Archive for the ‘Life As She Is’ Category

Thanksgiving Tales

June 3, 2022

Originally posted November 25, 2009

Well, tomorrow morning, like millions of others here in the U.S., the Texas Gal and I – joined by my mother – will head off for Thanksgiving. In our case, we’ll be going to my sister’s home in the Twin Cities suburb of Maple Grove for turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Our contribution will be a plate of deviled eggs, a dish that’s become a holiday tradition for us since the Texas Gal first brought them along in 2000.

We missed Thanksgiving at my sister’s last year due to some health issues. And the plan to return there got me thinking about the various places I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving over the years.

For years – until I was out of  college, I think – we gathered at my grandparents’ home, first on their farm outside the small town of Lamberton, Minnesota, and then at their home in Lamberton itself. Sometime in the mid-1970s, after Grandma passed on, the Thanksgiving celebration shifted to my parents’ home here in St. Cloud. And after about twenty years there, the annual feast shifted venues again, and my sister and brother-in-law have hosted Thanksgiving since then.

Besides last year’s celebration, I can recall two other Thanksgivings that have found me in different places. In 1980, I think it was, the woman who was then my wife had the idea of hosting Thanksgiving in a restored 1860s cabin owned by friends of hers. We prepared the food in our own home and then moved the entire feast about two miles to the cabin. The food was fine, but the cabin was uncomfortably cold despite the presence of a fireplace. It was an interesting experiment, but I’d rather flip it: I’d be interested in using Nineteenth Century recipes and work from a modern kitchen.

The other Thanksgiving that found me in another place was during the time I spent in Denmark. The Danes don’t celebrate the holiday, of course, but my ladyfriend – another American – and I decided to cook a traditional American Thanksgiving meal for my Danish family and a few other students, both American and Danish.

There was no turkey for sale in Fredericia, so we made do with a couple of chickens. Potatoes were easy enough, as was flour for the gravy. Green beans amandine went well enough after a tussle with the Danish language. Not knowing where the nutcracker was, I looked up the word in my Danish/English dictionary and called my Danish mother at her office. Danish uses some sounds that are, well, foreign to English, so it took some time before she understood that I was trying to say nøddeknækker.

Beyond the linguistic difficulties, the main challenge of the day was the pumpkin pie. We could find neither canned pumpkin nor a fresh pumpkin in Fredericia. Luckily, my ladyfriend had made pumpkin pie from scratch with her mother, and she assured me that an orange winter squash would meet our needs. We cleaned it, cut it up and cooked it with the appropriate seasonings and then baked it in a homemade shell. As dinner came to a close that evening, our Danish guests were a bit puzzled by the pie, but our American guests marveled at how close we’d come to the Thanksgiving dessert they’d all had for years.

That may have been my most memorable Thanksgiving ever. Does that mean it was the best? Well, no. As the fourth Thursday of November comes along year after year, each Thanksgiving somehow seems better than the one before it . . . as long as I share that table with my loved ones, especially the Texas Gal.

A Six-Pack of Thanks
“Now Be Thankful” by Fairport Convention, Island WIP 6089 [1970]
“Thank You” by Led Zeppelin from Led Zeppelin II [1969]
“I Thank You” by Mongo Santamaria from All Strung Out [1969]
“Thank You For The Promises” by Gordon Lightfoot from Shadows [1982]
‘Thanks to You” by Jesse Winchester from Humour Me [1988]
“Be Thankful for What You Got (Pt. 1)” by William DeVaughn, Roxbury 0236 [1974]

Of these six, only the Fairport Convention tune really seems to fully address the sentiments of the holiday. The others generally work with only their titles; their content has at best only a glancing connection to the day. But that’s good enough for me.

The Texas Gal and I wish you a joyful Thanksgiving. May you all have many reasons to be thankful.

Blog Summit & Beer Spree II

June 3, 2022

Originally posted November 24, 2009

Last weekend was, from our perspective here in St. Cloud, an absolute success: jb of The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ and his Mrs., who normally hang their hats in Madison, Wisconsin, spent Saturday in St. Cloud, taking part in what jb styled on his Facebook page as the “Wisconsin-Minnesota Blog Summit and Beer Spree II: The Doppelbock Strikes Back.”

And there was beer. jb brought along three bottles each of two of the Madison area’s better brews, Capital Brewery’s Autumnal Fire doppelbock and the Ale Asylum’s Contorter Porter. Our refrigerator was already stocked with several bottles of Old Rasputin Imperial Russian Stout, a brew whose superlative qualities I’ve mentioned before, as well as several bottles of other fine beers. So we spent a few hours late Saturday afternoon quaffing some brew and munching on fine pizza.

But the main events of the day were two hockey games. The weekend visit was scheduled after jb noticed late last summer that both the women’s and men’s hockey teams from the University of Wisconsin would be in St. Cloud, taking on the St. Cloud State Huskies. We watched the women play in the afternoon, with St. Cloud taking a 4-2 decision, and after beer and pizza, went back to campus to watch the Badger men take a 4-1 game from St. Cloud. Both games were well-played, our seats were good, and if Bucky Badger took a 6-5 decision in total goals, well, those things happen.

There was of course, music talk and blogging talk throughout the day, which did last into the hour after midnight. In the early afternoon, we spent half an hour digging through the used CDs and LPs at the Electric Fetus in downtown St. Cloud, tossing the ensuing memories back and forth.

Before jb and the Mrs. headed off in the early Sunday hours to get some rest before their drive back home later that day, we all decided that Summit & Spree III will take place in February. That’s when the Texas Gal and I will spend a couple of days in Madison, poking around flea markets, antique stores, quilting stores and record emporiums; we’ll also see the St. Cloud State men’s hockey team face the Badgers again. We’re looking forward to it.

Trying to find a track to share with this post, I wandered through the songs that use “Saturday” in their titles. I eventually settled on “Every Night Is Saturday Night” from the late Jesse Ed Davis’ first solo album, Jesse Davis. While I think I’d get too tired if the song’s title were true, it’s nevertheless a great track, possibly the best on the record. (Davis had some good help.)

