Posts Tagged ‘Roberta Flack’

A January Tale

January 27, 2021

I was sitting at my desk the other day, watching the snow fall outside, when the RealPlayer offered up a Roberta Flack tune. That reminded me of this piece, which originally ran in January 2008. I’ve polished it a bit, and the ending is different.

It was a snowy late afternoon in January 1975, and I was at The Table in the student union at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State. Most of the folks who spent their between-classes time at The Table had already headed out into the snow. The only other regular remaining was Laura, a woman who’d joined us during autumn after moving to St. Cloud from a city about sixty miles north.

I don’t recall what we were talking about that afternoon. It could have been my health – I’d been in a serious auto accident in October. Or we might have been discussing her progress in disentangling herself both legally and emotionally from her marriage to an abusive husband (a circumstance commonly mentioned today but one that was not much talked about in 1975). Whatever it was, we were intent on the topic. I knew, however, that it would soon be dinnertime at my parents’ house, and I needed to either go home or call them to say I wouldn’t be home for dinner.

My guess is that we’d been discussing her dilemmas, as I remember reading on her face that she was not keen on the idea of making her way to the house a few blocks away that she shared with, oh, maybe ten other women. So I dug a dime out of my pocket, walked to the phone on the wall a few feet away and told my folks to set another place at the table. Swaddled in winter garb, we headed out to the parking lot, where we cleared about three inches of snow from my car, and then we drove to the East Side.

I think my folks had met Laura before, most likely at the hospital after my accident, but even if they hadn’t, they greeted her warmly, as I knew they would. I don’t recall what we ate, but it was a pleasant meal. As dinner ended, Laura suggested we go for a quick drink at the Grand Mantel, the downtown bar where we and our friends frequently gathered. Sounded like a good idea, I told her, but there was still three inches of snow on the sidewalks – adjacent to the house and along Kilian Boulevard – and it needed to be cleared.

She offered to help. So we bundled up again and spent twenty minutes shoveling snow, with the streetlamp on the corner casting a honey-colored glow onto the snowy sidewalk and street, onto the snow that continued its leisurely descent to the ground, and onto us. When we were finished, we got into my old Falcon and headed across the river to the Grand Mantel, where there were only a few other folks taking refuge from a winter evening.

I don’t remember what we talked about as we sat there sipping drinks – Scotch and water, if I’m not mistaken – but we likely danced around the topic of whether the two of us were ever going to be a couple. I was still fragile in all ways from the auto accident, and she was still linked – however tenuously and unhappily – to another. So I’m certain we talked of other things and left the heavy issues to resolve themselves. But there was no denying the attraction.

Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” played on the bar’s sound system. She said, “That’s from the record I gave you, isn’t it?” I nodded. She’d given me Flack’s Killing Me Softly album while I was homebound in November. “The other song is on there, too, right?” And I nodded again.

She took a fountain pen out of her purse and grabbed one of the napkins on the table, with one of the four quadrants displaying the Grand Mantel’s name and logo. Carefully, she unfolded the napkin and wrote on an empty quadrant the opening words from that other song:

When you smile, I can see
You were born, born for me,
And for me you will be do or die.

She blew on the napkin to dry the ink, then folded it and gently tucked it in my shirt pocket. Not much later, we left. When I got home, I put the napkin in a shoebox I used for keepsakes, where it still is today.

The wish written on that napkin never came true. Laura and I remained friends through our college years and saw each other occasionally for about fifteen years after that, but we’ve since drifted apart, the way people sometimes do. The Roberta Flack LP is gone, too, but I’ve got the CD, and I listen to it sometimes. When I do, I almost always think about Laura.

The first time I ran this piece here, I closed with Flack’s “No Tears (In The End)” from that same 1973 album because I thought it had a better groove than “When You Smile.” It does, but I still should have closed with the song that Laura quoted. Here’s Roberta Flack’s “When You Smile.”

‘Where’

September 20, 2017

Today, we’re going to open our textbook and take on the third portion of a project we’re calling Journalism 101, looking for tracks that have the word “where” in their titles. And it has to be a stand-alone word; “nowhere,” “somewhere,” “anywhere” and all the other possible compound words won’t cut it.

The first run through the RealPlayer nets us 947 tracks. But we lose a number of entire albums (except, in some cases, the title tracks): Where It All Begins by the Allman Brothers Band, Come To Where I’m From by Joseph Arthur, Where Is Love by Bobby Caldwell, Eva Cassidy’s Somewhere, Judy Collins’ Who Knows Where The Time Goes, Somewhere My Love by Ray Conniff & The Singers, Bo Diddley’s Where It All Began, and that just gets us into the D’s with so much more of the alphabet to go until we run into Bobby Womack’s Home Is Where The Heart Is.

Lots of titles with those compound words are culled as well, including six versions of “Somewhere My Love.” (I also have ten versions of the tune under the title “Lara’s Theme.”) We also lose four versions of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” twelve versions of the Beatles’ “Here, There & Everywhere,” five versions of “Somewhere In The Night,” and more that I won’t list here.

