Posts Tagged ‘Steely Dan’

‘The X-Rays . . . Look Odd’

June 29, 2011

Originally posted May 30, 2008

Someone whose name I never knew saved my life thirty-four years ago this week.

I’d returned to St. Cloud from my academic year in Denmark on May 21, and by May 28, I was coughing every five minutes, feeling weak and winded. For a couple nights, I slept sitting up because every time I lay on my back, I started coughing uncontrollably. I’d started smoking during my last weeks in Denmark and had continued when I came home; thinking the cigarettes were the culprits, I laid them aside. But I continued to cough, and I felt weaker every day.

Finally, my mother took me to our family doctor. He tapped my chest, listened to my lungs and all that, and he sent me to the local hospital for some X-rays. At the hospital, when the X-rays had been shot, the technician asked me to wait there until he was sure they came out all right. I sat there with Mom, reading magazines and coughing. At length, the technician came out. He said, “The X-rays are all right, but they look odd. I’d like you to stay here until I can have a doctor look at them.”

And that almost certainly saved my life.

A doctor on call looked at the X-rays and had me admitted to the hospital. For half an hour or so, I went through tests – one of which determined how long I could exhale, in other words, lung capacity. I had blood drawn for lab work. About three hours or so after Mom and I walked in, I was sitting up in a bed – reading the morning paper, I think – waiting to find out what was going on.

And a doctor, a nurse and two orderlies – all with grim faces – came literally running into my room, the orderlies hauling an oxygen tank. The doctor watched as the nurse threaded a plastic tube through my nose and down into my breathing passage. She connected it to the tank and one of the orderlies turned the valve, sending oxygen into my lungs. The doctor said that no one knew why, but my lungs had – over the past week – filled with fluid to an alarming degree. I was drowning.

The doctors who cared for me in the next week gave some information to my parents that they did not share with me. From what I learned later, as I understand it (and I’ve never done much digging), the amount of oxygen, or O2, present in the blood is measured so that a normal level is somewhere around 100. When one’s O2 level drops to 50, some very bad things can occur. When it drops to 35, things get much worse. And – again, as I understand it from many years ago – when it drops to 25, one does not have much of a future. I have been told that my O2 level as I went through those tests that afternoon was 32.

That explains the grim faces on the doctor, the nurse and the orderlies.

That evening, I was moved to a room with an oxygen tank built into the walls and was given one of those oxygen masks with the nozzles that fit into one’s nose, which was much more comfortable. The internist assigned to my case told my parents and me that he was going to put me on Prednisone, a steroid. Over the course of a week, that cleared the fluid in my lungs, and doctors determined that there had been no permanent damage. I was very lucky. But the doctors never figured out why my lungs had filled; they called it an allergic reaction of unknown origin.

So I went home breathing and whole. My doctors, being understandably cautious, recommended that my activities be limited for at least the first six weeks of summer. I negotiated with them the right to walk every morning to the neighborhood grocery store a block away to buy a newspaper. And for the first half of the summer of 1974, that was just about all I was allowed to do. Oh, I imagine my folks took me out to dinner, and I know friends stopped by. But I was strongly discouraged from leaving the house on my own for anything other than that brief morning walk.

That was difficult enough for a man of twenty who was beginning to feel much better. But worse yet, I continued to take the Prednisone through the summer, and the drug had an effect on me similar to what I imagine low-grade speed would. I could sleep no more than six to seven hours a night, and when I was awake, I wanted to go, go, go. Those six weeks got long, and it was a major relief in July when I was allowed to leave home every weekday and work four to five hours at St. Cloud State’s Learning Resources Center.

Luckily, I had things to read – nearly nine months’ worth of Sports Illustrated and Time, which my dad had set aside for me while I was in Denmark – and I had music: Records in the rec room in the basement; the piano in the dining room; my guitar, which I played as I sat in our front yard overlooking the street; and radio, which was on as background most of the rest of the time, especially in the evenings, when I read late into the night.

Here’s some of what I heard that summer, thirteen songs pulled from the Billboard Top 100 for June 1, 1974:

A Selected Baker’s Dozen from 1974
“Please Come to Boston” by Dave Loggins, Epic single 11115 (No. 98 as of June 1, 1974)

“Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae, T.K. single 1004 (No. 93)

“Keep on Smilin’” by Wet Willie, Capricorn single 0043 (No. 81)

“Waterloo” by Abba, Atlantic single 3035 (No. 76)

“Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation, RCA single 0232 (No. 71)

“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan, ABC single 11439 (No. 55)

“Let It Ride” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Mercury single 73457 (No. 50)

“If You Wanna Get To Heaven” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, A&M single 1515 (No. 45)

“Mighty Mighty” by Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia single 46007 (No. 33)

“Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, Virgin single 55100 (No. 25)

“Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely” by the Main Ingredient, RCA single 0205 (No. 24)

“Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John, MCA single 40198 (No. 21)

“Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, Asylum single 11034 (No. 8 )

A few notes:

When I do a Baker’s Dozen, I usually let the RealPlayer select the songs randomly, so I always hear at least a snippet of each song. Today, I selected the songs from the Billboard list, so I heard bits of only a few. “Please Come To Boston” was not one of those I heard this morning, but I find as I think about it that it rings more clearly in my head than almost any other song on this list, throwing – as it were – echoes around the canyon. Was it that good a song? Or was it just pervasive? It peaked at No. 5 that summer, Loggins’ only hit, and it was, I guess, a not-bad chip from the singer-songwriter block. But in the end, more pervasive than good.

