Originally posted August 29, 2007
Autumn approaches. Day by day, the signs accumulate: geese honking their ways across the sky in great V’s; the first tree on the boulevard abandoning its green cover for dusty brown or perhaps orange; and the slight chill hanging in the morning air, accompanied sometimes with a thin haze of fog in the low places.
There are other signs, less tied with nature’s hike toward the season: I drove past one of the three St. Cloud high schools the other afternoon, and the warming air there was filled with the demands of coaches and the grunted responses of athletes in pads as the football team went through its workout. And even more prosaically, the newspaper supplements have been filled for weeks already with advertising for back to school sales and promotions.
My junior year of high school began on a football field, although a different one than the one I drove past the other day. I was at the practice area next to Clark Field, home of the Tech Tigers. I wasn’t a player – my frame was too slight and my pace too slow. Rather, I was a manager, lugging a primitive medical kit between the field and the school a block away, tending to minor injuries, gathering and packing away loose footballs during and after practices, and running errands for the coaches.
And like the players and the three other managers, I hung around the locker room and the training room between and after practices. (This was not today’s complex weight training room but rather a small room with three tables, a tall medicine cabinet, an old refrigerator and a primitive whirlpool bath.) We’d trade jokes and stories –many of them vulgar and tasteless, of course – and listen to the radio, always tuned to KDWB, one of the two Twin Cities stations devoted to airing the Top 40.
In any one hour, we might hear “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies, “Lay, Lady, Lay” by Bob Dylan, “Grazing in the Grass” from the Friends of Distinction,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion” from Tommy James and the Shondells,” Tony Joe White’s “Poke Salad Annie,” Zager & Evans’ “In the Year 2525” and two of the Beatles’ trio of “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”
And there was one song that we in Minnesota heard far more than listeners anywhere in the country did: “Pain” by the Mystics, a Twin Cities group also known as Michael’s Mystics. The song was No. 1 for two weeks in mid-August on KDWB’s Top 40 chart. It was a great summer for radio, and a great time to turn sixteen, which I did the Friday of the first week of school.
The beginning of a school year was always a time of great hopes: the hope that I’d like all my classes and teachers; the hope that I would find a place to fit in, a group of kids with whom I had some connection beyond sharing the same crowded hallways; the hope that the football team would succeed and that for the first time I would be able to feel like a part of that success; and the hope – this one a long-recurring wish – that I might find a young lady with whom to spend sweet time.
Well, the football team went 6-3 and wound up being ranked ninth in the state by the Minneapolis Tribune. As there were no playoffs, the newspaper’s ranking was all we had to strive for, especially since we were not a member of any conference and played an independent schedule. We took some pride in the fact that our three losses were to the teams the newspaper ranked first, second and third in the state: the suburban powerhouse Edina Hornets, the Austin Packers from near the Iowa border, and the Moorhead Spuds from the Red River Valley in the far northwest.
My classes and teachers were fine, although I struggled with third-year French. I never really did find that group of kids I sought. I spent some time hanging around in the locker room with the football team and – during winter – the wrestlers, for whom I was a second-year manager, and I also spent time with students who focused on music, as I was in the orchestra and the concert choir. I never did find a place, really.
Nor did I find that young lady. But several of the young women I knew became good friends, which in the long term is worth a great deal. At the age of sixteen, however, it’s difficult to think about anything other than the short term.
One fine moment of the year came in mid-September, when the first dance of the year had live music, provided by the Mystics. With my pal Mike – also a football manager – I hitched a ride from Tech to the dance at the old Central School, where we hung around the edges of the dance floor, listening to the music and watching the dancers. We didn’t dance a step all evening, but the Mystics were pretty good, and we got to hear their hit, the first time for either one of us to hear a band perform a Top 40 hit live.
And that’s where we’ll start this Baker’s Dozen for 1969.
“Pain” by the Mystics, Metromedia single 130
“Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Stills & Nash from Crosby, Stills & Nash
“Where’s the Playground, Susie?” by Glen Campbell, Capitol single 2494
“To Be Alone With You” by Bob Dylan from Nashville Skyline
“Love and a Yellow Rose” by the Guess Who from Wheatfield Soul
“More and More” by Blood, Sweat & Tears from Blood, Sweat & Tears
“All Along The Watchtower” by Brewer & Shipley from Weeds
“Joker (On A Trip Through The Jungle)” by Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band from In The Jungle, Babe
“Woman” by Zager & Evans from In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)
“Nobody” by Three Dog Night from Captured Live At The Forum
“Nitty Gritty” by Gladys Knight & the Pips, Soul single 35063
“Cherry Hill Park” by Billy Joe Royal, Columbia single 44902
“London Bridge” by Bread from Bread
A few notes on some of the songs:
One can argue which version of “Wooden Ships” is better, this one from Crosby, Stills & Nash or the version released later the same year on Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers album. (David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane wrote the song.) The CS&N version is a little more sleek and polished, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a compliment here. Nevertheless, both recordings of this enduring song are worth hearing.
When folks talk about Glen Campbell’s hits, they often forget about “Where’s The Playground, Susie?” and that’s too bad. It’s a fine performance of another Jimmy Webb song. It likely gets ignored because it only reached No. 26 on the pop chart, rather than climbing into the Top 10, as had “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” Campbell’s previous two releases to reach the Top 40.
“Love and a Yellow Rose” is a Guess Who album track that sprawls and wanders through simulations of Indian ragas, Gregorian chant (I think), standard pop rock and the kind of silly declamatory stuff that lead singer Burton Cummings was prone to (when he wasn’t writing hit singles, that is). As odd as “Love and a Yellow Rose” is, it’s not the strangest track on the album; that honor goes to the even sillier “Friends of Mine,” in which Cummings channels the still-living Jim Morrison.
“Joker (On A Trip Through The Jungle)” is a not-bad album track instrumental by Charles Wright and his group, but Wright and his band are better remembered for their singles, including the sweet “Love Land” from 1969, and 1970’s funky “Express Yourself.”
“Woman,” another album track, is Zager & Evans’ attempt at sweet and subtle, and the music is nice, but the lyrics are pretty vapid and unsubtle. I think that was the case, however, with pretty much everything the group did. It’s short, which helps.
Billy Joe Royal’s “Cherry Hill Park” is one of those guilty pleasures from the Top 40, and at the time, was just a little bit naughty: “Mary Hill was such a thrill after dark . . . in Cherry Hill Park.” Pretty tame these days, but still fun to listen to.