“Every Night Is Saturday Night” by Jesse Ed Davis from Jesse Davis [1971]

Bratwurst & Bennie

June 3, 2022

Originally posted November 17, 2009

As I’ve said before, one of the things I find fascinating about music it is its connection with memory: Some tunes, even the barest snippet, pull listeners back to a certain place, sometimes to a specific moment at that place.

Sometimes that place was important, sometimes the moment was. And sometimes, nothing about either seems significant at all. It’s just a musically triggered memory. One of those popped up the other day, as it sometimes will, when I heard Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” on the car radio.

There is, on St. Cloud’s North Side, a strip mall called Centennial Plaza. It went up in, oh, 1963 or so, and I think it was the second strip mall in the city. (For what it matters, it sits across the street from a residential development also named “Centennial,” which tells me that the development and the ensuing shopping center were planned in the late 1950s and named for the 1958 centennial of the State of Minnesota. I’d never thought of that before.) Its main tenant when it opened was a variety store called Grants, which sold the same sort of stuff as did the other dime stores of the day like Woolworth’s and S.S. Kresge. We didn’t shop there often, but when we did, I happily tagged along; the same old stuff seemed somehow different in a different store. In addition, a trip to Grants felt like an adventure: Centennial Plaza was on the north side, which was – in the mid-1960s – distant and unexplored territory. (An online mapping site tells me that the distance from our home on Kilian Boulevard to Centennial Plaza is 2.59 miles; it seemed much further than that in 1963.)

Along with Grants, one of the early tenants at Centennial Plaza was a tavern and restaurant that specialized in basic German food. In St. Cloud and the surrounding area, folks of German descent outnumbered any other ethnic group during the years I was growing up and still may do so. So the owners of the Bratwurst Haus were playing to their crowd, offering a multitude of sausages with sauerkraut and hot German potato salad, all washed down with beer. There were likely other dishes on the menu, but I don’t recall. The few times we went there, we ate bratwurst and kraut.

The Bratwurst Haus is long gone. I have no idea when it closed, but in its place is what appears to be a generic sports bar. One of the last times I went to the Bratwurst Haus was in the summer of 1974, when mom and I had lunch there with my sister, who was going to graduate school at St. Cloud State. I don’t recall what we ate – sausages and kraut and beer, most likely – but I do remember that another patron kept feeding the jukebox and playing “Bennie and the Jets.”

Now, that’s not anywhere near my favorite Elton John tune. If I were pressed, I’d nominate “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer” from among the hits, along with the album track “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” But to this day, it’s the most memorable: From the first fade-in of the applause and the chopping piano chords, “Bennie and the Jets” puts me face to face with bratwurst and beer. That’s not necessarily a bad place to be, but I just wish it were a song I liked better.

So I began rummaging through Sir Elton’s catalog to see if there were any songs I liked more than “Bennie” that had any kind of memory attached to them at all. The three favorites listed above triggered nothing. I cast my net wider and saw in the list “Take Me To The Pilot,” from the 1970 Elton John album. The only time I saw Elton John perform, that was the song that changed a good performance into a great one: Following a slower number, Elton stood up and kicked his piano bench back out the way. Leaning over the keyboard, he murmured into the microphone, “I love this song.” And then he launched into a kick-ass version of “Take Me To The Pilot.”

The memory’s not quite as indelible as that of the Bratwurst Haus, but it’s a far better song in my mind. And as I pondered “Take Me To The Pilot,” I wondered about cover versions. So I went looking. All-Music Guide lists fifty-one CDs that contain the song; about twenty-five of those are Elton John’s own versions.

Among the other performers listed as having recorded “Take Me To The Pilot” are Kiki Danielsson, José Feliciano, Tony Furtado, Ben E. King, Latimore, Enoch Light, Hugo Montenegro, Odetta and Rick Wakeman. That’s a pretty diverse list.

I have cover versions of “Take Me To The Pilot” by groups named Orange Bicycle and Joy Unlimited. Orange Bicycle, says AMG, was a British psych-pop group that released half a dozen singles during the late 1960s and then put out one album, a self-titled release of mostly covers (with some tracks produced by the great John Peel) in 1970. The group’s cover of “Take Me To The Pilot” is competent if a little bit plodding.

Joy Unlimited was a German pop rock group fronted by a singer named Joy Fleming. The one album the group released in 1970 had three titles, depending on where it was released. In Germany, it was called Overground, in the U.K., it was titled Turbulence and in the U.S., the LP was called simply Joy Unlimited. (I’ve tagged it as Overground.) AMG calls the group’s music “a competent amalgam of trends in American and British mainstream rock, pop, and soul, rather like the kind flashed by numerous bands emerging in neighboring Holland at the same time, like Shocking Blue.” Joy Unlimited’s version of “Take Me To The Pilot” is certainly more interesting, what with the punchy horn parts and other production filigree. I can do without the hypersonic shriek at the end though.

“Take Me To The Pilot” by Elton John from Elton John [1970]

“Take Me To The Pilot” by Orange Bicycle from The Orange Bicycle [1970]

“Take Me To The Pilot” by Joy Unlimited from Overground [1970]

Play Ball!

June 3, 2022

Originally posted November 13, 2009

It’s a busy day today, but it’s for a good reason.

Tomorrow, my long-time pals Rick, Rob and Dan come into St. Cloud for our fourth annual Strat-O-Matic baseball tournament. From mid-morning to early evening, we’ll laugh, tell stories, listen to a wide variety of tunes and play a little tabletop baseball along the way.

Once again, Rob is the defending champion. In last year’s tournament, his two-time champ, the 1922 St. Louis Browns, were knocked off in the first round. But he took his second team – the 1995 Colorado Rockies – to the title with a remarkable combination of lots of offense, some good bullpen management and lots of luck. (Even he acknowledges that last part.)

So Rick, Dan and I will try to keep Rob from winning a fourth straight title. For those who are interested, here are the teams that are in this year’s tournament. (For those uninterested, you can skip to the next paragraph.)