I wrote a few weeks ago that Wet Willie sometimes gets overlooked when talk turns to southern rock of the Seventies. The same is true with “Keep On Smilin’.” There wasn’t much southern about it, at least not what a listener would expect of a Capricorn release. But it was fun, it moved along nicely, and it had a good vocal and a good hook.

“Rock the Boat” is another one of those songs whose lyrics roll through my head without hesitation whenever I stop to think about it. The song reached No. 1 that summer, another example of the value of a good hook.

“Tubular Bells” began as an LP with two long compositions, one on each side. The single came about when an edit of Oldfield’s composition was selected for use as the theme to the movie The Exorcist, which came out in 1973. The single was released after the film’s success and eventually made its way to No. 7.

I tend to think that “Help Me” is the best thing Joni Mitchell has ever recorded over the course of her long career.

One day in July, having received approval from my doctors, my folks let me drive to the local mall on my own. There wasn’t a lot to do there, although I imagine I checked out the paperbacks at the drug stores and then looked through LPs at Musicland and Woolworth’s. But to be out on my own again was liberating, and I sat on one of the benches in the mall, sipping a soft drink, just watching that bit of the world. As I did, I heard from the sound system of a nearby store “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” And for more than thirty years, that song has been to me the sound of freedom and relief.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1977, Vol. 2

June 28, 2011

Originally posted May 14, 2008

There’s a framed photo on the wall above my computer that shows my dad and his 1952 Ford. He’s standing in front of the cocoa-brown car, one foot raised onto the bumper; behind him, one can see Centennial Hall, the building at St. Cloud State where he had his office.

The trees in the photo look like they’re starting to turn, so it’s autumn. My dad is nattily dressed in his leisure suit, so it was either 1976 or 1977. (For those who don’t know what a leisure suit looked like, here’s a picture; Dad’s was steel blue; mine was cobalt blue.) I’m going to guess the picture was taken in 1977, not long before one of the saddest days of Dad’s life, the day he finally junked his old Ford.

He paid cash for it in 1952. He told me once how much it had been, but I don’t recall what he said, although the total of $450 keeps tickling at my memory. (Fifteen minutes of ’Net digging brought no answers as to what the price might have been.) And for twelve years, that two-door ’52 Customline – Ford’s mid-range model – was our family car. It took us down to Grandpa’s farm four or five times a year, to the Twin Cities for special shopping trips maybe twice a year and on the occasional summer vacation. It was during one of those vacation trips, somewhere in northern Minnesota, when the car’s odometer turned over. Dad slowed the car to a crawl on a country road, and I recall leaning forward from the back seat, watching as 99,999.9 slowly rolled out of sight, replaced by 00,000.0.

There was nothing all that special about the car, except that I think it was the first new car Dad had ever owned. And as it began to get older, I think it was tough for Dad. In 1964, we got another new car, this time the Ford Custom 500 in a color called Chantilly Beige. And Dad’s ’52 was relegated to lesser duties. He still drove it to work each day and used it for weekend trips to the golf course and the city dump. (We had four large oak trees in our yard, and every autumn, we’d rake up bushels of acorns, which we’d get rid of at the dump. We’d burn the leaves in piles back near the alley, as did everybody else. To this day, when I smell burning leaves, I smell autumn on Kilian Boulevard.)

Eventually, the old Ford began to deteriorate, as all of us and all our possessions are fated to do. Rust ate away at the fenders and the headlight casings. The heater worked intermittently. My sister and I both recall riding in wintertime to St. Cloud State with Dad during our first years of college. “Don’t breathe!” he’d joke as we sat in the cold car, heading down Riverside Drive. “Two people breathing in here fogs up the windshield!”

Both my sister and I, within a year or so after we started college, got our own cars and left Dad to drive the ’52 with an unfogged windshield. But more than the heater began to fail. The radio tuner broke; when it did, the AM radio was tuned to WVAL, the country station in nearby Sauk Rapids, so that was okay. Then, the door latch on the passenger side failed. For a time – I’m not sure how long – Dad continued to drive the car to work, holding the passenger door shut by means of a rope tied to the door handle and pulled across the car to the handle on the driver’s side. I’d left home by the time that process started, and when I rode with Dad to the grocery store one day, I just shook my head and held on to the rope, holding the door next to me closed with all my strength. I never rode in the car again.

Sometime in 1977, Dad accepted the inevitable. He went down to the Ford dealership and got a newer used car, then found a salvage yard to junk the old car. He never talked about it, but I know it had to hurt. And on the wall of the basement rec room, until the day he died, hung the photo of him in his leisure suit and his ’52 Ford in all its rusted glory.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1977, Vol. 2
“Home” by Karla Bonoff from Karla Bonoff
“Keep On Playin’ That Funky Music” by the Muscle Shoals Horns from Doin’ It To The Bone
“Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac from Rumours
“The Loneliest of Creatures” by Klaatu from Hope
“Right Time of the Night” by Jennifer Warnes, Arista 0223
“Swayin’ To The Music (Slow Dancing)” by Johnny Rivers, Big Tree 16094
“Cup of Wonder” by Jethro Tull from Songs From The Wood
“Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan from Aja
“Something Better” by Chilliwack from Dreams, Dreams, Dreams
“No More Sad Refrains” by Sandy Denny from Rendezvous
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston, Tamla 54278
“Hard Times” by Boz Scaggs from Down Two Then Left
“Night Fever” by the Bee Gees, RSO 889

