Posts Tagged ‘Jefferson Starship’

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.)

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.

Of ‘Miracles’ and Miracles

July 9, 2010

Five of the six songs in this week’s installment of the Ultimate Jukebox take me places, which is probably not a surprise, as those five fall temporally into what I imagine could be called my “sweet spot,” after the place on a baseball player’s bat that makes the ball soar. My sweet spot is the years 1970 through 1975, a time when music was just about the most important thing in my life. And if there were events and people that were more important during those years, then their passages through my life were marked by records.

The sixth record in this set, which is actually the oldest, has no real time or place associations for me, as it came out when I was five years old and I didn’t hear it until I was much older than that. It’s a great record, or it wouldn’t be here, but my connection to it is less visceral.

What intrigued me about the other five records when I first looked at the random selection for this week was that, even though they do come from a relatively brief span of time, hearing them now puts me in five different places. One of them puts me in the shelter of my bedroom, listening to my old RCA radio on an early spring day. Another puts me in one of the trap houses at the gun club that I mentioned in my most recent post, with the same RCA radio keeping me company as I earn part of my sixty dollars.

By the time the third of the five records in question was released, I’d just started my second year of college, and the tune places me in Atwood Center, which is a little odd, as I didn’t start spending a lot of time there until a bit later than that. And then the fourth record drops me down in one of the strangest places any record puts me: It’s a sticky summer evening, and I’m with Rick and our occasional pal Gary, standing in line at the Dairy Queen. (There are in fact, two records that put me in that moment, and I can only assume that we heard them from a radio or from speakers in the ceiling as we waited in line; the other Dairy Queen record did not make it into the Ultimate Jukebox.)

In a little bit, I’ll untangle any mysteries about which of those four records puts me where. But before I do, I’ll look at the fifth of those records, which is probably the most powerful in its association with its time. The very first, almost tentative strains of Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles” whirl me back to the autumn of 1975, a season I’ve written about many times before. The place is the tree-lined wide sidewalk between Centennial Hall and Stewart Hall on the campus of St. Cloud State. I’m heading from Centennial, where I work at the periodicals counter, to Stewart, where the mass communications department has its offices and where most of my classes take place. To my immediate left is Atwood Center, where my friends and I gather at The Table.

It must be October, as the leaves on the trees are yellow. (That makes sense, as the single – an edit of the album track – entered the Top 40 in late September and hung around for thirteen weeks, peaking at No. 3.) And I’m thinking as I walk – and as I did numerous times during that autumn – that miracles do happen. I was alive, I had good friends and I liked my classes. I hadn’t yet found the romantic miracle that Marty Balin was singing about, but in time, I hoped, that would come. For the moment, I was thriving, and that was miracle enough.

There are plenty of passionate listeners and critics who over the years have derided Grace Slick, Marty Balin and company for selling out at one time or another in pursuit of hit records. Did that happen with Red Octopus in 1975? Or later, with Earth or Nuclear Furniture? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I liked the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and Volunteers, and I didn’t care much for some of the rest of the Airplane’s catalog. I liked Red Octopus and didn’t care much for a lot of the stuff that followed (though for sentimental reasons, “Sara” from 1986 can tug at me).

So what does all that have to do with the price of cookies in Tonga? I’m not entirely sure, but I think what I’m nibbling at is the weight of expectations and demand that a storied past can put on performers.  No, Red Octopus did not sound like Surrealistic Pillow, but then, 1975 did not sound like, or feel like, 1967. I do think that as Starship, the performers we’re talking about here lost their ways and ended up producing boring records. But the problem to me was that the records were boring, not that the records didn’t sound like 1967 or 1969 or whatever year one might have in mind. And I think that over the years, lots of people have carped at Red Octopus because it didn’t sound like classic Airplane.

