Archive for the ‘2008/10 (October)’ Category

A Halloween Tale

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 31, 2008

The light was dim along the back wall of Little John’s Pub. They faced each other across a table, glasses of dark beer and a pack of cigarettes between them. She drank some beer and then laughed at something he said, peering at him over the top of her glass. Whatever he’d said was unimportant. What mattered during the early evening of October 31, 1974, was the look he saw in her eyes. If it wasn’t yet love, it was something quite close to it.

They were young: He was twenty-one, she was twenty. Still, he’d waited five years to see her eyes regard him like that. He’d been a high school junior, she a sophomore when they’d first met. He’d noticed her right away – she was first-chair violin – during the first orchestra rehearsal of the school year. They became friendly, then friends, but he wanted more. She didn’t, and his devotion – as intense as only a high school junior’s can be – sometimes annoyed her. He eventually had no other choice but to accept her friendship, and when he graduated from high school and went on to college a year before she did, her name went into his internal list of regrets.

After a couple of years of college – and some flirtations whose results came nothing close to what he’d felt for the violinist – he spent a year away. A few months after he returned, a mutual friend reintroduced him to the violinist, whose eyes widened at the change in his appearance; she liked the beard and mustache. And they began to tentatively get to know each other once again.

Little John’s Pub wasn’t crowded that night. Located in a shopping mall about two miles from campus, it wasn’t one of the places where students gathered on Halloween. They’d chosen it partly for that reason; it would be easier to talk at Little John’s than at many other places. And they’d chosen it because in 1974, it was one of the few places in town that served dark beer. She’d never had dark beer and wanted to try it.

She lifted the pitcher and filled her glass, then his. As she did, the jukebox against the wall started up. No one had gone near it, and as the music began – he always noticed music, wherever he was – he thought it odd. The jukebox played two songs and fell silent. He smiled at her, dismissed the phantom of the jukebox, and they continued to talk, maybe of her hopes to study violin in Paris after she graduated, maybe of his thoughts of being a sportscaster.

They’d talked a lot in recent weeks, between classes at the student union, on the telephone and during a quiet Sunday afternoon as they watched a football game in the basement rec room at his home. As the game had worn on, he’d quietly placed his arm around her, gauging her reaction. She’d nestled into his side for the rest of the game. When he took her home that afternoon, they kissed, but it ended awkwardly. “That’s okay,” she said as they laughed. “We’ll learn. We’ve got time.” As he drove home that Sunday, the memory of the kiss and the look he’d seen in her eyes made him happier than he could ever remember.

And, now, as they talked about where they might be in years to come, he saw that same look in her eyes. Even at twenty-one, he knew the odds of their sharing the years were slender. They each had roads in front of them, and no one knew where those roads might turn. But there was a chance, and, as they finished their beers and headed out of the pub for a snack, that was enough.

He looked at her as they stood in the entryway and thought about kissing her, and then again when they got into the car, but he held back. He didn’t want to push things too fast. He’d learned. As they drove off, they found that the earlier mist had thickened into a fog that kept them company as they headed to a truck stop on the east side.

The last thing he remembers from that night is flipping the signal lever down, preparing for a left turn across a highway. He never saw the truck. He survived. She didn’t.

Eventually, he healed physically and emotionally, though the latter took longer than the former. Investigations found no misdeeds, just an accident in the fog. He never was a sportscaster, but he became a writer. The memory of the violinist came along as he fell in love again, several times, and saw those pairings fail. He knew she hadn’t been the love of his life, but it took some time – until midlife – to find the one who was.

Still, we all are made up of those things we cherish, survive and endure, and as each October 31st approaches, he gets a little sad. That’s when he finds his shelter in his Texas Gal’s love. And he never drives after dark on Halloween.

The two songs the jukebox played on its own on that misty night? Here they are:

“Time In A Bottle” by Jim Croce, ABC 11405 [1973]

“We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” by Seals & Crofts, Warner Bros. 7740 [1973]

Edited slightly on archival posting.

An Hour At Tom’s Barbershop

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 30, 2008

I spent a pleasant hour late yesterday morning at Tom’s Barbershop, waiting behind three other guys as Tom trimmed their hair and then mine. We waited on two long benches along the wall, gazing at Tom’s collection of model cars and nodding in approval as classic country songs came and went from the CD player: Hank Williams (the original one, not the son or grandson), Johnny Cash, Ferlin Husky and some we didn’t recall.

“Don’t remember who did that one,” one of the fellows across the way from me said as the music played. “Heard it for the first time back in about ’48, I think.” One of the other two waiting men nodded.

“Yeah,” said the white-haired fellow next to me, as he headed for the now-empty barber chair, “country was what there was back then. We didn’t have all this rock and roll.”

“Not in my house, either,” said the fellow who’d heard music in 1948. “It was country music at home.”

“And polkas,” said the customer now easing his way into the chair.

Four other heads, including Tom the Barber’s and mine, nodded. I’ve never listened to polka music voluntarily, but down at Grampa’s farm, there was often a polka program playing on one of the two television channels available.

“Yah,” said the dark-haired guy sitting across from me, near the CD player. Up to now, he’d only nodded. “I remember Whoopee John. And the Six Fat Dutchmen.”

The guy in the chair spoke as Tom trimmed his hair: “Used to be lots of those ballrooms around, where those bands would play on Saturday night,” he said, talking carefully so as not to disturb Tom’s work. “Not many of them left, you know.”

Heads nodded again. Tom held his clippers in the air as the man in the chair began to talk with a little more animation. “We used to go up to the ballroom at New Munich on Saturday nights, there.” (New Munich is a burg of about 350 souls forty miles northwest of St. Cloud, smack in the middle of Stearns County, doncha know?) “There’d be all them Stearns County farm boys standing around the edge of the dance floor ’til, oh, close to midnight, each one of ’em holdin’ a bottle of beer.