But there are still plenty of titles to choose from, so let’s look at four:

There are a few records that bring back viscerally the last months of 1975 and the first of 1976, and Diana Ross’ “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” is one of them. Those months were my last as an undergrad; I was an intern in sports at a Twin Cities television station, with graduation quickly approaching (and no job prospects in sight). I was also in a relationship that seemed promising, but I was nevertheless very aware of the not so subtle hints being laid down by the lovely redhead who was interning in the station’s promotions department. So, to answer the record’s question, no, I had no idea where I was going to. But it wasn’t the lyrics that pulled me into the song; it was the twisting, yearning melody that caught me then and still does today (with current hearings all the more potent for the memories they stir). Whether for the melody or the words, the record caught many people as 1975 turned into 1976: It went to No. 1 on both the Billboard 100 and the magazine’s Easy Listening chart, and it reached No. 14 on the magazine’s R&B chart.

More than six years ago, I looked at Oscar Brown’s song “Brother Where Are You” and wrote:

The tune is familiar to me – and others of my vintage, I assume – because of its inclusion by Johnny Rivers in his 1968 masterpiece Realization. In those environs, the song became less a plaint about racial injustice and more a call for economic and political justice. (It was, of course, not uncommon in the late 1960s and early 1970s for young, socially aware white men to call each other “brother” with no irony and little self-consciousness.)

That post (you can read it here) gave a listen to the first version recorded of the song – Abbey Lincoln’s take from her 1959 album Abbey is Blue – and to a few other versions as well, including Rivers’ cover. Sorting through the eleven versions of the tune here on the digital shelves, I’ve decided to offer the one I found most recently: Marlena Shaw’s typically eccentric version, released in 1967 on the Cadet label. From what I can find, it made no chart noise at all.

Thinking, as we were, of records that define seasons, as soon as the list of “where” tunes got to “Where Is The Love” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, I was back in the summer of 1972, working half-time as a custodian at St. Cloud State, taking long bicycle rides on Saturday evening, driving idly around town in my 1961 Falcon with Rick as a passenger, and wondering when I was going to meet someone. I doubt if I heard the record as a cautionary tale, advising me that love was hard and not always permanent, but if that thought had ever crossed my mind, I likely would have thought in response, “But even lost love is better than no love.” (I learned years ago that such a thought is better left to songwriters and poets than to anyone in real life.) The record was everywhere that summer, going to No. 5 on the Hot 100 and topping both the R&B and Easy Listening charts.

And lastly we’ll turn to Cat Stevens’ brilliant 1970 album, Tea For The Tillerman. “But tell me,” Stevens sings in the first track, “where do the children play?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course, but it’s one that I think runs with resignation through the entire album, through “Sad Lisa,” “On The Road To Findout,” “Father & Son” and all the rest. At least that’s what I hear these days. Back in 1971, when I heard “Wild World” on the radio and caught up with the rest of the album over the next few years, the lost loves, the fragile women, the quests for place and knowledge all seemed so utterly romantic. Perhaps the resignation I hear is only the echo of being sixty-four, with eighteen so far in the past as to be unknowable. In any event, “Where Do The Children Play” is still lovely and forever haunting.

Summer Songs, Part One

August 8, 2013

The RealPlayer hummed along the other day as I did a little housekeeping in the study, trying to do something more substantial than simply move stacks of books, paper and 45 rpm records from one flat surface to another. Not much got accomplished, especially after the RealPlayer settled on “Where Is The Love” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway.

For just a few moments, it was the summer of 1972: A half-time janitor gig on campus, my sister’s wedding, my first car and a road trip to Winnipeg. While there are other records that bring back portions of that summer – “Alone Again, Naturally” has me cleaning venetian blinds and “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” has me driving north to Canada – there’s something about the Flack/Hathaway single that somehow sums up the feel of the whole summer. The record was inescapable (though I never wanted to escape it) as it went to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 1 on the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts.

As the mp3 played, I found the video above and posted it at Facebook and then sat and wondered what other records have such visceral connections with specific summers of my younger days. It seemed worth some digging, both in reference books and memory.

Paging through the Sixties, no records really say “Summer!” until I get to 1968. I wasn’t listening to Top 40 at home yet, but that was the first summer I worked as a setter at the state trap shoot, spending about ten hours a day for four days straight placing clay targets on a scary machine. As did the other setters, I brought a radio, and my semi-subterranean corner of the world was filled with KDWB’s Top 40 most of the day and Minnesota Twins baseball for a couple of hours in the afternoons.

Four records trigger memories as I page through Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits and look at a late July 1968 survey from WDGY, KDWB’s main competitor: “Indian Lake” by the Cowsills, “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams, “Turn Around, Look At Me” by the Vogues and “Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela. The Vogues’ single has a niche of its own in my memory, but the 1968 record that to this day says “trap shoot” (and thus “Summer of ’68”) is “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors, which spent two weeks at No. 1 in early August that year.