Well, how could it? The times had changed, and so had the group. And I think Red Octopus holds up pretty well as an album: There are a couple of clinkers, yes, but there is also a cluster of good tracks and, of course, one genuine miracle.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 24
“Rave On” by Buddy Holly, Coral 61985 [1958]
“Reflections of My Life” by Marmalade, London 20058 [1970]
“Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric, Columbia 45154 [1970]
“You’re Still A Young Man” by Tower of Power from Bump City [1972]
“Diamond Girl” by Seals & Crofts from Diamond Girl [1973]
“Miracles” by Jefferson Starship from Red Octopus [1975]

A friend of mine and I once talked about putting together a book and website about the history of rock music using the metaphor of a forest. The story of rock, we thought, would stem from the performers we were calling the Five Big Trees. It was a horribly simplistic idea, and I think I knew that at the time, which may be why the project never went anywhere. To begin, any reasonable forest of rock ’n’ roll would of course have more than five big trees. But one of the things we got right was naming Buddy Holly as one of those big trees. First, the music he released in his tragically short career remains interesting and vital today. It should also be noted that he pretty much invented the idea of a group that not only wrote its own songs but also had a great deal of influence over the production of its records in the studio. “Rave On” was one of Holly’s lesser hits – it went to No. 37 in the summer of 1958 – but to me, it holds all of the virtues of Holly’s music: a good beat, cogent lyrics, a strong melody and that idiosyncratic hiccup:

Marmalade’s “Reflections of My Life” is the song that puts me in my room with my radio. I remember sitting up on my bed reading when these simple and melancholy chords came out of the speaker, followed by drums, a liquid bass line and some of the saddest lyrics I’d ever heard. A Scottish group, Marmalade released albums through the 1970s and on into the ’80s, but until a couple of years ago, I don’t know that I’d ever heard anything by the band but its one hit. “Reflections of My Life” went to No. 10 in the spring of 1970 and, beyond the trigger of memory, still sounds interesting today. (I find it odd that All-Music Guide begins its entry with the statement: “Marmalade is . . . best remembered today for one record, their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’.” That’s not the universe I live in; is it that way for anyone else?)

I’ve written about Pacific Gas & Electric’s single “Are You Ready” a couple of times: I noted that hearing it in my bunker was one of the indelible memories of working at the trap shoot in 1970, and I detailed the difficulty of finding the short version of the song, which was evidently issued only as a disk jockey release. (Thanks again, Yah Shure!) The long version was interesting the first couple of times I heard it, but it just doesn’t do anything for me anymore.  The short version, the one I heard coming out of my radio, still kicks:

The horn section for Tower of Power is renowned not only for its work on the group’s albums but also for its session and guest work. And it’s always amazing when listening to Tower of Power’s work to hear how well that horn section is integrated into an R&B/funk context. (My first hearing of that integration sometime in the early 1970s wouldn’t have been such a surprise, of course, if I’d ever really listened to James Brown.) I’m not sure that “You’re Still A Young Man” contains the best work that the TOP horns ever did, but the song’s opening cascade of horns is to me one of the classic moments in the group’s history. The record earned TOP the first of its three hits, going to No. 29 in the late summer of 1972. And all I can figure is that I heard the record at least once on the jukebox at Atwood Center, because when those horns start their intro, there I am.

James Seals and Dash Crofts first hit the charts in 1972, after fourteen years of playing together either in bands or as a duo. And for a time, the duo was so successful that it’s hard to say whether their sound fit the times or whether it in some ways defined the times. I know that for several years back then, every nightspot I went to that offered live music regularly booked singer-songwriter duos with guitars and tight harmonies. And Seals & Crofts’ early hits were – and still are – great records: melodic, with great hooks and good lyrics (though those lyrics could get over-wrought; the best example might be “Hummingbird”). Two of their singles will show up in this project; today’s selection, “Diamond Girl,” is the record that puts me in line at the Dairy Queen during the summer of 1973, waiting for a frozen treat and preparing to leave home. Whatever the reason for the song staying with me, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The single – an edit of the album track – went to No. 6 that summer.