Posts Tagged ‘Spinners’

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.

A Room That Feels Like Mine

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 13, 2008

Not many days after we got all the furniture settled in the house, as I sat puttering idly at the computer and keeping half an eye on a football game – it must have been a Saturday – I began to hear repeated thumps and bangs coming from the loft. As the noise began, Clarence and Oscar fled down the stairs from the loft as rapidly as cat legs could carry them.

I left the study and went up to investigate: I found the Texas Gal wielding a hammer, attempting to put nails and hangers into the sturdy wallboard that lines the loft. Success was hard to come by. I asked if she needed help, and she declined. By the end of the afternoon, she had on the walls of the loft the things she felt most important to hang, some functional, some purely decorative. Among the decorative items were the Texas license plates she removed from her car when she first registered it in Minnesota.

I returned to my study and looked at the walls, still empty, and looked at the wide range of items waiting to find their places on the walls. Still not certain where they should all go – I tend to be a bit glacial about such decisions, a fact that sometimes perturbs the Texas Gal – I settled back into my chair and resumed my puttering and game-watching.

Last Saturday, I was finally ready. I’d gotten weary of moving framed things around whenever I wanted to pull a record from the stacks or a book from the shelves. The Texas Gal was away, heading with a friend to the city of Mankato – about a hundred and thirty miles away – on a quest for quilt and scrapbook shops. So after watching the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers win a football game at Illinois, I got out my hammer and some hangers and nails.

An hour later, I sat in my chair and surveyed the room. To the left of the north window was my framed poster of the cover to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. In the small space above the window: a plaque given me twenty-some years ago by the National Newspaper Association for feature writing.

From the window, heading to the corner, we find: The picture of my dad and his 1952 Ford; and a framed collection of pictures from 2002-2003, a chronicle of our move to St. Cloud and our first year here put together for me by the Texas Gal (one of those pictures is the last taken of me and my dad together, quite possibly the last picture he was ever in).

On the east wall are a cartoon poster of St. Cloud; a clock with its numbers ringing a drawing of an anonymous early 20th century baseball player; and a framed replica of the February 5, 1959, front page of the Clear Lake (Iowa) Mirror-Reporter, on which the lead story is the deaths in a plane crash two days earlier of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Boppper and pilot Roger Peterson.

Above a bookcase is an autographed picture of baseball player Joe Morgan, from the time he was with the Cincinnati Reds; and, above the door, a large replica of a Carlsberg HOF Pilsner bottle cap, a fixture that I brought home from Denmark thirty-five years ago, one that has had a place on the wall everywhere I have lived since.

I was pleased. Sixty minutes of work had turned the room from a place where I spent a lot of time into a room that felt like mine. A few things that I’ve had on the walls in other places will be packed away, and I’m not certain where the map of Middle Earth will go when its frame has been repaired. But it will find a place, as it has ever since my dad framed it for me in 1972.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1972, Vol. 4
“Dinah Flo” by Boz Scaggs, Columbia 45670 (No. 88 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of October 7, 1972)

“Think (About It)” by Lyn Collins, People 608 (No. 66)

“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Philadelphia International 3520 (No. 61)

“All The Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople, Columbia 45673 (No. 60)

“Easy Livin’” by Uriah Heep, Mercury 73307 (No. 49)

“I’ll Be Around” by the Spinners, Atlantic 2904 (No. 40)

“Midnight Rider” by Joe Cocker & the Chris Stainton Band, A&M 1370 (No. 36)

“Starting All Over Again” by Mel & Tim, Stax 0127 (No. 25)

“Beautiful Sunday” by Daniel Boone, Mercury 73281 (No. 22)

“Garden Party” by Rick Nelson & the Stone Canyon Band, Decca 32980 (No. 15)

“Popcorn” by Hot Butter, Musicor 1458 (No. 10)

“Everybody Plays The Fool” by the Main Ingredient, RCA Victor 0731 (No. 4)

“Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” by Mac Davis, Columbia 45618 (No. 1)

A few notes:

The funkiest thing here, without a doubt, is Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It),” which was produced by James Brown. Collins sang background on many of Brown’s recordings and was for a time in the 1970s a member of Brown’s traveling band. People Records was Brown’s label, evidently an offshoot of Polydor.