Looking back to 1969, the memories of my RCA radio at the trap shoot have to compete with the memories of the radio in the training room at St. Cloud Tech, as the last weeks of summer were my first weeks of being both a manager for the Tigers football team and a dedicated Top 40 listener. But checking Bronson and a late July survey from KDWB, it’s the trap shoot that wins. Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James & The Shondells are in the running, but nothing says “Summer 1969” for good or ill – and many folks will think it ill – like “In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)” by Zager & Evans, a record that sat atop the Hot 100 for six weeks and on top of the AC chart for two weeks.

The summer of 1970 was my third and final trap shoot summer, but by the time the four-day event rolled around, I’d been listening to Top 40 for nearly a year. That means there are many more songs I recall from that summer with only a little help needed from Bronson’s book or a KDWB survey. Near the top of the list (in memory and quality) are Bread’s “Make It With You,” Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold,”  “Ride, Captain, Ride” by Blues Image, “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon & War and the 5 Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child.” But the top spot  in my Summer of ’70 list goes to a record that I’ve mentioned numerous times in six-plus years of blogging: “Are You Ready” by Pacific Gas & Electric. The record peaked in the Hot 100 at No. 14.

That’s a good place to stop. We’ll pick up this slender thread next week and see – beyond “Where Is The Love” – which records defined summers after my high school days. In the meantime, any readers who wish can answer this question:

What are your summer records?

Interconnected, For Better Or Worse

August 19, 2011

Originally posted October 1, 2008

Sometimes, if I really stop and think about it, the interconnectedness of the world astounds me. With cell phones, PDAs, email, instant messaging and all the other ways we communicate with each other, one never needs to be out of touch. Well, there are places in the world with limited access to cell networks and so on, but they are increasingly rare.

And that increasing connectedness will change us – has already begun to do so – in ways that we cannot possible anticipate. (I recall a long-ago magazine piece about the slipperiness of predictions; it pointed out that pundits in New York City predicted in the 1880s, given the city’s reliance on horses, that the streets of the city would be several feet deep in manure by the middle of the twentieth century. You never know.)

Looking back, however, I can guess that today’s connectedness would have changed one major part of my life, and not for the better. During the college year I spent in Fredericia, Denmark, I was separated for the first time in my life from my family and friends. Had I been able to use email, cell phones, texting and all the other tools of today’s communications, my time away would have been immeasurably different, and – I think – a lot less valuable to me.

I was in touch with friends and family throughout the year, of course, writing and receiving frequent letters and cards. But that contact was very limited. It took a week for a letter to make its way from Denmark to Minnesota and another week for a reply to arrive, which gives one a lot of time to think – or worry, if so inclined – between statements. And trans-Atlantic telephone calls were expensive. I called Minnesota from Denmark twice: On Christmas Day and then in April, when I returned to Fredericia after being on the road for a month.

And I think the distance created by being out of touch was good for me. If I’d had access to today’s numerous means of communication, I think I might have held tightly to my friends at home and not been as adventurous as I was. I don’t know. Perhaps not. But I think that one of the central facts of my time away was that it was time away in all ways, and I’d guess that holds true for all of us who were in Denmark that year. We’re a fairly tight group, even thirty-five years later, with all the changes that life brings. Reunions are regular and well attended. I’m not at all sure that we’d feel as connected as we have to each other over the years if we’d carried our friends from home in our pockets.

On a less important scale, one of the fascinating things about being away was losing track of popular culture. Events, catch phrases, fads and especially music had come and gone while we were gone. Friends sent many of us tapes that we shared in our lounge, so we heard some of what was popular, both Top 40 and albums. But there have been numerous times over the years – and I think this likely happened to all of us – when I’d hear a song for the first time and learn it had been popular during the time I was away.

Here’s a selection from the Billboard Top 40 during the week of September 29, 1973. A few of these had hit the Top 40 before I left, but the vast majority of them were records I had to catch up on later (in some cases, years later).

A Baker’s Dozen from 1973, Vol. 4
“Redneck Friend” by Jackson Browne, Asylum 11023 (No. 99 as of Sept. 29, 1973))

“Make Me Twice The Man” by New York City, Chelsea 0025 (No. 96)

“This Time It’s Real” by Tower of Power, Warner Bros. 7733 (No. 74)

“Jesse” by Roberta Flack, Atlantic 2982 (No. 68)

“I Can’t Stand The Rain” by Ann Peebles, Hi 2248 (No. 64)

“Such A Night” by Dr. John, Atco 6937 (No. 56)

“Nutbush City Limits” by Ike & Tina Turner, United Artists 298 (No. 50)

“In The Midnight Hour” by Cross Country, Atco 6934 (No. 31)

“Why Me” by Kris Kristofferson, Monument 8571 (No. 23)

“Yes We Can Can” by the Pointer Sisters, Blue Thumb 229 (No. 16)

“Brother Louie” by Stories, Kama Sutra 577 (No. 11)

“My Maria” by B.W. Stevenson, RCA Victor 0030 (No. 9)

“We’re An American Band” by Grand Funk, Capitol 3660 (No. 1)

A few notes:

Jackson Browne was perhaps the quintessential singer/songwriter of the 1970s, so “Redneck Friend,” one of the few real rockers Browne ever recorded, was a pleasant surprise. It didn’t get much radio play – never made the Top 40 – but it’s a great mood-changer when heard in the context of Browne’s 1973 album, For Everyman.

