Archive for the ‘1990’ Category

Janet Jackson is slated to play the Wells Fargo barn in South Philly next week. The concert isn’t sold out, which is surprising to me, and the fact that good seats are still to be had almost make me reconsider the decision Diane and I made long before it was announced – the key word there is “almost.” The decision: Aside from Bruce and Neil, big barn shows are in our rear-view mirror. Why? They’re among the worst bangs for one’s live-music buck there is – tickets cost more, sight-lines are generally poor, the sound is often subpar, parking is expensive, booze-fueled idiocy flows freely, and traffic…don’t get me started on traffic. Also, in this instance, it’s a worknight.

Yes, I’m re-acquainting myself with the arguments against.

The argument in favor: As the ticket stub shows, we saw Janet in 1990 on the Rhythm Nation tour, the third of three dates she played over four days at the Philadelphia Spectrum, the hallowed hall built in 1966-67 to house the Philadelphia Flyers. It was her first headlining tour, I should mention. It was also a damn good show.

In some respects, it was her State of the Nation address:

The Rhythm Nation 1814 album, released in late 1989, was a socially aware set accented by such top-notch songs as “Miss You Much,” “Escapade,” “Black Cat” and “Come Back to Me.” It was pop, it was rock, it was dance, it was new-jack swing. (The between-song spoken bits were also annoying. But that’s a post for another day.)

Now, I’m basically a folk ’n’ roller. Singer-songwriters and old-school rockers – as evidenced by this blog, that’s who I tend to listen to and see in concert. But I have a wide range of additional likes, from traditional country to soul/R&B to jazzy pop, and have enjoyed each in a live setting. Janet’s is the only concert I’ve attended that featured music video-like production numbers, however. She had dancers, choreographed numbers and, I’m sure, on-stage marks she had to meet. And, yet, it was no more calculating than most big-scale rock shows. Instead of the obligatory guitar solos, there were those and the obligatory dance breaks.

The night began with her Control-era hits, then moved into the Rhythm Nation songs. I’d love to give a play-by-play of the evening in total, but – similar to the Tom Petty & Heartbreakers show we saw at the Spectrum six months earlier – only jagged memories of the night remain. I remember that, after a string of dance-heavy opening songs from Control, she slowed things down with that album’s sweet “Let’s Wait a While”…

Although my hunch then (and now) is that she relied on pre-recorded vocal tracks for the high-octane dance numbers, as I can’t imagine anyone singing while doing those moves, it was obvious that she sang live for the slowed-down songs and the more rock-oriented “Black Cat,” which was another of the night’s highlights.

The closing “Rhythm Nation” was also cool. Janet was decked out in her military-like garb, and she and her troupe of dancers stamped their feet to the beat of universal solidarity. “With music by our side/to break the color lines/Let’s work together/to improve our way of life/join voices in protest/to social injustice…”

Say what you will about Janet and her music in the years since (and I have mixed feelings about some of it), and about her now-infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, but when Diane and I left the Spectrum that long-ago August night in 1990, we only had good things to say about what we’d witnessed and heard.

The set (via Wikipedia):

  1. Control
  2. Nasty
  3. What Have You Done for Me Lately?
  4. Let’s Wait a While
  5. When I Think of You
  6. The Pleasure Principle
  7. T.V. (Interlude)
  8. State of the World
  9. Race (Interlude)
  10. The Knowledge
  11. Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun) [instrumental interlude]
  12. Black Cat
  13. Come Back to Me
  14. Alright
  15. Escapade
  16. Miss You Much
  17. Pledge (interlude)
  18. Rhythm Nation

And of that Super Bowl mishap? In some ways, I think, the over-the-top backlash that followed was fueled by the very forces she called out in “Rhythm Nation,” which she performed just moments earlier in the short set.