A few notes:

Karla Bonoff released a series of very good singer-songwriter albums in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but she’s perhaps better known as a songwriter. Linda Ronstadt recorded three of Bonoff’s songs – “Lose Again,” “If He’s Ever Near” and “Some to Lay Down Beside Me” – on her 1976 album, Hasten Down the Wind and others over the years. Bonoff’s albums were made with the help of many of the same musicians who worked on Ronstadt’s records and, indeed, on many of the prominent albums recorded in Los Angeles at the time. All of Bonoff’s work is worth checking out.

If 1977 was anyone’s year, it was Fleetwood Mac’s. The new-look Mac – with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks on board – saw its second album, Rumours, enter the Top 40 album chart in late February and make its way to No. 1 by the beginning of April. The album would be No. 1 for thirty-one weeks and in the Top 40 for fifty-nine, throwing off four Top Ten singles: “Go Your Own Way” went to No. 10, “Don’t Stop” reached No. 3, “You Make Loving Fun” went to No. 9, and the song listed here, “Dreams,” went to No. 1. Along with being a quick ticket back to 1977, “Dreams” has the added attraction of being a great single, probably the best of the four.

I’d forgotten about Klaatu until Casey, over at The College Crowd Digs Me featured a song by the Canadian group this week. The release of the group’s self-titled album in 1976 spawned rumors that Klaatu was in fact the Beatles reunited. The record and its jacket were examined closely for clues, and Capitol did nothing to tamp down the rumors. When Klaatu turned out to be just Klaatu, the resulting backlash killed any chance the group had. The track here comes from the group’s second album, which wasn’t quite up to the standards of the first but wasn’t bad, either. After three more albums, the group disbanded in 1981.

I’m not all that fond of Jennifer Warnes’ “Right Time of the Night,” but I have to admit it’s got one of the better lines one can find in a song from this era: “Quarter-moon walkin’ through the Milky Way.” My respects to songwriter Pete McCann.

The album Rendezvous was the last work British singer Sandy Denny released before her death in 1978. A little over-produced, the album is not her best work. Even inappropriately framed, however, Denny’s voice and songwriting skills are still evident in “No More Sad Refrains” and other songs from that last album. Those interested are advised to find The North Star Grassman and the Ravens from 1971 or 1973’s Like an Old Fashioned Waltz. For those who want more than that, a good bet is the double CD overview of Denny’s career – including her time with Fairport Convention and Fotheringay – issued in 2000, which took the title of this track for its own title: No More Sad Refrains.

From A Muscle To The Junkyard

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 22, 2008

As some cliché writer once said, there’s a first time for everything. I’m still not sold on the “everything” in that, but I do seem to have cataloged a “first time” that I don’t believe I’ve ever thought about.

I’ve been fighting a cold for a couple of days, and last evening, while sneezing, I pulled a muscle in my ribcage. I never knew one could do that. But I did, and one of the results is that I’m not very comfortable writing. So I’m not going to do much of that today, beyond a short introduction and some comments about some of the songs that pop up.

Several of the online outlets where I buy CDs have had sales and promotions lately, so there is an appreciable pile of CDs waiting to be logged into our collection here. Most of them are albums from the 1960s and 1970s, as I continue to fill gaps. In an effort to fill one such empty space, I finally picked up last week Wanted, the first album by the country-rock group Mason Proffit. So we’ll start today’s walk through the junkyard with “Two Hangmen,” the Vietnam-era protest song dressed up as a Western morality play. In the year it came out, I used to hear it through whispers of static on KAAY in Little Rock.

A Walk Through the Junkyard
“Two Hangmen” by Mason Proffit from Wanted, 1969

“Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan from The Royal Scam, 1976

“Wolves In The Kitchen” by John Stewart from Lonesome Picker Rides Again, 1971

“Hurt So Bad” by El Chicano from Viva Tirado, 1970

“Everything Is Gonna Be OK” by Dino Valente from Dino Valente, 1968

“Stranger Than Dreams” by Lowen & Navarro from Scratch at the Door, 1998

“Keeping the Faith” by Billy Joel from An Innocent Man, 1983

“I Just Want To Make Love To You” by Muddy Waters, Chess single 1571, 1954

“Poems, Prayers & Promises” by John Denver, RCA single 0445, 1971

“So Easy” by Aztec Two-Step from Aztec Two-Step, 1972

“Love at the Five & Dime” by Nanci Griffith from Last of the True Believers, 1986

“That Girl Could Sing” by Jackson Browne from Hold Out, 1980

“One Fine Day” by Carole King, Capitol single 4864, 1980

“Out In The Country” by Three Dog Night from It Ain’t Easy, 1970

“Moses” by the Navarros, GNP Crescendo single 351, 1965

A few notes:

I’ve learned from conversations and correspondence with radio folks that “Two Hangmen” is one of those songs that brings a buzz when it is aired: The phones light up as listeners have questions, comments and just plain gratitude for being able to hear the song one more time.

