Archive for the ‘1978’ Category

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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.    

Diane and I were driving in the car this morning, on our way to brunch, with SiriusXM tuned to – what else? – E Street Radio, which was playing the February 2, 2016 concert from Toronto. It was the sixth date on that year’s River tour, which was tied to the 35th anniversary of the album and, too, the Ties That Bind box set released in 2015. (We’d see him 10 days later in Philly.)

For those unfamiliar with the specifics of that tour, Bruce and the band performed The River from start to finish. In this Toronto show, he introduced “Independence Day” – a song he wrote in 1977, debuted in concert in 1978 and recorded in 1980 – with a monologue similar to what we heard in Philly. “It was the first song I wrote about fathers and sons,” he explained. “It’s the kind of song that you write when you’re young and you’re first startled by your parents’ humanity.”

Today, the fourth verse stood out to me: “Well, Papa, go to bed now, it’s getting late/Nothing we can say can change anything now/Because there’s just different people coming down here now and they see things in different ways/And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away.”

It’s about the father-son dynamics unique to Springsteen’s own (self-mythologized) life, obviously, and yet it’s also more. It’s about the changing realities everyone confronts, at some point, in his or her life. When young, such change is expected and embraced. In the song, it leads the narrator to set out on his own. But for the old? Though the world we knew is no more, the memories – and our faded hopes – remain. That’s when bitterness sets in.

There was much going on in the world on this late summer’s day, as the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer shows. The biggest news had global implications: Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had agreed to a peace deal three days earlier after an intense 12-day negotiation at Camp David overseen by President Jimmy Carter. That, then, led the two one-time adversaries to Capitol Hill the previous days, where they met with senators and congressmen to discuss the deal; and, on this day, found Begin heading to New York to talk with the leaders of American Jewish organizations and Sadat to the Middle East to meet with other regional leaders.

Economically speaking, fear was in the air. The wage-killer known as inflation averaged 7.8 percent for the year, but was on an upwards trajectory, having started the year at 6.8. In an attempt to stop its rise, the Fed upped its prime lending rate to 8.5 percent on the 19th – not that it did much good. Unemployment, too, was rising.

On the local front: As the tag above the masthead shows, the real-life Rocky Balboa known as Vince Papale had just re-signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. After two years with the team, he’d been cut just prior to the 1978-79 season, but an injury to wideout Wally Henry found him back at Veterans Stadium.

According to the Weather Underground, it was a fall-like day with a high of 75 and no precipitation; the weather section in this day’s Inquirer, however, predicts a high of 70 and drizzle. Whatever it was, it didn’t much matter. School was in session.

As newly minted 8th grader, that meant I took a school bus to the second of the Hatboro-Horsham School District’s middle schools, Keith Valley, which has since been renamed and turned into an elementary school. The building, back then, was laid out in an open-classroom format – a forerunner of the much-dreaded open workspace (so those of us of a certain age have been cursed by “open” environments twice in our lives).

For those not in the know: the “classrooms” were sectioned-off areas of large, echo-laden rooms with modular dividers acting as walls. If you sat at or near the back of the class, as I did in a few, odds were good you’d hear the teacher in back of you droning on and not the teacher in front of you. 

After school, depending on the weather, I either high-tailed it for home and stayed, or high-tailed it for home to dump my stuff before meeting up with friends who lived up the street. At 8pm, though, I faced a major decision: Tuning into Dick Clark’s brand-new Live Wednesday on NBC or Eight Is Enough on ABC, which was having its Season 3 premiere.

In retrospect, I made the wrong decision. Instead of tuning in for Diana Ross, I stuck with the tried-and-true Braden clan. If I had tuned in, however, I would have been bowled over by Diana Ross, who delivered a knockout performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which was first recorded in 1967 by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell; then by the Supremes and Temptations in 1968; and, in 1970, by Diana on her own.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: September 20, 1978 (via Weekly Top 40; given that this was a Wednesday, I’m rounding up to the 23rd).

1) A Taste of Honey – “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” Infamous. That’s the only word that can apply to this disco act. Thanks to this million-seller, which this week is No. 1 for the third week in a row, they nabbed the Grammy for Best New Artist, beating out the Cars, Elvis Costello, Chris Rea and Toto. They followed it up with a string of non-hits before striking gold again in 1981 with the No. 3 hit “Sukiyaki.”