Rob: The defending champion 1995 Rockies and the 1922 New York Giants
Rick: The 1976 Phillies and the 1990 Athletics
Dan: The 1934 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1927 New York Yankees
Me: The 1948 Indians and the 1961 Cincinnati Reds

Whatever happens, the day of the annual tournament is one of the best days of the year for me, a chance to share my home and some very good times with my long-time friends. The Texas Gal puts up with the noise and the disruption with an amazing amount of grace. I imagine that our two annual tournaments (baseball in the autumn and hockey in spring) leave her feeling as if she’s the housemother in a fraternity house for graying sophomores.

Each spring and fall, as we plan our menu and the required grocery and liquor store trips, she’ll remind me of something and say, “That’s for the Saturday the boys are here, so make sure we have enough.”

We’ll have plenty of everything we need tomorrow, when the boys are back in town.

A Six-Pack of Boys
“The Boys Are Back In Town” by Thin Lizzy from Jailbreak [1976]
“Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” by Brownsville Station from Yeah! [1973]
“Boys in the Band” by Mountain from Climbing! [1970]
“The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley from Building the Perfect Beast [1984]
“One of the Boys” by Mott the Hoople from All The Young Dudes [1972]
“The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” by Traffic from The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys [1971

The most anthemic of these is the Thin Lizzy track (though Don Henley comes close). With its almost relentless guitar riffs, “The Boys Are Back In Town” dares you not to tap your feet or bob your head or pound out a rhythm on the steering wheel. And if you’re in the car, there’s no way you’re not going to turn the radio up all the way. The single was Thin Lizzy’s only hit, peaking at No. 12 during the summer of 1976. Oh, and that line about “drivin’ all the old men crazy”? It’s a little disquieting to realize that if I were anyone in the song these days, I’d be one of those old men.

I always thought Brownsville Station’s “Smoking in the Boys’ Room” was kind of a silly song, but then, it came along a little bit after I left high school and before there were hardly any anti-smoking regulations came to our college campus: Smoking was definitely allowed in school. But it moves along nicely, boogies a little bit, and it does have a hell of a hook. The single went to No. 3 during the winter of 1973-74.

Mountain’s “Boys in the Band” is a subtle track, almost delicate at moments, that seems to belie the band’s reputation for guitar excess. But the elegiac tone fits perfectly for a song that has its protagonist saying goodbye to his band and life on the road:

We play tunes today
Leaving memory of yesterday.
All the circles widen getting in the sun,
All the seasons spinning all the days one by one

The title of Don Henley’s album, Building the Perfect Beast, fits, because Henley darn near built the perfect pop song in “The Boys of Summer.” Backed on that track by a stellar quartet – Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, Steve Porcaro of Toto, studio pro Danny Kortchmar and bassist Larry Klein – Henley melds haunting music and literate and thoughtful lyrics into a cohesive whole. And you can tap your feet to it, too. (Or pound on the steering wheel, if you’re driving behind that Cadillac with the Grateful Dead sticker on it.) The single went to No. 5 during its fourteen weeks on in the Top 40 as 1984 turned into 1985.

Hey kids! Hear that odd sound at the beginning of Mott the Hoople’s “One of the Boys”? When we old farts talk about dialing a telephone, that’s what it sounded like. That’s an honest-to-god dial telephone. There are other positives to the song, too, of course: It’s a crunchy piece of rock, with its chords shimmering in the glam persona of Ian Hunter and his band, and it’s another opportunity to bruise your hands on the steering wheel.

On a Saturday sometime around 1975, I was sitting in the basement rec room, reading and listening to Traffic’s The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. I’d borrowed the album from someone – maybe Rick – and was trying to decide if I should shell out some of my own coin for my own copy. I liked what I heard and was thinking about heading downtown later in the day to buy the record. As the languid title track played, I heard the door at the top of the basement stairs open and I recognized my dad’s tread. Steve Winwood sang:

If you had just a minute to breath
And they granted you one final wish . . .

My dad, coming into the room, sang, “Would you wish for fish?”

And from that moment on, every time I’ve heard the song, I remember my dad being silly. I miss him.

Birth Of A Sports Fan

June 3, 2022

Originally posted November 11, 2009

I mentioned the other day my abiding love of sports. As strong as that affection is, it took a while to develop. While I’d enjoyed watching St. Cloud State football when I was quite young – nine or ten years old – I hadn’t had any great passion for sports at the time. We went as a family to St. Cloud State basketball games – the Huskies had a very good small college team for most of the 1960s – and went occasionally across town to see the local minor league baseball team, the St. Cloud Rox. (And given the history of granite quarrying in the St. Cloud area, that has to be one of the great team nicknames of all time!) I enjoyed all of it, but it wasn’t a focal point of my life.

I’ve never figured out why, but that changed in September 1967. One of the reflections of that change, of my new-found interest in sports and competition, was my request – granted rapidly – to subscribe to Sports Illustrated. The first edition I got showed Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals on the cover, as the Cardinals were facing the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. The writing was crisp and clear, the photos were remarkable, and the magazine covered a wide variety of sports, including some things that I’d never considered as sport: Dog shows, chess, yachting. I absorbed it all, and it fueled the metamorphosis in me from casual fan to informed fan.

Why write about that metamorphosis today? Because of a confluence of events and anniversaries.

A man named Earsell Mackbee died Monday in Vallejo, California, ten days after being transferred there on a medical plane from a hospital in Minneapolis. Vallejo was where Mackbee grew up, and gravely ill as he was, he wanted to die at home. He got his wish, through the help of friends and the help of his former colleagues in the National Football League.

Mackbee was a defensive back for the Minnesota Vikings for five years, from 1965 through 1969. As I was learning about pro football in the fall of 1967 – through Sports Illustrated and through the Minneapolis and St. Cloud evening papers – Mackbee’s name was one that I recognized. Most likely because it was a different name – I knew no kids named Earsell – and also, I would guess, because he played a position that occasionally put him in the spotlight, whether for a lapse that resulted in a big play for the opponent or for a good play that benefitted the Vikings. He wasn’t an anonymous lineman, and one heard his name relatively frequently while watching the Vikings on television.

So Mackbee’s name – he wore jersey No. 46, I think – was one that I knew on a chilly Sunday in November 1967 – forty-two years ago tomorrow – when my dad and I set out from St. Cloud to go see the Vikings play the Detroit Lions. The tickets were ridiculously cheap by today’s standard: Five dollars each. (It’s good to keep inflation in mind, though. An online calculator tells me that what cost five dollars in 1967 would now cost almost thirty-two dollars.) And Dad and I settled into our seats in the front row of the second deck.