“Finally, around midnight, just before the band was gonna shut ’er down for the night, them boys would get out on the dance floor and find some gal to dance the polka with.”

We all laughed. “They had to have some Dutch courage, huh?” I asked him.

He nodded. “Yah,” he said, “right out of the bottle.”

I spoke up, told them I’d seen the same things – reluctant guys holding drinks ringing the dance floor until it got late – in the bars in downtown St. Cloud when I was in college thirty years ago. “Take away the drinks,” I said, “and I saw the same thing in the junior high cafeteria as the records played during our dances!”

They laughed.

“Boy,” said the fairly quiet fellow sitting by the CD player, “thirty years ago, I’d have been there, too. Might dance, might not, but just past midnight, it’s ‘See you next week’ and on out the door.”

“For a while in college,” I said, “It was ‘See you tomorrow,’” I said.

“Yah,” said one of them, amid general laughter, “I done some of that, too!”

The fellow in the chair stood, his white hair now trimmed. The dark-haired guy near the CD player rose, about to take his turn. “Boy,” he said, “I remember when Whoopee John and his band come to town. They used to come in three, four new Chevrolets. They got a bus a little later on, but when they come into town in those shiny new Chevies, boy, that was somethin’!”

The CD changed, with the classic country being replaced by Tom’s beloved country-tinged gospel music. The white-haired fellow headed to the door. “See you boys later,” he said as he opened the door. “Don’t go dancin’ too much now.”

We all laughed as the door closed. And then the only sounds in the barbershop were the strains of “Amazing Grace” coming from the CD player, the buzz of Tom’s clippers, and the very faint sound of Tom singing along under his breath.

“Put Your Dancing Shoes On” by Danny Kortchmar [1973]

(“Put Your Dancing Shoes On” comes from Kootch, a 1973 album by Kortchmar, a guitarist who’s been one of the best-known session musicians for years. The album is available here.)

Edited slightly on archival posting.

From Late October, 1967

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 29, 2008

As November nears, football seasons accelerate: High schools here in Minnesota will play section championship games this weekend, winnowing the field in all six enrollment classes from sixteen to eight. College football – both for major universities and small colleges – is at the point where a single bad Saturday can end championship hopes. And the professionals in the National Football League near mid-season, with the outlines of stories beginning to take shape.

And as those things happen, I find myself pondering lessons football has taught me. Taught me as a spectator and a fan, that is; I never played organized football. (With a nod to Will Rogers, neither have some of the teams I’ve followed.) Chief among those lessons, of course, is that teams I follow never win the big game, at least as long as I’m in the vicinity. The football Tigers at St. Cloud Tech, where I went to high school, have had some good years but have never won anything greater than a conference or section title. Similarly, the Huskies at St. Cloud State, where I was an undergrad, have had good seasons but never advanced very far in the playoffs.

Being a Minnesotan, I follow the fortunes of the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers. It’s been forty-one years since the Rampaging Rodents claimed a share of the Big Ten title, and it’s been forty-six years and counting since the U of M’s team played in the Rose Bowl. The team is improved this season – it almost had to be, since the Gophers lost eleven of twelve games last year – and there may yet be hope on the campus, but we will see.

Then there are the Vikings of the NFL, who seem no better than mediocre this season. When I was in high school and college, they seemed destined to win a Super Bowl. They had four chances over an eight-season period and failed four times. Thus, I learned as a young adult that it gets easier to handle disappointment the more practice you get.

There has been a bright spot, at least regarding a team I now follow from a distance: When I was a reporter in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, the high school football staff there – headed by Mike Grant, the son of legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant – was putting a program in place. I left the paper in 1995, and the team won its first state title in 1996. In the last twelve seasons, Eden Prairie’s football team has lost a total of eight games, has won six (I think) state titles and is the two-time defending state champ.

Of course, I’ve watched all that from a distance, which is not quite as satisfying.

All of these thoughts this week reminded me of the first team I paid attention to at close hand: the 1967 edition of St. Cloud Tech’s Tigers.

My sister was a senior at Tech that fall, and many of her friends were on the team, of course. I was in ninth grade at South Junior High – it would be three years until freshmen attended Tech instead of South – but my parents and I went to all of Tech’s home games that season, and at least two games on the road. It was – for eight weeks – a magic season. By the middle of the season, Tech was ranked as the top team in the state by the Minneapolis Morning Tribune. As Tech did not belong to a conference but played an independent schedule, and as there was no state playoff system in place, a high ranking in the newspaper’s weekly coverage was the Tigers’ goal every season.

And with one game remaining – right about this time forty-one years ago – Tech was a victory over South St. Paul from claiming the top spot in the final ranking of the season and the mythical state title that went with that ranking. It was a rainy Friday, and my parents and I stayed home; my sister took an activities bus the eighty or so miles to the game.

Dad and I listened to the game on radio as the rain and the muck slowed the Tigers’ quick-strike passing game. Tech lost 14 to 7 and finished something like ninth in the newspaper’s final rankings. Not long afterward, the football team’s cheerleaders got together and bought a small trophy. They had the plate engraved: “1967: The Best Team Tech Ever Had” and presented it to the captains. I wonder if it’s still in the school’s trophy case.

There is, I know from my experience as one of Tech’s football managers a few years later, no place quite as quiet as a team’s bus on the way home after a tough loss. At least for an hour or so. Then the talk begins, softly at first. And after a while, someone turns on the radio. What would the Tigers have heard on their way home from South St. Paul that sad evening?

