taking its irrepressible music and spirit around the world.

As I watched Joseph Shabalala, now sixty-six, lead the other seven members of the group through their ninety-minute performance last weekend, I wondered: If someone had told Shabalala in the early 1960s – when he was a farm boy turned factory worker and an amateur musician – than he would, over the next forty years, become an internationally known performer, what would he have thought? Shabalala’s journey is nearly as remarkable as his – and the group’s – music.

I’ve had a few of the group’s albums – one on vinyl and one on CD – for a while, but I haven’t yet ripped any of their music from those records. Still, I couldn’t let last week’s performance pass by unnoticed, so I listened again to Graceland. Though Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s work is laced throughout the album, it’s perhaps most noticeable on “Homeless,” which is this week’s Saturday Single.

Paul Simon & Ladysmith Black Mambazo – “Homeless” [1986]

Heavy Thumps As The Jukebox Played

May 12, 2011

Originally posted October 12, 2007

I was thinking this morning about a room in the lower level of my high school, the one that was called the Multi-Purpose Room during my senior year.

It might not exist anymore. It’s been thirty-six years since I walked out of St. Cloud Tech with my letter jacket and my diploma, and the school has been remodeled and expanded several times since then. I may be remembering a room that’s gone. But during my senior year, 1970-71, it was a busy place.

It was at the start of that year that the rules changed. Up until then, if a student was anywhere except in class or in either of the two lunch areas – the cafeteria on the main floor or the cold-lunch room in the lower level – he or she had to have a hall pass. If you went to the library, as soon as you entered, you had to show your pass to the librarian at the main desk and then place your pass in a little file system. You’d retrieve it as you left. The school enlisted senior boys to stand at the boundaries of the lunch areas and screen anyone trying to go anywhere else. Movement was tightly controlled.

But as my senior year started, things were different. We were allowed to be anywhere we wanted to be in the school. When we went to the library, we just walked in, and when we were finished there, we just walked out. When we finished lunch, we left, to go the library, the band room, the front lawn, the street that ran between the old school and the more recent annex, anywhere on school grounds. Of course, if a student went somewhere besides class and the teacher sent a notice to the office to that effect, the student spent the next day studying under supervision in a small room near the office, suspended for the day. But teachers frequently divided their classes into smaller groups and, say, had one group meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays and another meet on Wednesdays and Fridays, with the entire class meeting on Monday, so seeing students in various places other than class was not rare.

Where most of us went, however, was the Multi-Purpose Room, which had been called up until that school year the cold-lunch room. As the cold-lunch room, it had been pretty uninviting: lots of tables with built-in benches and a cooler at the end where one could buy half-pint cartons of milk – or a chocolate shake – from a lunch lady. As the Multi-Purpose Room, it still had the long tables and the cooler, but now the cooler had other ice cream treats. And along the wall behind the cooler were vending machines offering sandwiches, chips, cookies and cupcakes. There was also a machine that sold coffee, tea and beef bullion. (I was still about a year away from starting the coffee habit that persists to this day, but I drank a lot of bullion that year!)

And on the far end of the room from the cooler and the vending machines was another machine that, more than anything else, told us that the school’s rules had changed: a jukebox!

I think the administration learned to regret that choice fairly soon. Maybe not, as the jukebox was still in the room the following spring when I graduated along with more than four hundred other Tigers. But soon after school started, the doors to the room began to be closed during class hours instead of open. And inside, it was noisy, what with the jukebox playing and as many as, I don’t know, maybe two hundred kids inside. (The headcount was more than that, I’m certain, during any one of the four lunch periods scheduled for the 1,600 or so students.)

There were a few jukebox favorites during the year. Dawn’s “Knock Three Times” was one of them, a catchy little ditty released before the group’s name featured its lead singer, Tony Orlando. If you don’t know the song, or don’t recall it, let me refresh you on the most important part of the song, the chorus:

“Oh, my darlin’
“Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me.
“Twice on the pipe if the answer is no.
“Oh, my sweetness, (thump, thump, thump)
“means you’ll meet me in the hallway.
“Twice on the pipe (clink, clink) means you ain’t gonna show.”