The Vikings and the Lions tied that afternoon, 10-10. The Vikings’ only touchdown came when Earsell Mackbee picked up a fumble and returned it fifty-five yards. It was one of two touchdowns he scored during his NFL career.

That game against the Lions and Mackbee’s touchdown have crossed my mind occasionally over the past forty-two years, but the memories came back with a rush two weeks ago, when I saw in the Minneapolis newspaper the news story about Mackbee being flown to California to die. There was a twinge of sorrow, but even stronger – and I think Mackbee would have liked this – was a flash of memory, a vision of the purple-clad Earsell Mackbee carrying the ball into the end zone on a grey November day in 1967.

A Six-Pack from November 1967
“Incense and Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock
“Stag-O-Lee” by Wilson Pickett
“Tell Mama” by Etta James
“Lady Bird” by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood
“Like An Old Time Movie” by Scott McKenzie
“Desiree” by the Left Bank

“Incense & Peppermints,” as I’ve likely said here before, is one of those records that powerfully bring back a time and place: I’m in the gym at South Junior High in St. Cloud during the last few minutes of the lunch period, and the rest of the guys and I are watching the girls dance to the Strawberry Alarm Clock. I imagine I’ve posted the song before, too, but it’s such a good single, at least to these ears, that I can’t help myself. The record peaked at No. 1.

The Wilson Pickett record is one of multiple versions of a song that’s been sliding around America for more than a hundred years, titled as “Stagger Lee,” “Stag-O-Lee,” “Stacker Lee” and more. (The two earliest versions I have were recorded in 1927: “Billy Lyons & Stack O’Lee” by Furry Lewis and “Stackalee” by Frank Hutchinson.) Pickett’s version, which went to No. 22, is pretty good, but it’s difficult for any R&B performer to top the 1959 version by Lloyd Price. (There seems to be some confusion about the exact title of Pickett’s recording: the Billboard chart and All-Music Guide have the title as “Stagger Lee,” while Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits has it as “Stag-O-Lee.” I’ve gone with Whitburn.

Etta James’ “Tell Mama” came out of sessions that took place in Muscle Shoals in 1967 and 1968. Those sessions provided James with her last two Top 40 hits: “Tell Mama” went to No. 23, and the Otis Redding-penned “Security” went to No. 35 in the spring of 1968. “Tell Mama” is a hard-hitting piece of Southern soul, and the entire Tell Mama album is worth a listen or two. (The album was released a few years ago in a remastered version with ten additional tracks from the sessions.)

“Lady Bird” is one of those odd and evocative singles that Lee Hazelwood wrote and produced for Nancy Sinatra, sometimes – as in this case – singing on the record as well. Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear one of those Hazelwood-produced records, it’s like being for a few moments in a mildly alternate universe: Things are just a little off-kilter but they still seem to all somehow make sense. It’s an interesting place to be for a short time. The record went to No. 20.

When a singer’s previous record was “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” what the heck do you do for a follow-up? In the case of Scott McKenzie, you go back into the studio with John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and record another one of Phillips’ songs. “Like An Old Time Movie” was the result, and it’s not a bad single. It’s got a decent lyric although McKenzie oversings it at points. It got to No. 24, and, as McKenzie’s second hit, it’s the only thing keeping him from being a One-Hit Wonder, as he never got into the Top 40 again.

“Desiree” was another attempt by the Left Bank to replicate the success of the group’s 1966 hit, “Walk Away Renee.” It’s not bad, but the vocals sound thin at times, especially given the busy backing they have to contend with. The record was newly listed in the November 11, 1967, Billboard as one of the songs bubbling under the Hot 100. By the next week, it was gone.

(I think these are all the single versions and I’ve tagged them as such, but I’m frankly not sure: Some of these might be album tracks. Whichever they are, the single versions were all in the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending November 11, 1967.)

‘At Manager, No. 14 . . .’

June 3, 2022

Originally posted November 6, 2009

Despite my love of sports, I’ve never been an athlete. But thirty-nine years ago today, I wore a jersey as a member of a team for the only time in my life.

It was the last week of the football season at St. Cloud Tech. I was a manager, and I think we were all glad the season was coming to a close. It hadn’t been a good year: We were 2-6 heading into our final game. That was quite a come-down from 1969, when we were 6-3 and ended up ranked No. 9 in the state. (A three-loss team in the Top Ten? That was because we played a tough independent schedule, and our losses were to the top three teams in the state.)

There was a good reason that we’d not had a good season, though. That fall, St. Cloud had opened its second high school, Apollo High School, over on the north side. And when the kids from the north side went off to become the Eagles, about half of the underclassmen from the previous year’s team were among them. There was no way we were going to be as good as we had been or as good as we could have been, had we stayed one school. Things were no better across town at Apollo; the Eagles were 2-5 as the end of the season approached.

The Eagles’ difficulties, though, weren’t our concern. As the season had progressed, we’d kept up with our former teammates and their performances, and I assume that they kept an eye on how we were doing. We weren’t happy with their poor season, but we were pleased that they were doing no better than we were. And during that final week, we cared not one bit about their difficulties because our final game was against those same Eagles. It would be the first football game ever between St. Cloud’s two public high schools.

(One of the oddities of the split between the two high schools was where the boundary line between the two schools was drawn. On the East Side, the line was drawn at the north end of Kilian Boulevard, a block away from our house. It happened to fall right in the middle of the attendance area for Lincoln Elementary, and that meant that a number of kids I’d been in school with since first grade went to Apollo. Had the line been drawn only a little further south, I’d have gone to Apollo; I was relieved to stay at Tech.)

One of the long-standing traditions at Tech was that, on the day of a game or a meet, varsity athletes wore dress shirts, ties and sport coats to school. As a manager of the football team for two years and the wrestling team for three years, I did the same. But as our final week of practice came to a close and we gathered for a meeting Thursday afternoon, the captains had a question for the coaches: Since it’s our last game, and the first ever against Apollo, can we wear our jerseys during the school day on Friday instead of coats and ties?