Here was the top ten on Twin Cities-based KDWB, pulled from its “Big 6 Plus 30” survey of October 28, 1967:

“To Sir With Love” by Lulu
“The Letter” by the Box Tops
“Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)” by the Buckinghams
“How Can I Be Sure” by the Young Rascals
“Never My Love/Requiem For The Masses” by the Association
“The Rain The Park & Other Things” by the Cowsills
“It Must Be Him” by Vikki Carr
“Expressway To Your Heart” by the Soul Survivors
“Let It Out” by the Hombres
“Gimme Little Sign” by Brenton Wood

At No. 20, we find “The Last Waltz” by Engelbert Humperdinck and at No. 30, there’s “San Franciscan Nights” by Eric Burdon & the Animals.”

Shifting to the Billboard listings of that week to round out the top fifty singles (KDWB’s survey ends at No. 36), we find “Lazy Day” by Spanky & Our Gang at No. 40 and “Boogaloo Down Broadway” by the Fantastic Johnny C. at No. 50.

Well, that’s not awful. The Top Ten is a little ballad-heavy with Lulu, the Young Rascals, the Association and Vikki Carr. And I’ve never cared much for the Buckinghams. The Hombres’ single – which peaked in Billboard at No. 12 – was weird but fun. The only other thing that stands out from the Top Ten is the listing of “Never My Love/Requiem For The Masses” as a two-sided single. I’ve never seen the B-side listed before.

A little deeper into that Billboard chart of October 28, 1967, we find a song that reached its peak, rising to No. 68 from No. 70 the week before. It would be in the Hot 100 one more week before falling off. A gritty record, Laura Lee’s “Dirty Man” (Chess 2103) sounds to me more like Memphis than Chicago. Four years later, recording for Hot Wax, Laura Lee would reach the Top 40 for the only time with “Women’s Love Rights.” That’s a good single, but it’s nowhere near as good as “Dirty Man.”

“Dirty Man” by Laura Lee [1967]

The track is available on a few anthologies, but I don’t know how easily those can be found. Check it out here.

‘I Might Take A Plane, I Might Take A Train . . .’

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 28, 2008

For a time around 1969-70, the evening deejay at WJON, the radio station just down the street and across the railroad tracks from our house, was a fellow who used the name Ron P. Michaels (his initials were then RPM, you see). And one evening during the summer of 1970, he put on a special show.

From seven o’clock to (I think) midnight one weekday evening, Michaels played nothing but the Beatles. From the hits like “Hey Jude,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to tracks from deep in the group’s catalog, WJON was all-Beatles for one five-hour stretch that summer night.

I was a fledgling Beatles fan, just beginning to learn about the Fab Four’s music. I had – and knew well – the Let It Be and Abbey Road albums. I owned – with my sister – Beatles ’65, one of the albums of bits and pieces that Capitol had created in the early days of the group’s American success. Later that summer, I would buy Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Hey Jude, a package of hits and B-sides (also known as The Beatles Again).

There was still plenty I did not know about the Beatles’ music. I was determined to learn, however. So I stationed myself in my bedroom with my Panasonic cassette recorder and carefully stopped and started the tape to edit out commercial breaks. My recording technique was brutal: The radio was on the bed, with the microphone set down nearby, but the sound quality was good enough. I ended up with three-and-a-half hours of music, which was nothing near the group’s entire output on Capitol/Apple (I have about eleven hours of Beatles’ tunes on mp3 from Please Please Me through Let It Be), but it was certainly a place to start learning about the deeper places in the group’s catalog.

I recall that some of the songs I heard for the first time that evening weren’t, to be honest, high points in the Beatles’ career: “Devil In Her Heart,” “Yes It Is,” “Act Naturally” and “Blue Jay Way” come to mind. On the other hand, that was the evening I was introduced to “In My Life,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” the last of which remains one of my favorite recordings by anyone, ever.

Another song that I heard for the first time that evening was titled at the time “Kansas City.” It started, “I’m goin’ to Kansas City, bringing my baby back home.”

Released on Beatles For Sale in 1964, the song was the Beatles’ cover version of the tune written in the early 1950s by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, as recorded by Little Richard. Little Richard’s indelible contribution to the song – beyond his lethal performance of “Kansas City” itself – was the “Hey, hey, hey hey” coda, which was his own creation. From what I’ve read, the Beatles were unaware of Penniman’s addition; they called the song simply “Kansas City” and listed only Leiber and Stoller as the writers. (Eventually, the title of the Beatles’ recording was changed; it’s now called a medley of “Kansas City” and “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey” with Little Richard given a writing credit [as Richard Penniman].)

Looking a little bit deeper, there was no way the Beatles really could have known. After all, when Little Richard’s recording was released as Specialty 664 after it was recorded in 1955, its title was simply “Kansas City,” with only Leiber and Stoller listed as writers. As was the case with the Beatles’ omission, that error has since been corrected. The 1991 CD The Georgia Peach, a Little Richard hits package, lists the song as “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” and lists Penniman as a writer along with the team of Leiber and Stoller.

Anyway, that night was the first time I’d heard “Kansas City” with or without the Penniman addition. I thought it was a pretty good song, but I didn’t bother in those days to dig too deeply into the history of the music I was listening to. I was having a difficult enough time keeping track of current groups and their catalogs. So I didn’t know for years that “Kansas City” – sometimes listed as “K.C. Lovin’” – had been around since before I was born.

As noted above, the song came from the duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a duo credited with writing hit after hit during the Fifties and early Sixties, including “Hound Dog,” “Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me” (with Ben E. King), “Ruby Baby” and many more, including the very odd No. 11 hit for Peggy Lee in 1969, “Is That All There Is?”

Originally recorded in 1952 by Little Willie Littlefield, “Kansas City” is without doubt one of the most-covered R&B songs of all time. The listing at All-Music Guide of CDs with a version of “Kansas City” on them numbers five hundred, making the list so unwieldy that the server times out before the list can be accessed. (That’s a frequent problem at AMG and one of the few complaints I have about the service.) The most famous cover of “Kansas City” is most likely Wilbert Harrison’s 1959 version, which was No. 1 for two weeks. (As good as Little Richard’s version on Specialty was, it did not reach the Top 40.)