Steely Dan’s sound was unique and so consistent from album to album that sometimes the group’s body of work can blend into a whole. While the Dan never released a truly bad album, there were a couple that weren’t as good, and I think The Royal Scam was one of those.

I’m not sure if Lowen & Navarro were as popular elsewhere in the 1990s as they seemed to be in Minnesota. Every two or three months, it seemed, the duo would stop by Cities 97 for a live-in-studio performance. Their acoustic folk-pop was well-done, and I enjoy the couple of CDs I have, but there never seemed to be much change or growth: the songs on 1998’s Scratch at the Door could easily have fit into Walking On A Wire, the duo’s 1991 debut CD.

I have seven LPs and three CDs of Billy Joel’s work in my collection. I’m not sure I need that much. That said, An Innocent Man is a good album, and if “Keeping the Faith” isn’t the best track on the record – I think that title goes to “Uptown Girl” – it’s nevertheless a good one. Maybe someday I’ll write a post examining why I’m not all that fond of Joel and his work, and maybe by the time I’m finished with that post, I’ll understand the ambivalence he brings out in me.

Aztec Two-Step was a folk-rock duo that released four albums during the 1970s and a few more sporadically since then, including 2004’s Days of Horses. Their self-titled debut in 1972 created some buzz, but by the time the duo recorded 1975’s Second Step, folk-rock was falling out of favor. The first album is the best, though all of their work is pleasant.

I’ve noticed that whenever I post a Nanci Griffith song among either a Baker’s Dozen or a Junkyard, it almost always has fewer hits than the other tracks posted that day. Do yourself a favor: Listen to “Love at the Five & Dime.” I think that if I were to make a list of the one hundred best songs in my mp3 collection – which now numbers around 23,600 – “Love at the Five & Dime” would be one of them. I know that Nanci Griffith is not as well known as other artists whose recordings are posted here. I know that her delivery can be quirky. But the woman can write a song, and this one is most likely her best, from where I listen.

The Carole King track was the single pulled from Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King, a 1980 record for which King recorded some of the songs she and her then-husband, Gerry Goffin crafted during the Brill Building days in the early 1960s. I’d call the album a must-have.

The Navarros’ “Moses” is not quite a novelty record, but it comes close. I almost skipped over it when it popped up at the tail end this morning, but then I decided it’s a good day for a little bit of a chuckle.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1975, Vol. 2

May 11, 2011

Originally posted October 3, 2007

Ever try to move a house?

The phone rang early one evening during the summer of 1975, as I was reading in the rec room downstairs, with the Allman Brothers Band keeping me company from the stereo. It was Murl, a graduate student at St. Cloud State who was both a friend and a co-worker on a special crew at the college’s Department of Learning Resources (known in earlier, less pedagogical times as the library).

“I’m over here on the northeast side,” Murl said, giving me an address. “Get your butt over here.”

Not being sure what Murl had in mind, I shrugged and followed directions. A few moments later, I parked my ’61 Falcon – I called it Farley – in front of a small house up on blocks that had a portion of the roof torn off. As I walked toward the house, still puzzled, Murl poked his head up through the empty space where the roof had been. “C’mon up and put on a pair of gloves,” he said.

I went inside and up the narrow stairway, noting that there wasn’t much to the house: a living room, kitchen, bathroom and a small bedroom downstairs and a cramped attic, now about half of it open to the sky.

“We’re taking the top four feet off of it,” Murl said. I waited. He grinned.

“Why?” I finally asked, and he explained.

The house and its property had been purchased – if I remember correctly – by the city, and the house was set to be demolished. Murl and his brothers thought that the house – in pretty good shape and only about fifty years old – might be a good storage building out on their parents’ farm in the western part of the state

So Murl and his brothers bought the house and scouted a route from St. Cloud out to the farm near Chokio, not all that far from the South Dakota border. Murl said they’d worked out a route that used only county and township roads because using state or federal highways would require permit fees that they’d rather avoid. But, due to overhead wires along those county and township roads, the top four feet of the house had to come off. A few days earlier, Murl and his brothers had sawn through the main supports of the roof and taken part of the roof off, and now Murl was pulling the remainder of the roof down to that four-foot point. That left the chimney.

I spent that evening and the next working with Murl in that attic, pulling down the chimney and rigging a cable down the center of the open space that would guide low overhead wires across the house as it moved across the state. A day or so later, the house was jacked and placed on a truck bed.

And of course, having been involved in preparing the house for the move, there was no way I was going to miss the actual move. I got to Murl’s house about five o’clock that morning, and he and I drove to the house site and clambered into the truck cab. His brothers got into a pickup truck and pulled ahead of us, and we set out.

We drove at no more than thirty, maybe thirty-five miles an hour, weaving our way west through central Minnesota, sipping black coffee and eating an occasional sandwich from the lunch we’d packed. The brothers had a carefully mapped route and a list of locations of all the overhead wires that we’d have to lift to get the house under them. Using a T-shaped tool made of two-by-fours, we gingerly lifted power lines and telephone lines, easing the truck and its cargo all the way to Chokio.

We got to Murl’s folks’ farm about six that evening, and just as we got the house off the truck and onto blocks, the rains came, soaking us all as we scrambled across the barnyard to the house. An hour or so later, Murl and I got back into the truck and drove – at standard speed, this time – the 110 or so miles back to St. Cloud. We got home late, dirty, wet and tired, but we were young, and the next morning, we reported back to our summer tasks at the college.

