Posts Tagged ‘1978’

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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.”

1978 was a monumental year in my life, so much so that I’ve littered this blog with posts about it. (Click here for those.) For the uninitiated: I was 12 when the year dawned, and 13 when it faded to black; and graduated from listening to the oldies to the era’s new music during those 12 months.

This day was a Saturday, the first of the traditional start of summer, Memorial Day Weekend. Which meant I slept later than usual, watched Saturday morning TV while reading the morning newspaper, and…who knows? We likely visited the grandparents, or great-aunts and -uncles. Temperatures were in the 60s for the day. 

In the wider world: As with most of the decade, life could have been better: The unemployment rate was a notch below 6 percent, and inflation clocked in at 7 percent. Even if you had a job, in other words, it was difficult to get ahead. Beyond those pocketbook issues, at the end of the prior month, the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was discontinued, with the units being integrated into the Army proper. And, though we didn’t know it at the time, the first Unabomber attack took place just two days earlier.

Here’s an entire newscast, complete with commercials, for this day from WJKW in Cleveland:

When it came to popular films and music, America had been gripped by a “Night Fever” for much of the winter and spring thanks to Saturday Night Fever and the Bee Gees. But “Disco Inferno” was slowly subsiding. Among the movies in the theaters this weekend: FM; I Wanna Hold Your Hand; The End; The Buddy Holly Story; and Thank God It’s Friday. And among the songs on the radio…

Yep, you guessed it. Here’s today’s Top 5: May 27, 1978 (via Weekly Top 40).

1) Wings – “With a Little Luck.” The single concludes its two-week run at the top of the charts. I featured the music video for it a few weeks back, so here’s something a tad different: the 1978 UK DJ promo 45. I know some folks hear the song as lightweight, but I hear it as great: A commercial for the London Town album that featured the song spurred me to begin investigating new music, after all.

2) Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams – “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” The oeuvres of these artists are blind spots for me, and unlike the other songs in this week’s chart, I have no memory of this specific song, which clocks in at No. 2. According to Wikipedia, Mathis is the third best-selling artist of the 20th century, behind only the Beatles and Frank Sinatra; and Williams, who has a four-octave range, would go on to win a Grammy in 1987.

3) John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – “You’re the One That I Want.” The week’s No. 3 single is another song that I never grow tired of. Grease wouldn’t open for a few weeks, so it’s success, thus far, was due to its own charms.

4) Andy Gibb – “Shadow Dancing.” To my ears, the No. 4 sounds a lot like Andy’s older brothers, the Bee Gees. But that’s a conclusion I’ve come to after only a few cursory listens.

5) Roberta Flack & Donnie Hathaway – “The Closer I Get to You.” Rounding out the Top 5 is this sweet love song.

And two bonuses…

6) The O’Jays – “Used Ta Be My Girl.” One of the week’s power plays is this propulsive ode about a lost love, which jumps from No. 54 to 44.

7) Steve Martin – “King Tut.” Debuting on the charts is this catchy novelty tune, which still makes me laugh. Here he is on Saturday Night Live performing it…