Other covers of the song that I have in my collection are from Joe Williams, Muddy Waters, Paul McCartney (on his 1988 album Снова в СССР, originally released only in the Soviet Union) and Albert King. It’s not a song in which I’ve invested a lot of time.

But there is one fascinating version I do have. In 1977, Libby Titus – who I think is generally forgotten today – recorded a version of the song that she titled “Kansas City (K.C. Lovin’)” and released it on her self-titled album. The album is pretty good, but is, I think, of additional interest because Titus was once in a relationship with Levon Helm of The Band; Helm’s former bandmate Garth Hudson shows up on one track, and Robbie Robertson plays on one track and produced two of the tracks. (Producing the remaining tracks were, in various combinations, the intriguing trio of Paul Simon, Carly Simon and Phil Ramone.)

Among the other highlights of the album – which was released on CD some time back but is rare enough that copies of the CD sell for more than a hundred dollars while the LP itself can be pricey, too – are Titus’ work on the classic song “Love Has No Pride,” which she co-wrote with Eric Kaz, and the slightly odd “The Night You Took Me to Barbados in My Dreams.” But “Kansas City (K.C. Lovin’),” with its own odd moment in the introduction, is likely the best thing on the album and one of the slinkier covers of the song I’ve ever heard.

“Kansas City (K.C. Lovin’)” by Libby Titus [1977]

Note: Thanks again to all who left comments or emailed me yesterday. I’ve decided to just put one foot in front of the other and keep on. Thanks again!

Revised slightly on August 5, 2013.

Pondering The Blogging Future

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 27, 2008

In twenty-one months of blogging – more than five hundred posts – I’ve received two requests from copyright owners to remove material. The folks who own the rights to Leo Kottke’s 12 String Blues asked me to remove a link to that album last March, and early this month, a representative of Bobby Whitlock asked me to remove the links to his work.

In both cases, I happily complied within an hour of receiving the request, and then I double-checked over the next day to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

Those were the only complaints I’d received.

The only ones until last Wednesday and Thursday, that is, when I received three notices from Blogger, telling me that complaints had been filed regarding copyrighted material on three different posts. Those filing the complaints were unidentified, and Blogger deleted the posts. The threat, of course, is that if Blogger decides too many complaints are filed, my account will be closed. (So if this blog disappears without any warning from me, that’s what has happened.)

I stewed about the complaints at the end of last week, and while wandering the world of blogs over the weekend, I learned I wasn’t by any means the only person receiving a notice: Tom at TC’s Old and New Music Review wrote about it, as did Steve at Teenage Kicks. And Sunday, jc at The Vinyl Villain had a list of other bloggers – including Steve – who had received similar notices.

Theories abound in blogs and on bulletin boards about who is lodging the complaints: It’s a certain record label. It’s an industry representative. It’s a ’Net vigilante. I don’t know. I do know that I found the three recordings cited in the notices I received were an odd mix: A 2003 edit of a 1986 duet by Demis Roussos and Nancy Boyd; an Aretha Franklin B-side/album track from 1972; and a Shawn Colvin album track from 1994.

And I’ve spent a lot of time since the middle of last week pondering how to respond. As I noted Saturday morning,* I did in fact have to reformat the hard drive Friday, and Saturday was spent playing Strat-O-Matic baseball [see note below], so I likely would not have posted either day anyway.

The complaint/deletion notices have spurred me to do some housekeeping that I should have been doing all along, and that’s to delete links two weeks after they’ve been posted. While catching up, I accidentally deleted the links I posted a week ago Saturday when I wrote about the death of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, but I don’t think that’s a loss, as those were hardly rare singles. And that leads me to one of the things I’m considering: Focusing as I did in the first months of this blog on more rare music. Instead of, say, a Baker’s Dozen – a format that may have run its course after one hundred installments – perhaps offering a “One From The Deep,” which would look at individual songs that languished in the lower levels of the Billboard Hot 100.

I don’t know yet what I am going to do. I’m certain there will be bloggers who will close shop as a result of last week’s flurry of complaints, and I’m certain as well that such is the hope and intent of those lodging complaints with Blogger. I imagine I could continue to write about my life and how it’s been intertwined with music without offering the music itself. I know that when I visit my favorite music blogs, I’m a great deal more interested these days in the tales than the tunes. I’m not sure to what degree that’s true for the four hundred or so folks who stop by here most days.

Keeping this blog running – and getting the response I have – has been one of the greater joys of my life. I don’t know what I am going to do come tomorrow. But in the meantime, I could use some feedback.

About baseball: For those who are interested in the Strat-O-Matic results, my 1931 Athletics defeated the two-time defending champions, Rob’s 1922 Browns, in the first round, but Rob won the tournament for the third year in a row. Somehow, he ushered his 1995 Rockies through the puzzle of poor pitching to win the title dramatically with a Larry Walker home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of the deciding game.

*The Saturday morning post noting that I would not share a Saturday Single was evidently written directly on the blog. It does not exist in the archives. Note added August 24, 2011.

Paul, EW&F & Orleans

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 23, 2008

Off to YouTube this morning!

The first thing I found related to yesterday’s Baker’s Dozen from 1975 was a performance by Paul Simon of his song, “My Little Town,” presented live on the BBC on December 27, 1975.

Here’s a recent performance of “That’s The Way Of The World” by Earth, Wind & Fire, taken, according to the poster, from the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, November 12, 2007:

And here’s Orleans, performing “Dance With Me” on the Midnight Special during late 1975:

Autumn 1975: Learning New Skills

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 22, 2008

Pondering the autumn of 1975 – a season that seems more brilliant in memory the further it recedes in time – I realized that I expanded what educators call my “skill set” in those months.