I don’t ever recall hearing New York City’s “Make Me Twice The Man” before this morning, when I rummaged through the stacks and found the album. Despite the group’s name, it’s a nice piece of Philly soul, and you can hear the imprint of Thom Bell (the O’Jays, the Stylistics, the Spinners) in every groove. New York City had reached No. 17 in the spring of 1973 with “I’m Doin’ Fine Now.”

I still love “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” especially the first few seconds. Ann Peebles has spent her career trying to record something else this good. She’s done well, but she’s never reached the same heights as she did here.

Another single I don’t recall hearing was Cross Country’s version of “In The Midnight Hour,” which is different enough to deserve a hearing (if ultimately nowhere as good as Wilson Pickett’s version). Leonard at Redtelephone66, the blog where I found Cross Country’s album, said when he posted the record that Cross Country was a group formed by three of the four members of the Tokens in 1971. The single reached No. 30 during a four-week stay in the Top 40.

Stories’ single “Brother Louie” was quite the sensation in 1973, with its tale of an interracial romance. The fact that it was pretty good listening, too, sometimes got lost in the brouhaha.

If I had to pick the best of these, I’d likely go with “Yes We Can Can,” the Pointer Sisters’ single written by Allen Toussaint or maybe B.W. Stevenson’s “My Maria,” which was possibly the rootsiest record of 1973.

A Tale Of Shelves And A Saw

August 5, 2011

Originally posted September 12, 2008

My dad, along with being an educator, was a craftsman. His undergraduate degree was in industrial arts, which he’d hoped to teach in a high school. Biding his time until there was a teaching position open somewhere near St. Cloud, he returned to the campus of St. Cloud Teachers College – now St. Cloud State University – after he graduated. (Family lore says it was the next day, but I’m not certain.) He took what was expected to be a temporary position and wound up retiring thirty-three years later from St. Cloud State as an assistant professor of learning resources. He never taught industrial arts.

But he put his industrial arts training and experience to good use, doing a lot of the maintenance on our home – painting, minor electrical work, some carpentry and more – when I was a kid and in the years after I was grown. One of his major projects was turning half the basement into a rec room when I was in junior high. Local contractors installed wall studs, electrical outlets and carpet, and Dad took it from there, wrestling paneling into place and nailing it to the studs, measuring and installing a hanging ceiling with its tiles, and all the rest, creating a room that was a haven for my sister and me and our friends during our teen years and later.

Along the way, Dad gathered together an immense collection of tools and equipment, and when we cleared out the place on Kilian after he died, some of it came my way: his Montgomery Wards tool chest – much larger and better stocked than the rudimentary toolbox with which I’ve been making do over the years – and some additional tools, including a power drill, a power sander and an electric sabre saw.

Power tools, for some reason, have always scared me – a lot. I’m not sure why. The only one I’d ever used was a borrowed power drill to install a set of mini-blinds about ten years ago, and even that small drill made me uneasy. I’ve never done a lot of carpentry or other work requiring tools, anyway. During the mid-1980s, I did design and build some simple bookcases, but that’s been about the limit of my work. And I did those jobs with handsaws and hand tools.

This week, as I was installing my well-traveled brick and board bookcase in the study, I realized I was going to put more records on it than ever before, so it would need more support, a column of bricks in the center of the shelves to match the columns at the ends of the shelves. I wandered around town yesterday and managed to find three additional large patio blocks that matched the ones I’d bought almost twenty years ago. (The sales agent at the masonry yard was disappointed I didn’t need more of them; he wanted to clear as many of the antiquated blocks from his storage as he could.) And the guys at the lumberyard gladly cut the additional pieces of wood plank I needed to put on my shelves under the new blocks to extend the blocks’ height so the shelves would accommodate LPs.

But I could not find one piece I required, another foot, as it were: a masonry piece to put on the floor, centered under the first shelf, that would match the height of the two thick masonry pieces that held up the ends of that first shelf. As I left the masonry yard and headed home with three bricks, six wood pieces to put under the bricks and more than six feet of extra wood, I realized that three thicknesses of that extra wood plank would equal the thickness of the two masonry pieces already serving as feet. All I had to do was saw off three pieces of the extra board I got at the lumberyard, and I could stack those pieces for the missing foot.

So after hauling everything inside, I took the extra board down to the rudimentary workbench left by earlier residents of the house, where I’d installed Dad’s toolbox and the other things that had been his. With the measuring tape, I marked off three lengths of five inches, and then I grabbed a saw and got to work. It went slowly, of course. And a third of the way into the first cut, I stopped. In a box on the shelf, I realized, was the sabre saw.

I shuddered a little, thinking of the mayhem a potential mishap could cause. Once I shooed the cats upstairs and closed the door, I got out the sabre saw and plugged it in. Wanting to get a sense of how it felt before I applied it to wood, I tentatively turned it on, then off. And then I got busy. A few minutes later, I had the three pieces of board I needed. I put the saw back in its box and the box back on the shelf, and I swept up the sawdust, honestly trembling a little.