Murl’s gone now. Cancer took him a little more than three years ago. During one of my last visits with him, about a month before he died, he mentioned with a laugh our moving the house that day. “We might have made it more work than it should have been,” he said.

Maybe, I said.

He grinned and said the last words I ever heard him speak. “It sure was a lot of fun, though, wasn’t it?”

A Baker’s Dozen from 1975

“Diamonds & Rust” by Joan Baez from Diamonds & Rust

“Louisiana Lou and Three Card Monty John” by the Allman Brothers Band from Win, Lose or Draw

“Now and Then” by Gordon Lightfoot from Cold on the Shoulder

“Wheels” by Emmylou Harris from Elite Hotel

“Between the Lines” by Janis Ian from Between the Lines

“Love Comes Through My Door” by Homestead & Wolfe from Our Times

“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” by Steely Dan from Katy Lied

“Two More Bottles Of Wine” by Delbert McClinton from Victim of Life’s Circumstances

“Monday Morning” by Fleetwood Mac from Fleetwood Mac

“Why Can’t We Be Friends” by War, United Artists single 629

“Solitaire” by the Carpenters, A&M single 1721

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” by Bob Dylan from Blood on the Tracks

“December 1963 (Oh What A Night)” by the Four Seasons, Warner Bros. single 8168

A few notes on some of the songs:

The song “Diamonds and Rust” might be the best thing Joan Baez ever recorded. Its layered spooky and echoing sound mimics the way memories lay on top of each other and come to the surface one by one, as Baez coolly dissects her long relationship with Bob Dylan: “Yes, I loved you dearly, and if you’re offering me diamonds and rust, I’ve already paid.”

The Allman Brothers Band track is an okay piece, taken from an album that itself was just okay. “Louisiana Lou and Three Card Monty John” is pleasant listening, as is Win, Lose or Draw, but for a band with such a tremendous past, this was a disappointing present.

The Janis Ian track is a pretty good one. It’s the title track of her comeback album, which found her thrust into the spotlight for the first time since she was a prodigy back in 1967. The best song on the album, to my mind, is “At Seventeen,” which reached No. 3 during the summer of 1975.

Homestead & Wolfe’s Our Times was a remarkable one-shot, featuring good songs, great lead vocals and harmony and the backing work of some of the best studio players in the Los Angeles area. “Love Comes Through My Door” was pretty representative of the record, whose tale is told here.

I’ve long thought that “Why Can’t We Be Friends” was one of the silliest songs ever laid onto a record. War did some very good stuff around this time, but this song gives me a headache.

Conversely, I’ve thought since Blood on the Tracks came out that “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” was one of Bob Dylan’s best and most-ignored songs. From the sprightly harmonica introduction through the fadeout, Dylan accepts without distress or irony that the woman he’s addressing will entrance him and inevitably leave him. Bonus points to Bobby for rhyming “Honolula” and “Ashtabula.”

Note
After thinking about it for a few years, it’s likely that  our adventure moving the house took place during the summer of 1976 instead of  the summer of 1975. That year’s difference, however, would alter neither the friendship  Murl and I shared nor the fun we had moving the house, whenever we did it. And  the tunes from 1975, the year our friendship blossomed, are still great. Note added May 11, 2011.

A Baker’s Dozen From 1980

April 26, 2011

Originally posted July 18, 2007

When the year 1980 comes along as I’m thinking about music, my train of thought is an express, heading to only one destination.

It was a Monday, December 8 was. It was the second Monday of the month, which meant that I spent the bulk of the evening at Monticello City Hall, listening to the city council debate whatever issues were on its agenda. It sounds deadly dull, but I actually enjoyed covering city government; the ebb and flow of politics and policies over a nearly six-year period gave me insight as to how a city grows.

I don’t recall any of the topics on the agenda, but the meeting was over fairly early. I’d guess it was around 9:30 when the gavel fell and I walked out of the building into the chilly night, headed for my car and my home about two miles out of town. The woman who was then my wife was there, probably involved in some craft project, and there was a football game on television, Miami and New England.

And so I was seated in my easy chair, probably dipping into a bowl of popcorn, when Howard Cosell interrupted the game.

“This, we have to say it, is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” Cosell said. “An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all the Beatles, shot five times in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead … on … arrival.”

I stared at the screen, football forgotten. I recall trying to wrap my head around the weight Cosell’s words carried, not quite grasping it, the news too stunning and too fresh for comprehension or sorrow. Not long after the game ended, the result unnoticed, we retired for the night, and I lay there, still shocked. “Do you think it will be on Nightline?” she asked me.

“I can’t imagine they’d cover anything else.”

“Then go watch it. He was yours.”

I went to the living room. In a short marriage in which both of us so often got so many things so wrong about each other, that was one that she got right about me, and I am still grateful. I watched as Ted Koppel and his reporters and guests sorted through what was known and what was supposed. Then they began the first of thousands of assessments of what John Lennon and the Beatles had meant to us.

That’s a topic worthy of several volumes – what John Lennon and the Beatles had meant to us – and not all of the answers can be put into words. The next day was a busy one at work, as Tuesdays always were, but I managed to get home for thirty minutes for lunch. One of the Twin Cities classic rock stations, KQRS, was playing the Beatles’ catalog alphabetically, and as I ate my sandwich, I heard “In My Life.”