Part of that expansion of abilities came from both my last quarter of college coursework before graduation and from my most frequent activity during my spare time, and part came on a wet October Saturday that I spent at home with my parents.

That wet Saturday provided an interesting learning opportunity, yet it left me with skills I’ve had no chance to use. For years, while my grandparents lived on their farm, our family would spend some time on the farm in August, with one of the late-summer chores being the butchering of a good number of chickens to freeze and store for the winter. The price my family paid Grandpa for the chicken was reasonable to him and far less than we would have paid at the butcher shop or at Carl’s Market up on East St. Germain.

After Grandpa and Grandma moved off the farm in 1972, we bought chicken in the store like everyone else. But for some reason in October 1975, Mom and Dad decided that they wanted some fresh chicken to freeze and store for the winter. So early one Saturday, Dad went off to a farm somewhere northeast of St. Cloud and came home with about a dozen chickens, headless and with their feathers removed. (A good thing, that last; from my experiences on the farm, I know well that pulling feathers from a butchered chicken is difficult and messy.) And for most of the rest of the day, Mom, Dad and I stood around the kitchen table, knives in hand, and cleaned chickens, something I’d never done before.

I needn’t go into gory detail. It was messy, of course, and by the time we got through cleaning and cutting up the final chicken, I was pretty good at it. I figure if I had to do it again, I could. But I’ve never had the need since, a fact for which I am grateful.

The other skill that I strengthened that autumn – in class and during my spare time – was writing. Among my classes that fall quarter was one in the history of the documentary film. We spent hours watching documentary films – from Robert Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece, Nanook of the North – considered by most historians as the first true documentary – through 1971’s The Selling of the Pentagon, a television effort by CBS News. Some of the films were art; I think of Rain, a 1920s film by Joris Ivens (and the fact that these titles and names come back to me unbidden makes me realize again how important that class was to me) that detailed an everyday rainstorm in his hometown of Amsterdam, Holland. Some of them were something darker: The Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl chronicled the 1934 Congress of the German Nazi Party at Nuremberg and was – viewed with knowledge of the tragedy and horror that ensued – a chilling, powerful and dark piece of work.

Not only did we watch films, but we wrote about them. Each student was required during the quarter to submit a certain number – eight, maybe? – of brief critiques of the films we were seeing and one longer critique. The short papers were required to be two to three typed pages, double-spaced, and the longer paper, about ten pages. Not yet being skilled at composing my work at the typewriter, I wrote – actually printed – my critiques on notebook paper. And as I pondered and assessed the films we were seeing, I realized that, although writing was work, it was work I enjoyed, because it gave me the opportunity to move words around into forms and orders that were mine alone.

I remember the first time I realized that: I was writing a critique of Rain, the brief film shot in 1920s Amsterdam, and I was assessing the pacing of the film. I wrote that the film moved through the streets “with a calm urgency, like the rain.” I paused and looked at my words on paper, especially that “calm urgency.” Something about the way those words looked, sounded and read together gripped me tightly. And it was something I had done! I’m sure other writers before – many others – had found that combination of those two words and gone ahead from there. But for the moment, that set of two words was mine.

That was the moment that I began to think of myself as a writer.

And writing took up much of my free time from then on: I wrote short stories, and screenplays. My lyrics – which I’d dabbled in since 1970 – became more focused and more planned. I continued to work on a memoir of a railroad jaunt through northern Scandinavia that I’d shared with a madcap Australian – a manuscript that has rested, ignored (justifiably, I’m sure), in my files for more than thirty years now.

A writer is always learning to write. Every time he or she takes pen or pencil to paper or lays his or her fingers on the keyboard, a writer is learning something. The lesson may not be obvious; the learning is not conscious. But a writer who is serious about his or her craft comes away from every session with his or her skills honed more, even if it’s just a tiny bit. In those days in the autumn of 1975, I was learning a great deal about writing – and about thinking, for one cannot write clearly without thinking clearly – every time I sat down at a table, whether that was in my room or the basement rec room at home, in a coffee shop or restaurant around town, or in my favorite haunt, the snack bar in the basement of St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center.

I’ve never cleaned a chicken since that rainy Saturday. But I’ve written almost every day since I discovered that “calm urgency” one evening in the autumn of 1975.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1975, Vol. 4
“Fire On The Mountain” by the Marshall Tucker Band, Capricorn 0244 (No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of October 18, 1975)

“My Little Town” by Simon & Garfunkel, Columbia 10230 (No. 81)

“Gone At Last” by Paul Simon & Phoebe Snow, Columbia 10197

“Fight The Power” by the Isley Brothers from The Heat Is On (“Fight The Power, Pt. 1,” T-Neck 2256, was at No. 58)

“That’s The Way Of The World” by Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia 10172 (No. 50)

“Island Girl” by Elton John, MCA 40461 (No. 36)

“Sky High” by Jigsaw, Chelsea 3022 (No. 31)

“SOS” by Abba, Atlantic 3265 (No. 24)

“Lady Blue” by Leon Russell, Shelter 40378 (No. 19)

“Fame” by David Bowie, RCA Victor 10320 (No. 12)

“They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play)” by the Spinners, Atlantic 3284 (No. 9)

“Dance With Me” by Orleans, Asylum 45261 (No. 6)

“Bad Blood” by Neil Sedaka, Rocket 40460 (No. 1)

A few notes:

The Marshall Tucker Band was far more country-oriented than most of their brethren who recorded for the Capricorn label. “Fire On The Mountain,” which features Charlie Daniels on fiddle, would not be out of place on today’s country radio. Of course, a lot of what passes for country music these days would not have been out of place on rock and pop radio in 1975. Brooks & Dunn, for instance, often sound – instrumentally, at least – like the Rolling Stones gone off to Nashville. Anyway, more than thirty years on, the Marshall Tucker Band is still good listening.