The coaches looked at each other and thought for a second, then nodded. We left the meeting room, and as we headed for the locker room, I wondered how out of place I was going to look in school the next day. I didn’t have a jersey.

I pondered that as I went over our supplies in the training room, making sure everything was packed into the kits we’d haul to Clark Field, a block away, the next evening:  Bandages, various sprays, a couple of cleat cleaners and cleat wrenches, lots of tape and all the other things that we managers were responsible for. Well, I thought, as I packed the tape, I’ll just wear a coat and tie.

As I finished packing and was about to head out of the training room, certain that Dad was already waiting in the parking lot, one of the other seniors on the team, Scott, poked his head into the room. “So what are you gonna wear tomorrow?”

I shrugged. “A coat and tie, I guess.”

He shook his head. “C’mon,” he said, motioning with his hand as he walked through the locker room. I followed him to the equipment room, where Scott addressed the equipment manager, Mr. Kerr. “We need a jersey here,” Scott told him. “What can you do?”

Mr. Kerr pulled a jersey from the shelf and tossed it to me. Number 14. I pulled it on. I was of slight build, and the jersey was cut for shoulder pads, of course, so it hung on me like a large orange, black and white curtain. But it was, right then, my jersey. “There you go,” Scott said, as we walked back toward the training room.

I wore the jersey to school the next day, of course, and on the sidelines during the game that Friday evening. We beat Apollo fairly handily (a score of 26-14 pops into my memory, but I’m not certain) and crowded back into our locker room, happy to have ended the season with a victory. The next Monday, I handed the jersey to Mr. Kerr. I learned later that many of my fellow seniors had neglected to return their jerseys, eventually paying something like $25 for their “lost” jerseys. I wish I’d done the same.

A Six-Pack From Late Autumn 1970
“Let’s Work Together” by Canned Heat from Future Blues
“When You Get Right Down To It” by the Delfonics, Philly Groove 163
“Easy Rider (Let The Wind Pay The Way)” by Iron Butterfly from Metamorphosis
“Games” by Redeye from Redeye
“Too Many People” by Cold Blood from Sisyphus
“Who Needs Ya” by Steppenwolf from Seven

Bonus Track
“St. Cloud Tech School Song” by the Tech High School Band

During the week that we kicked off the Tech-Apollo football rivalry, six of the titles above were listed in the Billboard Hot 100. (See the note below regarding singles vs. album tracks.) There was one nice slice of Philly soul, one light rocker with some nice vocal harmony (Redeye’s “Games”) and four bits of fairly tough bluesy rock. I recall hearing “Let’s Work Together” once or twice and being intrigued, but I doubt that I heard the other five. Why not?

Well, only two of these six titles made it into the Top 40, which was guiding my listening: “Let’s Work Together” went to No. 26, and “Games” reached No. 27. During the week in question, the one that ended Saturday, November 7, 1970, these titles were strewn mostly in the lower levels of the Hot 100:

“Let’s Work Together” was already in the Top 40, sitting at No. 33. The Delfonics tune was at No. 56 after peaking at No. 53 two weeks earlier. Iron Butterfly’s “Easy Rider (Let The Wind Pay The Way)” would peak at No. 66 two weeks later. (I never paid much attention to Iron Butterfly after buying and quickly selling the group’s live album way back when, but I have to note that “Easy Rider” is a better and more interesting record than I expected it to be; it had been languishing, ignored, in my files with the rest of the Metamorphosis album for a while.) Redeye’s “Games,” on its way to its peak of No. 27, was in the Hot 100 for the first time and was sitting at No. 90.

Cold Blood’s “Too Many People” was in the “Bubbling Under the Top 100” section and had moved up one slot from No. 108 to No. 107. It would be gone when the next chart came out a week later. And Steppenwolf’s “Who Needs Ya” – a typical but fun Steppenwolf boogiefest – was in its first week in the “Bubbling Under” section, sitting at No. 119.  It would peak at No. 54 five weeks later.

As I was planning this post – I do plan sometimes – I called Gary Zwack, the current band director at St. Cloud Tech, and asked about a copy of the school song. He emailed it to me, and as I heard the song for the first time in what must be thirty-five years, I remembered all the words:

March straight on, Old Tech High
To fame and honor great.
The glory of our colors
We’ll never let abate.
We’re with you!
March straight on, Old Tech High!
Be loyal to her name.
Fight gallantly for dear old Tech
And all her worthy fame.

Gary added a note, telling me that the music for the song was written in 1931 by Erwin Hertz, who was Tech’s band director at the time. I wrote back, telling Gary that in 1964, I took my first lessons on cornet from Erwin Hertz, who was very close to retiring. Thanks for the help, Gary.

Note:
In five of the six cases, I’ve tagged the mp3s as coming from the various albums, as I’m uncertain whether the mp3 offered here is the single version. The only one I am sure of is the Delfonics’ tune.

I am nearly certain that the single that Cold Blood released was edited significantly, as the running times – 4:05 on the album version I have and 2:52 on photos I’ve seen of the single (San Francisco 62) – are so far apart. Redeye’s “Games” is not (as I erroneously reported originally) the same length on the single (Pentagram 204) as it is on the album, and Iron Butterfly’s 45 (Atco 6782) is timed at 3:05 while the mp3 runs 3:06, so I think those were the same, but I’m not sure.

As to the Steppenwolf and Canned Heat tracks: The running times I’ve seen on photos of those singles – Dunhill 4261 and Liberty 56151, respectively – are relatively close to those of these album tracks. That leaves me wondering if the singles and the album tracks were the same but the times were listed differently, as was often the case. But I don’t know.

Tracing The Past

June 3, 2022

Originally posted November 3, 2009

Rob stopped by as Sunday afternoon slid toward Sunday evening; he’d been raking leaves at the house where he grew up, a house now on the market. We sipped a few beers and watched the end of the Vikings game, then retired to the study to dig lightly into the history of African American music.

