Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

Make no mistake: We have been here before. The 1918-20 flu pandemic infected some 500 million people around the globe, with experts citing anywhere from 17 to 100 million succumbing to it. Social-distancing measures were employed in some U.S. cities, and while they fared much better health-wise than those that didn’t, they suffered economic downturns. Life looked like it might be forever changed. But it wasn’t. As this World Economic Forum article shows, once the flu faded away, life pretty much picked up where it had left off.

That doesn’t lessen the stress of today’s stay-at-home orders, grocery shortages, economic disruptions and the incompetent federal response, mind you, or the fear of falling victim to COVID-19. The days may blur into weeks and the weeks may soon morph into months, but we, as a people, will endure.

That said, to me it feels like we’re stuck in the opening stanza of “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings: “Stuck inside these four walls/never seeing no one…”

I haven’t been listening to much in the way of new music these days, preferring instead to treat the isolation blues with a heap of old favorites, including (but not limited to) McCartney, Rumer, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Suzanne Vega, Neil Young and, though she’s not “old” per se, Courtney Marie Andrews. There’s a comfort to be found in their tried-and-true grooves. They soothe the soul.

I thought I’d share select songs from some of them today.

Courtney Marie tapped into the collective unconscious for her 2016 Honest Life album, a set o’ songs I consider one of the best of the 2010s. “Put the Fire Out” slays me every time I hear it, especially when the backup voices come in on “hear the rock ’n’ roll at the Blue Moon Tavern.”

On a not unrelated subject, I experienced something of a spacetime anomaly in early March when I celebrated my 30th anniversary at my 23-year-old company. (I was grandfathered in during several takeovers, for those curious.) Anyway, the company doles out virtual tokens for such events, which can then be used to pick out a reward or rewards from a fairly extensive catalog. I used mine to get Diane the latest iPad Mini and both of us the Apple HomePod, as I’ve wanted one since it was first introduced. It may not be an audiophile’s dream, but the sound is excellent – and we subscribe to Apple Music, so it works out.

The first thing I asked Siri to play is a song I never tire of:

This morning’s picks included Van Morrison’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, which flows through and buttresses the soul like few others. It’s been one of my favorites of his since first hearing it during my college years; the poetic “Rave on John Donne” with its literary references and floating saxophone stops time for me.

Last night, I watched the April 7, 1979 episode of Saturday Night Live on Hulu, though not for the skits but the musical guest: Rickie Lee Jones, who performed “Chuck E.’s in Love” and “Coolsville.” This morning, after Van, I played her debut for what must be the 1000th time in my life (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating!). It sounds as fresh today as it did in 1979.

Stay safe, people. 

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So, years long ago, I worked in the TV listings department of the digest-sized TV GUIDE. As with my Wingspan piece, this essay – about a classic 1978 Austin City Limits episode that was slated to repeat on December 23, 2000 – came about due to me being the backup writer for the weekly Music Guide. PBS provided us with a videocassette, which I watched on a portable TV in my cubicle. I then wrote a summary for the column, a second summary for the stand-alone Close-Up, and – the week before air – was tapped to write an in-depth piece about it for the TV GUIDE Web site.

What follows is my final draft, but not the final version. I emailed it to one of several editors, who then scoured it for errors and – depending on his or her mood – may have rewritten portions of it. 

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A horn wails softly in the background. Smoke stabs the air. “When I was a kid, my dad had a 1957 station wagon. A Chevrolet. And, man, did I love that car! I used to go to the garage at night and turn out all of the lights and rub up against it. I think that was against the law….” Queued to the rap, a man’s silhouette leans against a gas pump, a cigarette dangling from his lips. It’s singer-songwriter Tom Waits, circa December 1978, his weathered, raspy voice echoing the boozy rhythms of “Burma Shave,” a slow, mesmerizing ode to lowlife losers stuck in a town not far from Route 66.

Watching this classic edition of Austin City—one of the most requested episodes in the series’ history—should be mandatory for wanna-be rock poets everywhere. Spinning story-songs focused on seedy yet sympathetic characters, he paints word-pictures that draw listeners in: “Licorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue/scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town/Took the one-eyed jacks across the railroad tracks/and the scar on its belly pulled a stranger passing through.” Although they ride atop the melody, the beat-inflected lyrics take on a life of their own. You could read ‘em at home and get a feel for the music’s rhythm, for the way the music seemingly meanders beneath Waits’ guttural growls before detouring back to the main drag in time to take the audience home.