I remember sitting at The Table in Atwood Center sometime during the autumn of 1975 and hearing the first low piano notes of “My Little Town” coming from the jukebox. I liked Paul Simon’s solo work, but it somehow sounded so right to hear his voice blend once more with Art Garfunkel’s (whose solo work was far less accomplished than Simon’s). And I think the song itself is one of Simon’s ignored masterpieces both musically and in the lyrics that detail the stifling atmospheres many of us perceive in our own hometowns as we grow.

I don’t have the Isley’s “Fight the Power, Part 1,” which went as high as No. 4, nor do I recall hearing it that autumn. But the album track from which Part 1 was pulled is too funky and, well, too good in its call to action to leave it out. I imagine the word “bulls**t” was bleeped on the radio.

A few of these singles, to this day, say “autumn of 1975” to me more than do the others. Among the most evocative – taking me back to sunny days on campus at a time when I was probably happier and more secure, both personally and in school, than I had ever been – are Earth, Wind & Fire’s “The Way Of The World” and Orleans’ “Dance With Me.” I love a lot of the rest of EW&F’s catalog, too, but “The Way Of The World” is my favorite. I guess “Dance With Me” is my favorite track by Orleans, too, but then, it has to be: It’s the only one I ever listen to.

Two of the other records here also take me back to a specific place on one specific evening that November: A pal of mine and I hit a series of drinking emporiums one Friday evening and wound up at a place called The Bucket, which was located in a spot that I believe placed it outside of the city limits of both St. Cloud and the nearby small town of Sartell. It was a rough place, and it had recently added to its attractions the diversion of young women disrobing while they danced on a small stage. Hey, we were twenty-two, okay? Anyway, among the songs one of the entertainers selected from the jukebox to accompany her efforts were David Bowie’s “Fame” and Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood.” Thankfully, they don’t pop up often, but when they do, those two tunes put me for just a moment in a Stearns County strip joint.

‘Like Endless Rain Into A Paper Cup . . .’

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 21, 2008

A while back, when I was discussing what I considered the ten best songs written by John Lennon, I included “Across the Universe” and said:

“Recorded in 1968 during the sessions for The Beatles, ‘Across the Universe’ was set to be released as a single in March 1968, but McCartney’s ‘Lady Madonna’ was released instead. A version of the song appeared on a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund in 1969 (available, in the U.S. at least, on the Rarities album released in 1980; I don’t know off the top of my head about CD releases of that version). A different version ended up on Let It Be. The song provides me with one of the more tolerable earworms, as the phrase ‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’ sometimes cycles around and around in my head.”

As I was looking for a cover version of a song to post today, I noticed that I have several covers of “Across the Universe” and three versions by the Beatles. From the Beatles, there’s the version that was included on the World Wildlife Fund album (which took its title, sort of, from the Lennon song: No One’s Gonna Change Our World). There’s the version that was on Let It Be, released in 1970 after Phil Spector was charged with making some sense out of the product of the messy 1969 sessions originally aimed at creating an album called Get Back. And there’s the version released in 2003 on Let It Be . . . Naked, which was a Paul McCartney-led project aimed, essentially, at correcting Spector’s errors.

(I don’t think much of the results of the Let It Be . . . Naked project. The recordings seem flat and lifeless, with three exceptions: Lennon’s songs “Don’t Let Me Down,” which wasn’t on the original Let It Be album, and “Across the Universe,” which sounds a great deal better with the women’s choir and Spectorian echo removed; and McCartney’s “Let It Be,” which is similar, if not identical, to the George Martin-produced single from 1970, a version I’ve always preferred to the Spectorian version on the album. For what it’s worth, I’ve also always preferred the “Get Back” single to the Let It Be version, so the version on Let It Be . . . Naked doesn’t really matter.)

Anyway, heading toward a discussion of covers of “Across the Universe,” which Beatles version should be considered the original?

The version that showed up on the World Wildlife Fund album was recorded on February 4, 1968, at Abbey Road, according to William J. Dowlding in Beatlesongs. A couple of sources Dowlding uses for his chronicle of Beatles recordings note that during the recording sessions, Lennon and McCartney decided they wanted falsetto voices on the chorus, so they went outside and brought in two of the fans who had been waiting outside the studio, young women named Lizzie Bravo and Gaylene Pease. When the recording wasn’t released as a single and was given to the World Wildlife Fund, sound effects of birds were added during October 1969 to the beginning and the ending of the record, which was eventually released on Past Masters, Vol. 2:

“Across the Universe” by the Beatles [1969]

What happened next is open to debate. Dowlding says that some sources indicate that the original recording of “Across the Universe” – pre-birds – was the one that Phil Spector reworked for the Let It Be album. Dowlding notes, though, that at least one source – Neville Stannard’s 1984 volume, The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record – says that the version of “Across the Universe” that showed up on Let It Be (and eventually on Let It Be . . . Naked) was an entirely different recording. Here’s how it sounded when Spector was through with it:

“Across the Universe” by the Beatles, from Let It Be [1970]

Here’s what was released when Let It Be . . . Naked came out in 2003:

 “Across the Universe” by the Beatles, from Let It Be . . . Naked [1969, released 2003]

I’ve listened to the three versions a couple times each in the last few hours . . . and I’m not sure if the WWF version (as it became) is a different recording than the two that ended up on the two Let It Be albums. There’s a pitch difference, yes, but Dowlding quotes Lennon as saying “Phil slowed the tape down.”

I’m not sure it matters whether there were two basic versions recorded or just one. I think the last version released – from Let It Be . . . Naked – is the best of the three, without the overbearing choir and without the falsetto added by the two girls dragged in from outside on Abbey Road.