A few hours later, the revamped shelves were up and loaded: three shelves of records topped by a shelf of books. The three inexpertly cut pieces of wood are hidden under the first shelf. I don’t know when I might next have an occasion to use the sabre saw. But now I know I can if I have to.

A Baker’s Dozen of Saws
“The Last Time I Saw Richard” by Joni Mitchell from Blue, 1971

“When I Saw You” by the Ronettes, Philles single 133, 1964

“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack, Atlantic single 2864, 1972

“I Saw Her Again” by the Mamas & the Papas, Dunhill single 4031, 1966

“I Saw The Light” by Mason Proffit from Bare Back Rider, 1972

“Ride My See-Saw” by the Moody Blues from In Search of the Lost Chord, 1968

“The Last Time I Saw Jacqueline” by the Neon Philharmonic from The Moth Confesses, 1969

“See Saw” by Aretha Franklin, Atlantic single 2574, 1968

“Jigsaw Puzzle of Life” by Kate & Anna McGarrigle from Kate & Anna McGarrigle, 1975

“Junior Saw It Happen” by the Steve Miller Band from Children of the Future, 1968

“You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” by the Pearls, Bell single 1254 (UK?), 1972

“I Saw It On T.V.” by John Fogerty from Centerfield, 1985

“Crosscut Saw” by Albert King from Born Under A Bad Sign, 1967

A few notes:

This is mostly a random selection. The only song I chose was the closer, Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw,” because it seemed appropriate.

“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was omnipresent during early 1972. Originally recorded for Flack’s First Take album in 1969, the song – written by British folksinger Ewan MacColl – was used as background music in Clint Eastwood’s film Play Misty For Me, which came out in late 1971. After that, Atlantic trimmed about a minute from the track and issued it as a single. The record entered the Top 40 in March and spent six weeks at No. 1, eventually earning Flack and MacColl Grammy awards for, respectively, Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

Bare Back Rider was the second and final major label release from Mason Proffit, one of the best bands never to make it big. In its review of Bare Back Rider, All-Music Guide notes: “You’d have thought that music this impressive could get a hearing, but Mason Proffit appeared at a time when music fans were more polarized than musicians, not only by music but by politics and culture. Despite the band’s evident affection for traditional country music, their left-wing political stance and status as hippie rock musicians meant they could never be accepted in Nashville. And their music was too overtly country for them to score a pop hit. Thus, they were doomed to appeal only on the country-rock-oriented Los Angeles club scene and to some music critics.”

“The Last Time I Saw Jacqueline” is a nice bit of trippy pop from the Neon Philharmonic, better known for the same album’s “Morning Girl,” a sweet coming-of-age single that went to No. 17 in the spring and summer of 1969. The Neon Philharmonic, according to the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, was a chamber-sized orchestra of Nashville City Orchestra musicians. Tupper Saussy did the writing and Don Gant handled the vocals. Bonus points for rhyming “restaurant” and “debutante.”

The McGarrigle sisters show up here now and then, and every time they do, especially when it’s a track from 1975’s Kate & Anna McGarrigle, I think back to the first time I read or heard about them, in the 1979 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide: “Two sisters from Montreal make music that’s crisp, nonelectric and utterly magical. Singing now in English, now in French, they suffuse their records with brightness and wit, proving that the inspired amateurism of the mid-Seventies can be dazzling.” Were/are they that good? Yes.

“You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” by the Pearls is a cover (from the United Kingdom, I believe; anyone know?) of the Ronettes’ version, which was released as a single on A&M in 1969. The Pearls’ version is not bad, but the echo on the record is a faint whisper of the echo in the Ronettes’ single, which itself was a faint whisper of the Phil Spector Wall of Sound that made them famous.

Saturday Single No. 50

June 4, 2011

Originally posted January 12, 2008

It was a snowy late afternoon in January 1975, and I was at The Table in the student union at St. Cloud State. Most of the folks who spent their between-classes time at The Table had already headed out into the snow. The only other regular remaining was Laura, a woman who’d joined us that autumn after moving to St. Cloud from a city about sixty miles north.

I don’t recall what we were talking about that afternoon. It could have been my health – I’d been in a serious auto accident the fall before. Or we might have been discussing her progress in disentangling herself both legally and emotionally from her marriage to an abusive husband (a circumstance commonly mentioned today but one that was not much talked about in 1975). Whatever it was, we were intent on the topic. I knew, however, that it would soon be dinnertime at my parents’ house, and I needed to either go home or call them to say I wouldn’t be home for dinner.

My guess is that we’d been discussing her dilemmas, as I remember reading on her face that she was not keen on the idea of making her way to the house a few blocks away that she shared with, oh, maybe ten other women. So I dug a dime out of my pocket, walked to the phone on the wall a few feet away and told my folks to set another place at the table. We bundled up and headed out to the parking lot, where we cleared about three inches of snow from my car, and then we drove to the East Side.

I think my folks had met Laura before, most likely at the hospital after my accident, but even if they hadn’t, they greeted her warmly, as I knew they would. I don’t recall what we ate, but it was a pleasant meal. As dinner ended, Laura suggested we go for a quick drink at the Grand Mantel, the downtown bar where we and our friends frequently gathered. Sounded like a good idea, I told her, but there was still three inches of snow on the sidewalks – adjacent to the house and along Kilian Boulevard – and it needed to be cleared.

