Posts Tagged ‘Running on Empty’

In many respects, the magic and mystery of music has melted away much like a tape left atop a dashboard on a hot summer’s day. And since most folks never bought pricey blocks of Maxell XLII-S and TDK-SA cassettes, or even the cut-rate packs of Realistic wonders, they don’t care. Tapes, and the music therein, hold little value to them. (This is a half-assed metaphor, I know, but bear with me.) To them, mixtapes (and even mixCDs) are a thing of yore that they never bothered with except, occasionally, as unwanted gifts.

Growing up, I believed there were two types of music fans: AM and FM. The AM set enjoyed the hit singles, while the FM variant immersed itself in albums, and that belief held even when, for music, the AM band faded to staticky silence. I’ve come to realize that I was wrong. Simply put, there are those who care deeply for music, be it the latest hits or yesteryear’s album tracks; and there are those who care deeply for background noise.

A college professor of mine, way back in the early ‘80s, observed that many people are afraid of silence – and not just when around others. He said they turned on the TV or radio when they arrived home out of an unconscious fear of being alone with their thoughts. It makes sense. In today’s world, of course the “TV or radio” usually translates to a smart phone or computer, and the noise accompanies them while they surf the modern equivalent of tabloid newspapers (aka social media).

They don’t buy music. They don’t rent it via subscription tiers. Instead, they click-click-click into readymade playlists on ad-supported streaming sites and leave it at that. A simple search within those same sites often gives one the ability to hear specific songs after commercials, too, so music – at the top tier, at any rate – has become commercial bait. (In a way, the illegal-downloading boom spurred by Napster and its clones assured that entire generations would know of no other experience.)

That my Top 5s feast at the same trough I decry is an irony not lost on me. And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Relics of a Bygone Age…

1) Bruce Springsteen – “Thundercrack.” A 1973 performance by Bruce and an early incarnation of the E Street Band from the Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles.

2) Jackson Browne – “Running on Empty.” A Joel Bernstein photo montage set to the classic song, which – along with its album namesake – was reissued in remastered form on July 5th.

3) Lucy Rose – Live at Decoy Studios. Lucy’s artistry harkens back to a time when fans dropped LPs onto their turntables and studied the lyric sheets. This short set of No Words Left songs features “Conversation,” “Solo(w),” “Song After Song” and “Treat Me Like a Woman.” 

4) Caroline Spence – “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes.” The sterling singer-songwriter owes a big debt to ’90s-era Sheryl Crow on this Mint Condition tune. (The video was released on July 9th.)

5) Anna Calvi – Live at Salle Pleyel. The fine folks at ARTE Concert have shared this intoxicating concert, filmed earlier this year in Paris, from the always mesmerizing Ms. Calvi, who seems to have stepped through a time portal from an era when music mattered for art’s sake, not commercial gain. (It helps, of course, that she channels everyone from David Bowie to Maria McKee (circa Life Is Sweet). 

On April 14, 1978, a Friday, I woke, got ready for school and was out the door at what seemed like an ungodly hour, but not before eating breakfast and downing some orange juice. I was a 7th grader, i.e. 12 years old, and finishing the last of two years at Loller Middle School in Hatboro. (Unlike many other school districts, the Hatboro-Horsham School District had two middle schools: one for 6th- and 7th-graders, and one for 8th- and 9th-graders.) Anyway, given that the temps were chilly that morn – the day’s low was 44 degrees Fahrenheit – and I had a near mile trek, I likely wore my winter coat, as well as a button-down shirt. I was also bedecked in corduroy pants (denim jeans were banned by the school principal).

The biggest concern in my life: making the Honor Roll, which I’d done in all the previous marking periods at Loller. The second concern, as I charted here: A little thing called rock ’n’ roll. I’d just caught the bug, though my idea of “rock ’n’ roll” was more pop-oriented.

But my concerns were not the concerns of the nation. Inflation and the ever-increasing cost of living dominated the news. Here’s the ABC Evening News from eight days prior:

I’ve written about 1978, and many of the issues that dominated the headlines before, so won’t go in-depth here. Suffice it to say, however, that times were tough, and getting tougher. (Not much had changed since January, in other words.)