There haven’t been a lot of cover versions of “Across the Universe.” All-Music Guide lists seventy-three CDs with recordings of the song, and about twenty of those are by the Beatles. Some interesting names do pop up in the list:

Aloid & the Interplanetary Invasion, Cilla Black, Mary Black, Johnny Boston, Jackson Browne & Robbie Krieger (on an odd two-CD set called 70’s Box: The Sound of a Decade), Comanche Moon, Barbara Dickson. Becky Durango, Debra Farris, Jawbone, Bill Lloyd, the London String Orchestra, the Lullaby Orchestra, Madooo, Moby, Mystical Chant, the Neanderthals, Lisa Ono, Samuel Reed, Scanner, Stuffy Shmitt, the String Cheese Incident, 10cc, Venus in Bluejeans and Rufus Wainwright.

I’m not sure I’ve heard many of those versions; some of those names aren’t even familiar to me (though quite a few are). But two of the versions in my collection are, I think, fairly interesting. In 1976, David Bowie covered “Across the Universe” on his Young Americans album. I never really thought that the song fit into the album’s blue-eyed soul groove, but it’s an interesting cover:

“Across the Universe” by David Bowie [1976]

And in 1998, the intriguing but odd movie Pleasantville – about two modern-day kids pulled into the black-and-white 1950s of a television show – used Fiona Apple’s elegant cover of “Across the Universe” as the music behind the closing credits:

“Across the Universe” by Fiona Apple [1998]

Given that the song is one of my favorites by Lennon, I’ll likely dig deeper into the list. But I have to say I like Apple’s version very much.

The Night The Trivial Streak Ended

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 20, 2008

I’ve got an extremely good memory, as I may or may not have related here before.

I know I’ve written about my love of detail – as in the nine-inch pan – before.

Combine the two, and I was absolutely enthralled with the game Trivial Pursuit when it came out twenty-six years ago. I received as a Christmas present the board game with its original set of questions, and over the years, I’ve collected other question sets and a couple of other game boards in different boxes.

For a time in the late 1980s, when I was single, living first in St. Cloud for a brief time and then in Minot, North Dakota, and spending my quarter-breaks in St. Cloud, my friends and I played a lot of Trivial Pursuit. I’m good at the game, good enough that my friends instituted new rules for me. As you know doubt know, the point of the game is to move around the game board by answering trivia questions and get your playing piece to certain spots on the game board. At those spots, you answer questions that earn you little plastic wedges.

When you have six different colored wedges – for the six categories of questions – you maneuver your playing piece to the center of the board, at which point your opponents decide on a category for one final question. If you’ve shown a disinclination for science and nature questions, for example, your opposition will likely select that category for your final question.

My friends upped the ante on me: Instead of answering one question at the points where I could collect a wedge, I had to answer two questions. And at the end of the game, instead of answering one question from the six on the card my opponents drew, I had to answer all six. I shrugged and spent chunks of late 1987 playing more Trivial Pursuit . . . and winning. We started keeping track after a while, and my winning streak – before and after the whiteray rules went into effect – was nearing one hundred games.

My lady friend of the time and I spent New Year’s Eve in 1987 at my apartment in Minot. Aside from the likely appearance of a ghost – a story I may tell another time – it was a quiet evening. About ten o’clock, we got out the Trivial Pursuit board. My lady friend was pretty good at history, geography, some entertainment and the basics of science and nature; being in the process of seeking a master’s degree in English, she was very good at arts and literature.

Her downfalls generally were sports and leisure and rock music. When she got a question that seemed to call for the name of a rock musician for the answer, she regularly said, “Bob Dylan.” She explained: “Eventually, I have to get a question where ‘Bob Dylan’ is the answer.” As to sports and leisure, she generally left her one required question in that category for the end of the game. And during my winning streak, she never had to try to that category.

On New Year’s Eve in 1987, things went differently. With the northwest wind rattling the living room windows and Gordon Lightfoot playing on the stereo, she got a music question and answered “Bob Dylan.” I don’t recall what the question was, but that was, in fact, the answer. A few turns later, as I was about halfway through collecting my wedges (by answering two questions per wedge), she landed on a sports and leisure wedge spot. The question defined a sport played on ice with large stones, and she identified it as curling.

We were laughing as she moved her piece toward the center of the board and as I tried to collect the rest of my wedges. I wasn’t worried, as she’d have to answer another sports and leisure question when she got to the center of the board. I don’t recall how many wedges I was short as she reached the center of the board; I might have had them all, might have been maneuvering to the center of the board myself, when she reached the center and asked for a final question.

I chose a sports and leisure question. It asked for the name of a sport that combines running with the use of written directions and a compass.

She thought for a moment and said, “Orienteering?”

I nodded. The streak was over.

She laughed. “You mean I actually beat you?” I laughed, too, pleased by her delight.

We put the game away and marked the New Year by watching an old movie. She left Minot the next morning, returning to St. Cloud. But before she did, she made me sign a sheet of paper that she could show our friends, a statement attesting to the fact that she’d defeated me at Trivial Pursuit.

The tale came to mind this morning for a couple of reasons. First, over the weekend, I saw a commercial for a new edition of Trivial Pursuit. Second, I was pondering what to post today, and just as my long-ago lady friend turned to Bob Dylan when in doubt, so do I turn to Richie Havens.

Havens’ Now, a 1991 release, was one of the first of his albums I got on CD, evidently finding it during a Saturday morning of visiting garage sales in the western suburbs of Minneapolis in August of 2002. Finding it reminded me that I had very little of Havens’ music in mp3 form (I had plenty of Havens’ work on vinyl, and I had a good turntable, but I was still some years from being able to convert vinyl to mp3s). So I began to haunt libraries and to check for Havens’ work at used music stores. I found a few things and began to build a library of Havens’ work that now numbers a hundred and seventy-four mp3s.