At his exurban high school this semester, he’s teaching an American Literature course that includes the Mark Twain novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That’s a book that is, of course, revered by many as a legitimate candidate for the accolade of The Great American Novel and reviled by maybe just as many for its non-standard English, its Nineteenth Century stereotypes and its frequent use of a word I won’t use here. These days, we call it the N-word, and it’s one of the two most incendiary words in the English language. (You likely know the other: It starts with a “c” and in an Old English spelling, it was used by Chaucer.)

Rob thought his students might be interested in the development of African American music from the time of the story into the late Twentieth Century, so we dug around in my audio files. Among the goodies we found were a work gang chant from a Texas prison farm, probably recorded around 1939 but most likely hearkening back in origin to the late 1800s and possibly as far back as the days of slavery. We also found “Linin’ Track,” an adaptation of a railroad work call that blues musician Taj Mahal included on his album De Ole Folks At Home in 1969.

He’d listened at home to the spiritually based blues of Son House (who sang and recorded plenty of earthy music, too) and Blind Willie Johnson, and he knew that, in a general sense, Robert Johnson came next. I cued up Sippie Wallace’s “Mighty Tight Woman,” a jazz-blues piece from 1929, illustrating what many urban African-Americans were listening to at about the same time as House and the two Johnsons were performing and recording their rural blues.

That’s a vast simplification, of course, but we were talking about squeezing more than a century of musical development into a brief class hour. I pointed out that, like many things that we try to analyze, the history of African American music turns back on itself over and over again, and the twists and turns are difficult to trace. I further pointed out that I am a fan, not a historian, so he – like my readers – needed to use my ramblings as a starting point, not a finishing point.

Rob’s head was spinning as we sampled a bit of post-World War II jump blues and R&B and then some of the Chicago blues developed by Delta refugees Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and others. We talked of Ray Charles and the development of soul music. Eventually, we got from the 1950s into the 1960s, stopping off at Fats Domino and Little Richard, looking at how they influenced the musicians who came along in the 1960s, using the Beatles as one of the main examples.

And then we doubled back to Elvis Presley, recalling the (possibly apocryphal) statement ascribed to producer Sam Phillips about hitting it big if he could find a white singer who sang black. And I played Elvis’ version of “That’s All Right,” released in 1954. To our ears these days, it’s a rockabilly sound, distant from blues and from rock ’n’ roll. I cued up the original version of “That’s All Right,” recorded in 1946 by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Much different than the blues that Crudup frequently recorded, the song contains vocal inflections that Presley had to have heard, as they show up eight years later in his recording of the classic tune.

Then, just for fun, I jumped ahead more than forty years, to a recording of “That’s All Right, Mama,” released by Paul McCartney on his 1988 album released in the Soviet Union, Снова в СССР. The echoes of Elvis and Arthur Crudup were clear. And echoes were what were listening for.

“That’s All Right” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Victor 20-2205 [1946]

“That’s All Right” by Elvis Presley, Sun 209 [1954]

“That’s All Right, Mama” by Paul McCartney from Снова в СССР [1988]

Note:
I’ve also seen the title of Crudup’s version of the song listed as “That’s All Right, Mama,” and I’ve seen the catalog number listed as RCA Victor 20-2205. My source for the title and catalog number is the notes to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup: Rock Me Mamma, the seventh volume in a thirteen-volume collection issued between 2002 and 2004 by BMG on its RCA Victor and Bluebird labels. The CD series – released under the general title When The Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock & Roll – is a treasure trove of vintage recordings that paved the way to rock ’n’ roll. I got my set one at a time four years ago and had to scramble to find a couple of them. Anyone interested in the origins of the music we listen to and love would enjoy the set.

Saturday Single No. 158

June 1, 2022

Originally posted October 31, 2009

There are once again three bridges funneling traffic across the Mississippi River here in St. Cloud, as there have been for most of my life.

There were, however, only two here when I was born: The bridge connecting St. Germain Street, St. Cloud’s main street, with East St. Germain Street; and the Tenth Street Bridge, which crossed the river near what was then St. Cloud State Teachers College. They were old already, the St. Germain Bridge having been built in 1894 and the Tenth Street Bridge – barely two vehicles wide by the time the larger cars of the 1950s rolled around – having gone up in 1892, connecting Tenth Street on the west bank with the east side’s Michigan Avenue.

I don’t recall that those two bridges had names other than the functional labels of St. Germain Bridge and Tenth Street Bridge. It seems, however, that one of the major concerns of public works in the last half-century has been that those works be named. Thus, the 1970 replacement for the St. Germain Bridge was Veterans Bridge. (To be fair, “St. Germain Bridge” would not have worked for the new span, as the alignment was changed and the bridge connected East St. Germain Street with First Street North.) And when the Tenth Street Bridge was demolished in the mid-1980s, its taller and graceful replacement was reasonably tagged University Bridge.

Neither of those names is awful. It’s just that, as a culture, we seem to invest a great deal more time these days deciding what to call something than seems to really be required. Let’s build it, slap a functional name on it and move to the next thing. But in the mid-twentieth century, the folks responsible for building and naming a new bridge through St. Cloud, well, they got stupid.

The new bridge was part of State Highway 23, which sliced through old neighborhoods in St. Cloud and then headed northeast to Duluth and southwest to the prairie. I don’t remember the old neighborhoods on the west side of town; the project took place between 1957 and 1959, starting when I was three. But the project included a bridge across the river located about a block from the apartment building where we were living as 1957 began, and I vaguely remember Dad going outside and taking pictures. (He evidently returned several times to take pictures of the progress; we’ve found boxes of slides showing the bridge and the project near completion, views that had to be taken after we moved about six blocks to the house on Kilian Boulevard.)

At any rate, when the Highway 23 bridge was completed, it needed – absolutely had to have – a name. I have no idea who came up with the idea, but he (in the late 1950s, it was almost certainly a man) ought to be the charter inductee into the Lame Bridge Name Hall of Fame. The city and state leaders dubbed the new span the DeSoto Bridge, in honor of Hernando DeSoto, supposedly the first European to see the Mississippi River.