The 50-minute set is filled with one stunner after another, from the exquisite “Annie’s Back In Town” (a gem found on the soundtrack to the 1978 film Paradise Alley) to “On the Nickel.” The latter is an aching lullaby for “little boys/who never say their prayers” and was inspired, he says during the introduction, by a Ralph Waite (yes, the actor from The Waltons) film about L.A.’s skid row. With a gorgeous, piano-based melody underpinning the story, Waits spins a heart-breaking tale about life on the other side of hope: “To never know how rich you are/you haven’t got a prayer/it’s head you wins/and tails they lose/on the nickel over there.”

Another highlight is “A Sweet Little Bullet (from a Pretty Blue Gun),” a tale about young girls heading for Hollywood “with nothing in their jeans/but sweet little wishes/and pretty blue dreams.” Soon, that quest for stardom transforms into a quest for escape: “I hear the sirens in the street/all the dreams are made of chrome/I have no way to get back home/I’d rather die before I wake/like Marilyn Monroe.” With his hat tipped forward, Waits jabs the strings of his guitar, pushing the rhythm into the audience’s face and forcing it to stare down the stark realities of society’s underbelly. 

It’s a masterstroke of masterstrokes, as is “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which is framed by a weary rendition of “Silent Night.” Accompanying himself at the piano, Waits takes on the personae of an unmarried, pregnant woman talking to a past love. “And, hey, Charlie, I think about you/every time I pass a filling station/on account of all the grease/you used to wear in your hair.” It’s a humorous moment of several—but the laughs don’t last, as her bravado slowly breaks down and the sad truth spills out.

Suffice it to say, Waits is an acquired tasted, someone—due to his croaked vocals—whose songs have found greater chart success via cover versions; Rod Stewart’s rendition of “Downtown Train” and Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Jersey Girl” are but two examples. Yet, as this classic episode of Austin City demonstrates, Waits’ gruff voice is indeed the perfect lead instrument in all of his songs, the audio equivalent of each of the sad characters he sings about.    

In 2012, in its third attempt to add order to rock history, Rolling Stone ranked the Top 500 Albums of All Time. Jackson Browne’s 1974 LP Late for the Sky came in at 375. I rate it much higher in my own Top 10, where it’s tied somewhere near the top with 100-or-so other albums. His lyrics are elegiac, knowing and human, akin (somewhat) to Robert Lowell poems set to music.

At the time of its release, I was a 9-year-old lad living in an arid foreign land. Although stark memories of various pop and rock songs from that era – including Jackson’s “Doctor My Eyes” – ricochet around my brain, my first remembrance of Late for the Sky comes from four years later, when my family lived in suburban Philadelphia. By then, an apprenticeship with Top 40 WIFI-92 had led me to the heavier rock sounds found on WMMR and WYSP, as well as the adult-oriented WIOQ; it was on those stations that I first heard the title cut, “Fountain of Sorrow,” “For a Dancer” and “The Road and the Sky.”

In short order, I picked up a few of his albums – beginning, in 1978, with his self-titled debut, the album home of “Doctor My Eyes,” which I’d already picked up on 45. I could lie and say I found the albums the best thing since sliced bread (or just Bread), but as I noted in this 2012 review of his concert at the Academy of Music, “lyrically speaking, Browne deals with subjects – love, disillusionment and death among them – that were beyond me at that point in my life. Yet there was a song or two on each of those albums that led me to buy the next, regardless, and through the years – and decades – I came to treasure the heartfelt insight of the songs I once dismissed.”

I remember listening to Late for the Sky for the first time and not knowing quite what to make of it. As I said above, many of its songs were beyond my 14- or 15-year-old comprehension – and yet they struck a chord, nonetheless. The uptempo “Road and the Sky” was my initial favorite.

As the years progressed and adulthood settled in, however, I came to hear those other songs for what they were: Adroit treatises on this thing called life. It’s often melancholic and wistful, but never downright depressing.

The title cut captures the final embers of a relationship, when the realization that it’s over has set in: “You never knew what I loved in you/I don’t know what you loved in me/Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.” From what Jackson told Uncut magazine in 2010, prior to writing the song, the phrase “late for the sky” had been clanging around his head for quite some time. “I wrote that whole song in order to say that one phrase at the end of it.” In his speech welcoming Jackson to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, Bruce Springsteen listed it among the Jackson songs he’d wished he’d written.

In “Fountain of Sorrow,” finding a photograph of an old lover sends him spinning through the realities of the relationship that he didn’t recognize or understand at the time. “When you see through love’s illusions/There lies the danger/And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool/So you go running off in search of a perfect stranger/While the loneliness seems to spring from your life/Like a fountain from a pool.” In an interview with Mojo, he explained that “[i]t acknowledges that people are always looking for something in each other that they may not find, and says that not only is that OK, but what’s more enduring is the goodwill and acceptance of each others’ right to be on this search and to make your own choices, and that one’s longing or sorrow is part of your own search, not a byproduct of somebody else’s.” 