February in the Philadelphia region can be a cruel, cruel month. It’s usually cold and often snowy, with icicles dangling from gutters and tree limbs like daggers aimed at spring. Such was not the case in 1990, however. We were in the midst of a mild, mild winter – the mean temperature for December 1989 was 41; January’s was 56; and February’s was 60.

That’s not to say the days and nights were sans inclement weather – it rained 10 days and flurried on two. This specific day, Tuesday the 6th, the temps aligned with the overall warming trend: We experienced a high of 59 and a low of 30. But it was an even hotter night in South Philly, where Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers played the Spectrum.

At the time, I managed the CD departments at two locations for a regional video-store chain, one of which had a Ticketmaster machine – which was how two floor tickets for this concert fell into my lap. Just as the store’s doors opened at 10am sharp, the person manning the machine pushed a button, and my tickets printed and were put to the side as a stream of fans flowed to the counter to purchase theirs.

At least, that’s how it usually worked; but time, distance and memory being what they are, I don’t recall this specific transaction.

Why I bought the tickets: I’d been a fan of Petty’s since 1979 and “Refugee”…

…and bought many – though not all – of his albums in the years that followed. He was dependable – even his worst LPs were better than most. And, too, he seemed like a good guy. Not only did he fight to keep record prices low (famously threatening to title the album that became Hard Promises “Eight Ninety Eight” if his label upped its retail price to $9.98), but in the late ‘80s he showed up on one of my favorite TV shows, It’s the Garry Shandling Show, as a friendly neighbor.

Anyway, by 1990, he was riding high from the unexpected blockbuster success of Full Moon Fever, his first solo album, which had been released the previous April. But, for me and my tastes, I preferred and played his previous album with the Heartbreakers, 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), more often. It was looser and less polished, and had hooks galore. His under-appreciated 1985 album Pack Up the Plantation was another (double) platter I often played, in those days. It wasn’t just a run-through of his greatest hits, but a smart set with some way-cool covers. Here’s one of my favorites from it:

To the show itself: My memory is decidedly cloudy – I didn’t even remember that Lenny Kravitz, who we’d seen three months earlier at the Chestnut Cabaret, opened until Diane reminded me of it a week or two ago. What I do recall: Our view of the stage was stellar; the early portion of the set spotlighted Full Moon Fever, which was followed by Stan Lynch’s “Down the Road a Piece” and Benmont Tench’s “Ben’s Boogie” (an extended bathroom break/beer run); and the totally unexpected (by me, at least) cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air.”

It was a a magical moment, that song.

I also recall the show’s final quarter, when Petty and the Heartbreakers cranked up some of their biggest, best and hardest-hitting numbers: “You Got Lucky,” “Rebels,” “I Need to Know,” “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”

The encores were good, too: “The Waiting” and “American Girl.”

All in all, it was a solid concert with stellar moments – not great, but good. The emphasis on Full Moon Fever, while understandable, would have been fine if the show ran longer than an hour and a half, or if the extended bathroom break/beer run had been replaced with a few more of Petty’s past classics.

In the years that followed, I often contemplated seeing Petty and the Heartbreakers again. That I didn’t is easily, now, one of my greatest regrets. He had a knack for creating cool and concise tunes that were packed with hooks, and for writing lyrics that said something.

Here’s an entire concert – same setlist – from five days earlier, in Providence, R.I.

The set-list:

  1. Love Is a Long Road
  2. A Mind With a Heart of Its Own
  3. Breakdown
  4. I Won’t Back Down
  5. Free Fallin’
  6. Down the Road a Piece (Stan Lynch)
  7. Ben’s Boogie
  8. Don’t Come Around Here No More
  9. A Face in the Crowd
  10. Listen to Her Heart
  11. Something in the Air
  12. Alright for Now
  13. Yer So Bad
  14. You Got Lucky
  15. Rebels
  16. I Need to Know
  17. Refugee
  18. Runnin’ Down a Dream
  19. The Waiting **
  20. American Girl **

(** = encore)

After we moved in together in October 1990, Diane – who was and is far less of a TV fanatic than me – suggested that we watch The Wonder Years, a show I’d never seen due to the quirks of working retail (i.e., nights) for much of its first two seasons. And, too, I just assumed it was your standard-issue sitcom. But Diane persisted and I eventually relented, if only to humor her – and immediately fell in love with the series. Its evocation of suburban teen life was letter perfect.