It turns out that Ol’ Hernando did in fact see the river in May of 1541. Was he the first European to do so? Wikipedia says, “It is unclear whether he, as it is claimed, was the first European to see the great river. However, his expedition is the first to be documented in official reports as seeing the river.” But there is a problem with commemorating DeSoto’s achievement by naming a St. Cloud bridge for him: DeSoto came upon the Mississippi very near what is now the city of Memphis, Tennessee, about nine hundred miles south of here. Ol’ Hernando had nothing at all to do with the portion of North America that became Minnesota, except for the very thin idea that the water he saw there had once flowed through here (and I doubt that anyone – even the dimwit who proposed the name – offered that as justification).

As stupid as the name was, not a lot of people paid attention. Oh, there was a nice monument on the west side of the bridge, with a carved portrait of what DeSoto might have looked like. And newspapers reporters and various governmental officials had to pay attention, as in: “The parade will cross the DeSoto Bridge and turn south on Wilson Avenue . . .”

But for the most part, through the 1960s, we all simply called it “the new bridge.” When the city’s two older bridges were replaced with the Veterans Bridge and later the University Bridge, “the new bridge” didn’t work so well. So what had been the new bridge was referred to as the Highway 23 Bridge (or the Division Street Bridge, which was not quite accurate, as Highway 23 doesn’t run along Division Street until some distance west of the river).  I honestly don’t recall ever hearing a non-official or non-reporter refer to the 1959 bridge as the DeSoto Bridge.

The DeSoto Bridge is gone now. After the Interstate Highway 35W Bridge in Minneapolis groaned and fell into the river on an August afternoon in 2007, every bridge of similar design in Minnesota – and likely elsewhere – was inspected. And the DeSoto Bridge was discovered to have a structural anomaly – bowing gusset plates – similar to that thought to have been responsible for the failure of the Minneapolis bridge. It was closed (shortly after the Minneapolis disaster, I think, but I can’t find a date for that) and then demolished in March 2008, and highway officials put up a new bridge in what seems a pretty speedy eighteen months.

That new bridge opened two days ago, and motorists through the region no doubt are all pleased, as the city and the area have become way too populous to manage traffic with two bridges, as we’ve done for two years now. So that’s a relief. But what do we call it? Well, the newest bridge has been dubbed, in an excess of excess, the Granite City Crossing. I’m pretty sure that’s another name that will never find its way into the day-to-day language here in Central Minnesota. I’m guessing that for a long, long time, that bridge will be simply “the new bridge.”

So that’s a little more than a century of bridges in St. Cloud, six bridges from 1892 to 2009. But wait! There’s also a railroad trestle in town, built in 1872. There’s little traffic on the trestle, just trains operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and the occasional fools who cross the tall bridge on a dare or in a drunken state.

But it is a bridge, and that makes seven, so here’s today’s Saturday Single:

“Seven Bridges Road” by Steve Young from Seven Bridges Road [1971]

Quiet Time In ’89

June 1, 2022

Originally posted October 29, 2009

The autumn of 1989 – twenty years ago – was a quiet one. I’d landed in Anoka, Minnesota, a town about twenty miles north of Minneapolis, after my two mostly unhappy years on the North Dakota prairie. I wasn’t in Anoka long, just a little more than ten months, but it was a good place to recharge my batteries and decide in which direction to go next.

I did a little bit of teaching at a nearby community college and spent half of my time working for a newspaper chain, reporting for a paper that covered the small towns of Champlin and Dayton. (Champlin has grown into a good-sized suburb in the twenty years since; Dayton is far more rural and has grown, too, but not as rapidly.) After one quarter of teaching, I left the community college and worked full-time for the newspaper chain, reporting and taking care of special projects.

It was a pleasant, undemanding time, which was exactly what I needed. Those months were made more pleasant by weekly visits from a lady friend from St. Cloud, who would stop by on Wednesdays for dinner on her way to teach a course at the same community college. I’m a pretty decent cook, and Wednesdays were my favorite day of the week during that time, what with the regular visits to the butcher shop and the bakery and the chance to cook for someone other than myself. We generally had chicken or fish although I do recall trying my wild rice and turkey curry – a favorite of mine – for the first time. Those weekly dinners were among the highlights of my life in Anoka.

We always had music playing, sometimes the radio but usually records on the stereo, and here are a few tracks from that year, some of which we might actually have heard while eating dinner.

A Mostly Random Six-Pack from 1989
“Texas” by Chris Rea from The Road to Hell
“Where’ve You Been” by Kathy Mattea, Mercury 876262
“Vanessa” by Alex Taylor from Voodoo In Me
“Have A Heart” by Bonnie Raitt from Nick of Time
“No One” by the BoDeans from Home
“Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls from The Indigo Girls

“Texas” is a moody piece from a moodier album. I recall hearing “Texas” when the album was released; it got a lot of play on Cities 97, which was my radio station of choice during my months in Anoka. The Road to Hell and another Rea album from about the same era, 1991’s Auberge, remain among my favorites.

“Where’ve You Been,” a story song about soulmates, was pulled from Mattea’s Willow in the Wind album. I very well could have heard it on Cities 97, but I’m not sure. I wasn’t listening to a lot of country radio at the time, though, so that’s not the answer. I do know I heard it frequently during my months in Anoka, as the story resonated with me. And it’s a beautiful song: The next year, it won Don Henry and Jon Vezner a Grammy for Best Country Song, and Mattea walked away with a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

I know I never heard Alex Taylor during those dinners in the autumn of 1989, because his work was something I didn’t discover until years after it was recorded and years after he died in 1993. “Vanessa” is a fine piece of bluesy rock, as was the entire Voodoo in Me album, which turned out to be Taylor’s fifth and last released album. Taylor, whose siblings were James, Livingston and Kate, also recorded and released With Friends & Neighbors (1971), Dinnertime (1972), Third for Music (1974) and Dancing With the Devil (1989). I’ve heard them all but Third for Music. Anyone out there got a line on it?

The story of Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time is one of the great tales: A failed album in 1986 (Nine Lives), followed by work with producer Don Was, leading to a handful of Grammys, including the award for Album of the Year. As to “Have a Heart,” as a single, it went to No. 3 on the Adult Contemporary chart and to No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The little note that pops up on the RealPlayer whenever I hear a tune by the BoDeans says, “The very definition of heartland music, the BoDeans’ rootsy pop rock is a cross between the Replacements and Tom Petty.” I suppose that’s not a bad description, but like most capsule characterizations, it skips the subtleties entirely. You actually have to listen to the music for those, and although I didn’t listen much back then, I do now, and like the work of the boys from Waukesha, Wisconsin, pretty well.