Another favorite song is “For a Dancer,” which he wrote for a friend who died in a fire. I’d wager that it’s been a song that’s sent off many souls in the decades since Jackson shared it with the world. It astounds me that it was written by a 26-year-old kid.  

Late for the Sky spent 24 weeks in the Billboard charts, topping off at No. 14. It went gold by the end of 1974, and achieved platinum status 15 years later. Sales alone, both short- and longterm, don’t signal an album’s greatness, of course, and such is the case here. No, these are songs that reflect the human experience like few others – for that reason alone, they should be a part of the soundtrack to everyone’s life.

The song list:

As I write, 40 years ago this day was a Friday. I was 14 years old and a ninth-grader at Keith Valley Middle School, the Hatboro-Horsham School District’s second of two middle schools. (At the time, the district’s elementary schools were K-5; Loller Middle School was 6-7; Keith Valley was 8-9; and the high school was 10-12; in the decades since, Loller closed; KV became 6-8; and the high school became 9-12.) 

In the Delaware Valley, you never knew what a December day might bring: One morning, such as this day, might be a brisk 40 degrees (Fahrenheit); and the next could dip into the 20s.

As was my custom, before leaving for school, I flipped through the Philadelphia Inquirer, which landed on our front porch every morn, while eating breakfast.

To me, the biggest news of the day was that the Philadelphia Flyers beat the L.A. Kings 9-4 and extended their unbeaten streak to 23 games. (The game was from the West Coast, so started late – too late to watch.) They’d continue with no losses for another month (12 games), racking up a record that still stands today.

I scanned the comics. Here’s this day’s Doonesbury, which is slightly prophetic: disco’s days were indeed numbered.

I’ve noted this before, but the late ‘70s were – economically speaking – tough. As the Inquirer reports on its front page, a jump in wholesale food prices showed that inflation had yet to be tamed:

For the year, inflation clocked in at 11.35 percent. That means, on average, items priced at $10 on January 1st, 1979, cost $11.35 by year’s end; but “on average” means just that. Some items skyrocketed higher while others remained about the same. If you look at fourth paragraph of the above article, you’ll see what I mean: “Energy prices rose by 2.5 percent in November, the smallest increase since February, but were still 62.7 percent higher than a year ago.”

Due to the increasing energy and food costs, something had to give: Discretionary spending. Except, that is, mine. My $5/week allowance still went far, especially when combined with Christmas and birthday cash. I hit the movies with regularity…

…and usually bought a 45 every week. LPs were a bigger expense, of course, so entered my collection at a slower pace. (That would change in a few years after I discovered a nearby used-record store.)

Speaking of albums, here are the Inky’s (uncredited) album reviews for the week:

Reading them now, I’m shocked: I had no idea I’d read a review of one of my essential albums, Hank Williams Jr.’s Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, this early in my musical development. (I discovered it a few years later.) 

For the TV aficionados, this was the night’s lineup:

And, with all of that context (and more) out of the way, here’s today’s Top 5: December 7th, 1979 (via the Top40Weekly.com charts that end Dec. 8th):

1) Styx – “Babe.” In some respects, Styx were little more than a white Commodores with Dennis DeYoung the Lionel Richie of the group. (Think about it.) This ballad tops the charts for the first of a two-week run at No. 1. 

2) Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer – “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” In her never-ending quest to stay hip, Babs pairs with the era’s Queen of the Top 40 for this kitschy curio, which drops to No. 2 after its own two-week stay atop the charts.

3) The Commodores – “Still.” In some respects, the Commodores were little more than a black Styx with Lionel Richie the Dennis DeYoung of the group. (Think about it.) This ballad holds steady at No. 3.

4) K.C. and the Sunshine Band – “Please Don’t Go.” Coming in at No. 4 for the second week in a row is this out-of-character K.C. tune, which sounds lifted from the Dennis DeYoung/Lionel Richie playbook. It would eventually land at No. 1.

5) Rupert Holmes – “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” – Rising a notch to No. 5 and on its way to No. 1, this pop tune – which was inspired by a personal ad Holmes read – has been derided as one of the worst songs of all time. (Rolling Stone named it the sixth worst song of the 1970s, for example.)

And a few bonuses…

Blondie – “Dreaming.” In its 11th week on the charts, this perfect slice of taut rock drops from No. 27 (its peak) to No. 31. 

The Buggles – “Video Killed the Radio Star.” One of the week’s “power plays” is this foreshadow of the future, which jumps from No. 44 to 41.