And, of course, every time the song played, the “(thump, thump, thump)” was augmented by the sound of more than a hundred textbooks being slammed on tabletops. The “(clink, clink)” was generally ignored. To its credit, the administration did not have the record pulled from the jukebox; it stayed right there until it hit its peak (three weeks at No. 1) and faded, even though I’m sure the additional noise from the slamming textbooks did nothing for the sanity of the various lunch ladies who worked in the Multi-Purpose Room.

There was one other song that I recall as a room favorite: Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke Over The Line,” a one-hit wonder that reached No. 10 in the summer and was still popular enough to be loaded into the jukebox at the beginning of the school year. Of course, our admiration to “One Toke Over The Line” wasn’t for its percussive effects; it was for its winking reference – the word “toke” of course – to pharmaceutical recreation. The reference was oblique enough to some that the record spent ten weeks on the charts, but overt enough to others that there were radio stations across the U.S. that refused to play the record.

The song was the first track on Brewer & Shipley’s Tarkio, a record that I view as a good piece of work, if not quite a classic album, in the folk-rock, almost country rock vein. (It reached No. 34 on the album chart in the spring of 1971.) It was the third album that Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley released after beginning their partnership, and it’s currently available on CD as a two-fer with their second album, Weeds. Five more albums followed in the 1970s, none of which had as much success or have ever been released on CD, and I will likely rip at least one of those and share it here in the near future.

But today, it’s the first Brewer & Shipley album, Down In L.A., that I’m listening to. Like most of the duo’s records, it’s never been released on CD. It’s not a great record, but it’s an interesting listen for a number of reasons. First, it provides a look at the duo shortly before they had their brief stay on radio’s center stage. Second, its list of sidemen is populated by some pretty famous names:

Jim Messina and Joe Osborn provided some of the work on bass. Russell Bridges (very soon to be better known as Leon Russell) played organ and electric piano. Milt Holland provided some percussion work. Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine were on drums. And one of the producers was Jerry Riopelle, whom I wrote about here.

The highlights? I like “Green Bamboo,” the hippie-ish “Keeper of the Keys” and “Time and Changes” quite a bit. The album’s closer, “Mass For M’Lady” would be on that list except for the ludicrous organ intro. Most of the rest of the record is okay, if a little unformed musically and lyrically.

(I found this rip at a while ago at a forum I frequent. I did some tinkering with it, and there is still some surface noise now and then, but even so, it’s in better shape than my vinyl, so . . . Thanks to the original poster, most likely One Bite at GF. I’ve decided, just for the heck of it, to also post a rip of “One Toke Over The Line.”)

Truly Right
She Thinks She’s A Woman
Time And Changes
Small Town Girl
I Can’t See Her
Green Bamboo
An Incredible State of Affairs
Keeper Of The Keys
Love, Love
Dreamin’ In The Shade
Mass For M’Lady

Brewer & Shipley – Down In L.A. [1968]

Brewer & Shipley – “One Toke Over The Line” [1970]

Eric Clapton & Robert Cray, ca. 1989-1990

May 12, 2011

Originally posted October 11, 2007

Boy, once again, a reminder of the things you miss when you’re not paying attention!

For two seasons – from 1988 into 1990 – the NBC television network aired a show first called Sunday Night, later named Michelob Presents Night Music. Hosted first by Jools Holland and later by David Sanborn, the show’s guest list was nothing but eclectic.

Among the performers listed at Wikipedia as having performed are: Ruth Brown, Ivan Neville, Phoebe Snow, Dizzy Gillespie, Dr. John, Randy Newman, Boz Scaggs, Al Green, Darlene Love, Joe Cocker, Youssou N’Dour, Branford Marsalis, Lou Reed, Tracy Nelson, Little Milton . . . and that was just a small sampling of the first season!