I’ve told the tale before, in another venue: I was sitting in a restaurant in Edina, Minnesota, during the late summer of 1989 when I heard a pair of young women in the next booth discussing the best new group they’d heard in a long time: The Indigo Girls. I jotted a note to myself, finished my lunch and then drove to a nearby record store and bought The Indigo Girls on LP. For twenty years, ever since the moment I heard the opening strains of “Closer to Fine,” the Indigo Girls have been among my favorite performers and The Indigo Girls has been one of my favorite albums.

Autumn At Its Peak

June 1, 2022

Originally posted October 27, 2009

I spent three autumns – those of 1983, 1984 and 1990 – in Columbia, Missouri, a city just far enough south that autumn is a beautiful and lengthy season, warm and colorful into November. There was no sense of impending chill, for the most part, but then Missouri is far enough south that in normal years, the oncoming winter is neither overly chilly nor markedly drear. It was as if the beauty of autumn came free, a season of change and color and mellow mood for which no winter payment was demanded.

In Minnesota, I think, autumn is viewed in two ways. (I imagine there are those who don’t spend any time thinking about the meaning of autumn or of any of the seasons; I do not understand such folk, and I pity them.) Autumn to some of us is a borrowed joy, a season of oranges, reds and browns tinged with enough melancholy to make it pleasant, a pageant of waning sunlight and cool air for which we pay during the long Northland winter.

Or else autumn is a gift of nature, a bonus time of sunlit afternoons and chill, misty mornings, the seasonal equivalent of a two-minute warning, with Nature telling us that our temperate times are soon to end and if we have things to accomplish, we best do them today: Rake the lawn, clean the gutters, gaze at the long Vs of geese heading south, and then look at the half-moon attended by Jupiter and feel the chill of the breeze from the north.

So which is it? Do we borrow autumn’s subtle spectacle and pay for it later, when the wind carries the empty chill of Arctic air instead of the scent of brown and gold leaves? Or is autumn a gift, a season of time passing that levies no obligation but to cherish it?

I think the season may be both gift and obligation at the same time. If autumn does have a price, though, it’s not just winter’s winds. I think that price is closely related to the weight of autumns gone by. The season is my favorite, and as I wander through my fifty-seventh autumn, I carry with me much of what transpired in those previous fifty-six autumnal seasons. This is not heavy baggage; it’s a backpack’s worth at most. And not all of the memories stuffed into the backpack are sad ones: This week, for instance, brings the Texas Gal and me the joy of the second anniversary of our wedding. Last week, I realized that my father would have turned ninety, were he still among us. That’s he’s not is a sorrow; that he was here for so many years, until he was eighty-three, was a joy, and both of those thoughts, too, belong in the autumnal backpack.

When rummaging through that backpack, one does find years when autumn was a series of troubles, but one also finds years when autumn was one bit of joy following another for months. When those troubles and joys come in consecutive years, their impact is huge, even though more than thirty years have passed. As autumn began in 1974, I was still recovering from the lung ailment that had taken most of my summer away. In late September, my father had a heart attack, one from which he fully recovered, but we had no way to know at the time. And a month later came a horrific traffic accident in which I was badly injured and lost a dear friend. For a long time, the only thing I knew about the future was that it would arrive and would eventually bring another autumn. Whether that next autumn would be better was not something I was willing to assume.

It was better. If there is a shining season during the years I spent on the campus of St. Cloud State, it is the autumn of 1975. Dad was healthy, I was healthy. My classes – the last I’d take on campus before my internship and graduation – fascinated me, and two of them were instrumental in my learning to be a writer. I still spent a great deal of time at The Table in the student union, though as some folks had graduated, the cast of characters was evolving. I was also spending a lot of time with my pal Murl, whom I’d met that summer.

It was a golden time, one that seems more rich in memory with each passing year. But there were concrete reasons for that sense of goodness: Hope and renewal found me for the first time in a year. (That healing was a process, of course, and had started some seasons earlier, but it was during that autumn of 1975 that I truly began to feel mended.) My smile returned. And all around me – my home, my car, the student union, downtown bars and everywhere else – music was a friend once more, instead of a reminder of loss. And here are some of the friends I heard.

A Six-Pack From A Golden Autumn (1975)
“Miracles” by Jefferson Starship from Red Octopus
“Dance With Me” by Orleans, Asylum 456261
“Sky High” by Jigsaw from Sky High
“At Seventeen” by Janis Ian from Watercolors
“My Little Town” by Simon & Garfunkel, Columbia 10230
“SOS” by ABBA, Atlantic 3265

None of these, of course, are anything near obscure, but there are a couple of them that don’t get aired all that frequently on oldies radio. I heard the intro to “Miracles” on the radio the other day while I was out on some errands; it was the first time in a long time I’d heard the song on the radio, I thought. I ended up taking a longer path home than normal, just to hear the whole thing.

Along with “Miracles,” I think that “Sky High” and “At Seventeen” are also a little bit ignored and maybe forgotten, which is too bad. All six of these did well on the charts, with five of them hitting the Top Ten: An edit of “Miracles” went to No. 3; “Dance With Me” topped at No. 6; “Sky High” went to No. 3; “At Seventeen” also reached No. 3, “My Little Town” got as high as No. 9; and “SOS” peaked at No. 15.

These records aren’t necessarily the best sounds from the autumn of 1975, but they are among the ones that come to mind most quickly when I think of that season. More to the point, when I hear any of them, I am reminded of the healing golden-orange light of the autumn of 1975 and the renewal I felt all through that season. And I think two of them would make my all-time jukebox (a mental exercise at this point, but perhaps the basis for a series of posts in the future): “Miracles” and “Dance With Me.”

(I think that the three I’ve tagged as singles – the ABBA, the Simon & Garfunkel and the Orleans – are in fact the single edits, but I’m not anywhere near certain about that. Information to the contrary would be appreciated.)