As I listened, I finally understood how those folks a few years older than I had felt during the summer of 1977 when they got the news that Elvis had died. Bent over my dining room table, I wept for John; for Yoko, Sean and Julian; for John’s three bandmates; and I wept for all of us who loved the man through his music.

Here’s a random Baker’s Dozen from 1980:

“Sequel” by Harry Chapin, Boardwalk single 5700

“Middle Man” by Boz Scaggs from Middle Man

“Boulevard” by Jackson Browne from Hold Out

“Gaucho” by Steely Dan from Gaucho

“Crush On You” by Bruce Springsteen from The River

“Saving Grace” by Bob Dylan from Saved

“Wildwood Boys” by Jim Keach from The Long Riders soundtrack

“The Last To Know” by Dan Fogelberg from Phoenix

“Every Night” by Richie Havens from Connections

“High Walls” by Levon Helm from The Legend Of Jesse James

“Woman” by John Lennon, Geffen single 49644

“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, Chrysalis single 2464

“Cocaine” by Eric Clapton, RSO single 1039

A few notes on some of the songs:

For many people, there is no middle ground when it comes to Harry Chapin: They either love him and his works, or detest him. “Taxi,” especially, seems to draw either scorn or rapture. If it were better known, I’d imagine the same response would apply to “Sequel,” in which, backed by almost the same music as eight years earlier, Harry returns to San Francisco and has “eight hours to kill before the show.” We know where he goes, and of course, he takes a taxi, and he tells us (almost) all about it. Overblown? Yes. Beloved? Yes, that, too. Chapin was a storyteller, and one of the ancillary regrets I have about his death in 1981 is that we never got to hear the end of the tale, which I can only assume he would have called “Finale.”

Jackson Browne’s Hold Out has aged better than I thought it would. Coming after his first four studio albums and the live triumph of Running On Empty, it seemed slight and lightweight – especially in its lyrics; the music was pretty well done – when it came out in 1980. Now, twenty-seven years later, most of the album fares better. But “Boulevard,” which seemed to be the slightest song on the record in 1980, still sounds trite.

Springsteen’s “Crush On You” is one of the most direct and powerful songs from The River, an album stacked with direct and powerful tunes that are balanced by a few of the loveliest ballads the Boss has ever done. I’m not sure being so direct with the object of one’s passion would work in real life, but Bruce and the boys are strong enough here to make the listener think it might.

“Saving Grace” comes from Saved, the second of Bob Dylan’s three so-called Christian albums. It was also the least successful musically, if not commercially, of the three. It’s an album that I would guess that few Dylan fans listen to very often; the Bard of Hibbing is one of my favorite performers and I don’t think I’ve played the record more than twice, maybe. But even mediocre Dylan can hold some interest in performance, and the lyrics have one of two turns of phrase that show that he put some work into it.

I chuckled when songs from both the soundtrack to The Long Riders – a film that told the story of Jesse James – and the LP The Legend of Jesse James popped up during the random play. It was evidently a good year for the original James Gang, 1980 was. Of the two albums, I prefer The Long Riders. Even though the vocal on “Wildwood Boys” is by Jim Keach, the song, and the soundtrack, belong to Ry Cooder, who wrote much of the original material and arranged the rest, some of it traditional, some of it written for the film. The LP The Legend of Jesse James, which I can only call a country-rock opera, is a not-awful attempt to tell the same story through song that Walter Hill told on the screen. The main roles are sung by Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Charlie Daniels; other prominent names on the record include Albert Lee and Jesse Ed Davis on guitar and Bernie Leadon on banjo. Written and produced by Paul Kennerly, the record sounds good in concept but unhappily doesn’t seem to pull together to be as compelling as one would like it to be.

A Baker’s Dozen From 1974

April 18, 2011

Originally posted May 7, 2007

Well, we’re back from a long road trip, some 3,200 miles from Minnesota to Texas and back (with a side trip into the Ozarks along the way home).

The Texas Gal and I both love to travel, but it can get exhausting. For health reasons, I have to supply my own towels and bedding when I travel, so we have to carry more luggage than most folks would. And we’re both in our fifties and are slowing down just a little, so it takes a little longer to settle down for the nights and to pack up in the mornings than it used to. We got home exhausted on Saturday and spent most of Sunday doing laundry and putting things away.

But it was a good trip, and the Texas Gal is a good traveling partner. Our senses of humor are pretty congruent, so we find the same things funny. On the way to Texas, we took an ill-advised alternate route that likely added a hundred miles to our trek to Garland, the suburb outside Dallas where the Texas Gal’s family lives. That lengthened the second day of the trip, which was an annoyance, but it also brought us through Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

As we headed south on the town’s main drag, I glanced to the side and saw the marvelously named breakfast place: “Wonder Waffles.” We were laughing about that as I jotted it into our travel journal, and we passed the “Bel-Air Motel,” which looked like it hadn’t been upgraded since, oh, 1972. We wondered who would go to meet whom at the Bel-Air?

And then a car zipped by on our right with the vanity plate KIMMISU. We puzzled over it for a moment. Kimm is u? We shook our heads. Then the Texas Gal said “Kimmi Su! It’s her name!”

We never got a look at her. She stayed a car length or two ahead of us for a mile or so, and then turned off into a Wal-Mart parking lot. But we created Kimmi Su’s story as we followed.