She offered to help. So we bundled up and spent twenty minutes shoveling snow, with the streetlamp on the corner casting a honey-colored glow onto the sidewalk and the street, onto the snow on the lawn, onto the snow that continued its leisurely descent to the ground, and onto us. When we were finished, we got into my old Falcon and headed across the river to the Grand Mantel, where there were only a few other folks taking refuge from a snowy January evening.

I don’t remember what we talked about as we sat there sipping drinks – Scotch and water, if I’m not mistaken – but we likely danced around the topic of whether the two of us were ever going to be a couple. I was still fragile in all ways from the auto accident, and she was still linked – however tenuously and unhappily – to another. So I’m certain we talked of other things and left the heavy issues to resolve themselves. But there was no denying the attraction.

Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” played on the bar’s sound system. She said, “That’s from the record I gave you, isn’t it?” I nodded. She’d given me the Roberta Flack album while I was homebound in November. “The other song is on there, too, right?” And I nodded again.

She took a fountain pen out of her purse and grabbed one of the napkins on the table, with one of the four quadrants displaying the Grand Mantel’s name and logo. Carefully, she wrote on the napkin the opening words from that other song:

“When you smile, I can see
“You were born, born for me,
“And for me you will be do or die.”

She blew on the napkin to dry the ink, then folded it and gently tucked it in my shirt pocket. Not much later, we bundled up, and I took her to her house and then made my way home. I put the napkin in a shoebox I used for keepsakes, where it still is today.

The wish written on that napkin never came true. Laura and I remained friends through our college years, and we’ve seen each other occasionally since, but not in the last ten or so years. I still have the Roberta Flack album, and I listen to it sometimes. All of its songs are in my mp3 collection, and one of them popped up the other day, spurring these memories. No, it wasn’t “When You Smile.” It was, however, one that was equally appropriate, and it has a better groove.

That’s why “No Tears (In The End)” is today’s Saturday Single.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Rivers

April 24, 2011

Originally posted July 2, 2007

Well, it happened again. An LP I had selected for the day turned out to have too many pops and scratches for me to want to share the entire thing. And that’s disappointing. The record was Through the Eyes of a Horn, a solo album by Jim Horn from 1972. It’s a fun record, on Leon Russell’s Shelter label with lots of familiar names on the credits.

A few of the tracks are clean enough for me to convert them to mp3s and put them in the player, so they may show up in a future Baker’s Dozen or two. And I’m likely to pull one of the tracks for something special this week.

But abandoning the LP as a full rip left me without a plan again, changing horses in mid-stream, as it were. And I thought about Tower of Power, of course, and “Don’t Change Horses (In The Middle Of A Stream).” So I checked. I only have five songs with the word “stream” in their titles. So I thought about rivers, and my mind wandered as the final tracks of the Jim Horn album played through, and I thought about the Mississippi River, which has been a near-constant presence in my life.

I was born on its banks (in a hospital, not – unfortunately for my credentials as a bluesman – in a little shack). I grew up no more than three blocks from it, crossing it nearly daily through my childhood and college years. And my first job was at a newspaper whose offices were separated from the river by only a park and a street. The vast majority of my life has been lived within a few miles of the Mississippi. And now, since returning to St. Cloud about five years ago, I’m again within a mile of the river that’s called the Father of Waters.

When I was a kid, I never realized that the Mississippi was important or noteworthy. At least not until one day when I was crossing it on my bicycle, most likely heading to the library. As I neared the end of the bridge, a car with New York license plates passed me, and once off of the bridge, the driver took the first right and pulled over and parked. Four people – a mom, a dad and two kids – got out of the car and walked rapidly, almost trotting, back to the bridge and the river, cameras at the ready. I realized that what was an everyday occurrence for me – crossing the Mississippi – could be a major event for others, and I guess I began to give the big river a little more respect.

So I’ve realized in recent years that the river flows through my life just as it does through St. Cloud. And I long to see it in its wide and muddy glory in places much closer to the Gulf of Mexico than here. That will happen. The Texas Gal and I still plan to tour western Tennessee and Mississippi, but it won’t be this year. I can wait, and the river will wait for me.

But what should I do about music this morning, after such fluvial thoughts? Well, I thought I’d shift my normal pattern again and begin this week with a Baker’s Dozen of Rivers:

“Let the River Run” by Carly Simon from the Working Girl soundtrack, 1988

“Okolona River Bottom Band” by Bobbie Gentry, Capitol single 2044, 1967

“Many Rivers To Cross” by Joe Cocker from Sheffield Steel, 1982

“Take Me To The River” by Al Green from Al Green Explores Your Mind, 1974

“River” by Roberta Flack from Killing Me Softly, 1973

“River Theme” by Bob Dylan from the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack, 1973

“If The River Was Whiskey” by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Newport Folk Festival, 1964

“Moonchild River Song” by Eric Andersen from Be True To You, 1975

“Down By The River” by Buddy Miles from Buddy Miles Live, 1971

“Song From Platte River” by Brewer & Shipley from Tarkio, 1970

“Don’t Cross The River” by America from Homecoming, 1973

“Underground River” by Ellen McIlwaine from We The People, 1973

“Going To The River” by Fats Domino, Imperial single 5231, 1953

A few notes about some of the songs:

“Let the River Run,” which has a nice gospelly groove, won Carly Simon an Oscar for Best Song. Hearing it always reminds me that when I wanted to buy the album in early 1989, it took a special order and five weeks. I realized then, if I hadn’t already, that the LP was being swept away by the CD.