Now is a good album, if not quite to the level of some of the work Havens was doing twenty years earlier. Johanan Vigoda produced the CD, with several musicians creating the background tracks and getting co-production credits. For example, Tim Moore – the same one who wrote “Second Avenue”? I don’t know – is listed as composer of three songs and is credited for the music tracks and given a co-production credit on those recordings. Other music track and co-production credits went to Fuzbee Morse, David Grow and Nick Jameson.

Also credited are Gordon Barnes for guitar on two tracks, Stephen Parsons for drums on two tracks and Lee Howard for bass on one track.

Highlights? Well, the opener, a subtle reading of Jimi Hendrix’ “Angel,” stands out. I also like Haven’s work on Grow’s “After All These Years” and on “Let The Walls Fall Down,” written by Morse. And Havens also does a nice job with “Time After Time,” the Cyndi Lauper tune.

If there’s a flaw with the CD, it’s the reliance on drum machines. It makes the album sound too mechanical and not nearly as organic as one expects Havens’ work to be. Still, the voice – a classic – pretty much overcomes even that flaw. It’s not a great album, but it’s a good one.

Here are Havens’ liner notes for the album:

A moment sheared on both sides.
By the past and the future . . .
A second within which happens . . .
A billion things,
Yet is unperceivable in conscious memory . . .
A flash idea; a revelation; a miraculous change . . .
Never to return to that place again . . .

An increment of life seeking expression
As form-meaning-advancement . . .
Reversing Now (Won)
We can leave this world in The Rightful Hands
Those who know they’ll live on a planet
And have eyes that see no borders
In the eyes of others
Those who are living Now . . . The Children

You Are The One
That’s The Way I See You
After All These Years
Love Sometimes Says Goodbye
Message From The Doctor
Time After Time
You’re My Tomorrow
Let The Walls Fall Down
It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over

Richie Havens – Now [1991]

Saturday Singles Nos. 97, 98 & 99

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 18, 2008

In the Sixties, you had to choose.

Just like those in Chicago have to choose, for life, to support the Cubs or the White Sox in their pursuit of baseball’s fortunes, so in the Sixties did kids who liked music have to make a choice. They had to declare themselves fans of either the Temptations or the Four Tops.

Both groups were worthy: marvelous vocalists singing great songs from the Motown catalog, both backed more than ably by the group of studio musicians known as the Funk Brothers. The Temptations were a little smoother, maybe a little more subtle. The Four Tops came straight at you with a few rough edges, a little more insistence that you listen to what it was they had to say.

The key voice in that insistent sound is gone. Levi Stubbs, the Four Tops’ lead singer, died Friday, October 17, at his home in Detroit.

As I’ve noted before, I paid little attention to most of the world of Top 40 music during the 1960s, but like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, the Temptations and probably a few other performers, even a non-listener knew about the Four Tops. Their hits came rolling out of the radio that was always present when kids gathered so that even the uphip kid who preferred trumpet music knew about Levi Stubbs and his parters, knew about their great trio of 1966-67, when they released “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” followed by “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” which was in turn followed by the sublime “Bernadette.” All three of those made the Top Ten (as did four other Four Tops singles between the years 1964 and 1988), with “Reach Out” spending two weeks at No. 1, while “Standing” went to No. 6 and “Bernadette” going to No. 4.

No one asked me “Tempts or Tops?” back then, when I was barely a teenager and still holding onto my Al Hirt records, but had they, they might have been surprised at the rapidity and surety of my answer. The Four Tops, without a doubt. I liked what I heard from the Temptations; they sang to my heart.

But the Four Tops went for my soul. At thirteen, I couldn’t really know, but I could imagine what it might be like in those shadows of love (I would find out soon enough). I understood the need to be needed hidden in the offer when Levi and the others sang “Reach out! I’ll be there!” And if I didn’t know a Bernadette – never did, as a matter of fact – then I knew other girls on whom I thought my existence depended.

And the gorgeous strong voices telling those tales, led by Stubbs’ baritone, all laid onto a background that was pulsing and inventive – check out the woodwinds at the start of “Reach Out I’ll Be There” as just one small example – those strong voices made the stories told in those songs real, true and pertinent to the lives of kids all across America.

I tend to rely on “Bernadette” as my ultimate Four Tops single; writer Dave Marsh leans on “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Or at least, that was the highest-ranked Four Tops single when Marsh dissected the history of singles up through 1989 in The Heart of Rock & Soul. He placed “Reach Out I’ll Be There” in the fourth spot on that list, the highest-ranked of eight Four Tops record he placed among the 1,001 greatest singles.

After noting the record’s strengths – many of which can only be appreciated, Marsh says, by listening to the 45 instead of the LP or CD versions – Marsh writes, “Even Stubbs fans understand why his style can be too declamatory, but here, he’s undeniable, a man lost in a welter of misery, his shouts emerging from an abyss. The music is dizzying, the drums collide against every phrase he sings, but Levi soldiers on, riding out a maelstrom.”

And Levi soldiered on with the three other guys he’d met when they were all in high school: through a total of twenty-four Top 40 hits, seven of them in the Top Ten; through nearly thirty albums; and all the way to membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Age began to catch up on them. In 2005, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, the Tops’ bass singer died. And yesterday, Levi Stubbs crossed over. I imagine he’s singing to Bernadette again:

In you I have what other men long for.
All men need someone to worship and adore,
That’s why I treasure you and place you high above,
For the only joy in life is to be loved.
So whatever you do, Bernadette, keep on loving me,
Bernadette, keep on needing me,

I’ve never been sure who needs whom more in that song, a quandary not unknown in life. Levi Stubbs helped millions know what it was like to feel that way.

Here are those three Four Tops songs, today’s Saturday Singles:

“Reach Out I’ll Be There” [1966]

“Standing In the Shadows Of Love” [1966]

“Bernadette” [1967]