Posts Tagged ‘Wet Willie’

‘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.

Hang A Basket! Have A Parade!

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 30, 2008

It’s May Day.*

No one’s leaving May Baskets at my door, I am certain, nor is anyone in the apartment complex dancing around the Maypole. A look at Wikipedia confirms my hunch that those are traditional English and Northern European activities, quite likely tied to pre-Christian fertility rites. I remember learning about them – May Baskets and Maypoles, not the fertility rites – in elementary school. It strikes me as I write that we learned very little about the celebrations of most other cultures, and that tells me how insular our culture was during those times (the late 1950s and the first half of the 1960s). We celebrated Anglo-Saxon traditions and – for the most part – ignored others.

I vaguely remember making May Baskets as an art project one year early in my school days. We used little blunt-ended scissors to cut construction paper into the appropriate shapes, and then we glued those pieces together with that white paste that someone in the classroom always insisted was good to eat.

May Day is also celebrated as an international workers’ holiday, and that brings back other memories. During the years of my childhood and youth, we’d see television footage every May Day of the parade in Moscow. The Soviet Union’s workers and soldiers would march, accompanied by tanks and missiles. They’d pass through Red Square, where old men in uniforms and ill-fitting suits – the leaders of the Soviet Union – stood atop Lenin’s Tomb to review them. I remember seeing bits and pieces of the parades on television in shades of gray; once color television became the norm, the parade turned into a celebration in a sea of red. Whether the spectacle was in gray or in red, though, we were taught that it should have frightened us.

Do the believers who remain still march through Red Square? I don’t know. For that matter, does anyone dance around a Maypole anywhere? Again, I have no idea. But to mark May Day, here’s a selection of songs – mostly random; I clicked past a few from earlier years – that have in common the predominant color from those May Day parades.

A Baker’s Dozen of Red
“Red Hot Chicken” by Wet Willie from Wet Willie II, 1972

“Red Box” by Simply Red from Picture Book, 1985

“The Red Plains” by Bruce Hornsby & The Range from The Way It Is, 1986

“Red Rooster” by Howlin’ Wolf, alternate mix from The London Sessions, 1970

“Red Telephone” by Love from Forever Changes, 1967

“Red Cross Store” by Koerner, Ray & Glover from [Lots More] Blues, Rags and Hollers, 1964

“Red Shoes” by Chris Rea from Auberge, 1991

“Red House” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience from Are You Experienced (U.S. version), 1967

“Red Dirt Boogie, Brother,” by Jesse Ed Davis from Ululu, 1972

“Red Flowers” by Martin & Neil from Tear Down The Walls, 1964

“Bottle of Red Wine” by Eric Clapton from Eric Clapton, 1970

“Red’s Song” by the Jayhawks from Tomorrow the Green Grass, 1995

“99 Red Balloons” by Nena, Epic single 04108, 1984

A few notes:

The band Wet Willie sometimes gets overlooked when talk turns to southern rock of the Seventies. The group had three Top 40 hits – the best, “Keep On Smilin’,” went to No. 20 in 1974 – and released a series of pretty good albums between 1971 and 1979. The best of those was likely The Wetter the Better, in 1976, but all are worth finding. My thanks to TC at Groovy Fab, whose posts reminded me. (TC also has a great blog: TC’s Old & New Music Review.)

Simply Red’s Picture Book was the group’s debut, and I’m not sure the group ever released a better album. With two Top 40 hits (“Holding Back The Years” went to No. 1, and “Money’s Too Tight To Mention” reached No. 28), the album itself reached the Top 40 with its mix of melodic ballads and grittier numbers.

“Red Telephone” comes from the quirky and beautiful Forever Changes, quite likely the pinnacle of the L.A. group Love. Led by Arthur Lee, the group released three great albums – Love, Da Capo and Forever Changes in 1966 and 1967, becoming a favorite of critics and other musicians in the rapidly changing Southern California music scene. The band soldiered on until 1974 but never regained the odd magic it had during those first years.

The late Jesse Ed Davis wasn’t much of a singer, as one listen to “Red Dirt Boogie, Brother” tells you, but he was a hell of a guitar player. The list of his credits includes session work for artists ranging from John Lee Hooker and Booker T. Jones to Buffy Ste. Marie, Brewer & Shipley, John Lennon and Tracy Nelson. And when it came time to record his own albums – his self-titled 1971 debut, 1972’s Ululu and Keep Me Comin’ in 1973 – he had a wide range of friends and associates to help out. The credits for Ululu list Dr. John, Duck Dunn, Jim Keltner, Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, Clydie King, Venetta Fields, Merry Clayton and more.

The folk duo Martin & Neil of “Red Flowers” was Vince Martin and the late Fred Neil, the latter, of course, better known as the writer of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which was a No. 6 hit for Nilsson in 1969. Neil’s own recordings are worth digging into. Tear Down The Walls was his only record with Martin, and within a year, Neil would release his first solo album, Bleecker & MacDougal. That would be followed by his best work, Sessions, in 1967. Later releases were a bit haphazard but interesting in their own ways.

Nena’s “99 Red Balloons” is the English version of the international hit “99 Luftballoons,” which was recorded in German. Although German is not my favorite non-English language for music – French and Danish rate rather higher – I tend to like the original of Nena’s song more than I do the translated version. I guess it’s a tendency to seek the original and beware the copy.

*Clearly, I was a day ahead of myself. It was not May Day, it was the last day of April. As I explained in a later post. I somehow misdated one of my earlier posts. Well, things happen. Note added June 24, 2011.