As soon as I could – which wasn’t for a few years – I began taping it on VHS. (I likely still have some of those tapes, somewhere.)

Anyway, flash forward 27 years and we’re again watching The Wonder Years, and again it’s thanks to Diane – she gave me the DVD set for my birthday in July. Since, we’ve slowly been working our way through the seasons. In my opinion, it’s retained all of its charms and lost none of its luster.

Which leads to this: the first draft of the first essay I penned for TV GUIDE’s I Heart TV tome, which was published by Sasquatch Press in 2007. (I also wrote about The Daily Show, My So-Called Life and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson). At the time, I should mention, I was knee-deep in a years-long effort to digitalize old family pictures and movies. Importing the analogue past into the digital present was a time-consuming endeavor for me back then (and, in many respects, remains so).

The final version, which was about five or six drafts later, was streamlined – as you can see in the picture, I wound up excising much of the first paragraph. And, despite the editor’s best efforts, parts still came off rather clunky. (My other essays, I think, were smoother reads.)

**********

Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next you’re scanning family pictures for a digital photo album. In one respect, it’s a tedious task. In another, however, it’s an exercise guaranteed to affect all but the hard-hearted. Memories come rushing in—and not just of the holidays, birthdays and other life events. Perhaps a shot of a gray-haired grandfather, his shoulders thrust back and squared to the camera—in uniform despite his casual attire—conjures a duck-feeding expedition you and your brother, just three and five at the time, accompanied him on. And maybe, then, you come across a picture of the expedition itself. You don’t remember much due to your age, of course, yet you recall the kindness of his touch, and the way his giant hand grazed your hair while stewarding you towards the friendly—and hungry—ducks.

More than any series (or movie, for that matter), The Wonder Years conveys that very wistfulness—it’s as likely to leave you smiling as it is tearing up. Through six seasons, it charted the path of “everyboy” Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) as he navigated the rocky terrain of adolescence; and added perspective to the stories via the narration of the adult Kevin (Daniel Stern).

When it first debuted, in 1988, the series was hailed as a baby-boomer confection due to the era in which it was set—the 1960s—and its soundtrack, which made generous use of pop, rock and soul songs from those years. It also was, importantly, placed in the suburbs, a land of tract houses and shopping malls that many middle-class families called home. The cookie-cutter communities seemed safe, a perfect place to both raise kids and to be a kid; to paraphrase the adult Kevin, back then, a kid could walk the streets at dusk without ending up on a milk carton.

The story begins in 1968, a tumultuous year by anyone’s standards: growing unrest over America’s involvement in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, riots at the Democratic National Convention and a contentious general election that saw Richard Nixon win the presidency by less than 500,000 votes. Yet, for 12-year-old Kevin, the biggest issue on his mind that fall was…junior high. In the pilot, he and best friend Paul (Josh Saviano), and the newly pigtail- and glasses-free Winnie (Danica McKellar)—or “Gwendolyn,” as she informs the boys she now wants to be called—see the step up as an opportunity to break free of old perceptions and reinvent themselves. Unfortunately for Kevin, nothing goes as planned. For one, he’s following in the footsteps of his obnoxious older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey), whose boorishness has earmarked his sibling for extra scrutiny at school. For two, well, have I mentioned Wayne? The lunkhead teases him at lunch about liking Winnie—in front of the pretty brunette, no less—and, with a toss of an apple, Kevin winds up in the vice-principal’s office with his Doris Day-like mom (Alley Mills) and monosyllabic dad (Dan Lauria).