What a show! And I never caught a glimpse of it. It could be that during the first season, the NBC affiliate in Minot, North Dakota, aired something else. That type of thing happened out on the prairie. But I was in the Twin Cities during the second season and missed it completely. Oh, well.

A little bit of digging found a clip from the show’s second season of Eric Clapton and Robert Cray performing “Old Love,” a song they co-wrote that was released on Clapton’s Journeyman album in 1989.

It’s followed by an odd little bit that evidently was the type of thing the show used as transitions from performance to commercials.

Afternote: Well, 200 posts. Whodathunkit? Thanks to everyone who stops by. I’m having a lot of fun doing this and evidently those of you who stop by are having fun, too. Thanks again!

A Baker’s Dozen From 1986

May 12, 2011

Originally posted October 10, 2007

Well, 1986.

In late 1992, as the year was nearing its end, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth characterized it as the annus horribilis, or horrible year. As 1986 turned into 1987, I felt the same way.

The year had started all right. A consortium of weekly newspaper publishers for whom I’d been covering government in Wright County as a freelancer had decided in December, not unexpectedly, not to continue the arrangement into the new year. And as January approached, I sought new employment. It wasn’t urgent, as I was married at the time and had been house-husbanding while I was a freelancer. But I wanted to get back into the workforce on a more substantial basis.

I was already teaching one course – a weekly night class: Introduction to Mass Communication – at St. Cloud State, so in mid-January I drove from Monticello to St. Cloud and the campus to nose around for possible additional jobs there. I dropped in at the university’s public relations office, where the director was a long-time family acquaintance. (My father had retired only two years earlier after thirty-three years as a teacher and administrator.) He took my resume and told me, regretfully, that he didn’t foresee any openings in his operations.

The next day he called. The main writer in his office had given him a week’s notice, and he wondered if I would fill in while a search began for her replacement. He added that I could certainly apply for the permanent position. So the following Monday, the last in January, I began to commute to St. Cloud every day. The thirty-mile drive, I learned, gave me time to organize my day in the morning, and time to wind down from it in the evening.

On my second day in the public relations office, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated in the Florida sky just more than a minute after it was launched. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but that horrible event can be seen in retrospect as an omen. In about May, my life – not a bad one at the time, as these things go – began to disintegrate as well, unraveling at the seams like a poorly sewn garment.

I don’t want to rehash the events of 1986, and I don’t want to bore anyone else with them. Let it suffice to say that by the end of the year, I could sit in my easy chair in Monticello and see, figuratively, the tatters of my life on the floor. It took a long time to clean up the mess and an even longer time – with a couple of false starts – to create a new garment in which to live my life.

So I wasn’t listening much to music in 1986, having other things on my mind. And in retrospect, that was good. If I had been attentive to music, then many of the tunes from the year would carry a layer of grief with them and would be nearly intolerable to hear even today. As it turned out, I generally absorbed the music of 1986 at a later date, so listening to the year’s music is not an unhappy exercise.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1986

“Welcome to the Boomtown” by David & David, A&M single 2857

“Precious Memories” by Bob Dylan from Knocked Out Loaded

“I Ain’t Drunk” by Albert Collins from Cold Snap

“Shanghai Surprise” by George Harrison with Vicki Brown, Shanghai Surprise soundtrack

“All I Need Is A Miracle” by Mike & the Mechanics, Atlantic single 89450

“Under African Skies” by Paul Simon from Graceland

“Amanda” by Boston, MCA single 52756

“West End Girls” by Pet Shop Boys, EMI America single 8307

“The Spirit” by the Moody Blues from The Other Side Of Life

“Something So Strong” by Crowded House, Capitol single 5695

“Still Around” by Robert Cray from Strong Persuader

“Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel from So

“The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby & the Range from The Way It Is

A few notes on some of the songs:

“Welcome to the Boomtown” is one of the best singles that I think almost everyone forgets about. Its atmosphere, its story and its production values all sparkle as it tells its tale of dissolution, ennui and despair in the big city. Although Columbia, Missouri – which I’d left in 1985 – was no double for L.A., the reference to Denny’s always makes me think of the Denny’s along the freeway in Columbia. I would occasionally stop by for a late-night omelet, and the cast of characters I saw regularly there could easily populate a story set in any city about lives whirling into hard habits and out of control.