There are four other superb soul/r&b singles on this list, making it better than I thought it would be when I first dug the week’s Hot 100 out of the files. The singles by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Spinners and the Main Ingredient are smooth and still go down so easy, even after more than thirty-five years. All of them, oddly, peaked at No. 3. The Mel & Tim single starts with a conversation between the two singers before sliding into another smooth groove. I’m not sure the conversation works; it’s a short recording anyway, and I generally conclude that I’d rather have more singing and less talk from Mel & Tim.

Mott the Hoople and Uriah Heep, two British groups, had far more success on the Billboard albums chart than on the Hot 100. (Uriah Heep got five albums into the Top 40 between 1972 and 1974; Mott the Hoople had three albums in the Top 40 between 1973 and 1975.) The tracks here, “All the Young Dudes” and “Easy Livin’,” were the two groups’ only Top 40 hits, with “Dudes” (produced by David Bowie) peaking at No. 37 and “Easy Livin’” getting only to No. 39. Still both fun, though.

Joe Cocker’s version of Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider” starts a little sluggishly but when it kicks in, it cooks pretty well. In fact, there might be too much going on, what with the horns and the gospel chorus. I don’t know who produced the record, as the album from which it came, 1972’s Joe Cocker, is one I don’t have. I may have to remedy that although I seem to recall the album getting pretty spotty reviews when it came out.

I think Mac Davis told the tale behind his No. 1 hit on every talk show on television in 1972: His publisher or producer or manager (I don’t recall which it was, and it doesn’t really matter) told him that, in order to be a hit, a song had to have a hook. So he wrote “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me,” which stayed at No. 1 for three weeks in the autumn of 1972.

A Baker’s Dozen From 1972

April 18, 2011

Originally posted March 28, 2007

Well, I went back to the twelve remaining songs on my list of love songs and rolled the dice this morning. And we start today’s Baker’s Dozen with “We,” Shawn Phillips’ gorgeous anthem from his 1972 album, Faces. (The song was released as a single in 1974*  but didn’t make a dent in the charts; it’s possible that the only place the single got much play at all was in the jukebox of the student union at St. Cloud State, where my friends and I played it nearly every day.)

From there, we’ve got a pretty representative slice of the year with a few rarities. Nick Drake wasn’t nearly as well known then as he is now, some thirty years after his death. And I don’t think Cold Blood – a San Francisco band with a powerhouse singer, Lydia Pense – was very well known at the time, although all their work is worth seeking out. Manassas, as you likely know, is Stephen Stills and his friends.

The version of “Stage Fright” by The Band is from the live Rock of Ages album, different from, but no better or worse than, the 1971 studio version from the Stage Fright album.

Don’t be put off by the fact that “Hvor Går Du Hen?” is a Danish tune. Sebastian has for years been one of the pre-eminent homegrown musicians in Denmark, evolving from a Dylanesque folk-rocker in the early 1970s to a position of high regard for his frequent musicals now. And “Hvor Går Du Hen?” is mostly music, with only three lines of lyrics. Those lines translate roughly into: “Where do you go when you go home? Where do you go when you leave here? Where do you go when you go away?” It’s a lovely piece of work.

(Instead of posting thirteen individual links for the songs, I’ve decided to put all the mp3’s into a zip folder and post just one link.)

“We” by Shawn Phillips from Faces

“I’ll Be Around” by the Spinners, Atlantic single 2904

“Anyway” by Manassas from Manassas

“Who Is He And What Is He To You?” by Bill Withers from Still Bill

“Jazzman” by Pure Prairie League from Bustin’ Out

“Parasite” by Nick Drake from Pink Moon

“I Won’t Be Hangin’ ’Round” by Linda Ronstadt from Linda Ronstadt

“Hvor Går Du Hen?” by Sebastian from Den Store Flugt (Danish)

“Thinking Of You” by Tracy Nelson & Mother Earth from Tracy Nelson/Mother Earth

“I Just Want To See His Face” by the Rolling Stones from Exile On Main Street

“Lo & Behold” by Cold Blood from First Taste of Sin

“Stage Fright” by The Band from Rock of Ages

“Baby, I’m-A Want You” by Bread from Baby, I’m-A Want You

* As it turns out, the single was actually released in 1972, like the album, but for some reason, it did not show up in the student union jukebox until the autumn of 1974.