If the episode ended there, with the adult Kevin pontificating about lessons learned, or unlearned, it would have achieved the goals every premiere strives for—introducing the characters while telling a story that compels viewers to tune in again. Creators/writers Carol Black and Neal Marlens, however, push the debut into greatness: arriving home, Kevin and his parents are met by Wayne and sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) with awful news: Winnie’s brother Brian has been killed in Vietnam. Suddenly, the day’s events seem meaningless. At dusk, Kevin walks to an old haunt of his and Winnie’s, and finds her looking up at the stars. There’s so much he wants to say, to make go away, but he can’t manage much more than “I’m sorry,” and not just because he’s a kid. Words of those sorts don’t come easy, ever. He wraps his coat around her and, as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” swoops in, they kiss—their first. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, but it’s exactly such moments that make The Wonder Years, time and again throughout its run, hit home.

In fact, on the strength of that episode and the five that followed in its first, truncated tease of a season, the series garnered an Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series. It earned three more nominations in the years to come, including two once Bob Brush assumed creative control. True, sometimes the episodes missed the mark—the obligatory pimple episode, for example, or when Kevin joined the soccer team—but when they did? They were powerful, funny and dramatic, and resonated long after the credits rolled.

Two episodes from the fifth year, when Kevin sprouts into a headstrong young adult, rate among the series’ best. In “The Lake,” the season opener, Kevin’s and Paul’s families are on a summer vacation beside a nondescript lake; and the boys are, in a word, bored. Soon enough, however, Kevin finds excitement in the form of the sultriest 15 year old to ever grace the small screen: Cara (Lisa Gerber), a townie he encounters at a drive-in. On the final night of the vacation, Kevin defies his dad to spend it with her, expressing his wish to stay and vowing to write her; and she holds his hand on her heart. “Back to the Lake,” the second-to-last episode of the season, takes place the following summer, when everyone else and their brother—meaning Wayne—are gainfully employed. Not only is his dad insisting he get a job, but Winnie’s suggesting the same! Kevin remembers the fun he had with Cara, whom he never wrote, and in a rash moment heads back to the lake to recapture a little of the glory…but it’s not meant to be. In a wink of a young girl’s eye, that moment passed him by.

The series’ finale is as wonderful and wistful as the premiere. It’s the summer of 1973 and a 17-year-old Kevin is working for his father while Winnie’s a lifeguard at a far-away resort. After one run-in too many with his dad, he quits and seeks out the one person he thinks will make everything okay. But Winnie’s not thrilled to see him, and even less thrilled when he becomes a busboy at the resort. The situation turns worse when he sees her kissing another boy (in a deft touch, “When a Man Loves a Woman” again swells in the background). He hits the road as a hitchhiker, having lost his car in a poker game, and finds himself sharing a backseat with none other than his erstwhile girlfriend. They argue; and are quickly deposited by the roadside as a result. When a rainstorm hits, they seek shelter in a barn—and, before the night’s out, in each other’s arms.

As they return home—on Independence Day, no less—the adult Kevin informs us, much as a friend might while showing us a photo album, of the fates of his family and friends. Then, in poetic fashion, he sums up the series and its appeal: “Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place…a town…a house like a lot of houses…a yard like a lot of other yards…on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back with wonder.”

The memories stay with us, indeed. As our eyes open to the world, we question our parents about their seemingly arbitrary rules, and bicker with friends, pushing them away one day only to hold them close the next. Expectations rarely play out as envisioned, not because we reach for the sky—though sometimes we do—but because life is not connect-the-dots, where A leads to B leads to C. Even in this age of cell-phones and the Internet, somewhere a gray-haired man takes his grandkids to a park; a 12-year-old boy comforts a friend over a brother’s senseless death; and teenagers defy their parents, often without understanding why. In artful fashion, The Wonder Years articulates all of that, plus this: the day will come when those kids, too, will look back with wonder.