The Bob Dylan track is one of the lesser songs from one of his lesser albums. I had hoped that if a track from Knocked Out Loaded popped up during the random run, it would be “Brownsville Girl,” the eleven-minute epic Dylan wrote with playwright Sam Shepard. That track contains two of the more fascinating, disruptive and frankly strange verses ever to appear in a Dylan song:

“Well, we crossed the panhandle and then we headed towards Amarillo.
“We pulled up where Henry Porter used to live. He owned a wreckin’ lot outside of town about a mile.
“Ruby was in the backyard hanging clothes, she had her red hair tied back. She saw us come rolling up in a trail of dust.
“She said, ‘Henry ain’t here but you can come on in, he’ll be back in a little while.’
“Then she told us how times were tough and about how she was thinkin’ of bummin’ a ride back to where she started.
“But ya know, she changed the subject every time money came up.
“She said, ‘Welcome to the land of the living dead.’ You could tell she was so broken-hearted.
“She said, ‘Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt.’”

Sounds like Bob Dylan meets Sam Shepard to me.

If you don’t recall “Shanghai Surprise” even though you’re old enough to do so, that’s not really startling. It was the title tune to a film starring Madonna and Sean Penn, then newlyweds. George Harrison’s Handmade Films produced it, which is how the one-time Beatle ended up doing the soundtrack, which was never released as an album. There are a few single-sided 45s of the title tune out there, selling for more than $1,000. “Shanghai Surprise,” along with “Zig-zag,” a song from the film that had been released as the b-side of the single “When We Was Fab,” ended up as bonus tracks on a 2004 CD reissue of Harrison’s 1987 album, Cloud Nine.

“Amanda” came from Third Stage, Boston’s long-awaited and long-delayed third album. In general, I have little affection for the music labeled arena rock. Boston, however, I like, and “Amanda” may be my favorite track by the group. Listening to it today for the first time in a while, though, I hear echoes of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” from three years earlier.

The Robert Cray tune is an album track from Strong Persuader, the record that made Cray famous and, to my mind, signaled the blues boom that was to come in the 1990s. Cray’s R&B-tinged blues have aged well.

I was glad to see something from Peter Gabriel’s So show up during the random run. I was never much of a fan of Genesis, so I was surprised by the depth and beauty of the album. Even twenty-one years after its release, it remains fresh and truly beautiful at points, which is a rare thing.

‘The Room Was Humming Harder . . .’

May 12, 2011

Originally posted October 9, 2007

It was the summer of 1967, and I was doing my normal eight-week stint in summer school, an enrichment program designed to provide kids a chance to learn things they wouldn’t be exposed to during the school year. So, just as I had for the nine months preceding, I spent another two months hauling myself every day to the bus stop a block north of our house and riding the two miles to South Junior High for mornings of enrichment.

I don’t recall what courses I took that summer – the summer between eighth and ninth grades. That might have been the summer I took a cooking class for boys. About sixteen of us filed into the home economics room that first day of summer school, ill at ease at being in a portion of the school building reserved at that time for the girls.

Once we got used to being in the wrong room, as it were, we enjoyed ourselves. Topped off by our chef’s hats – we thought they were kind of silly, but the teacher, whose name I’ve forgotten, provided them the first day of class and insisted we wear them – we fumbled our way for eight weeks through various recipes. We learned how to measure, how to mix, how to slice, chop and combine various things. The dishes we created were no more than basic, but the point of the course, I’ve always assumed, was not that we learned to make specific foods but that we learned to be comfortable in the kitchen. And, at least for me, it worked. Along the way I combined the basic skills learned in summer school with skills learned from my mother – an excellent cook – and over the years, I’ve done pretty well in the kitchen.