We could see her in our minds: short, lithe and blonde, heading across town after a long syrupy shift at Wonder Waffles. Maybe there’s a husband, maybe there’s a boyfriend, but neither of them is the fellow she’s planning to meet at the Bel-Air Motel. His name is Billy Joe or Jimmy Bob or something that sounds just right for Okmulgee, Oklahoma. He has plans to leave town, and she needs to persuade him to take her with. And as she turns off the highway, Kimmi Su sighs and shakes her head, wishing for about the hundredth time that Okmulgee had a Victoria’s Secret instead of a Wal-Mart to make easier her task of persuading Billy Joe/Jimmy Bob to take her with him when he goes.

I swear there’s a country song in there.

There’s no country song in today’s Baker’s Dozen, but the first song could easily be one that Kimmi Su and Billy Joe/Jimmy Bob sing to each other during their good times. It’s also the one that Kimmi Su would no doubt hum quietly on rare occasions after Billy Joe/Jimmy Bob is gone, with a distant look and just the hint of a tear and a smile at the same time.

“A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knockin’ Every Day)” by Nilsson & Cher, Warner-Spector single 0402

“Midnight At The Oasis” by Maria Muldaur from Maria Muldaur

“Light Shine” by Jesse Colin Young from Light Shine

“Boogie On, Reggae Woman” by Stevie Wonder from Fulfillingness’ First Finale

“(It’s All Da-Da-Down To) Goodnight Vienna” by Ringo Starr from Goodnight Vienna

“I’ve Been Searching” by O. V. Wright, Back Beat single 631

“Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream)” by Tower of Power from Back to Oakland

“East St. Louis Toodle-oo” by Steely Dan from Pretzel Logic

“Please Be With Me” by Eric Clapton from 461 Ocean Boulevard

“Bad Loser” by Fleetwood Mac from Heroes Are Hard To Find

“Song For All Seasons” by Just Others from Amalgam

“What Comes Around (Goes Around)” by Dr. John from Desitively Bonnaroo

“Rock & Roll Heaven” by the Righteous Brothers, Haven single 7002

A few notes about today’s Baker’s Dozen:

The first song was a happy surprise to me when I came across it a month or so ago. Despite his perpetual weirdness, Spector’s genius produced classic record after classic record. But I was unaware of this collaboration between Nilsson and Cher, never having seen it on a compilation. The Back to Mono box set has Ike and Tina Turner performing the same song. But Nilsson and Cher do the song justice, too.

“Light Shine” from Jesse Colin Young is a delicious piece of California sugar. Young, the founder of the Youngbloods, seemed to view life in the mid- to late-1970s from a groovy hilltop just outside San Francisco (or maybe from a hot tub in Marin County), and his albums became a little repetitious. But taken piece by piece, his salutes to post-hippie bliss are quite enjoyable, and this may be the best of them.

The source of O.V. Wright’s “I’ve Been Searching” is clear from the first note: the studios of Hi Records in Memphis. With the same sweaty groove and popping horns as the best work of Al Green, the listener hears Willie Mitchell’s fingerprints all over this song. And if Wright never became as famous as his label-mate, well, that won’t keep us from hearing the pain in Wright’s tale and feeling the groove as he and the choir mourn his isolation.

“Please Be With Me,” off Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard is a sweet tune, nicely done with a backing vocal by Yvonne Elliman. It’s more notable, I think, for its source: A group called Cowboy recorded the song – its composer, Scott Boyer, was a member of Cowboy – in August 1971 at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios with Duane Allman playing dobro.

Just Others’ album, Amalgam, was a delightful piece of British folk that had a very limited release in 1974. From what I’ve read, it’s possible that only one copy of the original 250 has ever turned up, but one was enough to be a source for a limited CD release.  It’s a fascinating story and a lovely piece of work.

As always, bit rates will vary. Enjoy!

(I’ve inverted my normal week’s postings by putting the Baker’s Dozen at the start of the week. Being just back from vacation, I didn’t have an album ripped for today and have too many post-vacation tasks on my agenda today. I hope to have a newly ripped album for Wednesday.)

A Baker’s Dozen (Plus) From 1977

April 18, 2011

Originally posted April 25, 2007

Today’s Baker’s Dozen actually numbers twenty songs. I decided to add some bonus material because I won’t be posting again for a little more than a week. The Texas Gal and I are heading south tomorrow to visit her family in the Dallas area and do some touring in San Antonio and around Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

So I thought I’d give you some extra tunes today. Don’t listen to them all at once! (I couldn’t help it: My dad used to give me similar warnings about my allowance, back when a quarter really could buy something.)

A note about how I compile the Baker’s Dozens: I generally sort the year’s songs by running time and set the RealPlayer on random. If I don’t have a selected starting song – I did not this week – them I start with the shortest song I have for that year (usually a television theme or something negligible) and then go from there. The only rules I have are not to post something I’ve posted since I began the blog in January, and only one song per artist.

But I screwed up midway through this batch. I have a lot of odd stuff in the collection – fight songs, commercials, television themes and other stuff – and at about No. 10, the RealPlayer landed on a 1977 recording of the national anthem of the Soviet Union. I found it recently at a site that offers hundreds of mp3s of songs from that nation’s 74-year existence. When the anthem popped up, I thought, “That’s just a little too odd for my audience,” and I hit the advance button, got a repeat performer, got another repeat and another repeat and got lost.

