Posts Tagged ‘David Bowie’

The Wail Of The Who Mouse

November 9, 2011

Originally posted December 29, 2008

As I sit in my study this morning, the wind is whipping around the northeast corner of the house, triggering a memory that’s not that old.

Before we moved last summer, we lived in an apartment on the southeast corner of the building. During the cold months, the northwest wind would come around the outside corner with a moaning sound, wailing into the night. One evening a few years ago, I made up a tall tale for the Texas Gal about a little mouse who sits on the roof on cold nights and calls out “Whoooo?” No one ever answers, I said, and he spends his winter nights calling out that one forlorn word.

Every couple has its tales, the small stories and inside jokes, the shared catch phrases and taglines, all of which are the common currency of any pairing. The Who Mouse and his plaint has become one of ours. On some chill mornings in other winters, the Texas Gal – who sleeps more lightly than I do – would tell me, “The Who Mouse was out last night.” She’d shake her head, shivering, and murmur, “I don’t like that sound.”

Neither do I. The wail of the wind makes a chilly evening seem colder, and it heightens the desolation that northern winter nights bring with them. But cold and desolation are relative things. Every once in a while during the winter, I think about the people who settled this land a century and a half ago: How did they survive the brutal cold? I shudder at the thought of a winter with no heat except that from a fireplace, and realize once more how fortunate we are.

The new place has a garage on the northwest corner, and the Who Mouse isn’t noticeable on the main floor. But the Texas Gal says he visits the loft, where she does her quilting and other crafts. “I heard him this morning,” she told me a few moments ago. “He was out there.”

A Six-Pack of Who
“Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)” by the Main Ingredient from Bitter Sweet, 1972

“Know Who You Are” by Supertramp from Famous Last Words, 1982

“Who’s Gonna Stop Me” by the Delilahs from Delilahs, 1994

“Who Can I Be Now” by David Bowie, unreleased from Young Americans sessions, ca. 1974

“Who’s Making Love” by Mongo Santamaria from Stone Soul, 1969

“Who Will Be The Fool Tonight” by the Larsen-Feiten Band, Warner Bros. 49282, 1980

A few notes:

The Main Ingredient’s Bitter Sweet album was the source for “Everybody Plays The Fool,” the great single that went to No. 3 in the autumn of 1972. The rest of the album, including “Who Can I Turn To,” is pretty good, if not quite as good as the hit. (The inverse was true two years later; Euphrates was a good album, much better to my ears than its hit, “Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely.”)

The Delilahs came out of Minnesota at about the same time as the Jayhawks did, offering a similar mix of rock, country and folk. The group was named the Best New Band at the 1994 Minnesota Music Awards and released Delilahs shortly after that. Two more albums followed in 1995, and the group evidently called it a day.

The David Bowie track was included in 1991 on a CD reissue of his Young Americans album and evidently came from the same sessions. I think it’s better than almost anything that was included on the album.

Mongo Santamaria was a Cuban percussionist and bandleader who covered pop, rock and soul songs on a series of fairly popular albums in the late 1960s and on into the 1970s. Those albums were fun, but his earlier, less pop-based, work is maybe a little more challenging but not quite as much fun.

The Larsen-Feiten Band – formed by session musicians Neil Larsen and Buzz Feiten – is a true one-hit wonder. “Who Will Be The Fool Tonight” went to No. 29 during the autumn of 1980 and was the group’s only chart entry. I don’t recall it from the time, but as it played out this morning, I heard echoes of Boz Scaggs’ late 1970s and early 1980s work. All-Music Guide has impressive lists of credits for both Larsen and Feiten as studio musicians. (Thanks to the Dude for this one.)

Following The Train Of Thought

November 9, 2011

Orginally posted December 16, 2008

You know how your train of thought sometimes gets so switched that you spend a few moments wondering how in the heck your thoughts ended up where they did? I frequently find myself tracking back, trying to figure out, say, how a consideration of tax policy morphed into a memory of my eating Tater Tots at a long-closed restaurant with a guy named Gary and then into a recollection of my long-ago internship at a Twin Cities television station.

Actually, the links are all there: From wondering about what kinds of changes our current economic woes will bring to national and state tax policies, I thought about the first time I realized how much of a bite taxes took out of a paycheck, when I worked on the lawn-mowing crew at St. Cloud State in 1971. Then I pondered walking home that summer, always past the warming house in the park, which in summers was used as an outpost of the city’s recreation program for kids. Most days when I walked by, out from the warming house popped a cute young lady named Kathy who – I realized one day in utter shock – had a crush on me. She was far too young for me to dally with, being just about to start high school while I was about to enter college. Besides, I knew her brother, Gary. And the last time I saw Gary in those days was shortly after I came home from Denmark in 1974, when he and I ate Tater Tots and drank beer in a restaurant called the Chateau Villa (yeah, it means “House House’), a place that no longer exists. But then, lots of places that were my haunts back then no longer exist, among them the apartment where I lived for three months in the Twin Cities while I took my internship at the television station. And the TV station, for that matter, has changed – some years ago it became a network affiliate with a very slick news department, as opposed to the “wing it and see if it works” news and sports departments that the same station had as an independent when I started there in December of 1975.

I was in the sports department, which was made up of three guys who presented about a ten-minute segment on the 9:30 p.m. news show six days a week. (I’m positive there was no news show on Sunday, or I’d have been asked to work at least once on a Sunday, and I never was.) Two of those men – guys by the name of Joe Boyle and Roger Buxton – did play-by-play and commentary, respectively, for frequent live broadcasts of Minnesota North Stars hockey games and basketball and hockey games of the University of Minnesota Gophers.