“Many Rivers To Cross” is some of the fruit of one of Joe Cocker’s many comebacks, this one coming when he went into a studio in the Bahamas with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and their pals. He came out with a record with lots of captivating tropical grooves. The record also had some fine vocals, and this is one of the best.

Fred McDowell was actually from Tennessee, not Mississippi, but someone gave him the name when he was discovered in the late 1950s, and he didn’t complain. McDowell was a rarity in the country blues boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s in that he’d never been recorded before, unlike many of his contemporaries who had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s before sliding back into anonymity. As a result, his performances on record and at venues like the Newport Folk Festival came off as fresh rather than as a recreation of long-ago efforts.

Eric Andersen’s Be True To You was posted here in the very early days of the blog. It’s a lovely folky album, and “Moonchild River Song,” the album’s opening track, is one of its best songs.

Ellen McIlwaine is a little-known slide guitarist and blues singer who’s been recording well-regarded albums at sporadic intervals for years. We the People, the 1973 album from which “Underground River” comes, might be her best effort, but all of her work, from 1971’s Honky Tonk Angel to 2007’s Mystic Bridge is worth seeking out.

Our closer is a lesser-known side by one of the earliest of rock ’n’ rollers, Fats Domino. Recorded in January 1953 – eight months before I made my riverside entrance – “Going To The River” still rocks, albeit in Fats’ own style of smiling in the face of all disasters.

Chicken Livers & Art Deco

April 28, 2010

During the 1960s and early 1970s, my family visited downtown Minneapolis something like four or five times a year. The suburban malls and all the hoo-ha that eventually developed around them were in their infancy at the time; when you wanted serious shopping, you went downtown, maybe to St. Paul but far more often to Minneapolis.

During one of those trips to Minneapolis – occasioned, I believe by an appointment for my dad at the nearby Fort Snelling Veterans Administration Hospital – my mom and I found ourselves on our own as lunchtime approached. I was maybe ten, so call it 1964. She took me to a cafeteria called the Forum. We made our way through the line, pushing our trays along their winding paths atop the tubular steel guides. I passed on meatloaf, Salisbury steak, hambugers and fries. Something had caught my eye, something creamy on a mess of golden egg noodles.

When I got there, the sign told me that the dish was chicken livers in cream sauce over noodles. It’s not a dish one would expect to find in a restaurant menu today, in downtown Minneapolis or even in downtown Olivia in the heart of Minnesota’s farm belt. But the Forum must have sold plenty of chicken livers over egg noodles back then, certainly enough to keep the dish on the menu for years to come. Because maybe two years after Mom took me to the Forum for the first time, I was allowed to wander free in downtown Minneapolis on our visits there, and whenever my wandering included lunchtime, I went to the Forum for chicken livers over noodles. And that went on for at least another eight years, until sometime after I graduated from high school.

There was another attraction to the place, beyond the draw of chicken livers in cream sauce: The Forum’s interior was a visual feast. In later years, I saw it described as one of the premier Art Deco interiors in the country. At twelve years old, I wouldn’t have known Art Deco from Art Shamsky, but I did know that I loved the unique interior of the Forum. It was simply fun to be inside a place where there was so much going on visually. And to eat lunch there was a highlight of many trips to Minneapolis over those years.

I thought about all that yesterday when the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on the newly reopened Forum, now a bar and restaurant. In 1975, the cafeteria closed down and the space was converted to a restaurant and disco, Scottie’s on Seventh. Eventually, urban renewal closed in on the building that hosted the Forum, and the building came down. But not until after the Art Deco interior was disassembled and saved. It was installed in the new City Center that went up on the site, and during the early 1980s, Scottie’s reopened there. By 1996, it was the turn of a restaurant called Goodfellow’s to take over the space, and five years ago, the space went dark.

It’s now the Forum again, a restaurant instead of a cafeteria, and it’s a place that the Texas Gal and I are making plans to see, likely for lunch during a planned August overnight in the Twin Cities. The newspaper says the interior has been lovingly restored and renewed (there’s a slideshow about the place’s design here), and that’s good news. I spent a few minutes this morning looking at the menu online, and the food sounds fine. No chicken livers, though.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 14
“California Girls” by the Beach Boys, Capitol 5464 [1965]
‘Everybody’s Talkin’” by Nilsson, RCA Victor 0161 [1968]
“Something In The Air” by Thunderclap Newman, Track 2656 [1969]
“Day After Day” by Badfinger, Apple 1841 [1971]
“Get It On” by Chase from Chase (not the single Epic 10738) [1971]
“No Tears (In The End)” by Roberta Flack from Killing Me Softly [1973]

None of these songs have any connection to downtown Minneapolis, to the Forum cafeteria or to creamed chicken livers on noodles, as far as I know. The only connection is the time. There is no doubt that during the months that the first two songs on this list were popular – and maybe during the brief popularity of the third song, too – a searcher could have found a young whiteray at least once and possibly more often sitting happily at a table in the Forum, enjoying a meal in the big city all on his own.