So I started over again, somewhere around the entry from Chicago, and when I got to the end of eighteen songs, I thought, well, I should put the Soviet anthem in anyway, so I made it a twenty-song selection, adding the Thelma Houston tune through a random jump.

And I got to thinking about the Soviet anthem. About forty years ago – which is not that many years ago, as these things go – acknowledging some affection for that particular piece of music could have left one open to criticism. Anything that had even a slight whiff of respect or affection for the USSR was suspicious. I recall a presentation to one of the local civic organizations – Elks, Moose, Lions, Eagles, Rotary, I don’t remember which one – sometime in 1969, I think, when the speaker pointed out that the Beatles, by opening their 1968 self-titled album (the “White Album”) with “Back In The USSR,” were proclaiming their intent to indoctrinate their listeners with their Communist views. While the kids in the audience snorted and rolled their eyes, our parents nodded and made mental notes to see what we were listening to.

(For the record, my parents were far more upset by “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” than they were by “Back In The USSR,” which was a Chuck Berry/Beach Boys pastiche/tribute, anyway!)

But I do acknowledge a fondness for the Soviet anthem, partly because it is a stirring piece of music, to my ears, and partly because hearing it reminds me of watching the Olympics during my younger years and seeing red-clad athlete after athlete standing atop the awards platform with a gold medal as the anthem echoed through the arena. (I especially recall the Soviet gymnasts and my admiration for the dark elegance of Ludmilla Tourischeva.)

Anyway, here’s today’s augmented Baker’s Dozen, from the year of 1977.

“Native New Yorker” by Odyssey, RCA single 11129

“Wings” by Rick Nelson from Intakes

“The Trumpet Vine” by Kate Wolf from Lines On The Paper

“Velvet Green” by Jethro Tull from Songs From The Wood

“Jammin’” by Bob Marley & the Wailers from Exodus

“Kitty Come Home” by Kate & Anna McGarrigle from Dancer With Bruised Knees

“Swayin’ To The Music (Slow Dancing)” by Johnny Rivers, Big Tree single 16094

“I Got The News” by Steely Dan from Aja

“Moolah Moo Mazuma (Sin City Wahh-oo)” by the Sanford-Townsend Band from Smoke From A Distant
Fire

“Morning Man” by Toni Brown & Terry Garthwaite from The Joy

“I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters from Hard Again

“Mississippi Delta City Blues” by Chicago from Chicago XI

“Sunshine Day” by Osibisa from Welcome Home

“Hog Of The Forsaken” by Michael Hurley from Long Journey

“Running On Empty” by Jackson Browne from Running On Empty

“Fantasy” by Earth, Wind & Fire from All ‘N All

“Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees from Saturday Night Fever soundtrack

“Something So Right” by Phoebe Snow from Never Letting Go

“Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston, Tamla single 54278

National Anthem of the Soviet Union by the Red Army Choir.*

A few notes:

“Wings” is pretty indicative of the country-rock direction Rick Nelson was taking during the 1970s. He didn’t have a lot of chart success, but he was still recording music well worth hearing, and did so until his untimely death in 1985.

Speaking of musicians and untimely deaths, Kate Wolf is not nearly as well known as most of the musicians here, and that’s a shame. “The Trumpet Vine” is from her second album, Lines On The Paper, and – like much of her work – is a quiet celebration of domestic harmony and simplicity. Her folk-influenced work – which ended with her death from leukemia in 1986 – is well worth seeking out.

“Moolah Moo Mazuma (Sin City Wahh-oo)” is, I think, the Sanford-Townsend Band’s attempt at cataloguing and criticizing the excesses of L.A. It’s not a bad recording, but the guys seem to have their tongues thrust pretty firmly in their cheeks, which doesn’t work. You either preach against the decadence or you celebrate it, I think. And the S-T Band doesn’t pull it off nearly as well as the Eagles did a few years earlier with “Life In The Fast Lane” or as well as David & David did in 1986 with “Welcome To The Boomtown.” Still, it’s a fun cut.

I’ve posted some work by Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite here before and talked about their work with Joy of Cooking. “Morning Man,” from what I think was their final piece of work together, has some of the ambience of their Joy of Cooking recordings.

Muddy Waters’ performance on this version of “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is a delight. Produced by Johnny Winter – who also plays guitar – the album Hard Again marked a late-in-life comeback for Waters, one of the five or six largest figures in Twentieth Century American music.

I did not know about Michael Hurley until a few years ago, when the producers of HBO’s Deadwood used “The Hog Of The Forsaken” in one of the show’s first-season episodes. It’s odd, all right, and I plan to explore Hurley’s music further.

I wondered, as I let the RealPlayer run, which – if any – of the hits from Saturday Night Fever would pop up. That it was “Stayin’ Alive” seems appropriate. Although many of the songs from the movie’s soundtrack are fun to hear, “Stayin’ Alive” has an iconic power that sums up the movie – and the era the movie celebrated and created – in a way that nothing else from the soundtrack could (with the possible exception, I guess, of the Trammps’’).

*After a few years of digging and listening, I’m almost certain that the performance of the Soviet National Anthem is by the Red Army Choir, so I’ve changed the listing and the tag  from  “unknown choir.” Note added June 12, 2011.