2) Exile – “Kiss You All Over.” Mike Chapman, who also worked with such stalwarts as Suzi Quatro, Blondie and the Knack, co-write this catchy tune, which rises from No. 5 to No. 2. At this juncture, the band was rock-oriented, but they’d eventually transition into country.

3) Olivia Newton-John – “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” What needs to be said about this song? It jumps a notch from No. 4 to No. 3, that’s what.  

4) The Commodores – “Three Times a Lady.” Falling from No. 2 to 4 is his ballad, which topped the charts for two weeks in August. Lionel Richie envisioned Frank Sinatra singing it, not the Commodores, and was inspired to write it based on a toast his dad gave his mom: “She’s a great lady, she’s a great mother, and she’s a great friend.”

5) Andy Gibb – “An Everlasting Love.” Rising into the Top 5 is this disco-light number, which was written by Andy’s brother Barry.

And a few bonuses…

6) Heart – “Straight On.” Debuting on the charts at No. 79 is this, the first single from Heart’s Dog & Butterfly album. Although it would only rise to No. 15 on the singles chart, it helped fuel the album’s double-platinum success.

7) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “Listen to Her Heart.” The second single from Petty’s second album enters the charts at 88, and would rise rise to No. 59. No matter – it’s a classic. Here he and his band are on The Midnight Special, from June ’78, performing it after “American Girl.”

It’s safe to say that, when it comes to popular music, 1978 was no better or worse than most years. Disco was hot, but so was pop, rock, country and soul/R&B. I was 13, and listened to WIFI-92, a Top 40 station in the Philly market, and an oldies show that WPEN-AM featured every Saturday night. (I used to send in requests for Jan & Dean songs via postcards.) And, when flush with cash, I usually frequented the Hatboro Music Shop, which was run by the town’s future mayor, Joe Celano.

But although I knew pop music present and past, I was ignorant of much – AOR rock is one example. I remember tuning in a station recommended by a classmate – either WMMR or ‘YSP – and thinking I’d turned the dial to a country station when the deejay announced Jethro Tull was up after the commercial. The only Jethro I knew was Bodine (aka Max Baer Jr. on The Beverly Hillbillies), so I tuned away.

I’ve written about the year before, of course, although not this month, so I’d like to give a shoutout to The Hideaway’s rundown of the WLS chart for 11/4/78, which led me to deep dive into this week. (As I tweeted Herc, “that fall has stuck with me through the decades.” It may not have been the greatest year, but it was a great time to be a kid.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: November 11, 1978 (via Weekly Top 40).

1) Donna Summer – “MacArthur Park.” Okay, so some folks absolutely, positively hate this song in any form, and absolutely, positively hate Donna’s disco-fied rendition, which topped the charts this week and would remain there for the remainder of the month. Me? I hear my first months as a teen. 

2) Anne Murray – “You Needed Me.” The No. 2 song in the land came courtesy of the Canadian snowbird, who was gliding down from the chart’s peak, which she’d perched on the previous week. 

3) Foreigner – “Double Vision.” A song inspired by a vicious hockey check? That’s what Lou Gramm claims led him and Mick Jones to craft this million-selling single, the title tune to the band’s second LP. 

4) Ambrosia – “How Much I Feel.” According the Wikipedia, this SoCal band scored five Top 40 singles with their soft-rock sound from 1975 to 1980.

5) Nick Gilder – “Hot Child in the City.” The platinum-selling smash topped the charts in October, but remains a heatseeker this week at No. 5. The inspiration for it? Gilder’s shock at seeing underage girls being trafficked on the streets of Hollywood. He wrote the song from the perspective of a lecher.

And two bonuses…

6) Al Stewart – “Time Passages.” In its seventh week on the charts, Stewart’s classic musings on the passing of time – which was produced by Alan Parsons – rises two notches to No. 17. This video, by the way, was recorded on Nov. 12, 1978…

7) Linda Ronstadt – “Ooo Baby Baby.” Debuting on the charts at No. 59 is this wondrous remake of the 1965 Miracles’ hit, the second single released from her Living in the USA album. It would peak at No. 7 on the Billboard charts.