The third member of the sports department that winter was a legend in sports broadcasting, certainly in the Upper Midwest and – I think – nationally. He was Ray Scott, and anyone who watched professional football in the 1960s knew his voice, if not his name. For years, he was the television voice that brought the Green Bay Packers and their championships – they won titles in the 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967 seasons – into the living rooms of folks nation-wide. As a Vikings fan, I hadn’t been all that pleased about the Packers being on television so much in the mid-1960s. But ten years later, I found myself working with one of the men whose own work had led me to sportscasting as something I thought I wanted to do.

Several times during the three months I was at WTCN, as it was then called, I got a chance to talk to Scott about his profession and experience. One of the better lessons I learned from him about televised sports is that there are times when less talk from the sportscaster is better, and sometimes no talk is best. The visuals, he said, can often carry the story that’s being told. I don’t recall the broadcast styles of other sportscasters of the era all that well, but to name two, I always thought that Lindsey Nelson talked too much and it seems to me, looking back, that Jim McKay could be pretty terse when he needed to be. But no one, it seemed to me both then and now, was as good at it as Ray Scott: “Starr. Dowler. Touchdown!” he’d say, and he’d let the images on the screen of quarterback Bart Starr, receiver Boyd Dowler and the fans in Green Bay’s Lambeau Field carry the narrative.

That’s not far from standard procedure these days (or at least not for the most part, although there are still television sportscasters who talk too much). And I think Ray Scott who was one of those who pioneered that, throwing away the old conventions of radio and finding a new approach suitable for the newer medium of television.

Anyway, I learned an immense amount from him and from the other two guys in the sports department. My writing got crisper. I learned how to tell a story quickly and how to keep my words from getting in the way of the picture, during both live events and the nightly sportscast. I got to meet a lot of Twin Cities sports and sports media figures, all but one of whom were gracious and friendly to the kid from St. Cloud who was trying to learn the business. (Readers would be correct to infer that I met one horse’s ass; I won’t name him, but his behavior was so boorish that it astounds me to this day.) It was a marvelous time, full of hard work and fascinating people.

I got pretty good at reporting, at writing for television and at the technical requirements of preparing a script for broadcast. Good enough, in fact, that several times during the second half of the quarter – on those nights when all three sports guys were out of town and a news reporter without much of a sports background delivered the evening sportscast – I prepared the entire sports package and was listed as a producer in the newscast credits. Heady stuff for a twenty-two year old kid!

Here’s a selection of tunes that were around during the first weeks of that heady time:

A Six-Pack From The Billboard Hot 100, December 13, 1975

“Low Rider” by War, United Artists 706 (No. 18)

“Convoy” by C. W. McCall, MGM 14839 (No. 29)

“Evil Woman” by the Electric Light Orchestra, United Artists 729 (No. 40)

“Baby Face” by The Wing and A Prayer Fife & Drum Corps, Wing And A Prayer 103 (No. 43)

“Play On Love” by Jefferson Starship, Grunt 10456 (No. 75)

“Golden Years” by David Bowie, RCA 10441 (No. 82)

A few notes:

War was a pretty funky group that had a good run of singles (as well as issuing some pretty good albums) in the early and mid-1970s, with twelve singles reaching the Top 40. The best of the singles was likely “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” which went to No. 16 in 1972 or “The World Is A Ghetto,” which reached No. 7 in early 1973. “Low Rider,” which went to No. 7 (and was No. 1 for a week on the R&B chart), came near the end of War’s run; the group would reach the Top 40 only twice more.

I know, I know. “Convoy” is one of those singles that people either love or hate, and a lot more seem to fall into the latter category. C. W. McCall was actually William Fries, an advertising guy who created the McCall character for the midwestern Metz Baking Company. (Oddly, Joel Whitburn, in his Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, lists the company as the “Mertz Bread Company,” which seems to be an uncharacteristic error.) “Convoy” was the second hit for Fries as C.W. McCall; “Wolf Creek Pass” was at No. 40 for one week in March 1975. For me, “Convoy” is a great period piece, up there with mood rings and pet rocks. But what caught my eye about the record today is that a week earlier, it had been at No. 82 and jumped fifty-three places in one week.

I never quite got the idea behind the Electric Light Orchestra, but the group’s twenty Top 40 hits in an eleven-year period tell me that I’m likely in the minority. I do like “Evil Woman,” and I also enjoy “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” (No. 9 in 1975), “Telephone Line” (No. 7 in 1977) and a couple of others. But the bulk of the group’s catalog leaves me pretty unmoved. “Evil Woman” peaked at No. 10.

“Baby Face” – like “Convoy” – is one of those hits that can make you shake your head and wonder about public taste, I suppose. Except that I like this one, too. Disco hadn’t yet worn out its welcome when “Baby Face” came along (Saturday Night Fever, which to me marks the real beginning of disco madness, was still a little more than a year from release), and it was fun to hear it coming out of the radio speaker as I drove home from the television station late at night. The single, I think, had a briefer edit on the A-side with a longer version, presented here, on the B-side. (Is that right, Yah Shure?) It peaked at No. 14.

“Play On Love” was the second single Jefferson Starship released from its Red Octopus album. The first was an edit of “Miracles,” which had gone to No. 3 earlier in the autumn of 1975. “Play On Love” didn’t make the Top 40, peaking at No. 49.

David Bowie’s “Golden Years” had just entered the Hot 100. The follow-up to Bowie’s No. 1 hit “Fame,” the new single would peak at No. 10 in early 1976. It would take Bowie almost five more years – until late 1981 – to reach the Top 40 again.

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.