I think about that today, and I shudder. The downtown of a major American city is no longer a place where one would allow a twelve-year-old boy from out of town to wander freely. But forty-odd years ago, downtown Minneapolis was safe ground; the times were different. And I’m glad I grew up then instead of now.

By including “California Girls” in the selections for my mythical jukebox, I’m not by any means saying it’s one of the two-hundred and twenty-eight greatest records. It’s not. I do think it’s the Beach Boys’ greatest single, crowded for that spot only by “Surfin’ U.S.A.” And there was no real analysis or deliberation that led me to those rankings. Rather, it’s a visceral reaction. For most of their history, the Beach Boys have meant very little to me. The early stuff was pleasant but to me – looking back as I must, not having heard it much when it was on the radio – is unremarkable. The records I remember hearing as they came out, the later catalog, is stuff that I find to be artsy simply for the sake of being artsy, with “Good Vibrations” being the premier example. (Or maybe the premier example is SMiLE, the “long-lost treasure” that Brian Wilson completed and released in 2004. I should note that I rarely sell music – LPs or CDs. Once they’re home, they stay here, unless I need cash badly – as has happened at times over the years – or unless I find the music so unrewarding that I seen no need to keep it. A couple of years after I bought it, I sold SMiLE, and I didn’t need the cash.) Anyway, the thought of the Ultimate Jukebox without at least one Beach Boys’ record in it seemed odd, and I think this is the only selection I made to ensure a group’s presence in this list. Given that, I selected “California Girls,” which went to No. 3 in 1965, and I chose it partly because its essence is echoed in loving parody in the Beatles’ “Back In The U.S.S.R.”

Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” brings back echoes, of course, of the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, which used the record in its soundtrack. I have a sense that Nilsson recorded Fred Neil’s song more than once, as it seems I’ve run across several different versions of the song. And to be honest, I don’t know which is the original and which, if any, were created for the film. I believe the original version is the one that Nilsson recorded for his album Aerial Ballet in 1968, which is where I get the date I listed above. And I think that was the version that was released as a single when the movie came out in 1969, with the single reaching No. 6 in the late summer and early autumn of that year. I’ve never seen Midnight Cowboy, and every time “Everybody’s Talkin’” pops up on the radio or on my player here at home, I tell myself that I have to put the movie’s title in my video queue. And I forget to do so every time.

Dave Marsh writes in The Heart of Rock & Soul: “Of all the sixties’ testimony to the necessity for immediate social revolution, “Something In The Air” is by far the most elegantly atmospheric.” The single – and the following album, which is almost as consistently good – was produced by the Who’s Pete Townshend, with Andy “Thunderclap” Newman on piano, Speedy Keen on drums, a young Jimmy McCulloch on guitar and – Marsh says – “Bijou Drains, a bassist with a giant beak, pipestem legs and unorthodox windmill playing style.” Drains, of course, was Townshend on a busman’s holiday. The single that resulted remains at moments thrilling, though there are also moments when it sounds as if the record – which barely pierced the Top 40, peaking at No. 37 in the autumn of 1969 – was patched together with Scotch tape. As clunky as some of the production is, it’s still a fascinating and fun record.

Badfinger’s “Day After Day” remains, nearly forty years later, a gorgeous song. Written by Pete Ham and produced by Todd Rundgren for Straight Up, the group’s third album, the single went to No. 4 as 1971 turned into 1972. Badfinger’s sad story is well-known, for the most part; those who are unfamiliar can find it here. For my purposes, it’s enough today to say that the group provided some fine singles and albums, and “Day After Day” might be the best.

I’ve written several times about the horn rock bands of the early 1970s, among which Chase might have had the most talent (and likely, too, the most horns, what with three trumpets). “Get It On” came curling out of radio speakers during the summer of 1971, when the record went to No. 24. Four (pretty good) albums and three years later, the story ended when Bill Chase and three other members of the band (and two pilots) were killed in an airplane crash in southwestern Minnesota. Even after all these years, the cascading trumpets give me a little bit of a chill.

I don’t know that I’d thought of exploring Roberta Flack’s music much until late in 1974, when a friend gave me a copy of Flack’s Killing Me Softly album. I knew the title track, of course, which had gone to No. 1 in early 1973. I knew Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which closed the album. And even though I’ve listened to the record on and off for more than thirty-five years now, the rest of the record remains vague to me, with the exception of two tracks: “When You Smile” was the song that the ladyfriend who gave me the record quoted to me one evening over a quiet drink, a wish just short of a promise that never came true. And “No Tears (In The End)” is a loping piece of light funk that never fails to make me want to dance, and it’s home to a lyric that still talks to me today.

(Revised slightly, with one correction, since first posting.)