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: 40 Years Ago Today… (courtesy of Weekly Top 40; the chart is for the 15th).

1) The Bee Gees – “Night Fever.” The Brothers Gibb ruled the singles charts this week – as they had for much of the year, just as Saturday Night Fever ruled the albums chart. “Stayin’ Alive” had hit No. 1 on February 4th, and remained there for four weeks, when it was displaced by younger brother Andy’s “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water.” That tune was bumped out two weeks later by “Night Fever,” which held onto No. 1 for eight weeks. (And, as with most of the previous weeks, “Stayin’ Alive” was No. 2.)

2) Yvonne Elliman – “If I Can’t Have You.” Entering the Top 5 is this addictive pop gem, which was written by the elder Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb. (It and “How Deep Is Your Love” are my favorites of the Fever songs, for what that’s worth.)

3) Jackson Browne – “Running on Empty.” Rising to No. 15 (from 18) is this classic tune, which I never tire of.

4) Wings – “With a Little Luck.” Jumping from No. 57 to 17 is this ode to optimism and love. As I’ve noted before, this is the song that fast-tracked my music fandom. I still love it.

5) Dolly Parton – “Two Doors Down.” The country legend wasn’t a legend at this point in her career. The previous year, however, she’d finally found success on the pop charts with the title track to her Here You Come Again album. This song, the follow-up single (which ranks at No. 36), is actually a re-working of the original album version, and eventually replaced the original on the album itself, as well. (It has more of a pop sheen.)

The original:

The remake:

And one bonus…

6) The Patti Smith Group – “Because the Night.” Entering the charts at No. 82 is this timeless tune written by Bruce Springsteen and recast by Patti Smith.

The 1970s were an odd time in America, beginning with tumult on the streets and college campuses and ending with the closest thing to a whimper this country has ever emitted. Post-Watergate and post-Vietnam, the nation sputtered sighs that mixed relief with resignation, and a recognition that—for the first time since the Depression—the American Dream might just be out of reach. The post-WWII economy that birthed the middle class and suburbia was flailing from oil embargoes, inflation and unemployment. Times were tough, in other words, and best articulated by Merle Haggard in his classic “If We Make It Through December”.

In fact, despite his many misdeeds, and there were many, my hunch is that the Watergate scandal never would’ve gained traction if President Nixon had handled the economy with the same verve as he did, say, detente with China. Instead, inflation gradually increased; and, by his last year in office, 1974, it averaged 11 percent. While there’s only so much a government can do to lessen economic woes, perception plays a pivotal role. People expect the president to address their concerns; and Nixon never did.

Of course, when they do address them, they need to do it right. With little letup in the intervening years, President Jimmy Carter lassoed the elephant in the room with his “malaise speech” of 1979: “It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

Unfortunately, the message wasn’t what Americans wanted or needed to hear. Carter would’ve been better off saying: “Times are tough, and getting tougher, but we’ll get through this. Here’s how,” and then ticking off his six-point plan, instead of hectoring the American people. Leaders lift folks up, and never chastise them about “self-indulgence” and “consumption” when, for most, such extravagances aren’t options.

Looking back, one can see why the decade’s music veered hither and yon, moving from fluff and escapism to grit and certitude. Saturday Night Fever, the movie, is a good encapsulation of the need, at times, for fluff and escapism: Tony Manero (John Travolta) leads, on a day-to-day basis, a dreary life. He doesn’t live to dance, but dances to live.

So, for today’s Top 5: Songs of the Seventies. There’s a decade’s worth of material to pull from, of course, and much that I could (and probably should) use, but these five songs – mainstream all – spoke to the hearts and minds of millions of people at the time, and have spoken to many more in the years since. They articulate the dreams and desires of and for escape, however temporary, and do so in a timeless manner while eschewing saccharine sentiments.

1) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “Born to Run,” 1975.

2) Jackson Browne – “Running on Empty,” 1977.

3) Linda Ronstadt – “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” 1976. (Video from 1977.)

4) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – “We’ve Got Tonight,” 1978. (Video from 1980.)

5) Fleetwood Mac – “Rhiannon,” 1975. (Video from 1976.)

And one bonus…

The Eagles – “Hotel California,” 1976.