At the end of the eight weeks, our cooking class went on a field trip to the Twin Cities, touring the Betty Crocker Kitchens at the headquarters of General Mills in the suburb of Golden Valley. After we toured the kitchens, the bus headed west and the next thing we knew, we’d pulled up into the parking lot of the Excelsior Amusement Park! We ate a picnic lunch, and – not knowing at all that we were following to some degree in the footsteps of Mick Jagger and Mr. Jimmy – we spent a good portion of the afternoon sampling the rides and games before getting on the bus and heading the seventy or so miles back to St. Cloud.

It was another bus ride I had in mind, though, when I started this. On one of my rides home from summer school during that year of 1967, someone had a radio on the bus tuned to one of the two Twin Cities’ Top 40 stations. This might have been a regular thing, music in the back of the bus, but I’m not sure. What I am certain of is that I listened with the other kids that day as the radio played the strangest-sounding song any of us had maybe ever heard.

It began with a ponderous and spooky organ solo, with drums and cymbals providing punctuation. And then a reedy voice entered: “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ’cross the floor . . .” It was, of course, Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

We looked at each other, then back at the radio as the voice went on to tell a surreal tale in a setting that combined the ancient world with the medieval, although I doubt that any of us could place it that accurately back then; we just knew it wasn’t in our time, what with vestal virgins and the miller’s tale.

What did it mean? We had no idea, but it sure was strange . . . and cool. We liked it a lot, even me, who was still a couple of years away from digging very deeply into pop and the Top 40. Over the years, the meaning of the words – written by Keith Reid – has been assessed maybe way too many times. At its website, Procol Harum provides a link to a discussion of the lyrics, where listeners and fans – who seem to call themselves “Palers” – indulge themselves in deep and far-fetched theorizing.

The last word on the lyrics, it would seem, comes from the top of that page of theories, where one finds organist Matthew Fisher’s comment from an interview with the BBC:

“I don’t know what they mean. It’s never bothered me that I don’t know what they mean. This is what I find rather hard, that, especially in America, people are terribly hung up about lyrics and they’ve got to know what they mean, and they say, ‘I know, I’ve figured out what these lyrics mean.’ I don’t give a damn what they mean. You know, they sound great… that’s all they have to do.”

The song was so odd, so different from anything on radio at the time, that beyond its lyrics, it spawned another discussion: Where did the music come from? Was it a lift from a classical piece? If so, which one? (Something by Bach was always considered most likely.)

I recall reading a piece about the song that included a quotation from a fellow who at the time was a classical music critic for a London newspaper. He said that he and a colleague spent an entire morning whistling the melody from “A Whiter Shade of Pale” back and forth to each other before deciding that it probably wasn’t Bach but a theme that sounded very much like his work.

And that’s pretty much the case. At the Procol Harum website, there’s a general explanation of how the music, written by Gary Brooker and Fisher, certainly refers to two Bach pieces but is nevertheless an original work. Those pieces are “Air for the G String” and the choral piece titled in English “Sleepers, Awake!” (For those so inclined, the Procol Harum website also provides a link to Bach expert Bernard S. Greenberg’s formal analysis of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and its links to the two Bach pieces.)

Of course, the other bus riders and I didn’t know all that as we listened for the first time to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on that bus carrying us home from summer school. It was just a cool song. And it still is. It’s also a popular song for cover versions: It shows up on about 280 different CDs, according to All-Music Guide, with performances by artists ranging from pianist Ronnie Aldrich and clarinetist Acker Bilk to Elisabeth Von Trapp (yes, of the Von Trapps of The Sound of Music!) and 1970s R&B singer Zulema.

The version I’ve selected for today’s cover is by Johnny Rivers and comes from his Realization album, which was released in 1968 and is one of my favorite albums.

Johnny Rivers – “A Whiter Shade of Pale” [1968]